Studying the Bible is one of the greatest gifts God has given His people, and within that, Paul’s letter to the church in and around the city of Ephesus is one of my favourite letters for how it has so often spoken to me. ‘Studies in Ephesians’ is my attempt to share, in written form, those lessons and promises that God has revealed to me in my studies through this magnificent book.
“Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.” — Ephesians 1:3
One of the first things you will discover when reading Paul’s letters is that, arguably, he could have done with an editor. I have worked for some time as an editor, and even longer as a writer, and often I find myself face-to-face with sentences and paragraphs written by Paul that I desperately wish I could clean up – not to change their meaning, but rather to restrain Paul’s enthusiasm. Ephesians 1:3-14 is a prime example, for it is one long sentence. Although current translations break it up into smaller units – the NRSV, seven sentences; NASB, six; NIV, eight; and NLT, fifteen – Paul originally wrote one, long, unending sentence. Klyne Snodgrass, in his Ephesians addition to the NIV Application Commentary series, describes the sentence as Paul “presenting one cascading description of God’s work in Christ after another.” John Stott says that, “As Paul dictates, his speech pours out of his mouth in a continuous cascade. He neither pauses for breath, nor punctuates his words with full stops.” Stott also references several other commentators’ well-worn descriptions of Paul’s fervour: It is “a golden chain” of many links; “a kaleidoscope of dazzling lights and shifting colours”; “a snowball tumbling down a hill, picking up volume as it descends”. Maybe most accurately, to my mind, “This rhapsodic adoration is comparable to the overture of an opera which contains the successive melodies that are to follow”.
Dealing with this single sentence has subsequently created some questions as to how best structure and divide Paul’s thoughts. First among them is found in our passage for this study – Ephesians 1:3. Several translations, and subsequently commentators, have split this into two single sentences, bracketed around a full-stop at the end of verse 3. This particular method traditionally allows for commentators to study verse 3 on its own, and then study verses 4 to 6 as a single entity dealing with the idea of predestination. However, the ESV and HCSB both keep verses 3 and 4 as one single sentence. It is not imperative that we answer this, as there is still a relatively clear delineation between verse 3 and 4, whether or not you include a comma, full-stop, or semi-colon. For our purposes, we will be taking verse 3 on its own so as to focus on two themes which progress upon one another throughout this opening fourteen verses, and then proceed to drive the rest of Ephesians until its conclusion: “in Christ”, and “the heavens”. The opening fourteen verses as a whole are heralds of all that is to come in Ephesians, and we will be returning to these themes over and over again as we study through the whole of Ephesians. For now, however, let us focus on Paul’s opening words to this magnificent doctrinal treatise.
In several translations, Paul is seen to start off his treatise by praising “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.” The context is correct, however the word choice misses out on what Paul actually said, which is captured in the ESV translation: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. This threefold repetition not only drove home the reasons for worshipping God, but would have reminded Jewish readers of similar repetition from the Old Testament. At least four of the five books that make up Psalms end with the author blessing the Lord, and Psalm 150 is one appropriately titled “Let Everything Praise the Lord”.
Paul starts, therefore, by reminding his readers to bless the Lord who blesses them.
Verses 3-14 are devoted almost exclusively to fleshing out these “spiritual blessings” that we as Christians have “in Christ”. There are four of them in total – predestination, redemption and forgiveness, adoption, and the promised Holy Spirit – and we will deal with them individually over the next four weeks. This week, however, I want to touch on the agency and location of these blessings, and Paul gives us two – “in Christ”, and “in the heavens”.
