Studies in Ephesians #8 – Blessed to Praise God


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.

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“In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession, since we were predestined according to the one purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, would be to the praise of his glory.” — Ephesians 1:11-12 (NET Bible)

One of the most disconcerting discoveries one makes when beginning serious Bible study is the repeated lack of consensus between commentators. Time and time again I have found myself reading two well-respected commentators, both of whom have been credited highly by their peers, and whose commentaries have been similarly praised and critiqued by all and sundry, only to discover that they teach opposing views on a particular issue or topic. Sometimes these disagreements are over the authorship of a book – such as is found between Andrew T. Lincoln, author of the Word Biblical Commentary on Ephesians, and Peter T O’Brien, author of The Pillar New Testament Commentary on Ephesians (Lincoln votes for a pseudonymous author, whereas O’Brien believes in the authorship of Paul). Other times, the issue at hand is one of understanding the intention of the author in a particular sentence or passage.

To be clear, these contentions are rarely so major as to impact basic theology, and are often points of minor disagreement. Yes, there are times when larger theological issues are at play, but in my experience these are few and far between – a rare exception to the rule. Instead, the more common disagreement is found over two ways to say the same thing, or two freely attested Biblical truths. This can sometimes raise eyebrows in the unwary reader or new Christian, but it is important to acknowledge these disagreements exist.

In Ephesians 1:11-14, we encounter not one, but two such disagreements. These disagreements do not dramatically impact how we read the rest of Ephesians, nor do the varying degrees of thought raise theological concerns. Rather, depending on which commentator you side with, or translation of the Bible you read, we are presented with various ways in which to reach commonly attested Biblical truths. Either Paul is heralding the later discussion of unity between Jews and Gentiles, or he is not: Either Paul is saying we are God’s inheritance, or we are partaking in an inheritance with God. In both cases, the disagreements raised in these verses are limited to these four verses, and do not allow for contention with greater Biblical truths, nor modify anything else in the letter.

The first of these disagreements revolves around pronouns, and who is being referred to when. In the English translation verse 11 normally starts with “we” – a fairly common reference to all Christians. It appears again in verse 12, but this time is paired with “who had already put our hope in the Messiah”, which begins to raise some questions. These questions are intensified as we move into verse 13, where Paul suddenly begins referring to “you”, before switching back to “our” in verse 14. As a result, it is not readily apparent who Paul is referring to throughout these four verses – whether he has begun to separate Jews from Gentiles, himself from the Ephesians, some other combination, or not at all. There are plenty of commentators willing to contend for any of the available options, but despite the individual certainty of each writer, no real consensus can be reached.

For my own part, and having read through a number of commentators recently, each of which taught a variant on those listed above, I find it difficult to credit Paul as having – literally mid-sentence – begun to moderate his audience without providing greater grammatical cues. Up until verse 11, commentators are usually more than willing to allow for “we” as referring to all Christians, and a specific Christian segment. However, the arrival of verse 12 and 13 seems to have sent some commentators running back to verse 11 to modify their understanding of this pronoun. Harold Hoehner agrees with me, and offers up several reasons why he views the alternate as “untenable”, the first being, namely, that “up to verse 12 the “we” in the eulogy stands for all Chrsitians who are in Christ and there is no indication in verse 12 that the “we” refers particularly to the Jews.”[1]

Furthermore, much is based on how one reads verse 12 in light of the Bible as a whole. When we interpret “we who had already” as referring to Jews, we find it undermining verses like John 1:11 – “He [the Word, Jesus] came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him” – where the Jews were highlighted as specifically not believing in Jesus.” This might raise the question of whether Paul is here referring less to Jesus as Messiah but rather to the Old Testament promise of a Messiah – but to separate the two begins a tricky road that is not worth following. On top of that, in John 4, we see that “many Samaritans from that town believed in Him [Jesus as the Messiah]” (John 4:39), increasing the stress on the idea that “we who had already believed” could only be Jews, which is continued by numerous other accounts of non-Jews believing in Jesus during and immediately following His earthly ministry.

Any grammatical discussion over Paul’s word choice, therefore, does not need to result in a change in audience, but rather the author’s own rhetorical style. Additionally, the swap to “you” in verse does not need to be seen as the second of two audiences: “In his switch to “you” in v. 13, Paul assures the readers that they too belong to this group” who have been predestined as God’s inheritance.[2] Paul can be seen to simply be offering a specific and targeted assurance, one that is in line with the overall view of Ephesians as offering assurances to its readers.

To be fair, the number of commentators who view Paul’s words here as distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles is too many to completely write off the idea. Commentators such as Peter T. O’Brien, John Stott, and R. Kent Hughes all quite vehemently see these verses as reminding the readers of the split between Jew and Gentile that is now closed. I am normally in complete agreement with most anything James Montgomery Boice put to paper, but in this instance we disagree:

“In verses 11 and 12 Paul speaks of himself and other Jewish believers, saying that such were ‘chosen…for the praise of his glory.’ In verses 13 and 14 he speaks of the gentile believers, to whom he is writing the letter, saying that they ‘also were included…to the praise of his glory.’”[3]

However, it is Boice’s commentary that reveals the way in which this disagreement pales in comparison to what Paul is really focusing on here. In both verse-pairs (verse 11-12 & 13-14) Paul ends with the phrase “to the praise of his glory”. Focusing on the first two verses, we can read it better if we look at it like this:

“In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession … so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, would be to the praise of his glory.”

