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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Ephesians, commentary 4, via Uwe Rosenkranz

Ephesians 4:1–16
Christian Unity and a Life Worthy of God’s Call
Chapter 4 begins a distinct section in Ephesians. It is quite common to treat chapters 1–3 as doctrinal and chapters 4–6 as moral instruction (paraenesis). This distinction is sometimes characterized as the difference between indicative (chs. 1–3) and imperative (chs. 4–6). As will be clear, this distinction is not absolute. There are several significant passages in Eph 4–6 (e.g., 4:4–6, 21–22) with doctrinal material, and several imperative demands are laid on the Ephesians in chapters 1–3 (e.g., 2:10–11; 3:13). In addition, as noted below, the connections between Eph 3 and 4 are much closer than many commentators grant. There are far more continuities between chapters 3 and 4 than differences. Nevertheless, this distinction can serve as a useful rule of thumb to see one of the central formal divisions in Ephesians.
At various points in time, scholars have treated what is clearly a formal distinction as a conceptual and theological distinction that needed to be explained. At a general level this distinction generates questions about how Paul relates doctrine and ethics. These questions take on a special urgency if one holds a particular theology of grace that vigilantly tries to rule out any apparent admonitions to do particular works in order to “earn” one’s salvation. Alternatively, if one takes Ephesians to have a fully or nearly fully realized eschatology, then moral admonition and exhortation seem superfluous.
Without determining this question for all Pauline texts, it seems fairly clear that in Ephesians the early parts of the epistle function to construct and to help the Ephesians to construct a particular identity as believers. Among other things, this requires an understanding of the end toward which God is moving all things (e.g., 1:10, 18–23); it requires an account of God’s action in Christ as it relates to both the Ephesians and the cosmos (1:4–14); it requires an account of the Ephesians’ alienation from God and how God works to overcome that alienation (2:1–10); and it calls the Ephesians to learn to think of themselves as Gentiles, in a particular relationship to Israel both before and after Christ (2:11–22; 3:1–13). In this light, having offered an account of the Ephesians’ identity in Christ, it is certainly logical to assume that identity entails actions. It is unproblematic to assume that having identified an object as a watch, one naturally expects that watch to perform certain tasks (such as keeping time); likewise, it is equally unproblematic to assume that having identified the Ephesians as the saints and faithful ones in Christ Jesus (1:1), Paul goes on to explicate the actions appropriate to that identity. Of course, both the articulation of the Ephesians’ identity in Christ and the actions appropriate to that identity are much more complex and contested matters than the identity and actions of a watch. The point is that there is no inherent problem in assuming that a specific identity entails certain actions.
Formally, 4:1–16 breaks into two sections. Verses 1–6 begin the exhortation and focus on unity. Verses 7–16 build on this, asserting that this unity is maintained and enhanced by the exercise of diverse gifts. This section of the epistle is introduced by means of an almost formulaic phrase, “I exhort you therefore …” Very similar language also appears in Rom 12:1 and 1 Thess 4:1 to introduce paraenetic sections of the letters. As usual, commentators often point to either similarities or differences between Ephesians and the other Paulines with authorship issues in mind. If authorship were not at stake here, I suspect most would not be bothered by any stylistic differences or variations between these epistles.
It is clear that in Eph 4 Paul begins moving in a new direction. Yet it is also important to identify some lines of continuity between chapter 3 and chapter 4. For example, chapter 4 begins with Paul, “a prisoner in the Lord,” urging the Ephesians to “walk in a manner worthy of your calling.” This calling is a call to unity, but is also tied to the diverse gifts God has given the church for the proper conduct of its life and mission. In chapter 3 Paul, “the prisoner of Christ,” gives an account of the gracious gift that God has given him to preach to the Gentiles and how he has conducted himself in the light of that gift. Hence, while some scholars note that in Ephesians Paul uses the Greek word charis to refer to these gifts rather than charismata, as in Rom 12 and 1 Cor 12, they neglect to point out that it is precisely the word charis that Paul uses in Eph 3:2, 7 to speak of God’s gift. Thus, in both chapters 3 and 4, Paul is concerned to discuss God’s gracious call to him and to other believers. Whether one uses the language of revelation, as in chapter 3, or calling, as in chapter 4, it is clear that the initiative behind both lies with God. The revelation or the call comes from outside believers; it is not generated by believers. Both revelation and call, however, require particular forms of life and action from believers. Large portions of chapters 3 and 4 are devoted to articulating more precisely the nature and shape of those forms of life and action. Seen in this light, the transition between chapters 3 and 4 is not the transition from doctrine to ethics. Rather, it is the transition from Paul’s reflection on his own calling and how he views the world and conducts himself in the light of that call—to Paul’s reflection on God’s call to the Ephesians and how they should see the world and conduct themselves in the light of that call. Thus, much in chapter 4 depends on the work Paul does in 3:1–13 to establish himself as a faithful interpreter of the grace of God, so that what he has done in respect to his own life, he can now offer to the Ephesians with respect to their lives.
Because this section of Ephesians begins to offer concrete moral prescriptions, it is tempting to infer from Paul’s particular admonitions that he is addressing distinct flaws in the life of the Ephesian congregation. John Barclay has nicely identified this scholarly practice as “mirror-reading.” There are some cases when such inferential moves can be justified, but they are few and far between. For the most part, we should avoid the assumption that Paul’s stress on unity, as in 4:1–6, indicates that there was a particular fractiousness in the Ephesian church.

4:1 I, a prisoner in the Lord, exhort you, therefore, to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have indeed been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 zealous to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called in one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
7 But to each of us he gave grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 Therefore, it says, “When he ascended on high, he captured the captives, and he gave gifts to humans.” 9 What is the meaning of “he ascended” except that he also descendedg to the lower parts of the earth? 10 The one who descended is indeed the one who also ascended high above all the heavens so that he might fill all things. 11 It was he who gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers, 12 for bringing the saints to completion, for the work of service, and for the building up of the body of Christ, 13 until we all come to the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to the complete person, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. 14 We must no longer be like children, being tossed about by the waves, carried this way and that way by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by trickery and erroneous scheming. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we must grow up together in all things into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the entire body is joined and knit together by every supporting connectionl according to the activity appropriate to each part.

[1–6] Paul begins by reminding the Ephesians that he is a prisoner for Christ’s sake. This is not to evoke pity from the Ephesians. It is rather a bold way to begin an authoritative exhortation. Prisoners are not normally in a position to make demands. Within the logic of the gospel, however, Paul’s authority is sharpened because of his tribulations on behalf of Christ.
Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians is that they walk in a manner worthy of their calling. The use of the term “to walk” to characterize a way of life already appeared in 2:2, to refer to the Ephesians’ moribund way of life outside of Christ. In 2:10 it is used to speak of the manner of life that God has prepared for believers, further connecting chapters 1–3 and 4–6. Here in chapter 4 the initial admonition to the Ephesians is to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” The standard to which the Ephesians’ common life should conform is the “calling with which they have been called.” This calling is first mentioned in 1:18, but it is really in 2:1–10 and 11–22 where the shape of this calling is developed. Recall that in chapter 2 the Ephesians learn of their deathly state in God’s purview and outside of Christ, yet also of how God has graciously delivered them from death into life in Christ so that they may walk in the good works that God has prepared for them. Hence, Paul is not setting some new standard for them. Rather, he is reminding them of what God has already done on their behalf. The use of the relative clause “with which you have been called” helps further refine the nature of the Ephesians’ calling. This is not a call they have generated themselves. Rather, God has initiated the call. Moreover, we should not infer from this admonition that the Ephesians are inclined to walk in any other way.
