Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Sunday School Lesson #39

Posted by Jim F. on October 9, 2007

Lesson 39: Ephesians

Here is an outline of Ephesians that may be helpful in thinking about the letter as a whole:

1. 1:1-3, Greetings

2. 1:4-14, The significance of Christ

a. 1:15-23, Christ’s power and the riches of salvation

b. 2:1-18, Salvation is by faith so that the consequences of law can be overcome and we can be renewed

3. 2:19-22, The unity of the Church and its foundation in Christ

a. 3:1-13, Paul’s mission, especially to the Gentiles.

b. 3:14-21, Paul’s prayer for the Church

4. 4:1-6, What it means to be a member of the Church

a. The fundamental principles:

i. 4:7-16, The Church exists to perfect us

ii. 4:17-5:21, We must repent (“be renewed”); our responsibilities as members of the Church

b. 5:22-6:9, Our particular responsibilities in our families and as employees and employers

c. 6:10-20, Putting on the armor of God

5. 6:21-24, Conclusion

Notice how similar Ephesians often is to Colossians. (Compare, for example, Ephesians 1:1-2 with Colossans 1:1-2, and Ephesians 6:21-22 with Colossians 4:7-8.)

I will focus on Ephesians 1:3-10 and 4:1-16.

Pedantic note: We do not know that the “letter to the Ephesians” was written to the Ephesians, though it doesn’t matter to us whether it was. The earliest sources we know of assume that it was written to the Laodocians, though by the end of the second century it is assumed to have been a letter to Ephesus. The words in verse 1, “to the saints which are at Ephesus,” were probably inserted after the letter was written, based on the general assumption that the Ephesians were its audience.

Chapter 1

Verse 3: How do we bless, in other words, praise the Father? Why must we do so? Why is it important for us to know that God is the Father of Jesus Christ? A better translation of “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places” is “the full heavenly blessing.” To what is Paul referring? Some believe that verses 3-10 are a baptismal hymn that Paul is using as the basis for his preaching, much as a General Authority might use a hymn in General Conference. (Compare 1 Peter 1:3-12, which also appears to be either a sermon or a hymn about baptism.) However, perhaps most contemporary interpreters think it is not.

Verses 4-6: What does it mean to say that we were chosen to be holy and blameless in love before the foundation of the world (verse 4)? Who was chosen? Was anyone not chosen? How were we chosen? Does that suggest anything about this life?

Each place where the word translated “blameless” is used in scripture, it refers to a sacrificial victim and it means “without blemish.” Why does Paul use that word here to describe what is expected of us? What do the words “in love” add in the phrase “holy and without blame [. . .] in love”? What does “in him” or “before him” mean here? Why must we be adopted (verse 5) if we are already children of God? What does it mean to say that we were “predestined” to be adopted? The Greek word translated “predestined” means “decided beforehand.” What does it mean to say that the adoption occurs “according to the good pleasure of his will” or “in accordance with his favorable decision”? How have we been “accepted in the beloved”? Can we be accepted otherwise?

Verses 7-10: What is the literal meaning of “redemption” and how does it apply to Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation (verse 7)? The word translated “forgiveness” could also be translated “cancellation.” What does it mean for us to have our sins canceled? The phrase “abounded toward” means “poured out on” (verse 8). What has Christ poured out on us? What does it mean to say that he has done so in wisdom? The word translated “prudence” could also be translated “right-mindedness” or “understanding.” Is Paul using two words with one meaning (for emphasis) when he says “wisdom and prudence” or is he talking about two different things? When did the Father make his will known to us (verse 9)? Why does Paul describe the Father’s will as a mystery? (Compare Daniel 2:19 and Colossians 1:25-27.) Many believe that “himself” in verse 9 is a mistranslation and that instead is should say “Christ.” In that case, the last phrase of the verse would read “which he set forth in Christ.” What does the alternate translation mean? Do you think it is reasonable? Other words for the word translated “dispensation” are “plan” and “administration.” Do those alternate translations give you productive ways of understanding this verse? Another translation of “fulness of times” is “era of fullness.” When is the fullness of times? Why is it called that? What does it mean that in that era Christ will gather all things in one?

