What Does it Mean to be “Sealed” by the Holy Spirit?


For my Greek Exegesis II class I did a word study on “sealed” (σφραγίζω) as it is found in Ephesians 1:13.

I’ll post my conclusion first, and if you want to know where I got my conclusion, you can read the rest.

The meaning of “sealed” becomes quite clear after having examined the context so thoroughly, for Paul has repeatedly shown the believers at Ephesus that their hope is in what God has done and not what they have done or will do. So this sealing is their hope, their security – for God himself has placed his stamp on them, and there is no one greater than God, therefore they are secure, and can be sure that all these blessings are theirs in Christ. It is by the Holy Spirit that they will be enabled to do what God requires of them, so what else do they require, for if God is for them, who can be against them (Rom. 8:31)? It is not the believer’s role to earn or lose salvation, but rather it is to walk in that Spirit which they have been sealed with.

Introduction

In Ephesians 1:13 the Apostle Paul uses σφραγίζω in relation to the believer. It is the purpose of this study to understand what Paul meant by the use of that word, in order to gain better insight into God’s Word and his awesome and amazing work in the lives of believers. To begin we will examine some extra-biblical references to this term and similar terms, and then explore the concept of “sealing” and “seals” throughout Scripture both in the Old and New Testaments. And by God’s grace aim to come to a clear understanding of what exactly Paul means in his own usage as he wrote, moved by the Holy Spirit of God.

Historical Study

Since the very early years of civilization, seals have been in use. Thousands of seals have been found in the Near East, being that they were very common in ancient times.[1] With the invention of writing in the 4th millennium B.C. seals were increasingly used in large numbers, especially in the Mesopotamia area and later in the whole Mediterranean,[2] with the cylinder-seal being the most commonly used.[3] We will explore multiple terms that are related in order to gain better insights into the specific usage of σφραγίζω in Ephesians 1:13.

Classical Greek Usage of σφραγίζω and σφραγίς

In Eumenides (6th – 5th cent. B.C.) Athena speaks of Zeus’ thunderbolt being “sealed” in an armory, most likely to protect or guard the thunderbolt from being stolen.[4] The term is used in Iphigeneia At Aulis (5th cent. B.C.) in reference to bands as an old servant speaks with Agamemnon saying that he, “Sealest, and breakest bands as soon as clasped.”[5] Iphigeneia In Taurica (5th cent. B.C.) contains a usage of the term that refers to the wounds that soldiers received in battle, as those, “marked with ghastly scars of strife.”[6] Plato (5th – 4th cent. B.C.) records Socrates speaking of a physical seal as a part of a collection of common items on the person of Hippias.[7] And in speaking about the activity of hearing, Aristotle (4th cent. B.C.) compares imperfect verbal articulation to “the seal on signet-rings, when the die is not accurately cut.”[8]

Extra-Biblical Koine Greek Usages

In Herodotus (1st cent. A.D.) the term is used in the process in which a priest would examine a bull for sacrifice. If the bull examined was found pure in all respects then the priest “marks” the beast “by wrapping papyrus round the horns, then smears it with sealing-earth and stamps it with his ring”[9] A man named Xanthus wrote a letter to Euphranor (265 B.C.) asking him to ensure that a sample of corn from a shipment is sent to him, and in order to ensure that the contents of the sample were not tampered with, Xanthus asks him have the sample sealed, “let him seal a sample.”[10] Philo (1st cent. A.D.) speaks of the one who learns with his understanding rather than only by hearing “has stamped on his soul” the impressions of those truths.[11] He also uses the term to picture Esau’s desire “to efface the image of virtue and impress in its stead, if he can, the stamp of vice.[12] Moses, in dialog invented by Philo, is said to have made a comparison between the impression that sight leaves on the mind with seals “which when brought into contact with wax or similar material stamp on them any number of impressions while they themselves are not docked in any part thereby but remain as they were.”[13]

