This post originally appeared on Desiring God.
The biggest questions in the world matter for our everyday lives more than we often realize. For instance, how you understand time, space, and God will affect what makes you laugh.
On a casual reading of Paul’s letters, some might assume that Paul ignores philosophical questions. Yet Paul did not shy away from the deepest, most complicated questions at all. In fact, he tackled them with the strength and confidence of a bull in a rodeo. But unlike many philosophers, Paul’s philosophy was wrapped in pastoral garments. He thought that our understanding of time and space should determine the types of jokes we tell and what sort of husbands and wives we should be.
Philosophers for centuries have debated the twin towers of time and space. What is their nature? How do we describe them? What is their relationship to God? Augustine in his Confessions says, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.”
In Paul’s least occasional letter, Ephesians, he writes to Christians about God’s cosmic plan, summed up in the body of Jesus Christ. I imagine that when Tychicus asked Paul what he was writing about, Paul slowly turned to Tychicus and said, “Everything Tychicus. I am writing about everything.”
Yesterday, Today, and Forever
The cosmic plan in Ephesians begins with Paul speaking about time. We have past blessings (before the foundation of the world), present blessings (what we have in Christ now), and future blessings (in the fullness of time). Paul’s language spans the edges of our knowledge about time. Eternity past and eternity future can be encapsulated in “in Christ” language. We were chosen in him in eternity past, we currently have redemption through him, and in the fullness of time, we will have our inheritance with him.
People are either “in Christ” and receiving these blessings through the expanse of time, or they are without Christ and held back from these blessings. This is exactly how Paul describes it as he moves into chapter 2 where he speaks about what we were formerly and what we are now. Formerly, we were without God; now we are raised with Christ. Formerly, we were children of wrath; now we are a part of God’s household. Paul has been made a messenger of this mystery that was not made known to people before him in history, but is now revealed (Ephesians 3:4–5). Paul in Ephesians describes the wonder and majesty of God and his plan in the past, the present, and the future.
In Heaven and on Earth
Paul does not just speak about eternity past and eternity future, but the celestial plan for space. God the Father has not only blessed us in times past, but also in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:3). The plan was to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10). The triumph of Christ over the evil powers demonstrates that he has authority over all space, and his body is going to fill all spaces (Ephesians 1:23).
Paul continues to describe how this will happen in chapter 2. It will happen in the church as we recognize and live out what has been done for us in Christ. We are called to remember who we were. We formerly followed the ruler of the kingdom of the air, but now we have been brought near to the ruler of all heaven and earth (Ephesians 2:1–10). Paul uses spatial metaphors of being far off and then being brought near (Ephesians 2:13, 17). Geography determines identity here. We either have been raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms, or we are under the power of the spirit of the air.
If we have been seated with Christ, we are also being made into a place. Paul employs spatial metaphors speaking of the church as being built into a house, temple, and kingdom (Ephesians 2:19–22). So it is not only that Christ fills all things, but that the body of his church will also fill all things. Christ’s bride is swept up in this cosmic blueprint.
If all things are summed up in Christ, it means we must be humble with one another, love one another, and put off all falsehood.
Although Paul is not usually described as a philosopher, he confronts the great philosophers of his day, arguing that time and space converge in the person of Christ. Christ is the key to the universe; he is the lens through which we understand time and space. His body is going to fill all things, it will complete all things, and it will explain all things. Christ fills, completes, controls, rules, and determines the union of time and space. The letter of Ephesians is truly about everything.
The Drama of the Universe
Such knowledge seems too lofty for us, but for Paul, the fact that Christ has triumphed over the spiritual forces and that his body will fill all space and time has practical punch. If all things are summed up in Christ, it means we must be humble with one another, love one another, and put off all falsehood (Ephesians 4:2, 25). It means our speech is to be pure (Ephesians 5:4); we are to rid ourselves of all anger, brawling, slander, and every form of sexual immorality (Ephesians 4:31; 5:3). We are to wake up, and rise from the dead, and the light of Christ will shine on us (Ephesians 5:14).
So what is the connection between this cosmic vision and our crude jokes? The crude jokes and the empty words don’t fit into the time and space of Christ’s direction for the drama. The theater of the universe is unfolding, and Paul is directing the imagination of his readers, teaching them what steps to take, what words to use, and how to walk so that they will be acting out the right drama.
The spotlight is on, and at the center of the play is Christ. What happens around him must conform to the bigger vision that he has set forth. At the end of the play, all that has happened will come to a conclusion in Christ. We as the actors on the stage, once we see the beauty of the revelation, should make it our greatest ambition to conform our acting to the denouement. Moreover, this is why Paul punctures the letter with prayers that we would have the power to grasp how wide, long, high, and deep is the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:17–19).
Paul is a philosopher, but not the usual type of philosopher. He sees the big canvas of the universe. And that stirring opus determines for him (and us) what type of jokes we should tell and whether we share with those in need.
About Patrick Schreiner
Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He completed his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Seminary. In addition to his pastoral ministry experience, Patrick also enjoys writing. You can follow Patrick's journey and his thinking online at his blog, Ad Fontes. You can also follow him on Twitter.