A Gospel-Shaped Imagination

Fridays in Ephesus (3)
A Gospel-Shaped Imagination

During Eastertide on Fridays, we are reflecting on insights from Timothy Gombis’s recent book, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God.

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Timothy Gombis suggests that Ephesians 1:3-14, the panoramic doxology that opens Paul’s epistle, is designed to give Christian people “Gospel-shaped imaginations.” The apostle gives us this magnificent overview of our inheritance in Christ because, “A gospel-shaped imagination is necessary for the church to become a faithful and joyful cast of players and to effectively participate in God’s drama of redemption.”

Right after celebrating our great salvation, Paul prays this prayer:

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (Eph. 1:17-19).

This goes beyond a request for doctrinal knowledge or even understanding. Paul is asking that God renew our inner beings with the kind of enlightened imagination that will enable us to see the world as heaven’s stage so that we can find our place in it as actors in God’s drama.

One central feature of the script written for us involves what it means to be “in Christ.”

Ascension, Koerbecke

Ten times in Eph. 1:3-14, Paul uses some variation of the phrase, “in Christ.” At times this points to God working through the agency of Jesus Christ to redeem the world and reconcile it to himself. This is “his kind intention which He purposed in Him” (v. 9). But the majority of instances talk about the new position Christian believers enjoy in relationship to God — we are “incorporated into Christ.” As Gombis puts it: “The people of God are not merely loved by God or saved by God; we are brought into God. God has done something outrageous to us, bringing us into Christ so that we now have a completely new location on the cosmic map.”

This is first and foremost a relational term. In the essence of our being, we are united to Jesus Christ. When a person enters into a marriage, it changes his or her status with regard to all relationships and practices in life. The exclusive “one flesh” union of husband and wife transforms everything and leads to a new life together. “We are now ‘in Christ’,” writes Tim Gombis, “which becomes our fundamental identity, opening up for us an entirely new range of options for behavior, relationships, patterns of thought and speech and the future trajectory of our lives.” Brought by God’s grace into union with Christ, the old has passed away and the new has come.

A new identity and history
We now bear Christ’s name and carry his Spirit. Our very identity has been transformed. It is no longer bound up with our past, with its failures and transgressions. Now when we trace our heritage, we discover that God chose us before the foundation of the world and somehow wove all the events of our lives into his story of grace. Our sins have been forgiven, our slate wiped clean. We no longer abide under a code of laws that condemn us. We have been accepted into a household in which we are freely granted an inheritance because of what Another has done on our behalf.

It is important to say that when we are united to Christ, we are not removed from the world. We remain ourselves, with all our flaws and shortcomings, personality quirks and learned behaviors which may or may not fit well with our new status and life. Again, as in a marriage relationship, becoming one with Christ is the beginning of a lifelong journey of knowing and being known, of learning to “become” the spouse that I am already by virtue of my married status. However, I also have the powerful reality of a new relationship to empower and inspire me day by day.

A new geography
Paul sometimes speaks in relational metaphors; at other times he speaks in spatial terms. “In Christ” may carry the idea of being in a new realm, a new country, a new Kingdom, a new “location on the cosmic map” to use Gombis’s term. Another term in Ephesians makes this clear: Christians are now blessed “in the heavenly places.” In a mysterious way, we have been granted access to the life and power and virtue of God’s realm, even while we continue to live in this world that we access through our senses. Imagine something like Narnia, a parallel world coexisting with our own.

I am convinced that “heaven” or “God’s realm” is not a place far away, beyond the most distant star, but rather more like another dimension that is close by, though inaccessible via ordinary means. N.T. Wright talks about places in the world, such as the Temple, that were understood as locations where that hidden realm intersected with our human experience. Imagine Lewis’s wardrobe, where entrance to Narnia could be made. In the same way, the Christian’s life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), and yet we are also the Temple of God’s Spirit in this world, the Body of Christ that carries his risen life within us, conduits of heaven’s influence to those around us. Ephesians is a deeply sacramental book. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as G.M. Hopkins affirmed, and through Word and Sacrament, through bread, wine, and water, though pen and ink, and flesh and blood, the life of God renews creation.

