19 July 2018

From the lowest place to the highest heavens.

Ephesians 2.1-10.

Gotta confess: I grew up Christian. I said the sinner’s prayer at age 4. I have no real memories of being pre-Christian. So when the scriptures, particularly Ephesians, brings up one’s wayward pre-Christian life before God got hold of us, it’s not so easy to relate. I didn’t live that way.

Oh yeah, I had my hypocrisy phase in high school and college. But it wasn’t an apostasy phase; I didn’t quit Christianity and go pagan in rebellion, doubt, or apathy. I was just a sucky Christian. More Christianist than Christ-following; I held to religiosity when it suited me, and clung to cheap grace when that suited me. Like I said, hypocrisy.

So when Paul wrote about the Ephesians’ pre-Christian lifestyle, I understand what he’s talking about; I know plenty of pagans who live this way. My trouble is I don’t have a shared experience with them, so I don’t relate as well as someone who did have those experiences.

But y’know, that’s one of the great things about Christian diversity: Plenty of us have. And it’s those former pagans who can speak best to current pagans, and point ’em to Jesus. (Although I should point out I strive to be kind to them, so that tends to take me pretty far with them as well.)

And I do have the experience of being a lousy Christian, yet God didn’t give up on me and straightened me out. So there’s that.

But for ex-pagan Christians, this is more what they experienced:

Ephesians 2.1-3 KWL
1 You who were dead in your missteps and the sins 2 you previously walked in,
following this world’s age, following the head air-power—the spirit now working on apathy’s children.
3 We all used to walk backwards like that in our bodily desires, doing the will of our body and minds.
We were natural, raging children, same as everyone else.
4 God, being rich in mercy, loves us out of his great love. 5 Us, being dead in our missteps.
God makes us all alive in Christ: You’re saved by his grace.

Previously following our desires, our culture (“the world’s age”), and various idols (“the head air-power”), we were as good as dead, ’cause sin kills. Ro 6.23 But God loves us despite that, rescues us from all that, and grants us eternal life for no other reason than pure grace. He’s entirely justified in leaving us to our own destruction, but he’s predestined far better for us.

Blaming Satan instead of our apathy.

Of course when certain dark Christians read this passage, they tend to skip all the good news and focus on “the head air-power.” Or as the King James Version more classically puts it:

Ephesians 2.2 KJV
…wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience…

Ooh, “the prince of the power of the air.” Oooh, that sounds like Satan.

Traditionally Christians have interpreted this as a reference to the devil. Except Paul called it ton árhonta tis exusías tu aéros/“the head of the force of the air” instead of “the devil.” He could’ve written “Satan” had he wanted to; he did 10 other times in his letters. Why’d he choose this wording? Because he wasn’t writing about Satan; he was writing about Zeus.

Wait, what? Yep, Paul meant Zeus. Didn’t write “Zeus”—nor did he write “Artemis” even though he totally alluded to her in Ephesians 1.3. Why draw attention to false gods? Why risk being accused of blasphemy by Ephesian pagans who’d already rioted over what he’d taught about their gods? Ac 19.33-41 Problem is, in avoiding specifics, he’s given dark-minded Christians some material with which we can generate new mythology about Satan.

But Satan isn’t in charge of the air. Jesus saw it fall from heaven, Lk 10.18 and when it was thrown to earth with its angels, Rv 12.9 it was stripped of any authority in heaven. Or the air for that matter. Hasn’t stopped Christian novelists and conspiracy theorists from speculating like crazy about what Satan and its angels are busy doing in the air. It’s why there are mistranslations like the NLT, where the singular exusías/“force” is translated “powers.” Or the NIV, which prefers “kingdom,” as if there are subjects in the air for the devil to rule.

And now we’re off. Talking about spiritual warfare, speculating how the devil and its angels might still be battling God’s angels in the skies above, in a never-ending war which occasionally gets ground support by the supplications of “prayer warriors.” You’ve read the Frank Peretti novels. (If you haven’t, don’t bother. They’re kinda stupid.)

In this way we get distracted away from the real problem: Us.

Yeah, there’s a devil, and it’s interested in distracting us away from God and his plans for us. Sometimes it does so by offering us entertainment and enticements. Sometimes by convincing us certain other things are more important, more relevant than religion. Sometimes by riling up our anger against all sorts of things—including itself. (Note how quick dark Christians are to “righteously” rage at the devil—and in so doing, so much for good fruit.) But hey, whatever it takes to divide us from God.

