New Life in the Kingdom of God

Ephesians Chapters 4-6


In an earlier piece, we looked at Paul’s Apocalypse of Christ that he expounds in the first three chapters of his Letter to the Ephesians.  The effect of this revelation on Paul’s view of virtually everything in his world was revolutionary.

In the second three chapters of Ephesians, Paul casts his revolutionized view of human life and interrelationships that, as much as any portion of his epistles, brings into sharp focus the life transformation that followers of Christ should both expect and strive for.

The Unity of the New Humanity in Christ (Eph 4:1-16)

Paul starts out this appeal by imploring his readers to adopt a conscious pursuit of humility.  For Paul, an attitude of humility in dealings with others was emblematic of the children of God who had confessed their dependence on and allegiance to the Lord.  With that attitude, he implores them to “bear with one another in love, eager to maintain the Spirit of unity in the bond of peace” (v2).

Unity of the “body of Christ” – the Church — is the goal.  Paul uses the phrase “one another” many times throughout all of his epistles.  When he does (as in Eph 4:2), he is addressing the most fundamental interrelationship within the Church – that of neighbor to neighbor, as it is these relationships in which is seen the Kingdom of God and the influence of the Holy Spirit that lives in each member[i].


Beginning in v4, Paul lists seven dimensions of the unity he is praying for the Ephesian Church:

  1. One body
  2. One spirit
  3. One hope
  4. One Lord
  5. One faith
  6. One baptism
  7. One God and Father of all

Now, of course, Paul was a Jew.  And in Jewish culture and literature, the number seven is symbolic of completeness, wholeness or perfection.  It pervades the Hebrew Bible in this role.  Paul’s use of it here is his coded way of telling his readers that, as followers of Christ, they are members of God’s completeness and perfection.

E Pluribus Unum

But the stunningly profound message, especially for our modern culture, is that human distinctives that convey some sort of standing within a society are insignificant in God’s Kingdom.  They are invisible both to God and to its other residents.  You may be male; you may have some wealth; you may have a position of some authority in your work or community.  None of it matters, any more than if you are a gentile, or perhaps a Cushite slave girl.  This is the reality of God’s Kingdom.[ii]  And furthermore, there are no restrictions on who can live in this Kingdom.  All are invited.  All are called to immigrate (“For many are called, but few are chosen.”).  To enter you simply need to set yourself aside and choose Christ and His life preeminently.

How discouraging it is that in Western culture today, cultural markers or distinctives (e.g. gender, race, sexual orientation, politics) are the only things that do matter to its “woke” secularists.

Paul’s apocalypse showed him that those who trust and then follow Christ are one living organism (His “body”) designed and equipped (by His Spirit) to do God’s will on earth.  In it there are no Jews.  No “Greeks”.  No Blacks.  No Whites.  No males.  No females.  Just members of what Paul sees as a new humanity (Eph 2:15) devoted to one another and to God in love.  What a marvelous truth for a bitter and divided world.

Psalm 68

In Eph 4:8, Paul purports to quote from Psalm 68, but his quote looks like the opposite of what Psalm 68 actually says.  Paul quotes this:

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives

and he gave gifts to men.”

But what the applicable verses from the Psalm actually say is (Psalms 68:18):

[18] You ascended on high,

leading a host of captives in your train

and receiving gifts among men,

even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there.

But Paul here isn’t misquoting.  He’s simply distilling the psalm down to its essence when it concludes:

[35] Awesome is God from his sanctuary;

the God of Israel—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.

Blessed be God!

Paul’s reference to “gifts” are the Apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc. that Psalm 68 identifies as God’s “power and strength” that He has given to His Church.

God’s Agents For Unity

After once again asserting Jesus’ divinity (v9-10) Paul points out that to achieve this unity, Christ provided “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry in building up the body of Christ” (v11-12)[iii].  And He did this so that his readers could learn and practice it, and thus grow spiritually (Eph 4:13-14):

[13] until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, [14] so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

I think it is significant that Paul here equates everyone acquiring “the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” as prerequisite for this unity.  And it’s not just knowledge of Christ, but a readiness to handle it maturely, by which perhaps he is alluding back to his admonition for humility among the brethren.

The Old Has Passed Away; Behold the New Has Come

Eph 4:17-5:2 was a passage that could have been so much more powerful, in my opinion, had Paul simply acknowledged the work of the Holy Spirit in effecting these changes to create the “New Man/Humanity”.  But the way it reads in the English translation is as a set of admonitions: “do’s” and “don’ts”, as if anyone could live up to them without the Spirit of Christ enabling them.

Certainly, this is not the case, and Paul knew it was not the case.  But what he perhaps didn’t foresee was that his words would be read by people who are not committed to Christ 2000 years later, and used as a kind of formulaic prescription for being a Christian, without understanding that that’s not actually possible.

