Exegetical Exercise

Image Brandenburg chancel with inscription

We are God’s handiwork … Ephesians 2:10

Here’s the text for Sunday’s Uniform Series lesson, Ephesians 2:1-10 (NRSV):

(1) You were /dead through the trespasses/ and sins (2) in which you once /lived*/, following the /course/* of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at /work/ among those who are disobedient. (3) All of us once lived among them* /in the passions of/ our flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath*, like everyone else. (4) But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, (5) even when we were /dead through our trespasses/, /made/ us alive together with Christ – /by grace you have been saved/ – (6) and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (7) so that in the /ages/ to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (8) For /by grace you have been saved/ through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – (9) not the result of /works/,  so that no one may boast. (10) For we are what he has /made us/, created in Christ Jesus for good /works/, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of /life.*/

Notes and comments:

*course (v1) = is a Greek word translated “age” elsewhere, the same word used later in v. 7, in the plural, as a time when God will be acting in a specific way.

The word translated “following” could also be translated “according to” – so in the original, we don’t so much have the specific image of following or followership, as if someone is following a leader or teacher, but more like that of going along with things or doing things according to a pattern, “following” a pattern, that pattern being the way the world is in this age, or the pattern established by the “ruler of the power of the air.” We ourselves would probably say something like “our day and age” or “our cultural conditioning” or “our way of life.” It’s that idea.

So the “age” in v. 1, in which people are dead in trespasses and sins and follow or act according to the “spirit of the air” and whatever rules that spirit stands in contrast with the ages to come, in v. 7, in which God will show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

*”children of wrath” – are presumably not the literal offspring of wrath, but are children (1) subject to wrath, or (2) characterized by wrath in some way – I am thinking of how we ourselves might say something like “children of social media” which might mean something like people who grew up with it, use it all the time, and might also mean are victimized by it. Because of the designation of “disobedient” in v. 2, we might be inclined to lean towards the “being subject to wrath” idea, but the emphasis in 1-3 is so much about cultural milieu, and wrath is presumably so much a part of the cultural milieu of trespasses and sins and the dictates of appetites that the second alternative seems pretty appealing.

*them – in Greek, it’s clearer in English that this “them” includes the ones who are disobedient; that is, “we” were included among them.

Repeated words or phrases usually signal emphasis. The obvious repetitions of “dead through trespasses” (v. 1 & 5) and “by grace you have been saved” (v. 5 & 8) seem to echo each other. “You” (you-all) and “we” (including you-all) were dead through our trespasses, but “by grace you have been saved” cancels out that death. The “death” is presumably spiritual rather than physical, since people who are actively doing things in the world according to worldly conventions are in this condition of death; what people are saved from seems to be this death, so there is a movement in the text from death – for you and us – to life – for you and us.

The Greek root peripateō – to “walk around”, root of our word “peripatetic,” – shows up in v. 2 (translated as “lived”) and again in v. 10 (in the “way of life” prepared for us) – so, these contrasting “walks of life,” the walk of trespasses and sin, and the walk of good works, frame the text. The first walk of life is really a walk of death, the second is a way of life yet to be experienced, but maybe already accessible in the present.

The Greek root ergon, work, is present in v. 2 – there is a spirit at work in the present age – and again in v. 9, the “works” that salvation is not the result of; maybe a hint that the “works” that might be presented or proposed as necessary for salvation, or the things that procure it, have more in common with the “works” that are being done by folks in the old walk of life. These works contrast with the “works” in v. 10, which are explicitly “good” ones this time.

The Greek root poieō – to make or do, in the sense of bringing something into being, that often involves creativity or improvisation, it’s the word that gives us poetry, for instance – is involved three times; in v. 3, the phrase translated “in the passions of our flesh and senses” is literally something like “making/doing the things willed by our flesh and our ideas/thinking” – so, making a life for ourselves out of the impulses of our appetites and culturally-conditioned ideas; then again in v. 5, where God “made [us] alive with Christ”, the making part is again this kind of making or doing; and then again in v. 10, what God has “made,” us, is the noun form of this verb.

From grammar, it seems that the really active agent throughout the text is God; the verbs that characterize “you” and “us” are, on the whole, passive constructions; even what looks like something active (“following”) isn’t even a verb in the underlying Greek; the active verbs really jump out as things God does: loved us, made us alive with Christ, saved us, raised us up with Christ, seated us with “him” (God? Or Jesus?), and then God will show (immeasurable riches etc.), and has prepared beforehand a way of life of good works (in the sense of operating), for the works (in the sense of works of art) that are us, ourselves, to participate in. So God is doing all the acting in this text.

By the time we get it unpacked, there is an overwhelming sense in this text that “you-all,” along with “we” and “everyone else,” has just been more or less on auto-pilot, walking around according to the prevailing “way of life” which is really a kind of death, and God sort of explodes into the text, loving us, saving us from this living death by getting busy and fixing things, and then there is all this outpouring of riches of grace and kindness yet to come, as we experience this dramatic movement from death to life, and at the end of the text, we appear as God’s works of art, sort of performance art. So that salvation comes across as a definite triumph of life, which involves divine creativity, over death.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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