Biblical Studies

Daffy Duck and Ephesians 1 – 3

Studying Ephesians last week reminded me of this Loony Tunes scene:

Anyway, if some of you geeks have the time, I could use your help.

I was taking a Bible Study Methods class and the prof decided to have us focus on Ephesians. For my paper, I chose 2:11-22, but ended up spending a lot of time looking at an issue that has bother me for a while in 1:1-2:10.

Ephesians 1:3 reads, “who has blessed us” (NASB, emphasis added). Starting with that verse, the first person plural pronoun will be used eleven times in vv. 3-12 until a shift happens in v. 13. Here, Paul begins speaking in the second person plural, “In Him, you also…you were sealed in him….” This second person address continues through v. 18 –with the key exception of v. 14. Harold Hoehner notes that there is a variant reading of “we” in v. 13, but “you” has “…good manuscript representation and good geographical distribution.” (Ephesians p. 234, footnote 2).

Therefore the question is, does Paul intend to emphasize the Jewish/Gentile division in this first chapter-and-a-half? If Paul is building up to his big reveal in 3:6 (“to be specific, that Gentiles are fllow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel”), then would not it make sense to contrast the Jewish Christian experience with the Gentile Christian one?

After all, if the Jews were chosen “before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God” (v. 4 –which they most certainly were), and given a specific inheritance (v. 14, as was promised to the patriarchs), And if Paul’s message to the gentiles is that they can be grafted into that (which it certainly is in Romans 11:17), then isn’t it consistent with Paul’s writing on the subject that you have Jews who were given a promise and an inheritance and you have gentiles who later join them?

Andrew T. Lincoln thinks not,

The proposed distinction between “we’ as Jewish Christians and “you” as Gentile Christians is one that simply does not hold for the rest of the letter. In fact, the returning to the first person plural in v 15 tells overwhelmingly against such a proposal. “Our inheritance” is that of all believers, not least of those who have just been described as having been sealed with the Holy Spirit, and is not just the inheritance of Jewish believers….It is far more likely that the “you” in v 13 marks the point at which the letter’s recipients are addressed and explicitly drawn into the blessing offered by believers in general as they are reminded of their reception of the gospel. What has happened is simply that the more general liturgical style has shaded over into address to the readers. The same phenomenon with a change in the person of the pronoun can be found in the blessing in 1 Pet. 1:3-9 (Ephesians p. 38)

I guess this identifies two options:
1. Paul emphasizes the Jewish/Gentile distinction to highlight their integration.
2. Paul assumes their integration and making the distinction between a general Christians statements (“all of us”) and a specific exhortation (“You Christians in Ephesus”)?

If the latter, why does he say that the “we” are those who “were the first to hope in Christ” (v. 12)? Was it not the Jews who first hoped in their own Messiah and then the Gentiles? Was not Paul’s own ministry “to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16; Acts 17:11-14)?

This question speaks to the opening of Chapter 2 which begins similarly to 1:14, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” But Paul is quick to be inclusive, “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” (v. 3).

If the distinction wasn’t between Jew and Gentile, then what is the you/us distinction in chapter 2? Is it more likely that Paul, a Jew who is going to address Gentile inclusion into Israel beginning in v. 11, is speaking of a you (Ephesians) and an us (all Christians)? Or is it more likely that he speaks of a you (gentiles) and an us (Jews)?

Now granted, the case gets weak for the Jew/Gentile explanatory framework after we get to 2:4-5. Observe the flow of the passage:

And you [Gentiles] were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you [Gentiles] formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we [Jews] too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest [of humanity]. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us [Jews], even when we were dead in our [Jewish] transgressions, made us [Jews] alive together with Christ (2:1-5a)

But then he states “…by grace you [Gentiles] have been saved.” From this point on, what seemed like a clear divisions comes off the rails a bit. This is seen if we apply the same understanding of the pronouns through the rest of the paragraph,

and raised us [Jews] up with Him, and seated us [Jews] with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us [Jews] in Christ Jesus. For by grace you [Gentiles] have been saved through faith; and that not of your[Gentile]selves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we [Jews] are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we [Jews] would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:6-10)

Yeah, it just doesn’t work.

In a sermon, John Piper once advised struggling Bible students that if one does not understanding a text, he or she should just keep reading. And when we did we get to Ephesians 2:11 where there is a very clear Jew/Gentile division.

But that hardly answers settles the matter. It could be direct because that’s what he’s been saying all along or it could be direct because he hasn’t been saying it all along and therefore needed the clarification.

There are some interesting implications either way, but I’m still unsettled on the issue. Any thoughts?


  • Nathan Straub

    There’s something basic you’re assuming the whole time. That is that “we” in Greek is ambiguous, and can include either (1) speaker + addressee(s), (2) speaker + immediate associate(s), (3) speaker + distant associate(s), or (4) speaker + associate(s) + addressee(s). (And I didn’t even add in those overhearing! I guess they’d sort of go under associates.)

