(Old Facebook Post – Slightly edited and shared April 3, 2015)
Since I expect to take a blogging holiday this weekend, I thought I’d share a resurrection post now before I leave. If you are troubled by a resurrection post that comes on Good Friday, well, I guess you can stop reading now!
Or, better yet, receive this as a parable: Just as this resurrection blog post has broken unexpectedly into your present from the future, so the blessings of Christ’s resurrection break into our lives now, long before our bodies die. Resurrection now! Or, to use theologian-speak: inaugurated eschatology! In the book I reviewed Wednesday, the chapter on Ephesians and Colossians is entitled “Heaven Can’t Wait.” Well, I can’t either, so here’s a post from Ephesians on how Jesus’ resurrection carries us to heaven, right here and right now.
This post is actually a re-post from something I shared on Facebook over a year ago, but good news like this never gets stale. God bless you as you meditate on Christ’s death and resurrection this weekend!
“Heavenly places” is a strange term that is found repeatedly throughout Ephesians. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, this term does not refer to the cozy feeling we experience when we gather in a holy huddle as believers within our holy sanctuaries in our sacred church buildings (my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I write such phrases). Nor does it refer primarily to some after-death experience of “going to heaven when we die.” Let’s examine Paul’s use of the term to seek a more accurate understanding.
Here’s my plan: First, I’ll post all the passages in Ephesians where this term is found. Second, I’ll make a (very incomplete) list of observations about these passages. Third, I’ll summarize from Acts why this was relevant to the church at Ephesus. And fourth, I’ll quote a couple commentators conclusions about the term “heavenly places.” Let’s begin!
“Heavenly Places” and “Heaven(s)” in Ephesians
Here, for your meditation, are the five times where Paul uses the term “heavenly places” (actually a single Greek word) in Ephesians. I will also include the four times where Paul uses the related term, “heaven(s).” (All quotations are from the ESV.)
“3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
“16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, …that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 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. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 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. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
“8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.”
“14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family [or ‘fatherhood’] in heaven and on earth is named…”
“7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,
‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.’
9 (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
“9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”
“10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
Observations about Heavenly Places in Ephesians
This is what I think the previous passages suggest about the terms “heavenly places” and “heaven(s)”:
1. A variety of persons are said to be, right now, in these heavenly places: rulers, authorities, powers, dominions, and spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; I take this to refer, at minimum, to demonic forces); Jesus (Eph. 1:20; 2:6; 4:10; 6:9; perhaps Eph. 1:3); and all believers who are “in” Christ (Eph. 2:6; perhaps Eph. 1:3; 6:12).
2. Warfare is waged in these heavenly places between God/believers and the forces of evil (Eph. 6:12).
3. There are “higher” and “lower” positions within these heavenly places, so that Christ is said to be “far above” the other inhabitants of the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20-21; 4:10).
4. Christ is “seated” in heavenly places—language that suggests ruling from a throne (Eph. 1:20; 2:6).
5. By virtue of our being “in Christ,” believers are also said to be “seated” in the heavenly places and thus “above” the forces of evil (Eph. 2:6), so that we can fight these forces “in the strength of [the Lord’s] might” (Eph. 6:10).
6. Christ’s exalted place within the heavenly places was secured through the power God exercised in his resurrection and ascension (Eph. 1:20; 2:5-6; 4:10), and now that power is now available on behalf of believers (Eph. 1:19; 6:10-13).
7. The battle that the forces of evil wage against believers involves things like “the passions of the flesh” (Eph. 2:1-3), “craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14), and all kinds of things that oppose the gospel and its advance (Eph. 6:10-20).
8. God’s purposes for the believer in this warfare involves things like being “holy and blameless” and being united with Christ (Eph. 1:4, 10), experiencing resurrection power (Eph. 1:19), walking in good works rather than after the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2, 10), demonstrating God’s manifold wisdom to the forces of evil (Eph. 3:10), receiving church leaders as gifts designed to shape the body into the image of Christ (Eph. 4:10-12), exercising leadership as one subservient to our “Master… in heaven” (Eph. 6:9), and waging warfare in the Lord’s might, the armor of God, all kinds of prayer, and the proclamation of the gospel (Eph. 6:10-20).
More could be observed, but this suffices to show that the concept of “heavenly places” is somewhat similar to how we today speak of “the spiritual world.” Paul is saying that believers, by virtue of their being united with Christ and participating in his resurrection power and authority, can successfully wage warfare right now against the forces of evil and live holy and blameless lives as children of God.
