Paul’s letter to the Ephesians opens with these words,
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus…
(Ephesians 1:1 ESV)
Continuing in my little series of posts showing how to prepare a Bible study in Ephesians featuring software from BibleWorks, the place to start is at the beginning. And in this first verse there is enough material to fill an evening of discussion. Right off the bat, if people read this wrongly, there could be a pretty serious pressure of guilt piling up. I see a potential source of guilt in two words, “saints” and “faithful”.
As most people know, if they have been attending church for any significant amount of time, the word, “saints” means “holy ones” (Greek, hagios, a word that also means “holy” when used as an adjective). So if I’m sitting in a Bible study and we read this verse, I immediately could be forgiven for thinking this might not include me. After all, I’m anything but holy, if “holy” means I’m perfect in all my ways like God is perfect in all His ways. What does “holy” mean anyway? Let’s look it up in BibleWorks. The Louw-Nida lexicon module gives the definition, “pertaining to being holy in the sense of superior moral qualities and possessing certain essentially divine qualities in contrast with what is human – ‘holy, pure, divine’.” If this is what holy people are like, then this letter is not for me. But let’s keep reading.
The other word I mentioned as a source of guilt is the word, “faithful”. Why? Because if I judge myself, in almost every area of life, I cannot truly say I have been faithful. I have disappointed myself repeatedly and failed to live up to my own standards time and time again. Isn’t that what most people mean by “faithful”? But what does the Louw-Nida lexicon in BibleWorks say about the Greek word for “faithful” (Greek, pistos)? “Trusting” or, “trustworthy”. Well those are two entirely different meanings aren’t they? If the Paul uses the word “faithful” in verse 1 to address people who are “trustworthy”–those who set the bar really high—again, I’m not sure if this letter is for people like me. But if Paul uses the word “faithful” in verse 1 to refer to people who are “trusting”, well then, that absolutely describes me. For the reason that it’s precisely because of the fact that I know I’m not “holy” and I know I’m not entirely “faithful” that I simply have to depend on Jesus altogether—I trust in Him, not in myself.
In that case, it would be good if we could determine how exactly Paul is using the word “faithful” here in Ephesians 1:1. We get a pretty big clue to what Paul means when we see the very next words, “in Christ Jesus”. That is, Paul is writing to people who were “faithful in Christ Jesus.” Paul uses that same phrase, “in Christ Jesus”, 46 times in his New Testament letters and seven times in Ephesians alone. (Just highlight the Greek phrase, en Xristw Iesus right-click on it and click “search for phrase”.) We can, it’s fair to say, learn what Paul means by the phrase by reading how he uses it elsewhere. Especially if he uses the phrase repeatedly in this same letter. And seven repetitions shows that for Paul, in Ephesians, this phrase is something of a theme!
- Ephesians 1:1 – “faithful in Christ Jesus”
- Ephesians 2:6 – raised up and seated “with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”
- Ephesians 2:7 – “kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”
- Ephesians 2:10 – “created in Christ Jesus”
- Ephesians 2:13 – “in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near”
- Ephesians 3:6 – “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus”
- Ephesians 3:21 – “to [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus”
The theme to note, in all the uses of the phrase “in Christ Jesus” throughout the book of Ephesians (actually all are in the first 3 chapters!) is that none of the occurrences put the focus on what we do for Jesus, but on what Jesus does for us. These seven uses of “in Christ Jesus” are almost like a list of benefits Christians obtain in and through Jesus Christ. Leaving the first occurrence for the moment, we read that 1) we are raised up and seated in the heavenly places, 2) shown kindness by God, 3) created, 4) brought near to Christ, His people and His promise (c.f. Eph 2:12), 5) partakers of the promise, and 6) glorifying God!
In light of how the phrase, “in Christ Jesus” is used in those 6 places in Ephesians 1-3, how odd would it be to interpret “faithful in Christ Jesus” in verse 1 as somehow describing people who have proven themselves dependable, worked really hard, or lasted to the end on their own effort! No, the words “faithful in Christ Jesus”, then, must mean either a) that these people have been made faithful by Christ Jesus, or b) that these people have had faith in Christ Jesus. Remember that one of the two meanings of the Greek word for “faithful” in Ephesians 1:1 is “trusting”. So it would be too much of a stretch then to argue that Paul is writing to a self-made, proven, tested, independently trustworthy people. Consider the context of three of those “in Christ Jesus” verses (2:6, 7 & 10):
…even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.(Ephesians 2:5-10 ESV)
As always, context is the best interpreter in trying to understand the Bible. And this context teaches us that Paul is not writing to people who had to prove themselves to God in order for Him to accept them, but to people who were dead (spiritually) but “made alive” and shown grace by God, without having earned anything and with no right to expect His favour; who were “by grace…saved through faith”, “not of [their] own doing” but as “the gift of God”, and “not as a result of works” of their own, but so that they might do “good works”.
Following the logic of Eph 2:5-10, therefore, it is very likely that when Paul talks about those who were “faithful in Christ Jesus” in Eph 1:1, his meaning should be understood as those who were “trusting in Christ Jesus”. That is the essence of faith in Ephesians: to trust in Christ Jesus. Because Eph 2:8 shows that all the benefits we Christians receive from Jesus are “not [our] own doing” but “the gift of God”. So in fact, we are Christians because of God’s gift—because of God’s grace.
Finally, we see that Paul, the writer, himself considers his own role as an apostle to be likewise the result of what Jesus Christ did for him:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” (Eph 1:1)
The BibleWorks master cross-reference list, gives Galatians 1:1 as a cross-check, which reads, “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…” This is no surprise for you if you know the story of Paul’s call to be an apostle, found in Acts 9. For at the same time Jesus Christ called Paul to be an apostle (lit. “a sent-out” missionary and representative of Jesus), Paul was also converted. Acts 9 is the account of Paul’s call and his conversion. The same is true, we find, for all Christians, through a careful study of Ephesians 1:1. We are converted not as a result of anything we do or decide, but “by the will of God” and through the work of Jesus Christ. And every benefit we receive through God’s rich grace, we receive “in Christ Jesus.” There is a call to obedience; there is a call here for Christians to be faithful and do good works (Eph 2:10). But this faithfulness is not the condition of our salvation and call; it is the result of our salvation and call. Doesn’t that take the pressure off?