Reading Time: 9 minutes
When we come to the Bible, we can easily assume that everything it says is directly about us. After all, the Bible is God’s word to us, isn’t it? If it’s not about us, why would God have given it to us? What would be the use of reading it in the first place? But the thing is this: even though the Bible is always useful and relevant to us, not every sentence is speaking directly about our own situation. An example of this is Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:11–12.
In Christ we were also claimed by God as his inheritance, having been predetermined according to the design of the one who acts in everything according to the purpose of his will, so that we might be for the praise of his glory—we who first hoped in Christ.Ephesians 1:11–12
In these verses, Paul is continuing to lay out the amazing spiritual blessings that God has given to believers “in Christ” (verses 3–10). In Christ, we have been chosen, forgiven, and adopted by God. We have also been given the blessing of knowing God’s plan for the universe: “to sum up all things in Christ” (verse 10). Paul says that this is a huge plan, with multiple dimensions, and it is put into effect through the preaching of the gospel. Then, in verses 11–12, Paul continues to talk about God’s blessings “in Christ”. He says, “we were also claimed by God as his inheritance”. At this point, it sounds like Paul is still talking about us, doesn’t it? But by the time we get to the end of the clause, there’s a surprise in store. Paul reveals that he is actually talking about a particular group of believers: “we who first hoped in Christ”. So what’s going on here? Is Paul saying that this blessing was only for the first believers?
At this point, we need to pay close attention. Remember that the Bible is always relevant to us, but that’s not the same as being about us. In fact, sometimes the reason the Bible is relevant to us is because it is talking about somebody else. And here, Paul is talking about God’s particular blessing to a particular group of people: “we who first hoped in Christ”. We need to make sure we’re clear on this, so that we can understand the point that Paul is making. And when we do, we’ll see that this makes it more incredible. Paul’s words here make us as readers take a step back from ourselves and lifts our eyes to the broad horizons of God’s plans for the world. Paul’s words help us to see the multidimensional nature of God’s plans. Then, when we more clearly see how big this plan is, and where we fit into that plan, it helps us to rejoice in God’s blessings even more.
When Paul talks about being “claimed by God as his inheritance”, he’s referring to the particular promises made to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 32, for example, God singles out Israel (also called ‘Jacob’) from all the other nations as his special people. Israel is God’s ‘heritage’ or ‘inheritance’:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,Deuteronomy 32:8–9 ESV
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.
As the passage in Deuteronomy 32 goes on, it predicts that the people of Israel will rebel against God, and that God will be rightly angry and judge them. Yet even then, it says, God will still love Israel. He will have mercy on them and forgive them and save them as his special people. When that happens, it won’t just be something that is relevant to Israel: the nations and indeed the whole of creation will see it and worship God.
When we read the New Testament book of Acts, we are actually seeing these promises being fulfilled through Jesus Christ. Peter and the other apostles describe Jesus as the one who was “exalted at [God’s] right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31 ESV). Indeed, in these early chapters of Acts, we do see Israelites repenting, being forgiven and restored. These are the ones who first hoped in Christ. They are the members of the earliest apostolic community in Israel. They heard the message about Jesus Christ from the apostles, and they believed and hoped in Christ. This is a wonderful thing! Acts describes God as keeping his promises and claiming Israel as his heritage.
Those who first hoped in Christ
But God did not simply restore this early Israelite apostolic community so they could sit around and enjoy God’s blessings for themselves. These were the “first to hope in Christ”—which of course implies that later there would be others who also hoped in Christ. God had a wider purpose in restoring Israel. This purpose was to bring his blessings to all the nations through Christ. So the book of Acts describes how the message about Jesus Christ spread from Israel to the nations (or ‘gentiles’), near and far. The message was preached by the apostles and by others, and believed by many. And as the gentiles believed in Jesus, they too came to share in this hope and these blessings and to be saved from God’s righteous wrath at their wrongdoing. This is what the book of Acts is about.
