Preaching the Letter to the Ephesians

 |  March 2, 2020

The letter that Paul wrote the church in Ephesus is a high-water mark of the New Testament. It’s been called both the “Grand Canyon” and “Crown Jewel” of the New Testament for its masterful presentation of “the mystery of the gospel.” In many ways, it rivals Romans for its thoughtful, doctrinal presentation and practical implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Preaching through this grand letter will teach your people to comprehend the essence of the gospel and how it impacts their lives, families, and communities.

Background

Acts chapter 19 tells us how Paul came to Ephesus.[1]Ephesus was built in the 10th century BC by Attic and Ionian colonists on the site of the former Arzawan capital. During the classical period, Ephesus was part of the 12 city Ionian League and flourished when it came under the control of Rome in 129 BC. It is a fantastic account of how the apostle came to minister in the large and influential Greek city on the Ionian coast (modern-day Turkey), which was the epicenter of worship for many of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. The nearby Temple of Artemis, one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,” the Library of Celsus and a theatre which could hold 25,000 spectators, all demonstrate the size, wealth, and influence of Ephesus. Since it sat at a vital trade port on the Mediterranean Sea, Ephesus was an important locale for Paul to conduct his mission work and see the gospel spread to the world. Paul spent two years ministering in Ephesus and saw many people come to faith in Jesus. He wrote the letter to the Ephesians years later as a prisoner in Rome between AD 60–61.

Overview

The letter divides naturally into two equal parts. In the first half of the letter, chapters 1–3, Paul lays forth the story of the gospel and explains how history reached its zenith in Jesus and His work to build His church with both Jewish and gentile followers for the glory of God. The second half of the letter, linked by the conjunction“therefore,” in verse 1 of chapter 4, begins Paul’s illustration of how the gospel affects every area of our lives, personally, relationally, and spiritually.

Ephesians begins with a beautiful Jewish-styled poem in which Paul praises the Father for all of the amazing things that He did through Christ from eternity past. Paul explains the purpose of the Father to choose and bless a chosen people[2]Remember God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12. and how now, through Jesus, anyone can be adopted in God’s family. The apostle tells how Jesus’ death cleanses our sins and covers our failures so that we can experience God’s grace. It is through His grace that God opens up a brand new way for us to comprehend every area and aspect of our lives. Paul tells us in chapter 1 that God’s purpose is to bring everything in heaven and on earth together, to have a vast family of restored human beings, united under the Messiah, Jesus.

As Paul shares the story of the gospel, he shows how all three persons of the Godhead are involved in this work of restoring and uniting because he talks about God the Father, Jesus, the Son, and then the Spirit. He ends this part of the letter with a prayer that these followers of Jesus would not just have an intellectual knowledge of the gospel, but would personally experience the power of the gospel. He prays that they would be energized with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and placed Him as the exalted head of all creation.

Chapter 2 returns to and builds upon some of the key ideas from Paul’s poem in chapter 1, particularly the grace of God and the new, vast, and multiethnic family of Christ. Here Paul shares how before coming to Christ, the gentile Christians were physically alive but spiritually dead. Their life was meaningless and consumed with sin and selfishness, deceived by the power of the enemy. It was into this great darkness that God, in His mercy and love, saved them by forgiving their sins, bringing them back to life as they were joined to Christ and His resurrection power. Now, as new creations in Jesus, Paul declares that they have the joy of discovering the new calling and purposes that God has for them.

Not only were these gentiles cut off from God, but they were also separated from His special, covenant people as the commands of Sinai formed an impenetrable boundary line around the family of Abraham. But, in Jesus, the dictates of the law have been fulfilled, and the barrier removed, allowing the two separate peoples to become one family united in the Messiah. Paul talks about how he loves to share this message, and even though he’s in prison, He praises God for the opportunity to watch this covenant family grow and multiply. The first main division closes with another prayer that Jesus’ followers would be empowered by God’s Spirit and come to understand the great love that Christ has for His people.

In the second main division, Paul shifts from explaining the story of the gospel to illustrating the effects of the gospel in the lives of Christ’s followers. Paul begins by challenging the reader to respond to the gospel story by how they live out the story of their life. Chapter 4 begins with Paul addressing the everyday life of the church. He shares how the church is one, big family with all sorts of different people. The emphasis here is on the oneness of the church. The church is united by one Spirit, under one Lord, with one faith, through one baptism, believing in one God.[3]Talk about a lot of unity! But, even though there is a lot of unity, that doesn’t demand uniformity. Paul goes on to explain how Jesus’ new family is comprised of many different kinds of people, but people who are all empowered by the same Holy Spirit to serve one another and build up the church. 

Here Paul employs two powerful metaphors to illustrate his point. The first is that of building up the church as a new temple; the second is that all of them are becoming a new body with Jesus as the head. This picture of the body of Christ is a metaphor that Paul will develop and return to over the next few chapters. As he does this, Paul encourages Christians to shed their old humanity like taking off old clothes and putting on their new humanity in which the image of God is restored. What follows is a long section in which Paul compares the new humanity with the old.[4]Thus, Christians should tell the truth, not lie. They should not feed their anger, but seek to resolve conflicts peacefully. Instead of stealing, Christians should live generous lives. Christians should try to encourage others with their words, not tear them down with gossip. Rather than attempting to get even, they forgive those who have hurt them. Those who are new in Christ live lives of spiritual, self-control, not giving in to their selfish, sinful, sexual desires. Instead of being drunk with wine, Christians should be under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This Spiritual influence is seen in the life of Christians through their songs – both individually and corporately. Also, the mark of thankfulness is evidence of the influence of the Spirit of God in a person’s life. Finally, a person under the Spirit’s influence will seek to humble themselves and elevate others. This influence is readily seen in the relationship between a husband and wife, parents and children, and slaves and masters. The emphasis here is that the Christian must look to the relationship between Christ and His church as the model for all human relationships.

