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July 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 3 · pp. 12–19 

The Enthronement of Christ in Ephesians

Erwin Penner

One of the most neglected themes in the theology of the church is the enthronement of Christ at the Father’s right hand. A study of this theme in Ephesians leads to the conclusion that the enthronement of Christ is the central and determining christological theme in Ephesians. The enthronement theme is a unifying thread running throughout the book and a theme that will help to build and challenge the church.


The key passage that describes the enthronement and introduces its role is 1:19b-23:

19 . . . in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20. which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21. far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. 22. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23. which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (NASB)

Several observations are pertinent to the meaning of this text: (1) The lordship to which Christ is exalted is seen as completed. All things are declared to be under his feet (v 22). (2) The church in view is the cosmic, universal church, seen in its completeness (vv 22f; cf. 3:21; 5:23ff). The focus is on the church as a single and complete body already united in all respects to its head and filled to fullness by him. This theme is developed further in Ephesians 2,3. (3) The emphasis falls on the exalted Christ rather than on the risen Lord. His death and resurrection are mentioned but center stage is occupied by the enthronement and its results. (4) The enthroned Christ stands as Lord over all things. His particular ministry is to his body, the church, but he is also involved {13} in a lordship over all things (1:21f), the summing up of all things (1:10), the display of his wisdom to all other beings (3:10), and the filling of all things with his glory and presence (4:10). (5) The concept of parousia (Christ’s-return), when all these things shall come to a head, is not clearly in view; rather a completed state of affairs already existent in the heavenlies is presented.

This enthronement passage plays a vital role in the context of Ephesians 1. First, it serves as the basis for the possession of the spiritual blessings (1:3-14). The christological title, “Lord Jesus Christ” in the berakah (blessing) of 1:3, and the repeated references to “in Christ” throughout the pericope bear this out. All the believer has from before the foundation of the world (1:4-6), in his present redemption (1:7-12), and in what awaits him in the future (1:13,14), are already his in and because of the exalted Christ.

Second, the enthronement of Christ is the basis of the prayer for spiritual growth. The apostle prays (1:15-19a) that the believers will receive a deepening insight into the knowledge of Christ in which they will more and more recognize the “hope of His calling”, the rich glories of Christ’s inheritance in the saints, and experience his divine power in their lives. At the mention of this great power Paul seems compelled to digress into a paeon of praise to the exalted Christ (1:19ff). The prayer is not resumed until 3:14.

The opening benediction is dominated, as is the rest of the prayer, by the thought of Christ’s exaltation to the right hand of God, the signal that he has fulfilled, at least in representative fashion, God’s purpose for man and therefore for the whole creation. 1

Third, the enthronement of Christ produces a significant tension between what the believer has, namely, the spiritual blessings (1:3-14), and what he can become, that is, growth in the knowledge and experience of Christ (1:17-19). What the believer has in Christ is still not all that he needs (1:15-19). But all he needs is already in Christ (1:19-23) who fills his body until it attains the maturity of the fullness of Christ (cf. 4:10-16).

Therefore, the enthronement of Christ is a dominant factor in Ephesians 1. All that God has done and will do for the believer rests on the greatness of the power brought to bear when he exalted Christ to ultimate lordship over all things for his body. From this Lord flow all the blessings of salvation. This theme continues in the succeeding chapters.


In Ephesians 2, believers become the enthroned ones by being {14} drawn into the exaltation of Christ. Formerly they were dead in sins and lived their lives in the sphere of lust and disobedience (2:1-3), but now God, motivated by his great love, has quickened them through Christ, raised them up, and seated them together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (2:4-6). In Ephesians “the heavenlies” appear to be a sphere of existence in which the exalted Christ is sovereign Lord, far above all other powers and authorities, and functions as head of the church (1:20f). Believers enter this realm through union with Christ (2:6); in it they experience all the spiritual blessings of God (1:13ff) along with the spiritual struggles against the various forces of wickedness who also inhabit the heavenlies (6:12; cf. 3:10). The heavenlies are therefore a sphere of spiritual reality in which believers come to partake even while they still live on earth. The heavenly life in Christ becomes theirs through the enthroned Christ already in this age. 2 Furthermore, by his grace they are “saved”; they are his “workmanship”; they stand created for good works already designed for them (2:8-10). It is on these grounds that believers are urged to remember that they are united to one another as one new man in Christ, who reconciled them through the cross (2:11-16). This Lord, now exalted, proclaimed peace to them and gave them free access to the Father (2:17f). As a result they are now fellow-citizens, members of God’s household, a holy temple and the dwelling place of God (2:19-22).

