Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary

  • Harold W. Hoehner
  • Jan 1, 2003
  • Series: Volume 6 - 2003

Hoehner, Harold W. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker. 2002 xxix+ 930 pp. $54.99. ISBN 0-8010-2614-8

In 1985, Harold Hoehner, now distinguished professor of Biblical Studies at Dallas Seminary, took a year's sabbatical to Tyndale House, Cambridge, to begin working on this commentary. Two more sabbaticals and seventeen years later, he has completed what will no doubt be his own magnum opus as well as one of the most prodigious efforts by an individual New Testament scholars in recent times. This will be the standard, detailed evangelical commentary on Ephesians for many, many years to come.

The introduction alone occupies 130 pages, of which almost half deals with authorship. In thoroughly reviewing the external and internal evidence, Hoehner demonstrates the unanimous, early attestation for Pauline authorship, no early Christian acceptance of pseudonymity, the number of lexical and linguistic distinctives that appear in other undisputed letters of Paul, the correlation between the long sentences of Ephesians and its thanksgivings and doxologies, and the likelihood that the epistle was an encyclical accounting for the more general contents. He doubts, however, that the original manuscript of 1:1 lacked "in Ephesus." On every count, the evidence argues for Pauline authorship.

No specific subgenre of "epistle" accounts for the exact structure of the letter, which divides neatly into two halves (chaps. 1-3, 4-6). Its purposes are multiple but they coalesce in Paul's desire for unity demonstrated through love, which produces reconciliation--the theological heart of the letter as well.

The commentary proper follows a meticulously detailed outline of the letter. One-half- to two- or three-verse segments are introduced, in turn, followed in each case by the Greek text, Hoehner's English translation, and a word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase commentary. Virtually every exegetical question imaginable is raised, possible answers presented and assessed, and clear conclusions stated. At the end of each exegetical section, equally forthright and succinct summaries recapitulate what has been affirmed. The largest single portion of the exegetical task reflected in Hoehner's comments involve word studies. Not content simply to accept the opinions of others, Hoehner has researched afresh the classical Greek, Septuagintal and New Testament backgrounds of all key terms and then decided how best to render each. But, with every exegetical issue, he also surveys the massive secondary literature, including a considerable amount of it in the footnotes. Thus neither primary research nor interaction with scholarship has been sacrificed at the expense of the other.

A short review can only sample a tiny handful of the conclusions Hoehner comes to as he proceeds through Ephesians. With Lincoln, "the heavenlies" (5X, first in 1:3) are the unseen realm where angels and demons do battle for human souls. The election described in 1:4 is single (not double) predestination, the middle voice indicates a personal interest in the one chosen, and God selected individuals not randomly but in light of all known options. The "mystery," first introduced in 1:9, is something hid in ages past, now revealed, unable to be unraveled or understood by human ingenuity alone. By the time we get to chapter 3 it will be clear that the full extent of this disclosed secret is the unity of Jews and Gentiles alike coming to Christ for salvation on equal terms, with neither being subsumed under the other. The sealing of the Spirit in 1:13 denotes his ownership of believers, begun at conversion and granting them eternal security.

The headship of Christ, introduced in 1:22, employs the controversial kephale. With Cervin and Perriman, the term means neither authority nor source so much as prominence. This perspective will be reiterated in the discussion of husbands and wives in chapter 5 but it is never clearly spelled out how it differs from or improves on the classical sense of "headship." The perfect periphrastic participles in 2:6 and 8 intensify the present results of being saved; one enters life by grace to be sure, but the emphasis here lies on living out one's Christian life by the grace which also keeps one safe. From the numerous ways in chapter 2 by which believers are united with Christ, they are enabled to receive every spiritual benefit. The "middle wall of partition" in 2:14 is a metaphorical one of division between Jew and Gentile involving attitudes of superiority that engendered hostility. The "law of commandments in decrees" is the entire Mosaic Law, not merely civil or ceremonial laws. The "head of the corner" in 2:20 should be understood as a cornerstone and not a capstone.

The ei ge in 3:1 is a first class condition, not doubting that Paul knew his audiences had heard of his stewardship. The expression is best translated "surely." The hos in v. 5 is descriptive not restrictive, that is, the mystery was not disclosed partially in previous generations. It was just previously unknown. The unity stressed throughout chapter 3 challenges the church in every time and place to heterogeneity in community: "Growth in the individual believer cannot occur in isolation but must be accomplished in context with other believers. Furthermore, true growth cannot occur by association with only certain believers, ones preferred because they are of the same socioeconomic, intellectual, or professional status" (p. 486). The filling with the fullness of God in 3:19 reflects successive approximation to God's moral character, not some ontological deification.

