How to read Ephesians


  • Content: a letter of encouragement and exhortation, set against the backdrop of "the powers" (6: 12), portraying Christ's bringing Jew and Gentile together into the one people of God as his ultimate triumph and glory

  • Author: the apostle Paul (although many have doubts)

  • Date: A.D. 6l-62 (see "Orienting Data for Colossians," ), Probably from Rome

  • Recipients: uncertain; perhaps a circular letter to many churches in the province of Asia, of which Ephesus is the capital (no city is given in the earliest manuscripts; Paul assumes the readers do not know him personally, 1:15 ;3:2)

  • Occasion: Tychicus, who is carrying this letter (6:21-22), is also carrying two letters to Colosse (Colossians and Philemon [Col 4:7 -.9]); perhaps after reflecting further on the Colossian situation and on the glory of Christ, and knowing the Asian fear of "the powers of this dark world" Paul writes a general pastoral letter for the churches of that area

  • Emphases: the cosmic scope of the work of Christ; Christ's reconciliation of Jew and Gentile through the cross; Christ's supremacy over "the powers" for the sake of the church; Christian behavior that reflects the unity of the Spirit


Writer and poet Eugene Peterson tells the story of his four-year-old grandson hopping up into his lap to hear a troll story. "Tell me a story, Grandpa," he begged, "and put me in it!" That is what Paul is doing in Ephesians, telling the ultimate story-God's story-and putting some Gentile believers-and us-in it (1:13-14; 2:13).

The churches of Asia Minor are in a period of difficulty. Some outside influences are putting pressure on Gentile believers to conform to Jewish identity markers (circumcision, food laws, religious calendar; see "Specific Advice for Reading Colossians,"). Others are discouraged distressed by magic and the power of the demonic ("the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms," Paul calls them, Eph 6:12), which had held them in their grip for so many years. As Paul is in prison thinking about these things and reflecting on the grandeur of Christ as expressed in his letter to the Colossians, his heart soars, and what he sees he writes down as encouragement for these churches.

You will hardly be able to miss the note of affirmation and encouragement in this letter. It begins with praise to God (in the form of a Jewish berakah: "Blessed be God") for the abundant blessings he has given in Christ (1:3-14); it carries on through the thanksgiving and

prayer (w. 15-23), into the narrative of Jew and Gentile reconciliation (2:1-22)-plus Paul's role in it (3:1-13)-and concludes with yet another prayer and doxology (3:14-21). The rest of the letter urges them to maintain the unity God has provided through Christ's death and

resurrection and the Spirit's empowering (4:1-5:20), especially in Christian households (5:21-6:9), and concludes (6:10-20) by urging them to stand boldly in Christ and the Spirit and so to withstand the powers that are still arrayed against them (and us), while they (we) live in the present age.


As you read you will want to be on constant alert for the three concerns that dominate the letter. The first is the passion of Paul's life the Gentile mission, but not just the salvation of individual Gentiles. Rather, he asserts that by reconciling both Jew and Gentile to himself, God thereby created out of the two a new humanity-the ultimate expression of his redeeming work in Christ (2:14-16). This theme first emerges at the end of the opening blessing (1:11-14); it is developed in a thoroughgoing way in 2:11-22 and picked up again in 3:1-13. It is also this "unity of the Spirit" (between Jew and Gentile) that chapters 4-6 are all about by way of exhortation. Thus the whole letter is held together by this theme.

The second theme is Christ's victory over "the powers" for the sake of the church, with the Spirit playing the key role in our participation in that victory. You will see how Paul brings these first two concerns together early on in the letter-(1) in the "blessing" in 1:3-14, where Christ's redemptive, reconciling work embraces all things, both those in heaven (the "heavenly realms" are now his) and those on earth (Jew and Gentile as the one people of God), and (2) in telling them about his own role in the gospel (3:1-13), where the reality of Jew and Gentile together as the one people of God is on display before the powers so that they become aware of their present-and ultimate-defeat in Christ (w. 10-12).

The first theme in turn lies behind the third concern as well, which makes up the second major part of the letter (chs. 4-6)-that they "walk" (4:1, 11; 5:2,8, 15, usually translated "olive" in the TNIV) so as to maintain the "unity of the Spirit" (4:1-16). This includes living out the life of Christ in their relationships (4:17 -5:17), their worship (5:18-20), and in their Christian households (5:21-6:9)-those places where the worship would have taken place.

All three concerns are brought into final focus in 6:10-20, where, through the weapons and armor provided by Christ and the Spirit, Paul's readers are urged to stand as one people in their ongoing conflict with the powers.

As you read you will also want to note how Paul's Trinitarian experience of God lies behind everything. This comes out in the structure of the opening praise rendered to God: Father (1:3-6), Son (vv. 7-12), and, Holy Spirit (vv. 13-14); note that each of these concludes with "to the praise of his glorious grace";"for/to the praise of his glory." It is picked up again in the thanksgiving and prayer that follow (1:17), as well as in the narrative of reconciliation in 2:11-22, and serves as the basis for maintaining unity in chapters 4-6 (see 4:6-8; one Spirit, one Lord, one God and Father).



