09 May 2016

Paul, probably Ephesus, and predestination.

God has a wonderful plan for your life—if you choose to accept it.

Ephesians 1.1-10

Nine years ago I led a year-long bible study on Ephesians. Seriously, a year. Every Sunday I analyzed the heck out of a verse, or several verses. Some of ’em loved it, ’cause I went way in depth on that letter. Others felt I took too long: I could’ve whipped through all Paul’s letters in that time, yet here I was, taking apart every single verse of Ephesians.

I’m gonna take considerably less than a year here. Let’s start.

Ephesians 1.1-3 KWL
1 Paul, by God’s will an apostle of Christ Jesus,
to those who are holy and trusting Christ Jesus in Ephesus:
2 Grace to you. Peace from God our Father, and master Christ Jesus—
3 blessed God, and Father of our master Christ Jesus!
God’s the one who blesses us,
in every supernatural blessing in the high heavens—in Christ!

Paul wrote Ephesians late in his life, as indicated by his being a prisoner Ep 3.1 in chains, Ep 6.20 possibly awaiting trial before Nero Caesar, who ultimately had Paul beheaded. The “to Ephesus” in verse 1 was blank in the original, ’cause copies were to be made and other cities written there (yeah, like a form letter). But Paul sent out this letter with Týhikos, Ep 6.21 who was from Asia Minor, Ac 20.4 and since Ephesus was Asia’s capital, stands to reason it’d go there too.

Ephesians is also considered a late letter because its theology is way more thought-out than Paul’s other letters. Yep, even Romans. In fact various scholars (probably trying to make a name for themselves with a little notoriety) wonder whether Paul really wrote it, and whether some other clever Christian didn’t compose it as a briefer summary of Paul’s ideas—then tack Paul’s name on it so Christians would read it.

Meh. The idea Paul didn’t mature in his beliefs, or that he only wrote ’em down once (or twice), and definitively so, is stupid. How many Christian authors do you know who only discuss a subject once and for all? Some of ’em rehash their same favorite ideas in every single book. And—unless they’re intellectually lazy—you’ll notice some of these ideas evolve over time. Not necessarily change, but get deeper, show greater insight, show greater complexity—and show greater patience with people who think otherwise. Their writing and preaching style improves too.

My guess is the folks who assume Paul never grew, are the intellectually lazy. They don’t grow, so they project their rotten attitude upon Paul. But when we’re truly following the Holy Spirit, he won’t let us get this kind of lazy. Time doesn’t turn us into caricatures of our younger, unrefined selves, like we so often see in pagans. Spirit-led Christians grow. Which is why I like Ephesians: We can see how Paul grew. Hope we’re growing too.

Praising God for his blessings—real ones, not mythological ones.

Artemis, as she was worshiped in first-century Ephesus. [From Wikimedia.]

In researching Ephesians back in seminary, I learned about the main religion of Ephesus: The Artemis cult. You might recall the story in Acts of her followers balking ’cause this new religion called Christianity was spreading, and they wanted to return Ephesus to traditional values, and remind everyone they were an Artemisian nation. So they had a really noisy, angry rally. Ac 19.23-41 Sound familiar, Americans?

Artemis has an interesting backstory. She wasn’t originally a Greek god, but an Anatolian one. The Greeks discovered her later, reinvented her as their virginal moon-god, and added her to their pantheon and myths. But in Ephesus she was a Mother Nature god—whose statue, kept in her temple, was Dio-petís/“fallen from Zeus.” Ac 19.35 Whether the religion started as a meteorite cult, like the Kaaba was before Muhammad domesticated it for Islam, or whether the story of it falling from the sky is wholly a myth, we dunno.

The Ephesians considered her statue a supernatural blessing from the high heavens, and her temple was one of Antipater of Sidon’s “seven wonders of the world.” But not really. Like all pagan gods, she’s not a real god. Ac 19.26 Whereas Jesus is God, and Paul described him in the same way the Ephesians described Artemis. Not an inanimate rock that you worship with ritual sex, whose will you seek by looking for signs, but a living man we worship with our whole being, who can speak to us, and does.

And of of course there are all the other great spiritual things God does for us, in the next verses.


