Ephesians 2:10 (NAS): 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
I recently heard a sermon using this familiar passage. Unfortunately, the interpretation was also all too familiar. It was the typical surface, limited, and I dare say, lazy interpretation, though obviously appealing to the hearers. Maybe lazy presumes too much. It could have been inexperience, lack of skill or knowledge. The result was the same nonetheless.
The sermon went something like this. God has a wonderful plan for your life, because you are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. He is at work in you to bring about something great. You are His masterpiece. Since you are His workmanship, your life has value and purpose. What that purpose is the preacher was vague enough to allow the listeners to project any purpose they felt led. Of course, what exactly He’s doing is between them and the Lord. The Lord speaks to every individual and communicates His great plan for their lives, if they will but listen and believe.
This message is appealing because we all have aimless, uninspired seasons. Life is relentless and drains us of our inspirational reserves. We long to find value and purpose, and to be reminded that God has a plan for us. It gives us the confidence to return to our pursuits. The preacher has convinced them it’s God’s plan for their lives. They are, after all, His workmanship.
The people have been encouraged and inspired. They are off the sidelines and back in the game. They’re ready to win. They have been blessed, great sermon. There is no harm, no foul. Except for these 3 really important things.
It’s Not True
Although we quote the passage correctly, with the plural pronoun, we hear and receive it as a singular pronoun. We say that we are His workmanship, but we hear and are led to believe that I am His workmanship. The interpretive error is the result of two things. One, the individualism of our culture has colored our reading and our preaching. The accepted and exalted freedom of individual expression has caused us to believe the writer meant that we are all individually His workmanship. Two, the absence of the context has given the mistake plausibility. Without the clarity of the context, this mistake is virtually unavoidable, given our cultures high regard for individuality. I can see myself so easily in the passage. Yet, meaning is always tethered to context.
If the context had been consulted, the individuality would not only have been implausible, but also discouraged. In the context, the author has been talking about the historical founding of the church. He explains that the church was founded on the unity and peace established between two historically hostile groups; Jews and Gentiles. The two groups have been made into one new man through the cross of Christ. Much is made of the two groups becoming one in Christ Jesus. It was a monumental feat to reconcile the two groups together, before, in one body reconciling them to the Father. They are the we who are His workmanship. They are what the Lord was making. They are the masterpiece.
We are apart of that workmanship only insofar as we are fitted and joined to what the Lord began to make in unity in the 1st century. The individualism in the present preaching of the passage does much harm to the spirit of the passage in context. The truth is concealed by the lack of context and inexperience of the preacher. The context simply doesn’t allow for the narrowing of the work of God onto us individually. It’s true sense is that the body in it’s unity is His workmanship.
The Glory of God is Diminished
The narrowing of the passage onto individuals not only misses the truth, but it also diminishes the glory of God in His workmanship. The context displays the transcendence of His workmanship. God has established unity, reconciliation and peace among His people in an ethnically hostile and divided world, through the cross of Jesus Christ. He began that work with the two most hostile groups of the day. The limiting of the context inspires individuals to achieve often great things in life. The same kinds of things aspired to and often achieve by those who do not believe, but the truth in context inspires awe in the craftsman for the reconciliation of men across ethnic boundaries in Jesus Christ. That the world has not and cannot achieve.
A church of diverse peoples, fitted and joined together in one body, growing into a holy temple in the Lord is awe inspiring. The writer says that this was done so that the manifold wisdom of God might be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places. This display of wisdom is greater than individual success.
Pursuit of the Wrong Things
Without the context illuminating the truth, you would be left pursuing the wrong things. You would have been left pursuing a vague notion of an individual purpose, believing it was God-given. Despite an uninformed faith in the pursuit of this purpose, you would have actually been working in opposition to the Lord’s true workmanship. God is at work on a unified diverse church and you would be pursuing an individual calling. The Spirit of God would be at work growing one building, and you would be at work on your own building.
Ephesians 2:20–21 (NAS): Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord,
Preaching is never neutral. It’s either true to the biblical text and is spiritually profitable, or its not true and causes spiritual harm and stunted spiritual growth. Every teacher of the word thus incurs a stricter judgement. It can be easy to inspire the uninspired, but inspiration, while noble, is not the goal of preaching. Our goal has not changed since the founding of the church. It is to pass on the faith once and for all handed down from the Apostles. To rightly divide the word of truth. In order to so, we must doggedly pursue the author’s intended meaning, or even with the best intentions, we will do much harm.