During Eastertide on Fridays, we are reflecting on insights from Timothy Gombis’s recent book, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God.
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“Ephesians, then, is a drama, portraying the victory of God in Christ over the dark powers that rule this present evil age, and the letter becomes a script for how God’s people can continue, by the power of the Spirit, to perform the drama called the triumph of God in Christ.”
One prayer I have for the Church is that God will restore our imaginations.
The way we often approach and read the Bible is a good example of why we need this. God has given us such a rich, multifaceted book of stories, poems and songs, wise and provocative sayings, prophetic speeches, and apocalyptic writings! Yet many of us have somehow managed to maintain perceptions of Scripture as a book primarily of propositions, instructions, doctrines, and lessons.
This is particularly true of the New Testament epistles. When we study Paul, we study. We read a passage like Ephesians 1:3-14, for example. This dense passage is an intricate, rambling doxology (one sentence in the original Greek!) that leaves one breathless with its magnificent paean of praise. In it, Paul surveys the vast panorama of the triune God’s glorious grace toward us — from before the foundation of the world to the time when all things in heaven and on earth are gathered up in Christ. Take a moment and read this text. Try to get a sense of how profound this doxology is:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. (NRSV)
What do we generally do with a passage like this from the epistles? I have been in a number of Bible studies exploring this text, and it seems like they always turn into in-depth discussions about theological concepts and doctrines and if we have time, we try to figure out what all this might mean “practically” for our lives. It becomes basic Bible study — (1) Observation. (2) Interpretation. (3) Application. I’ve taught it time and time again.
We could ask the same question about how we read the entire epistle. I have heard (and taught) a thousand times that the first part of Ephesians (ch. 1-3) is “doctrine” and the second part (ch. 4-6) is “application.” More sophisticated discussions might label the two parts “indicative” (the facts about what God has done for us) and “imperative” (the exhortations that God gives about how we are to live in response to God’s grace).
While there is a measure of truth in this description, it doesn’t begin to adequately convey the exalted language Paul uses, the richness of his metaphors, the literary forms that encourage meditation, prayer, praise, and contemplation, and the narrative elements that remind us we are not reading about mere concepts but a Story for the ages. Paul’s letter is about what the Gospel — Jesus’ Story — has wrought. It celebrates the world-shaking historical narrative by which everything in heaven and on earth has been changed, which transforms the very meaning and outlook of our lives in the world.
As Timothy Gombis writes:
…we are not rightly reading Ephesians if we view it as a collection of facts or theological truths that need to be extracted, removed from their contexts and arranged into a doctrinal system in another setting. Ephesians is not a doctrinal treatise in the scholastic sense of that term. It is, rather, a drama in which Paul portrays the powerful, reality-altering, cosmos-transforming acts of God in Christ to redeem God’s world and save God’s people for the glory of his name. A narrative approach to Paul’s letter, therefore, is far more appropriate than a scientific approach.
The drama of Ephesians is a good place to start to stimulate our imaginations about what it means to be Easter people, walking with the risen Christ in newness of life, participating daily in his cosmic triumph over all the powers of sin, evil, and death that beset us.