Proclaiming Ephesians: God’s Order in a Needy World

Allison A. Trites  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 39 - Fall 1996


The Book of Ephesians is one of the most powerful writings to come from the early church. The book’s lyrical cadences have captivated readers with the wonder and glory of the cosmic Christ, and the grandeur and majesty of the church in the plan of God. In this book, we have what has been described as “the quintessence of Paulinism,”[1]C. L. Mitton, The Epistle to the Ephesians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 268-69; F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 424. Edwin D. Freed, The New Testament: A Critical Introduction (2d ed.; Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1991), 313-14, highlights the unique literary style of Ephesians. Cf. James L. Price, The New Testament: Its History and Theology (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), 382. one of the most mature and elo­quent statements on the purpose of God, and the place of the church in the accomplishment of that divine purpose in history. William Owen Carver, the remarkable Professor of Missions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called it “the supreme monograph of all time.”[2]W. O. Carver, Ephesians: The Glory of God in the Christian Calling (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1949), 9. He also described Ephesians as the “greatest piece of writing in all history” (7). He added:

In it we are awed with “the glory of God in the Church, and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations of the ages.” Its theme throughout is the glory of the Christian movement in the Christian Church viewed as the progressive life of God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.[3]Ibid., 9. Note the incisive comment of Dennis C. Duling and Nor­man Perrin, The New Testament (3d ed.; New York: Harcourt Brace Col­lege Publishers, 1994), 281; “Paul normally uses the .word ‘church’ to refer to a house-church at a particular place; only secondarily is it linked to churches at other locations …For the author of Ephesians, ‘church’ refers primarily to the one universal church. This is an important develop­ment of New Testament Christianity.” Cf. Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub­lishing Company, 1988), 251, who makes a similar point.

John A. Mackay, the great Scottish-American theologian and former President of Princeton Theological Seminary, described this as “the most modern of the New Testament writings.”[4]John A Mackay, A Preface to Christian Theology (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941), 97. For similar sentiments see Dale Moody, Christ and the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), 12. He then makes his own personal statement about the life changing nature of his encounter with Ephesians:

I can never forget that the reading of this Pauline letter, when I was a boy in my teens, exercised a more decisive influence upon my thought and imagination than was ever wrought upon me before or since by the perusal of any piece of literature. The romance of the part played by Jesus Christ in making my personal salvation possible and in mediating God’s cosmic plan…set my spirit aflame….That was my encounter with the Cosmic Christ. The Christ who was and is became the passion of my life. I have to admit, without shame or reserve, that, as a result of that encounter, I have been unable to think of my own life or the life of mankind or the life of the cosmos apart from Jesus Christ. He came to me and challenged me in the writings of St. Paul. I responded. The years that have followed have been but a footnote to that encounter.[5]Ibid. See also Mackay’s book, God’s Order: The Ephesian Letter and the Present Time (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953), 6-7, 9-10.

And many others have shared Dr. Mackay’s marvelous enthusiasm for Ephesians, including F. A. Hort, A. S. Peake, and F. F. Bruce. Even C. Leslie Mitton, who rejects Pauline authorship, is high in his praises of this striking epistle, describing it as “‘the crown of Pauline writings’ because here Paul’s theological thought, especially about the Church, reaches a stage of development which exceeds all that preceded it.”[6]C. Leslie Mitton, “Ephesians,” in New Century Bible (Greenwood, SC: The Attica Press, 1976), 2. Mitton’s attack on Pauline authorship is a development of the theory of E. J. Goodspeed, The Meaning of Eph­esians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1933). Goodspeed’s theory was that Onesimus collected the letters of Paul around A.O. 90-100, using Colossians and Philemon as the core. He arranged the letters in order of length, and presented a digest of Paul’s ideas to serve as an intro­duction to the collection. This is the Ephesian letter, according to Goodspeed. This theory has not gained general acceptance, and Henry Chadwick rejects it categorically in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, edited by Matthew Black and H. H. Rowley (London and New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1962), 980-81. Markus Barth vigorously defends Pauline authorship in his massive commentary on Ephesians (Anchor Bible, 34; 2 Vols. [New York: Doubleday, 1974]).

