Even though Paul may not have been the writer of Ephesians, I read a description of him in a recent book that intrigued and inspired me. The apostle we are used to is pretty much a nose-to- the-grindstone kind of guy, a genuinely balanced person on a mission from
God. Listen to this different description of him from a recent book by Canadian scholar Donald Akenson:
Notice the man coming up the street, you've seen him before, lots of times, on different streets, various cities, other continents. He's the nearest thing we have to a witness… so keep your eye on that weird stranger. At first sight he's the kind of person
none of us really wants to meet. He's injured in some way we can't quite define; there's something that makes him uneasy and he transmits that discomfort to everyone he deals with. You remember that on other streets in other cities, he's jumped out at you unexpectedly, or
bump into you as you turn the corner: intense, his head jerking, and saliva droplets spitting out of the corners of his mouth as he tries to tell you something terribly, terribly important. Yet, he's not really menacing, and you have to give him a chance to speak, you
realize that he seems slightly burbling. If you can make yourself hold still for just two minutes - and two minutes can feel like an eternity on the street - you'll hear him tell you some things you will never forget. Brilliant, god drunk, unpredictable, Saul, who had
never met Yeshua of Nazareth, in the flesh, was convinced he knew him better than those who had.
(Donald Harman Akenson. "Saint Paul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus", pp. 7-8.)
If Paul was anything like this, then Ephesians the letter that he either wrote, or inspired, is his strange literary child.The letter to the Ephesians, if personified as a human being, might take on a similar oddness as Paul. Markus Barth, Karl Barth's son, calls Ephesians the letter a stranger:
"The reception and understanding of Ephesians offer great difficulties of both a formal (form) and material (content) character...more difficult than delightful, more puzzling than persuasive." (The Broken Wall, p. 14)
These are Barth's first impressions. First impressions, however, are not always on target are they? I tend to like it when a person or a writing presents itself ambiguously so that I have to dig beneath the surface in order to discover the treasure. I often don't take the time to do this, though I should. The key is not to let our first impressions become fixed convictions without first exploring. Markus Barth invites us to take the first step with him through exposing our immediate response to Ephesians. It can be later qualified or confirmed.
It is tough to do this with people or writings because it requires a gut response that may be completely based on ignorance or prejudice. It is worth admitting that most of us start with impressions, so we might as well acknowledge it. By placing our bias in the forefront of our awareness we can challenge them and see if there is anything else of note in this book. Let's get on with it. Starting with the 'off-putting' nature of Ephesians.
If you were doing a background check on a potential employee and read in their résumé three letters after their name - a.k.a. (otherwise known as) - what would be your impression? These letters naturally make me suspicious that the potential employee may have a criminal record or something. They certainly want to keep something secret from others. If I did not feel particularly curious that day, I think I would quickly shuffle this résumé to the bottom of the pile rather than inquire further. No sense taking chances.
It has been traditionally assumed that Paul the Apostle wrote Ephesians yet recently scholars have tended to qualify Ephesians with the acronym a.k.a. They do so because of what they call the question of authenticity. Simply, they are saying this letter doesn't seem like Paul at all: it isn't his usual style or even content. It just doesn't have the ring of Paul the apostle. There are no friendly greetings to individuals he knows in the church. It has too lofty a view of the other apostles: 2:20; 3:1-13 (remember Galatians, what they are I don't care). Paul hardly ever used the word church without referring to a specific local community (1Cor: 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal.1:22), the idea of the invisible universal church is strange in 'genuine' Pauline letters. Paul usually speaks of Satan as the tempter, never as the devil or the power of the air. Why are the teaching gifts mentioned to the exclusion of the charismatic spiritual gifts in other letters? What about the huge emphasis Paul has habitually made of the end time salvation? Missing. Salvation, and with it resurrection and exaltation together with Christ, is referred to in 2: 4-8 as 'already' having taken place. (Yoder-Neufeld)
There are many other jolts to these scholars' literary sensitivities about the style and context of Ephesians but Markus Barth suggests Ephesians was likely, but not certainly, written by Paul in some very special circumstances and in a different kind of style. He thinks it takes too much speculation to discount Pauline authorship and it can be distracting to the more important issue of content. Barth does, however, see Ephesians as a literary foundling.
The reason I chose the picture of this flower is because I could not classify it, what on earth is that?
Okay, it looks weird but it's in the Bible. No matter who wrote it, it has been cherished since the Early Church and deserves to be heard on a content basis. At the time the letter was written 'authorship' had such a range of meaning it makes our questions about who wrote the letter almost beside the point. (See Charles H.Talbert, Ephesians & Colossians.) It has produced spiritual fruit in the lives of many disciples over the years. Maybe Ephesians' message is more important than the question of authorship.
