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One of the benefits of history is that it makes us grateful for things we might otherwise take for granted. My father-in-law has a collection of historical newspapers. At one point I was looking through his collection, and a brief comment caught my eye. It’s from the London Gazette, Monday August 26, 1768, Number 118, Twopence-Farthing, just after an announcement of a soiree to be held by Mrs Grant-Forsdyke and just before a description of a French pirate ship at large:
ABHORENT PRACTICE OF SLAVE TRADING: The hunting of Human Beings for the purpose of making slaves of them is a practice to be much abhored. It is therefore of great comfort to Englishmen of Christian Ideals to note that the group of Evangelicals continues to be active in condemning the trading of slaves… We are sure all thinking men will deem the work of the Evangelicals to be of ultimate necessity and will encourage them to continue in it.London Gazette, Monday August 26, 1768
(An “Evangelical” is a Christian motivated primarily by the gospel, i.e. the message about Jesus Christ. The word comes from the Greek word for gospel, euangelion)
The writer of this article is speaking about the early efforts of Evangelicals such as Granville Sharp (later joined by Hannah More, William Wilberforce and others) to end the slave trade in the British Empire. By God’s grace, the Evangelicals’ persistent efforts were ultimately successful. While modern slavery is still, sadly, a huge problem worldwide, at least it is now universally illegal. Today, we take this for granted. But it hasn’t always been so. Fundamental changes have occurred, and it’s important to remember how these changes came about. History helps us to be grateful for our current situation, to remember how we got here—in this case, through the work of people who took the gospel of Jesus seriously—and to be motivated to continue to act today.
Ephesians is written by the Apostle Paul:
To the holy ones—those who are also believers in Christ Jesus.Ephesians 1:1b
There is some important history behind this phrase. If we learn and remember this history, it will increase our wonder at and gratitude for what God has done to make it true. And as believers in Christ Jesus, it will motivate us to live as God’s holy people today.
First, we need to come to grips with what ‘holy’ means. First and foremost, ‘holiness’ is a characteristic of God. God’s ‘holiness’ refers to his supreme excellence—his distinction from everything that he has made. God’s holiness means that he is perfectly mighty and pure and wonderful, and more. The word ‘holy’ can also be used to describe things and people that are specially set apart for God and his service. In the Old Testament, we read about the nation of Israel (e.g. Exodus 19:6, Deuteronomy 7:6). Israel was ‘holy’ because God had loved them and chosen them to be his own people, to be set apart for his service, to live for him, to be pure and live right lives, to keep his law, and to be special in the world. A ‘holy person’ is sometimes called a ‘saint’: while these look like two different words in English, they actually mean the same thing. And this term ‘the holy ones’, or ‘the saints’ was applied, first and foremost, to the special nation of Israel (e.g. Daniel 7:18).
Believers in Christ Jesus
In Ephesians, however, Paul is not writing to God’s Old Testament people Israel. Rather, he is writing “to the holy ones—those who are also believers in Christ Jesus”.
Now for a brief technical aside (if this makes your eyes glaze over feel free to skip to the last paragraph in this section). If you are looking at this verse in your own Bible, you might notice that the words “in Ephesus” also appear, along with a footnote. Let me explain why. Like the rest of the New Testament, we don’t actually have the original letter that Paul wrote in the first century. What we do have are a large number of hand-written copies (‘manuscripts’). Many of them are on public display; I’ve seen two of the most significant ones: the Papyrus P46 in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, and Codex Sinaiticus in the British Library in London. In comparison with other ancient texts, the relatively early dates and number of the New Testament manuscripts is considered by scholars to be excellent and gives us a high degree of confidence that we know what was originally written. The manuscripts were, on the whole, copied very carefully. However, since no human copying process is perfect, the various manuscripts have small differences from one another. That’s not a big problem, because we can compare the manuscripts to each other and go through a process of error detection and correction to work out, with a high degree of accuracy, what Paul originally wrote. It doesn’t affect any major New Testament truths; it just means there’s a few uncertainties about minor details.