God’s great design and purpose and will and plan for the universe, in other words, has an important international dimension. Firstly, God’s blessings were for Israel. Through Jesus Christ, God claimed his heritage and blessed that early Israelite apostolic community. Through blessing these people first, God brought blessing and forgiveness and hope and salvation to all the nations round about.
Sometimes people debate whether the “we” in these verses is about Jewish Christians, or about the apostles. But when you read Acts, you can see that the question isn’t so simple. It’s actually about both. That’s the point. The earliest Israelite community was centred on the teaching of the apostles, and it was the starting point for the gospel being preached in the world. They were a renewed Israel, God’s holy people, restored for the work of ministry to the nations. As the apostles and others went and preached the gospel to the nations, God was achieving his great international purposes—to the praise of his glory.
So what about us?
Is this relevant to us? Of course! In the very next verses, verses 13–14, Paul goes on to talk about how Israel’s blessings were shared through the preaching of the gospel. That means everyone who believes in that message about Jesus and trusts in him has a hope that is equal to the hope and the blessings of the apostles themselves, and the first believers. We share together in God’s Holy Spirit. That is true, and wonderful. But as we rejoice in our equality, let’s not be too quick to forget this statement about those who “first hoped in Christ”. After all, Paul makes a point of reminding his readers about these first believers. He does it for a reason. He’s not trying make his readers envious of the privilege of others. But he does want his gentile readers to rejoice in the blessings of others—to see the international dimensions of God’s plan, and to praise God for it.
In our own world, when we hear the word ‘equality’, it’s too easy to flatten it out into a bland idea of absolute sameness. We can unthinkingly take on the world’s ideology of envy, which tells us that each one of us must have precisely the same status and opportunities and privileges as everyone else, or it’s not fair. We can define ‘justice’ as the quest to achieve this sameness. Even if we don’t realise it, this ideology can easily affect how we think about our relationships and daily lives. When we look on any particular role or status that others have, we can be filled with envy rather than thankfulness and joy. This ideology can also affect how we read the Bible. If we are operating with this concept that ‘equality’ means ‘sameness’, we will miss Paul’s point here about those who “first hoped in Christ”.
What is the point? The point is that God has a wonderful plan for his world—and incredibly, we are part of it. We are not all part of it in exactly the same way, but that makes it even more wonderful. The plan is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. This helps us as we read the Bible. It helps us particularly as we read those large swathes of the Bible that aren’t directly about us—that is, those parts of the Bible that are about Israel (i.e. most of the Old Testament), or about disciples who lived before Jesus’ death and resurrection (i.e. most of the Gospels). Rather than trying to make these parts of the Bible about us, we can read and rejoice in what God has done through his people over the course of history. It’s like following a sporting team: we can be caught up in the highs and lows of the story without always needing to actually be the players. But it’s far better than following a sporting team. Through reading about how God has dealt so faithfully with other people, we come to know God himself better. We see more clearly how God is the one who “acts in everything according to the purpose of his will”.
As we go on to read the rest of Ephesians, we will come to passages about people who aren’t exactly the same as us. We will read about people who have an equal share and status in God’s people, but who have different roles in God’s good purposes. In chapter 2, there are people who are Jewish and people who are gentiles. In chapter 3, there are people who are gospel preachers and people who are gospel hearers. In chapter 4, there are the apostles and the prophets and the evangelists and the pastors and teachers and the holy ones and each individual member in Christ’s body, each one doing their particular work. In chapters 5 and 6, there are husbands and wives and fathers and children, with different roles and instructions. Why does Paul talk about all these different kinds of people, with their varying gifts from God? Is it to breed envy? Is it to cancel out all the differences and so promote a bland sameness? Not at all! It’s to show us that as we share together in Christ, and as we grow in holiness and put off our sinful attitudes, there can be mutual blessing and joy—in and through our differences. Even more, the purpose is to lead us to praise the glory of God, who works out his multifaceted plan for his world, in his Son Jesus Christ.
How might these truths help you as you read the Bible—especially as you read those parts of the Bible that are about the particular nation of Israel?
How can these truths lead you to praise God’s glory more deeply and richly?
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.