16 Apr 2018

Worshiping through Ephesians: Dwelling in God’s Temple

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church, Ephesians, Exegesis, Holy Spirit, Spiritual Disciplines, Worship


John Calvin once declared Ephesians to be the “crown jewel” in the apostle Paul’s crown.  I have a hard time disagreeing with this sentiment. Ephesians is a majestic writing, casting an inspiring vision of what it means to be the people of God in this fallen world. People of the renewed creation made one.

Today, I want to suggest a way of encountering Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (I realize “Ephesus” is a textual variant) that may be somewhat different than we traditionally do. I want to suggest that we worship our way through Ephesians.

We recently preached our way through this glorious letter at Eastside Church, here by the Bay. And I have been preparing for three lectures on Ephesians at Harbor: Pepperdine Bible Lectures for 2018. What I share here I have been doing for almost a year now.

Ephesians is not new territory for me. I have preached through Ephesians in previous years. In fact eleven years ago I did a long series at PaLO VErde in Tucson. For that series, I dug through mountains of essays, articles, and various commentaries. This time, however, I have done something a little different. While I have found some really helpful articles, and have wrestled with some standard commentaries, I am taking a different approach. And it has been good. The approaches are not mutually exclusive I hasten to point out. But this time I have used Ephesians as a means to worship.

Ephesians as a Book of Worship

Ephesians is, itself, a book of worship. A number of important facts are often forgotten or just not given any weight.  Ephesians, like all the books in the NT, was first encountered in the Gathered worshiping assembly. It was read “in church” by the reader while the Gathered People listened. Early Christians did not have Bibles and did not read or encounter Scripture “at home” or privately for many centuries. The text was orally delivered in the context of the gathering of the family of God in worship.  This is of immense significance.

Ephesians begins in praise. That is Paul opens with a wonderful and very traditional Jewish style blessing, much like a psalm. It is not difficult to imagine 1.3-14 being sung.

Ephesians contains has two powerful prayers (1.15-20; 3.14-19). Prayers are worship and Paul is himself engaged in worship while praying. It is not difficult to imagine when the reader came to these prayers that the Gathered People joined in the prayer that Paul is leading through the reader. The second prayer concludes with Paul bursting into praise usually called a “doxology” (3.20-21; cf. 1 Chron. 16.36 & Ps 106.48).

Ephesians has hymn fragments scattered throughout (5.14). It is hard not to sing lyrics.

Further, and this is often missed by modern American readers, Ephesians has the aroma of the temple from beginning to end (Paul tells the readers they have become “a holy temple” where the fiery presence of God “dwells” in 2.21). Paul draws on temple imagery and its sounds of worship. Jesus is said to be a “fragrant offering” (i.e. temple sacrifice, 5.1). Only a few verses later, Paul admonishes the inhabitants of the temple to do what Israelites have always done in the temple, sing the Psalms in the power of the Holy Spirit (5.18-19). And the Psalms were daily sung in the temple.

Ephesians is a product of worship and Ephesians was read or delivered in the context of corporate worship. Ephesians is a love affair with the people of God, because God has made them God’s people and dwells with them through the Spirit … all wonderful “Old Testament” themes.

Ephesians is the picture of the redeemed, united, praying, praising, worshiping people of God living and breathing in the sacred space of the temple.  A little piece of “holy ground” (like Moses’s burning bush), wherever and whenever God’s people gather.

Ephesians 1.1-11 in p46

Tuning our Hearts to the Sound of Worship

I want to suggest some meditative readings for listening to and for framing Ephesians. These readings, I have discovered share many of the same themes as Paul and perhaps were even the soil for his own perspective in Ephesians. Paul, indeed, alludes to a number of these texts. I have found them quite helpful in picking up the aroma from which Paul speaks and the Ephesians hear.

First, Immerse yourself in the Psalms of Ascent (Pss 120-134). Paul, and every Jew, was intimately familiar with these beloved Psalms as they played significant roles in the temple during multiple feasts. For our purposes, view them as a unit. Zion/Jerusalem/temple, each are evocative symbols of God’s people, are loved and cherished because of God’s grace, especially his grace of dwelling with the people. Love, grace, unity, praying for the shalom of God’s people. The presence of God, love for the people of God, the longing for shalom among God’s people, the blessedness of unity among God’s people are all there in the Psalms of Ascent. Read these Psalms. Read them deeply and prayerfully. Then read Ephesians. Pray them. Then open Ephesians. (David C. Mitchell’s The Songs of Ascent: Psalms 120 to 134 in the Worship of Jerusalem’s Temples is a fascinating and illuminating entry into these worship texts.).

