One of the true joys in my life is the outdoors. I love hiking, specifically I love hiking up a mountain. There is just something about rounding a corner or coming over a rise and getting smacked in the face with a majestic view. Standing on the edge of a rock taking in the unadulterated sky, staring at miles of trees, rivers, and hills below. I could stand there for hours soaking it all in.
In many ways that also describes Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The Ephesian letter is the summit of a theological mountain. As one reads through Ephesians they take in the grandeur and majesty of theology, Christology, soteriology, anthropology, and even some eschatology. Paul is not writing to combat a false teaching or correct a sinful action; instead, Pastor Paul is writing to encourage the church with the truths of God in His Son Jesus Christ through His Holy Spirit.
[Ephesians] presents the basic doctrines of Christianity comprehensively, clearly, practically, and winsomely.
-James Montgomery Boice
Over the next few months I will be teaching through The Letter to the Ephesians with my students. I am excited to stand at the edge and soak up this practical, theological treatise. As we begin the journey up the mountain though, it is important to stop and take a look at the trail map and get a sense of the terrain. The following is my trail map for The Letter to the Ephesians.
The Letter to the Ephesians claims to have been written by the Apostle Paul, not only in the opening salutation (1:1), but also in the body of the letter (3:1). Additionally, the early church almost universally accepted Pauline authorship of the letter. However, more recent scholars have begun questioning whether Paul did indeed write this letter. The first objection against Pauline authorship is the impersonal feel of the letter. The Apostle spent considerable time in Ephesus and knew the church quite well (Acts 19-20), but this letter carries little personal touches and no personal greetings as does many of his other letters. While it is odd that Paul would write such an impersonal letter to a church he knew well, it is not at all odd that he would include no personal greetings. Many of the letters that carry substantial greetings are those with whom he had the least contact. Therefore, he would know fewer people and might name drop some of those he knew in the church to support his letter. In a church Paul knew very well, there might be a fear of missing someone, thus causing a perceived hierarchy. A second objection to Pauline authorship is the language. While much of Ephesians is strikingly similar to Colossians there are also striking differences, including many uses of new and diverse words; however, this accusation is leveled against almost all of Paul’s letters. The truth is that Paul has a varied vocabulary and uses it. In fact, Paul uses fewer hapax legomena (words that occur in no other writings in the New Testament) than in 2 Corinthians or Philippians. A third objection relates to the author’s style. It is argued that the style of Ephesians is very different than that of other epistles of Paul. The problem with this objection is that it limits an author to one style. If we can imagine a modern author writing in one style to one group and another style to another group then why can we not imagine Paul might write in different styles based on the recipients, his experience, his situation, or even his age. In the end there is no conclusive argument to abandon the claim of the epistle itself, and therefore, we should acknowledge the author of the letter to the Ephesians is the Apostle Paul.
The question of the recipients, at first glance, appears to be easy. The letter claims to be written to the Ephesians; however, the earliest copies of the letter do not have “in Ephesus.” The absence of the destination phrase has led many to believe the original audience was not the Ephesians. The second century heretic Marcion includes this letter in his canon, but replaces “in Ephesus” with “in Laodicea.” The main solution offered is that Ephesians was meant as a circular letter. The circular letter theory manifests itself in a few different variations. (1) In Colossians Paul instructs the church in Colossae to exchange letters with the church in Laodicea. In this case, the Ephesian letter was actually written to the church in Laodicea. The theory continues that the churches of Colossae and Laodicea then shared their letters with other churches in the area, one of which was Ephesus. Somehow over time the original Laodicean letter was lost to history and the only copies available where either without a destination or the copy in Ephesus. (2) The letter was a generic circular letter written to the seven churches in Asia. Either Paul included the destination of Ephesus because it was the chief city in the region or over time the letter became so well known in Ephesus that people began referring to it as a letter to the Ephesian church. (3) The letter was originally written to the Ephesian church, but Paul also meant for it to be circulated among the other churches in the region. Under this theory, the other letters dropped “in Ephesus” rather than it being added to a destination-less letter.
