In the introduction to his commentary on Ephesians, Klyne Snodgrass asserts, “Pound for pound Ephesians may well be the most influential document ever written.” If this is true, there can never be enough books on Ephesians. Author and cultural worker Gloria Furman has provided us with a new one, Alive in Him: How Being Embraced by the Love of Christ Changes Everything.
The goal of Alive in Him is “not a line-by-line commentary but a thematic treatment of the sublime truths in the letter” (18–19). The book has a devotional feel, and the number of specific applications and application questions makes it easy to connect the biblical text to contemporary life.
One of the highlights of Alive in Him is its gospel-centeredness. Furman rightly understands the relationship between the indicative and the imperative in Paul’s theology, and makes that relationship obvious for her readers:
Our obedience to God is not the kindling for the fire of our salvation but the heat emanating from the fire that God started and fuels. (73)
We do not put away our idols so that God will then accept us, but we put away our idols because God has accepted us in Christ. (132)
Reflecting on “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8), Furman notes that we’ll need an eternity “to experience all the dimensions of Christ’s love for us” (97). On the nature of marriage as a parable of Christ’s relationship with the church, she writes, “Being found in him is our ‘happily ever after’” (153). This focus on God’s love for his people is refreshing.
Furman reminds us that we don’t exist for ourselves, but we were created for the glory of God and to be with him. Against the backdrop of counterfeit gospels, our good is linked to our nearness to God: that which is “more satisfying and more enduring” than anything else is located “in knowing and being known by the triune God who is blessed forever” (20).
Ephesians also emphasizes that when we’re brought near to God, we’re brought near to one another (2:11–22; 4:1–6:9). The ramifications are clear: the epistle pushes against our notions that religion should be privatized (113–17). We can’t read the “one another” language of Ephesians 4–5 and expect to live a detached life. As Furman says, “Here is yet another point at which ecclesiology does not affirm our ‘what I do with my life is none of your business’ mantra and ‘I gotta get some “me time”’ quest” (117). There’s no way we can sacrificially follow Christ to the cross and walk in wisdom apart from one another (142; cf. Eph. 5:1–2, 15).
Background to Ephesians
Alive in Him reads Ephesians against the backdrop of the Old Testament. For instance, Furman detects Isaiah’s depiction of the armor of God as the best background for Ephesians 6:10–17. In Isaiah 11:5, the Messiah is clothed with righteousness and faithfulness, and in Isaiah 59:17 it’s God himself who wears a breastplate of righteousness and a helmet of salvation. Therefore, Paul’s call to put on God’s armor is a call to remember the gospel and to live in light of what God in Christ has already achieved for us.
On this point, I wish Furman had read Ephesians against the backdrop of the historical situation of Ephesus. We know from Acts 19 that the citizens of Ephesus were devout worshipers of Artemis, the chief deity of the city. Also, Acts 19:17–20 describes the prominence of sorcery and black magic in Ephesus. As Clint Arnold has shown in his book Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians, the descriptions of God’s power over spiritual forces of evil in the letter owe to this historical reality. The Ephesian Christians had at one time been palpably under the control of spiritual forces called “powers” and “principalities.” They needed to be assured that God was more powerful than the powers they’d once served.
Even if many Christians in America aren’t coming out of a life of sorcery and black magic, we still need to hear that our God is supremely powerful against all the forces of evil in the world. We still need to know that our fight—not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of evil—will be victorious because our God has definitively won the battle through Christ. Recognizing the historical situation in Ephesus would clarify and buttress the application to our own lives.
How to Use This Book
Alive in Him can be used for personal or small-group studies of Ephesians, although there aren’t discussion questions at the end of each chapter. It’s the type of book pastors can put in the hands of their congregants and expect them to understand. Furman is a clear writer and often uses illustrations and wit in a helpful way to unpack the message of Ephesians.
I suggest using Alive in Him like this: Read Ephesians several times through, then read this book, then go back and read Ephesians again. Let the message of Ephesians thrill your soul. The riches of Christ are found in it, and Alive in Him sheds light on those riches. May the Lord strengthen us to rejoice evermore in the riches of our Savior!
Gloria Furman. Alive in Him: How Being Embraced by the Love of Christ Changes Everything. Wheaton: Crossway, 2017. 192 pp. $16.99.