The idea of walking worthily (cf. Phil 1:27; 1 Thess 2:12) always entails acts of judgment. Although Paul will give more direct and concrete prescriptions to the Ephesians in the following verses and chapters, the task of walking worthily always entails the act of seeing the fit between one’s actions or possible actions and some set standard. To do this, the Ephesians, and all other believers, will need to develop a set of habits and dispositions. Cultivating such habits and dispositions will enable the Ephesians to perceive themselves, their world, and the standard to which they aspire, thus to walk worthily in a manner that will lead them to recognize some actions as fitting or conforming to the standard and others as not conforming. Some of the habits and dispositions the Ephesians will need to cultivate in order to walk worthily are mentioned in the next verse.
In v. 2 Paul introduces two sets of characteristics needed to walk worthily. Each is introduced with the preposition meta (with). First, Paul notes that walking worthily must be done “with all humility and gentleness.” The Ephesians’ pagan neighbors would not have considered “humility” a virtue. Epictetus (Diatr. 1.9.10; 3.24.56) lists it as a characteristic to avoid. For pagans, the word connoted a vile servility (see Josephus, J.W. 4.9.2). In the NT. when humility is commended as a virtue, it entails rightly recognizing one’s status before God. Concomitantly, this will also lead one to situate oneself rightly relative to others. For example, in Acts 20:19 Paul indicates to the Ephesian elders that he has served the Lord with “humility” throughout Asia. In Col 2:18, 23 “humility” is also used to refer to a negative trait. Whatever practices might be in view in Colossians, it is clear that this sort of “humility” refers to badly or wrongly situating oneself relative to God. Paul contrasts this with the appropriate humility that he urges the Colossians to “put on” in 3:12. In Phil 2:3 “humility” is contrasted with seeking selfish advantages. Rather, humility lies in considering others better than oneself and seeking their interests rather than one’s own. As Phil 2:6–8 goes on to declare, this is precisely the disposition displayed by Christ. In Philippians, moreover, Paul treats humility as an essential virtue in maintaining the unity of the congregation (cf. 2:1–4). This is also a matter of some importance in this part of Ephesians.
In the NT “gentleness” is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). Paul asks the Corinthians if they want him to come with a stick to beat them or with a “spirit of gentleness” (1 Cor 4:21). The context of 1 Cor 4 makes it clear that a spirit of gentleness is compatible with displays of God’s power and the strength to offer correction. Indeed, this would also fit Jesus, who is described in Matt 11:29 as “gentle and humble in heart”; and Moses, who is described in the LXX of Num 12:3 as “exceedingly gentle,” yet able to display God’s power and to take corrective action against the Israelites.
A second use of the preposition meta (with) introduces another disposition needed to walk worthily. This is patience. Again, Gal 5:22 identifies patience as one of the fruits of the Spirit. In the OT this term is often used to describe God’s practice of enduring human sinfulness with mercy (Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; LXX: Pss 85:15; 102:8; 144:8 [Eng.: 86:15; 103:8; 145:8]). In these cases the word is often combined with “mercy” and “compassion” as descriptions of God’s character. In 1 Cor 13:4 Paul says that patience is one of the characteristics of agapē. In 1 Thess 5:14 and 2 Tim 4:2 it is a prerequisite for the common life of the church.
In v. 2 Paul further describes patience in terms of “bearing with one another in love.” Often the idea of bearing with someone means enduring their failures. Jesus asks regarding those seeking a sign from him, “How long shall I bear with you?” (Matt 17:17 ASV par.). Paul uses it in 2 Cor 11:1, 4, 19, 20 in a similar way. The term is also employed to speak of Job’s endurance (Job 6:11, 26 LXX). With the same word Paul speaks of enduring persecution in 1 Cor 4:12 and 2 Thess 1:4. All of these uses can give the impression of passive, grudging, almost fatalistic endurance. Here, however, Paul tells the Ephesians to bear one another in love. This can hardly be passive or fatalistic. Rather, it must entail both action and hope.
The call to forebear one another in love assumes several significant things about the life Christians share with each other. First, the notion of forbearance (as in all the examples above) presumes failure. Thus, for Christians to bear one another in love recognizes that Christians will sin against each other and fail one another from time to time. Such failures must be borne in love. This cannot mean either a grudging acceptance of sin and failure or a willed indifference to one another’s sin and failure (Thomas Aq. 152). Love cannot abide either of these ways of glossing the truth. Hence, the call to bear with one another in love is implicitly a call to practice truthful confession; asking for and receiving forgiveness in the same manner in which God forgives; and creative and transformative acts of repentance.
Further, the first three of the dispositions listed in vv. 1–2 are relational in that they concern how one understands and lives with oneself and others in God. One cannot display these dispositions in the absence of others. The addition of “one another” to the command to forebear makes it clear that all of these dispositions are directed not simply to isolated individuals within the congregation. They are dispositions constitutive of the common life of a congregation walking worthily of the calling with which they have been called. It should be clear now, if it was not before, that Paul is not so much interested in personal piety here as in the common life of Christian communities.
Finally, the idea that believers are to bear with one another in love recognizes that believers in Ephesus (as well as believers today) were not all in the same place on the path to ever deeper friendship with God and each other. The body of Christ is composed of people who have varying measures of maturity in their faith, varying experiences of God’s love, and differing temperaments in worship. Within the single body of Christ, there are diverse members. Homogeneity is not and should not be one of the marks of Christ’s body. The body of Christ is appropriately diverse and yet also harmonious in its composition. Thus, bearing with one another in love does not mean that all things are acceptable in all times and places. It does, however, mean that within this diverse body, believers need to be able to bump up against very different sorts of people, equally committed to the faith, whose differences are to be borne in love.
In this light, it is not that surprising that in v. 3 Paul admonishes the Ephesians to do all they can to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It appears that the clear emphasis on the “one Spirit” in v. 4 indicates that the Spirit in v. 3 is also the Holy Spirit and not the spirit of the Ephesian congregation (Best, Ephesians 365; Hoehner 512; Lincoln, Ephesians 237). The use of the verb “maintain” reminds the Ephesians and contemporary Christians that the unity of the Spirit is already given, not created by humans. That is, unity is a gift given by the Spirit already and not some subsequent achievement of believers. Alternatively, however, this admonition might imply that believers could somehow break the unity of the Spirit. If unity is given by the Spirit and premised on the unity of the Godhead (cf. vv. 4–6), then God might withdraw the unity of the Spirit in judgment against the church. In some sense humans might damage or deform this unity, but they cannot destroy it.
At the same time, the admonition to maintain the unity of the Spirit “in the bond of peace” seems to imply that the unity given by the Spirit must be demonstrated visibly. The term translated here as “bond” is used to refer to various types of fasteners. It also has a wide metaphorical usage covering the unity of a citizenry that keeps a state together (Plato, Resp. 7.5.520a), the bond between children and parents (Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 9.12.7), and “the bonds of injustice” (Isa 58:6, 9). In each of these cases the metaphorical sense of “bond” indicates that which holds individuals together (for better or worse). In Ephesians, then, peace is that which binds believers together as the visible manifestation of the Spirit’s unity. The peace that Paul speaks of here is the peace that comes from lives properly related to God, to creation, and to each other.