This next bit is a tricky passage to translate. In the third edition of the UBS Greek New Testament, the editors figured verses 3-14 are all one sentence. One big ol’ Greek run-on sentence. Yikes. Thankfully, and properly, the fourth edition broke it up into four sentences—but it’s still a big ol’ run-on. Paul had poor eyesight, so he wrote his letters by dictation. When speaking aloud, we don’t always remember to use verbs. So I kept the run-on nature in mind when I translated it. Hence all the dashes.

Ephesians 1.3-10 KWL
3B God’s the one who blesses us,
in every supernatural blessing in the high heavens—in Christ!
4 Namely how God chose us in Christ to be holy—
spotless before his presence—before the world’s foundation!
In love, 5 though Christ Jesus, God predestined us for adoption to himself—
according to the goodwill of his will,
6 in glorious praise of God’s grace, which he poured out on us in love.
7 Because of God we have redemption, through Christ’s blood—
forgiveness of our carelessness!— 8 through his gracious riches which abound in us—
every wisdom and intent, 9 making known the mysteries of God’s will,
through his goodwill which looks out for us
10 in God’s arrangement of the whole of history—wrapping up everything in Christ,
putting stuff in heaven and stuff on earth in him.

Lots to unpack here.

A lot of Christians use this passage to talk about predestination, the idea God decided, way in advance of us, to save his people. Lots of us love the idea. We’re not God’s afterthought—“Holy Me; humanity sinned. Wasn’t expecting that. Well, now what to do? Gotta come up with Plan B.” Nope; when God created the universe, he simultaneously came up with Plan A (“Don’t sin”) and Plan B (“If you do sin, there’s Christ”). 1Jn 2.1 Hey, if you’re gonna create humanity with free will, you gotta be prepared when they make the wrong choice. And God was totally prepared.

Problem is, a lot of predestination’s fans don’t believe in Plan B. The way they interpret God’s rule of the universe is to insist he doesn’t include options, choices, possibilities, or even free will. I know; it totally looks like we have free will, but they insist it’s an illusion. God only has one plan. Jesus isn’t the contingency for when we sin: God rigged the plan so we’d sin—and then he’d bail us out through Jesus, and look like the hero.

Yep, I’m talking about Calvinism. To John Calvin, predestination meant salvation isn’t about God’s plan to save the world, Jn 3.17 but his plan to save only some. ’Cause Calvin lived in medieval Europe, where kings didn’t permit their subjects much in the way of freedom, which really bent his ideas of how God works. To his mind, if God decides we’re saved, we are; we have no say in the matter; we’re the subjects and he’s the king. God can’t be planning to save the whole world, for then the whole world would go to heaven. ’Cause that’s how God’s will works: It overrules everybody else’s will. Arguably we don’t even have a will.

It’s a problematic view. ’Cause God is love, 1Jn 4.16 and love doesn’t demand its own way. 1Co 13.5 God may force us to do all sorts of things, like die when our time has come. Often he sticks us in situations where we have to deal with him. But if we still defy him, he lets us suffer the consequences. Didja read Exodus yet? God chose the Hebrews, Ex 20.2 but they resisted him. Chosen people or not, their rebellion meant he let ’em die in the wilderness. Nu 26.65 Doesn’t matter what he predestined for them. He had a really great destiny in mind, too: A land of “milk and honey,” where they’d get to live life in peace and prosperity. He always wants to save people, be their Father, and they his children. People want otherwise. Lk 13.34

Since not everyone is getting saved, Calvin assumed it can’t be because people resist God. ’Cause what subjects can resist their king’s will? It’d be an awfully weak king. Can’t be because God works with, or around, our choices: Must be because God doesn’t really want ’em. So Calvinist predestination isn’t about God loving the world, Jn 3.16 but about loving some. It’s called limited atonement: Jesus didn’t die for everybody, but for God’s chosen, and only God’s chosen.

