revised, March 23, 2017]
EPHESIANS, I PETER, JAMES
Henry Clay was one of the greatest of American
statesman. He is often know as the great compromiser, the man
who, more than any other, worked to reconcile the opposing factions in
America prior to the civil war. Yet compromiser though he was,
Clay was also a man of principle. When warned that his stand on a
particular issue would cost him his chance at the presidency, he said,
"I would rather be right than president." At first, we might
think this a rather odd sentiment. The -average politician today
seems to prefer prestige and power to being right. And yet for
many people, maybe even most people, the need to be right is every bit
as deep and even deeper than the need for prestige and power. By
this I don't mean simply need to have correct opinions--need to have
approval of our own conscience, to be confident that the way we are
living our lives truly is right.
And yet it's not so easy--whenever we try to be
right, try to live our lives as we should, we end up blowing it.
Ovid, one of the greatest Roman poets, "I see the right, and approve it
too--I condemn the wrong, and yet the wrong pursue." One of
the ironies of the Roman world is that, although morality had in many
ways collapsed and society had become completely decadent, Roman people
in the midst of this were constantly searching for something that would
make them feel right--overcome the sense of guilt and shame that they
were not living their lives as they ought.
This is one of the reasons that Christianity had a
chance to succeed in the Roman world. The Romans were
looking--not necessarily for Christianity--but looking for something,
looking especially for something that could help them be right and feel
This led to the rise (or rather the increasing
popularity) of what are called the "mystery cults."
Understanding these cults is difficult: to reveal secrets meant the
death penalty, a penalty rigidly enforced. Because of this, the
secrets, for the most part were kept secrets, and, even today, scholars
are unable to speak with confidence about the specific practices and
beliefs of even the most important of these mystery cults. Still, what
little we do know is helpful in understanding the Roman world at the
time of Christ, and often surprisingly helpful in explaining some of
the difficult passages of the New Testament. Particularly this is
true in the case of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
The mystery cults centered on a dying and rising god
or goddess. The Eleusinian mysteries celebrated the goddess
Demeter. The Dionysian mysteries celebrated Dionysius, as did the
Orphic mysteries. The mysteries drew on the basic stories of these
figures and on pagan mythology in general.
Pagan belief and teaching was very different from
most of our contemporary religions. Pagan belief was not
clear/consistent/coherent set of doctrines and practices we associate
with religion today, and no one really expected it to be. There
was no authority like the Bible. Various versions of the
myths--and actually this was a good thing for something that is meant
to be mysterious and hard to fathom. Nevertheless, the versions
you have heard of this myths are close enough, thought the high school
retellings often leave out key elements.
The pagan idea was that all things began with some
sort of primordial Chaos. Emerging from this Chaos, Gaia, the mother
goddess and Ouranos, the father god. Or, perhaps, it’s
Chronos that’s the father god. Or maybe Chronos is the son
of Ouranos and Gaia: the myths are simply not consistent. But
they have in common the idea of intense rivalry and conflict among the
pre-Olympian gods. The Cyclopes, Hundred-handers, Titans
battle it out with each other, with their father and mother, and,
eventually, with the Olympians. Zeus eventually emerges as the
chief of gods, but the rivalries and jealousies continue, aggravated in
part by Zeus promiscuity. Zeus fathers Dionysius on Persephone.
The Titans kill Dionysius and feast on his body. Zeus destroys
the Titans with his thunderbolt, saves the heart of Dionysius, which he
later uses to impregnate Semele. The pregnant Semele is destroyed
when she is tricked into asking to see Zeus in his glory, but Zeus once
again saves Dionysius, by taking the foetus, slicing open his thigh and
putting Dionysius inside to incubate until he can be born
again—Dionysius, then, is twice born. From the ashes of the
Titans and the parts of Dionysius body burned with them, Zeus creates
Man. We are created from a mixture of the Titans and Dionysius:
body and soul, good and evil.
The great goal of the mystery cults was to free soul
from body. Death alone was not enough to do this: one’s
soul was constantly reborn in a new body. The trick, then, was to find
a final escape from our bondage to the material world. Just as
Gnosticism promised its followers escape from the prison of the body,
so did each of the various mystery cults.
The Mysteries very hard to pin down. Only
initiaties could learn secrets. But the essence of the mysteries
a kind of conversion experience that took place in several stages.
1. Initial purification
2. Mystic communion/communication that involved
learning a sacred story (Dionysius, Demeter, Orpheus)
3. Sight of holy objects
4. Participating in certain rituals--everything from
castration to temple prostitution--tearing animals apart with hands.
5. Crowning with garlands of initiate and a welcome
to an exclusive community
6. An experience of happiness and enlightenment as a
result of communion with god
7. Assurance of an after-life of bliss reserved only
Keeping these general things in mind is very helpful
in understanding certain aspects of what Paul is doing in the book of
Ephesus was one of the great cities of Mediterranean
world, a prosperous trading center in what is today Turkey.
Ephesus was prosperous also because it was a center of religious
pilgrimage (Image that fell from heaven: virgin goddess equivalent to
Greek Artemis/Roman Diana--following Bible, we call her Diana of the
Ephesians. Notice that this was intently religious city--maybe why
Christianity did so well there.
