Ephesians has been called the 'crown of all Paul's writings'. It contains the cream of his theology and is a high water mark in New Testament revelation.
It has been described as 'the distilled essence of the Christian religion, the most authoritative and consummate compendium of our holy Christian faith'.
Ephesians strikes a lyrical and majestic note: 'This letter is pure music' (John Mackay). Here is 'truth that sings', doctrine made melody, theology born on its knees and scored for a full orchestra of praise.
It's no surprise to find in the first half of the letter an outpouring of worship (1:3–14), two fervent prayers (1:15–23; 3:14–19) and a doxology (3:20–21)! The Greek style adds to the effect by piling up language in long, drawn-out sentences which superbly match the intensity of thought and feeling being expressed.
'The language of worship is dominant, the pervasive atmosphere of prayer [is] its most distinctive feature. In Ephesians, theology informs prayer and prayer itself becomes the vehicle for theology' (Luke T. Johnson).
How did this great letter come about? Ephesus, visited by Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19–21), became the scene for an extended ministry on his third tour of nearly three years (Acts 19).
His first act was to make good the deficiencies in understanding and experience of 12 disciples, inherited from Apollos, by baptising them in water and helping them to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1–7; cf Eph 1:13–14, 5:18).
Later, Paul devoted himself to a teaching ministry, using the lecture hall of Tyrannus.
According to one early MS this took place between 11am and 4pm daily – the hottest time of the day when presumably Tyrannus's students had long since left and the apostle could hire the hall for a nominal fee! Ephesus was the leading metropolis and seat of government in the Roman Province of Asia.
Situated three miles from the Aegean and connected to it by the Cayster River, the city became a rich commercial centre.
According to Paul Maier, the city 'sheltered the wildest collection of pagan priests, exorcists, magicians, religious prostitutes, cultists, and charlatans in the Roman Empire'.
In a story not lacking in grim humour, seven sons of Sceva who claimed to be exorcists sought to emulate Paul by using the name of Jesus in dealing with a possessed man.
Refusing to recognise their authority, the man mugged them and left them naked and bleeding (Acts 19:13–16).
The impact on the city was considerable, with fear prompting the burning of many occult books (Acts 19:19).
Notable among the city's many shrines was the great temple of the goddess Artemis (Diana, to the Romans) which was famous as one of the seven wonders of the world.
The annual festival of Artemis in February and March hosted thousands of pilgrims.
When Paul's ministry threatened the livelihood of the idol-makers connected with the temple, a silversmith named Demetrius roused a riotous crowd.
The mob gathered in the magnificent 24,000-seat theatre carved into the side of the mountain overlooking the city and approached by the impressive Arcadian Way. The church founded in such a city was set in an obviously strategic but oppressive place.
It was to this church that Paul wrote his letter, perhaps around 60–61 AD, to establish the church in its new-found faith.
Many NT scholars deny authorship of this letter to Paul, but there is nothing in it that he could not have written.
In fact the letter to the Ephesians bears striking resemblance to Paul's moving farewell address to the elders of the church there, made at the nearby seaport of Miletus (Acts 20:17–38).
The purpose of the letter
Ephesians, unlike some of Paul's letters such as Galatians and 1 Corinthians, has no distinct problem that needs addressing.
For this reason, some think that Ephesians was a circular letter meant not only for Ephesus but for the other churches in the Lycus Valley (e.g. Laodicea).
What is significant is Paul's teaching on the 'powers'.
Paul says more about spiritual warfare in this letter than anywhere else, perhaps because Ephesus was such a well-known centre for demonic and magical practices.
'This epistle is occasioned in part by Paul's special concern to address the needs of people coming to Christ from a background of what today we would call occult beliefs' (Clinton Arnold).
Paul writes to the believers to raise their awareness of the dimensions of their salvation and the high privileges of their Christian identity.
Clearly, he feels they need to:
- Be reminded of the blessings attached to being 'in Christ'
- Know God better in every way
- Celebrate their unique calling in the world as the new humanity created for holiness, truth and love in the practicalities of living
- Be energised for this task by the power of the Spirit making Christ real within in them
- See themselves as soldiers engaged in battle with the cosmic powers and able to draw on the full resources of Christ's victory.
