Ephesians is breathtaking in its theological grasp of the scope of God’s purposes in Christ for the church. It is a pastorally warm letter and spiritually sensitive in its advice, peaceable in tone and readily overflowing into joyful worship. But it is also rather different from Paul’s other letters. All except this one address some very specific situations in the churches to whom he wrote. Typically, they abound in local colour, they contain closely reasoned and rhetorically forceful teaching probing the theological dimensions of some central problem, and they combine this with carefully related application in the form of appeals to the readers. The apostle’s sentences are usually short, often blunt.
In Ephesians, by contrast, what would normally be the ‘teaching’ part is largely taken up with the praise of God (1:3–14) and with a report of Paul’s prayer for his readers (1:15–3:21 with important digressions at 2:11–22 and 3:2–13). This leads immediately into exhortation (chs. 4–6). Throughout the letter the sentences are usually very long and have a slightly liturgical sound. What is even more unusual is that the whole letter is so heavily dependent on Colossians: passage after passage can be explained as a rewriting of the key themes of Colossians, and about a third of its actual wording is taken over. How is all this to be explained?
Although the early church uniformly supported the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, many modern scholars (including the most important commentaries by Schnackenburg and Lincoln) have disputed it. They have tried instead to explain the letter as the writing of a student and admirer of Paul’s, bringing the apostle’s gospel to his own later generation. The arguments hinge largely on the issues raised above, and on alleged subtle shifts away from a Pauline perspective to a later one. The issues are too complex to deal with at length here but are summarized in the commentaries by Caird (pp. 11–29) and Foulkes (pp. 19–49). Our own position is that Paul is indeed the author, and that alleged differences from the Paul of the other letters are either misunderstandings of Ephesians (some of the important ones will be raised in the Commentary), or are to be explained in terms of the special nature and circumstances of the writing of this letter.
The life-setting of the letter
While a prisoner in Rome (some time around ad 61–62), Paul had occasion to return a converted slave, Onesimus, to his Christian master Philemon living in (or near) Colosse. To cover the delicate situation Paul wrote to Philemon. He sent both this letter and the returning slave in the care of one of his co-workers Tychicus (Col. 4:7–9), and he used the occasion to write to the whole church at Colosse too, warning against false teaching on the horizon there. To get to Colosse, Tychicus and Onesimus would have naturally sailed to Ephesus, and then struck east for the Lycus valley along the main Roman road to the Euphrates. Paul had himself based his Asian mission (ad 52–55) in the great and thriving city of Ephesus (Acts 18:19–20:17; 1 Cor. 15:32; 16:8, 19; 2 Cor. 1:8–11), and so it would have been natural for him to write a letter to the church there and send that with Tychicus too (cf. Eph. 6:21–22 and Col. 4:7–9).
The letter we have bearing the name ‘Ephesians’ was, however, not written primarily to the ‘saints in Ephesus’ (1:1). Indeed, the words ‘in Ephesus’ are not found here in the earliest manuscripts, and 1:15 and 3:1–3 assume that Paul and the majority of his readers have heard reports of each other, but not necessarily more. The letter also ends without the customary personal greetings which we would expect in a letter addressed to Ephesus (cf. Rom. 16; Col. 4:10–17). These features have suggested to many that Ephesians was actually intended as a circular letter for the churches of the whole Roman province of Asia (including the seven mentioned in Rev. 1–3). Perhaps, more plausibly, it was written for the churches along or near the road Tychicus would have taken from Ephesus to Colosse, including Magnesia, Tralles, Hierapolis and Laodicea. (Ephesians may in that sense be the letter Col. 4:16 refers to as the ‘letter from Laodicea’.)
The nature and purpose of the letter
Most of the unusual features of this letter can best be explained in terms of our understanding of its life-setting. Its purpose is not to face some particular false teaching in a specific congregation, but to encourage all the (mainly Gentile) churches of the area Tychicus was passing through. What better way for Paul to do this than by celebrating the accomplishment in Christ of God’s great purposes (1:3–14), and including a report of how he was praying for the readers, interceding that they might joyfully grasp the central message of the gospel and the wonderful privilege to which they had been admitted (1:15–2:10; 3:1, 14–21). It is not quite realistic to argue that the letter is un-Pauline because it substitutes prayer where Paul normally has teaching; the truth is rather that the letter teaches the core content of Paul’s gospel in the form of a call to worship and prayer-report (and the digressions at 2:11–22 and 3:2–13 more fully explain the teaching implicit in these). The choice of a worship/prayer form for most of the first part of the letter itself dictates the more ‘elevated’ and liturgical style, which then not unnaturally extends throughout (and is similar to the style of Paul’s prayers elsewhere). And if Paul had just written the letter to the Colossians, and had it still to hand, is it really surprising that he should remodel it for the more general readership?
The central message of the letter
Ephesians makes dominant a theme which was already important in Colossians, namely cosmic reconciliation in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:9–10, 20–23; 2:10–22, and 3:6 with Col. 1:19–20). The OT maintained that the universe was the creation of God who was one, without peer or rival, and all was initially in harmony with him (cf. Dt. 6:4., recited daily by Jews, and Gn. 1). According to Jewish understanding, however, the willing subjection of all things to God dissolved into a rebellion of competing claims. People became progressively alienated from God and then from each other, symbolized in the exclusion from the Garden of Eden, the murder of Abel, and the fiasco of Babel. God was still the Lord of the universe (as all from Jos. 3:11 to Josephus Ant. 14:24 affirm), he still gave it unity, and that unity came to clearest expression in Israel’s obedience to the one God, following one law and worshipping in a single temple. ‘The nations’, however, were divided from God, and from Israel, by their worship of idols. And even Israel, called to express within herself the unity of creation, was marred by factions. She was divided within herself. At the root of all this, as far as Judaism was concerned, was the conflict between the Lord God, and the powers of Satan.
