". . . that [God] worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come." Ephesians 1:20-21, ESV.
Ephesians offers a rich and lofty mosaic of Christ.
Throughout the epistle the author shows Christ as at once both the supreme ruler of the cosmos, and the obedient, submissive object of God the father's activities. Paul points to Christ as the locus of God's lavish blessing and gracious giving. Ephesians also reveals Christ's death and resurrection as the ultimate conciliatory force in history. Finally, man must be united with Christ if he wants to find freedom from the power and punishment of sin. This essay will examine the first tile of that mosaic: Christ as the submissive king of the universe.
This picture of Christ has two starkly contrasting colors: Christ rules as king of the universe, even while submitting to the father's activity. He is both the supreme subject (actor) and object (acted upon).
Christ submits to the father's activity. At times Christ is in some sense even a means to the father's ends.1 Paul writes about Christ in this way at numerous points in the epistle. Throughout chapter one (see verses 3 through 7 for example), and in several other places, God blesses the church “in” and “through” Christ. Here Christ serves as the indirect object of God's work. In 5:2 Christ offers himself to God as a sacrifice on the church's behalf. Throughout chapter two God uses Christ instrumentally, to reconcile people to each other and to himself, ultimately making Christ the cornerstone of God's household, the church. Paul speaks of Christ as the direct object of the father's activity in 1:20, where God raises him from the dead. Christ is, in a sense, a part of the father's story, serving to glorify God. Paul writes in 3:21 “. . . to [God] be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus . . .”2
This stands in juxtaposition with Christ's role as cosmic king in Ephesians. Here beauty does not shine merely in the irony or contrast, but in the harmony between the two roles Christ plays. In 1:10 Paul says God will bring all things together in Christ; in some sense, Christ is the culmination of the historical drama of redemption. Then in 1:20b Paul says God seated Christ at his right hand. Here the two ideas are in stark contrast: God seated Christ (Christ is subordinate – the object of God's action), at God's right hand (Christ is exalted as ruler). Paul goes on to say Christ is exalted far above everything, in every age. In 22-23 these two ideas, Christ as submissive and Christ as king, meet each other as two mountain sides meet at the summit: Paul writes “And [God] put all things in subjection under [Christ's] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Christ in Ephesians obeys God, who acts on and through Christ in order to exalt Christ.
Paul shows us these truths in passing as he focuses on his real subject: the church. Thus, the applications of these ideas are given throughout the text, because these ideas are only there to serve Paul's primary purposes. Paul wants to tell Christians how God has blessed them, lavished his grace on them, even adopted them, in Christ. He tells Christians how God has given them a place of exaltation, seated on thrones in the heavenlies, with Christ. He writes of how God has, in a sense, re-created Christians by giving them new life - a kind of spiritual resurrection - with Christ. The church becomes a kind of new humanity, because the enmity between Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider, has been abolished by the death of Christ. In all, Paul seeks to expound the church's position through the Gospel, which has been accomplished largely by the actions and love of God the son.
Thus, Paul often states the appropriate response to these truths, because his target is the Christian and his lifestyle. Other times he does not explain, but demonstrates how the Christian should be affected by Christ's role in the Gospel. For example, in 1:15 Paul gives thanks, because God's love through Christ has inspired him. He hopes the church will grow in their ability to accept and believe the things God has done in Christ (1:20). In 2:11 Paul exhorts gentile Christians to remember their former position before God and his people. This remembering inspires joy and hope as the Christian looks to Christ as his entrance into the church (2:14, 2:20).
Again in 3:14 Paul offers his own example of a response to Christ's work, and again it is in the form of expectant and exultant prayer. He now prays that the Christian will be given enough strength to understand and accept the extent of Christ's love. When one learns of Christ's work in the Gospel, one of the proper postures is petition: “let me understand more fully how much he loves me.”
In chapters 4-6 Paul offers specific steps of obedience for Christians. Even here he often gives the specific theological grounds for his exhortations. Christians pursue unity because their faith is in a unified God; each person should embrace his own role in the church, because through each one's role God grows Christ's body; Christians must walk in holiness, in part by the power of a new mind – one rooted in Jesus who is truth itself; in 5:20 Paul instructs the church to give thanks for all things (even bad things?) in the name of Jesus.
Perhaps the most difficult and far-reaching of all the commands in Ephesians is in 5:21: “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Here Paul offers the simplest, most difficult, and most natural expression of a Christian response to the rich mosaic tile he has painted. Each one must submit to others, even as Christ himself submitted to God the father; even more, he must submit to others out of fear for Christ, who, though submissive to the father, is in fact lord of the church and king of the cosmos.
1 It should be stated that, while Ephesians does not contradict the unity of the Godhead, it uses very trinitarian language, sharply distinguishing between the persons. I will emulate this bold verbal distinction, but I realize, as A.W. Tozer wrote: “It is a real . . . error to conceive of the Persons of the Godhead as conferring with one another and reaching agreement by interchange of thought as humans do.”A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York: HarperCollins, 1978), 22.
2There is more textual support for speaking of Christ as the object of God's action verbs. For one of the more profound examples, see 3:11 which speaks of God accomplishing the Gospel, or "forming" it in Christ.
Stott, John R. W. The Message of Ephesians. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979.
Tozer, A.W. The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: HarperCollins, 1978.