Chapter 4

Verse 1: Given the prayer Paul has made for the Church (3:14-21, a prayer that the saints will be strengthened and come to know the love of Christ), his mission to preach to the Gentiles (3:1-13), and the requirement that we renew ourselves because we have been given the possibility of salvation (2:1-18), Paul asks the Ephesians to conduct themselves worthy of the calling they have received. Notice that he sees membership in the Church—not just leadership—as a calling. What kind of a calling is it? What does it mean to say it is a calling?

Verse 2: We should walk with humility and gentleness and longsuffering, putting up with one another in love. The word translated “forbear” literally means “putting up with.” Why do you think Paul uses that word? Does this tell us anything about why it is important that we are organized in families and wards?

Verse 3: We should do these things diligently striving to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (The King James says “in the bond of peace,” but “through” is more accurate.) What is the bond of peace? How do we remain united in the Spirit through it?

Verses 4-6 : What does Paul mean when he says there is “one body”? (See 2:15 for a similar phrase, “one new man.”) What does it mean to be “called in one hope of your calling”? As it is used here, “faith” doesn’t mean “church” or “set of doctrines.” It means “trust.” In what sense, then, can our faith by one? It makes sense to read verses 5 and 6 as the calling described in the end of verse 4: we are called to be one in the Lord, one in faith, one because we are all baptized, and one in our relation to our Heavenly Father. What might it mean to be one in these ways?

Verses 7-16: These verses must be treated as a unit to be understood. The major difficulty comes in verses 7-10:

Verses 7-10: In verse 7 Paul says each of us receives gifts according to the measure by which Christ bestows those gifts. That is the theme of these verses: we each receive different gifts according to the way Christ feels he should give out those gifts. In verse 8 he quotes Psalm 68:18, though he quotes from a different version than that used for the King James translation. Verse 9 begins Paul’s commentary on the scripture he has just quoted. He says that, in the psalm, “he ascended” must mean that he had previously descended. Therefore, verse 10 says, this must be a verse about Christ, the one who has descended below all things and, therefore, risen above all things. And, because he has done this, Christ is the one who fills us with his gifts. (“Fill all things,” at the end of verse 10, could also be translated “fill everyone.”) How would you restate these verses in your own words?

Verses 11-16: Having discussed the first part of the verse he quoted from Psalm 68, Paul turns to the part about gifts in verse 11: The gifts he gives are the offices of the priesthood, and he names some of those offices:

“Apostles,” literally, “those sent,” meaning “messengers.” Why are the apostles given this name?

“Prophets,” literally, “those who testify” or “those who speak out.” What is it about prophets which makes this an appropriate title for them?

“Evangelists,” literally, “good newsers” or “gospelers.” Latter-day revelations tells us that evangelists are patriarchs. Why does the name “evangelist” apply to them?

“Pastors,” literally, “shepherds.” To whom in the Church does this refer? How is that name appropriate?

“Teachers.” The literal meaning here is the same as the ordinary meaning: a teacher is one who initiates one, a person who gives discipline. Why is that name appropriate to the home teachers? How is it appropriate to the Aaronic priesthood office of teacher?

Why might Paul list these five offices rather than others?

Note: “pastors and teachers” may refer to one office rather than two. The Greek is ambiguous. If it does refer to one, it would be translated something like “teaching shepherds.” Who might that be?

Verse 12 shows us what the organization of the Church is for—it is to equip us, to prepare us. (The King James translation says “perfect,” but that is not as good a translation as “equip” or “prepare.” The word is not the same word usually translated “perfect” (as in verse 13, below, or in Matthew 5:48.)) For what do the priesthood offices prepare us? In verse 12 he also says that these office are to edify us, in other words, to build us up. Remember that a church is an edifice. Thus to edify, is—metaphorically—to build a church. The English words here reflect a similar meaning in the Greek.