It is also important to notice that this successful warfare is only possible as believers work together as one body composed of many diverse gifts. The promise of resurrection power against the forces of evil is given to the unified church, not primarily to isolated individuals. This is evident from Paul’s use of plural pronouns, which are hidden in most English translations (for example, see Eph. 2:16-20; 6:10-20). Thus Paul covets the prayers of the Ephesians to help him experience supernatural boldness as he engages in the spiritual warfare of proclaiming the gospel.
Spiritual Warfare in Ephesus: Data from Acts
It is instructive to consider Paul’s emphasis on spiritual warfare in light of what Acts records about his ministry in the city of Ephesus. (Acts 19 is well worth reading now!) At Ephesus:
1. Paul emphasized the importance of not merely repenting of sins, but of being baptized “into” Christ. (Remember the “in Christ” emphases of Ephesians.)
2. Paul waged spiritual warfare by “reasoning and persuading… about the kingdom of God” and by healing the sick and casting out evil spirits.
3. The seven sons of Sceva attempted to imitate Paul’s exorcisms, with disastrous results.
4. Many books of magic were burned by new believers.
5. Demetrius and other idol-makers stirred up a riot against Paul.
Clearly, the Ephesians were used to spiritual warfare! Paul’s reminders about the authority they possessed in Christ and the identity of their true opponents (demonic, not human) were timely.
“Heavenly Places” in Commentaries
Here are some summaries by commentators on the topic of “heavenly places” in Ephesians. First, from Harold W. Hoehner (Ephesians, Baker Academic, 168-70.)
“The word [“heavenly places”] in classical Greek [before NT Greek] can refer to the place where the gods dwell and from which they come or… it can be used synonymously with God… [One author, Caragounis, suggests that the term ‘heaven(s)’] begins with the air space where birds fly and continues all the way up to God’s throne, while [the term ‘the heavenly realms’] refers to the higher layers of space, from God’s throne down to the sphere where cosmic powers reside and operate… Believers operate simultaneously in two realms: they live in their bodies on earth (Eph 3:1; 6:10-20) but their spiritual enrichment is from the heavenlies (1:3) and their struggle is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual foes in the heavenlies (6:12; cf. 3:10)… In receiving the spiritual benefit from the heavenly places it is in the midst of satanic attack and interference. The spiritual benefits for the believers are from the heavenlies and the unbelievers’ opposition to the believers find their source in wicked spiritual leaders who also reside in the heavenlies (6:12). In other words, the struggles in the heavenlies are also played out on earth.” (emphasis added)
And from Clint E. Arnold (Ephesians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series, 78.)
“’In the heavenly places’… should probably be… interpreted metaphorically as ‘the spiritual dimension’ or ‘the unseen world of spiritual reality’… Paul seems to be using the term… in the sense of ‘the heavenlies’ as a sphere of spiritual blessings to which believers now have access as well as the realm populated by evil spiritual powers. Thus, the term might be best understood as ‘the spiritual realm.’” (emphasis added)
And some more commentary by Arnold (496-98):
“What happened in Ephesus [as described in Acts 19] could have taken place in virtually any city of the Roman empire (and beyond)… What made Ephesus unique is that this city had a distinct reputation in antiquity as a place where magical arts flourished. This suggests that believers in the young Christian congregations in and around Ephesus had experience with these sorts of practices. The many new believers who have streamed into the churches since Paul was last there probably also struggled with renouncing these practices and embracing Christ fully…
“All of the means that they had formerly used to protect themselves, their households, their livestock, and their crops from hostile spiritual powers have now been unmasked as evil and contrary to the kingdom of Christ. What could they do to protect themselves against spiritual forces of evil?
“Paul eloquently addresses this question in Ephesians… There are four [misprint?] essential aspects of Paul’s teaching about the powers:
“(1) The superiority of the power of God and the supremacy of Christ…
“(2) Believers have access to divine power and authority over this realm by virtue of their union with Christ…
“(3) A new perspective on the powers. The Gentile readers had been accustomed to making distinctions between good and evil spirits… But Paul commends them to only one Spirit (4:4)…
“(4) A new perspective on the purpose of spiritual power… [believers possess spiritual power not for self-exaltation or merely self-protection, but for holy living, building up the church in love, and spreading the gospel]
“(5) God will ultimately subdue all of the rebellious powers through Christ… (1:10)”
Amen! That’s “Resurrection Now” for the Christian. Now, may we live “in Christ” in such a manner “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”!