“As a jailbird, I urge you to live up to your calling.” That has to be one of the funniest sentences in the Bible. Do you really want to learn ethics from a criminal?
It makes no sense if you don’t understand the gospel of the kingdom, the nature of sin and salvation.
We’ve already seen Paul describing how the shame of his incarceration (3:1) turns into “glory” (3:13) through the lens of the crucified King. His imprisonment shows what’s wrong with the world, how oppressive the current regimes are (in contrast with what God intends).
It’s been like this for so long. His Jewish ancestors suffered for centuries at the hands of nations that showed no respect for what God had decreed to Abraham. The prophets suffered at the hands of Israel’s rulers. John the Baptist and Jesus suffered for proclaiming God’s reign (the kingdom of God). Peter was imprisoned. James was beheaded. It comes as no surprise to Paul that, as King Jesus’ ambassador to the nations, he will suffer at their hands (Acts 9:15-16).
This is the shape of human sin — the rebellion against God’s reign. That’s the sense in which Jesus took on the sins of the world in his crucifixion. If you think it was your personal sins that nailed Jesus to the cross, you’ve spiritualized something that happened before you were born, and you’ve missed the magnitude of sin and salvation, the world-transforming activity of God in Christ.
The gospel in Ephesians is this:
- God has done in Christ what he always planned to do, restoring our inheritance by putting his anointed on the throne (Ephesians 1).
- God rescued humanity from enslavement under evil, raising us to life in his Messiah, breaking down the power divisions, ending the politics of war, establishing a reunified humanity in Messiah’s reign, so God dwells among us (Ephesians 2).
- When God revealed what he would do with the nations when he freed his people from oppression, no one had even imagined he would include them all in the reign of his Messiah (Ephesians 3).
Jesus’ reign is good news for all people on earth. But it’s threatening for the current rulers. If you think you have power, the gospel announcement that God has released the world from tyranny and given it to King Jesus is your worst nightmare. The tyranny of sin drives leaders to discredit, incarcerate, and evil kill anyone who threatens your power — even children (Exodus 1:22; Matthew 2:16).
But the existence of a community that gives allegiance to King Jesus is evidence to both the human rulers and the spiritual powers that God’s appointment of his anointed ruler has taken effect (Ephesians 3:10). The rulers can hold Paul hostage, but they’re powerless to stop people escaping their clutches, into the kingdom of the Son.
When the rulers lock up Jesus’ ambassador, they’re drawing attention to the very thing they fear — the power behind him. We don’t need to point out how bad the rulers are; persecution itself has that effect.
Paul was called to faithfully represent Jesus in prison, “as a prisoner for the Lord.” We’re all called to faithfully represent the one who called us, by embodying the communal life of our king:
Ephesians 4 1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
What others are saying
David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 81:
Christian ethics must avoid reducing the moral life to a mere decisionism … Christian ethics is about the entire “way of life” of the people of faith (Eph 2:10; cf. Dt 30:19–20). … Decisions, practices, convictions, principles, goals, and virtues are all included in the effort to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Phil 1:27; cf. Rom 16:2; Eph 4:1; Col 1:10) as we obey, seek, and embody the kingdom of God. …
Our central task is to be useful servants of the reign of God, and thus with all our heart we seek to discern and put into practice a total way of life in tune with God’s kingdom.