The Epistle to the Ephesians is one of the books of the New Testament in the Christian Bible. Elegantly written as a summary of many of the core teachings of the Apostle Paul, it has been described as the "Queen of the Epistles" (Barclay 1976, 61).
The primary theme of Ephesians is the church, its basic nature and character as the "body of Christ," predestined from the beginning of creation. Members of the church are adopted as God's sons, and are no longer considered to be Gentiles, but "citizens of Israel." As such, they must be holy, and the writer gives a number of instructions as to their spiritual attitude and moral behavior. Included among these are that they must refrain from sexual impurity and drunkenness, filling their lives instead with music and the Holy Spirit. A believer must "not let the sun go down" on his anger and should put on the "whole armor of God" in his spiritual fight.
The letter is controversial because of its attitude toward women, who it says must submit to their husbands and be "cleansed" by them. Ephesians was also used as a justification for slavery, as it instructs slaves to obey their masters "with respect and fear."
Paul is traditionally supposed to have written the letter while he was in prison in Rome around 63 C.E. This would be about the same time as the Epistle to Philemon and the Epistle to the Colossians, which in many points it resembles. More recently, however, biblical scholars have questioned the authorship of the letter and suggest a later date for its origin.
The church at Ephesus
According to the Book of Acts, Ephesus was a crucial city in Paul's missionary journeys. Paul's first and hurried visit in the space of three months to Ephesus is recorded in Acts 18:19–21. The powerful work he began on this occasion was carried forward by Apollos, Aquila, and Priscilla. On his second visit early in the following year, he remained at Ephesus "three years" because he considered the city to be the key to the western provinces of Asia Minor. Here "a great door" was opened to him (1 Cor 16:9), and the church was established and strengthened by his labors (Acts 20:20, 31). From Ephesus the Gospel spread abroad "almost throughout all Asia" (19:26). The word "mightily grew and prevailed" despite all the opposition and persecution he encountered.
On his last journey to Jerusalem, the apostle landed at Miletus. Summoning together the elders of the church from Ephesus, he delivered to them his remarkable farewell charge (Acts 20:18–35), expecting to see them no more.
The population of Ephesus has been estimated to be in the range of 400,000 to 500,000 in the year 100 C.E., making it the largest city in Roman Asia. It was at its peak during the first and second century C.E.. Whether or not Ephesians was actually written by Paul, Ephesus continued to be a major center of Christian life throughout the first and early second centuries C.E. and beyond.
Ephesians does not seem to have originated in any special circumstances related to a particular church, but to have sprung from the author's concern for the Christian church in general. It is an indication of his desire that Christians should be fully instructed in proper doctrine and practice. Unlike Romans, which is an exposition by Paul of the Gospel of salvation, or 1 and 2 Thessalonians, which deal with issues of eschatology (the Last Days) Ephesians is concerned mainly with matters of ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church itself.
A number of theories have been presented regarding its purpose. Some view it as a circular letter sent to a number of churches, of which Ephesus was one. Indeed, in the second century, at least one source (the heretic Marcion) referred to it as a letter to the Laodicians. Many modern scholars see it as addressing the needs of the post-Pauline Christian communities. Clearly, a main theme in Ephesians is to foster the unity of the church. A number of passages also demonstrate a concern for ethical issues such as immorality, excessive drinking, family problems, and the treatment of slaves.
Ephesians' form is unlike any other "letter" in the New Testament canon. Indeed, it may not have originally been a letter at all, but rather a treatise, to which a traditional epistolary greeting and ending were later added.
After a brief greeting, the author blesses the readers and presents a vision of the Christian church as part of God's eternal plan. A strong sense of predestination is expressed in such statements as: "He chose us in him (Christ) before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight." (1:4) The section from 1:3 to 1:14 is one continuous sentence in the original Greek emphasizing the theme of Christ's eternity and God's gracious plan from the beginning of time to adopt mankind as his sons by means of redemption through Christ's blood.
In the section from 2:11 to 3:21, the author emphasizes the change in the spiritual position of former "Gentiles" as a result of the work of Christ. Gentile believers were once involved in the "ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air," but by God's grace they have been saved—"not by works, so that no one can boast." Yet, Christians are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works." Although formerly excluded from citizenship in Israel, believers are "no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household." The section ends with an account of how Paul was selected and qualified to be an apostle to the Gentiles.
Chapter four begins with an appeal to unity in the midst of the diversity of gifts among believers: "There is one body and one Spirit... one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (4:4-6) Echoing First Corinthians, the writer refers to a diversity of offices inspired by Christ: "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers." However, true Christians must not live as the Gentiles do, corrupted by the deceitful desires of the "old self." Christians are "to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." Anger particularly leads to sin, thus: "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry," but manifest kindness and forgiveness to one's Christian brothers.
The author now turns to moral and practical matters. "There must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity." (5:3) Members of the church must not become drunk, for this leads to sexual sin. They should be filled instead with the Holy Spirit and with music: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Wives must submit to their husbands, because the "husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church." Husbands are to love their wives, making them pure just as Christ sanctified the church (5:25-27). Children must obey their parents, and slaves must obey their masters, but parents must treat their children kindly and masters should not abuse their slaves (6:1-9).
