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4th Sunday of Lent

01 March 2024

10 March, Numbers 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22 (or Psalm 107.1-9); Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21


ONE commentator calls Ephesians “sublime yet elusive”; for its message to Christians resists simple summarising. It is addressed to “the saints who are in Ephesus”, and yet lacks the details about people and places which characterise other letters of Paul. This could suggest that he intended it as a general message to Christians rather than something specific to a single Christian community.

It marks a stark divide between followers of God and his Christ, on the one hand, and non-believers, on the other. There is praise for those who have seen the error of their old ways and become part of the body of Christ. Paul includes himself among those who were formerly “by nature children of wrath” (“we were”). That former sinfulness is expressed as “following the course of this world”. This “world” is cosmos in Greek, and the term embraces everything that exists. God’s “world”, the word cosmos implies, is by nature orderly, not chaotic. It has rules.

Ephesians contrasts believers and non-believers by invoking spirits of evil — first, generally (though “the ruler of the power of the air” is surely a reference to Satan, 2.2), and, further on, specifically: “the wiles of the devil . . . the cosmic powers of this present darkness . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places . . . the flaming arrows of the evil one . . .” (6.11-16).

The cosmic contest between the forces of good and evil is not unique to Ephesians, but neither here nor elsewhere is that contest something that we tackle with enthusiasm. Ignoring it altogether, though, would be to distort the Pauline message. I say “Pauline” because some argue that Ephesians was written by a disciple of Paul, not by the apostle himself. That particular debate, though, deserves a verdict of “not proven”.

In one respect, the letter to the Ephesians has a clear affinity with John’s Gospel. The Evangelist refers to Satan/the devil as “the ruler of this world”, while Paul refers to the “ruler of the powers of the air”. In physical terms, “air” was imagined as the substance of the lower, “ordinary” heaven we know around us rather than the upper, purer, air (aether) of the higher region, the realm of angels.

Paul’s thought is no simplistic dualism between light and dark, or good and evil, but it is a still a contest between contrasting powers — a contest from which Christ emerges as the victor. Does such “primitive” language of cosmic powers and elemental spirits appear to be a stumbling block for today’s sophisticated Christians?

Many of us would agree that, in the end, there is only one true prayer: “Thy will be done.” In a similar way, we can also say that there is only one true theology: “I believe in God.” Everything else is secondary. All the details and problems of our practical and spiritual lives, all the intellectual striving required to craft a systematic theology and a consistent approach to scripture, are as nothing, in terms of difficulty, compared with the challenge posed by those four-word statements.

If the language of external beings such as elemental spirits, demons, and the like is replaced with internal states and attitudes such as anxiety, guilt, or ecstasy, we still face the same human problem: the reality of impersonal forces and personal malices that blight our social existence; and inner doubts and temptations that beset our spiritual lives. These are the spirits we contend against. Christ’s victory gives us hope for victories of our own in time.

More than any other in the New Testament, one source provides that hope, answering our needs both personal and universal. It is John’s Gospel. One of the ideas that set it apart from the other Gospels is its presentation of Jesus in the microcosmic detail of his earthly life, and in the macrocosmic significance of his fuller identity. Both aspects of the Lord are represented as relating to the cosmos, the “world”. Later on, in chapters 12 and 13, that world is revealed as a place of danger — “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (12.31).

So, the explanation of the Word in John 1.9-10 is corroborated by Jesus himself. Here, in chapter 3, John reveals the most complete explanation of the Christ-event, and it is also the simplest: two more short sentences (paraphrased), “God loved the world,” and “The Son comes to save ‘the world’” (3.16-17).

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