Ephesians 1:19-23 Far Above St Mark’s 11.6.17
Paul has been praying that the Ephesians “may know…”God’s great blessings, tonight’s portion of Ephesians 1 makes it plain that all these blessings are concentrated in the Christ’s exaltation for us who believe. It is in this passage that Paul first uses the word “church”, but in such a way that what “church” means is completely immersed into the life of Jesus. Only this perspective can reveal to us that despite all the differences in style, spirituality, theology, language and liturgy “Church” is a single community. The great sin of churches is that they almost always focus on themselves; some folk are committed to house churches, others love megachurch, some hate loud contemporary music, others lift up communion or preaching. Concentrating on any of these things takes our eyes off Christ the heavenly Lord. Our passage from Ephesians tonight doesn’t give us space for this option. Ephesians 1:19-23 imparts a heavenly perspective of the triumph of Christ over all the evil powers that would rule this world. It opens up a panorama invisible to the natural eyes. The battle for the destiny of humanity is not between Western democracies and radical Islam but between evil heavenly powers and Christ’s presence in his Church. The life of Jesus working through his people penetrating the broken family life, ideas, laws, politics, etc. of human society with God’s holy power and presence. There is a clear biblical order to God’s plan for the world. First he reveals his greatness in Christ which unveils the identity of the Church as his body and so the identity of the individual Christian.
The first thing Paul is praying that we “may know….what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe” (v. 15, 19a)
When I had been out of theological college for a couple of years a major shift took place in my preaching. I had been reading material by the famous 4th century preacher John Chrysostom (“golden mouthed”) and recognised that it is impossible to exaggerate the greatness of the things of Christ. So when Paul speaks of the “immeasurable” greatness of God’s power, and uses the Greek word from which we derive our English “hyperbole”, he is not being hyperbolic, he is not talking things up. God’s greatness cannot be measured; but it is not some abstract omnipotence, it is a power “toward/for us”.
When the Israelites saw the Red Sea close over the Egyptians and the dead soldiers on the seashore thy praised the Lord in song, “Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm,” (Ex 15:16). This great power is not exercised on behalf of anyone or everyone; it is “for us who believe”, for those who keep on exercising faith in God. In the New Testament this power of God is exclusively defined in terms of what God has achieved in Christ.
Paul piles up synonyms in order to emphasise how immense is God’s power is for us; speaking of “the energy of the might of his strength” (v.19b) that “he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,” (v.20) Whilst the notion of God as the warrior who fights for his people is common in the Old Testament (e.g. Deut 3:24) God’s final statement of power over his people’s enemies is the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
Most of the Ephesian Christians were probably familiar with the language about spiritual power and strength language from their pagan background where magical texts call on gods or angels for deliverance. This sort of thing still happens today. I was listening to a friend testify of his recent visit to East Timor; it was only after villagers had completely renounced any dependence on the witch doctor and ancestral spirits did the power of God fully come to reconcile marriages and heal diseases. The Ephesians lived in a world that believed in many supernatural powers; but the gospel message is that Jesus is the only final power.
The accent on the working of God’s power doesn’t fall on Christ’s teaching, healing or miracles but on what happened to him “when he (God) raised him from the dead”. You can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe in the resurrection; Paul testifies, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17). Conversion involves an experience of resurrection power. God only becomes really real when you reach a point when you are dead to your own abilities to repair a situation, failing marriage, money troubles, health crisis, emptiness over the purpose of living and at that point by calling out to Jesus resurrection power begins to operate.
God didn’t simply raise Jesus from death but “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places”. All God’s power is in the hands of a single human being called Jesus. The prophetic psalms foresaw this as God’s purpose for the enthronement of his Messiah in an earthly kingdom, “The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”” (Ps 110:1), but the New Testament raises it to a cosmic level. Today Jesus is reigning with God’s power in place of highest honour in heaven; but human beings can’t resist trying to bring Jesus down to our level. St Paul’s Cathedral in London is filled with memorials to soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire it is home for idolatry. As though Jesus was on the British side!
Paul’s other reference point to understanding Christ’s exaltation is his position over his enemies; Jesus is raised “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (v.21.). The popular folk religion of Roman times spoke of the evil powers of the “world above”. Paul has no interest in defining for us the distinctions between these powers; his sole point is that Jesus has totally defeated any evil force that might come against us; he is infinitely superior to all his supernatural enemies.
This is not a strange way of thinking but one grounded in the Old Testament. When Daniel was praying for Israel’s deliverance from Babylon the angelic messenger sent to him by God is opposed by the wicked angelic prince of Persia (Dan 10:13 cf. v.20). These are the powers, not PM’s and presidents, which decide the destiny of nations (cf. Deut 32:8). Paul will go into greater details about these realities in chapter 6.
