The meaning of “Heavenly” in Ephesians and Hebrews

One of Satan’s schemes against the pristine Faith has been the corruption of a few Greek adjectives used by Paul. These misunderstood terms have been used to covertly smuggle Gnosticism into Christian theology, and to make it extremely difficult to discover and remove the Gnostic corruptions of pristine Apostolic Christianity that occurred in the 2nd – 4th centuries. By imposing a Gnostic meaning upon these adjectives, and then imposing such definitions upon the texts in which they appear, Gnostic ideas have been placed in the mouth of Paul. The adjectives “spiritual” and “heavenly places”, are the main culprits. We will deal only with “heavenly places” here. 

Gnosticism was the enemy of early Christianity, and was attacked by Paul, John, and several of the early Christian apologists, such as Irenaeus and Hippolytus. However, many linguists, having accepted theologies which were heavily influenced by Gnosticism centuries earlier, have defined these terms for us. And the incorrect meanings have become the dominant definition in Greek lexicons and commentaries.

The Kittel – Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), which is the primary source for many other linguists and scholars, is a good example. The TDNT claims that epouranios (sometimes rendered “heavenly”) refers to heaven itself, or the heaven of heavens. Many other lexicons followed its lead. The editors were German Protestant theologians, who were amillennialists. Their definition has not been opposed by dispensational writers either, who also rely on the same “heavenly destiny” concepts imposed on Ephesians and Hebrews by using the TDNT’s wrong definition of this adjective. The KJV illustrates the same error in Protestant thinking, rendering epouranios incorrectly as “heavenly places.” This erroneous definition has not only given cover to the latent Gnosticism of both amillennialism and dispensationalism, but has also spawned dabbling in the occult by misguided Charismatic Christians, under the guise of “spiritual warfare.”

The adjective is a compound word, with the preposition epi prefixed to the adjective, “heavenly.” The preposition epi means to superimpose something over something else – literally, “to cover” (of time, place, or order). It could be used of covering a bed with a blanket, covering a particular city with a radio broadcast, or a state’s governmental authority over that state.

The TDNT denies that epi carries its usual force in this case. epi here does not denote “upon” but “in heaven.”[1] It claims that epi acts as a superlative, as “highest heaven” or “heaven of heavens.” It then concludes, “But in Ephesians we find not only the OT idea of the throne of God in heaven, but also the gnostically influenced view to which Christ, exalted high above the heavenly world, reigns as its conqueror and ruler.”[2]

In short, the editor of the TDNT was claiming that Paul himself, when writing Ephesians, had been influenced by Gnosticism, and thus had partly moulded his Pauline theology from Gnostic ideas. The editor’s opinion elevates Gnosticism, the enemy of pristine Apostolic Christianity, to a fountainhead of truth equal with divine revelation. That is, Paul’s theology was a mixture of divine revelation and Gnosticism. It is from this presupposition that the editor defined the term epouranios for Christians, forever coloring their interpretations of Ephesians and Hebrews.

That the TDNT’s editor (as well as other linguists) allowed his own corrupt theology to color his definition is easy to demonstrate. Lexical definitions are developed by observing usage in all of the places where a term occurs, and finding a single basic meaning that explains them all. A good definition will fit well with every usage of the term in Scripture, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint.

Compound words, such as the one we are dealing with, result from fusing two ideas together. We would expect, then, that the meaning would flow from this fusion of the two ideas, not contradict either or both.

The occurrence of heavenly places in several passages clashes with Kittle’s interpretation, requiring “Gnostic” kinds of mystical (nonsensical) explanations in order to make sense of them. Both amillennialists and dispensationalists do not shy away from such Gnostic, mystical interpretations in these passages. Just read a few of the Reformed or Dispensational commentaries on Ephesians 2:6 for a sampling of such mystical nonsense.  This author is not surprised when amillennialists do this, since allegory is their default hermeneutic. But, dispensationalists claim a literal hermeneutic, yet do not in practice follow it in these passages.

If we assume Kittle’s definition, we are left with the following absurdities:

  1. Matthew 18:35 (Majority Text & TR) violates Sharp’s 2nd rule, making “The Father” synonymous with “the heaven” itself (“the Father heaven”). 
  2. Ephesians 2:6 puts Paul and the entire church of Ephesus in heaven at the time he wrote to them, being seated snugly on the throne of God along with Jesus at the Father’s right hand.
  3. Ephesians 6:12 puts all the minions of hell in the highest heaven, where Paul and the Ephesians were allegedly seated beside Christ.
  4. Hebrews 11:15 claims that while Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were living in tents in the Land that God promised to give them as an age-enduring inheritance, they were instead longing for a city and inheritance in heaven. This contradicts both Genesis and the context of Hebrews 11. It makes the “promise” to Abraham (which both Genesis and Hebrews claim was the Promised Land inheritance) into a promise of a city in heaven, no hint of which can be found in the Genesis account.