Paul loved the phrase “in Christ”, and possibly used it in excess of 200 times throughout all the letters he wrote now collected in the New Testament. G. Adolf Deissmann surveyed Paul’s writing (excluding Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral letters) and found “in Christ” and its related variants 164 times. In these first fourteen verses of Ephesians, we see at least 8 references to “Christ” or “Him”, and it is a theme that continues throughout the whole of Ephesians. But despite, or maybe because of how many times Paul uses this phrase or a variant thereof, we cannot rely on one single definition for what it means. Each time we come to a use of “in Christ” we must be willing to look to see what it means this time. Some commentators have seen it having an “instrumental context” – in that the blessings come through Christ – while other commentators have attributed something of a mystical context to it, wherein the Christian’s spirit occupies the same spiritual place as Christ’s spirit. None of these are inherently incorrect, and at times are accurate. Most commentators however see the dominant role of “in Christ” throughout Ephesians as being in the “locative context”, or the “local context”, wherein we are incorporated with Christ, who is “the Covenant-Head, Root, and Source of Life, and Representative, of the saints”. “In Christ” has the local sense of “the ‘place’ in whom the believers are and in whom salvation is.”
Incorporation is the key. The Oxford English Dictionary describes incorporation as, “The inclusion of something as part of a whole”. As with most “wholes”, there is a head or name by which that whole is known. As Christians, we have been incorporated into the body of Christ, known as the church – an idea that Paul will flesh out to some extent in coming chapters – of which Jesus is the head. When we become a Christian, we trade the inherited curse of sin that comes with being children of Adam, for the blamelessness and holiness (Ephesians 1:4) that comes with being “in Christ”.
Andrew T. Lincoln put it beautifully succinctly: “Believers experience the blessings of the heavenly realms not only through Christ’s agency but also because they are incorporated into the exalted Christ as their representative, who is himself in the heavenly realms.”
Paul explains that we should bless God because He has blessed us in Christ, “with every spiritual blessing in the heavens” – that is to say, those of us “in Christ” have been blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavens”. When we speak of “the heavens” – if we speak of them at all – we often have very different impressions of what we are speaking about. The ESV calls them “the heavenly places”; the NIV the “heavenly realms”; while tradition has often called them “the heavenlies”. It is likely that this location is the same place Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians when he said, “I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago—whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know, God knows” (2 Corinthians 12:2). The term “third heaven” was a way to say something beyond the atmosphere (first heaven) or the stars (second heaven) – a place beyond, often where gods dwelt. According to Harold Hoehner, “the word in classical Greek can refer to the place where the gods dwell and from which they come” as was done in both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
As we have seen in our introduction already, and as we will see more and more as we continue throughout Ephesians, the idea of “the heavens” was given great importance. Hoehner explains that the idea of appropriating spiritual blessings from “the heavens” would have been “a new concept for the Ephesians for they had been worshipers of Artemis who was the local deity on earth.” Though Artemis might have had access to the heavens, her ‘blessings’ were material in nature, and often provided no protection from any spiritual attacks that the Ephesians might have believed in or perceived. That “in Christ” we are provided “every spiritual blessing in the heavens” must have been a great relief to a people burdened by an over-spiritualised culture, intent on swaying them to worship this god, or practice magic to that god.
But this was not just a balm for the Ephesians’ worried minds – it is an integral part of Paul’s doctrine on our place in Christ. As we’ve hinted at, our being “in Christ” is a major topic for the whole of Ephesians: in chapter 2, Paul explains that our sins are forgiven “in Christ” and that Gentiles are brought together with Jews in a new body “in Christ”; chapter 4 sees Paul explain the unity of the church “in Christ”; while chapters 4, 5, and 6 explain how we should live “in Christ”. Most importantly, however, was what Paul would go on to say at the end of this first chapter, and in the opening verses of the second:
He demonstrated this power in the Messiah by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the heavens — far above every ruler and authority, power and dominion, and every title given, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put everything under His feet and appointed Him as head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of the One who fills all things in every way. — Ephesians 1:20-23
Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens — Ephesians 2:6
When Paul speaks of “the heavens” he is not actually referring to a specific or tangible location. It cannot be plotted or charted. R. Kent Hughes explains that, “Temporarily we live here on earth; but spiritually we live in the heavenly realms where Christ lives.” John Stott says that the heavens, “is neither sky, nor grace, nor glory, nor any literal spatial abode, but rather the unseen world of spiritual reality.” Ephesians is the only place Paul speaks about such things, and Stott continues, explaining, “The five uses of the expression in Ephesians indicate that ‘the heavenlies’ are the sphere in which the ‘principalities and powers’ continue to operate (Ephesians 3:10; Ephesians 6:12), in which Christ reigns supreme and his people reign with him (Ephesians 1:20; Ephesians 2:6), and in which therefore God blesses us with every spiritual blessings in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).”