Let's continue our imaginary 'security check' of Ephesians. There is an a.k.a. (otherwise known as) behind the name of the letter's recipients too. The readers are assumed to be Gentiles who have only read about the Gospel, and who have heard of Christ through other teachers than Paul. Very strange. This doesn't square with other accounts (Acts 19). Paul lived in Ephesus for at least two years, from the autumn of 52 to the spring of 55, lecturing to both Jews and Gentiles first in the synagogue and then in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
The author of Ephesians addresses the recipients of the Ephesian letter as if they have never heard of him.
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ,What is even more suspicious is that the a.k.a. ambiguity has poked its nose into the text. The first manuscripts of this letter don't contain the recipients' names as Ephesians. Likely the letter was passed around the churches of South West Asia Minor, places Paul didn't spend time in; these locales were more rural, more pagan, and more than one. These characteristics water down the assertion that the urban city of Ephesus was the letter's destination. It has been speculated that Ephesians could be the lost letter to the Laodiceans mentioned in Colossians,
Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.
(Ephesians 1:15; 3:2–4; 6:23–24 ESV)
And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea. (Colossians 4:16 ESV)On to the message! The message might obliterate our doubt as to the letter's pedigree if it addressed a problem so vital to its original readers that authorship became inconsequential. As far as the message goes though, we still bump into Ephesians the stranger. Paul's letters always address burning questions on the hearts and minds of the churches that he corresponds with. Immorality, immortality, the second coming, false teaching, etc. Ephesians apparently has no specific issue. It is not only vague as to who wrote it - and to whom - but Ephesians is also ambiguous as to why it was written at all. It seems at first glance there is no topic. Some believe that the purpose of writing was some undefined spiritual crisis or that it was not a letter at all but a sermon dressed up as a letter (Klyne Snodgrass. The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians). If the letter is merely religious poetry, why is it in the works of Paul the pragmatist?
Many literary critics think that Ephesians is a disaster. Poetry is sometimes defined as 'consolidated meaning' but this letter hasn't a clue about how to begin or end sentences. Barth calls it disorderly. It is about everything and therefore potentially nothing, the principle of clarity is dismissed in it. Some of the sentences run for many verses (for instance, 1:3-10 and 1:15-23). The use of propositions become web-like as our picture indicates. You have to parse the 'ins' and 'ofs' and 'therefores' like no one's business. It's as complicated as a Watershed teaching!
Looking past its form, the content of Ephesians can seem repellant. Barth refers to the difficult subjects as five knotty (naughty) points. Here they are; a reader is immediately required to tiptoe through the TULIPS of Calvinist theology:
T otal Hereditary Depravity
Ephesians has been the source of the most scandalous contention in theology: Predestination. It has been used to teach the arbitrariness of God's choice of persons for salvation. The way this has been spun is that God is a micromanager who is involved with every
single detail of history and salvation; he is the cause of all and therefore responsible for all. The election of God seems limited as is his love according to this interpretation. Everyone not a Christian is hopeless, hardened, and destined for perdition. The saints
appear to be all beloved children.Markus states his objection strongly:
U nconditional Election
L imited Atonement
I rresistible Grace
P erseverance of the Saints
Now if this is what the stranger has to tell us; that our dear EGO is saved, and that the others (the Greeks with all their glorious heroes and ideas, temples and statutes, and also their untiring search for truth and their suffering for freedom!) are lost,
then the God of the Ephesians is a god of conceit and of despair at one and the same time. ...that deity appears to back up the worst of Christian selfishness and unchristian condemnation. If the Ephesian stranger says such a thing what reason do we have for allowing him
to enter our house and heart? 18
With all of Ephesian's talk of mystery, revelation, understanding, knowledge it seems that Christians are not just chosen to be special but are also an intellectual elite who have access to information that no one else has. They seem to be more like Gnostics than the simple folk who were among the first ranks of Christianity. At home at the university or forum but nowhere else. The letter appears to make the mistake that salvation comes through knowledge and that if you know the truth you will do it.
At Watershed we have learned that this just ain't so. Analysis leads to paralysis and just being told a thing by an authority doesn't make it true in our lives. We can't fool ourselves with clever words. In the past we believed this idea the Ephesians similarly bought into: the mystification of words and language. So much for being friends of the world. We'll have to check out whether this strange letter with talk of secrets actually promotes spiritual pride or are their secrets more open than how they first appear?
At the opposite pole, Ephesians seems inclined to the mystical and magical. There are demons and angels skulking just behind the clouds in the heavenlies. There are principalities personified, ladders of truth scaling up and down in a cosmic realm. Then there is a cosmic Christ considerably at odds with the humble Galilean of the 20's and 30's. We'll have to examine this stranger's claim that the Cosmic Christ can live and reign in our hearts (subjectivity) and meet the needs of our world. Can a modern person believe this? We'll have to explore and listen very hard to the Ephesian stranger to find out.
Here is where the message of Ephesians gets caught in my throat. It seems to be all about the Church universal, not so much about community locally. There is a lot of authority and catholicity going on in Ephesians; is this stranger introducing the Constantinian
church filled with hierarchy, distinctions between apostles (later pastors and priests) and laity? It looks like Bill Gothard's chain of command full swing. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. On the other hand, the stranger does speak about organic unity
built on love. We'll have to see if these things can be brought together. I want to consider what Markus says,
Whatever answer may be given, the emphasis which Ephesians puts upon the growth and building of the One, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church appears very strange, dangerous, and unfriendly - perhaps not to the members of the Church, but certainly to the people at
its margin and outside. 23
Lastly, the last part of Ephesians with its apparently conservative political agenda, household codes, patriarchy, and military imagery is off-putting as well. But we have gone on our rant against the stranger perhaps for too long. We are finally at the end of
our 'first impressions' of this stranger at the door.
If these were confirmed in our study, what a sad thing for our course on Ephesians! The stranger would not be welcomed at least in this portion of the vineyard. But like I said first impressions can be deceiving and need to be revised. Why? Because the stranger shows an entirely unexpected attractive side adding much to our understanding of discipleship and positive witness. The attraction needs to stand alongside the ambiguity. Let's first take up the positive qualities of the book before revising our first impressions. Let's hear the other side of our stranger's tale.
The skeptic has had his day, more than his day. We can now turn with Markus Barth to the 'charming' side of Ephesians. He is not alone in recognizing this winsome side. The New International Commentary praises the letter, "Within the history of Christianity only the Psalms, the Gospel of John, and Romans have been so instrumental in shaping the life and thought of Christians." A rather dated but accurate description for Ephesians calls the letter the "Switzerland of the New Testament."
To use a military image I have to admit the Ephesians was a bombshell that burst during the very early days of my life as a new believer. I was living in a small rooming house on Young Street with a friend from college when I came across these life transforming
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also,
after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation — having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God's own possession, to the praise of His
glory. (Ephesians 1:10–14 NASB)
This spiritually incendiary experience, in that small room, was far from an intellectual realization. It as Wesley once said of a passage from Romans, "strangely warmed my heart." It was a genuine sense of being sealed by God's spirit, loved, protected and given
a vocation by him. I guess I might say that the Scripture prayed me!
A huge portion of Ephesians is a prayer that takes place in us, for us and through us. The first half is nothing but prayer (1:3 - 3:21). Even the moral exhortations or hopes for us are a petitionary prayer for us starting at 4:1. When you pray for someone or someone prays for you something changes in your relationship. Such is the charm of Ephesians. Maybe the language of prayer confounds the scholar who thinks the style is so different from Paul's normal writing style. Don't we speak differently in prayer? Aren't we more poetic when we pour out our hearts to God than when we are just describing a concept? Ephesians, as much as it emphasizes knowledge of the open secret of Christ, transforms our hearts.
Indulge me another story from my early years at Winnipeg Bible College, now Providence College. As a prerequisite for our degree everyone had to go on four 'apologetic' excursions. This has nothing to do with confession or apologizing for yourself but to go into places of unbelief and attempt to share the reasons for your belief, especially the reasonableness of the gospel. We were pumped like a football team, ready to meet and devastate the opponents, argue them to faith and pin them to the gospel. So off we went to the University of Manitoba's cafeteria for our encounters. I met an honours philosophy student and was devastated at how little I knew, walked away unsure of what I believed, and felt a little disconnected from God. So much for apologetics.
Ephesians has another approach and that is to witness to the powers and to our fellow human beings the difference it makes in our lives to follow Christ. There is no need for inferiority or shame, especially shame about not being intelligent enough. When the Spirit enters the life of a disciple the witness is not about our ability or inability to argue but about what God has done through Christ in our world and especially in our personal lives. What has God done then? He has loved the world to the extent of suffering for it. He has revealed a new way of being human in the world. That is, he has revealed tolerance, compassion, authenticity, and love through Christ. He has given us access to a power that can change our lives - a helper, a paraklete, an empowerer who slowly and surely, more than less changes our life. He can soften our compulsions, change our moods and do a whole manner of things. All this is built on the cornerstone of the new being... Jesus Christ.
We are no longer in the territory of apologetics but what the early church called kerygmatics, that is to share with joyful boldness what has become near and dear to us. No intellectual wrestling matches here. Just free speech. We are called, Markus Barth says, to live from the positive not the negative. Not from what we are against so much as what we are for and to ask God to create the new world through our lives.
I think that Markus Barth has achieved his goal of leaving us with two opposing experiences: being put off by the letter of Ephesians, at least the way it has been understood and interpreted, and being charmed by what this letter offers us by way of knowledge and devotion. Both these experiences will be returned to as we work through this letter over the next thirteen weeks or so. I am looking forward to meeting our mystery person 'Ephesians', to question him and to be utterly convinced by him as well.
Note: This review was written as part of the introduction to Watershed Community's study course of Ephesians in 2010.