The letter closes with a reminder that there is a real, spiritual war raging and that the forces of the enemy will do all that they can to destroy the unity of the church and the testimony of Jesus’ followers. Paul details the challenges that face Christians but also encourages them to stand firm as they put on the armor of God. His depiction of this spiritual armor is drawn from Isaiah and how the prophet depicted the messianic king. Now that we are followers of the Messiah, we must make sure to make His attributes our attributes and begin to form daily habits and practices whereby we use prayer and the Word as well as our relationships with one another to help us grown into fully mature disciples of Jesus.

Preaching Pointers

Emphasize the essence and power of the gospel.

Ephesians is saturated, from start to finish, with the gospel. In fact, per square inch, there is no other book that is more gospel-packed than this important little letter. It is wise then for the preacher to remember to emphasize the gospel in every sermon. As mentioned above, the first half of the book explains what the gospel is, while the second half shows what the gospel does as it encounters the various areas of our lives.

So, as you explain the essence of the gospel, make sure to keep it clear and concise. There is a tendency today to say that anything and everything is the gospel. That’s a fatal error, for if the gospel is everything, and everything is the gospel, then the gospel, in reality, becomes nothing. Paul tells us that the essence of the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and how it transforms our lives.

We see this powerfully illustrated at the beginning of Ephesians. It is the gospel that gives us new life and a different walk. While the gospel isn’t everything, and everything isn’t the gospel, the gospel does affect everything, every area of our lives. The impact of the gospel is clearly seen in the examples in the second half of the letter. Thus, when preaching through the letter, focus on clarity as you emphasize the essence of what the gospel is and what it does in the lives of those who have been transformed by Jesus.

Explain the source and importance of unity in the church.

The picture of a united church, or the fact that in Christ we are “one,” is an image that figures prominently throughout the book. This reality is presented in the two main images of the church as a “temple” and a “body.” The preacher needs to explain just how vital unity is for the church to accomplish its task of taking the gospel to our neighbors and the nations.

Explain that while there must be unity, that doesn’t mean there has to be uniformity. It is our differences that enable us to come together, in Christ and under the gospel, to be stronger than we can be by ourselves. This reality is something that is readily seen, but too often overlooked, in the examples of the different stones uses to construct the temple and the various parts that make up a body.

Unity also doesn’t just mean that we have union—stuck together but having little in common. No. In Christ, and by the power of the gospel, people from every background have been brought together, made “one,” for the glory of God.

This naturally affects how we relate to each other in the local church. Since we are “one,” that means that there must not be any gossiping, fighting, backbiting, unjust criticism, jockeying for power, or bitterness. These things not only hurt one another and the church, but they also hinder the gospel work that we have been brought together to do for our Lord.

Encourage them to operate in the resurrection power of Jesus and utilize the armor He’s provided for us.

Too often in the day-to-day lives that we live, it’s easy to forget that as Christians, we have been given some awesome gifts. Most of today’s messages seem to focus on what we can or should do in our intellectual or personal abilities. We’re often told to work more fervently, share more faithfully, and study more diligently. While we should be diligent and disciplined in our personal lives, as followers of Jesus and receivers of His resurrection reality, we have something more potent than just mere human effort or enterprise—we have the resurrection power of Jesus inside of us! Not only that, God has given us special, spiritual weapons by which to stand against the enemy every single day.

The preacher needs to take the time as he preaches through this book to show his congregation what it means and looks like to operate in the resurrection power of Jesus. He should use practical illustrations from the lives of the men and women of the Bible, as well as his personal experiences as a Christian. Remember, this letter wasn’t simply written for theological education, but practical, daily living as followers of Jesus.

Also, give specific and the necessary time to deal with the concluding section of spiritual weaponry and warfare. Many Christians and churches are uninformed of their realities and, as a result, suffer much heartache and destruction.  

Entreat them to respond to the gospel.

A letter about the essence, importance, and impact of the gospel calls for the preacher to entreat the audience to respond to the gospel. The preacher should draw his call for a response from the imagery of the text, apply it to the audience, and personally invite them to respond. Of course, this call for response will vary from text to text, pericope to pericope, but the root of the call is the finished work of Jesus on the cross and the power of His resurrection at work in the lives of people. The first section paints a vivid picture for the preacher to employ, while the second section presents very applicable, real-life situations that show the difference the gospel will make in the lives of the hearer as they respond to the gospel. It would be a great miss for the preacher to deal with such a powerful and persuasive presentation of the power of the gospel and not offer an equally passionate and persuasive appeal for the hearers to respond.

Conclusion

Pastor, let me encourage you to preach through Ephesians. You will find that your church will be blessed by being reminded of the beauty and glory of the gospel and what Jesus has done in their lives through salvation. You will also challenge them in the personal, practical areas of their lives and equip them to stand for Jesus in the dark, desperate, and dangerous days in which we live. You will be blessed, your church will be strengthened, lives will be transformed, and God will be glorified.


Brad Whitt is the Senior Pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, earned a D.Min. in Expository Preaching from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is a current Ph.D. student in the Southwestern Center for Text Driven Preaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

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