This admonition raises serious questions for contemporary Christians within divided churches. First, in the face of the Spirit’s already-delivered gift of unity, Christian division simply is a contradiction of the Spirit’s unity (Root 106–7). Division does not so much destroy unity as mock unity, thereby bringing the name of the Lord into disrepute among nonbelievers (cf. Ezek 36:20–22; Rom 2:24). Church division must count as one of the primary examples of “grieving the Spirit” (cf. Eph 4:30). Christian division must also be seen as God’s judgment on believers’ desire to live separated lives. That is, Christian division is one of those examples of God’s judgment where God gives people precisely what they ask for (cf. 1 Sam 8). Finally, Paul’s admonition to be zealous to maintain the unity of the Spirit reminds believers that, for the most part, they are indifferent to the divisions within Christ’s body. Believers in the United States have largely blunted the sting of division. As Ephraim Radner (ch. 4) declares, in a divided church the Eucharist should taste bitter in our mouths. All too often this is not the case.
Verses 4–6 are a dense and concise explication of the bases for the dispositions and the unity advocated in 4:1–3. These verses are not directly admonitions in themselves. Rather, they are part of the rationale for those admonitions. These verses also provide the bases from which Paul will discuss the diversity of gifts within the life of the congregation.
The shift in style leads some scholars to argue that Paul is drawing on (or quoting from) an early Christian hymn (Barth 429), a creed or confession (Wengst 141), or liturgical material (Schnackenburg 160–61), or from parts of various different creedal or liturgical material (Lincoln, Ephesians 228–29). This may or may not be the case. Further, without a great deal more information, it is not clear how any of these speculations should shape the way one should read the text as it now stands.
The assertion that there is one body has already appeared in 2:16. There it reflects the idea that in the body of Christ, Jew and Gentile have been reconciled to God and to each other. The two groups are made into one. Thus 2:16 focuses on the act of making the two into one. Here in 4:4 the focus is on the singularity of the body. The singularity of the Spirit mentioned in the next clause is what one would expect in light of the emphasis on the unity of the Spirit in v. 3. The subsequent clause, “just as you have been called in one hope of your calling,” has already appeared as part of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:18. There Paul prays that the Spirit of wisdom will reveal to the Ephesians the hope of God’s calling. That calling is directly related to God’s choosing of believers to participate in the drama of redemption so that believers would be brought to their proper end of standing holy and blameless before God (1:4). This is the substance of Christian hope. Because that drama has yet to be completed, because all things have yet to come under Christ’s lordship, hope also is the appropriate disposition of the faithful. It is hope that God’s call will ultimately be consummated. The basis of this hope is not the inner emotions of believers; rather, it rests on the faithfulness of God to bring the good work that God started in believers to completion on the day of Christ (Phil 1:6). Here in Eph 4:4 Paul emphasizes the singularity of that hope. Presumably those sharing a common hope will act in concert as together they are drawn toward their ultimate end in God (Thomas Aq. 154). A single hope will thus help maintain the bond of peace.
Verse 5 continues in this vein by asserting that there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Baptism here presumes the confession of faith that Jesus is Lord (cf. Acts 8:16; 19:5; Rom 10:9). Indeed, baptism is the act in which believers are joined with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:1–11). Moreover, as Gal 3:27–28 indicates, a common baptism is capable of breaking down divisive barriers between Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women (cf. also 1 Cor 12:12). Thus the one baptism serves to unite believers with their Lord and to found their unity with each other.
In this light, it is likely that the mention of one faith has some connection to the baptismal confession “Jesus is Lord.” Earlier Paul had already mentioned the Ephesians’ “faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:15). It is most likely that the faith mentioned here in 4:5 is primarily a reference to the content of a profession of faith (e.g., Rom 10:9) rather than a common subjective attitude of trust (with Lincoln, Ephesians 241; Best, Ephesians 369; against Hoehner 516; Muddiman 184). Although one should be careful of drawing too sharp a distinction between an attitude of belief and the subject matter of that belief, in this particular instance the singularity of faith could really only be manifested in the content of a common confession.
This verse begins with the assertion that there is one Lord. The term “Lord” is a reference to Christ (cf. 1:15; 1 Cor 12:3; Rom 10:9). Jesus is shown to be Lord most decisively in his resurrection and exaltation (1 Cor 8:6; Phil 2:9–11). The Greek word translated here and throughout the NT as “Lord” is kyrios. This is the word used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew four-letter name for God: YHWH. It appears that the very earliest Jewish Christians applied this title to Christ, boldly drawing Christ into the identity of the one God of Israel.
In 4:5–6 it is particularly striking that Paul asserts that there is only one Lord and that there is one God and Father of all. In just a few words Paul lays out the set of assertions that provide the conceptual tensions driving later Trinitarian reflection. The God of Israel, the God and Father of all, is one. Paul’s assertion about the one Lord includes Jesus within the identity of the God of Israel, apparently without compromising God’s singularity. The precise ways of parsing this Trinitarian logic take some time to develop. The pieces, however, are already laid out in the NT and very succinctly so in these verses.
In vv. 3–4 we are presented with the singularity of the Spirit. In v. 5 we learn that there is one Lord, Christ. This Trinitarian reflection is completed in v. 6 with the assertion that there is one God and Father of all. This verse most clearly mirrors 1 Cor 8:6. Lincoln (Ephesians 240) claims that particular verse is itself a Christian modification of the Shema of Deut 6:4. More directly, however, this claim picks up images from 3:14–15. In chapter 3 the idea that God is the Father from whom every group is named works to assert God’s ultimate supremacy. Here the coloring is different. Paul looks to the singularity of God as a way of founding the unity of believers that he advocates in vv. 1–3.
The prepositional phrases “over all and through all and in all” have a built-in ambiguity. The Greek word translated here as “all” can either be masculine, referring to all believers (Schnackenburg 167; Hoehner 521), or neuter, referring to all things (Best, Ephesians 371; Lincoln, Ephesians 241). If this verse comes from a creed or liturgy, it may have one meaning in that context and another meaning here. Within the current context, several considerations may tip the balance here in favor of a masculine reading of “all.” First, when Paul speaks of God as Father, he means the Father of believers (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6; Col 1:2; 2 Thess 2:16; Phlm 3) or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 15:6; 2 Cor 1:3; 11:31; Eph 1:3; Col 1:3). He never refers to God as the Father of creation. Second, the context of 4:1–6 is about the unity of individuals within the Ephesian church. Moreover, the transition to 4:7 begins by speaking of individuals. Hence, there is a consistent focus on believers in these verses.
Alternatively, 3:14–15 uses the term “Father” to speak more broadly than just believing individuals. Further, the term “all” is used with cosmic connotations in 1:10, 21–23; 3:9. In each of these cases, however, the term is clearly neuter.
Perhaps one should simply treat this as a fruitful ambiguity. Taken as a reference to all things, the verse asserts that amid the manifest diversity of all things, they are all united in their common origin and dependence upon the one God. Taken as a reference to believers, the image conveys both the dependence of all believers on God (over all) and the intimacy between God and believers (through all and in all). It concludes the focus on unity of 4:1–6 and leads into the focus on diverse gifts in 4:7–16.
Two particular issues emerge from this section. First, although it is historically accurate to distance Paul (or even later Pauline disciples) from the Trinitarian debates of the third and fourth centuries, it is also striking that he grounds this discussion of the unity of the church in such Trinitarian terms. As anticipated in earlier verses of Ephesians, Paul in 4:3–6 draws Father, Son, and Spirit together in ways designed to underwrite the unity of the church. This call to unity will only have force to the extent that Paul (and then the Ephesians) imagine Father, Son, and Spirit to be united. Yes, Paul does not articulate the nature of this unity in the manner of later conciliar writings. His argument here, however, requires a robust understanding of the unity of Father, Son, and Spirit if it is to provide the basis for the type of Christian unity Paul desires.
