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NLT Study Bible, ESV Study Bible, NIV Study Bible, and “Heavenly Places” (Ephesians 1:3)

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. (Ephesians 1:3; NLT)

Paul begins his letter to the Ephesians by noting that they had been blessed with every spiritual blessing in “the heavenly realms” (NIV, TNIV, NLT) or “the heavenly places” (ESV, NRSV). I like the translation “heavenly realms” (the word “places” is not in the Greek) simply because “realms” helps my mind get the right idea better than “places.” This phrase, “heavenly realms” is important to Paul’s writing to the Ephesians since it is mentioned five times throughout the letter. Let us examine what the study Bibles say about this important phrase.

NLT Study Bible:

1:3 Paul describes every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in 1:4-8, 13-14. Paul’s focus is not on physical blessings, but on what God has done through Christ to bring people into a saving relationship with himself.

I have to say that I am surprisingly let down here. For all the great notes I have found so far in the NLT Study Bible, this phrase is simply not explained or discussed. I checked the other four instances in the NLTSB and the “heavenly realms” are simply ignored. I think for Ephesians 1:3, the NLTSB gets a F.

ESV Study Bible:

1:3 Spiritual (Gk. pneumatikos) here communicates that the saving gifts of God are conveyed by the Holy Spirit (Gk. Pneuma), whose personal presence throughout the ages is the guarantee of future heavenly blessings (see “spiritual songs” in 5:19; Col. 3:16). Hence, these blessings are in heavenly places, since that is the Christian’s future abode in imperishable glory when he is resurrected in a spiritual body through the “last Adam,” the “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:40,44-50).

Since the ESV Study Bible has not been released, I cannot look at the other four instances of “heavenly places” to see how it is treated. So this is an incomplete review. It seems the ESVSB is saying that the heavenly places are the Christian’s future abode. This is not a good definition or explanation because Paul would later explain that there are “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). The “heavenly places” cannot be “heaven” or the “Christian’s future abode” because there are spiritual forces of evil in these same “heavenly places.” I give the ESVSB a grade of D. It tried to deal with the heavenly places, but the explanation seems faulty and is not proven.

NIV Study Bible:

1:3 heavenly realms. Occurs five times in Ephesians, emphasizing Paul’s perception that in the exaltation of Christ (his resurrection and enthronement at God’s right hand) and in the Christian’s union with the exalted Christ ultimate issues are involved – issues that pertain to the divine realm and that in the final analysis are worked out in and from that realm. At stake are God’s eternal eschatological purpose (3:11) and the titanic conflict between God and the powerful spiritual forces arrayed against him – a purpose and a conflict that come to focus in the history of redemption. Here (v. 3) Paul asserts that, through their union with the exalted Christ, Christians have already been made beneficiaries of every spiritual blessing that belongs to and comes from the heavenly realm. In vv. 20-22, he proclaims Christ’s exaltation to that realm and his elevation over all other powers and titles so that he rules over all for the sake of his church. According to 2:6, those who have been “made alive with Christ” share in Christ’s exaltation and enthronement in heaven. Thus (3:11) by the gathering of Gentiles and Jews into one body of Christ (the church), God triumphantly displays his “manifold wisdom” to the “rulers and authorities” in the heavenly realm. As a result, the spiritual struggle of the saints here and now is not so much against “flesh and blood” as against the great spiritual forces that war against God in heaven (6:12).

Wow, now that is an explanation of the “heavenly realms.” While I think the last sentence should read “against God in the heavenly realms,” the NIV Study Bible at least spends time discussing how this phrase is used by Paul in those five occurrences and how they related together in Paul’s message to the Ephesians. This is what I expected out of the NLTSB and ESVSB. So, one point to the old NIVSB. Everyone once in a while it makes a great point. The NIVSB gets an A for attempting to explain the “heavenly realms” and for tying the explanation to Paul’s usage throughout the letter.