Verse 13 says that these offices (and, presumably our calls to those offices) are to take care of us until we come to a unity of faith, till we come to know Christ, till we come to measure up to the standard he has set. In other words, the offices of the priesthood are given because we are imperfect; they are a sign of our imperfection. What might this say about some of the criticisms made of the Church and its officers, criticisms of our imperfections?

These offices and callings are given, verse 14 says, to help keep us from being tossed around by every new doctrinal idea that comes along and to protect us from men who would do anything to trick us and deceive us. How does the priesthood and its offices keep us from being blown about by every wind of doctrine? What kind of trickery (“sleight”) might Paul have in mind in his day? To what kind of trickery might that correspond today? How do the offices of the priesthood protect us from people’s trickery?

Because of the gifts given us in the offices of the priesthood and in our calls to those office, instead of being blown about and tricked, verse 15 says we will grow toward Christ, our head, speaking the truth in love. Paul has been using the metaphor of the body to describe the Church. Do you have any ideas why he says that Christ is the head of that body rather than its heart? What does it mean to grow toward Christ? (Again, the King James translation isn’t the best. It says “into” rather than “toward.”) What does it mean to grow toward him in all things?

Here’s another translation of verse 16, a translation that may help clarify the meaning. Speaking of Christ, Paul says:

Through him the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love.

How does Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-44 fit with this verse? In other words, what does it mean that the Church will build itself up in love when each of its parts (“members” means, literally, “body parts”—arms, legs, etc.) works together properly, growing by being attached to Christ? Why does Paul say “speaking the truth in love” rather than just “in love”? What point is he making with “speaking the truth”?

29 Responses to “Sunday School Lesson #39”

  1. jane said

    Thank you very much. I learned a lot and will use this in my lesson tomorrow!

  2. Jim F. said

    Jane–glad to hear that you found this stuff useful, and best wishes for your lesson tomorrow.

  3. jeanette palmer said

    Jim, thank you so much for elucidating the finer points of the text. I think it is important to understand the different nuances between language. I can feel Augustine’s pain. thanks! jeanette

  4. Robert C. said

    For the millionth time, thanks for these notes Jim. I thought the way you worded this question was interesting:

    Do those alternate translations give you productive ways of understanding this verse?

    I think that, esp. for those of us who don’t have time to tease out only “the best” interpretations of a particular verse, this is an interesting way to think about the process of interpretation, or at least the first few steps, even if we embrace different interpretations as we study the text more. In other words, I think that even “bad” interpretations can be productive, though I think we must always be continually striving to study and interpret the text to the best of our ability for this to be the case….

    Also, I was struck for some reason by the “mystery of his will” phrase in 1:9. I’m not sure if has the Jew-Gentile issue in mind here specifically (he does talk about “gather[ing] together in one” in v. 10), but it seems that since this topic is mentioned later in the epistle, and in other Pauline writings (Rom 9-11 esp.), that it’s helpful to think about this in light of Paul’s doctrine of election. Sometimes I think it’s tempting to think we can understand everything about God, but this bit about “the mystery of his will” seems a good reminder that we experience grace largely because we don’t know God’s will and that “which he hath purposed in himself.”

  5. Jim F. said

    Jeannette, your are certainly welcome. I hope you found the materials useful to you.

    Robert C.: I agree with you that, though we ought to aim for correct interpretations, along the way we ought also to look for productive ones. The point of scripture study is to increase my faith rather than to understand exactly what an ancient text meant. Of course, I don’t want to understand the text in some foolish way, so what it means rather than what I think it means is an important standard by which to judge our interpretations. Nevertheless, even given that standard, our search ougt to be aimed at producing faith in us or strengthening the faith that is already there.

