Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 26, 2023
Ephesians 1:15-23 Commentary
I am physically near-sighted. But I grew up in an era before schools did systematic vision-testing. So neither my parents nor I knew that I was near-sighted until we went to a Detroit Tigers baseball game when I was in the sixth grade. When I told my mom and dad that I couldn’t read its outfield scoreboard from our seats behind homeplate, they realized that something was wrong with my vision.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul alludes to a different kind of vision impairment. In verse 18 he tells Ephesus’ Christians that he prays that the Holy Spirit will “enlighten” [pephotismenos]* the “eyes” [ophthalmous] of their “hearts” [kardias].”
The “eyes of the heart” is, however, a somewhat difficult concept to fully understand. Paul, after all, clearly doesn’t refer to the organs that are in most heads with which we see things. What’s more, the hearts that beat within chests simply don’t have eyes.
So the apostle seems to be speaking of a perception of and way of thinking about people and things. More specifically, however, he may be referring to the inability to see things that are not naturally perceptible. We might even say that Paul here is talking about Christians’ need for corrective spiritual “lenses.” He, after all, prays that the Spirit will enlighten our hearts’ eyes.
Various media relentlessly help some things feel, in a sense, “nearby”. Even as we watch wars rage in Gaza and Ukraine, we also see ongoing conflicts occurring in places like Myanmar, Syria and the Central African Republic. We “see” young adults shoot each other on our cities’ streets and people of all ages battle an opioid epidemic in our rural and suburban areas.
God’s people don’t need corrective lenses to help us “see” political turmoil roil our countries and debates about human sexuality shred families, churches and denominations. Some of us see our friends aging, moving away or dying. People see inflation and interest rates soaring, and job security and retirement nest eggs shrinking.
Yet while nearly all of us see at least some of those things, even Jesus’ closest friends need help “seeing” the things about which Paul writes in Ephesians 1. We need the Spirit to correct our hearts’ eyes near-sightedness so that we can see what God and the apostle want us to see.
Among the things the Spirit helps us to “see” is who God really is. In verse 17 Paul expresses his longing for Ephesus’ Christians to “know” God “better” [epignosei].” While that at least suggests that the apostle’s readers have an incomplete knowledge of God, it also implies that such knowledge isn’t just intellectual.
The kind of knowledge about which Paul writes also includes both a recognition and acknowledgement of who God really is. The Message paraphrases the apostle as praying that Jesus’ friends will “come to know” the Lord. After all, it’s not just that God’s people sometimes just don’t know much about God. It’s also that we also naturally fashion god in our own image.
The Spirit, on top of that, according to verse 18a, helps God’s dearly beloved people “see” the “hope [elpis] to which he has called [kleseos]” us. God has called us not just to the hope who is the Christ who is for and with us. God has also granted Jesus’ followers the hope that is the sure confidence that God rather than Satan and his allies, sin and death will get the last word in the lives of God’s dearly beloved people.
On top of that, the apostle prays in verse 18b that the Christians in the Ephesian church will see “the riches [ploutos] of the glory [doxes] of the inheritance [kleronomias] in the saints.” That glorious inheritance isn’t just a reserved space in God’s glorious presence in the new earth and heaven. It also includes the gifts of both eternal life and the abiding presence of Christ by his Spirit that God’s adopted children already enjoy here and now.
In verse 18c Paul goes on to pray that the Ephesian Christians will also “see” God’s “incomparably great [hyperballon megethos] power [dynameos] for us who believe.” In doing so he uses two superlative Greek adjectives (hyper and mege) to describe the immensity of God’s power to transform what God creates, including God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In addition, the apostle longs for Jesus’ friends to “see” how God, according to verse 22, “placed all things [panta] under his feet [hypo tous podas autou] and appointed [edoken] him to be head [kephalen] over all things for the church [te ekklesia].” Here Paul makes several startling assertions. First, he insists that Christ doesn’t just rule over the people who willingly submit to his control. The apostle asserts that Christ is also the head over all things, including those people and things that actively resist his rule.
Second, Paul asserts that God appointed God’s Son to be over all things “for” [te] the church. This claim is nearly as mysterious as it is startling. But at the very least the apostle seems to suggest that God appointed Christ to be the head of all things for the sake of his body. Christ is King so that his Church may flourish in its loving service to God and its neighbor.
As preachers explore with our hearers just what all of this means, we may want to spend time exploring why it’s so hard for Jesus’ friends to “see” things like the hope to which God calls us, the glory of our inheritance and Christ’s rule over all things. We might also point to some of the signs of God’s extraordinary power to make all things, including God’s people, new.
I once heard my colleague Jack Roeda compare attending church to visiting an ophthalmologist. After all, worshipers have a hard time seeing what’s really going on. Six days a week we see much chaos. As preachers lead worship, we want to remember that the Spirit longs to use it to, among other things, help correct our vision so that we can see how God has worked and remains at work in the world God so deeply loves.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
Oliver Sacks wrote a fascinating book about neurological disorders entitled, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In it he described 27 year-old Christina who’d hardly been sick a day in her life. However, she became very unsteady on her feet and prone to dropping things. She eventually couldn’t stand unless she looked down at her feet. Christina’s hands also wandered unless she kept a very close eye on them. When she tried to stand up, her body simply “gave way” on her.
Neurologically healthy people, even with our eyes closed, have a sense of where our arms and legs are. What’s called our proprioceptors help us sense that we’re moving them, even when we don’t see them. Dr. Sacks, however, determined that Christina’s proprioceptors weren’t working well. She, after all, had no idea her limbs were moving unless she literally watched them.
My colleague Scott Hoezee suggests that our Epistolary Lesson’s Apostle Paul might say that our spiritual proprioceptors don’t naturally work any better than Christina’s physical ones do. While God is powerfully at work in our world, we don’t naturally have any sense of that. It sometimes seems to us, as a result, as if God is entirely inactive.
Christina had to learn, in a sense, to see everything differently. She had to use her eyes in every situation where she could formerly rely on her senses. She needed to learn to watch her hands and feet, for instance, to make sure they were in the right place.
God’s Spirit equips God’s adopted children to do something similar spiritually. We learn to live by watching very carefully for God’s work in our world. Christians learn to look for signs of God’s power, faithfulness and love that aren’t always obvious to the untrained eye.
Of course, that, as Hoezee also notes, requires reorientation, hard work and close attention. It also requires most of Jesus’ friends to somehow slow down. Yet looking for and recognizing signs of God’s work helps us to, in Augustine’s words, live, move and have our being.
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