Here’s today’s question. “Hello, Pastor John, my name is Cristina, and I follow you from Italy. I appreciate how desiringGod.org makes wonderful resources available for free. I praise God for you all. I particularly appreciate your fairness and honesty in dealing with all kinds of questions as well as views on any biblical matter. Personally, I struggle with interpreting Ephesians 1:18: ‘[I pray that] the eyes of your hearts [may be] enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.’ Namely, is it about what God is going to inherit (us the saints), or is it about what we as poor, empty-handed people are going to inherit? Is this us inheriting him? What’s the inheritance and who inherits it?”
Well, Cristina, you’re not in a class by yourself because I, too, have struggled with Ephesians 1:18 because in English the wording is ambiguous, and frankly, it is ambiguous in the Greek as well — though not quite as ambiguous. Let’s get in front of us the first fifteen verses of Ephesians.
Paul just laid out the magnificent saving work of God from eternity to eternity. Then in Ephesians 1:16, he turns from theology to prayer. It’s a beautiful example of how we need both theology, verses 1–15, and then divine, supernatural, spiritual illumination in verses 16–23. This is a beautiful example of how to go about seeing and savoring the glories of God.
“The inheritance is from God and is in or among the saints. I don’t think Paul means God gets us as an inheritance.”
Here’s the key text she’s referring to. Let’s start at Ephesians 1:17: “[I pray] that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know.” Then he mentions three things, and she’s asking about the second one.
1. “What is the hope to which he has called you.” Literally, “what is the hope of his calling.”
2. “What are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.”
3. “What is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might.”
Cristina’s question is, What does this phrase “the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” mean? Does it mean that God inherits us, the saints, or does it mean that we, the saints, will have an inheritance from God? I think the correct interpretation is the second one — namely, the inheritance is given by God and is in or among the saints. We receive it into our midst and into our hearts. I don’t think Paul means that God gets us as an inheritance. There are at least four reasons why I think this.
First, Paul is praying that the saints would have the eyes of their hearts enlightened to grasp the majesty and glory and riches and wonder of the things he’s been talking about. Just before the prayer, we read this: “In him you also . . . were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13–14).
That’s just before the prayer begins. So the closest reference to an inheritance is not God getting one, but giving one to us for his glory. I think it would be natural to think that’s what he’s praying about — that we would grasp that inheritance.
The second reason for thinking it’s God giving an inheritance rather than getting one comes after the verse. If we look at what comes later as a possible help for filling a description of what the inheritance is, I think we find it in Ephesians 2:6–7. See if you agree.
“[He] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” So, what he calls “the riches of the glory of his inheritance” in Ephesians 1:18, I think he describes in Ephesians 2:6–7 as the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us. In other words, the riches of the glory of the inheritance is what he gives us, not what he gets.
Third, if we focus on the three specific realities that Paul wants us to see with the eyes of the heart and grasp in a profound way, it turns out he uses the very same wording when they come from God or go toward God.
“Paul is talking about the riches of the glory of the inheritance God has laid up for the saints.”
For example, he wants us to see the hope of his calling of the glory of his inheritance, and third, the greatness of his power. Now that’s a significant level of symmetry. I think it would be really strange if the modifier his had a different meaning in regard to the inheritance than it has in regard to the calling and the power.
It’s his calling in the sense that he gives it. It’s his power in the sense that he has it and gives it. And it’s his inheritance in the sense that he it gives to us.
Finally, if you do a word study and look up all the places where Paul uses the word inheritance or inherit or heir, you find that they never refer to God inheriting, God’s receiving an inheritance, or God’s being an heir.
So I conclude that Paul in Ephesians 1:18 is talking about the riches of the glory of the inheritance God has laid up for the saints. Now, of course, it’s not false that the church is God’s treasured possession and he will rejoice over us. Indeed, that spectacular experience may well be part of the inheritance he gives to us. But the focus of Ephesians 1:18 is what we will inherit, not what God will inherit.