If you compare English translations, you will notice a difference in the positioning of the prepositional phrase “in love” at Ephesians 1:4-5. The NKJV reads, “that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us…” The ESV reads, “that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us …” The prepositional phrase en agápē [“in love”] is attached to the preceding words of v. 4 in the ASV, N/KJV, NET, and NRSV, but prefaces what follows in v. 5 in the CSB, ESV, NASB, NIV, and RSV. The former applies to the love of those who are holy and blameless, whereas the latter refers to God’s love.1
L. T. Lincoln argues that the phrase belongs at the end of the foregoing section and should “be seen as part of the goal election is intended to achieve in those it embraces – a life before God which is holy and blameless and lived in love” (Ephesians WBC 42:17). There seems to be a pattern where each section of the extended thanksgiving ends with an en (“in”) prepositional phrase, and elsewhere in the letter it is the love of the saints that is highlighted (1:15; 3:17; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2, 25a, 28, 33; 6:23, 24) (ibid.).
On the other hand, divine love is the subject of 2:4; 3:19 (employing the noun agápē) and 2:4; 5:2b, 25b (employing the verbal agapáō).2 Seeing that the love of God undergirds the entire biblical revelation, whether explicitly stated or not, it is certainly understood. There are 116 occurrences of the noun agápē in the NT, seventy-five of which are in Paul’s writings (87%). The verb agapáō appears 137 times in the NT, thirty-four in Paul; and the adjective agapētós (“beloved”) is found sixty-two times in the NT, twenty-eight in Paul.
The ambiguity might be intentional, compelling readers to think, reflect, interpret, and make application in light of what has already been learned (cf. Acts 20:20, 27). A double nuance pointing in both directions is not inconceivable (cf. 6:23).3 Accordingly, the people of God should be holy and blameless before him in love, while in love he has predestined us – neither to the exclusion of the other.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 F. Foulkes observes, “the differing opinions of translators and commentators ancient and modern indicate that it is not possible to be dogmatic regarding the intention of the writer” (Ephesians 47). In favor of the application to God’s love, see T. K. Abbott, Ephesians 8; C. L. Mitton, Ephesians 50-51. In favor of the application to Christian love, see G. B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison 35; J. B. Lightfoot, Notes 313; L. T. Lincoln, Ephesians WBC 42:17; J. A. Robinson, Ephesians 2nd ed. 143.
2 A form of the noun agápē occurs in 1:4, 15; 2:4; 3:17, 19; 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2a; 6:23. The verbal usage appears in 1:6; 2:4; 5:2b, 25[x2], 28[x3], 33; 6:24.
3 See M. Barth, Ephesians 1:79. T. A. Turner comments, “This wonderful relationship between Redeemer and the redeemed would be one of mutual love” (Study of Ephesians 5).
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