    Thanks for the comment about “mystery of his will,” and particulary the reminder that we experience God’s grace “largely because we don’t know God’s will and ‘that which he hath purposed in himself.'” Discovering the will of God in one’s life is not always an easy enterprise.

  6. Jim, re: Eph. 1:4-5, how do you resolve the predestination clause relative to those who are adopted into God’s family, i.e. receive the Gospel? Can those who enjoy church membership boast having earned their place in the pre-existence? And what of those who do not have the gospel? This is ironic in that the Jews considered themselves likewise elite and predestined to be God’s children vs. Gentiles. It seems that Paul is advocating here exactly what he has been preaching against.

    Additionally, Jim, In Eph. 2:14b what is the veil that is being broken down here? It is a veil in “heaven” or one on the temple? in v. 19 there is a phrase I’m wondering about: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners.” I have in my notes that this is a phrase on the temple partition. Do you know anything about that? Is this alluding to the fact that now everyone can enter the temple whereas in times past only the priest could enter?–nanette

  7. RuthS said

    How much is Paul’s language, examples and metaphors influenced by the culture of those he is writing to. I’m wondering if understanding the parctice among the Roman’s of bring newborn infants before the Pater Familias in order to receive his blessing on the child might have given menaing to his audience. Does it make a difference to know that the child’s life was in the head of the families hands.

    Is this completely off the mark?

  8. nhilton said

    Jim, re: #6, maybe the fact that “predestination” should really be “foreordination” impacts our understanding of Eph. 1:4-5? I see predestination being a predeterminantion w/o any prerequisite while foreordination is predicated upon our worthiness to receive the reserved blessing. ?

  9. Jim F. said

    Nanette, there are at least a couple of ways to understand “predestined” in Ephesians 1:5 (besides, of course, the usual way we underestand that word on first hearing it). The most obvious is to understand it as Latter-day Saints usually do to mean “foreordained.” We (presumably all human beings) have been foreordained to be adopted. We can resist that foreordination, but it is what God desires for us and has blessed us to have.

    Another way to think about the word is to notice that we have been “predestinated,” or chosen or foreordained, but not as individuals. Rather, this is a way of talking about the Church: the Church, of which we are the members though not, as individuals, the body, is predestined to be adopted as the family of God. On this interpretation, Paul is rethinking what it means to be the Chosen People (which explains why chapter 8 of Romans, on adoption, is followed by a chapter on the election of Israel).

    As for Ephesians 2:14: It seems that verse 15 defines the wall. (I don’t think we can easily interpret the wall to be a veil.) It is the wall of enmity. Notice that verses 14 through 16 are one sentence:

    For he himself is our peace, who has made the two [those in and outside of Israel–verses 11-12] one and has broken down the barrier of the dividing wall by abolishing in his flesh the Law of commandments by regulation, which he did so that in himself he might make the two into one new person, thus establishing peace between them, and so that he might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which he their enmity to death.

    In the larger context, I think the meaning of the wall is relatively clear.

  10. Jim F. said

    RuthS: I don’t think you are off the mark at all. Paul couldn’t have escaped using the culture in which he lived if he wanted to be understood by those to whom he was writing.

    Where in particular do you see that practice informing what Paul is saying?

  11. rbutterf said

    RE: No 6. above on the question of everyone, not just the priest entering the temple etc.

    We had a wonderful discussion on this point in our class a few weeks ago from Hebrews 9 and 10. Here Paul discusses how Christ is “Meidator of the New Covenant,” and how he as our great High Priest takes us through the veil into the Holy Place (attn to 9:1-15,14, and 10:16-23). Anyhow, not that this has anything to do with Ephesians, but it was a revelation to me, and really changed how I conceptualize the temple.