Those who “the head air-power” was working on, the pagan followers of Zeus and the Greek pantheon, the equivalents of today’s civic idolaters and Mammonists, are hard to turn from their idols to God because of apeitheías/“apathy.” That’s a word we tend to miss ’cause the KJV translates it “disobedience,” and other translations follow suit. Properly it means “can’t be persuaded to obey”—because people just don’t care to. They’re not convinced. They have their doubts. Sin seems easier, more natural, more fun. You know, the usual apathy people have towards religious things.

Y’notice this attitude is what we Christians regularly slam into whenever we try to share Jesus with people. It’s not that they love sin and hate Jesus. It’s that they don’t care. They don’t see the point of any of the stuff we Christians care about. They figure they’re good enough; they’ve accumulated enough good karma for God to forgive the rest and let ’em into heaven anyway. All our Christian practice is just unnecessary busywork to them. And not as fun as the stuff they choose to do instead.

Yeah it’s disobedience and lawlessness, but it’s totally based on apathy.

Times change, but human nature doesn’t. ’Cause Paul encountered the very same attitude whenever he shared Jesus: Romans and gentiles who didn’t care, who could easily be distracted by other fun activities, or their current woes. The entire world is too busy fussing, fooling around, fighting, and fornicating, to pay attention to the good news.

God saved us from all that.

Getting saved, getting seated in the highest places.

Determinists like to misuse the following verses to push their idea that our salvation has been entirely fixed in place by God with no input—neither acceptance nor rejection—from us. But most of the foundation of their arguments come from misunderstanding what an aorist verb tense is.

Here’s that passage in the ESV.

Ephesians 2.4-7 ESV
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in 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 coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

So it appears we were dead, past tense, in our trespasses; we were made alive with Christ, were saved, were raised up, were seated in heavenly places; and in the future we’ll be shown grace and kindness. (As if being made alive, saved, raised, and seated aren’t massive acts of grace and kindness.

We don’t have the aorist tense in English, so lemme explain. Aorist literally means “no horizon.” It’s not past tense, not present tense, not future tense: It’s a verb which has no sense of time attached to it. But our English verb tenses all have a sense of time attached to them, so the only way we can translate aorist verbs is as past, present, or future. Custom is to translate ’em as past-tense. After all, most writings discuss events of the past.

But properly, the time an aorist verb takes place depends on its context. What verb tense are all the other verbs in this passage? Past? Present? Future? In this paragraph, present. So I translated ’em as present-tense verbs. Now read the passage.

Ephesians 2.4-7 KWL
4 Being rich in mercy, God loves us out of his great love. 5 Us, being dead in our missteps.
God makes us all alive in Christ: You’re saved by his grace.
6 He raises and seats us together in the highest heavens, in Christ Jesus—
7 so he can show the overabundant riches of his grace in the coming ages,
in kindness to those of us who are in Christ Jesus.

Yep, Paul wasn’t describing how God initiated the salvation process in ages past. He was describing how God saves us now. Right now. As part of our relationship with him.

While our current sins render us good as dead, or worthy of death, God’s current grace currently makes us alive in Christ. Currently puts us in positions of heavenly greatness and authority. Currently turns our unworthy selves into God’s children and heirs.

Now yeah, it may not feel like you’re seated in the highest heavens with Christ. (Currently it feels more to me like I’m seated in a Starbucks. ’Cause that’s where I’m writing this.) Most Christians might feel like they’re exalted after psyching ourselves into a state of euphoria, but the rest of us feel rather earthbound. So what does it mean when Paul describes us in heaven already? Christians came up with four popular interpretations.

  1. GOD’S TIMELESS PERSPECTIVE. Since God fills time, and sees and knows the end from the beginning, Is 46.10 he’s looking at the future, but describing it with present-tense verbs because to him it is the present. Kinda confusing to us time-limited creatures, but that’s what’s going on.
  2. GOOD AS DONE! Related to the first idea: When God describes the things he foreknows with past-tense verbs, it’s to convey the idea he’s gonna make these events certain. They’ve not happened yet, but they’re definitely gonna. They’re as good as done.
  3. JESUS IS IN HEAVEN, AND WE’RE HIS BODY. The scriptures use a lot of metaphors to describe how the church, how Christendom, is Christ’s body, and he’s the head. Ep 5.23 Since we’re so intimately connected with him, made one with him in his death and resurrection, Ro 6.8 Christians imagine we’re also one with him when he was raptured to heaven and sat at his Father’s right. Ac 2.33 He’s seated in heaven, which means we’re seated in heaven. Maybe not literally, but just as good.
  4. OUR SPIRITS ACTUALLY ARE IN HEAVEN. Taking the previous idea to a bit of an extreme, these Christians imagine the spiritual parts of themselves literally are in heaven already. Our bodies are still walking around on earth, but our spirits are sitting up in heaven with Jesus. We’re totally unconscious of this because we’re not yet spiritually-minded enough to recognize it. But we’ll get there.