But there were some problems for the church in
Ephesus as well. Demetrius the silversmith stirred up an anti-Christian
mob who, in their enthusiasm, spent hours calling out "great is Diana
But more of a problem, the tendency of pagan
religion to religion to eclecticism. To be an initiate in the
Eleusinian mysteries was good. To have an additional initiation
into the Dionysian mysteries better. And to be initiated in to
the Orphic mysteries also, better still. Many in Ephesus
probably liked Christianity--but wanted to add it to everything else-
as an extra insurance policy.
What Paul does in Ephesians is present Christianity
as the mystery religion par excellence--the greatest of all mystery
religions. But he is doing this sort of tongue in cheek.
Want secrets? You’ve got the mystery of God’s will,
the mystery of the gentiles included in the kingdom of God, etc., the
mystery of the unsearchable riches of God (Eph. 1:9)
Want a sacred story? You’ve got the Gospel (Ephesians 1:13)
Want to become part of an elect group? Well, there’s the church (Eph.
Want a purifying ritual? You got the purification of the blood of
Christ (Eph. 2:13-16)
Want happiness and enlightenment? You’ve got the Holy Spirit
Want victory over death and assurance of eternal life? You’ve got
But, as I say, Paul is doing this all tongue in
cheek: Christianity is no mystery religion, there’s no
secretiveness about it. And Paul and those writing with him
almost certainly were amused no end as the pointed to the advantages of
Christianity over the mystery religions even in those things the
mystery religions most emphasized. Paul’s message: this is
the only mystery you need understand. (Cf. Chapter 3).
Now notice that what is said in these chapters goes
a long way toward making one feel right, and they are some of most
encouraging chapters in Bible in this regard. But the next step
is -to be right, i.e. to do those things that are right and pleasing to
God. This is what second half of Ephesians is all about (4:1, "I
therefore the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of
the vacation wherewith ye are called").
There's lots of advice here about relationships with other
people. I single out in class particulary Paul's advice on
marriage in Ephesians 5. Paul
tells women to be “subject” to their husbands, and he tells husbands to
love their wives as much as Christ loved the church. The word
“subject” is (in Greek)”upotasso.” It is, in some ways, best
understood as a military term. “Tasso” is the word we get tactics
from. Women are being told to treat their husband like Roman
soldiers treated their commanders. What does this mean?
Well, Roman soldiers loved their commanders, each unit bragging that
its commander was the best. And this is the kind of thing that
men want out of marriage: a wife who is proud of her husband, who
praises him and supports him. And as to women, what they want out
of marriage is the reassurance that they are loved. If a man
assures his wife that she is loved, and a woman supports her husband as
a really great guy—well, 90% of the time, that marriage is going
exactly in the right direction.
Paul's advice is
helpful because, so often he goes to the root
causes of problems rather than just focusing on externals.
Note the commands
to parents, children, husbands, wives, servants, lords, etc. Also
key, I think, is the overall attitude.
One key passage, the command to take on the "whole
armor' of God. The Greek world here is "panoply" from "pan" (all)
and "hopla" (weapons). This armour includes the helmet of
salvation, breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, and the
sword of the spirit. Here, I think, is a great psychology for
feeling one is on the right track--and, just maybe, if you do these
things, you are on the right track.
"All the world's a stage," says Shakepeare, and all
of us play many parts. But what kind of part do you want to
play? Richard III says, because he can't play the lover, he'd
just as soon be the villain. But most of us would prefer to be
the hero, or at least on the right side. We want to think of
ourselves as good people...and playing a positive role in the lives of
But, depite our good intentions, we tend to feel like we've come up
short. And that's a terrible feeling: to feel one has failed at
school, or failed on the job, failed in marriage, or failed to raise
our children in the right way.
But, especially, we don't like the feeling that we've failed at the big
one, at life itself: the feeling you've flunked the whole course.
And we do fail. We come up short. And we try again. But
then we fail again.
How does one break such a cycle? That's, to a certain extent,
what I Peter is about.
Peter himself could identify with the cycle of failure and
success. He's the man who affirmed his faith in Christ and was
told he was a rock on which the church would be built. But then,
all of a sudden, he's told he's speaking with the voice of Satan!
He says he'll go with Jesus to death--and then denies three times that
he even knows who Jesus is.
But somehow Peter broke through that cycle--and he's sort of the SI
leader for anyone else who wants to do well on that big
exam. For Peter, and for the church, that big exam is on
the way. Peter is in Rome just as Nero's attack on the Christians
is about to begin. He's writing to churches in Asia minor that
are going to go through the same test.
So, what's his study advice?
1. Keep your eyes on the prize.
2. Be obedient children
3. Realize that this world passes away
4. Focus on God's word
5. Stay on the foundation
6. Don't give those who oppose gospel legitimate reason to
complain of you
Notice the strategy has for servants who might find themselves
mistreated by masters. Also, note his advice to wives..and to
husbands. To the latter, especially good advice: treat your wife
like a fragile, but precious "vessel."
Perhaps most important, be ready to suffer "in the flesh"--God resists
the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
James is another great SI leader. James was the half brother/step
brother of Jesus. Must have been tough. Having a
high-achieving sibling isn't easy--and, for James, the standard he has
to live up to is Jesus! But James, although not initially even a
follower of Jesus, ended up doing pretty well. He was
acknowledged as the head of the church in Jerusalem--and earned the
nickname "James the Just."
So, what advice does James have for us?
1. View life as a test.
2. Seek wisdom from God, but make sure you are wiloling to obey
3. Desire to do the right thing (Every good gift comes from God!)
4. Control the tongue.
5. Have the right attitude toward wealth
6. Seek for the right kind of things