Leaving aside the detailed questions of intro­duction which have been handled by Clinton Arnold[7]C. E. Arnold, “Letter to the Ephesians,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 238-49 and his article “Introducing Ephesians,” Southwestern Journal of Theology, 39 (1996). Cf. Carl H. Morgan, The Layman’s Introduction to the New Testament (Valley Forge, PA: The Judson Press, 1968), 49-50, who offers a helpful summary of five principal questions raised about the Pauline authorship of Eph­esians. For more detailed studies see Fred D. Howard, “An Introduction to Ephesians,” Southwestern Journal of Theology, 22 (Fall, 1979), 7-20, and John B. Polhill, “An Introduction to Ephesians,” Review and Expositor, 76 (Fall, 1979), 465- 77. Howard and Polhill both argue strongly for Pauline authorship. However, see the stimulating essay by Douglas J. Rowston, “Changes in Biblical Interpretation Today: The Example of Ephesians,”   Biblical   Theology Bulletin, 9/3 (July, 1979), 121-25,who examines the hypothesis that bike or Tychicus wrote Ephesians. Cf. Ralph P. Martin, “An Epistle in Search of a Life Setting,” Expository Times, 79 (July 1968), 296-302. On the Colossian connection see John B. Polhill,  “The Relationship between Ephesians and Colossians,”Review and Expositor, 70/1 (Fall, 1973), 439-50. and the principal commentaries on Ephesians, one may be permitted to make a few observations on the question of authorship, which has been assigned in the twentieth century not only to Paul, but also to Onesimus, Tychicus, Luke, or a pseudonymous writer.

Professor A. M. Hunter properly called atten­tion to several points: (1) Eph. 6:21 is meaningless unless we assume Pauline authorship (cf. Col. 4:7 and Acts 20:4, where Tychicus is also mentioned); (2) Most of Ephesians has parallels with the other acknowledged epistles of Paul (“out of 618 short phrases in Ephesians, no less than 550 have paral­lels in the other Pauline epistles”); (3) While Paul does not stress the controversy between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians, this can be explained because he is addressing mainly Gentile readers; (4) Also noteworthy is that none of the epistles traditionally ascribed to Paul has a stronger chain of early and continued use than Ephesians. With the sole exception of Marcion, the early church was unanimous in acknowledging Paul as the author of Ephesians; (5) If this letter was not written by Paul, it must have been written by someone else who was his spiritual equal or superior. However, no such person is known from early church history.[8]A. M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament, 3d rev. ed. (Philadel­phia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 125. The lack of any adequate alternative explanation is quite properly stressed by F. F. Bruce, Epistle to the Ephesians , A Verse-by-Verse Exposition (London: Pickering & Inglis 1961), 11-12: “The man who could write Ephesians must have been the apostle’s equal if not his superior, in mental stature and spiritual insight …Of such a second Paul early Christian history has no knowledge.” For a useful summary of the arguments for and against Pauline authorship see D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, Introduc­tion to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House 1992), 305-9.

This literary situation means that the burden of proof rests with those who would attack Pauline authorship. This point has been put very succinctly by Professor H. J. Cadbury:

Which is more likely-that an imitator of Paul in the first century composed a writing ninety or ninety-five per cent in accordance with Paul’s style, or that Paul himself wrote a letter diverging five or ten per cent from his usual style?[9]H. J. Cadbury, “The Dilemma of Ephesians,” New Testament Studies, 5 (1959), 91ff.

There is another matter which must be addressed. Was this letter specifically sent to the Christians at Ephesus? The question is often asked because strangely enough there is an absence of personal greetings and references in this letter. Juxtaposed to this theme is that Paul, according to the account in Acts, spent a great deal of time in that city, having worked there for several years on what is usually described as his third missionary journey (Acts 19:1-20:1; 20:20). Also, one must take careful note of the fact that the phrase “in Ephesus” is missing from our oldest and most reliable manuscripts, and the writer apparently does not know all his readers personally (note Eph. 1:15 and 3:2). Probably, the best way to explain these features is to view Ephesians as a circular letter, a pastoral encyclical sent by Paul to the Gentile churches in the Roman province of Asia.