I tend to lean towards the good-as-done idea, myself. First time I taught on it, I was accused of going Calvinist on my students, but I pointed out John Wesley, who was certainly no Calvinist, taught it too:

6. And hath raised us up together—Both Jews and gentiles already in spirit; and ere long our bodies too will be raised. And made us all sit together in heavenly places—This is spoken by way of anticipation. Believers are not yet possessed of their seats in heaven; but each of them has a place prepared for him. Wesley, at Ephesians 2.6.

’Cause I don’t buy the ideas that we’re already in heaven. We’re not simultaneously there and here, in some weird undetectable spiritual out-of-body way. God’s preparing us for heaven, but we’re not there yet. But at this rate we will be.

Saved by grace.

This next bit has been dissected and analyzed like crazy by Christians who’re trying to understand God’s process. I’ll try not to be so crazy. Going for clarity here.

Ephesians 2.8-10 KWL
8 You’re all saved by God’s grace, through your faith.
This, God’s gift, isn’t from you, 9 isn’t from works; none can boast of it.
10 We’re God’s poetry, creations in Christ Jesus
for doing the good works which God pre-prepared. We should walk in them!

A sizable number of Christians manage to misread verse 8, which the KJV renders “For by grace are ye saved through faith.” Somehow by grace gets skipped, and all they read is “saved through faith,” and wind up teaching, “We’re saved by faith, not works.” Then they pit faith against works, even though faith and works are tightly related.

I’ll discuss their lack of reading comprehension another time, but the gist of this passage is we’re saved by grace, God’s generous, forgiving attitude towards his kids. It’s part of his character, ’cause ’cause kindness is grace in action. I’m not saved because I hope really hard God’ll save me; I’m certainly not saved by being good enough. I’m saved because God had his arms open wide long before I ever realized I needed him.

Part of the reason this Pelagian belief of being saved by faith has spread so widely, is because people do wanna boast of it. ’Cause that’s exactly what such people do. “I believe,” they loudly proclaim, “so I’m saved.” And they frequently insist if we don’t believe the same as they, don‘t believe as hard as they, we’re not saved like they. Basically they’re claiming to be saved by orthodoxy and zeal—which are works. And Paul made it clear works don’t save. Never did.

Faith is a fruit of the Spirit. And we’re not saved by fruit! Certainly we should have fruit, particularly since it’s the only proof the Holy Spirit’s actually in us. But saved by fruit? No no no. The reason we believed in the first place, is because God graciously granted us the ability to believe in him. The technical term is “prevenient grace”—’cause it all comes from grace.

Graceless Christians don’t get this. It’s the weirdest thing, watching ’em read and recite verse 8 over and over again, yet still insisting their faith saves ’em. Pagans can totally see the inconsistency, but with these folks there’s some impenetrable mental block. And even when they acknowledge yes, we’re saved by grace, they still fall back on insisting we need to get all our beliefs sorted out, lest heresy send us to hell. It’s bonkers.

And it makes them bonkers when I remind ’em faith is a work. “No!” they shout, “faith is not a work, because we’re not saved by works! Faith is [logical-sounding reason why it’s not a work]!” Explanations which are easily punctured, because faith is obviously a work. And a good work! We should practice faith all over our lives. But we’re not saved by it, any more than we’re saved by our love, joy, kindness, patience, or generosity. These things are only signs we’re saved. Not sources of salvation.

God saved us so we can be fruitful like that. He made us to be and do good. All sorts of good; not just the good works which are overtly Christian. Every good work pleases him, and every good work contributes to his kingdom in the long run.

Graceless Christians don’t get this either. Some of ’em reject any good work unless it’s obviously kingdom-related. And some of ’em reject any good work at all: “What’re you trying to do, earn your way to heaven? That’s works-righteousness. Stop that. Doing that proves you lack faith, and only faith will save you.”

Yeah, it’s a warped sort of faith when you’re fighting good deeds: Up is down, black is white, good deeds are sin. Not a good place to be. Is 5.20 Don’t go there.