The Ecclesiology of the Letter to the Ephesians

Sermon notes by Lee Irons, who was at the time pastor of Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Van Nuys, CA.

Most scholars agree that no other book of the New Testament contains such a lofty and detailed doctrine of the church as the book of Ephesians. This theme dominates the book, occurring in nearly every chapter of the book.

Chapters 1-3

In chapter 1 the first occurrence of the word ekklesia in Ephesians defines the word from the very outset as the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all (vv. 22-23). The word fullness suggests completeness and totality.

Although one common use of ekklesia in the New Testament is to refer to the local church, that meaning is secondary to its universal meaning as the entire church of Jesus Christ, or what Paul calls "the fullness of Christ." Local congregations like the house churches of Ephesus are merely particular expressions of the worldwide body of believers united to Christ and to one another by the Spirit.

Where does Paul get this lofty notion of the church as a total entity, the universal body of Christ? It is an implication of his doctrine of union with Christ. Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians with a long benediction in which he enumerates the many spiritual blessings that the church enjoys in union with Christ. It is easy to read this opening section in individualistic terms, as blessings that each individual believer possesses in Christ. But the text is emphatic. These blessings are all corporate in nature. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ." God chose us, predestined us, lavished his grace upon us, forgave us, made known to us the mystery of his will, gave us an inheritance, and gave us the Spirit as a pledge. Every single benefit is expressed in corporate terms, as something that we enjoy together as the church.

And why is this? Because all of these wonderful spiritual blessings come to each one of us as individuals by virtue of our union with Christ. The prepositional phrase "in Christ" occurs about 10 times in the same paragraph. First, every spiritual blessing is said to be "in Christ." Then Paul goes on to enumerate these blessings that we have in Christ: election (v. 4), adoption (v. 5), acceptance (v. 6), redemption (v. 7), the inheritance (v. 11), the seal of the Holy Spirit (v. 13).

Christ is the sphere in whom all of these blessings are found. Outside of Christ, there is nothing but sin and death and judgment. In Christ, we possess all things. He is the overflowing storehouse of spiritual riches, the fountain of all grace, the sum and substance of salvation.

In chapter 2 the church is described as a spiritual temple being built on the foundation of the apostles and new covenant prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone. The metaphor of the cornerstone is a reference to the ancient construction practice of laying a massive cornerstone or guidestone first before anything else. This stone was crucial because it determined the shape and orientation of the entire building. As new stones and walls and structures are gradually added the building grows out from that stone along the line and pattern which it has established once for all. The founding revelation given in Christ is merely being elaborated upon by the apostles and those who come after them to continue their work. All must be built on Christ, supported by Christ, conformed to Christ.

Jesus Christ is now building his church by means of the preaching of the gospel. As a result, the temple is being built, not of physical materials, but of the redeemed. Through the fellowship of the body, mutual edification, and the means of grace, it grows into a holy temple to be the eternal dwelling place of God. The temple of stone and gold that Solomon built was only a type and shadow. Jesus Christ and the church which is being built upon him is the reality.

The church is God's spiritual temple, but it is also a living organism. It is "growing" into a holy temple in the Lord. What Paul is trying to show is that the foundation and the superstructure that is being built on the foundation are organically one, thus producing a unified, organic whole, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

The spiritual temple where God dwells and is eternally glorified, is not just the church, nor is it just Christ, but Christ-and-his-church. God has chosen to make this Christ-church his permanent dwelling place.

In chapter 3 the total church united to Christ constitutes the ultimate expression of God's manifold wisdom. It is the eternal purpose of God which he carried out in Christ (v. 11). The church is thus the pinnacle of salvation history. As the fullness of Christ who fills all in all, it plays an essential role in God's ultimate purpose of bringing glory to himself through Jesus Christ as one in whom all things in heaven and on earth are summed up.

Through the church God is making known his manifold wisdom to the principalities and the powers. And it is not just the church on earth that constitutes this divine manifestation. Ultimately, the corporate existence and fellowship of Christ and the church for eternity in heaven will be the grand demonstration of God's infinite wisdom, grace, and glory.

The closing doxology in verses 20-21 reiterates this point:  "… to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus." The mystery of the one-flesh union of Christ and the church is what will bring glory to God as the eternal ages roll on and on stretching out over the infinite vista of eternity.

In chapters 1-3 Paul has taken us on a cosmic journey from the eternal counsels when the church was elected in Christ before the foundation of the world, to the ultimate eschatological goal when the church is completed as God's perfected and eternal temple.