The striking feature of this chapter is its apparent “realized” eschatology. The cosmic church, the body of Christ, is already seated in the heavenly places in Christ (2:6) and as such enjoys the commensurate benefits. Salvation has a powerful present/realized emphasis in this chapter which centers around the enthronement of all believers together in Christ Jesus. However, the lingering references to a future eschatology (cf. 1:13f,21; 4:30; 5:5,16 and 6:13) can perhaps be better integrated into the predominantly present/realized categories by the term “proleptic eschatology”. What is fully accomplished in heaven and will one day be experienced completely on earth is already genuinely, though partially, experienced by believers through the Spirit (1:13f). 3 The heavenly, spiritual realm (“the age to come”, 1:21) has already impinged on this age through the coming of Christ. So the believer is involved in two spheres of existence: the earthly by creation, which has become the evil age through the fall (2:1-3), and the heavenly by redemption, through union with Christ (2:6). 4 He in a proleptic sense experiences the heavenly now, and yet is drawn towards its final consummation.


Sampley has drawn attention to the fact that in the eschatology of {15} Ephesians “. . . the categories of time are supplemented by an unusually heavy dependence on notions of space.” 5 This strong emphasis on spatial categories appears to arise from the centrality of the enthronement of Christ theme in the letter. Eph 1:19-23 presents the picture of Christ seated in the heavenlies far above all other powers, all things having been put under his feet, and occupying the headship of body which he fills out of his own divine fullness (cf. 3:19; 4:10). Time categories (1:21b) are not irrelevant to this portrait but they give way to predominantly spatial concepts.

The same phenomenon is observable with regard to believers. Formerly they belonged to the realm of this world (2:2) but now they are seated in the heavenlies (2:6); once they were far from Christ in the sphere of wrath (2:3,12) but now they have been brought near in the sphere of salvation (2:13); whereas formerly they were part of the fragmented world of enmity (2:14), now they are at peace in one new man (2:15); once they were outside the building of God as strangers and aliens (2:12) but now they are fellow-citizens and partakers of God’s household (2:19); though formerly alienated from God (2:12), they now have free access into his presence (2:18).

The spatial theme comes to particular expression in 3:14ff where the prayer which was interrupted in 1:19 is resumed. In it “categories of power and space blend into one another as the author attempts to describe what finally defies description.” 6 Of special note is the focus on the strengthening of the “inner man” by the Holy Spirit (3:16) so that Christ may dwell in them and that, while growing in love (3:17), believers may unitedly come to understand all the dimensions of Christ’s love (3:18f) with the result that they will be filled up to all the fullness of God (3:19). Though the future dimension is present, by implication center stage is occupied by the concept of present growth and filling into all dimensions of the divine fullness. These spatial categories are more suited to the central concept of an already enthroned Christ who fulfills his ministry to the church and world, than are temporal categories which stress the expectation of the parousia.

The emphasis on spatial terminology also underscores the exalted Christ’s current involvement in the world; he has not simply withdrawn. A number of factors bear out this point. First, as head of the church Christ stands in vital union and fellowship with it (1:22f; 2:13ff; 5:22ff). Second, Christ and the Holy Spirit are closely interrelated and sometimes identified: the Spirit is not simply a substitute for an absent Christ. For example, both Christ and the Spirit are instrumental in our access to the Father (2:18); both are involved in the growth of the body/building (2:21f); and both indwell and empower the believer (3:16ff). Third, Christ also acts independently in the church. He preaches peace to those both far and near (2:17). He reveals himself {16} to the apostle (3:3) and calls him to ministry (3:7). He gives the Spirit and gifts to the church (4:17ff), and supplies all that is needed for the body to build itself up in love (4:15f). He fills the church with the fullness of God (3:19; 4:10). His command and presence serve as the basis of the paraenetic sections (4:17-6:9). Finally, the strength by which believers stand against the wiles of the devil is his strength (6:10ff).