This would explain the lack of the words “in Ephesus” in the oldest MSS, and the absence of personal greetings to individuals at the end. In the original letter Paul would leave a blank space in the salutation, and it would be the duty of Tychicus, who carried the letter, to fill in the appropriate placenames, as he took it round the various churches.[10]Hunter, Introducing the New Testament, 126. For a dissenting view see David A. Black, “The Peculiarities of Ephesians and the Ephesian Address,” Grace Theological Journal, 2/1 (Spring, 1981), 59-73. For a helpful survey of the history and archaeology of Ephesus see C. E. Arnold, “Ephesus,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 249-53.

Now that we have looked at these issues, we can explore the theological significance of this valuable book, praised for “its stress on the uniqueness of the reconciliation achieved by Christ, its perspec­tive on the particular history of Christianity as a new and independent movement, and its elements of a theology of universal salvation …”[11]Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Church and Israel in Ephesians 2,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 49/4 (October, 1987), 624. Cf. Bruce Corley, “The Theology of Ephesians,” Southwestern Journal of Theology, 22/1 (Fall, 1979), 24-38; F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, New International Commentary on the New Testa­ment (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1984), 229-46. In view of limited space, only its teaching on God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the church , the Christian life, and spiritual warfare will be surveyed. The message which this letter conveys speaks in a striking way to the challenges the Christian Church faces in our own time.

Proclaiming the Character of God

A strong theocentric theme runs throughout this epistle. God is clearly at the fore in Ephesians. At the outset, Paul’s apostleship is presented as having its origin in “the will of God” (Eph.1:1).[12]All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise stated. In his salutation, Paul employs the common terms used in secular greetings, but transposes them into a theological key. Thus he mentions “grace and peace,” but sees these blessings as coming from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2).

The deity extolled in this letter is identified as the creator of all things (3:9); he is also described as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the ultimate source of “every spiritual blessing” (1:3; cf.1:17). This God is proclaimed as active in planning the whole process of redemption. Thus Paul can remind his readers of God’s choosing his people “before the creation of the world” (1:4).

Moreover, God’s purpose included adoption – the introduction of sinners into the divine family: “he predestined us to be adopted as his sons (and daughters) through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (1:5). The declared goal was that “the saints” (hoi hagioi, the term frequently used in Ephesians to describe God’s people: 1:1, 15, 18; 2:19; 3:8, 18; 4:12; 5:3; 6:18) should live “to the praise of his glorious grace” (1:5). Thus the epistle’s opening tribute of praise sounds the note of doxology “because it recites what God has done and is an expression of worship to honor him.”[13]The NIV Study Bible, ed. Kenneth Barker (Grand Rapids: Zonder van Bible Publishers, 1985), 1791.

God is the proper one to whom all prayer is to be directed (note 3:14-21). He is to be approached reverently, for he is “the glorious Father” (1:17). In prayer, believers are encouraged to seek divine wisdom and revelation that they “may know him better” (1:17). They look for illumination into “the hope to which he has called” them and “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints”;[14]Cf. D. R. Denton, “Inheritance in Paul and Ephesians,” Evangelical Quarterly, 54/3 (July-September, 1982), 157-62, where the kleronomia word group is studied carefully. they also seek to lay hold of “his incomparably great power for us who believe” (1:19). This power is demon­strated supremely in the resurrection and exalta­tion of Christ (1:20).

God is the source of salvation, and takes the initiative to restore sinful, fallen people to divine favor.[15]15 On the lost condition of humankind see Ernest Best, “Dead in Trespasses and Sins (Eph. 2:1),” Journal for the Study of the New Testa­ment, 13 (October 1981), 9-25 and Peter T. O’Brien, “Divine Analysis and Comprehensive Solution: Some Priorities from Ephesians 2, Reformed Theological Review, 53/3 (September – December, 1994), 130-42. He is “rich in mercy” and acts redemptively “because of his great love for us” (2:4). God’s plan includes regeneration, for he has “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (2:4). This new life is nothing for which sinners can take any credit, for this life is prompted solely by divine grace (2:4,8). This divine inter­vention is a clear demonstration of “the incompa­rable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (2:7). The proper response to this gracious intervention is a life of service expressed in “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:10).[16]Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, “Ephesians 2:8-10: A Summary of Paul’s Gospel?,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 45/4 (October, 1983), 617-30. He argues that here a “Pauline disciple provides a brilliant combination of some of his master’s key soteriological concepts while creatively reshap­ ing them for his own purposes and thereby giving them some significant shifts of emphasis,” (625). Christians can, in fact, be described as God’s “workmanship” (2:10; note the use of poiema, used in the New Testament only here and in Rom. 1:20), and by doing good works they participate in the purpose for which God created them.

