This is one of the best loved passages in the Pauline letters, virtually everyone knows Ephesians 2:8-9 and is able to recite it quickly. Paul describes how far separated from God the Gentiles really were, they were dead in their sin, separate from God and his people the Jews. Gentiles were unwilling and unable to respond to God, nor were they accepted by God’s people. Like the first chapter of the letter, verses 1-7 are a single sentence, the main subject/verb is “God made us alive” (v. 5).
The first words of this long sentence (124 words!) are “and you…” The pronoun “you” is accusative and the object of the verb “made alive” in verse 5. The content between the verb and the object is the state of the Gentile believers before coming to Christ. Despite the fact were dead in our sin, God made us alive in Christ!
Paul describes a person before they come to Christ as dead in trespasses and sins. “Being dead” describes the spiritual state of the Gentiles apart from Christ. The participle is present active, indicating this was an ongoing state.
The reason for this state of death is “trespasses and sins.” These words are used as synonyms here, although Paul uses transgression for Adam’s sin in Romans 5:12-21.In verse 3 he includes himself (and all Jews) as also living by passions of the flesh. It is not that the Gentiles are evil and damned and only the Jews are saved: all have fallen short of the glory of God. Paul’s view of salvation is therefore built on the foundation of the Old Testament’s view of sin and death. Romans 5:12-21, all who are “in Adam” die, but all who are “in Christ” will live.
The Gentiles once followed the dark spiritual forces at work in the world. There are three descriptions of the spiritual forces which once held the Gentiles in bondage to sin. The “course of this world” (ESV) or the “ways of this world” (NIV) translates αἰών as a reference to the worldview of the present time (cf. Gal 1:4, this present evil age). Paul uses the preposition κατά to express “being under the control of” in several expressions, such as “walking according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). The sense of the phrase is “conforming to a norm.” (Arnold, Ephesians, 130). In a Jewish context, the noun can refer to eternity or history, or an age of the world history (like an era or dispensation, “this age and the age to come,” Eph 1:21, 2:7). Paul uses the word for “this age” on several occasions (1 Cor 3:18, for example).
If this is the nuance of the word, then Paul is saying the Gentile readers thought like all the other Gentiles because that is the way the all think. They are simply following the thinking of the time they were living.
To anticipate the rest of the letter, Paul is saying that the time we now live is different because God has made the Gentiles alive in Christ and saved them into a new Body of Christ. To know this new age exists changes how we think and live out our lives.
But in a Hellenistic context, the word can refer to the Aeon, a ruler of the world in Greek mythology. The word appears in magical papyri and will be used in Gnosticism to refer to the real deity (O’Brien, Ephesians, 158). There are few who take this word as a reference to a deity, however, since Paul never refers to pagan gods in his other letters. Paul has already mentioned the common Jewish two-age view of history (this age and the age to come) using this word. It is possible Paul used this word in order to evoke the Jewish idea of ages but also the Greek idea of a god.
The Gentile readers of Ephesians once lived in accordance with the “spirit of the age,” whether that is just the worldview dominant at the time or the god who controls the age.
What is the “spirit of the age” in which we once walked in a modern context? What is an example of a “pattern of thought” which controls the way we think before we came to Christ?