Chapter 4-6

But then we come to chapters 4-6 and we hit the reality of the church's present existence between the times. There we are confronted with the fact that worldwide unity of the body of Christ is not visibly expressed as it ought to be. There we are reminded of the fact that in the local expression of the body of Christ, there is potential for un-reconciled relationships, for brethren to lie to one another, for unwholesome words to be spoken, for there to be a lack of forgiveness and mutual forebearance. The church on earth is composed of former Gentiles, who once lived in debauchery and sin, enslaved to the lusts of the flesh and the shameful deeds of darkness. And though these former Gentiles who are now cleansed in Christ and judicially set apart to the status of being holy ones, saints in God's sight, yet it is still possible for saints to act in ways that are inconsistent with their status in Christ and to manifest the remnants of their former pagan ways.

In chapter 5 Paul also reveals his awareness of the fact that the church is a work in progress. Christ, as the church's Head and Husband, continues to cleanse the church by the washing agency of his word, with the goal of presenting her to himself in all his glory having no spot or wrinkle, but holy and blameless before him. The implication is that at the present time, prior to the second coming of Christ, the church is not yet there. She is imperfect. She is full of spots and wrinkles.

In chapter 6 Paul further expands on the nature of this time prior to the consummation. It is not only a time of progressive sanctification for the church, but a time of spiritual danger. We are in a cosmic conflict. The gospel is going forth to the ends of the earth, but the enemy is also trying to hinder the gospel, as evidenced for example in Paul's imprisonment. The church must therefore be spiritually alert, equipped with the full armor of Christ, and watching unto prayer.

The Tension Between the "Already" and the "Not Yet"

There is this tension between the ideal church in the heavenly places in Christ as presented in chapters 1-3 and the real church on earth as presented in chapters 4-6.

The way in which this distinction has been expressed traditionally is the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. The visible church is the empirical church that we see on earth, with its actual professing members. It is imperfect. It contains a mixture of wheat and tares. The invisible church is the ideal church, the total number of the elect who are known only to God.

The weakness of this distinction between the visible and the invisible church is that it gives the impression that we are talking about two separate churches. John Murray tried to correct this by saying that we are really talking about one church, viewed from two different perspectives. Murray therefore preferred to speak of the (one) church as visible and as invisible.

An even better way of getting at Murray's concern is to take Paul's two-age construct — the already and the not-yet — and apply it to our doctrine of the church.

The empirical church that we see now, the church with all its warts and foibles and even apostasy in large sections of it, is the church in its pre-consummation form, still waiting for the glory of the non-yet. That is the church as visible. The church from the perspective of her present participation in Christ's death and resurrection, the church as already raised with Christ and seated with Christ in the heavenly places, waiting only the public vindication at the last day — that is the church from the point of view of the already, the church as invisible.

Both of these perspectives must be kept together. Only as we keep the proper balance and tension between the already and the not-yet will we be properly motivated to be involved in God's great cosmic plan for the exaltation of his Son in and through the church. Failure to keep these two perspectives together can result in one of two problems.

1st Problem: Non-Committal Attitude

The first problem is that some Christians have a non-committal attitude toward the visible church caused by a romantic view of "the already." Such Christians often claim that they are members of the invisible church, so they don't need to become members of a particular visible church.

In chapters 4-6 Paul is very practical. He won't let us stand their gazing into heaven, as we meditate on the glory of the heavenly reality of the church seated with Christ in glory. He pulls us down to the empirical realities of the church as she exists in this present age. He commands us to apply the heavenly vision in extremely practical and often difficult ways.

Look at Eph. 4:25-32. Here we see that all Christians are to lay aside falsehood and speak the truth, for we are members of one another. We must not let anger and bitterness fester in our hearts. Instead we are to be reconciled quickly with our brother or sister, so as not to give the devil a foothold. We must not steal but instead work hard so that we can share with those in the church who are in need. We are to watch our speech, making sure that no unwholesome words proceed from our mouths, but only words that edify and build up and give grace to those who hear. We are to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, and ready to forgive those who have wronged us.

In 5:21 Paul introduces his exhortations to wives and husbands, to children and parents, and to slaves and masters with the command to "be subject to one another in the fear of Christ." In each of these relationships, Paul detects something of the relationship between Christ and his church. The Christian wife, for example, expresses her faith and her subjection to Christ, not in some abstract way, but in the very real context of having to submit to her husband. Likewise for children and slaves.

The converse is also true for the authority figures. Paul won't let these authority figures off the hook, just because they are in the position of authority. He shows that they too must learn how to submit to authority, that is the authority of Christ. And they can only learn how to submit to Christ in the context of real relationships, as they learn how to sacrificially love their wives, children, or slaves.

