Addressing the topic of important words in Ephesians begs the prior question of what constitutes an important word. By what measure or standard does one decide that a word or phrase is significant and deserves further study? Theologically loaded words such as faith, grace, hope, and love certainly merit attention, as well as words or concepts that appear frequently, suggesting an important theme or emphasis of the author. Words that clearly make a difference in the meaning of a passage should be investigated. Once the expositor identifies important words and concepts, linguistically focused commentaries and standard lexicons provide valuable information to help narrow the possible meanings and the significance of the word in its context.
In the case of Ephesians, as with Paul’s other letters, the interpreter encounters a number of theologically loaded terms from the beginning. What does it mean that Paul is an “apostle?” What is the significance of Paul’s typical identification of believers as “saints” and the usual greeting of “grace” and “peace?” Additionally, one shouldn’t overlook the familiar yet important designation of God as “Father” and Jesus as “Lord.”
The first major section of Ephesians, 1:3–14, further amplifies the rich theological nature of this letter. A quick search on the very first word in 1:3, “blessed,” reveals that this adjective is used only of God in the New Testament (Mark 14:61; Luke 1:68; Rom 1:25; 9:5; 2 Cor 1:3; 11:31; 1 Pet 1:3). The use of the verb and noun forms in the very same verse suggests by repetition that this is a concept worthy of further study; God, who is “blessed,” has “blessed” us with every spiritual “blessing.”
Also, in 1:3, the interpreter encounters the adjective “every,” sometimes translated “all” or “whole,” which occurs more than fifty times in Ephesians and sets the tone for Paul’s comprehensive outlook in the letter. God has lavished his grace upon believers in “all” wisdom and insight (1:8). God’s purpose in Christ is to unite “all things” in him, both in heaven and earth (1:10), and he works “all things” according to the counsel of his will (1:11). Paul has heard of his reader’s faith and love for “all” the saints (1:15). Christ has been seated in the heavenly places far above “all” rule and authority, and above “every” name (1:21). God put “all things” under his (Christ’s) feet, and gave him as head over “all things” to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills “all in all” (1:22-23). God is able to do far more abundantly than “all” we ask or think (3:20), and he is the one God and Father of “all,” who is over “all” and through “all” and in “all” (4:6). Believers should give thanks “always” and for “everything” to God the Father (5:20) and in “all” circumstances take up the shield of faith (6:16). Finally, Paul exhorts his audience to pray at “all” times in the Spirit with “all” prayer and supplication, staying alert with “all” perseverance and making supplication for “all” the saints (6:18).
The opening doxology of praise in 1:3–14 employs important theological words that deserve careful explanation by the expositor. God “chose” us in Christ before the foundation of the world and “predestined” us for “adoption” to himself through Christ (1:4-5). In Christ, we have “redemption” through his blood, the “forgiveness” of trespasses (1:6). God has made known to us the “mystery” of his will, which he set forth in Christ (1:9), in whom we have obtained an “inheritance” (1:11). Further, believers have been “sealed” by the Holy Spirit, who is the “guarantee” of this inheritance (1:14).
The rest of the letter is equally marked by a rich storehouse of important terms for the expositor to explore and proclaim. Paul’s prayer for the saints in 1:15–23 refers to God as the “Father of glory,” to the “hope” of his calling, and to his exceedingly great “power” toward believers. This great power is the experience of believers who have been “made alive together” with Christ and seated with him “in the heavenly places” (2:6), another phrase/concept repeated throughout the letter (see also 1:3, 20; 3:10; 6:12). Gentiles have been brought near by the blood of Christ (2:13) breaking down the “dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile so that God might create “one new man/humanity” (2:15).
Paul begins a second prayer in 3:1 but digresses with a reflection upon his “stewardship” of the “mystery” of God (3:2-3), which has granted Gentiles to be “fellow-heirs” and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. This reality prompts Paul to pray that believers might know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and for a filling of the “fullness” of God (3:19).
Commentators generally recognize that Paul’s attention turns more to the practical aspects of the Christian life in chapter four. The key term here is “walk,” which refers to one’s manner of life. Believers are to “walk” worthy of their calling (4:1) and to no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles in the futility of their minds (4:17). Believers are to walk in love (5:2), as children of light (5:8), and carefully rather than foolishly (5:15). Paul then demonstrates how this worthy way of life manifests itself in key relationships such as wives and husbands, children and parents, servants and masters (5:22-6:9). The letter then concludes with the exhortation to take up the whole armor of God, again a rich storehouse of important theological terms that deserve attention; the belt of “truth,” the breastplate of “righteousness,” the shoes of the gospel of “peace,” the shield of “faith,” the helmet of “salvation,” and the sword of the “Spirit” (6:14-17).
This brief survey only touches upon the notion of important words and concepts in Ephesians, hopefully providing food for thought as one takes up the task of preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ (3:8).
Mark Taylor is the Associate Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.