Second, Christian unity is the gift of the Spirit and not an achievement of the church. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that unity is not a homogenizing process in which believers all learn to march in lockstep with each other. Rather, it depends on the character of relationships between persons. Most significantly, these relationships depend on bearing one another in love, which results in the bond of peace.
[7–10] This is a complex and intriguing passage on a variety of levels. These verses mark a shift from the discussion of unity to the gifts given to the church for the preservation and maintenance of unity. Moreover, Paul shifts from an emphasis on “one” in 4:4–6, to “each of us” in v. 7, and then to specific groups in v. 11. Explaining this as a shift from unity to diversity, however, misses certain important elements in the discussion. For example, the shift to “each of us” indicates a grace that has been given to all believers. In some ways this recalls the specific “grace” God gave Paul to proclaim the gospel, mentioned in 3:7. As in chapter 3, the nature of this grace requires some explication and interpretation. It appears that the grace given “to each of us” is the grace needed to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). This rightly reminds believers that unity is God’s gracious gift to the church and not their own achievement. As 4:11–16 indicate, although the grace of unity is given to all, specific people have been given particular gifts that will help build up the body of Christ. Although these gifts seems to take individual capacities and proclivities into account, they are not earned by people based on their talents or activities. They are gifts from Christ, the gift-giver (cf. Best, Ephesians 375). More will be said about the relationship between grace, gifts, and unity in the course of discussing 4:11–16.
Verse 7 concludes with the notion that Christ has apportioned grace “to each of us,” in a distinctive way, “according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” Although this idea may irritate modern egalitarian sensibilities, Paul introduces the notion of individual believers having a specific measure of faith apportioned to them by God in Rom 12:3. The idea in both Romans and Ephesians is not that God is stingy or that there is a fixed supply of either faith or grace that needs to be rationed. Rather, the point in each of these verses is to recognize that God’s gifts to believers are appropriately fitted to our individual capacities and proclivities (Origen, in Heine 171). Rather than thinking of grace as a supply (either limited or unlimited) of undifferentiated cloth, this verse encourages us to think of God’s gift of grace as a precisely tailored suit that fits each of us perfectly.
As a further way of explicating the nature of Christ’s gift of grace, v. 8 moves to present a rough quotation from Ps 68:18 (67:19 LXX) along with a set of interpretive comments in 4:9–10. These verses pose a number of textual puzzles as well as several interpretive possibilities. The first puzzle is related to the text that Paul cites. The LXX of Ps 67:19 can be translated this way: “You ascended on high; you captured the captives; you received gifts from humanity” (cf. NETS). The LXX sticks closely to the MT. Paul’s citation is different from the LXX in several respects. Instead of the finite verb “you ascended,” Paul uses a participle translated as “When he ascended.” Instead of the second-person singular verbs “you captured” and “you received,” Paul uses the third-person singular. Instead of the verb “received,” Paul uses “gave.”
Although it does not fully resolve this puzzle, it is worth noting that the Targum on this passage reads as follows: “You ascended to the firmament, Prophet Moses; you took captive captivity, you learned the words of the Torah, you gave them as gifts to the sons of men” (Harris 65). The Targum shows that at least some Jews interpreted this psalm in terms of Moses’ reception of the law from God. Moses returned with those words and offered them as gifts to the Israelites. In this light, there seem to be some parallels here to Paul’s christological interpretation of this psalm. Scholars have diligently tried to establish some sort of direct continuity between Eph 4:8 and this Targum or other rabbinic traditions. Given the highly contested dating of so much of this material, it is unlikely that one could convincingly argue that Paul was directly dependent on it. It is as likely, if not more likely, that some of this material was influenced by Paul as the other way around. We can, however, see that Paul’s pattern of reading and interpreting Ps 68 is similar to the ways that at least some other Jews interpreted the Psalm. Similarly, in both texts there is no clear and distinct line between quotation and explication. They are seamlessly woven together. So, although one cannot locate a line of textual dependence from the Targum or some other text to Eph 4:8, one can say that Paul’s treatment of this text is less idiosyncratic than one might think at first.
The second set of puzzles concerns the imagery of the passage and how Paul applies it in Ephesians. The notion of “capturing captives” has distinct military overtones. In the light of Ps 68, the image here is of a conqueror, returning after a victory over a foe. The victor is leading back prisoners. In the case of the psalm as it stands in the OT. Yahweh, the conqueror, not only brings back prisoners; Yahweh also receives spoil or tribute from the vanquished. Alternatively, Paul’s treatment of the imagery is thoroughly christological. According to the interpretation Paul offers in Eph 4:8, Christ can either be leading his enemies, meaning Satan and Satan’s minions, captive (Chrysostom, Hom. Eph. 11); or Christ can be leading back those who had been captivated by Satan and are now liberated (Origen and Jerome, in Heine 172). Thomas Aquinas (159) in particular reads this phrase in the light of Isa 49:24–25: “Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued? But thus says the LORD: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued.” In addition, Paul’s citation shifts the action from receiving gifts to giving gifts. In this way, receiving spoil is transformed into the distribution of plunder. One could expect either outcome after a great victory.
Although it is rather clear that Paul is offering a christological interpretation of Ps 68 (67 LXX). it is not precisely clear how that interpretation should be unpacked. Verses 9–10 are devoted to such an explication. Verse 9 raises the question What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth? This links descent and ascent in some particular way. It is not clear, however, which comes first: descent or ascent? The conjunction “and/also” (kai) simply does not provide a clear way of adjudicating this. The psalm itself presumes descent and then ascent. The Mosaic interpretation of the Targum presumes ascent and then descent.
Verse 10 asserts that the one who descended is the same one who ascended to the highest heights, filling all things. This seems to provide a brief recapitulation of the assertions about Christ’s supremacy and dominion over all things in 1:19–23.
Given these considerations, there are three basic ways Christians have interpreted this text. A variety of interpreters ranging from Chrysostom to James D. G. Dunn interpret this passage as a reference to Christ’s descent into hell. Following Ps 68’s logic of descent preceding ascent, this passage would then stand with 1 Pet 3:18–21 as one of the two NT witnesses to Christ’s descent into hell during the period between crucifixion and resurrection. In terms of addressing the details of this passage, this interpretation leaves several problems unresolved. For example, in the original psalm, descent precedes ascent; but in the best manuscripts of Eph 4:8, ascent appears to precede descent. Further, it is not clear how Christ’s descent to hell would be tied to the giving of gifts to humans. Moreover, in the context of Ephesians, it is not clear what place a reference to Christ’s descent into hell has in the argument. The “powers” mentioned in 2:2 are not located beneath the earth. Thus, although the assertion that Christ descended into hell is part of the standard Christian confession of faith, it is not likely that such an event is in view here.
The second interpretive option treats Paul’s christological interpretation of Ps 68 as a reference to the incarnation. This verse takes Christ’s descent to the earth as a reference to the incarnation, which ultimately leads to Christ’s ascent after the resurrection, where he is above all the heavens and fills all things (vv. 9–10). In this respect the interpretation of Ps 68 follows the general pattern of Phil 2:6–11: The Son of God willingly humbles himself and takes on flesh. He is obedient to the Father, even to the extent of dying on the cross. Therefore, the Son is exalted (Hoehner 531–33; Thomas Aq. 160–62). This interpretation keeps to the original psalm’s ordering of descent followed by ascent, which does not appear to be the case in Ephesians. Further, although this seems to offer a perfectly acceptable christological interpretation of Ps 68:18, it is less clear how this interpretation fits into the context of the giving of grace and the receiving of gifts in Eph 4:7–16. Thus both of these interpretive options (above) work best as christological interpretations of Ps 68:18 and not as interpretations of Eph 4:8–10.