Second, Pray Psalm 27. This powerful psalm was known to every Jew being used in the Temple liturgy on Yom Kippur. It is quoted by Paul shortly after he notes that Jesus himself if a “fragrant offering” (5.1) when Paul says “sing and make melody” to the Lord quoting 27.6 in 5.19. Seeing the “beauty of the Lord,” to “behold your face” is the hunger of worship. The Lord is the “light” of our salvation as we become the light of the world (imagery shows up in Isaiah 49 and 5x in Eph 4.  (See my article, “Making Melody to the Lord …’ Paul’s Debt to the Psalter“).

Third, Psalm 68 a psalm used in the temple on Pentecost is directly quoted by Paul in 4.8. The glory of Yahweh’s grace is on full display. God has rained “abundance” upon the “heritage” of Israel. The nations are invited to come “sing praises to God,” just as Paul directs the “nations/gentiles” to do in Ephesians in 5.19.

Fourth, Psalms 15 & 24. Temples are “sacred space.” And the texts, Pss 15 & 24, speak powerfully to the kind of people who “dwell” within the the sacred space of house of the Lord. These Psalms echo in Ephesians 5 where Paul informs these former pagan Gentiles that they are now sacrifices with a lovely aroma [temple language] and tells them what kind of people they cannot be (read 5.3-5 and then Pss 15 & 24). Worship transforms the worshiping people of God.  They are now fellow citizens of Israel and “saints” which is a good “Old Testament” word found often in the Psalms. But they are “saints” because they are made holy by the presence of the Spirit in the temple.  Pray the texts. Then read Ephesians.

Fifth, Psalm 103. As noted above, Paul bursts out into doxology (worship!) in 3.20-21. This is immediately after a prayer of intercession (also worship) that the Gentiles come to “know” the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Messiah. Psalm 103 is about this very thing (some NT scholars need to read the Psalms more just saying!). The entire Psalm is a lyrical exposition of the the “God Creed of Israel” (Ex 34.6-7, quoted in 103.8). Yahweh’s hesed/steadfast love is (note the thematic connection with Paul’s language)

far as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his hesed for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgression from us …

Pray the text. Then read Ephesians.

Sixth. Tobit 13. Tobit 13 is a rich “blessing” of God, of the same type as Paul’s in Ephesians 1. Here, Israel is called to “acknowledge him [God] before the nations” (13.3). They are to acknowledge him at the top of their voice. “Bless the Lord of righteousness and exalt the King of ages.” Indeed “a bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth [recall the comment about light above]; many nations will come to you from far away, the inhabitants of the remotest parts of the earth to your holy name, bearing gifts in their hands for the King of heaven.” Pray the text.  Then read Ephesians.

Jews and Gentiles together
And a new Jerusalem (temple!)

Seventh. There are a number of texts in Ezekiel that are powerful reading along with Ephesians. I will just list them 16; 36; 37; and 43.1-12

A “fragrant offering” (5.2) is from the incense on the altar that accompanies a sacrifice in the temple.

Two Helpful Books

Two books of a different sort. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection are like echo chambers for Ephesians. They will cultivate “worshipful” reflections and dispositions for hearing Paul.

Worshiping Ephesians

There are a number of readings here. However most are short. The Psalms of Ascent are very short. Ezekiel 16 is the longest reading.

I have been cultivating the following disciplines with Ephesians, maybe they will be helpful to you.

  • I have been reading Ephesians as a whole in one sitting on Mondays and Fridays since the beginning of December when I knew I would be preaching this book.
  • I read the Psalms of Ascent before each reading. I read Pss 15 & 24 after. This takes me a little more than an hour.
  • I read Psalms 27, 68, 103 and Tobit 13 on Tuesdays and Thursdays as I am ruminating on the text for that week’s sermon.
  • I read the Ezekiel texts once a week.

Begin in prayer by inviting the Holy Spirit to inhabit this time, it is the Spirit’s text after all. This is not necessarily a time of study. It is a time to hear and relish the text. It is a time to join Paul, and the Ephesians, in the wonder of worship … and I think Paul uses the grace of worship to cultivate the unity, the oneness, of the Ephesian saints. Drawn into praise, prayer and wonder that is what Ephesians does.

Gary Mabry’s song, Ephesians 3, is a good song to use to close the time of prayerful reading.

I think you will hear things and see things and be drawn into Ephesians like never before.


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