Two textual notes to begin. First, as is well known, this is all one long sentence in the Greek. Homiletically, it does not make a significant difference, but I believe a good sermon often begins with a strong recitation of the text. And even in many English translations, the preponderance of dependent clauses produces a poetic rhythm which can give the hearer a sense of the breathlessness in this passage when spoken aloud. As one example, listen to the way Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis Professor Emeritus Jeff Gibbs recites the pericope to begin a sermon: https://scholar.csl.edu/cs1718/147/. He does so by removing the end stops normally found in English translations, reworking the sentences into a series of relative clauses (following the Greek), and building up the momentum of his reading with a (literally) breathless pace. He then ends the reading with a first pause and a moment of humor: “Did you get all that?” By the way, Preacher Gibbs also provides a succinct summary of the Greek grammar, should you want to dig more deeply.
Gibbs freely admits in the next move, “This is not normal Paul.” No doubt. The Apostle is overwhelming his reader with the torrent of his prose because he is himself overwhelmed by the work of God in Christ, a rushing waterfall of doxology: “To the praise of his glory.” The rest of us are just along for the wild ride.
Second, in verse 13, Paul provides a historical context worth noting: “...when you heard the word of truth...” I am convinced Paul is making a direct reference here to his own first meeting with a few disciples in Ephesus from Acts 19:1-8. In case you have forgotten, Paul set sail from Corinth, returning to Antioch, and then passed through Ephesus. “There he found some disciples” (Acts 19:1). To paraphrase, the conversation goes something like this:
Paul: “Have you received the Holy Spirit?”
Ephesians: “No, we have not even heard of the Holy Spirit.”
Paul: “How were you baptized?”
Ephesians: “With John’s baptism.”
Paul: “Well then, have I got something for you.”
Right there, they are baptized into Christ. And right then, they are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (verse 13), which, of course, is promised to all the baptized by Christ.
And right then, they are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” which, of course, is promised to all the baptized by Christ.
So, what to do with all this? The challenge is Paul is not simply waxing poetic. Virtually each clause is, in and of itself, a high-concentrated dose of theology. So much so that I think I would resist the temptation to work the passage through a verse-by-verse exposition, although it lends itself to that structure. There is simply too much here to work through. I would be more drawn to a kind of synecdoche model, where we zoom in on one of the pithier clauses, particularly if I see it has special resonance among my particular assembly. Then you could blow out the clause into all its glory, letting it stand in as a lens by which to view the whole. I will come back to which verse I would choose in a moment.
Before I go there, though, there is one overarching theme to this passage I would likely pass by and another which is impossible to pass up. First, I wonder how many preachers might use this text to preach on predestination. I have heard a few myself, and they did a good enough job with it. I would not fault anyone for “going there,” but I would not, and it is mainly for a pedagogical reason. I think this discussion is better had in a Bible study class than from a pulpit. Also, I believe the text gives us a better way to proclaim this work of God. It is impossible for me to read this one without noting how Paul continually circles his cascade of words back around to a phrase repeated over and over like a refrain: “In Christ.” All these wondrous, overwhelming acts of God not only happen “in Christ,” but they all become ours “in Christ.” This is the promise of baptism the Ephesians first experienced by the water falling from Paul’s own hand. This baptismal reality is what undergirds everything happening in this text. All these things happen “in Christ” because we are ourselves baptized into Christ. This refrain gives the whole passage its dynamism, its centrifugal force. Or is it centripetal? We both move toward this center, “in Christ,” even as it propels us back into the world, toward all those “things in Heaven and things on Earth” (verse 10).
All these things happen “in Christ” because we are ourselves baptized into Christ.
Now, as for which clause I might concentrate on this second Sunday after Christmas, I think it would be verses 8-9: “...which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose.” Even if the Apostle was not thinking specifically of it in the moment he wrote those words, it gives us a window into what is happening in today’s Gospel account (Luke 2:40-52), as the twelve-year old Jesus lavishes wisdom and insight among the Temple teachers, teaching even His own parents in the process. As we continue to celebrate the mystery of the incarnation, this is a perfect moment to meditate on how the work of God “in Christ,” even as it is centered in His death and resurrection, unfolds in every moment of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Each moment of His life is a glimpse into this “fullness of time” (verse 10), this “guarantee of our inheritance” (verse 14), etc.
Many, including myself, have wondered why we were not given more accounts of Jesus’ life before His own baptism by John (which is next week, by the way). I wish we had more. But perhaps this one story is all we need to know. I wonder if the four evangelists were simply content to let Luke have this one word, that all we need to know is how, at every step along the way, God “in Christ” was doing exactly what He is doing here, making known the mystery in such a way that we, along with the teachers, Mary and Joseph, those first Ephesians, and even Paul himself, cannot help but be astonished by the breathless rush of it all.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Epehesians 1:3-14.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Ephesians 1:3-14.