Therefore, the exalted Christ rules in the midst of his body. His ministry is one of immediacy, not distance. He has fellowship with his own, admonishing, equipping and strengthening them to attain the fullness of God (4:15) and to stand in the evil day (6:13). Spatial concepts do not distance him from his body or the world; rather, as he fills all space his presence and power become vital and active everywhere.

The enthronement of Christ dominates the first section of the letter. It defines the basis of all that the believers have in their salvation; it determines the nature of the eschatology presented; and it issues in a powerful ministry in his body.


Ephesians 4 turns from the discussion of the believers’ exalted position and inheritance in Christ to the practical realities of daily Christian living. Believers are to live life in a manner worthy of their high calling (4:1), for which the enthroned Christ himself provides adequate resources (4:7ff).

Eph 4:7-11:
7. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” 9. (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10. He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. 11. And He gave some as apostles . . . (NASB)

Eph 4:7 makes it plain that every believer has received a gift from Christ according to the measure of Christ’s gift, that is, the Holy Spirit. The giving of gifts is the direct result of the ascension and enthronement of Christ as the “quotation” from Ps. 68:18 in 4:8 shows. Ephesians appears to allude to the general theology of Ps. 68, which Psalm teaches that the ascended Lord distributes his blessings among his people (see Ps. 68:18). Therefore, Ephesians reads “gave gifts” rather than “received gifts.”

Eph. 4:9-10 is particularly significant since it serves as an explanation {17} of the “quotation” from the above Psalm and speaks of a corresponding ascent and descent. The meaning of the descent has given rise to much debate centered on two possible interpretations: (1) it refers to Jesus’ incarnation, or (2) it refers to his descent into Hades (cf. Rom. 10:7; 1 Pet. 3:19; 4:6). Caird has offered a convincing third option that sees the descent as the ascended Christ’s return at Pentecost to give his Spirit to the church. 7 This interpretation makes good sense of 4:7,8 and also fits well with 4:11ff where the actual giving of gifts through the Spirit is described.

The purpose of the ascension and the subsequent descent in the Spirit was “that He might fill all things.” Christ’s descent in the Spirit to bestow his gifts on the church is part of this divine plan. It becomes evident that as the gifts are received (4:11) and exercised (4:12), the body is built up and can move toward the maturity that belongs to the fullness of Christ (4:13). The enthronement of Christ then plays a very significant role in this context but one which is rather different from that evidenced in the first three chapters. There it provided the exalted status of the eschatological community to the believers; they are enthroned and have all the privileges of belonging to God. Here the enthronement issues in the very practical realities of giving gifts to the church and enabling her to grow up into the fullness of Christ. That which in Eph. 1-3 is proclaimed as a given fact now becomes the object of endeavour. The following paraenetic sections (4:17-6:9) repeatedly illustrate the point. Therefore, in order to keep a balance between the two perspectives, both of which arise out of the enthronement, the believing community must appreciate the benefits of its present status, but not in the sense of a full attainment that would allow it to relax in moral-spiritual endeavour.


The fullness or sum total of all God’s powers, attributes and redemptive acts now reside in the enthroned Christ who has been filled by God (1:23) and proceeds from his exalted position to fill all things (4:10), particularly his church (3:19). According to 3:19, love is the primary divine gift with which Christ fills the church, and yet it is a characteristic to which the church has yet to attain. 8 In 4:13 the “fullness of Christ” becomes the standard to be attained, which is accomplished only as the church builds itself up through the exercise of love (4:15f). And yet this is not a self-effort because the source is the exalted Christ (4:16a) who supplies all the body needs through the outpouring of his gifts (4:17ff). As the head fills the body with love, a fellowship is created which unites the head and body and the individual members to one another 9 so that the body grows up “into Him” (4:15). The paraenetic section which follows (4:17-6:9) illustrates in many practical ways how this love is to be exercised. {18}

We see a church, then, which is already the body of Christ but is not yet complete. It is a church already seated in the heavenly places (2:6) but not at rest, for it is precisely in these heavenly places that she must do battle with the rulers of darkness (6:12). She needs to stand firm in the Lord’s strength with an armor (6:13ff) that is strikingly reminiscent of the moral-spiritual qualities that cause the growth of the body (4:1-6). Therefore, the church needs to continue striving and growing toward the fullness of Christ (4:13) so that she may be completely filled with the fullness of God (3:19). This is a present process which is at the heart of the apostle’s prayer (1:15-19; 3:14-21) and the object of his instruction (4:1-16). Furthermore, it centers around and depends on the continuing work of the exalted Lord in his body, the church. He supplies all the church needs until she grows up to the goal: the fullness of Christ/God.