Ephesians 1:1 is an example of this kind of minor uncertainty. Most earlier reliable manuscripts (like P46 and Codex Sinaiticus) don’t have the words “in Ephesus” in this verse. They just have the phrase “to the holy ones—[those] who are also believers in Christ Jesus”. However, some of the later manuscripts include the words “in Ephesus” in this verse. What’s going on? Here’s what probably happened: Paul wrote most of his letters to particular churches or individuals. But it seems that the letter we call Ephesians was written for a broader, more general group of believers—a group that included Ephesus but wasn’t limited to Ephesus. That’s why Paul addressed this letter “to the holy ones—those who are also believers in Christ Jesus”. This is a slightly complex phrase in Greek. So it seems that some later copyists added the words “in Ephesus” to make the language a bit smoother and sound more like Paul’s other letters. That’s why modern Bibles have included “in Ephesus”, normally with a footnote about the manuscript history.
What is the big point from all this? For Paul himself, the earthly location of these “holy ones” isn’t the main issue. He isn’t primarily interested in the fact they are in Ephesus, or near Ephesus, or anywhere else. What really matters to him is that these “holy ones” are “also believers in Christ Jesus”. That means there’s some history behind this phrase. Something incredibly significant has happened to the concept of holiness. And it all has to do with belief in Christ Jesus.
What is the history behind the phrase? What has happened to the Old Testament concept of Israel as God’s special, holy, people, set apart for him? The answer is: Jesus Christ has happened! He has come, and died, and risen from the dead. And that’s why believing (or ‘trusting’) in Jesus Christ makes people holy—even people who aren’t Israelites!
This might not sound too remarkable to you. But it was remarkable to the earliest Israelite believers. Let’s look at a couple of episodes from Acts, which records the expansion of the gospel among the early believers. In Acts 15, the apostles like Peter and Paul and others are gathered in Jerusalem for a momentous debate. The debate is about how people from nations other than Israel (‘gentiles’) can have their sins forgiven and be saved from God’s judgment. In particular, the debate is about whether they have to become Jewish and join God’s holy people Israel. Here’s the answer, given by the Jewish apostle Peter:
And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.Acts 15:7–9 ESV
Peter’s point is this: people’s hearts are made “clean” and they receive the Holy Spirit simply by hearing and believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so gentiles don’t have to become Jewish; they simply need to believe in Jesus Christ.
Later in Acts, the Jewish apostle Paul is in prison because he had been preaching this gospel of Jesus Christ to the gentiles, and many of his own people had turned against him. As he defends himself, Paul says that the Lord Jesus has sent him to preach the gospel to the gentiles (v. 17),
to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are made holy by believing in me.Acts 26:18 ESV modified
Gentiles become holy, special, set apart for God, simply by believing in the message about Jesus! This was remarkable for the early Jewish believers, who had grown up knowing their Bibles, and so knowing that Israel was God’s special holy people. As Paul writes Ephesians, he wants the gentile believers to remember how amazing it is that they, too, are holy. In fact, Paul keeps using this phrase “the holy ones” (“the saints”) throughout Ephesians. And when he does, it’s clear that he’s not just saying that Jewish people are the holy ones. But at the same time, he’s not just assuming that a new group of people can be called “the holy ones”, as if it’s something that everybody can take for granted. His point is this: the fact that believers in Christ can be called holy ones is both true and amazing!
How can this happen? It can happen because Jesus has died in our place, for our sins. He has taken all that uncleanness on himself, and made us clean. And, as Paul goes on to say, we can stand before God, pure, holy and blameless—not because we deserve it, but because Jesus has died for us. It is through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, from Israel to the nations, that we come to believe in him and share in this holy status ourselves.
Stand in wonder
This is why we need the Old Testament. It’s our history—our story. It is firstly, of course, the story of God and Israel. It’s important to remember this. But it is the story we all need so that we can see how God has brought about his purposes for the entire world. Knowing this history will help us to see how amazing the gospel of Jesus Christ is. If we don’t learn and remember it, we are in danger of taking it all for granted. What a tragedy that would be!
Through the gospel of Christ Jesus—the gospel that was preached by those Jewish apostles—we who believe and trust in Jesus actually come to share in the holiness that was originally given to Israel. We who believe in Christ are special, set apart, beloved by God. We have the wonderful privilege and opportunity to live pure and right lives for him, as God’s holy people. This is not because we deserve it. It’s because God is holy and wonderful, and merciful, and gracious. This is what motivates us to live pure and holy lives, and to grow in that holiness, making it more and more real in our lives.
What does it mean to you that God sees you as ‘holy’?
How well do you know the story of Israel? If not so well—could you come up with a plan to read the Old Testament more?
 The ESV reads: “sanctified by faith in me”, which means the same thing.
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, 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.