Background on Ephesians

I typically compile some snapshot background information at the beginning of whichever book I am studying, not the end. Yet between a prologue sermon and another spent entirely on the first two verses, I never made such a post for Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, until now (better late than never, right?). Much of this information is found within the two sermons mentioned above; however, my hope is that this will serve as an “Ephesians at a glance” sort of post.


Author

The Apostle Paul authored the Epistle to the Ephesians.

However, modern textual critics now tend to question the validity of his authorship. Of the many letters they deny (or at least question) as being authored by Paul, this is one of the foremost. Most of these scholars are not Christian, or if they do consider themselves Christian, their theology is not orthodox. The general argument is that someone wrote this letter using Paul’s name as a pseudonym. Although the writing style is “significantly” different from Paul’s other letters (this is the chief argument for why Paul did not write the letter), the real mystery author was likely attempting to imitate Paul (perhaps using Colossians as the chief example, which would explain the large similarities between the two letters). Some even suggest that because of the comprehensive scope of the letter that it may have written as an introduction to Paul’s actual letters.

The reality is that these theories are nothing more than fanciful speculation. The letter claims to have been written by Paul, and the Ephesians (and early Christians in general) were wary of being deceived by false apostles and teachers (Revelation 2:2). The burden of proof, therefore, is not upon proving Paul’s authorship but upon their own claims. Indeed, in comparing Ephesians to Colossians, they speak out of both sides of their mouth. The writing style of Ephesians is said to be so different that Paul could not have written it, yet the content is so similar to Colossians that Colossians must have been used as inspiration. The much simpler (and, I believe, more logical) solution of Paul writing both letters around the same time is dismissed entirely.  We will discuss the stylistic differences of this letter in a moment, but for now, let us be content not to allow speculative theories of the present to negate two thousand years of affirming Paul’s authorship.

Theme

In Christ, we have been reconciled to God, are being reconciled to one another as His church, no longer walking as the world walks, and stand against the schemes of the devil and the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.

Background

Ephesus was a large and economically important city of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It was well-known for having the Temple of Artemis. As one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, pilgrimages and tourism to visit the temple would constitute a sizeable industry within a city that was already the economic capital of the region.

In Acts 19, we read of the more than two years that Paul spent in the city of Ephesus. The commercial trade within the city was so great that Luke concluded from Paul’s continuous preaching that “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). The apostle obviously spent so much time in Ephesus because it served as a valuable platform for proclaiming the gospel far beyond the city itself. Ephesus would also later benefit from the leadership and presence of Timothy and the Apostle John.

Some question whether Ephesians was really written to the Ephesians after all. In fact, a heretic of the early church, Marcion, identified it as the letter to the Laodiceans that Paul mentions in Colossians 4:16. Tertullian, however, offered a very early refutation against Marcion on that point.[1]

Yet one of the primary arguments against this letter being written to the Ephesians is Paul’s apparent lack of familiarity with the recipients. He mentions throughout the letter having heard about the Ephesians, which would imply that Paul did not know personally the Ephesian church. This would be odd since the apostle spent over two years with them. Yet there are a multitude of reasonable and likely answers for Paul’s more formal writing style. First, even though the letter was written to the Ephesians, the apostle likely had every intention that it would spread beyond Ephesus into all of Asia and the world, just as his preaching in Ephesus had done. Indeed, Tertullian made that very argument in the footnote above, and Calvin makes a similar thought about Paul’s first letter to Timothy.[2] Second, since Paul wrote several years after his ministry in Ephesus, we could reasonably suggest that the church of Ephesus would have been quite different from his memory of it. Third, both Romans and Colossians end with an extensive list of greetings, which could be seen as Paul establishing a familiarity with those believers especially since he had not been to either city. Conversely, Paul may have felt no need to reinforce his personal connection to the Ephesians because they knew of his connection to them and (unlike his letters to Corinth) he was not rebuking any rampant heresy or sin. As with Paul’s authorship, the rationale for securely denying Ephesus as original audience is not sufficient.

Purpose

The central doctrine at the heart of Ephesians is our union with Christ. Paul’s poetically powerhouse run-on sentence in 1:3-14 is all about expressing the glories of being in Christ. These verses are not only Ephesians in miniature, but I would argue that they are the heart of New Testament theology.  The remainder of the letter explores the implications of this great work of God. Chapter two and verses 1-13 of chapter three describe how God made us alive in Christ (2:1-10), how His gospel is breaking down the divisions of hostility in humanity (2:11-22), and how God planned the inclusion of all nations into His chosen people from the eternity past (3:1-13). Those doctrine-rich expositions are bookended by two prayers of Paul for us to comprehend God’s vast love for us through Christ (1:15-23; 3:14-21).

Paul then proceeds to apply our union with Christ to our daily life in 4:1-6:9. Ephesians 4:1-5:21 revolves around five walk commands (walk in a manner worthy of our calling , no longer walk as the Gentiles do, walk in love, walk as children of light, and walk carefully and wisely). Each of these commands aims, from different angles, to urge to live each day in light of being in Christ. After all, how can we be united to the Son of God and not be evermore more conformed to His likeness?

5:22-6:9 continues the practical exhortations of the walk commands but applies them specifically to the household. These household commands address the three most common, everyday relationships: wives/husbands, children/fathers, and bondservants/masters (which can apply today as employees/employers). These verses remind us that, for all the cosmological imagery that Paul uses in Ephesians, true belief in the gospel must transform the most basic relationships in our lives.

The final section of Ephesians (6:10-24) sees the apostle calling us to stand firm against the cosmic powers of darkness that seek to destroy us. Here the doctrine of chapters 1-3 and the application of 4:1-6:9 meet as Paul describes our everyday war against the schemes of Satan. Thankfully, we are told to be strengthened with the strength of the Lord and to put on/take up His own armor, which is a metaphor for describing how we are to put on Christ.

In summary, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is, I believe, the theological heart of the New Testament, and it is a handbook, a field guide or manual, for being a citizen of heaven as we sojourn through the kingdoms of the earth. The truth in Ephesians is the word of the Lord and the message of the kingdom, and as such, it presents the gospel as our glorious hope and how it invades are ordinary lives. As we devote our attention to these God-breathed words, let us trust that they will continue “to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20).


[1] “We have it on true tradition of the Church, that this epistle was sent to the Ephesians, not to the Laodiceans. Marcion, however, was very desirous of giving it the new title (of Laodiceans), as if he were extremely accurate in investigating such a point. But of what consequence are the titles, since in writing to a certain church the apostle did in fact write to all” (Against Marcion 5.17)?

[2] “I believe that this letter [1 Timothy] was written not so much for Timothy as for others, and those who are disposed to consider carefully the whole work will agree with me. I do not deny that Paul was also concerned to instruct and counsel Timothy, but I would argue that the letter contains many things which would be superfluous if Paul had been addressing Timothy alone” (Sermons on 1 Timothy, xxi.) Interestingly, Timothy was ministering in Ephesus when he received Paul’s first letter, making 1 Timothy a letter for the Ephesians as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s