Sabbath-Breaking and the Sons of Disobedience (Ephesians 2:3)

Sabbath-Breaking and the Sons of Disobedience (Ephesians 2:3)

Both Jews and Gentiles “formerly lived in the desires of [their] flesh, doing the wills of the flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children of wrath.” The Gentiles followed their corrupt wills, and the Jews followed their wills instead of God’s, exemplified by Sabbath-breaking. Both Jews and Gentiles were “sons of disobedience,” in rebellion against God. And thus both needed God’s mercy found only in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5).

The Bible calls us to faith in Jesus Christ. However, it also calls us to “do” things. That is, the Bible calls us to put God’s Word into practice. Jesus even says that only the man who “does” the Father’s “will” enters heaven (Matthew 7:21). It is the one who “does” God’s “will” who lives forever (1 John 2:17).

Of course, there was a time where even Christians did not do God’s will. We formerly walked in the ways of the world, as “sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2), and “among them, we also all formerly lived in the desires of our flesh, doing the will of the flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest” (Ephesians 2:3). (All translations in this article are the author’s.)

God calls us trust in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. And as an expression of such faith, we must turn from “doing the will” of the sinful mind (Ephesians 2:3) and instead “do the will” of the Father (Matthew 7:21). We do not do God’s will by our own efforts, but we do God’s will by His grace. He equips us “to do His will” (Hebrews 13:21) and makes us to “delight to do [His] will” (Psalm 40:8 [39:9, LXX, ποιῆσαι τὸ θέλημά]). God gives us a new heart and grants us faith that we may keep His law, albeit imperfectly. Faith is expressed in obedience and good works.

“Doing the Wills” (Ephesians 2:3 & Isaiah 58:13)

As I was reflecting on Ephesians 2:3, I noticed it literally says in Greek, “doing the wills of the flesh and the thoughts” (ποιοῦντες τὰ θελήματα τῆς σαρκὸς καὶ τῶν διανοιῶν). The word “wills” (thelemata) is plural, as is the word “thoughts/minds” (dianoion). Now the plural “wills” sounds odd, so most translations use the English “desires” and then keep “mind” singular (e.g., ESV, “the desires of the body and the mind”). (Ephesians 2:3 is the only plural use of διάνοια in the New Testament.)

However, the plural “wills” may be significant. While the plural matches the plurality “thoughts/mind” (διανοιῶν), the phrase “doing the wills” is a rare combination. The singular “doing the will” is used 10 other times in the New Testament and eight other times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). But the exact phrase with the plural (ποιέω + ὁ + plural θέλημα) is used only one other time outside Ephesians 2:3, and that is in the context of Sabbath-breaking:

If you turn your foot away from the Sabbaths, so as not to do your wills (ποιεῖν τὰ θελήματά) on the holy day, and you call the sabbaths delightful, holy to your God, not lift up your foot in work, nor speak a word in wrath from your mouth… (Isaiah 58:13 [LXX]).

Thus, God in Isaiah 58:13 was calling the Jews to turn from doing things their own own way—“doing their wills/desires” on the Sabbath—rather than keeping God’s command to keep the Sabbath day holy (Exodus 20:8). The Septuagint uses the language to not “do your wills” (ποιεῖν τὰ θελήματά) on the Sabbath, translating the Hebrew for “pleasure” (חֵפֶץ) in Isaiah 58:13 as “wills/desires” (θελήματά).

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