By contrast with what was going on at the time, the day of the Lord was seen as the day when God would subject all competing powers to himself and thus restore the universe to harmony. So, as Zc. 14:9 puts it, ‘And the Lord will become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one’ (nrsv). The Messiah is thus a Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6) who even pacifies nature (Is. 11:1–9; 2 Baruch 73:1). When he comes all opposition will be torn down, Israel will be restored, all nations will come to revere the one God (Tobit 14:6; Sybylline Oracles 3:808), and they will worship him in the one temple in Jerusalem (Is. 2:2–4; 56:6–7; 60–62; Mi. 4:1–4; Zc. 8:20–23; 14:16–19; Jubilees 4:26).
All this could be called cosmic reconciliation. Ephesians teaches that this purpose has been begun in Christ and will be consummated in him. In him alienation has been destroyed and reunification begun: the old division of humanity into Jew and Gentile has been overcome (2:10–16); and the older alienation of humankind from God surmounted too (2:17–18). Christ has begun to ‘fill’ and unite the universe (4:10), bringing peace. But to say these things have begun in him is also to say they are experienced by those united with him, namely by believers. This leads to an awesome, majestic vision of the church. The universal church of Jews and Gentiles is the place Jesus fills (1:23); it is the place where the world and the powers are to see the cosmic reconciliation already under way (3:6–10). By union with Christ, the church is already the one heavenly temple (2:19–21), and it must above all strive to maintain that unity which witnesses to God’s purpose (4:1–6). Paul’s appeal in chs. 4–6 draws out how to live in a way that reflects God’s new creation of unity, harmony and peace.
This note of cosmic unity in Christ has sometimes been confused with universalism (i.e. that God will ultimately save all his creatures, including the hostile powers). That is not indicated: 5:6 still anticipates the wrath of God on the persistently disobedient, and 5:5 warns of sins that exclude from the kingdom of God. What is being affirmed is that all of the new creation will be united in Christ, but parts of the old creation will not participate in the new one.
Later writers like Ignatius and Irenaeus stressed the institutional unity of the catholic church on earth, under bishops, elders and deacons. By contrast the emphases here are the regular Pauline ones on a single universal church of Jews and Gentiles as the historical manifestation of the heavenly temple, and world-wide reunification (as we shall see in the Commentary). Paul was in prison precisely for trying to strengthen the unity between the Jewish and Gentile churches (see on 3:13).
Two related features of the letter are also especially significant: the focus on ‘the powers of this dark world’ (6:12), and the emphasis on present salvation. C. Arnold has shown how prevalent magical beliefs and the associated fear of spiritual powers was in Ephesus and the surrounding area. Colossians was written partly against such fears (Col. 1:13, 16; 2:8, 15, 18, 20) and so it is not surprising that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians should take up this theme afresh. Arnold has shown there are much stronger allusions to such fears in Ephesians than is usually supposed, and that a major part of the letter’s purpose is to counteract them by insisting on the greater power in Christ and in believers united with him (see on 1:19–23; 2:1–7; 3:9–10, 15–16, 20; 4:8; 6:10–17).
A number of scholars believe Ephesians distorts the genuinely Pauline tension between what we shall receive and be when the new age or new creation comes into being, and what we already experience of that in Christ. Ephesians, it is said, has too little about future salvation, seeming to assume that it is already virtually fully realized in Christ. The fact is, however, that Paul’s emphases differ according to context. To the over-confident Corinthians he stressed the ‘not yet’; to the Galatians, wondering whether they should embrace the law to ensure salvation, he stressed the ‘already’. Colossians and Ephesians both stress the ‘already’ to encourage believers who are prone to fear the spiritual powers of the universe. If they are already saved from those powers, it is in the limited sense that they have been united with the victorious Christ in the heavenly places, and so brought decisively under his influence (2:1–9). Believers are now free to fight back, and do so from a strong position. The battle, however, is not over (6:10–20) even if the outcome is assured by our union with Christ (cf. Col. 3:1–4). The present is the evil age (6:12–13, 16), and our real redemption lies in the future (4:30; cf. 1:14; 4:13); hence the stress on understanding our hope (1:18).
The main challenge of Ephesians
This letter challenges the pietistic individualism and corresponding weak doctrine of the church that we so often find in evangelicalism. ‘Don’t look at the church,’ we say, ‘Look at Christ!’. Paul, however, expects the outsider to see Christ and God’s unifying purpose for the world precisely in the church. The challenge for a fragmented and ever-dividing Protestantism today could barely be sharper: Ephesians calls us to build bridges not minefields. It is also a challenge for those who promote separate white and black churches, segregated rich, middle-class, and ‘worker’ churches etc. Such homogeneous groups may naturally get on better together, but how do they reflect the gospel of reconciliation? Ephesians challenges all of us to find better ways of making our local churches real communities of people whose lives and worship together as a church witness to the cosmic unity begun in Christ, and are deeply imbued with his presence.
See also the article Reading the letters.
J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians, BST (IVP, 1979).
F. Foulkes, Ephesians, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1989).
R. P. Martin, Ephesians, BBC (Broadman, 1971).
G. B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (OUP, 1976).
A. Lincoln, Ephesians, WBC (Word, 1990).
OT Old Testament
nrsv (New) Revised Standard Version
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
BBC Broadman Bible Commentary
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Ef 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.