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Introduction to Paul's Letter to the Ephesians

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Authorship

The traditional view is that Ephesians was written by Paul. From the first century until the 19th century this was never doubted. But since then, the authorship has been greatly contested, probably more so than any other of Paul’s letters. In spite of this, the Book of Ephesians has been called “The Crown of Paulinism” because it contains so many of the main themes of Paul’s writings well as the central motif of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

Arguments against Paul being the author

The first is differences in vocabulary. The Book of Ephesians contains 42 unique Greek words, not found in other writings by Paul. However most of these are in chapters five and six, where he is describing the church as the bride of Christ and the armour for the spiritual battle. Also the word “justification” is never used, which is such a common theme in his other letters.

People have also noted differences in style. Ephesians has a heavier style, with many synonyms, for example: purpose, council and will (1:11), power, might and force (1:19), law, commandments and ordinances (2:15). Notable also are the extremely long sentences. Each of these paragraphs consists of a single sentence in the Greek: 1:3-14 (202 words), 1:15-23 (170 words), 2:1-10 (167 words).

There is a great similarity in content between Ephesians and Colossians. Of the 155 verses in Ephesians, a third are found in parallel content and order in Colossians. However there are never more than five words in a row, and the same word is sometimes used in a different sense in the two letters. This indicates that Ephesians could not possibly have been copied from Colossians, as there is not a close enough relationship. It is more likely that the two letters were written at the same time.

There are also differences in doctrinal emphasis and content between Ephesians and Paul’s other letters. In Ephesians, Paul declares the risen and exalted Christ, his death is never stressed. There is a greater image of the worldwide universal church. Unusually there are no references to the second coming, but more of the present life in the Spirit. There is a more highly structured church ministry in chapter four, than in his other letters. Also his emphasis is more on the horizontal reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, rather than between man and God.

Arguments for Paul being the author

The author claims to be Paul (1:1), claiming his authority and apostleship. He also refers to himself as a prisoner (3:1). There are numerous "I, me, my" statements, especially 3:1-14, 4:1,17, 6:21-22, showing an obvious relationship with the readers.

According to church history, Ephesians was one of the earliest books to be included in the NT canon. The heretic Marcion, who only recognised Paul's writings as scripture, accepted Ephesians (but called it the letter to the Laodiceans).

The Muratorian fragment lists Ephesians as one of the seven churches Paul wrote letters to, “To the Corinthians first, to the Ephesians second, to the Philippians third, to the Colossians fourth, to the Galatians fifth, to the Thessalonians sixth, to the Romans seventh.”

The overall structure is the same as many of Paul's other letters, consisting of a theological section, followed by an ethical section, based on the theology.

Date and place of writing

Again, there is considerable disagreement about the place of writing. It is normally included as one of the four prison letters (Philippians, Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians), written while Paul was a prisoner in Rome (Acts 28), between AD 60 and 62. As noted above, Paul describes himself as a prisoner (3:1).

Other scholars claim that Ephesians was written while Paul was a prisoner for two years in Caesarea (Acts 23-26), while others claim that it was written from Ephesus, even though no imprisonment there was mentioned in the Book of Acts.

Original readers

Although it would seem to be clearly stated that the letter is addressed “To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus”, the “in Ephesus” is omitted in most early manuscripts, making it uncertain where the original readers were located.

From the Book of Acts, we know that Paul was in Ephesus for two to three years during his Third Missionary Journey (Acts 19), and later met with the Ephesian elders (Acts 20), suggesting that he had a close relationship with the church. However the Book of Ephesians contains no personal greetings. Unlike other letters, he does not address any problems in the church. It has more of the tone of a letter being written to people he did not know personally, with phrases such as, "assuming you have heard ...” (3:2), “I have heard of your faith” (1:15).

It has been suggested that the book was not intended to be read by a single church, but was a letter for general circulation around the churches in Asia, which would include Colossae, Ephesus and a number of others (including those in Rev 2-3). In the manuscripts lacking the “in Ephesus” (1:1), the sentence is not complete, and runs like this: “To the saints who are and faithful in Christ Jesus”, suggesting that there might have been a space where the name of the church could be entered. At the end of Colossians, Paul urges his readers to have their letter read in the church of the Laodiceans, and for them to read the letter from Laodicea (Col 4:16). There is no other record of a letter to Laodicea, so it has been suggested that Paul is referring to what we now call the Letter to the Ephesians (as Marcion did). Laodicea was a larger church than Colossae, who did not get their own copy. Because Ephesus was the main church in the Roman Province of Asia, it is easy to imagine that the letter’s name became associated with Ephesus.

The letter was delivered by Tychicus (6:21), who also delivered Colossians (Col 4:7), and probably Philemon at the same time.

See the Ephesus page for more details about the city of Ephesus.