Jesus is “above every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come.” The “naming of names” of spiritual forces was central to the performance of magical rituals (cf. Acts 19:13); the world in which the Ephesians lived was a dark one, “the days are evil” Paul says later in the letter (5:16 cf. 6:13). But believers in the name of Jesus have no need to fear. When we hear people talking today about how bad things are they’re probably talking about religious terrorism and political turmoil. The Bible however defines “this present evil age” (Gal 1:4) as controlled by evil supernatural forces; all of which Jesus has overcome.
For God has “put all things under his feet” (v.22). In the beginning human beings were given dominion over the world, a rule which was corrupted and curtailed by the devil. In Christ however humanity’s universal sovereignty has been reclaimed (Gen 1:26; Ps 8:6). Paul tells us four times in vv.22-23 that Jesus is head over everything; this is a powerful truth most churches lose sight of. One of the advantages of the architecture of Orthodox Churches is at the centre of their domes you will find an image of Christ as pantocrator, ruler of the cosmos.
The victory of Jesus over the powers of darkness is not for his personal benefit however but ours. God “gave him/Jesus as head over all things to/ for the benefit of the church”. This flows from the fact that the church is “his body” (Rom 12:4-8; 1 Cor 12:12-31; Eph 4:15 – 16; Col 1:18; 2:19) and so he is her leader, supplier and protector (cf. Col 2:10). As Christ’s “body” the Church is called to manifest the Lord’s character and wisdom in the world by her own values and behaviour (Eph 3:10). As Markus Barth says, “The church is the self-manifestation of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ to all powers, all things, all men.” (M.Barth). Now Paul goes on to take us even deeper into the very nature of the Church.
She is “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (v.23). As the Old Testament temple was filled at times with the power and glory of God making his reputation great in Israel the Church as God’s new temple is called to be full of the wonderful presence of her exalted King (2 Chron 7:1; Ezek 43:5; 44:4; Isa 6:1). Through the Church God would make known to the world the glory of his Son; the Church is the agency of extending Christ’s rule into all things (Eph 4:10; 5:18; Col 2:10 cf. Ps 24:1). This is our identity and mission cf. Eph 2:20-22.
Through the proclamation of the gospel and the signs of God’s kingdom the earth is to be filled with Christ’s presence e.g. hospitals, labour laws, origins of science, abolition of slavery all can be traced back to Christianity. The powers on earth and in the heavens, human and supernatural, become witness, like it or not, to the testimony of Jesus’ greatness. The “all in all” that the Church fills is heaven and earth, everything in the end will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God (Dan 2:35; Hab 2:14; cf. Ps 72:19). This great prayer in Ephesians means that we can know this glory in the Church in advance of the rest of creation (v.15). To know such things is our glory as Christ’s body. Let’s sum up and apply what we’ve learnt from our passage tonight.
First, Jesus has conquered every evil power in the universe. Secondly he has done all this “for the Church”. Thirdly, his Body the Church is the means by which Jesus penetrates the world revealing himself as creator, saviour, lover and Lord of all creation. Jesus is the complete lawgiver, husband and friend which all humanity needs. In fact one commentary on Ephesians is called “God’s New Society” because in this letter Paul deals with issues of society, marriage and family. The secret plan of God is that through his presence in the Church the glory of Christ might penetrate everything (Eph 1:10; 3:10; 4:10). This teaching is plain throughout Ephesians but it is incredibly hard to believe; to believe that the Church is the means of the revelation of God’s plan for the ages. It’s not hard to trust in “the age to come” Christ will have finally subjugated all evil powers so God “will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere” and in the glory of God all spiritual realities will be fully transparent (1 Cor 15:27-28 cf. Heb 2:6-8). But we are not yet in the “age to come”.
I don’t think it’s accidental that it was in 1946 that a European theologian said the time in which we live is like that between D-Day and V-E (Victory Europe) Day, between the time of Christ’s ascension and his return. Final victory is certain but in the meantime much opposition remains to the mopping up of those evil powers vying for world dominion against the Lord. Folk in spiritual societies in Asia, Africa and South America easily understand these things. But the good life in post-Christian Western nations has long blinded us to the immense character of evil. But the devil has a habit of going too far.
In his wisdom Christ the King has allowed the advance of terrorism in the world through demonic forces (Rev 6) into the very countries- France, Germany, America, Australia, Canada…. most ignorant to the nature of spiritual realities. To put it bluntly, Moslems are not our main enemy, demonic powers are and the only way to overcome them is through a greater revelation of Jesus (Rev 9)! In God’s plan the higher Christ is lifted up the wider his gospel spreads, the more Jesus is enthroned the more self-will is dethroned. If the Church, to quote Paul from Ephesians 4, is to be “a mature people, reaching to the very height of Christ’s stature” (v.13) we need to see reality in quite a different light than we have been. Through the lens of passages like Ephesians 1 we can “get over church”, we can stop looking at ourselves comparing ourselves with one another or trying to meet the expectations of the world (cf. 2 Cor 10:12). We must look only to Jesus praying that he might make us to be what we truly are (Heb 12:2; Ps 62:1 etc.), “the fullness of him who fills all things in every way.” (Eph 1:23).