Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Cosmic Blessing: Healing All Things in Christ

Author: 
Gregory E. Sterling

The biblical presentation of Christ as a cosmic Lord through whom God created all things has implications for the current crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, and the sustainability of life on Earth. What does it mean for us to believe in a Lord who created all things? Does the cosmic Lord relate to more than humanity and, if so, does this have ethical implications for us? This essay will address these questions by examining one New Testament text in particular, Ephesians 1:9-10.

Ancient Jewish sapiential traditions personified wisdom as the power of God that assisted God in creation (Prov 8:22-31). Later, Second Temple Jewish authors extended this personification and presented the Logos/Wisdom as an independent being or hypostasis that was God’s agent in creation.1 Early Christians found these wisdom traditions appealing as they began to express the significance of Christ for their faith.2 They presented Christ as the agent of creation by using a form of prepositional metaphysics (using prepositions to denote causes) to present Christ as the instrument “through whom” God created all things (John 1:3; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:15- 17; Heb 1:2).3

Ephesian Blessings

This is summarized and expanded in a metaphysical statement in Ephesians. The statement is embedded within an opening berakah (blessing) that celebrates what God has done for humanity (Eph 1:3-14). This is only one of three berakoth that open a letter in the New Testament (along with 2 Cor 1:3-7 and 1 Peter 1:3-12), but was a common form of prayer in the Old Testament.4 Each New Testament berakah begins with “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who …” The berakah in Ephesians is one long sentence in Greek!5 While the structure of this sentence is debatable, the threefold repetition of the doxological formula, “to the praise of his glory,” in verses 6, 12, and 14, suggests that the doxology is a concluding refrain for subunits that accentuate different aspects of the all-powerful work of God.

The first subunit (verses 3-6) celebrates what God has done: God is the subject of the verbs with the exception of the subordinate clause in verse 4. The second subunit (verses. 7-12) emphasizes what God has done for us or for the author and for those in the Pauline tradition. It uses clauses in the firstperson plural in verses 7 and 11 (cf. also verse 12) that bracket statements of what God has done in verses 8-10. The third subunit turns to the readers by using the second-person plural (verses 13-14). The prayer thus moves from what God has done to what God has done for the author and an earlier generation and finally for the readers.

Things of Heaven and of Earth

We are interested in the section that is devoted to what God has done for the author and those in the Pauline tradition in verses 8-10 – specifically the passage saying “who revealed to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure that he purposed in him for the administration of the fullness of the times – to sum up everything in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth in him” (Eph 1:9-10). God revealed the mystery that is explained by the subsequent clause “to sum up everything in Christ.” The author will later return to the mystery and explain it in detail in 3:1-13 (cf. also 2:11-22), but for the moment the author leaves the statement at the broadest possible level. What does it mean “to sum up everything in Christ”? The infinitive “to sum up” is only used twice in the New Testament. In rhetoric the term referred to the summation or recapitulation of an argument.6 In Rom 13:8-10, especially 9, the other New Testament example, Paul used it to refer to love that sums up the entire law. It appears to have a similar meaning here: God has summed up all things in heaven and earth in Christ. But how can “all things” be summed up?

“All Things” in Christ

The author was a disciple of Paul who used Paul’s letters in order to universalize Paul’s thought at the end of the first century.7 In particular, the author drew on Colossians: More than one-third of the vocabulary in Colossians appears in Ephesians.8 In this case, the author drew from the Christ hymn in Col 1:15-20, which declares:

15 He is the Image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;

16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible – whether thrones or lordships, whether rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.

17 He is before all things and in him all things subsist.

18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead so that he might have precedence in all things.

19 For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell

20 and through him to reconcile all things to himself – whether on the earth on in heaven – by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Thus “for in him all things in heaven and on the earth were created” (Col 1:16); “all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:16); “in him all things subsist” (Col 1:17); and “through him to reconcile all things to himself” (Col 1:20). The berakah in Ephesians has brought the language of creation (Col 1:16-17) and salvation (Col 1:20) together by suggesting that in Christ God will bring about a summation of all created things. Christ is the agent of creation, the sustainer of creation, and the reconciler of creation. In other words, God summed up all things in him.