In short, Paul's aim is the formation of character, a character shaped by an abiding assurance about our Christian identity – who we are in Christ – and by an ongoing acceptance of our vocation in Christ, what our calling is.
If you know who you are, you know what you're here for!
The structure of the letter
• A Celebration of Christian Identity (Chapters 1–3): Paul recalls the blessings of salvation which involve the whole Divine Trinity ( 1:3–14).
Paul's thanksgiving leads into prayer (1:15–23) which is picked up in further prayer and doxology (3:14–21).
He recalls the way grace has transformed them out of their pagan past into their current and future enjoyment of salvation (2:1–10).
Remembering their previous alienation from God's purpose, he celebrates the present unity of Jew and Gentile in one body, the church – to which Paul's ministry has so richly contributed (3:1–13).
'Within the framework of an extended thanksgiving these chapters contain a reminder to the gentile Christian readers of the privileges and status they enjoy as believers in Christ and members of the Church, re-enforcing for them their significance in God's plan for history and the cosmos' (A.T. Lincoln).
Believers are blessed, chosen, called, loved, adopted, redeemed, forgiven and sealed by the Spirit of God – and all this is 'in Christ'.
Everything in God's heart, everything that he is planning, all that he wills in order to achieve his purposes and to bring salvation to us, centres in Jesus Christ.
Christianity is Christ. Nothing is apart from him. All God's is fullness in Him.
'In Christ' is the key phrase.
We are placed in the radical new order of reality brought about by Christ, in his death's achievement, his resurrection-life, his ascension-victory and his lordly-exaltation.
To be 'in Christ' is to participate in all that he is and has accomplished.
We undergo a dying and a rising with him so that we are seated with him (as in 2:2ff ) – within the scope and authority of his victory.
To be 'in Christ' is to be in a wholly new reality.
No longer 'in Adam' and the situation he created, but 'in Christ' and the completely new situation he has created.
We inhabit a whole new order of existence, a new creation (as Paul describes it elsewhere).
This entails a new relationship with God, a new awareness of transcendent realities – a veritable coming alive 'as if from the dead', which gives us a new perspective on everything.
We need to know our 'spiritual geography' – to know where we are in the scheme of things; and knowing where we are, we know who we are! Previously 'outside of Christ' (2:12) we are now 'inside'.
We are 'included by strange grace in the same love with which the Father loves the Son' (1:13a).
We become Christians by hearing and believing the Word of truth, the gospel of salvation.
As Smedes writes in Union with Christ: 'For Paul, the Christian life is not merely a memory of a God-man who lived once and is gone. It is not an imitation good life. It is not a momentary ecstatic experience. The whole of life, from its fundamental being to its discrete actions, is surrounded by the reality of Christ ... Life begins, proceeds, and ends in Christ.'
Being 'in Christ' defines who we are and where we are located on the map of reality.
He is the power field or sphere of influence in which we live and move and have our being. He is our environment.
It is this which gives us an identity and a community, entered into through union with him.
Often evangelicals have majored on 'asking Jesus into our hearts' and 'inviting Jesus into your life' – this rarely appears in the New Testament. The New Testament speaks much less about Christ being in us than it does of our being in Christ! To do otherwise is to risk domesticating grace, over-individualising salvation and, in the end, trivialising God by narrowing down the scale and scope of his plans and power.
As Klyne Snodgrass puts it: 'If we emphasise only that Christ is in us, we define reality and Christ as about one inch tall. If we realise we are in Christ, He determines reality and encompasses us all.
This is the crucial outcome of the representative function Christ plays in the story.
• Exhortation to – and Exposition of – Christian Calling (Chapters 4–6): This features the theme of 'walking' (4:1,17; 5:2.8,15).
Here we can note how skillfully the opening of the letter is now re-echoed in the link between knowing more of the 'hope to which he has called you' (1:18) and being urged to 'live a life worthy of the calling you have received' (4:1).
Paul describes the aim of Christian living in 4:1b as 'walking worthy of your calling'.
In other words, to develop a way of living ('walk') consistent with chapters 1–3.
The image of walking as a metaphor for conduct and lifestyle is derived from the Old Testament. It corresponds to the Old Testament description of Israel's vocation as 'walking in the ways of the Lord' (e.g. Dt 10:12–13; Isaiah 30:21).