Ascension, Perugino

A new community
“In Christ” also has a corporate aspect. Christians have been welcomed into the family of God through Jesus Christ. Christians function as the various members of the Body of Christ. Christians are God’s holy nation of priests, declaring his praises. Christians are “partners” working together in the fellowship (koinonia — a business term for a joint endeavor) of God’s mission in the world.

In other words, “in Christ” is not simply a term that means, “me and Jesus, united forever.” God is forming a people and building a Kingdom in order to restore all creation. To be “in Christ” means that we are united together to Christ — we are his new community in the world.

A new destiny
The doxology of Eph. 1:3-14 has three “stanzas,” each corresponding with a member of the Trinity, and each ending with a similar thought: “to the praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6), “for the praise of his glory” (v. 12), and “to the praise of his glory” (v. 14). This describes both the vocational calling and ultimate destiny of those who are “in Christ.”

God’s plan in creation was that human beings would represent his glory in the world — humans are the “image of God” (Gen. 1:26-28). This refers to the Ancient Near East practice of a king constructing a statue of himself to display his glory in his temple. God made human beings to be “for the praise of his glory” in the world. Now, in union with Christ, God is making it possible for humans to fulfill his original design.

• • •

“All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ!” (Eph. 1:3, NLT)


12 thoughts on “A Gospel-Shaped Imagination

  1. There’s an article on the LA Times website which claims that people become less religious as they become more analytical. I think there is has a point to this article. If imagination takes over because reason fails to grasp, then I have concerns. Imagination is not a surrender to irrationalism. If one takes a traditional reformed interpretation of this chapter of Ephesians, one is left attempting to make rational peace with double-predestination. Any appeal to imagination to accomplish this amounts to insanity. It might explain why evangelical art is so uninspiring, because it has such a dehumanizing concept of imagination.


  2. A classic text for us mathematicians, Highwayman. There’s also a more recent, non-Victorian sequel called “Flatterland” by the well-known mathematical popularizer Ian Stewart, though I haven’t read it myself. When your brain has developed a few more calluses, give it a shot.


  3. Thanks, I just downloaded it free from B&N & the quality looks pretty good. Going to read “The Weight of Glory” also.


  4. I recently made my brain hurt by reading ‘Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions’, by Edwin A. Abbott (downloaded free from Project Gutenberg), which although not overtly theological is saying pretty much the same thing; at least, that’s how my limited imagination understands it.


  5. Obviously “up” in Heaven has changed with our knowledge of space. There is no longer an up, only an out. Then the question is how far out . How far? Not far. It is in and around us, closer than our skin.


  6. I am convinced that “heaven” or “God’s realm” is not a place far away, beyond the most distant star, but rather more like another dimension that is close by, though inaccessible via ordinary means. ”

    For me this is one of the most attractive thoughts in the writings of N. T. Wright and others. This is a new reality, that if we can but glimpse it, get a breath of its air, and see some of the sights, can change the meaning of being “in Christ” and take to a level that means far more than stale theology.

    I’ve always struggled with the meaning of “in Christ.” It’s always seemed just a slightly out of the reach of my understanding. When one approaches it from this fresh point of view, it changes everything.


  7. Amen, and amen . . . this touches on the significance of our original design and purpose, in being created in God’s likeness–we are created to be united in intimacy with God in a way that evokes the oneness of the three persons of God.

    We always were meant to be “in” with God.


  8. Imagination, often denigrated ( Oh that’s all in your imagination ) is an amazing and powerful spiritual tool. It is just this side of dreams and a cousin of meditation. Look at a young child playing an imaginary game and you are witnessing someone who is not in the same room with you. Law laden fundamentalism zealously squelches imagination and for good reason; it transports us. There will be none of that. Stick to the plan.


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