The heavenlies is that place just beyond our reach – occupying the same space as our Earth, but shifted just beyond our ability to see it. It is the glimpse in the very corner of your peripheral vision. The sense by which we encounter spiritual warfare, and spiritual peace. It’s like looking at a Magic Eye image – our brains can really only take in the 2D image, but with the right perspective, we can see the 3D image layered over the top of the 2D image. In Christ, we may not be able to literally see the heavenly realms, but we know that they are there – and as Paul will explain thoroughly in the last chapter of Ephesians, it is there that we fight our greatest battle.
This might sound a little theologically important, but practically irrelevant. But understanding our place “in Christ” and “in the heavens” is essential for us to “walk just as He walked (1 John 2:6). As we will see, the blessings that we have in Christ are tremendous, and Paul wanted us to not only praise and bless God for giving us such amazing blessings, but he wanted us to know that they were ours to take!
The simple act of committing our lives to Christ, by acknowledging our own sinfulness and His saving act of grace and mercy on the cross, seated us alongside Christ in the heavens. We are blessed because we are in Christ as Christians, and as Christians we have access to blessings that are in Christ. Klyne Snodgrass said that, “Awareness of the presence of God and of living in Christ are the keys to all of life.” By ignoring, dismissing, or simply being unaware of the importance of knowing our place in Christ, we inevitably begin to live life on our own – separate not only from the blessings that God has offered us, but from the life-giving strength and wisdom that comes from living life in Christ.
Ephesians is often paired by scholars with the letter to the Colossians, as Paul addresses several of the same topics in both letters in much the same way. Christ was as central to the letter to the Colossians as it is in Ephesians – especially as contended with heresies spreading throughout Colossae. In response to these heresies, Paul’s instructions mimicked much of what he is saying to the Colossians, and what Paul is still saying to us today:
So if you have been raised with the Messiah, seek what is above, where the Messiah is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. — Colossians 3:1-4
Paul’s words conclude a larger section which would be better dealt with on its own – but there is a takeaway for us today. Paul asks the Colossians, “If you died with the Messiah … why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (Colossians 2:20) The question must be asked of us, as well. We have been incorporated in Christ, and are now under His authority and headship. But we are also blessed with spiritual blessings – so why are we living powerless lives? God has not only given us the opportunity, but the imperative to live lives that are rich with blessings He has reserved for those who follow His son. Those blessings are found only in the spiritual realm, and though God also blesses us materially (Matthew 6:25-34; Matthew 7:7-12), these blessings impact eternity.
Is it any wonder that Paul is so effusive in his desire to praise and bless God for what He has done for us?
 Ephesians, NIVAC, Snodgrass, p. 45
 Assuming that Paul dictated to a scribe or secretary, rather than set pen to paper himself
 Ephesians, BST, Stott, p. 32
 Lectures on the Epistle to the Ephesians, its Doctrine and Ethics, Dale, p. 40, 1882, 1890
 St Paul’s Episotle to the Ephesians, with Exposition and Notes, Armitage Robinson, p. 19, 1903
 Exposition of Ephesians, William Hendriksen, p. 72, 1967
 Robinson, p. 19
 Studies in Ephesians, H.C.G Moule, p. 46
 One Body in Christ, Best, 8, 29
 Ephesians, WBC, Andrew T. Lincoln, p. 22
 Ephesians, Hoehner, p. 168
 https://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/homer/iliad6.htm, line 129, “…come down from heaven, I won’t fight you”
 http://www.theoi.com/Text/HomerOdyssey17.html, line , “…some god come down from heaven!”
 Ephesians, Hoehner, p. 172
 Ephesians, PtW, R. Kent Hughes, p. 19
 Ephesians, BST, John Stott, p. 35
 Ephesians, NIVAC, Klyne Snodgrass, p. 63