Musing on Christ’s Preeminence

One of my favorite New-Testament passages is Colossians 1:15-20. In this section of the letter, Paul emphasizes the place Christ has within God’s plan. My friend asked me a question about the phrase “that in all things, He [Jesus] might have the preeminence.” Some translations use the phrase “first place” to describe the position of Christ in this section. The question boils down to this: should Christ just be the first place in a list of many other priorities? or does this passage seem to indicate something else?

The only other time this word “preeminence” is used in the New Testament is in the third letter of John. There, Diotrephes apparently refused to accept some letters from John and did not recognize John’s apostolic authority. On top of all this, he refused to “welcome the brothers” and excommunicates those who would accept them. This man was verbally abusive against John and his cohort. The primary description that John uses for this man is that he “likes to put himself first” which is sometimes translated “loves the first place.”

Diotrephes was consumed with himself. The only priority he had was making himself prominent in the church to which he ministered.

In contrast, what Paul argues is that Christ is the all consuming focus of the Christian. Since God made Christ the central focus of His plan to reconcile all things to Himself it stands to reason that Christians would do well to make God’s priorities their own. So, instead of Christ being the first of many priorities, Christ actually provides the foundation for all other priorities. The question I can ask myself related to this are:

  • How does a priority in my life fit with God’s priority?
  • How do my priorities find their resolution in Christ?
  • Do I conduct my life consistent to what God has revealed about Jesus?

I pray that I make Jesus my focus or the lens through which I filter every aspect of my life in contrast to seeing Jesus as only one part of it.

Ephesians 4:32

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

While many pastors focus on the imperative to “be kind” and its attendant “forgiveness”, often overlooked is that the ultimate motivation for us to forgive other fallible human beings lies in the forgiveness that we ourselves received from God.

Forgiveness is not not found necessarily in words, but is demonstrated. Love for fallen human beings motivated God to forgive us through the work of Christ (Ephesians 4:4-6).  While much can be said about God’s forgiveness, our forgiveness of one another for things mundane or critical should be motivated by that same thing which motivated God: Love!

The apostle Paul used a term that is often translated “tenderhearted” to describe the compassion of a person as he or she looks at the plight of another. That strong, intense focus on the one who wronged us should move our focus to how we have wronged God and yet he still forgave us.

Forgiving others is not our first thought when we are wronged. It is not natural for us to forgive. In fact, it is impossible to forgive another human being in the same way that God forgave us unless we forgive in Christ. It is Christ’s redemption work that provides the foundation for us to forgive one another.

Therefore, since God forgave us much we are able to forgive others much for their inconsistencies, failed promises, and pain they caused us (and hopefully others will forgive us for our own failures as well.)

The Sealing Ministry of the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 1:13,14

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Classical usage of the term σφραγίζω (to seal) essentially means to identify a belonging with its owner. ((Hoehner, 238)) In this sense a seal would be a mark denoting ownership of a particular object or thing. Previously in this passage, God has chosen a group of people and has predestined them for adoption. God’s mark of ownership of these people is the Holy Spirit ((Hoehner notes that many identify the Spirit’s act of sealing with baptism. He notes that this is a confusion of the ministries. Baptism refers to placing a believer in the body of Christ while sealing refers to God’s mark of ownership of a person.)). A second aspect of sealing is that of protection. Owners who mark their property will seek to protect what is theirs. O’Brien relates the relationship of the sealing of the Spirit with the promise of full possession of the inheritance: “by giving Gentile believers the Spirit, God ‘seals’ or stamps them as his own now, and he will be protect [sic] them through the trials and testings of this life until he takes final possession of them on ‘the day of redemption’” ((Peter T. O’Brien. The Letter to the Ephesians.(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1999), 120.))

How does one receive the seal of the Spirit? The seal is not given because of some act done by a believer. Walvoord notes that the act of sealing is entirely accomplished by God. It is never commanded or set as a goal for believers to reach ((John Walvoord, 157)). However, the passage states that when the Ephesians heard the truth of the gospel and believed, they were sealed. The relationship between belief and sealing is not antecedent. The sealing occurs at the same time as belief and not some time after ((O’Brien, 119)).

Paul uses legal terminology to describe the relationship of the Holy Spirit to a believer. He is said to be the ‘guarantee’ of the believers inheritance. The term ἀρραβών (ernest [kjv]) is a Hebrew transliteration which literally means “an advance transaction that guarantees the validity of a contract or a full purchase price down payment, first installment, pledge” ((Timothy Friberg, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, 75)) As Grudem describes it, “When God gave us the Holy Spirit within, he committed himself to give all the further blessings of eternal life and a great reward in heaven with him.” ((Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 791.)) The Holy Spirit is only part of God’s inheritance to believers. Romans gives a broader look at this picture by showing that believers have the firstfruits of the Spirit and eagerly await for the final stage of salvation: the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23). This is the inheritance of which the Holy Spirit is the first down payment ((Millard J. Erikson. Christian Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 1010.)).

