Scripture: Ephesians 1:3-14 (text at bottom of post)
When Paul offered his praise to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he mentioned the salvation that God had prepared, accomplished and guaranteed for us, but he did not explain any detail because that part of the letter was really a praise to God and not a lesson in theology.1 The lack of explanation, however, suggests that Paul expected his readers to reasonably understand his words and that his readers would likely respond with praises to God as well.
Distance from the Word
If we read this passage (Eph 1:3-14) to today’s Christians, we would likely get a blank look. No criticism intended, but I think this kind of response, of the lack of response, would be true in many cases (of course, I am not saying that all will respond in this way either).
Part of the reason is that we are not or no longer familiar with biblical vocabulary. Even in this short passage, we have God’s election, holiness, blamelessness, predestination, adoption to sonship, glorious grace, redemption, blood, mystery of his will, times reaching their fulfillment, being marked with a seal, the Holy Spirit as a deposit, our inheritance, God’s inheritance, etc. These terms have become so distant from us in our daily lives, even our christian lives.
We have attempted to fix the problem by using different translations or paraphrases, those that we say “speak to us,” but the problem is not that we cannot understand the dictionary/English meanings of these words. The problem is that we are not familiar with biblical usage of these terms or with their significance in the Bible and in our christian lives. Simply changing a translation will not fix the problem.
Learning the Word in the Past
I suppose it is reasonable to ask this question at this point: did Paul’s readers (the churches in Ephesus and nearby area) understand those terms and words better than we do? I believe so. We can infer this conclusion from some background information:
Paul’s teaching centered on salvation through Christ. Paul was Jewish and a Pharisee, so he had studied about God since he was small, but he did not know Jesus; later through a special revelation of Christ to him, he became a believer in Jesus Christ and considered “all things rubbish” compared to the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (see Phil 3:1-14; Acts 9:1-30). After that he went about and preached forcefully that Jesus was the Son of God and that salvation came through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul had taught in Ephesus for a long time. Paul stayed in the city for at least 3 years in one of his missionary trips, but there were other interactions as well. He himself summarized his works in Ephesus with these words, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” (Act 20:20 TNIV)
Given that Paul’s teaching centered around salvation and the glory of God, it is easy to see that he must have taught the Ephesians truths about salvation and God’s plan through Jesus Christ.
Learning the Word Today
Thus on one hand, it is completely understandable if our apprehension of the passage is not as deep compared to that of the believers in Ephesus, especially if we are new to the faith. On the other hand, this ought to bring to our conscious mind that a full understanding of God’s grace and blessing does require some learning.
In other words, to live a vibrant Christian life, to be touched by God’s word, to feel excited when we talked about God’s grace, and to live a powerful life,2 some understanding, learning and studying are needed.
In the book The Christ Letter, Douglas Webster mentioned that the terms used in this passage are alleged to have no meaning for the average North American. To that I think he said quite well,
“the reason these words have no meaning is because the truth conveyed by these words has gone unexplained. The faith that seeks understanding requires explanation. This is the very language that the followers of Christ need to use and become articulate in. The solution is not found in eliminating the vocabulary, but in discovering the truth [emphasis added].”3
In other words, if we do not understand those words, we ought to learn and study them!
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will– to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery 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 to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:3-14 TNIV)