Given the context of Ephesians, it seems more likely that the interpretive explanations of 4:9–10 seek to present a christological reading of Ps 68:18 in terms of Christ’s ascension and the subsequent sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. If one takes the term “lower parts” as original to v. 9, then this interpretation requires one to read “of the earth” as appositional to “lower parts.” Thus the term “lower parts” should be taken as lower parts of the cosmos, that is, the earth. The claim in v. 10 that the one who descended is the same as the one who ascended then becomes an extraordinary assertion of the identity of Son and Spirit. Moreover, since the assertions in 4:10 seem to recapitulate those of 1:19–23, it may also be significant to observe that the assertions about Christ’s superiority in 1:19–23 come as part of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:17 that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a [the] Spirit of wisdom.…”
Within the argument of 4:7–16, the idea that Christ’s ascension leads to the descent of the Spirit and the giving of gifts for the proper ordering of the life of Christ’s body seems to be the most fitting interpretation of 4:8–10. Making this judgment does not rule out the incarnational interpretation of 4:8, nor even the descent-into-hell interpretation—in the sense that all three views (descent into hell, incarnation, ascension/sending) assert truths about Christ that have some textual support. Nevertheless, seeing 4:8 as an interpretation of Ps 68:18 that connects it to the pouring out of gifts through the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost seems to address more fully the details of Ephesians.
The purpose of Christ’s ascension is “that he might fill all things” (4:10). This clause, too, recalls 1:22–23. In the light of those verses, this clause reaffirms the assertion that all things reach their proper end under Christ’s rule (1:10). This is as true of the church, which is the focus of 4:7–10, as it is of the rest of creation. Christ’s ascension enables him to fill all things and thus bring them to their proper end. This also enables the gifts sent through the Spirit to bring about their desired result, the preservation of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
[11–16] Verses 11–16 represent a shift from 4:7–10. In vv. 7–10 Paul asserts that each believer has been given “grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” In vv. 11–16 Paul shifts his attention to focus on specific offices or ministries. If one reads 4:7–10 as a description of the Trinitarian origin of the gifts given to the church to enhance its unity, then 4:11–16 articulates more precisely the nature of those gifts and their ultimate purpose. It is crucial to keep in mind that whatever else one wants to say about them, “apostles,” “prophets,” “evangelists,” “pastors” and “teachers” are offices or ministries given by Christ through the Spirit to enable the church to grow into the unity that is already given to the church in 4:3. These offices or ministries are gifts for a purpose.
Verse 11 begins by stressing that the one who ascended and descended is also the one who gives the apostles and prophets and so forth. Many translations treat the Greek words for “apostles,” “prophets,” “evangelists,” and “pastors and teachers” as predicates. This yields a translation such as “He gave some as [or to be] apostles, some as [or to be] prophets,” and so forth (e.g., Hoehner 538–39). There is little reason to do this. Such a translation places the emphasis on the group or individuals who receive a particular gift, such as being prophets. This fits better the discussion in 1 Cor 12, where Paul emphasizes a view of the church as a single coherent organism, with many differing parts all functioning for the betterment of the whole. That is, the point of 1 Cor 12 is to rightly understand how individuals with distinct charisms are all needed for the proper functioning of the body of Christ.
In Ephesians the emphasis is not on the individuals or groups who receive “apostleship” as a gift. Rather, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are themselves the gifts given by the ascended Christ through the Spirit. This shifts the focus from discerning which individuals have which gift to understanding the proper function of these gifts. As it becomes clear that the chief role of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to enable the church to better grow into the unity and maturity that Christ desires for the church, there is no sense in which these offices compete with each other. It is also not obvious that there are clear distinctions between these offices. It seems quite possible that one could be both evangelist and teacher, for example.
In 2:20 and 3:5 Paul has already introduced apostles and prophets as central figures in the building of the church and as ministers, interpreters, and proclaimers of the mystery of God’s economy of salvation. The term “evangelist” (euangelistēs) is not very common in the NT. It refers to Philip (Acts 8:26–40; 21:8), and Timothy is urged to do the work of an “evangelist” in 2 Tim 4:5. In these cases the term refers to the activity of proclaiming the “good news.” Certainly Philip’s work in Acts 8:26–40 involves preaching to someone outside the church. Alternatively, his preaching to the Ethiopian eunuch seems primarily directed toward opening the Scriptures of Israel to him in such a way that he can see Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. In Eph 3:6 and 3:8 euangelion specifically refers to the good news about including the Gentiles in God’s promises to Israel through Christ. This also seems to be the way the term is used in 6:19. Thus, if there is any special significance to the term “evangelist” in Ephesians, it probably refers to the act of proclaiming this particular message, which Paul himself has been given. Further, Eph 4:12–16 directs all of these gifts toward the formation of believers with the aim of living into the unity of the Spirit. Thus “evangelists” here may not so much be addressing outsiders as further proclaiming the mystery of the gospel to believers, helping to open the Scriptures to believers and nascent believers, as Philip did with the Ethiopian in Acts 8.
The use of only one definite article to cover “pastors and teachers” indicates, at the very least, that these are closely associated roles, though probably not one single group. The Greek term translated as “pastors” is a metaphorical use of the term for “shepherds.” These pastors play a role in leadership, protection, guidance, care, and oversight (e.g., 1 Sam 17:34; Ps 23:1; Jer 23:2; Ezek 34:11; etc.). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep (John 10:11–18) and guards their souls (1 Pet 2:25). The image of the shepherd here is clear enough when it is extended to people in the church. It is not as clear that such an image is tied to a particular office in Eph 4:11. Interestingly, Acts 20:28 connects these shepherding functions to those appointed as “bishops” or “overseers” (episkopoi) of the church in Ephesus.
Teachers are listed after apostles and prophets in 1 Cor 12:28. Their role seems to be connected to the passing on and explication of doctrines and traditions of the church (cf. Rom 6:17; 1 Cor 4:17; Col 2:7). Teachers appear to be central in the growth in wisdom and knowledge that Paul desires for the Ephesians in 1:17–19; 3:18–19.
Verse 12 begins to unfold the precise purpose for which Christ through the Spirit gives these particular gifts to the church. Here are three specific, though related, activities. First, Paul declares that Christ gave these particular gifts to the church, a body in which each has been given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift (cf. Lincoln, Ephesians 253–54). Thus one aim of giving apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is “for bringing the saints to completion, for the work of service, and for the building up of the body of Christ.” The term translated here as “bringing to completion” has a wide range of meanings often associated with repair or restoration (see Hoehner 549–50). Given the emphasis on completion, stature, and fullness in 4:13, it seems best to see this term in v. 12 as a reference to the process by which believers reach their proper goal. Thus this activity would be most closely allied with the formation of Christians.
Second, those receiving these gifts are to engage in the “work of service.” Paul uses the same terminology in 2 Cor 3:6, 8, 9; 4:1 in an extended discussion of his own ministry (see also 2 Cor 5:18; 6:3; Rom 11:13; and 1 Cor 16:15, where it refers to the ministry of Stephanas and his household, who serve the saints). In these cases it appears that rather than delimiting a specific activity or activities, the work of service depicts a disposition toward these gifts given by Christ. They are best displayed in service rather than self-aggrandizement.
