Ephesians 1 in Plain Language
My wife, Breena, is in a Bible study at church on the book of Ephesians. The study material is written by a famous Calvinist, and Ephesians 1 is one of the key passages that Calvinists use to develop their doctrine of predestination/election. Neither of us are Calvinists, and so we interpret Ephesians 1 significantly differently from our brothers and sisters who believe that God has chosen before time began those who would be saved. Last week, I published a post in which I explained how I interpret Ephesians 1, but I got caught up in technical language, and didn’t produce an article that would be beneficial to most people. So I hope that this post will be something a bit more accessible.
Jesus and Abraham
Breena and I had a long conversation about Ephesians 1, and she found a couple of things very helpful. First of all, when New Testament authors talk about Christians being “chosen,” they aren’t inventing a new concept. The Jewish people were God’s chosen people. Christianity came out of Judaism, and almost all of the first Christians were Jewish. So when someone like Paul talked about being God’s chosen people, or how Christians are chosen in Christ, he was building on a long standing Jewish idea, using terms that were very familiar to him.
The Jews were God’s chosen people because they were the descendants of Abraham, the man that God uniquely chose to form a new nation that would bless all the nations of the earth. They weren’t chosen in the sense that God picked a bunch of individuals out of a crowd of humanity; rather, they inherited Abraham’s chosen-ness like a birthright. They were born into being chosen.
In the Old Testament, a person could have been chosen, but that didn’t mean they were saved.
This doesn’t mean, however, that every Hebrew person from the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus went to heaven when they died. In the Old Testament, a person could have been chosen, but that didn’t mean they were saved. They were a lot of Hebrew people who lived wickedly, worshiped idols, treated other people horribly, and never repented of it!
A good example is Ahab, king of Israel. His story begins in 1 Kings 16. As king, Ahab was considered the leader of the people, chosen and anointed by God. If such a thing was possible, he was even more “chosen” than the average Israelite. But the Bible says that Ahab “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.” He worshipped false gods, leading Israel deeper and deeper into idolatry. His heart was devoted to the false gods of his wife Jezebel, not the true God of Abraham, Moses, and David. As far as we know, Ahab never repented of his wickedness and idolatry, and he died on the battlefield in defiance of God.
Admittedly, I’m not Ahab’s judge, and I can’t possibly know who is saved and who is not. But if I were to cross through the pearly gates and be greeted by King Ahab, I would be very concerned that I was in the wrong place. All the biblical evidence points toward Ahab’s condemnation, not his salvation. And yet, he was a Hebrew king, descended from Abraham, and the leader of God’s chosen people. Ahab was chosen, but he was not saved. He was one of many faithless members of God’s chosen people.
Paul was Jewish, and so he had a rich understanding of how complicated it was to be part of God’s chosen people. He knew as well as anyone that the chosen people were all too often a faithless people. Being descended from Abraham didn’t hold any guarantees for a person’s eternity. Salvation required a blood stronger than Abraham’s.
Salvation required a blood stronger than Abraham’s.
This is where Jesus so powerfully enters the scene. He kicked open the doors of God’s family, redefining what it means to be a part of God’s chosen people. Because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, God’s chosen people wasn’t defined by Abraham’s blood anymore; it was defined by the blood of Jesus. It no longer matters if you can trace your heritage back to Abraham. All that counts is if you have faith in Jesus Christ.
What God started in Abraham, he finished in Jesus. Everything get’s refocused in Jesus. Before he came, there were many faithless members of God’s chosen people. But after his death and resurrection, that category doesn’t even make sense anymore. You can’t get into God’s family unless you have faith! Let me try to visualize this change for you:
Israel = Chosen through birth in the blood of Abraham
The Church = Chosen through faith in the blood of Jesus
In Jesus, God has torn down the boundaries of his family. You don’t have to have a specific heritage anymore. You don’t have to bear a claim to “chosen-ness.” You can be a lowdown, dirty, scum of the earth kind of person and still get in the door. The specifics of your birth can’t keep you out of God’s family. Neither can any of the selfish and sinful things you’ve done, spoken, or thought. Not everyone has the blood of Abraham flowing through their veins, but anyone can have faith that Jesus’s blood has washed away their sins.
Us and You
The other thing that stood out from my conversation with Breena is the need to pay attention to the pronouns of Ephesians 1. In the first 12 verses, Paul consistently uses the pronouns “we” and “us.” But to whom is he referring? Are these inclusive pronouns, meaning that he is referring to both himself and his readers? Or are they exclusive pronouns, meaning that he is referring to himself and his missionary team, or possibly to other Jewish believers like him?
It’s difficult to say for sure, and it could be that sometimes he’s being inclusive, and other times he’s being exclusive. But there is one surprising turn of pronoun in verse 13, where he writes, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” All of a sudden, practically mid-sentence, Paul switches his pronouns from us to you. Now, in verse 13, he’s directly addressing the Ephesian Christians, many of whom were Gentile believers. Why would Paul feel the need to say to the Ephesian Christians, “and you’re included, too,” when he’s been talking about us being chosen the whole time?
In fact, he doesn’t even use the word “included.” That’s just an insertion in the NIV for the purpose of clarity. All he actually says is that the Ephesians were also sealed with the Holy Spirit when they heard the Gospel and believed. He doesn’t say they were chosen. He doesn’t say they were predestined. He simply says they were sealed.
Compare this to what he says about “us” in verses 11 and 12: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”
Paul is clearly talking about a specific group of people in verses 11 and 12 – those who were the first to put their hope in Christ. And who was that? The Jewish followers of Jesus. It’s pretty clear that, in verses 11 and 12 at least, Paul is talking about Jewish Christians, and in verses 13 and 14 he is talking about Gentile Christians. The Jewish Christians were chosen and predestined, but the Gentile Christians were sealed – sealed with the Holy Spirit because they believed.
God didn’t choose Paul for salvation; he chose Paul to tell the message of salvation.
God had a specific calling and purpose for Paul and other Jewish believers like him: to reveal the mystery of God’s salvation to the Gentiles. God didn’t choose Paul for salvation; he chose Paul to tell the message of salvation. Paul was predestined for the task of taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The Gentiles weren’t chosen in the same way that Paul was. Instead, they (and by extension, most of us today) were the beneficiaries of Paul’s predestination to Gospel mission in Gentile nations.
Ephesians 1 is a beautiful passage about the plan of God unfolding over time, and that it was now (through Paul and the other apostles) being revealed not only to Jewish people, but to the whole world. What God had begun when he chose Abraham, he had now fulfilled in Jesus. And it was Paul’s job to tell the world that God’s plan to bless the nations had gone into full effect! And the Ephesian Christians – most of whom would have been Gentiles – were the proof of this because they had received the Holy Spirit.
So, are you chosen by God? Not in the sense that you probably think. God has actually done something much better for those who have believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ: he has sealed us with his Holy Spirit. That’s right, it’s better to be sealed than to be chosen. After all, Ahab was chosen, but he was also condemned. We learn from Jewish history that being chosen isn’t a promise of salvation; but we see in Ephesians 1 that being sealed with the Holy Spirit is the divine guarantee that we will inherit the eternal and infinite blessings of being a part of God’s family. To put it in plain language, the promise of our salvation isn’t found in being picked out of a crowd, it’s in being given the Holy Spirit when we believed the Gospel.