There’s a phrase that pops up five times in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but nowhere else in his other letters (or in the whole New Testament for that matter). The phrase is, “in the heavenly places.” Of course Paul has something to say about heaven elsewhere in his letters, but this exact phrase belongs only to Ephesians. Why only Ephesians? We can’t really answer that, but we can at least see what Paul is doing with the phrase here in this letter.
The first instance opens the body of the letter. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Heaven is often spoken of as the location of the afterlife for the faithful. But throughout scripture, heaven is the name we use to identify God’s space. Wherever God is, heaven goes with him. Ephesians opens by saying that every possible blessing that comes to us from God’s space is indeed ours for the taking through the presence of the Spirit. God is not withholding. He showers us with every blessing he possibly can. Every last one.
The next use of the phrase comes toward the end of chapter 1. “God raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” To be at God’s right hand is the language of kingship (Psalm 110:1). Christ’s resurrection is incomplete without him being given rule over all things in heaven and on earth. Nothing in all creation is exempt from his rule.
But here’s the thing. The heavenly places are not some future or distant reality. Those whose life is in Christ are right there with him. “Even when we were dead through our trespasses, God made us alive together with him and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ.” According to Ephesians 2:6, this being made alive and raised up and placed with Christ in the heavenly places is something that has already happened! Ask yourself, when you brushed your teeth this morning, when you walked to the mailbox, when you drove to work, did it feel particularly heavenly? Did you feel that this was all done squarely within the realm of God’s space where Christ is ruler of all? Ephesians says this is exactly how we should feel. We are already in the heavenly space with Christ. And like Moses who must be alerted to the holiness of the ground on which he already stands, we have to have our eyes opened to the heavenly reality that we are already a part of.
But not all is well. In chapters 3 and 6, we’re told that the heavenly places are also the location of the “rulers and authorities,” otherwise known as the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” A battle rages and this heavenly space is the battlefield. These “rulers and authorities” that twist us, divide us, and dehumanize us, they wage their war against us in discreet ways that, like so many burning bushes, we won’t notice unless we allow God to open our eyes. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” We have to look deeper. So Paul charges us to “put on the whole armor of God, that you may stand against the wiles of the devil.”
“In the heavenly places.” It is God’s home. It is Christ’s home. And believe it or not, it is ours’ as well. Ephesians is opening our eyes. A faith formed by Ephesians is capable of seeing every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, capable of seeing that we’ve already been raised with Christ and placed with him there. And a faith formed by Ephesians will not see anyone with a name or a face as an enemy.
That’s what Ephesians is empowering us to see and empowering us to become.