Praise to the Triune God

Note that where he usually begins with thanksgiving and prayer for the recipients, Paul here begins with an opening "blessing" of the God who has blessed them through Christ and the Spirit. Besides being aware of the Trinitarian structure (as noted above), you should observe how Paul here introduces two of the major themes: (1) The Spirit's (TNIV "spiritual") blessings, provided through Christ, are theirs in the heavenly realms, the place of the habitation of the powers to whom they were formerly in bondage (v. 3), and (2) these blessings, especially redemption in Christ (vv. 4-10), have come to Jew and Gentile alike so that both together inherit the final glory of God (w. 1 1 - 14).


Thanksgiving and Prayer

Here you find Paul's typical thanksgiving (w. 15-16) and prayer (w. 17 -19). Notice how the prayer (for the Spirit's enlightenment) functions primarily to set the stage for the affirmations of his readers' present position in Christ, who presently sits at God's right hand as head over the powers for the sake of the church (vv.20-23); note especially how this echoes the messianic Psalm 110:1 .


Reconciliation to God through Christ

Flowing directly out of 1:20-23, Paul reminds his readers first of their past enslavement to the powers (2:1-3) and then of their present position with Christ in the heavenly realms, where he sits enthroned above the powers (vv. 4-7). Paul concludes with a kind of creedal statement: Life in the present is based on grace-not by "works" but for "good works" (w. 8-1O)-thus setting the stage for verses 11-22.You might want to read this section through and then read it again to see how much you can identify with the original readers.


Reconciliation of Jew and Gentile through Christ and the Spirit

This section, on the other hand, should keep us from reading verses 1-10 in a purely individualistic way. At stake for Paul is Gentile and Jew (and all other expressions of ethnic hatred) being joined together as the one people of God; they are made so, first, through Christ, whose death on the cross tore down the barriers that divide people, and second, through the Spirit, who makes us one family as well as God's temple, the place of his present habitation on earth.


Paul's Role i the Reconciling Work of Christ

Note how Paul starts a prayer-picked up again in verse 14-but interrupts himself to emphasize both his own role of proclaiming the "mystery" as well as the nature of the mystery itself, namely, that Gentiles are coheirs with Jews and therefore together with them form the one people of God, now especially as a reality on display before the powers-as evidence of their defeat!


Prayer and Doxology

Paul now prays that they-and we-might experience what he has just related now in terms of knowing the unknowable love of Christ and thus to be filled, through the power of the Spirit, with all the fullness of God himself. Such prayer and its potential realization through the Spirit calls once more for praise to God (w. 20-21).


An Exhortation to Maintain the Unity (between Jew and Gentile)

Note that narrative and prayer are now followed by imperative (words of exhortation). This is how Paul addresses his third major concern that the Ephesian believers maintain "the unity of the Spirit" noted in 2:11-22. After giving the Trinitarian basis for it (w. 4-6), he reflects on the gifts Christ has given to the church for its growing up into this unity.


The Practical Outworking of Unity

In this very important section you will find Paul now applying what he has urged in verses 1-16 to his readers' corporate and household existence as God's people in the world. They must give up their former way of life as Gentiles who lived in opposition to God (4:17-24. Notice that most of the sins mentioned next (vv. 25-31) are those that destroy harmony in human relationships; to continue in such sins is to give place to the devil (v.27) and thus to grieve the Holy Spirit (4:30); rather they should walk in the way of Christ (5: 1 -2).

After a series of exhortations to abandon their former ways as Gentiles and become God's light in the darkness (5:3- 17), Paul focuses on their corporate worship (which took place in the context of households). Thus the exhortation to "be filled with the Spirit" (5:18) for worship also serves as the hinge between relationships in general and within households in particular, where this worship would take place. After all, the Christian household was the basic expression of the Christian community.

Note especially that in the household rules (5:21-6:9), the householder himself (husband, father, master) is addressed in each case in relationship to the other three kinds of people in the household (wife, children, slaves). The key element in making the Christian household work is for the householder to "love [his wife], just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (5:25).


Conclusion: Stand Strong against the Powers

Paul concludes by urging his readers, in light of all that has been said to this point, to contend against the powers by means of the armor provided through redemption in Christ (vv. 13-17a) and the weapons of the Spirit (w. l7b-20)-the word of God and prayer.

This letter is an essential part of the biblical story. It is clear that God

takes the church far more seriously than some of his people in later times

have done, precisely because it is the place where God has brought about

reconciliation between diverse people, who were often bitter enemies,

and made them his people who bear his likeness in their life together- and

all of this as evidence that he has defeated "the powers."