The "Heavenly Places"
Fives times in Ephesians Paul uses the phrase “in the heavenly places,” or more literally, “the heavenlies.” The fact that this unique phrase occurs so often in this letter and nowhere else in the New Testament shows how important it is to understanding the message of Ephesians as a whole. What and where are “the heavenly places?” The NIV translates it “the heavenly realms,” which best conveys Paul’s focus on the unseen spiritual realm, where God is. Though unseen, the heavenly places are just as real as the “earthly places” we reside in; and unlike our created physical universe destined for destruction, the heavenly places are eternal. By studying the phrase “the heavenly places” we can summarize the book of Ephesians as follows:
In Christ we have all spiritual blessings (Eph. 1:3). Spiritual blessings come from the spiritual realm, and the focus of Ephesians (especially in chapter 1) is how abundant those blessings are. The most important blessings are those that are intangible because they are in the heavenly realm. In fact, each of the blessings listed in Ephesians 1 are spiritual in nature, including God’s choosing us (v. 4), our adoption as sons (v. 5), forgiveness of sins (v. 7), the revelation of God’s gracious will (v. 9-10), our inheritance (v. 11), and the pledge of the Holy Spirit (v. 13-14). These blessings will only mean something to us if our focus is on spiritual things. Thus, Paul’s prayer is that we would come to know the hope, riches, and greatness of these blessings revealed to us in Jesus Christ (1:15-19; 3:14-19).
Christ is King (Eph. 1:20-21). After Jesus’ resurrection, God seated Him at His right hand to reign “in the heavenly places.” Jesus’ authority is not limited to the earth, but He rules over the all heavenly powers (Matt. 28:18). Perhaps this should clue us into the fact that His kingdom is not of a worldly nature, as if we wait for an earthly kingdom to come; He reigns in heaven now (John 18:36; Acts 2:33-36)! Notice how all-encompassing Jesus’ reign is: “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is to names, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” In Jesus, the Old Testament promise of a universal King is fulfilled (Psalm 2; 110).
We are reigning with Christ (Eph. 2:6). This is one of the most remarkable points of Ephesians; just as God raised up and exalted Jesus after the resurrection (Eph.1:20), so He raised us up from the death of sin to seated us with Christ to reign alongside him (Eph. 2:4-6). Of course, we do not have the sovereign authority that Jesus has, since we are still the body subject to the Head (Eph. 1:22-23), but what a wonderful picture of our victory and salvation in Jesus Christ! As sons of God we do not exist merely as fleshly, earthly humans—we have a far greater significance as citizens of the heavenly realm (Phil. 3:20). The promise to reign with Christ is both future (2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 3:21) and present (Eph. 2:6); our blessings in Christ now are only a foretaste of the surpassing glory to be revealed to us (Eph. 2:7).
The church proclaims God’s wisdom (Eph. 3:10). We see the wisdom of God’s design for the church with our feeble minds today, but Paul tells us that His wisdom is proclaimed especially among the heavenly rulers and authorities. When God purchased the church through Christ He declared His victory over His spiritual enemies, disarming and publically shaming them (Col. 2:15). And Paul was humbled to play even a small part in accomplishing that eternal purpose of God, as He preached the unfathomable riches of Christ to the Gentiles. This gospel was once a mystery, hidden from both earthly and heavenly eyes—now, the curtain has been pulled away to reveal God’s wisdom through us, the church.
Our struggle is real and intense—but God’s victory is certain (Eph. 6:12). We do not wage a physical battle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, powers, world forces of this darkness, and the spiritual forces of wickedness. We are literally in the midst of a cosmic war. Paul wants us to see the critical nature of this battle because ultimately, it is about God versus His enemies. All our earthly sufferings today are a result of this heavenly struggle, just as it is pictured in Revelation. However difficult it may seem for us on earth, the end has already been declared because Jesus reigns above Satan and his minions “in the heavenly places” (1:20-21). Because our enemy has already been defeated, we must “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (Eph. 6:10). Will we, or will we not?
If anything, Ephesians needs to turn our ever-distracted attention to the spiritual realm to understand the magnitude of our blessings in Christ. Let us persevere, for there is even more to come “in the heavenly places.”