How To Read New Testament Epistles: Ancient Greek Speech Making And NOT Modern American Letter Writing

Over the last month, my Men’s LifeGroup at Good Shepherd has been reading through a series of Paul’s letters, starting with First Corinthians and continuing through Ephesians.

Every morning, I have been sending them thoughts on the chapter assigned for the day.  I trust it has been helpful for them to read; I KNOW it has been helpful for my spiritual discipline and my spiritual disciplines to write.

As part of that reading, as you saw above, we read Ephesians 1 a few days ago.  That chapter reminded me of a distinction between modern American letter writing and ancient Greek speech making

And there is a world of difference between those two genres.

It’s a distinction that the pronouns in the chapter make abundantly clear — if you know both what to read and how to listen.  Here’s what I mean.

Check out the opening twelve verses, keeping in mind that Paul is himself Jewish while Ephesus is in modern-day Turkey, meaning that those who received his letter were Gentiles.

I have highlighted and CAPITALIZED all the references to “us” and “we” in this section.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Praise be to the God and Father of OUR Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed US in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose US in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined US for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given US in the One he loves. In him WE  have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on US. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to US the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

11 In him WE were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that WE, who were the first to put OUR hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

If you read this according to the rules of modern American letter writing, all the “us” and “we” references are a way of including you, the reader, into what the author is saying.  So those of us who are modern American Christians assume from the beginning that Paul is including the original Ephesians as well as the current readers into these opening words.

Except that’s not what he is doing.  Remember: Ephesians is not an example of modern American letter writing.  Instead, it is ancient Greek speech-making.

And in the argument Paul is building for Ephesians, WE and US refers to Paul and his kin: the Jews.  You get the gist of what he is doing if you imagine that he is standing on a platform with two fellow Jews addressing a room full of Gentiles.  And with each “we” and “us” he points to his Hebrew colleagues on the stage.

Verse 12 is especially critical to this understanding:  “we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ . . . ”  Who were the first to hope in Christ?  Not the Ephesians!  Meaning this section can’t be inclusive.  Instead, Romans 1:16 tells us who were the first to hope in Christ:  “for I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes:  first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” 


(And oh-by-the-way: understanding that “we” are the Jews and not the broader, fledgling Christian community goes a long way to explaining all the references to predestination and to being “chosen.”  Well, yes.  That’s how we understand God’s relationship with Israel.)

Back to Ephesians.  After that lengthy opening section with all its focus on “we” and “us,” EVERYTHING changes at 1:13:

13 And YOU also were included in Christ when YOU heard the message of truth, the gospel of YOUR salvation. When YOU believed, YOU were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing OUR inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

The transition from “we” to “you” is instantaneous, dramatic, and purposeful.

Imagine that Paul suddenly points to his audience:  AND YOU (Gentiles!) WERE INCLUDED IN CHRIST JUST LIKE WE WERE!

It’s a compelling example of ancient Greek speech-making, not modern American letter writing. 

And the purposeful use of pronouns has everything to do with the ultimate purpose of the letter … which we will explore in this same space tomorrow.