    Options 1 and 4 are inclusive, options 2 and 3 are exclusive. In some languages, inclusive and exclusive “we” is marked differently. Daniel Wallace says, though, that Greek is ambiguous, as you assumed. He says you can’t really tell whether “we” is exclusive unless “you” crops up somewhere near in contradistinction. (See Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics pp. 393-397.)

    There are a couple of theses written at Dallas Seminary just about Paul’s pronouns. If you have access to the databases, you might look them up: Theodore K. Weis, “‘We’ means who?’ An investigation of the literary plural” (1995), and J. Michael Wynn, “The Scope of Personal Pronouns in Ephesians” (2003). And an older article everyone cites is R.A. Wilson, “‘We’ and ‘you’ in the Epistle to the Ephesians” (1964).

    On your final question about Eph. 2:11, I prefer the option that says he’s saying “you Gentiles” directly because that’s not what he was saying before. My lexicography professor led us through a word study of “grace” in the NT, and he said that in normal usage it just means favor, but in Eph. 2, Paul puts a special spin on it to mean unmerited favor. He alerted the audience to this fact by specifying that it was grace that is not by works. But now, everyone looks to Eph. 2 for the definition of grace, and so they select Paul’s secondary meaning rather than the primary meaning that the audience would have thought of first before Paul wrote Ephesians 2.

    I’d argue for the same sort of turn signaled by the phrase “you Gentiles” in Eph. 2:11.

    Krister Stendahl does say that the Jewish vs. Gentile distinction is key to much of what we misinterpret in Paul’s writings.

    But I’m inclined against a magical reading that encodes a particular set of meanings into one word every time it’s used. Words vary in meaning according to context. That’s why I disagree with John McRay in his Baker Dictionary article, where he says “we” means Jews or Jewish Christians up until Eph. 2:3, when the “you” and “we” are joined together for the rest of the letter. I think he makes his statement too rigid.

    Someone else that I read, however, kind of conflated the ideas above, and said that in the early chapters, “we” means the first Christians, who are mostly Jews, and “you” means the later Christians, specifically the ones in Ephesus. That could account for the nuances, looking at the pronouns with a focus and a peripheral shadow. I like that analysis.

    One of the interesting implications is the origin of the idea of predestination. I hadn’t seriously considered it before, but your comment about predestination referring to the choosing of the Jewish nation got me thinking. Usually, Paul doesn’t set forth a new doctrine without either saying it’s come to him by direct revelation. Otherwise, he references either the words of Jesus or something from the OT. Here, since he doesn’t say predestination is a new idea, we can assume that he’s got an OT precedent in mind. And that could mean that with “we” he’s got a group of mostly-Jewish early Christians in mind (which is expanding to include Gentiles also). In this way, he subsumes the OT promises of inheritance and applies them to Christ’s people. I’m not fully decided on this, but it’s intriguing.

    One writer who did something like this was Edward Coke. In the 1600s, he wrote a set of commentaries on the Magna Carta (1215). Whereas the Magna Carta was drawn up by the barons to protect their rights against the king, Coke interpreted every guarantee as applying to every freeman. He pretty much introduced this change as if it had been that way all along. The king wasn’t happy about it, I’d say, but people started to accept it based on Coke’s treatise that they had all these ancient liberties, too. I wonder if Paul is doing something similar with predestination.

  • Nathan Straub

    On the topic of focus and periphery, you should do some reading in Cognitive Grammar. This theory uses stick figures to show the conceptualization of events or things. Maybe start with this article by Doug Inglis (at least the illustrations on p. 3 regarding immediate and maximal scope).

  • David

    Hey my man! Greetings from this end of he world!

    Thank you so much for digging those articles up. I was able to scan through them and think that they’re identifying pretty much what has caught my attention.

    I’ve gone back-and-forth on this so many times I couldn’t count them. But Koshi Usami’s take (as you’ve rehearsed it), has made the most sense to me…depending on the day. :-)

    But R.A. Wilson’s assertion that “we” always refers to all Christians seems to be a bit downstream from where I’m at. I haven’t studied it, but I will say that such a dogmatic statement about pronouns smells bad. More study is needed there for sure (at page 676 pages, it sounds like he’s already done the leg work :-p).

    Since there isn’t anything weird about the Greek language here (pretty straight forward pronouns), I felt comfortable sticking with the translation, but it does mean I missed his most excellent footnote from Wallace. Thanks for that!

    But you hit on exactly what I’m waiting to see, namely that that “he chose us before the foundations of the world” is teetering on this question of pronouns. I don’t want to get there until it’s time to get there, but it’s definitely on the line.

    Too much fun, my friend. Too much fun. :-)

  • David

    Hey Nate!

    One more note on the theological implications of the pronouns in Ephesians 1. Paul basically says the same thing in 2 Thess. 2:13-14:

    “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

  • Nathan Straub

    Thanks for that last verse. I guess from that, it’s clear that Paul considered Gentiles to be chosen for salvation “from the beginning”, unless you accept the GNB and ESV’s alternate reading of “chose you as the first to be saved” or “firstfruits”. What I’d like to find out, though, is what lens Paul was looking through… where did he get this idea that they were chosen from the beginning? We don’t really have to answer it now, but thanks for thinking about it with me.