ἀφθαρσία and Paul’s benediction: Loving Christ with an incorruptible love?

I just finished the PowerPoint for the Ephesians course in the Grace Bible Institute this fall and the last verse has been preoccupying me a bit. Paul concludes the letter with a benediction in 6:24, writing “Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love.” Well right off the bat I’m unnerved because I know how the noun “incorruptible” is used in the New Testament. So immediately I think, “That’s not me. My love isn’t anything like that.” So then I head for my default of lexicography hoping to find a safe place in the quiet realm of lexical semantics. It only got worse. Here’s the skinny.

The noun “incorruptible” (ἀφθαρσία) is used seven times in the New Testament. The term ἀφθαρσία contains an alpha privative with a verb (ἀ + φθείρω) meaning to destroy, ruin, corrupt, spoil ((ἀ + φθείρω). In all the standard lexicons, we have a word that basically means the state of not being subject to decay, with the gloss of “incorruptibility” or “immortality” being intended (BDAG).  The NIV rendering of “undying” is a really good option. And when we examine these uses a few things immediately come to light:

  1. All seven uses are by Paul.
  2. Four of the seven uses are in Paul’s chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.
  3. All of the other six uses are found in the context of coming glory.
  4. Paul’s use in Ephesians 6:24 seems to favor the present: “To those who love (τὼν ἀγαπώντων).”
  5. The term love at the end of the verse in the NASB s supplied by translators. The verse basically reads like this: “Grace (be) with all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in incorruptibility.”

As noted, Paul uses the term four times in 1 Corinthians 15 (vv. 42, 50, 53, and 54) and it is clear he is discussing the nature of our coming resurrected bodies. We will inherit incorruptible bodies which will never spoil or be ruined. They, unlike our earthly bodies, will never decay. They will simply never die. So it seems that the uses here are rather literal in that they denote the fact that our coming bodies will not go the way of our present physical ones.

The other two uses by Paul are found in Romans 2:7 and 2 Timothy 1:10 and these also have a focus on what awaits us in the future.

To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life (Rom 2:7).

But now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10).

The two uses of ἀφθαρσία in these six uses carry the force of either incorruptibility or immortality. Is either one of these two terms a really good option in Ephesians 6:24? It seems clear that Paul must have a metaphorical force in mind in Ephesians 6:24. But is there another option than Paul intended such a perfect love by believers?

The text reads as follows:

ἡ χάρις μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἀγαπώντων τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ.

Some, including Peter O’Brien see ἀφθαρσίᾳ as being connected with χάρις, leading to a translation of, “Grace with immortality be with all who love the Lord Jesus Christ.” He writes,

Accordingly, ‘with immortality’ is best taken with the preceding noun ‘grace’, even though it is somewhat separated from it syntactically. The preposition ‘with’ is often used to connect two nouns in this way in Ephesians (2:7; 3:12; 6:2). So grace and immortality, which are blessings of the new age, are what Paul wants to be given in greater measure to his readers. The two blessings are not unrelated: grace, which has appeared often in Ephesians, is imperishable, not subject to corruption, while immortality flows out of God’s grace shown in the present but also in the coming ages (cf. 2:7) (The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC, 494-495).

However while it solves a dilemma, the distance between both terms is very hard to overcome. And I am not convinced that his examples of how the preposition ἐν is used to connect two nouns in Ephesians is convincing for a couple reasons.

It is far more likely that ἀφθαρσίᾳ is connected to the participle, “those who love,” Hoehner agrees declaring that love is meant here is,

An imperishable, immortal, or undying love (AV, RV, ASV, RSV, NASB, TEV, NIV, NRSV). It is a love that is not corrupted by death, thus a love that it is unceasing, undying, or endless. The unceasing or endless love of God and Christ is well demonstrated earlier in the letter (1:3-14; 2:1-10, 13; 3:17-19; 5:2, 25), which serves as a pattern for the believers to love Christ unceasingly. The preposition ἐν, “in,” can denote the manner of this love, “in an unceasingly way,” or the phrase could be rendered adverbially, “undying,” “unceasing,” “endless love.” Hence the translation, “those who unceasingly love our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 877).

In other words, an immortal love is an undying love, one which never ceases.

Yet the challenge still exists. How do I love Christ even with an unceasing love? Perhaps we have a situation here similar to that which exists in 1 Peter 1:16 when God commands us, “You shall be holy for I am holy.” It is quite impossible for us in this life to be holy like God yet the demand stands. It is what he calls us to. So also here in Ephesians 6:24. Those who love God are to love him with a love that is incorruptible, immortal in that it never dies. An unending love. May God give us grace to love Christ like this.



Categories: ἀφθαρσία, Ephesians, Grace Bible Institute, Loving Christ

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