Old Testament Usage

We gain insight into the biblical use of the Greek term by looking in the LXX to see how the term is translated and then explore the semantic range of the Hebrew term. The Hebrew equivalent of σφραγίς is חֹתָם. The term “seal” (δακτύλιος) is the translation of טַבַּעַת and can provide insight into the use of seals in Old Testament times as well as to how these words relate to the word in question. חתם is the Hebrew equivalent for σφραγίζω as well as κατασφραγίζω. Therefore as we look in the Old Testament these terms are used as symbols of authority and genuineness, making decrees official.[14] So pharaoh gave his signet ring to Joseph when he set Joseph over all the land of Egypt (Gen. 41:41-42; טַבַּעַת), and when Jezebel wrote letters in order to have Naboth killed on trumped up charges, she sealed them with her husband’s seal so as to forge the letters as if from the king, for they were also in Ahab’s name (1 Kings 21:8; חתם). Ahasuerus gave his signet ring to Haman in order to do official business in the stead of the king, as well as when he gave permission to Mordecai to reverse the edict Haman wrote and allow the Jews to defend themselves (Est. 3:10; חתם; 8:8-10; טַבַּעַת and טַבַּעַת). A seal was also used to preserve the written message of Isaiah, so that when his word comes to pass his words will be authenticated and valid, for no one would be able to tamper with the message given to his followers (Is. 8:16; חתם). Seals were also used to witness a document as Jeremiah’s friends witnessed his deed of purchase (Jer. 32:11-14; חתם), as well as Nehemiah and his contemporaries witnessed the making of a written agreement and therefore it was sealed (Neh. 9:38-10:1; חתם). Seals also were used in order to secure an object so that it could only be opened or changed by an authorized person,[15] whether “words” such as in the case of Daniel, for some words of the prophesy were “sealed up until the end time” (Dan. 12:9; חתם) and were not to be revealed or whether a symbolic book as in the case of Isaiah when the book was sealed so that no one could read it (Isa. 29:11; חתם). Seals were also used to prevent entry to rooms and would be sealed with a cord or with clay, the seal stretching across the gap between the door and its lock.[16] Such was the case with the stone that was used to cover the opening to the lions’ den when Daniel was thrown in it and King Darius “sealed it with his own signet ring and with the signet rings of his nobles, so that nothing would be changed in regard to Daniel” (Dan. 6:17; חתם).

There are also figurative uses of the terms. When spoken of in reference to prophetic visions being confirmed or authenticated when Daniel speaks of them being sealed up (Dan. 9:24; חתם). Also when the Lord speaks figuratively of making Zerubbabel his signet ring, referring to his stamp of approval and granting of authority (Hg. 2:23; חוֹתָם), it is also seen in a negative way towards Coniah that the Lord would pull him off his right hand as one would pull off a signet ring (Jer. 22:24; חוֹתָם). Leviathan’s strong scales are likened to being “shut up as with a tight seal” (Job 41:15; חוֹתָם). And Israel’s sin and due judgment for events that have yet to take place are metaphorically “sealed up” in God’s treasuries (Deut. 32:34; חתם), therefore those sins and judgments were sure to take place for they were securely held.[17]

New Testament Usage

There are two types of literal usage in the New Testament, the first being that of sealing so as to prevent someone from leading men astray.[18] The first use of σφραγίζω occurs in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus’ tomb was sealed to prevent unauthorized opening (Matt. 27:66). A second usage is found in the book of Revelation where Satan is thrown into the abyss and then “shut it and sealed it over him” (Rev. 20:3). The second type of literal usage occurs when Paul says that he has put his seal on the collections from Madedonia and Achaia for the Jerusalem church so as to ensure that the gift will be kept safe (Rom. 15:28).

Sealing is spoken of figuratively in John’s Gospel, as a sign of confirming the truth, or authenticating it.[19] When a man believes Jesus to be true, it is as though he has set his seal to the fact that “God is true” (Jn. 3:31). Again in 6:27, Jesus tells his listeners not to work for the food that parishes, but rather work for the food that is eternal, that food which is from the Son of Man for on him God “has set his seal.” That is, God has confirmed that Jesus is the one that he appointed to be eternal food for mankind. Paul also uses this word in a very similar way to our main passage, but in a brief almost sideline way, because he is in the midst of telling the Corinthians that he has integrity, and does not waver back and forth in his intentions. So it would seem that the usage of σφραγίζω in this passage would have the same meaning as it does in Ephesians 1:13, giving the sense at least of a seal of security, or protection because it is God who sealed and therefore no one can harm or break his seal being that there is no one above him in authority. This sense also seems to be confirmed in Paul’s usage in Ephesians 4:30, for it brings with it the idea that the seal will protect so that those sealed will arrive or be opened as a letter (speaking metaphorically) on “the day of redemption.” So there is to be no fear that their salvation will fail, for God himself insures it by his own seal.

In the book of Revelation there are a slew of usages. The word expresses protection the slaves of God from harm (Rev. 7:3), and again this group is more specifically mentioned that they are the 144,000 and are sealed, again in the same way, for protection (Rev. 7:4-5, 8). The things that the seven peals of thunder uttered were to be sealed up, and in this way not revealed, but kept hidden and not written in the book (Rev. 10:4). And then in the opposite way, John is told not to seal up the prophecy of the book but rather that it is to be open and revealed (Rev. 22:8).