While the believer is sealed by the Spirit and marked out as God’s possession, believers can also grieve that same Spirit (4:30). The imperative found in this verse give ample motivation for the preceding and following imperatives (“Let the thief no longer steal…[4:28]” , “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths…[4:29]” , “Let all bitterness… be put away from you [4:31]” , “Be kind … [4:32]” , “Be imitators of God [5:1]” , “walk in love [5:2]”). This reference to irritating the Holy Spirit by these acts can possibly be traced back to Isaiah 63. Israel had rebelled and grieved the Holy Spirit in spite of all the blessings they had received ((God bringing up the children of Israel from Egypt comes to mind. Isaiah in 1-6 recounts that God desired to help, but no one available.)). It might be said that “Paul issues a warning to this new community [the church] not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, ‘as Israel had done’ in the wilderness (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-11), the more so since they have been sealed by that same Holy Spirit until the day of redemption (4:30) ((O’Brien, 347)).

The last phrase in 4:30, “by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” might suggest purpose, but a reference to time might be more in view ((Hoehner, 632. )). The two are closely related. Certainly a purpose of the day of redemption includes a time principle. However, Hoehner suggests that two phases of redemption exist. One is the day “that sets believers free from sin” and a second that “occurs in the eschatological future when Christ comes for the saints, setting believers free from the presence of sin.” ((Ibid.)) Whenever the day of redemption is to occur, believers have been sealed and will experience the fullness of God’s intention for them.

The Mystery of Ephesians

Note: These are just some thought as I have been studying the book of Ephesians. I may decide to release part a part two to follow up.

The term μυστήριον (musterion – mystery) occurs six times in the letter to the Ephesians. In new testament literature it refers to the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11), the resurrection / rapture (I Corinthians 15:51) and the incarnation (I Timothy 3:16). Both Colossians and Ephesians use the term in relationship to the Church and particularly to the act which brings the church into existence: reconciliation. This post seeks to examine the content of the μυστήριον in Ephesians and how it relates practically to a believers life ((Author’s Note: I will finish this in a part two)).

The basic meaning of the word μυστήριον describes Greco-Roman secret rites or teachings especially in the religious realm. There was a certain reluctance to divulge these secretes in historic times ((BDAG, 661.)). Some commentators suggest the term was borrowed from these ancient mysteries and given a Christian twist. While heathen mysteries were guarded closely and never revealed, the mystery of Christ is freely divulged to all people ((T.K. Abbott. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians and Colossians., 15)) . Others note, however, that there is no need to assume that Paul had “the heathen mysteries in his mind when he used the word.” ((Ibid.)) It is therefore necessary to examine Paul’s usage in Ephesians to determine the meaning in this aspect.

The first use of the word in 1:9 is that the mystery concerns God’s will and what the Father has planned to accomplish. This plan was conceived before the creation of the world (1:4) and contains His plan to bring all things into their proper place. Fulfillment of this plan ultimately takes place in the fullness of time ((Harold Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. (Grand Rapids :Baker Academic, 2002), 219. Literally the phrase is plural (“the fullness of the times”). As Hoeher notes, the only other time that this plural phrase is used is in Luke 21:24 where it refers to the fullness of the times of the gentiles when Messiah would rule the earth. Paul presents in 1:11 what this Messianic rule will look like.)) .

The second use in 3:3 and 3:4 describes this mystery as one that can only be made known by direct revelation of God. God revealed this mystery to Paul, the human agent. Paul wrote about the mystery previously in a few words ((Ernest Best. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians. (Scotland : T & T Clark Edinburgh, 1998), 302. An alternate view is common relating to the meaning. These view the meaning here Paul (or whoever the author might have been) had previously written another letter to the Ephesians, possibly Galatians or Colossians. A major difficulty about this view is that Paul could not have been sure that the Ephesians had already received these letters. Also, the context and the meaning of the word does not force one to look outside the current correspondence.)) about the admission of the gentiles into the new body called the church (1:9; 2:11). The genitive τοῦ χριστοῦ if taken objectively would indicate that the mystery is about Christ ((Hoehner, 437.)) . Abbott notes that others have taken it as an appositive or an identification of this mystery with reference to Colossians 1:27 ((Abbott, 80.)).  However, there is a major difference between them: Ephesians is “the mystery of Christ” while Colossians is “the mystery is Christ in you.” It seems proper to understand that the mystery is about what God is doing through Christ and has now been made known to believers through Paul.

The content of the mystery in Ephesians is that the Father has united two groups of people into one. The will or plan of God has already been mentioned in 1:10: to unite all things in Him. Chapter two describes the what this uniting entails. Prior to the believers salvation, their former lifestyle was thoroughly flesh oriented (2:1-3). However, God provided the opportunity for salvation by faith (2:4-10). Paul points out that two groups exist. The distinction between these two groups is that one was near and one was a far off (2:11,12) ((Those who are near and far are separated by the “middle wall of partition”. Christ abolished this wall in his flesh. The identification of this wall is the Mosaic law with its commandments and ordinances. Those who were given the Mosaic law are those who are “near” and those who are outside of the nation of Israel (gentiles) are those who are “far”)). The resulting third group of people who have brought near are identified as “living stones” who are forming a temple as a dwelling place of God (2:19,21).

The final two references to this mystery are practical applications flowing from the understanding of God’s plan. The latter part of chapter 5 deals with the responsibilities of the husband / wife relationship to properly reflect the relationship of Christ and His church. The point of the marriage relationship to the mystery of which Paul speaks is that the two people (husband and wife) become one new person in marriage. Verse 33 is the summation of the responsibilities: the husband must love his wife as Christ loved his church and the wife is to submit to the husband and the church is to be under the authority of Christ.

Paul’s final request is that the believers would pray that God would give him opportunity to declare the mystery which has already been discussed (6:19).