The book of Ephesians is different than the other letters we have looked at in this series on Paul’s follow-up with the churches he planted. For instance, there are no problems that he is trying to correct nor questions that he is answering. Also, it is less personal than his other letters.
Ephesians: A Summary of the Gospel
F.F. Bruce writes:
It [Ephesians] sums up in large measure the leading themes of the Pauline writings, together with the central motif of Paul’s ministry as apostle to the Gentiles. But it does more than that: it carries the thought of earlier letters to a new stage.1F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT, Eerdmans, 1984, 229.
Clinton E. Arnold offers a statement of purpose for the letter:
Paul wrote this letter to a large network of local churches in Ephesus and the surrounding cities to affirm them in their new identity in Christ as a means of strengthening them in their ongoing struggle with the powers of darkness, to promote greater unity between Jews and Gentiles within and among the churches of the area, and to stimulate an ever-increasing transformation of their lifestyles into greater conformity to the purity and holiness that God has called them to display.2Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan, 2010, 45.italics original
Union with Christ
Union with Christ is one of the themes that Paul wrote about in previous letters that is prominent in Ephesians. In the absence of pressing problems, Paul wants them to understand that the gospel unites them to Christ in an extraordinary way. So, it takes center stage through the repetition of the phrase “in Christ,” especially in chapter one. Clinton Arnold writes about the use of the phrase in Ephesians 1:3-14:
. . . it is best to interpret it in the local sense to refer to the incorporation of believers in Christ. The resultant meaning is that God has blessed his people by virtue of their union with Christ. . . .
“In Christ” is the most important phrase of this passage and for the letter as a whole. Some form of it (“in him,” “in the beloved,” or “in the Christ”) punctuates this passage eleven times. The key for understanding this letter is recognizing that believers have a new identity in Christ. A new self-understanding based on a new reality permeates every aspect of life and transforms individuals.3Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan, 2010, 79.
In our follow-up with churches, we ought to emphasize this new identity in Christ expressed in the phrase “union with Christ.”
Union with Christ is Comprehensive
In one long sentence, Ephesians 1:3-14 praises God for the comprehensive blessings that we enjoy in Christ. Notably, these blessings span from before the foundation of the world (v.4) to the time when we acquire our inheritance (v. 14). These blessings include election (v.4), adoption (v. 5), redemption (v. 7), forgiveness (v. 7), inheritance (v. 11), and the promised Holy Spirit (v. 13). In fact, Paul maintains that every spiritual blessing in the spiritual realm is ours in Christ (v.3).
All these blessings are “to the praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6, cf. v. 12,14). Furthermore, these blessings in Christ make known to us God’s plan to unite all things (things in heaven and things on earth) in Christ (v. 9, 10). Also, union with Christ is spoken of in trinitarian terms as we see in Ephesians 2:22: “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Truly, our union with Christ is comprehensive!
Union with Christ is the Source of Hope
Our hope in Christ is guaranteed by the sealing of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:12-14). Because the recipients of this letter had believed the gospel, Paul prays that they might understand the glorious hope to which they have been called in Christ (Eph. 1:15-23). Not only is this hope sealed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, but Christ’s resurrection also strengthens our hope. Hope is further strengthened for those in Christ by his supremacy over all rule, authority, power, dominion, and every name in this age or the age to come (Eph. 1:20-21). Note, Christ is seated far above these competing powers. Reminding today’s churches of the hope they have been called to in Christ is an essential part of follow-up in these troubling times.
Union with Christ is the Source of New Life
Those united to Christ have been given new life in him (Eph. 2:5). Indeed, this new life in union with Christ includes being raised with him and being seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6,7). God creates new life in those united to Christ for good works (Eph. 2:10). Specifically, these good works were prepared beforehand reminding us that we were chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4). In the second half of the letter we see that this new life in Christ results in a change in lifestyle (Eph. 4:17-6:9). Interestingly, this change in lifestyle is part of “learning Christ” and pictured as “putting off the old self” and “putting on the new self” (Eph. 4:20-24).
Union with Christ is the Source of Unity
In Christ Jews and Gentiles have been brought together in the church (Eph. 2:11-3:6). The divide between Jews and Gentiles was probably greater than any other ethnic division. However, in Christ the hostility has been abolished. Through his blood he has made the two into one new man (Eph. 2:13-18). Specifically, Christ has made peace and “reconciled both to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:16). In Christ, Gentiles are no longer “strangers and aliens” but are now “fellow citizens,” “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), “fellow heirs,” “members of the same body,” “partakers of the promise” (Eph. 3:6). Hence, the key to unity in the church across ethnic lines flows out of our union with Christ.
We also see in Ephesians 4:1-16 that spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of unity. Attaining unity of the faith involves growing into Christ who is the head of the church. The goal of church ministry is that we all mature to the fullness of Christ. So, in a sense, church unity flows from our union with Christ and our collective union with Christ is the goal of church ministry. Clearly, understanding our union with Christ has far reaching implications for today’s churches.
Union with Christ is the Source of Victory
Christ was raised from the dead and seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20). Additionally, Paul specifies that Christ is “far above” all other powers (Eph. 1:21-22). We, also, are made alive, raised, and seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2:5,6). In our battle against the powers of darkness (Eph. 6:12) our union with Christ is our source of victory in the conflict.
So, Paul commands us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph. 6:10). The armor of God in Ephesians 6:13-18 is best understood in the context of Ephesians 1:3-23. That is, the emphasis on the “immeasurable greatness of his power toward us” and “the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph. 1:19,20). We engage the powers of darkness with the strength of our union with Christ.
The phrase “union with Christ” may not be familiar to you. Yet, it has a long history in Christian thought and is a theme that runs through Paul’s letters and the writings of the apostle John. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in this theme as central to our understanding of salvation. In One with Christ, Marcus Johnson writes:
The premise of this book is that the primary, central, and fundamental reality of salvation is our union with Jesus Christ, because of which union all the benefits of the Savior flow to us, and through which union all these benefits are to be understood.4Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation, Crossway, 2013, p. 28. See also J. Todd Billings’ Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, 2011. and Rankin Wilbourne’s Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God, 2016.
How can we practice Paul’s example of follow-up in the book of Ephesians? Remind today’s churches of the comprehensive nature of their new identity in union with Christ so that they see and experience that union as the source of hope, new life, unity, and victory over darkness.