Finally, when displayed in the proper way, these gifts will lead to the building up of the body of Christ. This phrase similarly relies on the combination of physical and architectural images such as those used of the church in 2:20–21. The body of Christ is a physical body composed of other bodies. Nevertheless, it can be built up like a structure.
Verse 13 explicates this point further. The work of those given the gifts mentioned in 4:11 is directed toward all believers’ attaining “the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God.…” One of the striking things about this goal is that it applies to “all.” That is, this is a corporate attainment. In 4:5 Paul has already made the point that there is “one faith.” Moreover, in 1:17 Paul prayed that the Ephesians might be given the Spirit of “wisdom and revelation in knowledge of him.” In 1:18–19 Paul further explicates this knowledge in terms of understanding the mystery of salvation. In 4:13 the focus of unified faith and knowledge is the “Son of God.” Given that “knowledge” in Ephesians is already tied to revelation of the mystery of redemption, the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God must be directed toward the proper understanding of God’s mystery of salvation of both Gentiles and Jews in Christ.
The next clause is quite brief. One can translate it in a variety of ways: “the complete person” or “the mature person.” Both are quite common. Given the context, it is quite clear that Paul’s expression is a way of speaking of attaining one’s ultimate goal in Christ. Paul explicates this more fully in the next clause, “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The images in these last two clauses reflect the idea of growing toward adulthood, reaching one’s proper goal.
Verse 14 makes this clearer by contrasting this mature state with childhood. The Ephesians are to leave behind instability and inconstancy with regard to faith and knowledge of the Son of God. Further, they are to avoid human cunning, “trickery and erroneous scheming.” Paul gives no specifics here. He may have a particular set of teachings or teachers in mind, but there is no way to discern this from the text. Moreover, given the relatively strong commendation of the community in 1:15–16, it seems unlikely that Paul thinks of them as being in this childish state. Rather, after setting out the goal of maintaining the unity of the Spirit and moving toward the church’s ultimate end in Christ, Paul contrasts this movement with the disruptive instability that would impede the Ephesians as they make their way ever closer to Christ. It does not seem that Paul is primarily interested in contrasting the Ephesians’ childish state with a mature state so much as he wishes to warn against a set of constant hazards and temptations that threaten the Ephesians’ progress toward their proper end in Christ.
The alternative to the allure of crafty and erroneous teaching seems to be “speaking the truth in love.” This is the “means of the Church’s growth” (Lincoln, Ephesians 260). For Paul and all Christians, truth and love cannot be seen as separable components that are only occasionally joined. The test by which one discerns how well truth and love are joined is that we “grow up together in all things into him who is the head, into Christ.” Truth spoken in love results in ever-closer conformity to Christ. Within this image, the notion of Christ as head provides the rationale and direction for the body’s growth and the coordination of its movements. This is the upshot of 4:16. Here at the end of this section, one finds some of the same emphases that mark 1 Cor 12: the image of a body with ligaments and joints, in which the various components working together promote the growth of the whole.
Although the image of a body with various components working each in its proper way to achieve the growth of the whole is relatively clear in this verse, the discrete vocabulary and their connections are quite obscure at points. The verse begins by asserting that Christ is the source of this body’s cohesion and coordination. The participles used to speak about the joining together of the various elements of the body are relatively clear. The next clause, “through every supporting connection” (Hoehner 570), is an approximation of what the Greek seems to express. Alternative translations such as “through every ligament which gives supply” (Lincoln, Ephesians 262), or “through every ligament of supply” (Best, Ephesians 411–12), or “through every contact of supply” (Barth 449)—all can be defended (see translation notes). The result of this obscure physical imagery is presented at the end of the verse in architectural terms similar to 2:21–22. The body is built up in love.
There is a great temptation for commentators to read their preferred ecclesial polity into this passage. On the one hand, this makes some sense. Who would want a church to be ordered in a way that contradicts Eph 4:1–16? On the other hand, such moves tend to obscure the deep connections between the account of the unity of the church in 4:1–7 and the provision of gifts such as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, whose role is to enhance and enable this unity. In the light of the manifest disunity among the churches, arguments over whether these are ministries, offices, or orders and how these fit with the threefold order of ministry of the early church—all such debates seem to miss the point.
In the absence of such unity, what is one to make of gifts from Christ through the Spirit, gifts designed to bring and maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? As mentioned above, unity is already the Spirit’s gift to the church. Alternatively, the gifts provided for maintaining that unity have clearly fallen into disuse or disrepair. At the very least they are not functioning properly. Such a situation must surely grieve the Spirit. The first challenge of this passage to Christians in the present is not about the relation of orders to offices or ministries. Rather, the first challenge to Christians today is to become as grieved by our disunity as our disunity must grieve the Spirit. If believers are satisfied with and even desirous of a fractured body of Christ, then we have failed to understand this passage at a much deeper level.
It is important to recall that Paul began this passage with an admonition to the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. He then discussed several habits, practices, and dispositions essential to walking worthily. The cultivation of these dispositions and practices also serves one of the larger aims of walking worthily. Walking worthily works to maintain the unity of the body of Christ through the exercise of various ministerial gifts given to the church by Christ through the Spirit. As chapter 4 moves on, Paul discusses practices that the Ephesians need to avoid in order to walk worthily.

Ephesians 4:17–24
Breaking Free from a Pagan Past
In 2:11 Paul emphasized the importance for the Ephesians to remember their past as a Gentile past so that they could conceive of their life in Christ in its proper relationship to Israel. Eph 2 makes it clear that Gentiles who become followers of the crucified and resurrected Messiah of Israel do not need to erase their Gentile identity and become Jews in order fully to participate in Christ. Nevertheless, 4:17–24 makes the point that the Ephesians must likewise make a decisive break with their pagan past.
Recall that in 4:1–3 Paul urges the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. In the same verses Paul displays some of the communal practices that he considers essential for the Ephesian church if they are to walk in a manner worthy of their call. This leads to further comments about the unity of the church and the gifts given by God for the proper ordering of the body of Christ.
Now in 4:17–24 Paul emphasizes the importance of walking in a way that avoids various practices conventionally associated (at least by Jews) with Gentiles. In this respect walking in a manner worthy of their calling will require the Ephesians to live in a way that clearly distinguishes them from their pagan Gentile neighbors. Verses 17–19 in particular describe the non-Christian Gentiles’ fundamental and comprehensive alienation from God in a manner that recalls 2:1–5. Here in 4:17–19, however, Paul focuses on the behaviors that flow from such an alienated position. From this description Paul in vv. 20–24 proceeds to articulate the importance of being renewed in Christ, putting off the old person and putting on the new.

4:17 I, therefore, insistb on this in the Lord: You must not walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They reason in the dark. They are alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardnessd of their hearts. 19 Having become calloused, they gave themselves over to wanton behavior for the practice of every kind of impurity with covetousness.
20 But this is not the way you learned Christ. 21 If (as is most certainly the case) you have heard about him and were taught in him, just as the truthg is in Jesus, 22 you were taught that you have put off the old person, along with its former way of life, corrupted by deceitful desires, 23 and that you are being renewed by the spirit of your minds, 24 having clothed yourselves with the new man, created according to [the desires and plan of] God in the righteousness and holiness that come from the truth.

[17–19] Paul “insists in the Lord” that the Ephesians no longer walk as the Gentiles do even though they are in many respects still Gentiles. Although they are not required to become Jews in order to complete their faith in Christ, they are also not free to continue to live as their pagan neighbors do. Paul and the Ephesians now inhabit a realm ruled, ordered, and directed by the crucified and risen Christ. The Ephesians are bound to each other and to Paul because they are in the Lord. Being in the Lord, abiding in the space defined and ruled by Christ, is where the futility of the mind, the darkening of reason, and the hardening of the heart typical of Gentile life are all healed and renewed.