One may think of chapters 1-3 as summing up the believer's call; chapters 4-6 then sum up what the believer's conduct should be. Unity continues to be stressed, notably in the sevenfold use of "one" in 4:4-6. 4:8-9 refers to the ascension and the subsequent redistribution of gifts received from humans, thus harmonizing the MT and Targumic renderings. Nothing appears here about any descent into Sheol or hell. The distinction between the gifted individuals in 4:11 proceeds along the following lines: evangelists win converts, apostles establish churches and prophets fill in needed revelation. With Wallace, "pastors and teachers," since plural, are not an exact fulfillment of Granville Sharp's criterion; all pastors should teach but not all teachers pastor. "Speaking the truth" is too narrow a translation of aletheuontes in v. 15; the word means being real or truthful in both conduct and speech. V. 28 "reflects a mean between two extremes. One is neither to hoard nor recklessly give all away" (p. 627).

It is not humor but sarcastic ridicule in putting people down that 5:4 condemns. 5:18 describes filling "by" not "with" the Spirit, and the three subsequent co-ordinate participles are participles of result. Spirit-filled people will sing hymns, give thanks and submit themselves one to another (vv. 19-21), according to their specific positions in life, as spelled out by 5:22-6:9. Submission is voluntary and never justifies transgressing God's explicit commandments. But neither is it dependent on the appropriate behavior of the authority figure in each pairing. "The washing of the water" in 5:26 probably alludes, metaphorically, to the bridal bath practiced in the first century. Intriguingly, Hoehner opts for the little-known textual variant in v. 30 that adds "out of his flesh and out of his bones."

Twice children are commanded to obey both "parents" in 6:1-2, so that the shift to "fathers" in 6:4 is probably not a generic equivalent but a further recognition of male headship. But, as throughout the domestic code, Paul radically redefines the roles of those in positions of responsibility and oversight in terms of love, especially countercultural against the Roman patria potestas, an absolute right of men to treat wives, children and slaves however they wanted to. The final section on the armor of God reflects the defensive posture of believers--standing their ground (even the sword of the Spirit is not seen in this context as ready for attack or going on the offensive). "This is not about a victory or defeat. It is about holding fast to territory already won by Christ. The believer needs to realize that the devil and his angels are universal and strong, but not omnipotent. Accordingly, the strength of the Lord gained by utilizing the full armor of God is stronger than all the power of the wicked" (pp. 836-37). The conclusion of the letter with its exact parallelism with the end of Colossians is best explained as coming from the same writer sent out at the same time via Tychicus.

Helpful, often lengthy excursuses punctuate the commentary treating such themes as "in Christ," "election," pleroma, "mystery," the household code, and slavery in Paul's time. The volume closes with comprehensive author and Scripture indexes, but no full bibliography appears, since this would have added a hundred pages to the volume. First footnote entries give full information, though, which the author index can help one find, so this refusal to make a long book longer proves welcome.

It seems almost petty to make any substantive criticisms after working through this masterpiece. Still, it might be worth noting that Hoehner does not seem to acknowledge any strengths (only weaknesses) of the new look on Paul. It is not clear, for example, that Paul's contrast between grace and works can be generalized to all situations of human effort as Hoehner does. The more Pauline the letter truly is, the more we must recognize even "works" unqualified as shorthand for "works of the Law." Similarly, while Hoehner's dispensationalism rarely colors his exegesis in a way to which practitioners of other theological systems would object, it is not obvious that only those portions of the OT repeated in the NT remain operative. All the OT has been fulfilled in Christ; all applies to Christians but only once we understand how the Christ-event has changed things. By Hoehner's criterion, he should assume Israel no longer has any distinctive claim on the land (but he assumes she does), because no NT passage repeats that OT promise. Likewise it is hard to see NT apostles as inerrant as OT prophets, once we realize Paul identifies "apostleship" as a spiritual gift. No other gift is regularly used without error by fallen Christians. "Prophecy," is curiously defined as narrowly as many charismatics do, in order to argue that it has ceased, without recognizing the contexts in the ancient world in which it could be applied to what we would probably call "preaching."

While Hoehner correctly questions the alleged allusions to baptism every time a reference to "putting on" or "water" or related metaphors appear, it is hard to agree with him that water "baptism" is not in view in 4:5, since metaphorical baptisms elsewhere in the NT and early Christian literature are regularly qualified in such a way as to clarify that something other than water is in view. And he ignores the category of a conditional imperative in dismissing the understanding of 4:26 that takes it to mean, "If you are angry, don't sin." It is not obvious that the absence of any word for "obedience" in the commands to wives (contrasted with their presence in the commands to children and slaves) is as insignificant as Hoehner claims. But these kinds of disagreements are inevitable and scarcely cancel out the monumental significance of this volume. Ernest Best's ICC volume on Ephesians may be almost as comprehensive from a liberal perspective; A. T. Lincoln's WBC is thorough but not as consistently evangelical as most in the series. Peter O'Brien's PNTC is every bit as robust in defense of Pauline authorship and exegetically compelling, but much briefer. Hoehner's volume should thus occupy a distinctive and important niche within NT scholarship for a long time to come.

Craig L. Blomberg
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary