NT in 40 Days - Day 22. Saturday, March 18th - Read Ephesians 1-6 (All).
It being St. Patrick’s Day as I send this out, I thought I’d share a part of a wonderful prayer by the 5th Century leader.
May Christ shield me today. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me. Amen.
Next - before we get to Saturday's reading of Ephesians, I want to look ahead to next week. Monday - Wednesday we will read Revelation. (Deep breath). It is not the last book of the Bible written, and it has been controversial from the start. I'll have quite a bit of context to add in the background readings for those days, but I want to emphasize my belief that this is a book of hope and assurance - not a prediction of future horror. We'll start with the "letters to the 7 churches" Monday - then on Tuesday we will take in the 3 cycles of judgment together. It's a heavy day - but focus on the lamb and the 10 "interludes" of worship that divide up the cycles. Note that the cycles often echo the Exodus plagues. Note that time in Revelation is not linear – these visions overlap, repeating themes from different “elevations” and, if nothing else, notice that the reader/listener is never invited to participate in the violence. I suggest approaching it like you would an action movie - not fixating on each horrific video frame but following your emotion toward the resolution of the tension.
Using the framework of Apocalyptic literature also found in Daniel, Ezekiel, and in numerous other Jewish writings beyond the Bible, this is a call to perseverance from a faithful believer faced with what seems to be overwhelming cultural rejection. The Lamb will be (is already) victorious. Evil, and even death itself, will perish. Then Wednesday, we finish with another lighter reading day, focused on the message of hope and renewal that the "Left Behind" folks never seem to get to.
Much more context and reassurance to come next week. Particularly if you are nervous about this reading - I invite you to join me to listen to the book as a whole - the way its original audience would have heard it. Monday at 10am, 2pm, and 6pm I'll lead whoever comes in about an 80-minute audio presentation of the whole book by the "The Bible Experience" recording artist. It’s a wonderful way to encounter this text that has challenged and inspired generations – for example, the beloved choruses of Handel’s Messiah draw much of their lyrics from Revelation. See – hope and assurance!
Now – on to today’s letter: Ephesians!
• When and Where Ephesians is another of the “disputed letters” usually attributed to Paul but considered later by the majority of scholars, who think it was written a generation or so after Paul’s death.
The content of the letter focuses on general themes rather than specific situations of a single community and does not seem to convey a personal familiarity as some earlier texts did, which would be odd if Paul, who spent considerable time in Ephesus, actually wrote it to that community. Rather, this letter seems to have been written as a general circular letter, and Borg notes that our best and most ancient copies do not say “in Ephesus” in verse 1, which was apparently added later as the tradition took root.
Borg suggests a date around 90AD because of close parallels to Colossians – which seem to indicate that text was known to this author – and from references to this letter made by Ignatius, an early Christian author around 100AD. So, we know it was written before that and suspect it was after Colossians.
Further confirming a late date, note that the letter concerns the unity of Christians and Jews – but treats controversy about the full status of gentiles as a resolved issue, in the past and settled. Ephesians does not argue for unity but celebrates it as achieved! The letter also treats “the Apostles” as figures of the past, not near contemporaries as Paul’s earlier letters did.
• Key Insights Like Colossians, Ephesians echoes a number of Pauline themes, but also differs from earlier letters in significant ways, including style and subject. The sentences here in Greek are very long (for example, in the Greek, 1:3-14 is one uninterrupted sentence!)
The emphasis on family relationship found in Paul earlier here has been transformed into household codes that don’t seem to reflect the same kind of equality “in Christ” proclaimed in Paul’s undisputed letters.
This text takes it for granted that Christians would own Christian slaves, a direct departure from Paul’s letter to Philemon and Galatians.
The well-known passage concerning “the Armor of God” uses militaristic images but is clearly metaphorical.
• Big Picture
Despite the fact that this author goes beyond and sometimes compromises what Paul wrote earlier, this letter is still clearly derived from the general stream of his teaching and theology. The text affirms justification by grace through faith even as it shows accommodation to the late first-century Roman world.
Again, I want to emphasize that considering the author not to be Paul himself does not make this letter a forgery in the modern sense. Rather, this was the accepted ancient practice, writing in the name of one’s teacher was the proper way to continue that line of teaching, even as times and precise thought changed. For me, it helps to see the tradition unfolding and invites me to wrestle with my own response to God’s ongoing acts of creation and revelation in my own time and place. Reality is that we all accommodate culture – and we all challenge culture – our task is to discern when each is appropriate and “god-breathed.”
Blessings on your reading!