Cosmological Claims

But what are “all things”? In Ephesians, does it refer only to the union of Jew and Gentile in Christ as described in 3:1-13 (and 2:11-22) or is it broader? The explanatory statement that follows – “the things in the heavens and the things on the earth in him” – cannot be restricted to ethnic unity since the summing up is of things both in heaven and on earth.9 But again we ask: Does “all things” extend to the heavenly powers in Eph 1:20-23 or go beyond them? I think that we have to take it in the broadest sense. The text is drawing on the language of Colossians where the language is explicitly cosmological. The liturgical nature of the language of the berakah suggests that we would be amiss to constrict the language.

When will this summing up take place? Unlike the authentic letters of Paul where such a vision would be future (e.g., Rom 8:18-25), the author of Ephesians has a realized eschatology. What is future in Paul is typically in present time in Ephesians, e.g., Christ already rules over the powers (1:20-23 versus 1 Cor 15:20-28) and we have already been raised and sit enthroned with Christ (2:6 versus Rom 6:1-11). The statement in Eph 1:9-10 suggests that God has brought about a restoration or summation of all things in Christ now. This clearly does not mean that all is perfect – just as we are not perfect. It does mean that just as ethnic and racial union are possible in Christ so is cosmic harmony. The text does not deny the presence of evil or discord, but offers a possible way out of it.

We have typically ignored or restricted statements like this in Scripture. While we have understandably focused on the human implications, we should not ignore the implications that such statements have for us towards the non-human cosmos. Social justice is not only about human relationships, it is also about cosmic relationships.

The art on the cover of this issue of Reflections conveys this well. Creation has suffered from sin just as humans have. It is fitting to symbolize this by the greatest sign of sin we know: the cross. The cross is also the greatest hope of victory over the disruption in our lives and world. We can be agents bringing about God’s summation of all things in Christ or we can be instruments that leave them scattered and broken. The challenge of sustainability is as much a part of our moral obligation as any other mandate of reconciliation.


Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School. Concentrating his research in Hellenistic Judaism, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Luke-Acts, he is the author or editor of eight books and more than 90 scholarly articles and chapters.

Notes

1 Philo, Creation, 15-25, esp. 20, 24-25. Cf. Sir 24 that identifies personified wisdom with the law (v. 23), but does not make Wisdom a hypostasis.

2 For details see Gregory E. Sterling, “‘The Image of God’: Becoming Like God in Philo, Paul, and Early Christianity,” in Portraits of Jesus: Studies in Christology. Festschrift for Harold W. Attridge, edited by Susan Myers; WUNT 2.321 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 157-173.

3 On prepositional metaphysics see Gregory E. Sterling, “Prepositional Metaphysics in Jewish Wisdom Speculation and Early Christological Liturgical Texts.” The Studia Philonica Annual 9 (1997): 219-38.

4 For other examples see Gen 24:27; 1 Sam 25:39; 1 Kings 1:48; 1 Chron 29:10-19, a second person example in which David addresses God; Ps 144:1-14; Tob 11:14-15.

5 Modern editions of the Greek like the Nestle-Aland text break it up into four sentences (vv. 3-6, 7-10, 11-12, 13-14), but this is for the sake of intelligibility rather than the syntax.

6 E.g., Quintillian 6.1, who cites the Greek word. Cf. also Aristotle, frag. 123.

7 On the pseudonymous nature of Ephesians and the author’s dependence on Paul’s letters see C. Leslie Mitton, The Epistle to the Ephesians: Its Authorship, Origin, and Purpose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951) and Michael Gese, Das Vermächtnis des Apostels: Die Rezeption der paulinischen Theologie im Epheserbrief, WUNT 2.99 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997). The most important treatment of the relationship between Ephesians and Colossians remains Ernst Percy, Die Probleme der Kolosser- und Epheserbriefe, Skrifter utgivna av. Kungl. Humanistiaka I Lund 39 (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1946).

8 The most famous parallel is Col 4:7-8//Eph 6:21-22. Cf. also Col 1:22//Eph 1:4; Col 1:14//Eph 1:7; Col 2:13//Eph 2:5; Col 1:25//Eph 3:2; Col 3:12-13a//Eph 4:2.

9 The striking similarity between the language of Colossians and Ephesians is worth noting: in heaven and on earth.

Issue Title: 
Crucified Creation: A Green Faith Rising
Issue Year: 
2019