Book Reviews

Book Review: The Drama of Ephesians (Timothy Gombis)

What do you think of when you think about reading Ephesians? Talk about predestination? Being filled with the Spirit? Wives submitting to their husbands and husbands loving their wives? Spiritual warfare and battle armor? Timothy Gombis, associate professor of NT at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, provides a “cultural and theological engagement” of Ephesians (10). He attempts to read and imagine how it would have looked for the gospel to invade Paul’s first-century culture and how it might look in our culture today.

Gombis’ main theme is that “Paul’s letter is a narrative account of the victory of God in Christ over the powers that have hijacked God’s world, holding it captive and enslaving humanity. Ephesians gives us the compelling and life-giving drama of God’s redemption in Christ” (9). By reading Ephesians through the lens of “divine warfare ideology” from the OT and the ancient world. This language doesn’t just occur in Eph 6:10-18, but throughout the whole letter.

Apocalyptic literature gives its readers “a heavenly vision of reality” (19). Though the letter is not like Revelation, it has an apocalyptic function. It gives us God’s view on life, on the death, resurrection, ascension, and rule of Christ, who we are in Christ, and how we should live in a broken and corrupt world under the power of heavenly rulers.

The stage is heaven and earth. Christ rules at the right hand of the Father. Christians life “in Christ,” while still living in their good ol’ getting-older-every-day fleshly bodies. We have employers who answer to their state governments who answer to the larger US government (or however this works in your home country). But is that all there is? In fact, Paul talks about spiritual powers and authorities. How are they ruling? Besides referring you to Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, God set up divine being to have governance over the various nations of the world (Deut 32:8-9). However, these rulers became corrupt and led people to worship them (Ps 82; Deut 4:19-20). God has triumphed in the death and resurrection of Christ, and he triumphs through us as we obey Christ and live out our faith.

Paul aimed to transform the imagination. Commercials and ads try to sell us a swimsuit by helping us think we’ll look as good as that person in the picture when we where that swimsuit. We’ll be cool, we’ll look good, and we’ll have a lovely time on the beach (they’ve never been to south Louisiana). We begin to think that, perhaps, we should shell out those $50 of hard-worked money to look good. Paul begins Ephesians trying to transform our minds toward God. We see this normal, boring life, but it is much more exciting that what we could imagine because God has placed us “in Christ.”

Gombis understands Ephesians 1:20-23 to be the letter’s thesis statement: “Jesus Christ is the victorious and exalted cosmic Lord” (89). Eph 1:19 and 6:10 create an inclusio around the majority of the letter. The inclusio focuses on the great might of the resurrected Jesus Christ who triumphs through us, his church. Christ has triumphed over the spiritual powers and authorities (1:19-23) and he works through us through the gospel as we walk by his Spirit (6:10-18).

Gombis covers all six chapters of Ephesians. Sometimes he looks in depth at a section, other times he takes an overhead look at what Paul wrote. He skillfully looks at the main point of a section/chapter and draw out practical implications (more on this below).

The Spoiled Milk?

Dane Ortlund wrote a review for this book back in 2011, and I thought it should be mentioned because it gave me pause. The book wasn’t as technical as I expected, but I enjoyed the practicality of it and Gombis’ various emphases on aspects of Ephesians that many don’t talk about. However, Ortlund wrote that three catagories punctured holes into Gombis’ portrait of Ephesians:

  1. False dichotomies: Gombis writes that other studies of Ephesians encourage us to read it as “a collection of facts or theological truths” (15). Gombis prefers to read Ephesians as “a compelling and exciting drama that communities seek to inhabit and perform. . . . God does not merely aim to inform or to provide Christians with material for an abstracted theological system that I am supposed to prune and maintain in good order” (17). “Ephesians is not merely there to give us information. It is designed to transform us as we seek to become gospel characters” (p. 181).
  2. Theological imbalance: 
    1. The heavenly powers are written about more than our own sinful tendencies.
    2. The corporate body is written about more than the individual. So predestination in Eph 1, the gifts given by Christ in Eph 4, and the command to not get drunk but be filled with the Spirit are written to the corporate body, not so much to individuals. Paul was certainly writing to a corporate body, but it was full of individuals.
    3. Gombis writes more about how Christ changes our horizontal relationships (how we live with other people) more than how the vertical life is changed (our enmity with God is put away, and we are now one with Christ).
  3. Gospel ambiguity: Gospel ambiguity: Gombis writes often about Christians performing the gospel (Ortlund provides page numbers: 19, 22, 34, 57, 67, 108, 134, 153, 156, 181) and of being gospel actors (129, 144). Does Gombis talk more about what we should do as a result of the gospel than he does what Christ has done for us?

I don’t disagree with Ortlund, but I don’t quite agree with him either. I appreciated Gombis’ angles, and I don’t see a problem with it as long as this isn’t the only book you read on Ephesians. (You should almost never read only one book on a Bible book, if possible.) Yes, perhaps Gombis focused more on the effects of the gospel over what Christ has done for us, but there are plenty of books on Ephesians rehearsing what Christ has done for us, yet many have trouble showing how to practically live out Ephesians. How do we live this in the every day life with other sinners, both believers and nonbelievers? Gombis points us back to our own lives to help us think about what we can and should be doing for others as followers of Christ.

The Chocolate Milk

This is one place where Gombis’ book shines. It is so practical. He doesn’t read Ephesians 5:4 (“Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving”) only to list five ways we can tell cleaner jokes. Instead he looks at the overall idea of the chapter, even certain passages, and provides some general ideas on how we can live life as the body of Christ: encouraging, admonishing, lifting up, and loving one another. How can we love our fellow church member?

How should you confront someone who has sinned against you? Rather than building up a list of tight arguments so that you can win your argument (as Gombis admittedly was apt to do before), Gombis recommends taking the person aside and asking them if you have understand the situation correctly. Explain how you think you have been sinned against, and if the other person wouldn’t mind explaining what happened. You might actually be wrong! It gives you the opportunity to explain that you feel you have been wronged, while humbly expressing you aren’t omniscient and you might be wrong. We are “quick to listen” and “slow to speak.”

Recommended?

I was expecting this book to be more technical than it was (especially since it was based off of Gombis’ dissertation). This was a very easy book to read and surprisingly practical. I would recommend this to everyone as a non-technical work on Ephesians. Gombis doesn’t look at every verse, but he looks at the main ideas and the structure of Ephesians and shows how Ephesians is a practical letter. We live out the gospel.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Timothy G. Gombis
  • Paperback: 188 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (October 4, 2010)
  • Tim’s blog

Buy it from Amazon or IVP Academic!

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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