Back in October 2008 I wrote about Ephesians 1 and an important re-reading that would help a lot of people to read the Bible more in context.
In recent comments and debates about the role of Jews and non-Jews in the body of Messiah, several commenters from differing theologies have presented Ephesians as a key text in asserting that there is now no distinction between Jews and non-Jews in Messiah. Non-Jews who have come to faith in Yeshua are now to be seen as Israelites, some would say. Others would say the categories of Jew and Gentile no longer matter.
I believe the distinction between Jew and Gentile matters greatly. There are so many reasons for that belief. Not least are the very specific promises of Israel’s restoration in the Israelite prophets and echoed in New Testament texts. This restoration cannot happen if the peoplehood of Israel disappears. Nor does replacement of Israelites by Christians or Yeshua-followers from the nations satisfy the intent of those promises.
I believe that Paul is typically misread on this matter not only by traditional theology, which denies that Torah has any ongoing validity (as if God made a mistake and is now correcting it with the “superior” idea of faith and love–too bad he didn’t think of faith and love in the early days). But Paul is also being misread by two other theologies found in Messianic Jewish circles: the one new man theology and the One Law theology.
Paul is no more eliminating the distinction between Jew and Gentile than he is between women and men (see Gal 3:28), or between husband and wife in marriage when two become one. As much as my wife and I are alike and share one view of things, we also are distinct. Our unity is on a deeper level than mere identification.
In the way of small contribution toward seeing the distinction between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians, let me start by re-emphasizing what I did in that October 2008 post: Ephesians 1 has Paul the Jewish leader explaining the gospel to non-Jews in historical succession as coming from Israel to the nations.
If I have time, and if there is interest, I will work on my thoughts about Ephesians 2 and 3 for future posts. We should be very surprised if Ephesians overthrows the Pauline insistence on distinction. I do not believe such a reading is sustainable.
Reading Ephesians 1 Again With First Century Eyes
In Ephesians, again and again, we see Paul comforting and edifying a non-Jewish community of Yeshua-followers who felt second class. These humble believers faced persecution from the synagogue. It is quite likely that in the heart of the Roman Imperial Cult (Asia Minor was a hotbed of rabid emperor worship), these non-Jews were being threatened by the synagogue as illegal cultists to be turned in to the authorities.
I do not have space here to detail the well-known issues of Roman law about religion, the exception made for Judaism, and the status of early believers in Roman eyes as a Jewish sect. If you’d like to know more, say so in the comments and perhaps I can gather some historical support and make a blog post of that as well.
Now, keeping in mind the Ephesians were suffering from a non-Jewish inferiority complex, read Ephesians 1:3-14 carefully, noting the pronouns such as us, we, and you.
Who does Paul mean by us and we? There are three main possibilities:
(1) The us and we are all Yeshua-followers regardless of status as Jew or Gentile
(2) The us and we are the apostles and the you are the believers who follow the apostles
(3) The us and we is Israel and the you is the growing community of Gentile Yeshua-followers
Ephesians 1:12 as a Clue
I will include a translation of Ephesians 1:12 from the RSV with only one minor change. I will use “Messiah” instead of “Christ.” When people read “Christ” in the New Testament, there is often an ingrained habit of seeing this as the last name of Jesus. This little habit can cause people to miss the obvious import of Ephesians 1:12:
we who first hoped in Messiah have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.
Who was the first group to hope in Messiah? Whoever it is, this is who Paul means by us and we.
It seems fair now to eliminate option (1). Paul is using us, we, and you to make a distinction. Vs. 12 makes this clear.
Were the apostles of Yeshua the first to hope in Messiah?
This will remain for some a debatable point. Yet I read in the gospels of an Israelite population under the thumb of Rome very much looking for Messiah and deliverance.
The first people to hope in Messiah is Israel. Therefore, the we and us in Ephesians 1:3-14 is Israel. This produces what may be for some people a shockingly positive view of Israel’s status with God. Yet I suggest this is exactly what Paul is saying, that it is consistent with the Torah and prophets where the same thing is said again and again, and that the New Testament elsewhere confirms it.
A Paraphrase of Ephesians 1:3-14
The following paraphrase is intended as an aid to reading the text more clearly:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah, who has blessed us [JEWS] in Messiah with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us [JEWS] in him before the foundation of the world, that we [JEWS] should be holy and blameless before him. 5 He destined us [JEWS] in love to be his sons through Yeshua the Messiah, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us [JEWS] in the Beloved. 7 In him we [JEWS] have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 which he lavished upon us [JEWS]. 9 For he has made known to us [JEWS] in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Messiah 10 as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 we [JEWS] who first hoped in Messiah have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we [JEWS AND GENTILES IN MESSIAH] acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.