A Call to Unity
A Study in Paul's Letters: Ephesians
May 1, 2001
by Craig S. Keener
What relevance do the Letters of the Apostle Paul have for us today? This continues our exploration of Paul's writings with the Letter to the Ephesians. Our prayer is that through these studies, you will come to live more fully in the grace of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The widow, recently converted to Christianity from a background in the occult, believed that her daughter was experiencing demonic oppression. At their house, as I prayed, I felt led to approach a door that opened to a staircase leading to the basement. As I walked down the steps, I felt an eerie, forceful presence radiating from behind a door in the basement. I barely could muster the strength to stand against it, but I knew that the name of Jesus was more powerful than anything else.
I threw open that door, and in Jesus' name I commanded the spirit to depart. Instantly the presence was gone.
The widow then told me three things: First, that room was directly beneath her daughter's bedroom. Second, that room contained the belongings of her husband who had been involved in the occult. Finally, a year before this, a man claiming to have psychic powers had asserted that her husband's spirit guide was in that room. The man had tried to chase it away, but the evil spirit chased away the "psychic" instead.
But the name of Jesus instantly drove out the demon.
When the Apostle Paul wrote the Letter to the Ephesians, the recipients were familiar both with hostile spiritual forces and with the hostility that people show toward each other. Much of this Letter addresses these two themes: Christians' conflict with spiritual forces and our relationships with each other.
Many of the Christians in and around Ephesus, both Jewish and Gentile, had been converted from backgrounds in the occult.(1) They knew the reality of evil spirits, and many people had once followed the ancient magical practice of trying to expel evil spirits by invoking the names of more powerful spirits.(2) They quickly discovered, however, that the name of Jesus could not be manipulated as a magic formula.(3) Paul now wrote to these converts to encourage them not to fear the evil spirits at work in the world, because Jesus is exalted above all powers and His name is above every name that is invoked.(4)
From the time of the Prophet Daniel forward, Jewish people recognized that God had allowed some angelic rulers hostile to His purposes to work through earthly kingdoms.(5) Paul recognized that Satan was the ruler of these powers and that Satan plays on human lusts to try to program the world system for evil.(6)
Today we recognize that Satan spreads his values through immoral philosophies and lifestyles (like sexual promiscuity, racism or materialism), and so on. But Paul encouraged Christians that Jesus already freed us from sin's bondage. Christ is enthroned above these spiritual powers,(4) and we have been seated with Him.(7) That means we are not slaves to the devil's whims, that we can resist his designs.(8)
Not only has Christ freed us from the devil's power but also Christ gives us ways to resist the devil in practice. Using military language, Paul warned us not to give up ground to the devil.(9) In context, this means that we should control our anger, speak what is edifying and forgive each other.(10) The devil comes to divide us from our fellow Christians; we resist him by standing united.
Paul explained this principle when he spoke of God's armor.(11) Most pieces of armor are defensive, like the shield, breastplate and girdle. Many of these pieces (representing faith, righteousness and truth) involve how we treat each other. A Roman soldier's shield, which protected only the front of his body, was most effective when soldiers marched side-by-side.
The soldiers in the front line would hold their large, rectangular shields in front of them; the soldiers in the second line would hold their shields above them, covering the heads of soldiers in both lines. Because of this, the shields would stop any enemy missiles(12)—provided the soldiers did not break ranks.
Paul mentioned just one item actually used to defend against the enemy: the "word of God."(13) We withstand the devil's assaults by depending on Christ's finished work and loving each other; we advance into the devil's territory, reclaiming it for the Kingdom, through evangelism.
Relationships With Each Other
Much of the Letter to the Ephesians addresses the way we behave in our relationships. Part of our behavior involves recognizing that Jewish and Gentile believers constitute one Body in Christ. In Paul's introductory blessing,(14) he frequently described God's love for the Church in language the Old Testament used for Israel (including "chosen," "adoption," "inheritance," "redemption" and "possession").
Paul was more explicit about this unity of Jewish and Gentile Christians as recorded in Ephesians 2:11-22. This passage ends by speaking of both groups together forming a new temple. In contrast to the Old Testament Temple, the Temple in Paul's day segregated Gentiles from Jewish women and both from the Court of Israel, reserved for Jewish men. In fact, Paul now was imprisoned precisely because he was falsely accused of having taken a Gentile from the Ephesian Church into the Jewish part of the Temple.(15)
For Paul, and for his readers in Ephesus, there could be no greater symbol of the division between Jew and Gentile than the wall dividing Jew from Gentile in the Temple. And Paul declared that this barrier, based on purity laws, was now shattered by the cross of Jesus Christ!(16) And if God has dismantled a barrier that He Himself once established,(17) how much more should we dismantle all barriers (racial and otherwise) that were established by human sinfulness?
Paul in fact called on Christians to preserve a unity that Christ already established by bringing us all to God on the same terms.(18) God provided various kinds of ministers of the Word to equip all the saints and bring us to unity.(19) Even though God has created the unity, we Christians do not always act as God called us to act. So, in Ephesians 4:17-5:2, we are reminded how to act.
Unity means that we should not behave as we did before we became Christians, with sensuality and with greed.(20) That means we should not use people as objects to get what we want. Instead, we should put on the righteous new self.(21) Paul wrote that we were "created in God's likeness"(22); God originally created us in His likeness(23); now He has recreated us in Jesus Christ.
Rather than simply offering general principles (which we all affirm), Paul went on to provide concrete examples of how we should treat each other: speak truth, deal with anger, speak only what edifies.(24) Indeed, since we are in God's likeness we should follow His example, forgiving and loving as both Jesus and the Father do,(25) and so imitating God.(26)
Paul quickly became more concrete and practical, dealing with specific kinds of relationships.(27) Paul provided specific examples of household relationships; namely, between wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and slave-holders.
Most of us today recognize that Paul was not supporting slavery; he was calling on people to work as constructively as possible within the conditions that existed at the time.(28) But Paul knew that much of ancient society expected morally upright people to follow household codes: the male head of the household was to rule his wife, children and slaves.
What is striking is that Paul made a few changes in this arrangement. To be sure, he called on Christians to submit to those in authority, both here and elsewhere.(29) But he did not advise those in authority how to "rule" so much as how to love,(30) following Christ's example for all of us.(31) Paul also was clear that submission should characterize each one of us.(32)
Thus, in concrete words about relationships, Paul wrote that we all stand before the same God.(33) Whatever authority—if any—God has given us, we should use it to serve, as Jesus also served us.(34) We resist the devil by unity in Christ's Body, and unity calls us to love, defer to, respect and forgive each other.