The depiction of Gentile life in these verses reflects many of the standard characterizations offered by Jews (cf. Wis 13–14) and is similar to those offered by Paul in Rom 1. In these standard Jewish accounts, the abominable behavior of the Gentiles is traced to prior failures of perception or judgment. If there is some sense of a chain of causes and effects here, it appears to move backward from hardness of heart to ignorance to alienation from the life of God to darkened reasoning to futility of the mind (Hoehner 588). It is not clear, however, that Paul is really trying to develop a chain of causation. Rather, he is providing a comprehensive set of reasons for the Gentiles’ failure to “walk worthily.”
The claim in vv. 17–18 that the Gentiles’ reasoning is futile and their minds are darkened echoes Paul’s claims about the Gentiles in Rom 1:21. In Romans these assertions seem to be directed to accounting for how Gentiles misperceive the natural world’s testimony to God’s glory and power. In Ephesians the imagery seems to explain the Gentiles’ inability to tell right from wrong. They are incapable of discerning which actions will help advance them toward their proper ends in God. Their reasoning about how to “walk” is futile because they are alienated from the life of God, and their alienation from the life of God is the result of their ignorance and hardness of heart. Paul is describing a cycle or downward spiral that includes alienation from God, which leads to frustrated reasoning about how to walk according to God’s desires, which leads to sinful actions, which lead to further alienation from God, which further frustrates reason, and so forth.
The description of the Gentiles as “alienated from the life of God” is both obscure in that it is a phrase not found elsewhere in the NT to describe Gentiles and full of interesting theological resonances. First, this phrase should be read in the light of Paul’s earlier description of the Ephesians’ state as once “dead” (2:1, 5) yet now made alive together with Christ (2:5). The phrase may also indicate “an existence estranged from that holy living which comes through faith: ‘I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me’ (Gal 2:20 [cf. KJV])” (Thomas Aq. 176).
Modern commentators are quick to assert that the phrase “the life of God” cannot refer to God’s own life (Best, Ephesians 420; Muddiman 213); Hoehner (586) relies on arbitrary grammatical designations to make this point. Rather, it is a reference to the life that God gives. Thus, being alienated from the life that God gives is another way of speaking about spiritual death. The phrase is unusual, but it is by no means clear that it is a reference to the life that God gives. In addition, it seems that participation in the life of God is that very thing for which God made us. Indeed, 2 Pet 1:4 explicitly contrasts our sharing in the divine nature with the life of corruption and lust. Thus, if participation in the life of God is both God’s desire for us and our proper end in Christ, there seems to be good theological justification for thinking that Paul is characterizing Gentile existence as fundamentally alienated from the life of God in just this sense. Gentiles outside of Christ are disconnected from the ends for which God made them, that is, participation in God’s own life.
The source of Gentile alienation is ignorance and hardness of heart. The combination of ignorance with hardness of heart makes it clear that the Gentiles’ failing is not simply an intellectual error that might be corrected through further study. Rather, along with futile reasoning and darkened understanding, ignorance and hardness of heart all work together to present a picture of Gentiles as alienated from their true end in God in a comprehensive way, touching on the intellect, perceptions, affections, desires, and judgments.
The result of their comprehensive alienation from God is that the Gentiles have become “calloused,” insensitive to what is good or evil (v. 19). In this light, it is only to be expected that they would give themselves over to all kinds of sin. Paul first characterizes this behavior as “wanton” (aselgeia). Quite simply, this is acting as if there are no limits, as if one is completely unconstrained. Lack of constraint frees Gentiles “for the practice of every kind of impurity.” The range of meanings for the term impurity (akatharsia) runs from ritual impurity (cf. Lev 15) to moral impurity (Rom 6:19, where slavery to impurity is contrasted with slavery to righteousness) and to sexual impurity (Rom 1:24, particularly with regard to standard Gentile practices). This wide range of meaning in the phrase “all kinds of impurity” probably indicates deficiencies in all aspects of life. The final characteristic of Gentile behavior is covetousness. Dio Chrysostom called covetousness (pleonexia; coveter, pleonektos) both the greatest cause of evils and the greatest evil (Or. 17.7). In the LXX this term is used to refer to unjust gains taken by force (Judg 5:19; Ps 118 [119 Eng.]:36; Jer 22:17; Ezek 22:27; Hab 2:9); in the NT the term appears in lists of vices in Mark 7:22; Rom 1:29; 1 Cor 5:10, 11. In Eph 5:3, 5 the same term occurs in connection with sexual sins, impurity, and idolatry. Thus, without going into great detail, this verse makes it clear that Gentile ignorance and hardness of heart in relation to God result in comprehensively disordered lives.
One apparent difference between this description of the ways in which Gentiles “walk” and the description offered in Rom 1 is that in Romans, God is the subject who “gives over” the Gentiles to their corrupt lives because of their inability to recognize God in their hearts and minds. The corruption of Gentile lives, therefore, reflects God’s judgment on their futile reasoning. In Ephesians, the Gentiles’ ignorance and hardness of heart both alienates them from the life of God and leads them to “give themselves over” to corrupt living. Gentiles, because of their futile reasoning, willingly turn themselves over to lives characterized by excess. When faced with this contrast between Romans and Ephesians, John Chrysostom argues that these passages actually say the same thing (Hom. Eph. 13). They do not. Alternatively, they do not exclude each other. God can hand Gentiles (or anyone else) over to the very thing Gentiles willingly desire for themselves. This may well be one of those cases where God’s judgment on humans is to give them exactly what they want. Nevertheless, Paul is clear that the Ephesian Christians are to distinguish themselves from the Gentile way of walking.
[20–24] In 4:17–19 Paul has made it clear that the lives of the Ephesian Christians are to stand as a sharp contrast to those of their Gentile neighbors. These verses articulate both the depravity of Gentile living yet also some of the reasons for it. Now as vv. 20–24 indicate in dealing both with Gentile vice and Christian virtue, Paul makes it clear that living one way rather than another depends upon a set of inner dispositions, affections, and habits of mind. In this respect Paul was no different from other ancient moral philosophers. Virtue, however defined, required the transformation and cultivation of particular patterns of thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Pagan Gentiles reason in futile, frustrated ways; their hearts are hard, and they are ignorant. Alternatively, believers have “learned Christ.” They have put away the old person and put on the new.
Given that Paul assumes such transformation has already happened in the lives of the Ephesian Christians, he wants to ensure that they will not only continue to cultivate Christ-focused patterns of thinking, feeling, and perceiving, but that they will also begin to live differently, that they will walk in a manner worthy of their call.
Hence, after rehearsing the ignorance and hardness of heart of the Gentiles and their wanton way of life, Paul can begin v. 20 with a deceptively simple assertion: “But this is not the way you learned Christ.” The use of a personal object with the verb to learn (manthanō) does not appear to have any precedent. Colossians 2:6, “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (NASB). seems to offer the closest parallel, linking reception of Christ, presumably through some teaching, to a particular way of life (Lincoln, Ephesians 279).
What does this odd formulation mean? Does it refer to some point in the past, such as a time of conversion or baptism? Is this really just a shorthand way of referring to the passing on of traditions about Christ (Lincoln [Ephesians 279–80] asserts a close link with Col 2:6)? Does it presume some earlier catechesis that Paul has provided to the Ephesians and of which he now reminds them (cf. Hoehner 594–95)?