Context of Ephesians 1:13

As we proceed in this study of σφραγίζω it is of utmost importance to look at the context of this word in order to gain a correct understanding of its meaning. For as we have seen depending on the context of its usage the word has multiple nuances of meaning.

The letter of Ephesians begins with a short prologue (1:1-2), following the normal pattern of Hellenistic openings, where the name of the author, recipients and a short greeting is found. Paul is the sender, and gives a short list of his credentials and then goes on to describe his intended recipients and indicates that both are associated with Jesus Christ. Paul identifies himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ being that he used authority as an apostle (1 Cor. 4:9; 9:1, 5; 11:5; 12:11-12), performed miracles (Acts 13:8-11; 14:3; 19:11; 2 Cor. 12:12), and in his ministry was very comparable to that of the other apostles (i.e. laying on of hands, greetings in other letters). That this was an official office because he is the Apostle of Jesus, “by the will of God,” or the one sent from Jesus as a fully authorized ambassador. The recipients of the letter are then addressed as saints as those set apart to God for His service who live in Ephesus. They are saints because of God’s work in their lives (1 Cor. 6:11), not because they themselves had acted saintly in their conduct before Christ. The fact that they were saints did not mean that they were without sin in their conduct, it is clear they still struggled against sin. For later in the book, the Ephesians are exhorted to stop lying to each other, stop stealing, stop speaking unwholesome words and more (Eph. 4:25-32). It for the very reason that they are saints that they are called to abstain from sin (5:3). The believers in Ephesus had no special status among Christians, for their being called saints did not bring with it any right to boast but speaks only of their standing before God on the basis of Christ’s work (2:8-9). That the term saint should be used for believers is confirmed by the next phrase, “and who are faithful in Christ Jesus.” It is not because they are in Ephesus that they are saints, but rather because they are faithful in Christ, because they believe in Christ. Then Paul uses his standard greeting, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (1:2; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Phil. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2; Phm. 3). The word grace in a general sense connotes God’s unmerited favor manifested in salvation (Rom. 3:23-24; Eph. 1:7; 2:8). And while Paul does use this word in his normal greeting, it is not some word that is just tossed around, for in it the Gospel is really contained. Paul continues with “peace,” a word that is used eight times in this letter (1:2; 2:14, 15, 17 [twice]; 4:3; 6:15, 23). In this context it seems that Paul is relating the two words, for by God’s grace, we have peace – the two are very closely related and have an impact on the practice and daily life of believers.

Paul then moves out of his greeting to praise God for His spiritual blessings (1:3-14). This section is a single sentence in the Greek, and therefore it is clear it is all closely related. Verse three summarizes the whole Greek sentence, stating simply that God is blessed, He is to be praised. The reason God is to be blessed is then given in the following phrase, “who has blessed us” (1:3). God is to be praised because He has blessed us with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Paul makes the point that it is spiritual blessing, making it clear that he is not speaking of some worldly blessing, but heavenly blessings. They are blessings that are from above. And just as the Ephesian believers are saints because of Christ and His work, so it is “in Christ” that believers have been blessed; it is because of Christ, and not because of their own works that God has chosen to bless them with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.

As Paul moves on he suggests the manner in which believers are blessed, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (1:4a). And this, we will is the first of three actions that are explained to be part of the blessings. That God chose us, again accents the fact that the Ephesian believers did nothing to gain God’s favor, but it was all of Him. Almost doubly in that they were chosen “in Christ,” again showing it is dependent on God and not on man. Men do not gain God’s favor, God gives it freely. Again, seeing the universal application to all believers Paul does not use the second person plural “you all” but rather uses the first plural pronoun “us” which refers to all those who believe. And yet, that group still is clearly made up only of those who were chosen and individuals make up that group and each personally receive the benefits of God’s blessings. The concept of the lack of any effort on the side of the believer in God’s sovereign choice again is reiterated in the phrase, “before the foundation of the world.” For none of the believers were around to influence God’s choice and therefore have nothing to boast about in their being blessed; all belongs to God.

The next phrase explains the reason or purpose of this election, “that we would be holy and blameless before Him in love” (1:4b). Because God is holy (Isa. 1:4; 5:16; 6:3), those he elects are to be holy as well. Believers are to be blameless, without moral defects before God. Believers are to be holy and blameless before Him in love, in that holiness and blamelessness consist in love, for without love we are nothing (1 Cor. 13:2).