  12. RuthS said

    I was thinking of this in regard to Chapter 2 and becoming citizens with Israel. By being united in or with Christ, who as the mediator and advocate before the father presents the united assembly to him (PaterFamilias) who then accepts all of them as children of his household thus giving them rights and privileges in his family. This is a great gift given by the good will and pleasure of the head of the Roman household. And in that respect it is similar to the new man born again through Christ as a member of the Christian community being accepted of the Father.

    I was thinking of it in terms of the adoption and becoming citizens. In the Roman Empire this was a highly prised status and would have been at Ephesus. So it had a very elevated meaning to be citizens (part of the assembly of believers in this case) in a particular group. Paul, a Roman by birth, understood this well.

  13. Jim F. said

    RuthS: Thanks for pointing this out. I’d not thought about the connection between adoption and becoming citizens before. I’d recognized how important the Roman theory of adoption is to understanding what Paul is saying in Romans and elsewhere, but I’d not seen its importance to Ephesians 2. Thanks very much. That is very helpful.

  14. Jim, thanks for your explanation in #9. Jim, repeating myself, “in v. 19 there is a phrase I’m wondering about: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners.” I have in my notes that this is a phrase on the temple partition. Do you know anything about that?”

    RuthS, your thoughts on the PaterFamilias is super!

    rbutterf, your thoughts about the highpriest escort is terrific & very helpful.

  15. Jim F. said

    Ponderpaths, I don’t know anything about it. I’m skeptical that, given the culture of the time, there was a complete temple ritual for Christians apart from what was to be had in Jerusalem, so I am a priori skeptical of the idea, but not with any strong conviction. If you find out more, I would certainly be interested in knowing.

    I’ve understood “no more strangers and foreigners” in its straightforward sense, a sense now much strengthened by what RuthS has written: The converts to the Church, most of whom were Gentiles, are no longer outside the house of Israel. They are no longer strangers to God or foreigners among his people.

  16. cherylem said

    You have said nothing (unless I missed it) about Ephesians being Deutero Pauline (a forgery). What is your take on this?

  17. Jim F. said

    Cheryl, you didn’t miss anything. Since I produce study questions for personal study and for homiletic rather than more scholarly purposes, I have usually ignored questions of authenticity, though I’m not consistent about doing so. In any case, I don’t know enough to decide between the competing arguments concernign Ephesians, so I can’t say whether Ephesians is genuinely Pauline.

  18. Cherylem #16, it is thought by some that Onesimus, the runaway slave mentioned in Paul’s short letter to Philemon of Colossae, was the author of Ephesians–Oxford Comp. to the Bible, p. 186. But since the Prophet didn’t identify a different author even tho he added inspired changes to Ephesians, I am inclined to believe that Paul was the author, in the broad sense of the term applied to writing of his era. I think this same standpoint is necessary in reference to other NT books, i.e. Hebrews. I know to some it is a non-issue and for others it is important to know from whom the words originate. FWTW–nanette

  19. Jim, #6, 15: Regarding the wall in Eph. 2:13,

    I think there is a possibility that Paul was alluding to the specific wall around the Temple proper separating the court of the Gentiles from the court of the women, a balustrade (Hebrew, soreg), which was an elevated stone railing about four and a half feet high with posted inscriptions in Greek and Latin warning Gentiles not to pass beyond. One of these inscriptions was found in 1935 just outside the Lion’s Gate of the Old City and is now on display in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. It reads: “No Gentile shall enter inward of the partition and barrier surrounding the Temple, and whosoever is caught shall be responsible to himself for his subsequent death.” I am told that the word in Eph. 2:19 “foreigners” is the exact word used in this inscription, tho my source for this is what I’m still hunting for. I heard this reference made again by BYU professors during the “round table discussions” on the 2nd half of the NT. I’m not sure which episode it was or who said it, yet. I was hoping you might have that souce information–or someone else on this blog.

    So, specifically Paul is telling these gentiles that they have temple priviledges, or the blessings associated with temple ordinances and that God’s people are united.

    This makes further sense to me since Paul continues his building metaphore that could be applied to the temple in the verses following 19, v. 20-22.