Ephesians sees the plan of God as not only for individuals, but for all people. Indeed, God’s great cosmic scheme includes a vast program which he purposed in Christ, to bring eventually “all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:10; note the use of anakephalaiosasthai, an aorist infinitive of purpose). The divine plan includes the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles.[17]Cf. Nils A Dahl, “Gentiles, Christian, and Israelites in the Epistle to the Ephesians,” Harvard Theological Review, 79/1-3 (January-July, 1986), 31-39; Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Church and Israel,” 605-24; Derwood Smith, “The Two Made One: Some Observations on Eph. 2:14-18,” Ohio Journal of Religious Studies, 1/1 (1973), 34-54. This plan entails the destruction of the dividing wall of hostility between these two anti­thetical groups, for they have been brought together through the cross of Christ and reconciled both to God and to one another (2:14-16). God provides peace through Christ (2:14).[18]On the importance of the peace theme in Ephesians see Cullen I. K. Story, “Peace: A Bible Study on Ephesians 2:11-3:21,” Evangelical Review of Theology, 9/1 (January, 1985), 8-17. Thus Paul can remind his Gentile readers they are “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (2:19). They are “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:22).

Through God’s grace, Paul became “a servant of this gospel,” and was acutely aware that he was able to carry out his God-given task only by the working of divine power (3:7-9). He had a special role in holy history, “to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God” (3:9; note the use of the important term mysterion here and frequently in Ephesians: 1:9; 3:3,4; 5:32; 6:19). Paul knew God’s purpose was that now “through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (3:10)-a staggering task which led Paul to fervent prayer (3:14-21).

Paul urged Christians to be “imitators of God” (mimetai is used here; cf. 1Cor. 1:16; 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14), living a life of purity and holiness appro­priate for “God’s holy people,” “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1-20). To suc­ceed in this spiritual battle, they would need to “put on the full armor of God” (6:10-18).

Proclaiming the Work of Christ

Ephesians also is rich in its teaching about Jesus Christ. Indeed, the apostle addresses the letter to “the faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:2). Paul is conscious that God provides “every spiritual blessing” in Christ ( 1:3). Adoption as God’s sons and daughters takes place “through Jesus Christ” (1:6). In Christ, fallen human beings are offered “redemption” through his blood (1:7):

The Ephesians were familiar with the Greco­ Roman practice of redemption: Slaves were freed by the payment of a ransom. Similarly, the ransom necessary to free sinners from the bondage of sin and the resulting curse imposed by the law ( see Gal. 3:13) was the death of Christ…[19]The NIV Study Bible, 1791.

God’s blessings in Christ include “the forgive­ness of sins” (1:7). They also embrace spiritual wisdom and understanding into the “mystery” of God’s will, and that mystery is spelled out in wonderful detail in Ephesians. God’s elect, who are “chosen” in Christ, are not only to trust in Christ but are called to live for “the praise of his glory” (1:12, a beautiful doxological phrase used also in 1:6 and 1:14).

God placed Christ in complete charge of the universe, and “appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (1:21-22).[20]Cf. George Howard, “The Head/Body Metaphors of Ephesians,” New Testament Studies, 20 (April 1974), 350-56. The Lordship of Christ is clearly emphasized. Not only has God “made us alive with Christ,” he also “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (2:6) to demon­strate his incomparable “kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (2:7). Thus God’s mercy is presented to us in a distinctly christocentric way.

The new community which God is creating is one in Christ. This includes Gentiles, who had hitherto been “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of promise” (2:12). These alienated people have now been “brought near through the blood of Christ” (2:13), that is, through the violent death of Christ upon the cross provision has been made for forgiveness and reconciliation (cf. 1:7). By his sacrificial death Christ has abolished the barrier which separated the Gentiles from the Jews (2:14). “His purpose was to create in himself one new man (humanity, NRSV) out of the two, thus making peace” (2:15).