All I have done is take out the centre section which describes the manner in which we were claimed as God’s own possession, leaving us with Paul’s intended statement – that we have been claimed as God’s own possession so that we would be to the praise of his glory. What is most important to take away from this minor contention, therefore, is the relevance for us today. I believe that, regardless of whether or not Paul intended to refer to Jews and Gentiles separately, all believing Christians today can say that “we too have been claimed as God’s own possession”, were “predestined according” to God’s purpose, so that we “would be to the praise to His glory.”

The second differing of opinions is found in verse 11 alone, and has to do with whether or not we are the or receive an inheritance. As with the preceding contention, it is a matter of interpreting the Greek in a way that is in line with what the author intended, and what the rest of the Bible attests. Different commentators have different ways of interpreting the Greek, and therefore sometimes come to differing conclusions as to what the author originally intended. In this case, the question arises as to whether Paul was suggesting that Christians are God’s inheritance, Christians receive an inheritance, Christians were chosen by lot/chance, or whether Christians receive a portion of God’s inheritance.

It cannot be said enough that having an understanding of Greek is the best way to begin digging into these questions. However, God gave His Word not only to academics, but to all believers and it “is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Therefore, I believe that God has given those of us without working-Biblical Greek the means to reach serious conclusions as well. For example, we can quite quickly rule out the idea that Christians were chosen, or predestined, by lot – the ancient means of discerning God’s will. God does not need to discern His own will, for He knows His own will already.

Things get trickier the fewer interpretations we have to dismiss, however, forcing us to rely more on those who have studied the Greek. The HCSB, ESV, and NLT all refer to our receiving an inheritance, and therefore link that gift as an aspect of our being predestined. However, several commentators raise objections to this idea based on the Greek words behind our English translations. (This is also why I have chosen to refer to the NET Bible for this particular passage, as it alone of all the major translations seems to best represent what I believe to be Paul’s intention.) William W. Klein rightly points to this view as having “a slight edge, given the common [Old Testament] sense of the people of Israel as God’s inheritance”[4] seen most clearly in Deuteronomy 4:20 – “But the Lord selected you and brought you out of Egypt’s iron furnace to be a people for His inheritance, as you are today.” Peter T. O’Brien agrees, saying that this interpretation is “more in keeping with Old Testament precedent”[5] – pointing to the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy, which describes “the Lord’s portion is His people, Jacob, His own inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 32:9)

The fact that the Greek word has its origins in the idea of ‘obtaining or appointing by lot’ is at once a lesson in how words change their meanings over time and a lesson in the need to take Bible verses as part of the whole, rather than out of context. This idea of ‘chance’ raised by this particular Greek word is immediately quashed by Paul as he explains that our status as God’s possession was enacted “to the one purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” – in other words, God intended this from the beginning, just as He chose us “to be holy and blameless in His sight” (v. 4-5). Harold Hoehner, in his inimitably thorough manner, tracks down the most likely translation of the passage, and does away with any possible suggestion that God acts “capriciously” or by chance. Thus he says: “Therefore, we are God’s heritage because it was predestined for us and this is according to the purpose of God who continually works out his purpose in his entire providence according to his will after deliberation.”[6]

In these two verses we see a very clear picture of a Christian’s place. John Stott says that this passage “shares with us three great truths about God’s people” – that “God’s people are God’s possession”; that “God’s people depend on God’s will”; and that “God’s people live for God’s glory”.[7] Stott argues forcefully for the idea “that Paul is alluding to the church as God’s ‘inheritance’ and ‘possession’.”[8] These two words, Stott says, “used to be applied exclusively to the one nation of Israel, but are now reapplied to an international people whose common factor is that they are all ‘in Christ’.”[9] We became God’s people in Christ only through God’s will and involvement, a point reemphasised time and again throughout this opening eulogy – He blessed us (v. 3), He chose us (v. 4), He predestined us (v. 5), He made known to us the mystery of His will (v. 9), and now we see that He chose us as His inheritance (v. 11). We have done nothing except to “put our hope in the Messiah” (v. 12), hear the message of truth, and believe in Him (v. 13) – and this was only possible because God chose us in the first place. The chain of events is clear, and God’s grace – unmerited favour for those who deserved the opposite – is all that has saved us, a point that Paul will return to throughout this letter.

We are therefore left with one inescapable conclusion – that we must live for God’s glory, a point Paul reinforces three times in this opening (v. 6, 12, 14). Regardless of whether Paul was actually referring specifically to Jew then Gentile, and regardless of whether we are God’s inheritance or we are able to partake in it, the point remains the same – Christians are God’s people, His inheritance, chosen by Him, and as such we must worship God. John Stott says it powerfully:

“Here then are the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of God’s people, who are also his ‘heritage’ and his ‘possession’. How did we become his people? Answer: ‘According to the good pleasure of his will.’ Why did he make us his people? Answer: ‘For the praise of the glory of his grace’ Thus everything we have and are in Christ both comes from God and returns to God. It begins in his will and ends in his glory. For this is where everything begins and ends.”[10]

[1] Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, Harold W. Hoehner, p. 232
[2] Ephesians, William W. Klein, p. 53, (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[3] Ephesians, James Montgomery Boice, p. 30
[4] Ephesians, Klein, p. 53
[5] The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter T. O’Brien, p. 115
[6] Ephesians, Hoehner, p. 230
[7] The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, p. 45-49
[8] ibid, p. 47
[9] ibid
[10] ibid, p. 50