The Heavenlies in Ephesians: A Lexical, Exegetical, and Conceptual Analysis

M. Jeff Brannon Bloomsbury T&T Clark, London June 20, 2013

The phrase ejn toi'" ejpouranivoi" occurs five times in Ephesians (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12) and a consensus on its meaning has been elusive. The occurrences in 2:6 and 6:12 have been especially problematic. Brannon explores this issue in depth to provide a solution that is acceptable throughout Ephesians. His study focuses on the phrase’s background, lexical meaning, and conceptual meaning, and he provides exegesis of the relevant passages. This study is intended to help readers understand the phrase in its various contexts as well as the phrase’s contribution to the meaning of the passages.

Brannon suggests that the work of Hugo Odeberg (The View of the Universe in the Epistle to the Ephesians [Lund, Sweden: Gleerup, 1934]) has been most influential. For Odeberg “the heavenlies” is essentially the entire spiritual realm that includes the heavens and also the spiritual life of the church on earth. Although Odeberg’s views are influential, not everyone follows them. Andrew Lincoln looks at the phrase from the perspective of Pauline eschatology (“A Re-Examination of ‘The Heavenlies’ in Ephesians,” New Testament Studies 19 [1973]: 468–83 and elsewhere). For Lincoln the phrase must be understood from the perspective of the Old Testament and other Jewish literature that maintained a two-part creation: the heavens and the earth (pp. 24–28). Previous to Brannon, the largest study on this phrase was a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary doctoral dissertation by Michael McGough (“An Investigation of ∆Epouravnio" in Ephesians,” 1987). McGough’s conclusions are similar to those of Odeberg (pp. 2–3, 30–31). One basic issue is whether the phrase should be seen as spatial (local) and/or personal. Is it referring to a place above the earth and/or the spiritual life? Brannon believes it is local. Although critical of Lincoln in some places, Brannon generally follows his approach. Brannon’s study provides a level of depth not previously undertaken.

Chapters 1 and 2 include an introduction and history of interpre-tation. Brannon believes the book was written to Asia Minor generally, not specifically to Ephesus (pp. 8–9). Chapter 3 is a lexical analysis of the term ejpouravnio" in a variety of Greek sources including the Septuagint. Brannon’s examples are selective and focused on the examples used by McGough (pp. 39–41). Further examples could have been examined (over four thousand extant examples are in the literature; p. 39). Chapter 4 is a lexical analysis of the term in the New Testament. The term occurs fourteen times outside of Ephesians (seven in Paul’s epistles, six in Hebrews, and one in John). These chapters demonstrate that although the word may have different nuances, it has a local meaning, it “is spatially distinct from the earth,” and it is synonymous with other terms for “heaven” such as oujravnio" (p. 101). Implications of this view are drawn throughout the remainder of the volume.

In chapters 5–9 Brannon considers the five occurrences of the phrase in Ephesians through what he calls “exegetical and conceptual analysis.” Based on his earlier conclusions he considers other issues in the text and discusses how the phrase contributes to the meaning of the passage. In Ephesians 1:3–14 Brannon notes that Ephesians, like other Jewish literature, associates the blessing of God with the nonearthly heaven and thus verse 3 “introduces a theme for Ephesians in which believers are closely associated with the blessings of heaven” (p. 114; chap. 5).

After a helpful discussion of resurrection and enthronement, Brannon notes that Ephesians 1:20 describes the location of the right hand of God and where Christ sits (chap. 6). The longest chapter (chap. 7) in the book is devoted to 2:6. After an interesting discussion of topics like Jewish mysticism and the Colossian heresy, Brannon draws two conclusions. First, 2:6 is a “subtle and implicit polemic against a Jewish ascetic mysticism” that was prevalent in Colossae (pp. 127–69, 175–176). Second, 2:6 is about the believer’s spiritual resurrection (parallel to spiritual death in 2:1–5) (pp. 170–76). Brannon’s second conclusion is convincing; however, although the first is well defended, the difficulty of identifying the Colossian heresy makes this difficult to fully embrace (the Judaizing movement generally is more defensible). In 3:1–13 Paul used the apocalyptic theme of mystery, and in a further polemic against Jewish mysticism he argued that believers have access to God and therefore visions are not necessary. Brannon discusses whether evil powers (6:14) can be in heaven (chap. 9). Many have attempted to spiritualize this in order to keep heaven free of evil (e.g., saying it describes church life). Brannon’s conclusion that “the heavenlies” is always local depends on demonstrating that evil in heaven is possible. Although no New Testament passage states this, the idea appears in the Old Testament (e.g., Job 1:6–7; Zech. 3:1) and in some noncanonical literature (e.g., Jubilees 17.16; Testament of Solomon). Therefore the local solution is preferred to some type of spiritualization of the passage.

Chapter 10 includes three excursuses with themes that concern the book of Ephesians. In discussing cosmology in Ephesians one excursus considers why Paul used these two “heavenly” labels (ejn oujranoi'" and ejn toi'" ejpouranivoi"), and it discusses evil spiritual powers in Ephesians and in other Pauline epistles. The book concludes with a short appendix on synonymy, a seventeen-page bibliography, and two indexes (ancient sources and modern authors).

Brannon’s view is convincing. Its consistency is appealing and has the advantage of being easily explainable. The two passages that have led some to other solutions (Eph. 2:6; 6:12) are satisfactorily explained. One critical point is worth noting. While his view is correct, all occurrences of “in the heavenlies” may not necessarily have the same meaning.

Although academic, the book is readable. Yet it seems to include too much redundancy. Some readers may be distracted by the sometimes harsh or belittling manner in which Brannon treated some of those with whom he disagrees (especially McGough; e.g., pp. 3, 39, 61 n 62). Some statements could have been reworded to avoid this appearance (e.g., “We consider this omission to be inexcusable in light of McGough’s argument” could have been stated as “In light of McGough’s argument, this omission is surprising”). This of course does not affect the argument of the volume. Brannon’s study is important and provides insight into Ephesians.

—Joseph D. Fantin

April 1, 2013

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2013 vol. 170 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

Subscribe Today