“The heavenly places” is rarely used in the Bible, but Paul writes about it five times in the book of Ephesians. The Bible uses the phrase in a few other places, and looking at those instances will help define it more clearly, but the usage here presents more questions and fewer answers than most other references.
“Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ…” (Ephesians 1:3).
Mystery surrounds the phrase. The fact that Paul used it here so many times is unusual. And when you see something unusual in a text, take note. There is probably a good reason for it. Sometimes understanding it will open up the entire book for you so that you see it all from a better perspective. This phrase will turn a key and open up understanding.
We will not get better or deeper understanding until we notice the five uses of the phrase, in context. At least, this is my educated suspicion. I am approaching this as a progressive study, so I may need to eat my words a few times as I struggle through the magnificent ideas presented in the letter. [That’s a sign of growth that I can live with. If we never change our minds about ideas (or add to our understanding of ideas), that means we have never really learned anything at all.]
But here are a few things I have learned about the phrase in my studies so far.
A supplied word
The word “places” is supplied by translators. You may not realize it, but when you read your Bible and see words written in italics, that indicates the word was not in the original language but was added to help make sense of the text. Context demands these words most of the time, and they are easily identified. Infrequently, the words are contrived and unnecessary. And sometimes, as in this case, there are varying opinions about which word to supply.
Without going into a boring discussion about the technical merits of suggested words (not that I fully understand all the arguments anyway), I believe that we just do not have a word that can be supplied which fully expresses everything involved in the concept. But “places” comes close.
The actual phrase is “in the heavenlies”. Adjectives always modify nouns, but in this case, no noun exists in the original text. Maybe the reason the Holy Spirit did not supply one was because there were no words adequate to the challenge. While this might sound a little too “mysterious” for the tastes of some people, the idea is fascinating to me. It’s fascinating because it reminds me that there may not be vocabulary enough in all of human language from the beginning of time to express the qualities, nature, and supremacy of God Almighty. But “the heavenlies” show us the abode, domain, operating area, nature, and qualities of the “area” in which we find all the blessings of Christ.
Language fails when contemplating what has never been seen or experienced, but which we know must be true. It is built within us to conceive of it even though it has never been adequately described.
And that’s just “the heavenlies”. Suddenly, considering the vastness of eternity, we begin to conceive of our God who is indescribable. The “heavenlies” are the domain of the eternal.
(Is “domain” the right word? As if God is contained in a “place”.)
Maybe you have a better concept and can express it more clearly. If so, please feel free to comment below. I do not consider myself intelligent when thinking of these ideas. Put me on the level of imbecility and I will happily admit it when thinking about God and His nature. But I thoroughly enjoy contemplating it and sensing that accompanying awe.
A contrasting phrase
The phrase, “the heavenlies”, stands in stark contrast to another unusual and (almost) unique phrase in this letter. Ephesians 2:2 records it.
“…in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience…”
The phrase “of the air” contrasts with “the heavenlies”. It’s not unusual in one sense: The Bible certainly tells of “air” within its pages, but there is something else going on in the context of this verse. The text hints of a contrast between what is “in the air” and what is “in the heavenlies”.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary points to these contrasting phrases, and several other commentators refer to it.
Clarke wrote, “Some think the word [heavenlies -my addition] should be understood as signifying blessings of the most exalted or excellent kind, such as are spiritual in opposition to those that are earthly, such as are eternal in opposition to those that are temporal; and all these in, through, and by Christ.”
He further commented upon the similar contrast found in Galatians 4:26.
“…but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.”
“In this case, the “Jerusalem that is above” lies in direct contrast to the processes and functions of the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament.”
Is Paul referring to the same thing in Ephesians 2:2? I’m not telling yet, because, frankly, I don’t know. But as we come to it, more will certainly be said about it.
The blessings of God are found “in” two places according to Ephesians 1:3 – “in the heavenlies” and “in Christ”. Undoubtedly they refer to the same “place”. If I put a quarter in my hand, and put that hand in my pocket, the quarter sits in both places at once. But we must note the importance of the source.
These blessings do not come from the courses and processes of this world. Obviously, we can benefit in this life on earth from godly and spiritual blessings, but they do not originate on this planet and in the physical processes of life. What a powerful message that is to a world dominated by the pursuit of the processes and functions of this world as if that were all they had to live for.
No. These blessings originate from the throne room of God Almighty. They were not created by Him, evidently, but are the expression of Him. And all the blessings associated with fellowship with God are at our disposal through Jesus Christ.
A destinationless place
How does one “go” to heaven? What trajectory do you travel to get there? Do you hook a left at Saturn? To ask this illustrates what we tend to forget: Heaven is not a “travel destination”, but it is a destination in the sense that we will “arrive” there one day, if we are found faithful to Jesus Christ.
That “arrival” (as I understand it at this point in my life) happens as we shed this fleshly core and are translated into the spiritual body that Paul described in 1 Corinthians 15. We exist “where” we originate from. If I am a child of God, I will exist in “the heavenlies”.
This is an extremely weak description of our destination. It even contradicts some other thoughts because I did not clearly state it. But it’s the best I can fathom at this point. I submit it in the hope that you might understand some of what I am thinking.
It reminds me of a part of the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, where we find the pirates discussing an island that can only be found by those who know where it is.
We can only “arrive” into the heavenlies and all the spiritual blessings associated with that “place” if we originate from there. How else will be be there? We can’t travel there.
The problem here is that you and I were born on earth – beneath even the powers “of the air”. So we are in trouble. If the heavenlies is a “place” to which we cannot travel, how can we “arrive” there? The simple answer is that we cannot. We are either “in the heavenlies” or not. There is no way to travel there. And that is the reason I submit this point about our destination. We can only “GO” there if we “ARE” there. We can only BE there if we ORIGINATE there.
Hence, Christians are “born of the Spirit”, a term Jesus used to describe the “new birth” in John 3:3-5. We originate where the Spirit of God resides–the heavenlies. In this way we “travel” to a destinationless place.
Consider a few other related verses.
“For whatever is born of God overcomes the world…” (1 John 5:4).
“Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope…” (1 Peter 1:3).
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
To be more concise, think of it this way. If our birthplace is on earth, we are not in the heavenlies, but if our birthplace is in the heavenlies, that is not a destination. It’s a condition.
We can choose our destination by choosing our “origin”or our place of “being existent”. This is something new! Paul wrote about this in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
I hope you have made that choice.
These are theoretical and theological ideas, not addressing practical life directly. But that will come. First the foundation is being built, and then Paul will give us practical and powerful, life-changing instructions. I hope you’ll come with me on the journey through this fascinating book.
If you like what you read, would you please send it to a friend through email or some other medium? It will help me hit my goal of helping other people. Thanks!
See you tomorrow!