More recent and reasonable scholarship has shown that epouranios refers to heaven’s influence superimposed upon something else in the context. That is, the preposition epi retains its usual meaning – to superimpose, cover, hence abstractly, to completely influence or completely dominate. Prefixed to the adjective epouranios (heavenly) the sense is “heavenly dominion,” “heavenly domination,” or the scope of “heavenly influence” exerted upon earthly things. The new HELPSTM lexicon has this meaning: “epouranios – properly, heavenly, referring to the impact of heaven’s influence on the particular situation or person.”[3] 

The heavenly sphere of influence (dominion) is a much better understanding of the fusing of the preposition epi with the adjective for “heavenly.” Since almost every occurrence of this compound adjective has the definite article and lacks a noun to modify, a noun must be supplied for our translation to be grammatically correct in English. (The KJV wrongly inserts “places” in Ephesians, based on the same thinking as Kittle’s TDNT).

It is therefore natural and proper to take the sense of the noun we are supplying from the preposition that was prefixed to the adjective. Hence, “epi” (literally, to superimpose) refers to the heavenly dominion or sphere of influence. Literally, it would be “heavenly covering,” but abstractly, “heavenly dominion.”

This meaning also makes good sense in every place where this word appears in the Bible. Here are some examples:

  1. Daniel’s declaration to Nebuchadnezzar in the Septuagint about God’s judgment on him reads as follows: “…from which you will know the power of heavenly [dominion],” (Daniel 4:24 LXX). The primary point concerns heaven’s dominion over Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom, not Nebuchadnezzar discovering the location of “heaven.”
  2. Ephesians 1:20 speaks of Christ’s authority, rather than His location: “…raising Him from the dead, and seating Him at His own right hand, in the heavenly [dominions].” That “dominion” rather than location is the thought Paul had in mind is proven by the words which immediately follow: “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all,” (Ephesians 1:21-23 NKJV). Clearly, Christ’s location being vertically “high above” the location of others, including the Ephesian church, is not the point! Rather, within the “heavenly dominions” (that is the things that are NOW under submission to heaven, such as the church), Christ has been placed as an authority, exerting His authority within these realms of influence and dominion (as opposed to His unlimited dominion in His coming Kingdom – Psalm 2).
  3. Ephesians 2:6 says that Christ has “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly [dominions] in Christ Jesus.” Again, the point is not location, but heavenly authority within the realms that are subject to heaven. Christ’s being “seated” at the Father’s right hand is drawn from Psalm 110:1, which uses the “footstool” metaphor for total domination. Hence, being “seated” is a metaphor for having authority. The scope of this authority is limited by the clause, “in the heavenly dominions.” That is, our authority as Christians is active within those limited realms where Christ’s dominion extends, such as within the local church, or the Christian home. Taking this term to mean location here is an absurdity, and exegetically indefensible. And this is what has led to some absurd practices by Charismatics, seeking to take “dominion” over cities or regions which are not yet submitted to Christ’s authority.
  4. Ephesians 6:12 makes much more sense with our interpretation, rather than supposing that all the minions of hell run free in God’s presence in heaven. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly [dominions].” The last clause, “in the heavenly dominions” limits the sphere of our practicing spiritual warfare to those earthly realms that are already under the dominion of Christ, such as the church, or the Christian home. If Charismatics simply understood that our “fight” with spiritual forces does not extend to those realms which have not yet been placed under Christ’s footstool, (such as politics, government, society, or territory), much of the buffoonery and dabbling in Christian witchcraft could be avoided!
  5. Finally, Hebrews 11:16 makes much more sense with our interpretation. Abraham was not yearning to go live in some city in the highest heaven, something never alluded to in the entire Old Testament. He was yearning for the fulfillment of God’s promise to him, plainly stated in Genesis, to give him and his Seed the land in which he lived as a pilgrim and alien, for a permanent inheritance. “And the LORD said unto Abram, after that Lot was separated from him, Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee. Then Abram removed his tent, and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar unto the LORD.” (Genesis 13:14-18 KJV). 

Satan has been busy inserting “a little leaven” into the translations of Scripture by altering the definitions of biblical terms. This has been done by the editors of lexicons coloring the definitions of terms by their own incorrect theological bias.

Pastor Tim Warner

[1] TDNT Vol. V, p. 538

[2] TDNT Vol. V, p. 539

[3] HELPSTM Word Studies, © 1987, 2011 by Helps Ministries, Inc.  

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