The implied logic of this assertion is that the Ephesians have already “learned Christ” to a sufficient degree that they can walk in a manner worthy of their calling, in contrast to their pagan neighbors. At the same time, the notion of renewal and of clothing oneself that is part of vv. 23–24 indicate that although one may have “learned Christ,” there is still room for growth. Given that these seem to be the basic assumptions of this passage, one must admit that any of the options noted above could fit within such logic.
One of the best ways to think of this may be to understand the notion of “learning Christ” through the lenses that Paul uses to speak of his own situation in Phil 3:7–14. Here Paul is speaking of the transformation of his own patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting in the light of “knowing Christ” (3:7–8). He has abandoned his prior perceptions about his identity and how he should act in the world so that he “may gain Christ” and “be found in him” (3:9). The result of such a transformation is that Paul would “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings,” and “may attain the resurrection from the dead” (3:10–11). As Phil 3:12–14 makes clear, Paul has in several significant ways already “learned Christ” (Eph 4:20). At the same time, learning Christ is also the end toward which he directs his future strivings. In Phil 3:7–14 and in Eph 4:20–24, Christ is seen as both the source of the transformations in Christians’ dispositions and habits of thinking and perceiving as well as the goal toward which those transformations are directed.
Verse 21 explicates this notion further. Although the syntax of the sentence is conditional, Paul has no doubts that the Ephesians have indeed “heard about Christ” and “were taught in him.” The notion of hearing about Christ seems relatively straightforward. It does, however, remind modern Christians that early Christian formation was primarily conveyed orally. This demanded a different and much more complex set of relationships between teacher and student than between a reader and an author. The teacher was never a disembodied voice conveyed by means of words on a page. Instead, the teacher was someone known to the student, someone whose daily life, pattern of prayer, and habits of worship could be as instructive as anything conveyed in a classroom.
The second clause of this verse, “and you were taught in him,” is less clear. Lincoln (Ephesians 280) takes “in him” to be another way of saying “about him.” Most commentators, however, see something more here. For most commentators, the phrase “in him” indicates the sphere in which the Ephesians were taught (Hoehner 595; Best, Ephesians 428). This fits with the basic distinction between Gentiles and those who are “in Christ,” a distinction that drives this entire passage. Indeed, Paul emphasizes this contrast in the concluding clause of this verse: “just as the truth is in Jesus.” Recall that the Gentiles’ reasoning is futile; they are ignorant, and their hearts are hard. In contrast, the Ephesian Christians have “heard about Christ”; they have been “taught in him,” and “the truth is in Jesus.” The contrast is clear and decisive. Christ has transformed the Ephesians’ patterns of perception and habits of thinking and feeling such that they now know the truth and can “take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5), who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), with the aim of living a life worthy of their calling.
Verses 22–24 further elaborate the substance of what the Ephesians were taught. These verses rely on the image of putting off and putting on clothing to speak about the transformation that occurs when one enters the body of Christ. The first step in this transformation is disrobing, putting off the old person and the way of life associated with that old self. The description of this old self recalls the earlier statements in Eph 2:1–5, where Paul recounts the Ephesians’ morbid state outside of Christ. Moreover, it builds upon the description of Gentile life in 4:17–19. The old self with its attendant way of life is corrupted by deceitful desires. As has been the case throughout this section, Paul makes it clear that a corrupt pattern of behavior is preceded by and reinforces corruption in the ways one thinks and feels. In this case, he uses the phrase “deceitful desires” (or more lit., “desires that come from deceit”). It is important to recognize that the mere act of desiring is not a problem. Desiring is but one form of loving. If we were to extinguish all desires we would not be in a position to love God or our neighbor; we would not be able to know God’s love for us. Nevertheless, given the description of the Gentiles’ habits of mind and heart in vv. 17–19, it is not surprising that their desires are generated and driven by deceit rather than the truth that is in Jesus.
Paul continues his concern with habits of thinking and feeling as the source of action when he teaches that having put off the old person, believers are to be continually renewed in the spirit of their mind. Although Rom 12:2 uses a different verb to speak about the renewal of believers’ minds, the notion that being in Christ enables and requires the ongoing transformation of believers’ habits of thinking, feeling, and perceiving is the thrust of both of these passages. Being joined to the body of Christ requires one to dispose of or unlearn old patterns of thinking, feeling, and perceiving; to learn and relearn the habits of thinking, feeling, and perceiving appropriate to one who is in Christ; and as a result to walk in a manner worthy of one’s call.
Putting off the old person is accompanied by putting on the new person. This new person is described as “created according to [the desires and plan of] God in the righteousness and holiness that come from the truth.”
Formally, “the righteousness and holiness that come from the truth” are in contrast to lives driven by desires that come from deceit (v. 22). This must also be tied to the notion in v. 21 that the truth is in Jesus. At the same time, the righteousness and holiness that come from the truth stand as alternatives to any other standard of righteousness, such as “my own righteousness found in the law” (cf. Phil 3:9). This christologically normed righteousness is the result of being clothed with the new person. As Paul has assumed throughout this section, a transformation of identity—of patterns of thinking, feeling, and perceiving—enables and entails righteous, holy living.
This new person is “created according to God.” If Paul primarily intends to allude to Gen 1:26, he certainly could have been more explicit. The text contains no mention of the image or likeness of God. Moreover, such a direct allusion would invite confusion. This is because it might then seem that only believers, those who have put on the new person, are bearers of God’s image. One of the points of Gen 1:26 seems to be that all humans are created in the image of God. Hence this phrase must indicate something else.
Despite the logic of the metaphor of clothing oneself with the new person, this is God’s work, not ours. In this scene, we cannot undress or dress ourselves. Thus a central claim of 4:24 is that this clothing is done according to God’s plan and enabled by God’s gracious action. Moreover, putting on this new person is sufficient for believers to attain their true end in God. Further changes of clothing will not be needed for us to reach our goal. The point here seems to be that whatever damage was done to God’s image because of one’s sin, that damage is now sufficiently healed to enable believers to carry on in the righteousness and holiness that come from the truth, so that they will ultimately reach that for which God first reached out to us. Thus being created “according to God” must primarily refer to this healing that will bring all “new persons” into that place where they can with hope live into God’s desires for them.
Several scholars argue that vv. 22–24 reflect pieces from an early baptismal liturgy (see Hoehner 613 n. 3 for a list). Hoehner is right to observe that there is little evidence to support this claim. This does not mean, however, that one should not recognize that for the vast majority of the church’s life, the transformation from old person to new was sacramentally and ritually marked by baptism. The vocabulary need not be from a baptismal liturgy for Christians to recognize the close links between the transformations that Paul elaborates here and the practice of baptism. Conversely, this close link is not really evidence that Eph 4:23–24 replicates language from a baptismal liturgy.
In this passage Paul has been at pains to make clear that walking in a manner worthy of their calling will require the Ephesians to distinguish their manner of life from their non-Christian Gentile neighbors. To do this, he contrasts the state of unregenerate Gentiles with the Ephesian Christians. Given that outside of Christ, Gentiles are comprehensively alienated from God and that the Ephesians have been transformed and renewed in the spirit of their minds, one should expect nothing less. As Paul continues into the next section, he begins to speak of specific practices that he expects the Ephesian Christians to adopt.
Fowl, S. E. (2012). Ephesians: A Commentary. (C. C. Black, M. E. Boring, & J. T. Carroll, Hrsg.) (First Edition., S. 125–153). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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