  20. Jim F. said

    The Greek word for “foreigners” in Ephesians 2:19 is paroikia, literally “those living outside the household,” while that of the temple inscription is allogenae, literally “those with another lineage.”

    So I see Paul telling the Gentiles that they now have the privileges of being members of the house of Israel, but I don’t see him telling them–at least not directly–that they have the privilege to enter the Temple. Paul was falsely accused of doing that in Acts, bringing Gentiles within the boundaries of the Temple wall. It would seem odd for that to have happened and then for him to say that doing so is now all right without ever mentioning the previous incident.

    While Paul is certainly using temple imagery in verses 20-22, he isn’t applying it to the temple, but comparing the Church to the Temple. Verse 22 seems to me to make that explicit when it says that those to whom he writes have been “built together” to be a dwelling-place for God through the Holy Ghost. The “temple” that Paul has in mind here is explicitly the membership of the Church.

  21. Jim, THANK YOU! This seems to be a case of making the scriptures “truer than true.” I am glad you corrected the misinformation I heard re: the word “foreigners” on the BYU NT podcast. I am still wondering about that speaker & their source. I should flash back & find that episode & try to see who said it…naw, too much effort. But, thanks for saving me from perpetuating this “fable.”–nanette

  22. Jim F said

    Nanette: Now I hope I didn’t misunderstand something, either what the person on the NT podcast said. (I know the people who do that and trust their Greek better than mine.) Or what I read when I looked up the Greek of the scripture and of the wall inscription.

  23. Well, I guess w/o one of those people or someone else surfacing who is familiar with this whole subject, I’ll just leave it alone assuming you’re right. I think that is erring on the side of caution.

  24. Robert C. said

    Cheryl #16, my sense is that scholars who argue that Paul himself wrote or dictated this epsitle are somewhat of a minority (though a non-trivial minority). This is mostly from my rather cursory look at a random selection of intro books on Paul, so take it for what it’s worth (i.e., not much!).

  25. mhardy said

    My lesson schedule is at least one week behind some and more than one week behind most; consequently, this post may not be read. Something seemed familiar about Nanette’s question regarding the temple wall. I did some digging and found the following from the LDS Institute Manual:

    “43-10) Ephesians 2:14. To What Was Paul Referring When He Spoke of “the Middle Wall of Partition”?

    As can be noted in the outline of this letter, Paul is pointing out that the gentiles who accept the gospel are now brought in and made part of the “covenant people.” In the great temple of Jerusalem, the temple proper was shielded from gentile influences. A special barrier was erected, and if a gentile passed beyond it, he could be put to death. Archaeologists have even found one of the marble blocks of this barrier with this inscription: “let no foreigner enter within the screen and enclosure surrounding the sanctuary. Whosoever is taken so doing will be the cause that death overtaketh him.” It will be remembered that it was the accusation that Paul had ignored this warning and brought gentiles beyond the barrier that led to the riot and his arrest (Acts 21:28).” (Institute Manual, The Life and Teachings of Jesus & his Apostles, 2nd ed., p. 351).

    Although this may not be very additive to the discussion, it may help explain the origins of the notation in Nanette’s scriptures.

  26. Jim F. said

    mhardy: thanks very much for tracking that down. I don’t see any particular contradiction between the manual’s understanding of the verse and mine–not that you suggest there is such a contradiction.

  27. mhardy said

    I did not see any contradiction either. I actually did not quite see a connection or rationale for including this information in connection with Ephesians 2:14. I understand the emphasis on the gentiles being part of the covenant people, but the jump from that to comment about the temple and its wall seems out of place to me.

  28. Jim F. said

    mhardy: I agree. It is difficult for me to see any connection between the partition of Ephesians 2:14 and the temple wall.

  29. fable 3 said

    fable 3…

    […]Sunday School Lesson #39 « Feast upon the Word Blog[…]…

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