Paul refuses to allow anyone in the church get away with a general or abstract obedience that is not tied to the concrete realities of obedience to human authority, with all of its foibles and shortcomings in this present age. Christ disciples his people by placing them in human relationships.

Only when Christians live together in relationships within the family of God, do we begin to appreciate what this thing is that God has created, this thing called the church, with Christ as the Head, and we who are many being one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Working hard at these very practical things is an act of faith by which we show that we really believe in the lofty theology of the church.

If you really believe what Paul has been telling us in Ephesians about this lofty cosmic plan of God to sum up all things in Christ and in his body which is the fullness of Christ — if you really believe that the church is central to God's eternal purpose, then you must, you must get your hands dirty by getting involved in real relationships in the visible church with visible Christians — which by the way, are sinners just like you.

2nd Problem: Defeatist Attitude

The second unbiblical attitude is to be defeatist about the church. This defeatist mentality is caused by focusing only on "the not-yet." The church in its present state, prior to the consummation of heaven, is far from perfect.

  • Persistent lack of visible unity among the various Christian denominations.
  • Pervasive doctrinal error and outright heresy.
  • Lack of charity and love among Christians. Too much squabbling and fighting.
  • The misplaced priorities that distract us from the evangelistic task of the great commission — whether it be the lust for political influence, or for charismatic experiences and supposed phenomena of the Spirit.

Paul's lofty theological reflection on the nature of the church does not mean that we must close our eyes to the very real problems that the church faces today. Paul's lofty theological reflection is not an excuse to avoid facing up to these concrete struggles and problems.

Yet, while we cannot escape these realities of the church this side of heaven, by faith we can and we must lay hold of the eschatological reality that has been given to us in Christ. Indeed, the glory of the church united with Christ the Head is a theological reality that can only be grasped by faith. In the visible church, as a historical and sociological phenomenon on earth, we do not see a glorious bride without spot or wrinkle. Therefore, we must look not to the empirical church on earth, but to the objective reality of the church's existence and identity as defined by Christ himself in heaven.

If we are to be actively involved in the struggles of the visible church without losing heart, then the glorious picture of the church, as God sees her in Christ — the picture Paul presented in the first three chapters — must always be kept before our eyes.

Have you ever noticed that when we recite the Apostles' Creed, we not only confess, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, and in the Holy Ghost." We also confess, quite literally:   "I believe in the holy catholic church." The church is an article of faith, just as much as the Trinity.

This is why Paul prays for them that the eyes of their heart would be enlightened. He wants them to see their identity in relation to Christ the exalted Lord of all creation. The church will be what it ought to be only when it is convinced of its privileged identity as the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

The term "fullness" implies completeness. Christ is incomplete without his body. The body is the fullness, the completion, the full complement without which Christ would not be the cosmic Head in whom all of creation is summed up (1:10). Christ and the church cannot be separated. They complement one another. Just as the church cannot exist without Christ, so Christ cannot exist without his church. What an amazing statement!  The church is Christ's spouse, his partner whom we cannot imagine Christ without.

What exactly does Paul mean by this? He fleshes it out in chapter 5, when he speaks about marriage in Christ (Eph. 5:25-32). In this marvelous passage, Paul paints a beautiful picture that harks back to God's provision of a helper suitable for Adam in the garden. When Adam named the animals, no helper suitable was found for him. The LORD God therefore caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep and fashioned a woman for him out of his side. When the LORD God presented the bride to Adam, he exclaimed, "This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!" (Gen. 2:23; quoted by some manuscripts in Eph. 5:30 — see the New King James).

So also at the second coming of Christ. Christ will present us to himself in all her glory to be his bride. Actually, the translation "in all her glory" is misleading because the word "her" is not found in the Greek text. The church will not stand before Christ in all her glory, but in Christ's glory.

In her present state she is far from blameless. She is full of spots and wrinkles that mar her beauty and conceal her form.  But Christ does not look at her only as she is in the present time of progressive sanctification. He sees her as she will be in that great wedding day, when she will walk down the aisle of heaven and be presented to him in her finest wedding garments, coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. Jesus is preparing us for that day. He is taking away our spots, ironing out our wrinkles. His heart is full of longing and desire. And he who accomplished all things pertaining to her salvation by his perfect obedience and sacrifice, will see to it that his longing is fulfilled. He who came all the way from heaven to earth, who humbled himself and took to himself human nature, he who in that human nature at great cost offered himself up on the cross to satisfy the full demands of the justice of God, he who came this far will see to it that he has a companion corresponding to him that he may enjoy her forever. On that day, his bride will stand there before him, clothed in his glory. And Jesus will exclaim, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." Indeed, this is a profound mystery.

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