Ephesians describes the continuing tension between the “already” of what the church is, and the “not yet” of what she is to become in “growth” and “fullness” categories. The end is not viewed as the return of Christ but as attaining to the maturity of the fullness of Christ, the growing up of the body to completeness. We suggest that Paul used these categories of “growth” and “fullness” because they describe the present realities of Christ’s enthronement more suitably than temporal terms could.


The study of the enthronement theme in Ephesians has led me to see afresh several rather important emphases that need to affect our thought and life as disciples and servants of Christ. First, we need to constantly remind ourselves that we serve and worship not only a risen, living Christ, but an exalted, reigning Lord who is sovereign over all. There is no greater power than he in the universe for he is now Lord over every power, authority and situation this world can muster. The reality of Christ’s victorious and benevolent rule needs to be believed in and acted upon by those of us who confess his name. We are “in him” by faith and have entered into the realm of his victory so that no “power” can ultimately overcome those who are “in him.”

Second, the church of Christ needs to capture anew the truth that it has been adequately gifted by the enthroned Lord to become all that he has designed for it and to carry out the great commission. It appears from Ephesians that God’s purpose to “sum up” all things in Christ is vitally related to what he does in the church. We need to grasp and proclaim the glorious privilege of being the enthroned Lord’s body and the center of his witness to the principalities and powers both in this age and the age to come. {19}

Third, the enthroned Lord is present in his body through the Spirit. Therefore, though we do not see him now, he is not really distant from us. Believers are never alone in the intense “spiritual” battles waged against a whole array of demonic, cultural, political, ideological and philosophical forces; the enthroned Lord is always present with us in his overwhelming victory. As a result, though we do not proclaim a false “triumphalism” which belittles the forces of the enemy, we do confess the full adequacy of the exalted Christ to see us through every threatening situation. Though we cannot avoid the pain suffered from the blows of battle, we can be confident that the outcome is not defeat but rather our greatest good and his honor.

Fourth, the reality of Christ’s exalted reign in the present can become a tremendous incentive to proclaim a realistic but positive message for our day. Through his victory we can overcome in the present, experiencing his dynamic power as did his servants of old, and do not need to “wait out” this life until the parousia. Glorious as the parousia will be, the letter to the Ephesians would remind us that the mighty power of the enthroned Lord is designed for this life: to equip and enable us for a life of self-sacrifice and ministry to the world that needs his salvation. In our Lord’s words, we are “the light of the world” not the fading glow of after-burners from a spaceship hastily departing this world, leaving it to self-destruct in its sin. Therefore, our minds and heart’s devotion are to be directed to positive service in a broken world rather than escape from a sinful society. For this task the enthroned Lord continually makes us adequate and abides with us through the Spirit.


  1. G. B. Caird. Paul’s Letters from Prison: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 32.
  2. A. T. Lincoln, “ ‘The Heavenlies’ in Ephesians,” NTS 19 (1972-73): 468-83.
  3. Ibid., p. 470-471.
  4. Ibid., p. 479-83.
  5. J. P. Sampley, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, The Pastoral Epistles. (Proclamation Commentaries), ed. G. Krodel. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 32.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Caird, op. cit. 73ff; cf. also G. B. Caird, “The Descent of Christ in Ephesians 4, 7-11,” Studia Evangelica II, ed. F. L. Cross (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1964), pp. 535-45 for more detail.
  8. E. Best, One Body in Christ (London: SPCK, 1955), pp. 144-145.
  9. Ibid., p. 147.
Erwin Penner, a graduate of Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba, recently completed his doctoral studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and will assume a New Testament teaching position at Ontario Bible College/Biblical Seminary this Fall.

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