In Paul’s defense, he knew the people he was writing to in Ephesus were Christians, and he knew what they shared as followers of Christ.  He told us what was true of such people in 2 Cor 1:22, Gal 4:6, Rom 8:15-16, 27, 15:13, 1 Cor 12:13, Gal 5:22, and 2 Cor 3:18.  So he well knew the transformative power of the Spirit.  It’s just unfortunate that he chose to assume it here in Ephesians 4, rather than proclaim that Christ’s Spirit in them was the source of their ability to live in this way.  Here he offers a set of behaviors that, when carried out, he says will act to establish unity within the body:

How a Saint is to Live – Ephesians Ch. 5

The early verses of Ephesians 5 are seemingly a continuation of Paul’s admonitions on unity-creating behaviors from ch 4. Ephesians 5:1-21:

[5:1] Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. [2] And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

[3] But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. [4] Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. [5] For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. [6] Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. [7] Therefore do not become partners with them; [8] for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light [9] (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), [10] and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. [11] Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. [12] For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. [13] But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, [14] for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,

and arise from the dead,

and Christ will shine on you.”

[15] Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, [16] making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. [17] Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. [18] And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, [19] addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, [20] giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, [21] submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Paul here is contrasting the behaviors of the ungodly with those of his Ephesian brethren.  He says that the former are to result in the “wrath of God” carried out on them (“the sons of disobedience”).  We moderns often think of this notion of the “wrath of God” as some cosmic calamity thrown down from heaven onto the apostate.  But, that’s not how Paul understood it.

In Romans 1:18-27, Paul explains exactly how he understands the “wrath of God” is carried out.  And what it looks like is that God, seeing the committed disobedience of those who reject Him says, in effect, “OK, fine.  If that’s what you really want, I’m going to let you continue on in your disobedience to your own destruction.”

The other famous admonition in these verses is that we should walk as wise, “making the best use of the time” (or “redeeming the time” [KJV]).  This is another entire topic in its own right (about which I have written here).  But, the short version of Paul’s meaning is that time spent in the service of Christ is always time well-spent, while the time spent on other activities (“foolishness”, “drunk with wine”), when the opportunity existed to spend that time in the service of Christ, is not.  It is time that could have been “redeemed” but was not.

What Paul is persistently after here in his parishioners is an attitude of mutual submission – submission to one another, rather than an attitude of autonomy or self-sufficiency apart from the Body of Christ. This he summarizes (v21) as “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  This verse is a complete capsule summary of the entire second half of Paul’s letter.

The “Household Code”

Ephesians 5:22-6:9 is a radical and controversial prescription for its time.  But it is perhaps more controversial in our modern culture simply because, on a superficial reading, it appears to condone harmful stereotypes.  This is why we need to pay particular attention to what Paul is saying, and the cultural environment into which he was saying it.

These verses conform to the format of what was well-known in the first-century as a Greek “household code”.  These prescriptions in general were designed to a) promote the authority of the household patriarch, and b) outline the order of a household that would make it a household-sized version of the Roman Empire – orderly, conforming to the hierarchy of established authority, productive, etc.

But this model is anything but Paul’s vision of the Christian household.  Yes, he uses the common literary form of a “household code” to describe the Christian household.  But its foundation is dramatically different from that of the typical, first-century Greco/Roman household.

Again, Paul’s overarching theme in his description of those who trusted in Christ – the Church – was an attitude of mutual submission.  Paul wasn’t locked into the cultural stereotypes of position and power of his day.  Rather, he was locked into the attitude of their hearts toward one another, as believers in Christ.

So first (v22-24) he addresses the wife, admonishing her to “submit to your husbands”.  First off, it was quite unusual for such a “household code” to start by addressing the matriarch.  But, to Paul, it was hardly controversial that he admonished her to “submit to your husband”.  This is what he believed was the proper behavior of all believers in Christ to others in Christ.  He says “as the Church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

To the modern, perhaps feminist, ear, this is anathema.  But, Paul here isn’t asserting patriarchal privilege or authority.  He’s asserting an attitude of one believer with another of mutual submission, as we have, and will, see.

Next (v25) he addresses husbands.  To them he says: Ephesians 5:25-27

[25] Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, [26] that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, [27] so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

This doesn’t sound like patriarchal hegemony.  The husband is here implored to love his wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”.  So Paul’s prescription for the husband is self-sacrificial love for his wife, not some misogynistic dominance.  This behavior is symmetrical with and complimentary to the wife’s – mutual submission.

Paul goes on to an even more ethereal level to assert that the husband’s marriage relationship with his wife is simply a model – a type – of Christ’s relationship with His Church.  They’re two,  but they’re One, and should treat each other as if they are One.