Walking in the ways of the Lord is, in other words, shorthand for Israel's ethical commission. It refutes the idea that grace immobilises us and makes us passive. On the contrary, it is grace which energises us to make choices which glorify God.
Walking also suggests a course of action and decision that is thought through, controlled and determined.
The moral vision of the New Testament is the triumph of convictions over moods, the establishment of self-control instead of jerky, uncoordinated excitement, of a joyful and 'long obedience in the same direction'.
Having re-established the Ephesians in their true identity in Christ, Paul now stirs them to rise again to the challenge of their vocation as God's people.
Just as Israel was called to 'be holy as God is holy' and so show God's character and life on earth, so the New Covenant people of God, in which Jew and Gentile are united to form a new humanity, are commissioned to take up the vocation of being image-bearers of God in the world (4:23–24).
The whole of chapters 4 to 6 can be construed as the challenge to express this true identity and to live out this different story as part of a new humanity.
Believers, Paul argues, are called to maintain the unity of the Church (4:1–6); they are called to grow towards maturity (4:7–16), to speak the truth in love.
They are called to the distinctiveness of Christian living in the likeness and strength of God (4:17–5:18), in the practicalities of life (5:21–6:9).
We are called to stand firm in the spiritual battle for which Christ makes us victorious (6:10–20).
Our vocation is learning to do this together in the new community in radical truth and love, in forgiveness and forbearance, in giving and receiving, at home and at work.
Empowered by the Spirit, we can confront the hostile spiritual powers that seek to dehumanise us, and win the battle for true humanity.
The vision of human formation that Ephesians sets forth presents God as our role model (5:1).
This in itself causes us to consider the limitations of psychology or the adequacy of psychology in forming human fullness.
By definition psychology starts with the self. If we use psychological theories and methods alone, however insightful they are, we leave God out of the picture.
Then, according to Paul, we have no hope of putting people back into truly human shape.
To fail to look into God's face is to become disfigured! This is a high view of humans.
Yes: it takes all of God to save what He has created.
This is a high calling, but Ephesians assures us that this is who we are 'in Christ', redeemed and empowered by God's own Spirit for just such a vocation as the worshipping image-bearers of God in the world.
The lasting impact of the letter
In his study of the letter, Dr John Mackay, President of Princeton Seminary in the immediate post-war period, recalled his boyhood in Scotland and the impact the letter made on him:
'To this book I owe my life. I was a lad of only fourteen years of age when, in the pages of the Ephesian letter, I saw a new world ... Someone had come into my soul ... I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes to other people ... I had been quickened ... I was really alive.'
'In Ephesians', writes the commentator Andrew Lincoln, 'Paul appeals to the deep springs of their experience, their emotions, the common values they celebrate in worship. He constantly communicates his vision of their identity through the language and forms of worship and prayer.'
Paul knows that to motivate people it is not enough to exhort them, nor even to teach them. So he reaches for their hearts, to touch their emotions, to stir their imaginations, to renew their adoration, to stretch their aspirations.
'People are not changed by moral exhortation but by transformed imagination' (Walter Brueggemann).
And the language Paul uses adds to the dazzling effect, the wealth of words matching the richness of the exposition.
He refreshes their sense of identity, rekindles their sense of destiny and renews their hopes.
He gives them a larger vision of what they are in Christ and fixes their goals of growth and maturity.
He reinvigorates them with enthusiasm, energy and confidence by directing them to Christ's abundant resources.
And he assures them of their ability in Him to overcome all resistance to God's will, whether from sins within them or from the powers outside them.
The scale of God's purpose is breathtaking: 'to unite all things in Christ' (1:10).
In Martyn Lloyd-Jones' words, 'The perfect harmony that will be restored will be harmony in man, and between men. Harmony on the earth and in the brute creation! Harmony in heaven, and all under this blessed Lord Jesus Christ, who will the Head of all! Everything will again be united in him ... that is the message and that is God's plan. This is the mystery which has been revealed to us.
'Do you know that these things are so marvellous that you will never hear anything greater, either in this world or in the world to come?
'Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ .... to the praise of his glorious grace ... for the praise of his glory ... to the praise of his glory ... now unto him ... be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever.' (1:3, 6,12,14; 3:20–21.)