At Calvary, Christ reconciled “both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility” (2:16, NRSV) . In this new position, the Gentiles are no longer rejected as outsiders and foreigners, but rather are accepted as family members of “God’s household,” a vital part of the “holy temple” which is being created in the Lord (2:19, 21). The foundation of this whole divine edifice is the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself having the place of preeminence.[21]On the cornerstone imagery see F. F. Bruce, “New Wine in Old Wine Skins: Ill. The Comer Stone,” Expository Times, 84 (May, 1973), 231-35. Note the helpful comment here of Ray Summers, Ephesians: Pat­tern for Christian Living (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1960), 50-51: “The use of the cornerstone is a matter of much difference of opinion… Whichever view is right, the pre-eminent place in the foundation of which this new house is built belongs to Christ.”

Proclaiming the Ministry of the Holy Spirit

the Holy Spirit is also given a prominent place in Ephesians. In the opening chapter Paul breaks out in trinitarian rhapsodies, praising the Father who has chosen the elect, the Son who has redeemed them, and the Spirit who has sealed them (1:3-14).[22]On the structure of this long sentence see Charles J. Robbins, “The Composition of Eph. 1:3-14,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 105/4 (1986), 677-87; Peter T. O’Brien, “Ephesians I: An Unusual Introduc­tion to a New Testament Letter,” New Testament Studies, 25 (July 1979), 504-16 and V. A. Bartline, “The Church in God’s Eternal Plan: A Study of Ephesians 1:1-14,” Concordia Theological Monthly, 36/4 (April, 1965), 198-204. He notes that believ­ers have been “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward (final and complete) redemp­tion as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (1:13-14, NRSV; cf.4:30, where the seal is also mentioned).

In expounding the mystery of the unification of Jews and Gentiles as one body in Christ, Paul describes the church as a marvelous structure growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom Christians “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:21, 22). In this way the apostle makes clear that the Spirit of God is active in the development of the Christian church into a holy temple fit for divine habitation. The “mystery” described in Ephesians is explained as “the mystery of Christ” revealed by God to “his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (3:5, NRSV).

The Holy Spirit also has a definite role in empowering Christians for life and service, so Paul prays that his readers may be “strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit” (3:16, NRSV). This is connected closely with his petition that they may know the indwelling of Christ in their hearts through faith (3:17). Since the Spirit of God is involved in the sanctification and empowerment of believers, Paul can pray that they “may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:19, NRSV). Ephesians insists that there is “one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling” (4:4, NRSV), and there is a plea for Christians to make “every effort to main­tain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3). Thus the Holy Spirit’s role in maintaining the cohesiveness of the body of Christ is stressed.

The Spirit is also the source of the only offen­sive weapon which Christians are instructed to use in advancing the battle against the spiritual forces which oppose the kingdom of God: “Take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). In addition, the spiritual battle requires the exercise of vigilance in prayer directed and inspired by the Holy Spirit: “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (6:18). Thus the Holy Spirit is seen as vital to the advance of the gospel and the development of the Christian mission. The Spirit is the one who makes “the communion of the saints” a living bright reality and the church a powerful influence in the hands of God for the evangelization and blessing of the world.

Proclaiming the Nature of the Church

Ephesians places a great deal of emphasis on the church as the indispensable agent for the fulfillment of the divine purpose. Indeed, one outline of this epistle has seen the book’s theme centering entirely on the role of the church:

I. Salutation, 1:1, 2
II. The Church in the Purpose of God, 1:13-14
III. The Church and the Power of God, 1:15-2:10
IV. The Church as the Household of God, 2:11-2:22
V. The Church as the Revelation of God, 3:1-13
VI. The Church and the Fullness of God, 3:14-21
VII. The Church and the Standards of God, 4:1-6:9
VIII. The Church and the Armor of God, 6:10-20
IX. Conclusion, 6:21-24[23]Walter M. Dunnett, New Testament Survey (Wheaton: Evangelical Teacher Training Association, 1963), 59-60. Cf. Hans Conzelman and Andreas Lindemann, “Ecclesiology is its main theme,” in Interpreting the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), 208.

Looking at the epistle in this light, one can easily see how prominent the church is throughout the book. For Protestants who have often tended to highlight the personal call to repentance and faith so much that they have underestimated God’s call to life in the community of God’s people, this is a salutary and timely reminder.[24]Cf. H. Edward Everding, Clarence H. Snelling, Jr., and Mary M. Wilcox, “A Shaping Vision of Community for Teaching in an Individu­alistic World: Ephesians 4:1-16 and Developmental Interpretation,” Reli­gious Education, 83/3 (Summer, 1988), 423-37 and Stephen Fowl, “Mak­ing Stealing Possible: Criminal Thoughts on Building on Ecclesial Com­mon Life,” Perspectives 8/7 (September, 1993), 14-16.