Purpose of the letter

The letter to Ephesus lacks much of the personal emphasis of a letter, and seems more formal or liturgical. Without the references to Paul, a liturgy remains, so some have suggested that the letter was intended to be read in baptismal services, when the new believers would be taught about the privileges and the obligations of the new life they had recently entered. It would also remind others who had previously been baptised, thus accounting for the formal style.

Chapter two can be seen as an exposition on the meaning of baptism (2:1-10), where it gives a summary of the change God has accomplished, and the new life for Gentile converts. They “were dead” and have been “made alive”, and “raised with him” (cf Rom 6, Col 2). Next is a reminder of their change of status, and the heritage they have now entered - they were once far off but are now in the commonwealth of Israel (2:11-22). In chapters four to six, they are exhorted to live a life worthy of their calling. It begins with confessional material, including the statement of “one baptism” (4:5).The “putting off and putting on” (4:22) could allude to the dressing for baptism. The hymn quotation, “Awake O sleeper, arise from the dead” could be an otherwise unknown baptismal hymn. Washing with water is mentioned (5:26), and the section on warfare urges the putting on of new clothing and armour (6:10). The household code could also be seen in the context of the instruction of converts at baptism (5:21-6:9).

It is also important to remember that this letter was written to Ephesus, which was a place of great spiritual darkness. When Paul visited the city, he was confronted with many occult and magic practices, fanatical worship of Artemis, and many different false teachings (Acts 19). Some people have described Ephesus and the Roman province of Asia as a “religious disneyland”. This book gives believers practical instruction on how to live as followers of Jesus in such a place, and the structure of the book shows this clearly.

Structure

The book follows the typical division into two major sections, characteristic of several of Paul’s letters. The first three chapters are more doctrinal, and the last three chapters are more practical.

It also follows the standard arrangement of a Greek letter, beginning with a salutation (1:1-2), followed by an extended blessing and prayer, taking up the remainder of the first chapter. The main content of the book does not really begin until chapter two. The book concludes with personal details (6:21-22), and the final blessing and benediction (6:23-24).

In the title of his famous book “Sit, Walk, Stand”, Watchman Nee summaries the main content of the book of Ephesians. In chapter two, Paul declares that we have been “raised up with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6), which summarises the doctrinal section (ch 1-3). From 4:1, there are a series of instructions using words such as “lead a life” (4:1), and “live” (4:17, 5:1,8,15). The Greek word used in these places is to “walk”. Finally, Paul instructs the believer to “stand” in the armour of God against the wiles of the devil (6:11). The point is being made that standing against the evil one in a spiritually dark city is possible and effective once the believer knows their position as a new creation in Christ, and is walking out that new life in the community of believers.

Main theme

The most important theme is the Exalted Christ, who is the Lord of the Universe, and Head of the Church. Believers share the risen and exalted life of Christ, raised above the control of evil forces, and are given the power to live a life worthy of this calling. The church, the worldwide body of Christ, is reconciled to God, and brings reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, showing the unity as a foretaste of God's plan for universal unity.

Key words

There are a number of important key words and phrases, all to do with the believer’s relationship with God and new position, such as “In Christ”, “In Him”, and “In the beloved”.

A phrase unique to this book is “In the heavenly places”, which describes the invisible spiritual realm, the dwelling place of both the good and the evil forces. The positive sense is seen in the following passages: “Every spiritual blessing in heavenly places” (1:3), “Christ at the Father's right hand in heavenly places” (1:20), “Raised us up with him, and made us sit in heavenly places” (2:6), while the evil side is seen in the following: “The wisdom of God made known to principalities and powers in heavenly places” (3:10), and “Against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places” (6:12).

Another characteristic word is “Mystery”. A Biblical mystery is a truth that was formerly hidden, which has now made known through revelation from God. God made known the mystery of his will - to unite all things in him (1:9), the mystery was made known by revelation (3:3), perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ - that Gentiles are fellow heirs and members of the same body (3:4), make all men know the mystery of Christ - that the wisdom of God is made known to the principalities and powers through the church (3:9), the mystery of man and woman and Christ and the church - that man and wife become one flesh referring to Christ and the church. (5:32), and the mystery of the gospel (6:19).

Paul also writes about the riches, and inheritance in Christ, often using very extravagant language, speaking of: forgiveness according to the riches of his grace (1:7), the Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our inheritance (1:14), riches of his glorious inheritance (1:18), immeasurable riches of his grace (2:7), to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ (3:8), and strengthened according to the riches of his glory (3:16)

Perhaps referring to a possible baptismal setting, he also refers frequently to putting on and putting off, particularly in the second more practical part of the book: put off the old nature (4:22), put on the new nature (4:24), putting away falsehood (4:25), all bitterness, wrath ... be put away (4:31), put on whole armour of God (6:11) and put on breastplate of righteousness (6:14).