The simplest solution is to side with history and the manuscript evidence that the letter to the Ephesians was actually written to the church in Ephesus. It is much more likely that churches would drop “in Ephesus” as the letter was circulated to other churches than for “in Ephesus” to be added. As for the Laodicean theory, the overwhelming evidence supports Ephesus rather than Laodicea. In all likelihood, Paul wrote to the Ephesians, but also meant for the letter to be circulated among the other churches in the region. A practice that is evidenced in Colossians 4:16.
It is like a sermon on the greatest and widest theme possible for a Christian sermon – the eternal purpose of God which he is fulfilling through his Son Jesus Christ, and working out in and through the church.
The traditional date for the letter finds Paul writing from his imprisonment in Rome (at the end of Acts). If this date is accepted (and there is little reason to question this time frame) then the letter would have been written in the early 60’s AD.
The purpose for which Paul wrote this letter is a mystery. Many of Paul’s other letters indicate a clear purpose: rebuke false teachers, call out some sinfulness, or encourage the believers. But Ephesians seems to have no clear or stated purpose. Paul does not seem to be responding to some form of false teaching, solving some dilemma, or correcting some sin situation. In fact, outside of the first few verses and last few verses the letter does not even seem to be a letter at all. Rather, it reads more like a sermon, an exhortation regarding the basics of the Christian faith, Christian community, and Christian living. Maybe that was the extent of Paul’s purpose in sending this letter. Remember, Paul is in prison, most likely at the end of his life and this letter may be his attempt at a final exhortation to his flocks. I say may because we simply do not know. If there was a specific situation Paul was addressing in this letter then it has been lost to history.
Lastly, we must consider the content of The Letter to the Ephesians. For a more in-depth summary, I would encourage you to watch The Bible Project’s overview of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The following overview comes from An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris. I thought it was a good overview so I decided to reproduce here word for word.
“After the opening greeting (1:1-2) there come praise to God for his predestining and redeeming activity in Christ (1:3-4) and thanksgiving and prayer for the letter’s recipients (1:15-23). Chapter 2 reminds them of their sinfulness and of their salvation by grace (2:1-10), then addresses the peace and the unity Christ brings (2:11-22). Paul speaks of “the mystery of Christ” with the Gentiles being brought into membership of the one body with God’s ancient people Israel (3:1-6) and of the way God’s eternal purpose was worked out in Christ (3:7-13). This leads into prayer for the readers, ending in a doxology (3:14-21).
The importance of keeping “the unity of the Spirit” is stressed (4:1-6), as are the gifts of God to the church, enabling growth in love (4:7-16). The readers are exhorted to live as children of light (4:17-5:21). Directions for family life follow, with exhortations to wives and husbands (5:22-33), to children and parents (6:1-4), and to slaves and masters (6:5-9). Paul urges his readers to put on the armor God provides (6:10-18), concluding with a request that they use the weapon of prayer on his behalf (6:19-20). The letter closes with final greetings (6:21-24).” (Carson, Moo, and Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 305)
The whole letter is thus a magnificent combination of Christian doctrine and Christian duty, Christian faith and Christian life, what God has done through Christ and what we must be and do in consequence.
-John R. W. Stott
If you would like to study through The Letter to the Ephesians with me and my students this spring, click HERE for the reading schedule.
An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo
How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
Ephesians: Our Immeasurable Blessings in Christ (Bible Study Guide) by John MacArthur
Ephesians: God’s Big Plan for Christ’s New People (Good Book Guides) by Thabiti Anyabwile
The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and the Ephesians (NICNT) by F.F. Bruce
Ephesians (Tyndale New Testament Commentary) by Francis Foulkes
Ephesians: An Expositional Commentary by James Montgomery Boice
New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition (IVP)