This is not to imply that there are no differences in function in the church, but rather to insist on   the unity of the church. The epistle itself stresses the great elements which bind the church together: “There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to one hope when you were called-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).[25]On the controversial meaning of “one baptism” see E. R. Rogers, “Yet Once More– ‘One Baptism?”‘ Reformed Theological Review, 50/2 (May-August, 1991), 41-49.

On the basis of this trinitarian unity (note the references to the one God, one Lord, and one Spirit) and the common Christian life and hope which this unity engenders, Christians are urged to cultivate this oneness and to live together harmoniously and peacefully (4 3).[26]On the importance of this precept see Richard R. Caemmerer, Sr., “Preserve the Unity of the Spirit,” Concordia Theological Monthly, 41/7 (July-August, 1970), 387-409.

After all, they are “fellow heirs” ( sygkleronoma ), “fellow members” ( syssoma ), and “fellow partakers” ( symmetocha ) as the apostle has pointed out in the previous chapter (3:6). They are plainly sharing in a common life in Christ together and are members one of another.

Consequently, communal solidarity is a matter of great importance.

In this one body of Christ there is room for “all saints and all sorts.” All gifts to God’s people have come from the risen, ascended, glorified Christ (4:8; note the use of Psalm 68:18 to underscore this point).[27]21 See W. Hall Harris, Ill, “The Ascent and Descent of Christ in Ephesians 4:9-10,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 151 (April-June 1994), 198-214; Richard A. Taylor, “The Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 in the Light of the Ancient Versions,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 148 (July-September, 1991), 319-36; and Gary V. Smith, “Paul’s Use of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 18 (Summer, 1975), 181-89. These gifts include gifts of leaders to guide the church in its work in the world: “It was he (the exalted Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:12).[28]Cf. T. David Gordon, “‘Equipping’ Ministry in Ephesians 4,” Jour­nal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 37/1 (March, 1994), 69-78 and Wendell W. Frerichs, “Reconciled in Christ: Ministry in Light of Eph­esians,” Word and World, 8/3 (Summer, 1988), 293-300.

The ultimate goal is that all of God’s people should “reach unity in the faith and in the knowl­edge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Thus the church’s goal includes not only numerical growth, but spiritual develop­ment and maturation. The edification and sanctification of the church are matters of primary concern in order that the church may fulfill its God-given place in holy history.

As Christ’s “ambassador” (6:20), Paul has a unique role in preaching to the Gentiles “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8; cf. 1 Cor. 3:10). While he acknowledges his unworthiness, he speaks with a strong sense of obligation to his Lord and Savior, for whom he is willing to give his all. So Paul sees himself as “the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” (3:1; cf. 6:20). He has been charged with communicating this divine “mystery” which is here unfolded primarily in terms of the coming together of Jews and Gentiles into the church, the body of Christ: “This mystery is that through the gospel 1:he Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (3:6).[29]Note the perceptive comment of David L Barr, New Testament Story: An Introduction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing House, 1987), 114: “While the divine mystery in Colossians is Christ (1:27), in Ephesians the reconciliation itself is the mystery … (3:3-6).”

Clearly, Paul prays that the living Christ will work in the lives of those who have been called to Christ. He intercedes for them that “being rooted and established in love,” they may “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (3:19). On the basis of his sacrificial concern for them as “a prisoner for the Lord” (4:1), he urges them to lead a life worthy of the calling which they have received (4:1-3). They are challenged in all things to “grow up into him who is the Head, that of those who are “in the Lord” (4:17ff.), for they are called to “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us” (5:2).