Nope, not what the scriptures teach. God wants to save all. 1Ti 2.4 Jesus paid the penalty for all. 1Ti 2.6 Before God created the world, he determined to create humans, love us, and live with us forever. Not so he can destroy some of us for sick fun, and toss a few of us into hell just so he could show off how mighty he is. I mean yeah, some folks appear to have been created purely so they could test God’s patience—and demonstrate for the rest of us how not to behave. Ro 9.22 But while we might object, “If all they’re ever gonna do is embrace hell, why even create such people in the first place?”—God nevertheless loves them, saw ’em as worth creating, and still wants to save them. Resistant though they are.

Whereas Calvinists figure God doesn’t love them: Just like a potter made jars for food, and chamber pots for… other functions, God created such people to destroy them. We call this idea double predestination: The plan is to deliberately save some, and deliberately destroy the others. To their credit, a lot of Calvinists balk at double predestination, ’cause it makes God obviously psycho: “God doesn’t plan to send people to hell. He just passes them over.”

Um, okay… you mean like a Coast Guard pilot who deliberately ignores certain drowning sailors. ’Cause even though she has the time and wherewithal to rescue everybody, she only cares to save a select few. For whatever personal reasons she has. She likes their skin color, maybe.

In anybody else we’d call this a serious moral deficiency. But Calvinists, who’d never say such a thing about God, argue… that we can never say such a thing about God. ’Cause he’s good! Bible says so. And for some reason they never notice this is a circular argument: “God’s good because he’s good.” Yeah, but the way they describe him, he sure doesn’t act good. Must be some new definition of “good” they’ve invented, where whatever he does is “good”… even when it’s absolutely not.

Ephesians and predestination.

Thing is, in Ephesians Paul wasn’t definitively trying to explain predestination. Not the way Calvinists explain it; not even the way I’m explaining it. He was simply referring to the idea, as he understood it. He didn’t bother to explain the details of how he understood it. We Christians had to extrapolate these details from the rest of Paul’s writings.

Now, I believe it’s wholly consistent with the scriptures, and God’s character, to claim “predestination” is about God’s plan to save everybody through Christ. Jn 3.17-18 True, in the end only some of us will make it into his kingdom. But not because he only wants to save some. He wants to save all. It’s just that many humans won’t repent and turn to Jesus, but embrace the darkness. Jn 3.19-21 Shining his light upon them isn’t gonna draw them to him, but drive them to flee. 1Jn 2.28

Yeah, other Christians have other theories about how predestination works. I already brought up the Calvinist view. There’s a popular view floating around Arminian circles which applies the Calvinist view to nations and groups instead of individuals: God’s absolutely gonna save Israel, or God’s absolutely gonna save his church. And the group won’t resist this sovereign plan… although individuals within the group can always choose to quit the group. Me, I figure this interpretation is poorly cobbled together from borrowed ideas. It’s an attempt to attract people who are familiar with Calvinist predestination, but tries to describe what’s really going on. But it won’t succeed in attracting anyone. See, what people love about Calvinist predestination, is how firm it makes our salvation feel. Such people wanna know they’re saved—that it’s a done deal, despite their own personal sucky relationships with God.

Look, we can know we’re saved: We got the relationship! We have the Holy Spirit within us, correcting us, producing good fruit. This fruit is far more concrete than any speculation of what God might’ve planned for us in the beginning. Especially since this speculation presumes God came up with an evil plan.

Predestination is simply God’s plans to prosper us and not harm us, to give us hope and a future, to save the world through Christ. 1Jn 2.2 Those of us who follow Jesus, who see the fruit of God’s plan take shape in our lives, know his plan’s been activated in us. It’s potentially for all. It’ll only be seen by some, ’cause everybody else resists God’s grace. But God doesn’t wanna only save some. He wants everybody.

So when Paul wrote about predestination, he wrote about his common experience with the Ephesians who followed Jesus. God adopted “us,” meaning he, his ministry team, and the Ephesian church. God poured out his grace, in love, on “us.” God granted redemption, through Christ’s blood, to “us.” God forgave “our” carelessness, granted “us” riches and wisdom and goodwill. “We” get every supernatural blessing in the high heavens.

Applies to us present-day Christians too. Follow God, get included in the plan. Resist God, get bupkis, just like the Hebrews of the Exodus. God’s predestined the world for wonderful things. Don’t resist ’em… and get left out.