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How to Read Ephesians Theologically

A favorite term of St. Paul is the word “mystery” (mystērion), occurring some twenty-one times in his corpus. Two of his epistles in particular demonstrate a special awareness of mystery—1 Corinthians and Ephesians. Both letters employ the term six times, connecting the term to precious doctrines such as the crucifixion (1 Cor 2:1, 7), Paul’s stewardship of the gospel (1 Cor 4:1), spiritual gifts (1 Cor 13:2; 14:2), resurrection (1 Cor 15:51), the unity of the cosmos (Eph 1:9), the unity of Jews and Gentiles (Eph 3:3, 4, 9), marriage (Eph 5:32) and the gospel itself (Eph 6:19). Our goal here is to grasp a great deal of Paul’s theology of Ephesians through the rubric of three mysteries—the unity of the cosmos (1:9), the unity of Jews and Gentiles (3:3, 9), and the unity of man and woman in marriage (5:32). The common denominator between all three is God’s unfolding plan of unity in Christ. Once we’ve grasped the heart of Ephesians, we will then reflect on how to read all of Scripture in light of it.[1]

Before we begin our journey, we must first define the biblical word “mystery.” In our modern context, we typically associate mystery with something “that is not fully understood or that baffles or eludes the understanding; an enigma.”[2] My wife and I are quite taken with the BBC show Sherlock, wherein Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) unravel particularly difficult crimes or “mysteries.” While the biblical conception of mystery contains traces of overlap with our modern definition, there is a stark difference: the book of Daniel, where the term “mystery” originates, uses the term to refer to a previously hidden eschatological reality that has now been fully disclosed (Dan 2:18, 19, 27, 28, 29, 47; 4:9 [MT 4:6]).

The Unification of the Cosmos in Christ

We come across the first occurrence of mystery in 1:8a-10: “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery [to mystērion] of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity [anakephalaiōsasthai] to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”[3] Notice how Paul weds mystery and unity here. Additional insight into this wonderful theme is found a few verse later in 1:20-22: “he [God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked…And God placed all things under his feet.”

Paul further explains the “mystery” of cosmic by alluding to Psalm 110:1, and Daniel 7:14, 27. What was “hidden” in the OT that is now fully revealed in the NT? Christ’s identification as cosmic king. What was “hidden” in the OT that is now fully revealed in the NT? Christ’s identification as cosmic king. Click To Tweet Certainly, the OT expected the messiah to rule over Israel and the nations (e.g., Gen 3:15; 49:10; Num 24:17; Dan 2:34-35) but it did not develop in detail the messiah ruling over the entire created order from the heavenly throne of Israel’s God. This doesn’t mean that the cosmic dimension of the messiah’s reign is entirely lacking, though. Passages such as Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13-14 anticipate, to some degree, his cosmic enthronement as divine King.

The Unification of Jews and Gentiles in Christ

Since the entire created order find its unity in Christ, Paul then drills down, exploring how Christian Jews and Gentiles relate to one another within Christ’s end-time kingdom. Verse 3:4 reads, “the mystery [tō mystēriō] of Christ…has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets…through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” While commentators often argue that mystery here concerns the complete equality between Jews and Gentiles, I’m unsure that’s Paul’s point. He’s attempting to convince the Ephesian church that Gentiles, apart from the Law of Moses, stand on equal footing with their Jewish brethren through Christ, the true Israel of God. Old Testament authors did predict that Gentiles, by adhering to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, would become full-blown citizens of true Israel at the very end of history (see Ps 87:4-6; Is 11:9-10; 14:1-2; 49:6; 51:4-6; 60:1-16; Jer 3:17; Zeph 3:9-10). This is not to say that there isn’t a whisper in the OT about Gentiles joining true Israel apart from the Law. Indeed, a few OT texts indicate that Gentiles become part of Israel as Gentiles (e.g., Gen 7:2, 8; 9:3; 15:6).

The Unification of Man and Woman in Christ

Our final passage is perhaps the most difficult of the three: “We are members of his [Christ’s] body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:30-32). Not a few scholars debate Paul’s quotation of Gen 2:24 in 5:31. Does Paul really see the union of Christ and the church in the marriage of Adam and Eve in Eden, and, if so, is Paul reading the OT with hermeneutical integrity? Yes and Yes. The first couple’s marriage is prototypical of all of marriage in the Bible (e.g., Deut 31:16-17; Mal 2:15). Even on a corporate level, Yahweh’s marriage to his bride Israel flows from Genesis 2:24. Paul’s quotation of Genesis 2:24 is not unwarranted but brilliant for it weaves together two important threads 1) Adam and Eve’s marriage serves as a model for the church in Ephesus (cf. Matt 19:5; 1 Cor 6:16), and 2) the first marriage provides a framework for understanding Yahweh’s marriage to Israel and, therefore, Christ’s marriage to the church. What makes Paul’s use of Genesis 2:24 “mysterious,” then, is probably the generally unforeseen, robust union between Israel’s messiah and his people.

Reading All of Scripture in Light of Ephesians

Now that we have a handle on some critical themes in Ephesians, we can take a step back and consider how Ephesians informs the Bible as a whole. First, Paul’s assertion that Christ rules the cosmos from the Father’s throne, having subjected the entire created order through his death and resurrection (1:8a-10), is at the core of the Bible’s story. Adam’s fall fractured creation’s relationship to God. But even before the fall, Adam and Eve were to subdue the entire created order by aligning it with God’s cosmic rule (Gen 1:28). Christ’s success as the last Adam and the divine Son of Man not only righted the wrong of the fall, it also achieves what God commanded Adam—the subjugation and unity of all things under God’s rule.

Second, robust unity between Jews and Gentiles in Christ is a subset of the first point. Both people groups share in Christ’s rule as complete equals (3:2-6). A key result of the fall is deep-seated division between people groups (Gen 10-11), but Christ’s success has torn down all ethnic barriers that divided humanity for so long. Division is the hallmark of the Old Testament, whereas unity characterizes the New. Third, marriage between Adam and Eve (Gen 2:24) is the model for God’s relationship with Israel and, ultimately, Christ’s relationship with the church (5:31-32). Whenever we come across marriage in the Bible, individual or corporate, we are ultimately reminded of God’s intimate covenant with his people in his Son.

Benjamin L. Gladd

Benjamin L. Gladd (PhD, Wheaton College) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary. Prior to joining the RTS faculty, he served as an adjunct faculty member at Wheaton College, teaching New Testament exegesis and interpretation, Greek, and introductory courses on the Old and New Testaments. He is the author of From Adam and Israel to the Church: A Biblical Theology of the People of God, Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery, Making All Things New: Eschatology in the Daily Life of the Church with Matthew Harmon and The Story Retold: A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament with G.K. Beale.


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