“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of Him who accomplishes all things according to His counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of His glory. In Him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in Him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:11-13).
I have quoted a larger bit of text here because I wish briefly to consider the we/you dynamic which is present in these verses. Who are the “we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ”, and who are the “you also”?
One way to understand it is as follows. “We” refers to Paul and to the earliest Christians, who believed in Christ roughly from the beginning of the movement. “You also” refers specifically to the Ephesians, who may have come to the faith later on in time. Personally, I am not convinced that this is the right way to read this text. For one thing, Paul was not a Christian from the very beginning. He became a Christian only later, after the movement had already begun to spread and become prominent in Jerusalem.
I think rather that “we” refers to Jewish Christians, and “you also” refers to the Ephesians insofar as they are Gentiles. The Jewish Christians were the first to set their hope on Christ because Judaism itself anticipated the arrival of the Messiah. It was a part of Jewish faith, at least in some quarters, to wait for the Messiah. This means that the Jews had faith in Christ as a kind of default state; only if they rejected Him once He appeared could they lose their faith in Him. The Gentiles, on the other hand, only came to know of the Christ and what He means for Jews and for the whole world once the Gospel begins to spread.
A further evidence in favor of this reading is the fact that Paul will later discuss in some detail the previous hostility and separation between Jews and Gentiles which Christ does away with by the cross (ch. 2). For this reason, I think it is important to keep in mind this Jew-Gentile dynamic when interpreting the Epistle, and especially the wonderful praise of God which Paul offers in these opening verses.
What is the significance of the “we, who were the first” for these opening verses? One aspect I think worth mentioning is the following. All of what Paul describes — the adoption, the redemption, the forgiveness, etc. — are first and foremost gifts for the Jewish people, and only secondarily for Gentiles such as us. Christ came to the Jews, to His own, first, and only later to the Gentiles. The promise of Christ belonged to the Jewish people, as did the oracles of God and the special revelation of the Creator of the cosmos. We are outsiders who are being welcomed into the home for a party, rather than being rightful, entitled recipients of all these promises and blessings of God. I think this serves to underline for us how great God’s grace is towards us. As Gentiles, we are not His people in any special sense; we become His people in Christ Jesus, in whom the distinction between Jew and Gentile is erased precisely as it is brought to the fulfillment of its purpose — because, of course, the Jews were elect precisely for the sake of the nations. But more on this another time…