In a recent sermon my pastor Joel Wayne said “Social media provides the illusion of companionship without the demands of a relationship.” He was making the point that many who are active in social media acknowledge deep loneliness. Joel contrasted this with encountering Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament in a community of faith. I came away wondering whether Pastor Joel’s comment about social media could be applied to what passes for community in many churches. Paul’s teaching in Ephesians about participation with Christ in authentic community speaks truth to this problem. In this post we briefly unpack Ephesians and link to an audio teaching on this key letter of Paul.
Thinking about Ephesians
Paul’s “Prison Letters”—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon—were likely written from Rome during the time of Paul’s house arrest portrayed in Acts 28. Of these letters, Ephesians and Colossians are most alike, emphasizing Christ as the head of the church which is his body. In Ephesians Paul’s paramount vision is that the entire universe and everything in it will ultimately be summed up in and under Christ (1:10, 20-23; 3:8-11; 4:10). That vision uniquely energizes Paul’s amazing prayers that the Ephesians will be enlightened to grasp all the riches and power entailed in their inheritance in Christ. Prayers of praise (1:3-14; 3:20) and intercession (1:15-23; 3:1, 14-19) are very much on Paul’s mind—the first three chapters of the letter are devoted to these prayers and digressions on themes mentioned in the prayers. Only when he is satisfied that he has adequately thanked God and prayed for his audience does Paul get around to the main body of his letter (Eph 4:1-6:20)—teaching the Ephesians how to live lives worthy of their high calling as people whom God has raised to new life in Christ in community with one another through the Spirit.
Borrowing the term from A. S. Peake (1865-1929), F. F. Bruce (1910-1990) spoke of Ephesians as “the quintessence of Paulinism” in his great book Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Current debates about Paul focus on the nature and place of justification in his thinking, but Ephesians does not speak directly about this great truth. If Bruce was right, and I think he was, justification, as profound and important as it is, is not at the heart of Paul’s theology. Rather, what has been called union or identification with Christ holds that distinction. A new book by Michael Gorman speaks of this as participation in Christ.
Anyone who reads Ephesians carefully notices that Paul frequently speaks of the believer’s identity as being in Christ (e.g. Eph 1:1, 3-4, 6-7, 13; 2:10, 13, 22) and of the believer as participating with Christ in his resurrection to new life and his current heavenly session (Eph 2:5-6). Paul elaborates on this theme of participation with Christ in several other letters, including Galatians 2:20; 6:14-15; Romans 6:4-13; and Colossians 2:10-15, 20; 3:1-4. The theme of participating with Christ is closely related to Paul’s teaching in Philippians 2:1-11 about mimicking the mindset of Christ, who left his heavenly glory, lived humbly on earth, died an excruciating death, and was exalted to God’s right hand, anticipating that eventually every knee would bow to him. Paul spoke of this in Ephesians 1:10 as nothing less than God summing up all things in heaven and on earth under Christ’s lordship.
Participating by faith in Christ’s resurrection and new life with other believers through the Spirit provides the dynamic for true community. According to Ephesians 4:1-6, believers live in a manner worthy of their calling when they live in humility and relate to one another in forbearing love. Their community is made possible by a seven-fold unity— one body of Christ, one Spirit who forms the body, one hope of one’s calling to follow Christ, one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith in Jesus, one baptism that testifies to that faith, and above all one God and Father who energizes it all. Humans cannot create true community, electronic or otherwise, on their own, but God’s work in Christ for humans created such a community. Believers are charged to maintain this community in response to the unifying work of the Spirit.
One way to evaluate whether our churches provide something better than the hollow shell that typically passes for community on social media is to ponder Paul’s metaphors for the church in Ephesians:
- Paul speaks of the church as a family when he speaks of participation with Christ as adoption into the family of God (Eph 1:5; 2:19; 3:14; 5:1).
- Paul also describes believers in Jesus as those who have all the blessings of citizenship as opposed to aliens who have no such rights and privileges (Eph 2:12, 19).
- Another Pauline metaphor or image of the church is of a temple built by Jesus. The “bricks” of this temple are people, Jews and Gentiles whose former enmity has been reconciled by Jesus’ blood (2:19-22).
- Additionally, Paul pictures the church as a body with Jesus as head and believers as members. The health of this body depends on the mutual contribution of each and every member (1:23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:4, 15-16).
- Finally, Paul uses military imagery to describe the struggle in which the church is engaged with defeated yet still active evil spiritual powers (6:10-18).
Reflection on these five metaphors suggests that participants with Christ in the community of the coming King have a sense of familial belonging and protection. Their status as citizens gives them hope that springs from the removal of alienation from God and from one other. Their unity as a holy temple speaks of mutual enjoyment of the presence of God in Christ, a biblical inclusiveness that transcends race, sex, and status. As a body they realize that each member has a contribution to make and they encourage each member to make that contribution. As an army, they take the enemy seriously and train themselves to use the superior armaments their King provides so that they may win the battle.
Summing it up. . .
Social media and those who participate in it may have worthy ideals and commendable goals. Yet social media at its best is as inadequate as other human attempts to create authentic community. Churches which fail to understand and implement Paul’s teaching in Ephesians will face similar difficulties. Being a part of the community of the King has nothing to do with how many followers we have on social media or how prominent we may be in a local congregation. Being a part of the community of the King involves believers shaping their lives by their common participation in Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, exaltation, session, and coming. This includes learning what it means to live with one another now as we will ultimately live when Jesus comes back to judge and rule the earth.
There are more than adequate resources for this lifestyle renovation—the Scriptures, the sacraments, the Holy Spirit, and the mutual encouragement of Christian brothers and sisters who are on the same path with us. These resources enable us to lay aside the vices we picked up from the world and to take on the virtues that marked the life and teaching of Jesus (Eph 4:22-5:21). Our households, a key marker in our relationship to fallen cultures, will also be transformed (Eph 5:22-6:9). Ultimately we will realize that Christ’s victory over evil spiritual powers means that we have the armament to handle anything Satan brings our way, if only we take it up and use it in the battle (Eph 6:10-20).
More on Ephesians
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to share an evening with the Gathering, the young adult ministry of our church, Chapel Pointe, in Hudsonville MI. My friend Andrew Honeycutt has been leading this group in a study through Ephesians. You can listen in to my talk by clicking on the player below. The handout notes for the talk are here.
I’ve learned a lot about Ephesians from my friend Tim Gombis. His book The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God, highlights the drama of Christ’s victory over evil powers and shows how participating in Christ’s victory is the dynamic behind Paul’s ethical teaching in Ephesians. This is a great read for anyone who wishes to delve more deeply into the quintessence of Paulinism.
Praying with Paul for the Ephesians (and ourselves)
For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:15-23 NIV)
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Eph 3:14-21 NIV)