Finally, the author calls upon the imagery of spiritual warfare, including the metaphor of putting on the "whole armor of God." The letter closes with a reference to a certain Tychicus—mentioned in several other epistles as one of Paul's companions and messengers—who will "tell you everything," followed by a closing benediction.
Author and audience
The first verse in the letter, according to later manuscripts and most modern translations, is: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus." (Eph 1:1 NIV) Hence the letter would in this case explicitly designate the Ephesian church as its recipient and Paul as its writer.
However, there are a few problems with this:
- The earliest manuscripts omit the words "in Ephesus," rendering the phrase simply as "to the saints... the faithful in Christ Jesus" (NIV alternative translation).
- The letter lacks any other references to Ephesus, or to any people Paul met there or events he experienced there.
- The literary style and vocabulary are different from Paul's, and certain themes are developed in ways that do not conform with the accepted Pauline letters.
- The author grants the senior apostles an honor and authority which other Pauline letters do not.
- Phrases such as "ever since I heard about your faith" (1:15 NIV) seem to indicate that the writer has no firsthand knowledge of his audience. Yet, the Book of Acts records that Paul spent a significant amount of time with the church in Ephesus, and in fact was one of its founders.
There are four main theories in Biblical scholarship that address the problem of Pauline authorship (Barth, 1974, 38). The first agrees with the traditional view that the epistle is written by Paul to the Ephesians or that it was a treatise written by Paul and sent with slight variations to several churches. The second theory suggests that part or sections of Ephesians were dictated by Paul but that either his scribe or another author later edited the work into its present form. A third theory rejects Paul as the author altogether, holding that a later author—one who certainly admired Paul and was quite familiar with his writing—penned the letter instead. Finally, a number of analysts simply admit that there is a lack of conclusive evidence and that it is best simply to accept that we do not know who wrote the letter.
As for its audience, the letter does not seem to be intended for the Ephesians alone, but to express general reflections about churches in the Gentile world. This view holds regardless of whether one sees it as being authored early or relatively late.
Date and occasion
If Paul was the author, then Ephesians was probably written from Rome during Paul's imprisonment there (3:1; 4:1; 6:20), soon after his arrival in the year 62. However, scholars who dispute Paul's authorship, date the letter anywhere between 70-140 C.E. The fact that the document concerns itself with the issue of community with Israel indicates a point in time where the Christian audience had begun to lose its sense of connection to the Jewish tradition from which it had sprung.
There seems to have been no special occasion for the writing of this letter. No particular heresy is targeted. However, a number of practical and moral issues in the life of the church are treated. Some suggest that Ephesians could have been written to summarize Paul's teaching to the churches he had founded in Asia Minor.
Although the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ remain a theme in Ephesians, they receive less prominence than Christ's exaltation and enthronement. As in some of the recognized Pauline epistles, salvation is brought about through baptism into the church, which is Christ's body. However, the centrality of the church in God's providence is particularly emphasized. The church is the "fullness" of Christ and was God's purpose from the beginning of creation. It is in the church that Christ reigns and where the Spirit dwells, and it is there as well that the mystery of God's will is revealed to the prophets and apostles. Salvation appears to be an event accomplished in the past (2:5-10), rather than a work in progress. There is little if any awareness of the Second Coming.
The authenticity of Ephesians was not doubted in the early church. Because of its succinctness and its elegant summaries of some of the core Pauline doctrines, it has been influential, especially on ecclesiological matters. For the same reasons, it is particularly popular among lay people and churchmen alike. Its vision of the church as the eternal body of Christ, together with a number of other memorable passages, make it among the most quoted of the New Testament books.
However, Ephesians also preserved several unfortunate statements that have been used by proponents of slavery and the repression of women. In the context of its time, its intent was not to promote slavery, but to urge a loving concord between master and slave. However, its insistence that slaves obey their masters with "respect and fear" created an unfortunate legacy, giving the institution of slavery—as well as slave-owners themselves—a crucial proof-text. Ephesians' attitude toward women likewise was intended to produce harmony between a Christian wife and her husband, who was to love his spouse as Christ loved the church. Yet, it clearly teaches that wives are inferior—the husbands being the head—and it also implies that women are inherently less pure than men, since they are to be sanctified by their husbands.
These detriments notwithstanding, Ephesians remains a remarkable document. No other New Testament letter is nearly as well composed, and despite its seeming dependence on earlier authentically Pauline works, it also has provided several memorable and inspiring passages found nowhere else. It is not without reason that it has been called the Queen of the Epistles.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Abingdon Press. The New Interpreter's Bible. Abingdon Press, 1994. ISBN 9780687278145
- Barclay, William. Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians. The Daily study Bible series—Rev. ed. Westminster Press, 1976. ISBN 9780664241094
- Barth, Markus. Ephesians. Anchor Bible, 1974. ISBN 9780385080378
- Brown, Raymond Edward, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland Edmund Murphy. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Prentice Hall; 3 edition, 1999. ISBN 9780138598365
- Newsom, Carol A., and Sharon H. Ringe. The Women's Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 1992. ISBN 9780664219222
All links retrieved August 22, 2017. Online translations of the Epistle to the Ephesians:
- Ephesians at gospelhall.org – www.gospelhall.org.
- Ephesians at Christ Notes – (various versions). www.christnotes.org.
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