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One of the most generous acts you can do is to listen carefully when someone tells you who they are. So often, when we encounter someone, we make up our minds about them before they tell us about themselves. We make judgments based on their background, their appearance, their accent, their age, their gender, their job. When they tell us who they are, we often simply try to fit their words about themselves into our predetermined picture. In other words, we don’t truly listen to them. We don’t allow them to define themselves. Rather, we filter what they say about themselves through the grid of who we have already decided they are like.
Who do you think Paul is? He is, after all, one of the most influential—and therefore talked-about—figures in the history of Western civilisation. There are plenty of opinions floating around about who he is and what he’s like. Some regard him as a champion of forgiveness and unconditional love in the face of suffering. Others see him as a flawed founder of faith, blinded by his own bigotry. For many, he is a distant authority figure from a bygone era: the ‘Saint Paul’ who appears in icons and stained glass windows, who wrote unfathomable letters that have caused centuries of religious argument. And there are plenty of other opinions about Paul to choose from.
Paul wrote many letters. And in those letters, he always introduces himself. He always tells his readers something important about who he is. Ephesians 1:1 is no exception. Paul doesn’t use many words to introduce himself here, but each word is important. It’s worth setting aside our preconceptions and prejudices for a moment and listening carefully to the words Paul has chosen to define his own identity.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.Ephesians 1:1a
The first word Paul chooses to define himself is his name: “Paul”. This might sound entirely unremarkable until we realise that Paul had another name that he could have used. That name was ‘Saul’ (see Acts 13:9). Paul was Jewish, and ‘Saul’ was the name he would have used when associating amongst his Jewish community, especially amongst those who knew their Hebrew Bibles (King Saul was the first king of the united kingdom of Israel, see 1 Samuel). ‘Paul’ was Saul’s Greco-Roman name. That’s the name he used throughout his letters, because he was deeply interested in relating to gentiles (i.e., non-Jewish people) and speaking to them about Jesus Christ.
Paul hadn’t always had such a strong desire to share the message about Jesus Christ with others. In fact, in his early life, he was violently opposed to Jesus Christ. He was particularly opposed to the way Jesus’ followers seemed to denigrate the holiness of God’s special people Israel. So Saul relentlessly persecuted the fledgling gathering of Jesus’ followers. However, while he was on his way to stir up trouble for Jesus’ followers in Damascus, the risen Jesus appeared to him and turned his life around. From that moment, Saul became a follower of Jesus himself. And at the very same time, he received a commission from Jesus—a commission to share the gospel message about the forgiveness and life that comes from Jesus with gentiles throughout the world (see Acts 8–9, 22, 26). And he did this using his Greco-Roman name ‘Paul’.
Apostle of Christ Jesus
The next phrase Paul chooses to define himself is “an apostle of Christ Jesus”. The word ‘apostle’ means ‘someone who is sent’—a messenger or envoy. Who has sent him? A king! ‘Christ’ is a title for Israel’s king, and Paul is an apostle of “Christ Jesus”. What has this king Jesus sent him to do? As we’ve already seen, Jesus has sent Paul to speak the gospel message about Jesus throughout the world. Paul is, in fact, a foundational missionary, with a task to preach and proclaim that great message about Jesus. Later in Ephesians, Paul mentions other apostles (Ephesians 2:20, 3:5, 4:11). These, too, were foundational missionaries who preached the gospel message about Jesus Christ in various places, to both Jewish people and gentiles.
By the will of God
Finally, Paul describes his apostleship as something that happens “by the will of God”. God’s ‘will’ is his purpose and plan for all of creation, which ultimately involves summing up everything in Christ (see Ephesians 1:10). As we see in the rest of Ephesians, that purpose and plan is achieved through the preaching of the gospel. So Paul’s role as a foundational missionary wasn’t just an afterthought for God. Right from the start of his letter, Paul wants to remind his readers that the activity of bringing the gospel message to the world is central to God’s plans for his entire creation. That is the task that Paul is now devoted to.
But let’s remember the situation that Paul is writing this letter from. He is bound in prison, a fact that he later reminds his readers of several times (Ephesians 3:1, 4:1, 6:20). In fact, the very reason that he is in prison is because of his belief in Jesus Christ and his preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ to others. Several years earlier, in 57 AD, a mob in Jerusalem who had opposed Paul’s message and his preaching to the gentiles had got him arrested. Paul was sent to Caesarea and imprisoned there for two years. From there, he appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome. It’s now been quite some time under arrest: 4–5 years, chained up by the rule of the mob and the will of Rome. And yet even after all this time, Paul’s imprisonment isn’t the big thing that occupies his thoughts. He doesn’t define himself as a prisoner of Rome, so he doesn’t introduce himself that way. Rather, he introduces himself as an apostle, by the will of God. He wants his readers to know that his missionary activity—including his current situation in chains—is actually a central part of God’s will. And God’s will has not been thwarted. God is still at work through Paul, and the gospel is continuing to go out to the world.
An apostolic foundation
So in this letter, Paul defines himself first and foremost in terms of the preaching of the gospel. He is a foundational missionary to the gentiles. More than that, this preaching of the gospel from the Jewish man Paul to the gentiles is central to God’s purposes and plans for the universe.
This is just the beginning of Paul’s letter. There is much more to be said. But there is still enough packed into Paul’s opening words to cause us to pause and reflect on our own priorities. The preaching of the gospel, the missionary task, and evangelism—these were central to Paul’s concerns. It’s how he wanted to define himself, even as he was chained up in prison. Furthermore, as Paul goes on to say in chapter 2, that apostolic task—the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ—is actually foundational to what it means to be God’s people. So it’s worth asking the question: what role does the gospel, and the preaching of the gospel, play in your own identity? This is a question for everyone, but it’s particularly important to ask if you’re a leader in any Christian ministry. Is your Christian ministry truly ‘apostolic’? Does it see the preaching of the gospel of Christ Jesus as central to God’s plans and purposes in the world? If so, how is that apostolic priority reflected in the way you see yourself and your ministry, and the decisions you make day by day?
If somebody asked you to define who you are in a short sentence, what would you say?
What role does the gospel of Jesus Christ play in your own identity?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.