In verse five, Paul goes on to show the reason for God’s choosing the Ephesians, “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will” (Eph. 1:5). They were chosen because God predetermined their destiny, that they would be sons of God by adoption through Christ. Paul emphasis the fact that God alone made the decision, for it was according to his will, and not the will of any other. Again, Paul makes it clear that there is no room to boast about these blessings, but rather the praise must return all to God for his glorious work.

This first section ends with verse six, where Paul expresses the goal of God’s activity in the salvation of men, “to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). It is all of God, He freely bestowed, the believer has no action in it as Paul explains salvation and the reasons God is to be praised, and now all believers, because of God’s grace, are in Christ, the Beloved (cf. Eph. 1:7; Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).

Having stated the first blessing of God’s free election, Paul moves on to the second blessing, the believer’s redemption in Christ. He begins: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8a). Believers are set free because Christ secured redemption with his own blood being the price (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; Rev. 1:5). This redemption was not just any ordinary redemption as was common to man, but is extraordinary, in that it resulted in the forgiveness of sin. And all this, again Paul pounds the point, it because of God’s grace, not man’s own work or merit.

The manner in which this grace was given is shown in verse nine: “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him” (Eph. 1:9). It was though God making known the mystery, the mysteries that had been kept secret until the revelation of Christ (Rom. 16:26; Eph. 3:3, 5, 10; 6:19). And again, this revealing is to all believers, for Paul says it is revealed to “us” and not only to the believers at Ephesus. And all of this came about because of Christ, not because of men, and it is in Christ that, all things will be summed up in, not men (1:10).

Now Paul switches his emphasis on what God has done to the resulting effects on believers, that they have “obtained an inheritance,” “been predestined,” and have hoped in Christ (Eph. 1:11-12). But even in this shift, Christ is still the focus, for these blessings are given so that believers would be “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12). For as has been the emphasis in this whole sentence, it is God, not man, who is to be praised. And while God has blessed the believer, it is not as though the believer has something to boast about, but rather, has all the occasion in the world to praise God for his great grace.

Now we come to the verse that contains the word this study is concerned about. Paul continues his focus on what the believers have done – they have heard the word of truth, the gospel of their salvation and believed (1:13). Paul does not just state that they heard alone, for hearing is not enough (Matt. 7:24-27; Rom. 10:14; Jam. 1:22), but they heard and believed. Then Paul moves his focus from the actions of the believers to the sealing that has been done to these believers.

Conclusion

The meaning of “sealed” becomes quite clear after having examined the context so thoroughly, for Paul has repeatedly shown the believers at Ephesus that their hope is in what God has done and not what they have done or will do. So this sealing is their hope, their security – for God himself has stamped them, and there is no one greater than God, therefore they are secure, and can be sure that all these blessings are theirs in Christ. For it is by the Holy Spirit that they will be enabled to do what God requires of them, so what else do they require, for if God is for them, who can be against them (Rom. 8:31)? It is not the believer’s role to earn or lose salvation, but rather it is to walk in that Spirit which they have been sealed with.


[1] S. S. Smalley, “Seal,” The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Leicester: Intervarsity, 1980), 1407.

[2] R. Schippers, “Seal,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 3:497.

[3] S. S. Smalley, “Seal,” The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Leicester: Intervarsity, 1980), 1407.

[4] Aeschylus: Eumenides 2.828

[5] Euripides: Iphigeneia At Aulis 1.38

[6] Euripides: Iphigeneia In Taurica 2.1372

[7] Plato, Lesser Hippias 368.c.2

[8] Aristotle, On Things Heard 801.b.4

[9] Herodotus 2.38

[10] Bernard P Grenfell, The Hibeh Papyri (London, Boston: Sold at the Offices of the Egypt Exploration Fund, 1906), 182.

[11] Philo, On The Creation 175.4

[12] Philo, The Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 135.6

[13] Philo, Special Laws 1.47.3

[14] R. Laird Harris, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980), 342.

[15] S. S. Smalley, “Seal,” The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Leicester: Intervarsity, 1980), 1407.

[16] R. Schippers, “Seal,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 3:497.

[17] S. S. Smalley, “Seal,” The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Leicester: Intervarsity, 1980), 1407.

[18] R. Schippers, “Seal,” in New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 3:499.

[19] Gottfried Fitzer, “σφραγίς, σφραγίζω, κατασφραγίζω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 7:949.

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