Children and Parents

It must not have been culturally unusual for children to respect their parents in Paul’s world as he spends only three verses on their proper relationship within the family.  But, nonetheless, we today have much to re-learn from his prescriptions.  He says: Ephesians 6:1-4

[6:1] Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. [2] “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), [3] “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” [4] Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Paul doesn’t have to press this point, we assume, because this (unlike today) was the cultural norm.  But, no doubt he was mindful of the need for children to submit to the instruction of the Church (through their parents) in the nature of the life lived in Christ.  Children here to Paul are not second-class citizens of the Kingdom, but merely immature; less knowledgeable than their more senior elders, and so need to be given instruction.  Morally, and by every other measure, they are equal with all of the other members of the household of God.

Masters and Slaves

Perhaps more contentious than the image of husbands and wives in our modern culture is the setting of slaves and their masters.  What social construct could be more despicable to the modern observer than one person enslaved to another?  (Many passing judgement on this question have no awareness of the extent of modern-day slavery across the world.  From third world sex-slaves to simple involuntary servitude, slavery is a modern-day plague more so than it was in Paul’s time.  In Paul’s time, it was mostly a mutually beneficial arrangement of resolving debts or crimes.  Today it is almost exclusively an act of subjugation of one by the other.)

In his discussion of masters and slaves, Paul counsels slaves to “obey your earthly masters…as you would Christ”, saying: Eph 6:8

[8] knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.

Similarly, he counsels masters: Eph 6:9

[9] Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.

Paul here locates the slave master in the same position as his slave – subject to “their Master and yours”.  This is hardly the traditional message of patriarchal hegemony.

In other words, earthly standings of position or power or authority have no meaning and no effect in the Kingdom of God – in the Church.  This entire passage within Ephesians is an indictment of earthly, culturally conferred status.  It has no meaning; no reality.  The only thing that matters is one’s membership in and allegiance to Christ.

Paul provides a clarifying summary of this exposition on the mutuality of the Church in Rom 12:

 [5] so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Putting On the Armor of God

In wrapping up his message, Paul, mindful of his present circumstance in prison in Rome at the hands of Roman centurions, launches into one of his metaphors of preparing the believer for the spiritual and other battles he will find himself in, as military battles.  Paul uses the military metaphor here and in 2 Cor 10:3-4, and in 2 Tim 2:3-4 to emphasize the seriousness of the challenge.  The proclamation and the living out of the life in Christ is, and will be, a war.

The equipment of this war Paul here identifies as:


Paul’s apocalypse that he reveals to the Ephesian Church is reality-altering.  It is the testimony of a New Humanity[iv] that has been enabled by Christ and that operates under a new set of rules, obviating and obsoleting those established previously on earth.  Earthly personal status no longer has any meaning.  The only thing that matters is whether one is in Christ or not – a citizen of God’s Kingdom on earth, or not.  Those who are believers of and followers of Christ (i.e. disciples) are participants in the New Humanity, and their guidelines for behavior (as led by the Holy Spirit) are distinctly different than those who are not (the “world”).  Those who reject Christ remain in their old humanity and, in the absence of repentance, He leaves them alone to pursue their own self-destruction.

NT Wright has famously said:

“If Martin Luther and the other 16th century reformers had made Ephesians, rather than Galatians or Romans the center of their theological exposition, the whole course of Western history might have been different.”[v]

Indeed.  The view held by the reformers of the salvation of the individual as the preeminent concern of God has the effect of hiding from view the magnitude of the redemption and ultimate transformation of His entire Creation.  Many would-be Christians miss the Bible’s call to transformation and renewal and simply settle for the prospect of going to heaven when they die.  Yet this is the message Paul relates to the Ephesians and, just as importantly, what it means to their (and our) everyday lives and interrelationships. 

[i] Tim Mackie, in his teaching on “Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians”, offers a particularly powerful metaphor for this unity within Christ’s church that Paul envisions.  He observes that Aspen trees in a grove (that can sometimes extend over miles) have roots that all ultimately connect into the same root system.  One consequence of this is that each tree plant is a genetic clone of every other tree in that interconnected grove.  This metaphor works well in the sense that all members of the organic whole (i.e. the Church) have their life originating in the same ‘source’.

[ii] I realize Paul doesn’t use the term “Kingdom” here, but the rules and makeup of the community he’s describing is exactly that – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

[iii] It is tragically ironic that today many that profess to be appointed by God for the ministry have no clue that unity of the body was (and is) to be a top priority of their vocation, and so they don’t work for it.  Instead, they focus on and cajole their congregations to highlight their ‘differentness’; what their church does/believes that others don’t do/believe.  This is just the opposite of their commission.

[iv] In Ephesians 4:22 Paul implores his reader to “put off your old self(ESV)/man(KJV) and (v24) to “put on the new self(ESV)/man(KJV)”, using the term 444 ἄνθρωπον, (anthropon) with the generic sense of ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ in both verses.  For Paul, recognizing the profound differences in character between the old humanity before Christ and now the new, leads him to the conclusion that it is almost as if those who follow Christ are a completely new species of person; operating in a completely different reality than those who are unattached to Christ.

[v] Study Ephesians with N.T. Wright

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