“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:1-2).
Paul has just finished describing the Church as the body of Christ and the fullness of Him who fills all in all (1:22-23). Now the Apostle continues his restatement of the story of salvation in Christ by reminding the Ephesians of what they were before the intervention of God.
Their prior state, of course, was not a good one. they were “dead in their trespasses and sins.” There is something curiously paradoxical about this. On the one hand, if they are committing trespass and sin, then they must be alive and have some kind of movement; on the other hand, Paul refers to this state as a kind of death. There must be a kind of death that consists in movement and activity. This is obviously not a death of the body, but rather one of the soul. There must be something more to the human being than just the functioning of the body; there is a kind of death that afflicts the “inner man,” the interior of the person.
It is interesting to me to consider just how radical is Paul’s teaching about death. Before learning about Christ, the Gentiles in Ephesus were probably ordinary people just like you and me. Their life had its ups and downs, joys and sadnesses, victories and defeats, pleasures and pains, loves and hates. They lived an otherwise ordinary life as human beings. And yet Paul says that they were dead. It would seem that a dead person need not always seem dead! Or, at the very least, the dead do not seem dead to one another. Only from within the life in Christ is the state of death of those on the outside evident.
Paul goes further and adds a spiritual-metaphysical aspect to the discussion. The Ephesians, prior to their knowing Christ, were not only dead in their sins and trespasses, but also subject to evil forces which Paul calls “the ruler of the kingdom of the air.” David Bentley Hart has recently written on this subject of demonic forces in the sky in the understanding of Paul’s gospel. Indeed, Paul even talks about “the ways of this world,” in which the Ephesians had previously lived when they were dead.
An image comes to mind. I imagine this world like a great river, in whose rapid flows everyone is caught, and it heads towards a huge cliff and pours over, straight into the mouth of a dragon. This is the world in the control of sin and death, in the control of the evil one. And people, when they sin, willingly throw themselves into this river, or at the very least take step after step from the shore into the deeper waters, and some of them are taken away.
Perhaps this is a metaphor for understanding Paul’s view of the world and what exactly is meant by “death.” It is clear, of course, that no one in such a state could save herself from imminent destruction. The intervention of God in Jesus Christ. This is what Paul will make clear in the coming verses.