A New Perspective on Ephesians 1 and 2

, posted by SEA

This post was originally published as the third installment of a series, the first two numbers being “The New Perspective on Paul” and “The New Perspective and the Development of Reformed Doctrine.” The background for some of my observations regarding the “New Perspective on Paul” may be found in those two posts.

The New Perspective on Paul is generally associated with a reinterpretation of Romans and Galatians, inasmuch as these two books have been most closely associated with the Old Perspective and the traditional Protestant interpretation of justification being derived from these two epistles. However, the traditional (especially Reformed) interpretation of Ephesians 1 and 2 should also be reexamined in light of the New Perspective.

The message of the Gospel, available to anyone who believes, was a direct threat to the special status that Israel had held as the chosen people. According to the New Perspective, this opposition to the full inclusion of the Gentiles was the major issue against which Paul was arguing in Romans and Galatians. Ephesians is quite clearly about much the same issue, although not directed against Jewish opposition or Judaizers, but written to Gentile believers to assure them of their full inclusion with Jewish believers in the New Covenant. Ephesians 2:11-3:21, which forms the heart of the book, are quite explicitly about this issue: the “mystery of Christ,” which is that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:4-6). However, in traditional Reformed interpretation, chapters 1 and 2 are read as though they had nothing to do with the Jew-Gentile problem, and instead read as though they are a treatise on individual election.

Who are the “you” and the “us”?

The key to understanding Ephesians 1-2 is to identify whom Paul means by “you” and by “us” and “we.” For example, when he states “he chose us . . . he predestined us” (1:4, 5), what exactly constitutes “us”? How does the context define “us”? What are the defining characteristics of the group of people to whom Paul is referring?

In the first verse of the epistle, Paul designates his readers as pistois en Christô Iēsou, “faithful [or believing] in Christ Jesus.” In the rest of his epistles, Paul only addresses his readers as pistois one other time, in Colossians. This designation, then, has special significance to the readers of Ephesians. The prominent role of faith in subsequent verses highlights the fact that Paul’s designation is intended to frame the self-perception of his readers.

In connection with “having been predestined” in v. 11, Paul identifies “we” in vv. 11 and 12 as “the first to hope in Christ.” In v. 13, he identifies “you” as having been “included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation” and as “having believed.” He refers in v. 15 to “your faith,” in v. 19 to “us who believe,” and states in 2:10 that “you” have been saved “through faith.” Based on the above verses, one defining characteristic of both “you” and “us” throughout the passage would clearly seem to be that they are believers and have faith.

You Gentiles and We Jews

In 2:11, “you” is more explicitly identified as “you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (that done in the body by the hands of men)….” It is probable that virtually all of Paul’s readers were Gentiles, so this verse further defines the “you.” Paul’s identification of “we” as “the first to hope in Christ” in verse 13 now makes more sense: the first generation of Christians, including Paul himself, were Jewish believers; therefore where “we” is contrasted with “you,” Paul is referring to Jewish believers. (When not contrasted with “you,” Paul may mean either Jewish believers or Jewish and Gentile believers considered together.) This connects the early part of the epistle thematically with the central section, the main point of which is the union of Jewish and Gentile believers into one body (2:16, 3:6).

Taking this understanding back to the passages dealing with election helps to understand Paul’s intent better. In 1:4-5, Paul discusses how God chose “us” and predestined “us”; here, he is writing of Jewish and Gentile believers considered together. He is including the Gentiles in the election that Israel was already understood as having. His point is that the Gentiles are not an afterthought in God’s plan; they were chosen “before the creation of the world.” 1:9-10 foreshadow 3:6: the “all things” that are to be brought “together under one head” are the Jewish and Gentile believers.

Verses 11-14 begin to make a distinction between “we” and “you.” The “we” in verse 11 who were “predestined” are defined in verse 12 as “the first to hope in Christ”; i.e., Paul now means by “we” the first generation of believers, who were largely Jewish. Then “you also [Gentile believers] were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth…. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal….” Paul is saying that just as we Jews who believed were chosen and predestined according to God’s plan, even so you Gentile believers are also included in that same plan. The Gentiles are fully included in the plan that God had from the beginning.

At the beginning of chapter 2, Paul continues the comparison: just as “you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (2:1-2), even so “all of us also lived among them [the ‘sons of disobedience’] at one time…. we were by nature objects of wrath” (2:3). The Jews, just like the Gentiles, had once been alienated from God–the same point he makes in Galatians 2:15-16, and reiterates explicitly with regard to the Gentiles in 2:12-13.

Because of the individualistic emphasis of the Old Perspective, Ephesians 1:1-2:10 has been interpreted as an exposition of individual unconditional election, total depravity, and regeneration prior to justification. Understanding the role of the Jew-Gentile issue in Ephesians leads to a different conception of Paul’s message here–one that reaches out to Gentile believers and assures them that they are just as fundamentally a part of God’s election and plan as Israel had been in the Old Testament. Although this understanding can still be fit into the Reformed framework, it does not require the Reformed understanding of unconditional, individual election. Gentile believers are being reassured that they are just as much “chosen” as Jewish believers had been–because God’s choice is not based on whether they are Jews or Gentiles, but rather upon faith in Christ as the only necessary criterion.