The domestic life of Christians is to be modeled on their relationship to Christ (5:21-6:4);[30]For two useful studies on the Haustafel see William R. Herzog, II, “The ‘Household Duties’ Passages: Apostolic Traditions and Contempo­rary Concerns,” Foundations, 24 (July-September, 1981), 204-15, and Robert W. Wall, “Wifely Submission in the Context of Ephesians,” Christian Scholars Review, 17/3 (1988), 272-85. Cf. also David M. Park, “The Structure of Authority in Marriage: An Explanation of Huptasso and Kephale in Ephesians 5:21-33,” Evangelical Quarterly, 59/2 (1987), 117-24.

the same is true of their societal commitments, where they are reminded to “serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men,” knowing that they are ultimately answerable for their personal conduct to Christ himself, their divine master (6:5-9). Believers are certainly able to encourage one another (6:21-22), and this is one of the ways in which they can “make the most of the time, because the days are evil” (5:16, NRSV). Paul closes by praying that the divine peace may be theirs, and asks for “grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (6:23-24).

Proclaiming the Standards of the Christian Life

Many things have already been said about the Christian life in dealing with the previous topics, for these subjects are closely interconnected in the thought of Paul. Plainly, the last half of the letter is devoted to the application of the doctrine stated in the first half and the synthetic method of Bible study exploits this insight. In view of the calling of the church which is unfolded in the opening chapters (1-3), certain consequences of an ethical nature are seen by the apostle (that is the point of the ethical ουν in 4:1: “therefore”). He then proceeds to spell out in detail the implications of his exalted view of the church in practical terms of a “worthy walk” (chapters 4-6).

First Paul highlights the unity of the church, paying special attention to the gifts which are designed to preserve and enhance that unity (4:1-16). Then he moves on to explore the ethical demand for true holiness, and this theme is devel­oped both negatively (“put off your old self ,” 4:17-22) and positively (“put on the new self,” 4:23-5: 2). Christian people are called to live as “children of light” (5:8-20), and their manner of life is sharply contrasted with that of the “children of darkness” (5:3-7). Believers are to reject the lustful, impure ways of pagan society, no longer living in the ignorance and futility of unregenerate people (4:17-19). Instead, they are to strive for mental renewal, to speak truthfully to their neigh­bors, to deal responsibly with anger, to give up stealing, and to work constructively in order to be able to share with those in need (4:23-28). In all of these ways they avoid giving the devil a foothold (4:27).

The Christian lifestyle accordingly is presented as a rigorous, demanding one: “Get rid of all bitter­ness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (4:31). The constructive side of the ethical coin is set out in equally challenging terms: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (4:32). A community which both experiences and practices forgiveness obviously cannot be developed without careful cultivation and earnest moral effort. Genuine Christian living is clearly intended, however, to be positive and constructive: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up …that it may benefit those who listen” (4:29).

A high standard was set for Christian conduct.[31]Cf. J. I. Packer, “Godliness in Ephesians,” Crux, 25/1 (March, 1989), 8-16, and Ernest Best, “Ephesians: Two Types of Existence,” Inter­pretation, 47/1 (January, 1993), 39-51. It was nothing less than the imitation of Christ: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us …” (5:1-2). There was a real need for sensitivity to God’s presence and leading if moral failure was to be avoided: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30).

In accordance with his usual pattern of writing, Paul in Ephesians first presents the theological teaching, and then suggests the practical outworking of it in daily life.[32]Cf. John Polhill, “A Study Outline of Ephesians,” Review and Expositor 64 (Fall 1979), 481-83, who has made some perceptive remarks on this point. He notes that the division into doctrinal and practical sec­tions is “particularly discernible in Romans, Galatians, and Colossians. Ephesians follows this pattern but with the difference that the doctrinal and practical sections each comprise half of the epistle, while in the other letters the ratio is more like twice as much space devoted to the doctrinal as the practical,” (481). He rightly adds that “the themes of the first three chapters are constantly slipping over into the practical treat­ments of the concluding three chapters” and vice versa. “The contents of the epistle can be summarized by the three words ‘sitting,’ ‘walking,’ and ‘standing.'”[33]Allison A. Trites, “Of Gifts and Heavenlies,” The Canadian Baptist, January 1980, 8-11, 13.

Proclaiming the Elements of Spiritual Warfare

There is no doubt in Paul’s thinking that believers are called to engage in a spiritual conflict. In this epistle a great deal is said about “the heavenlies,”[34]Cf. A. T. Lincoln, “A Re-examiniation of ‘The Heavenlies’ in Ephesians,” New Testament Studies, 19 (July 1973), 468-83; and W. Hall Harris, III, “‘The Heavenlies’ Reconsidered: Ouranos and Epouranos in Ephesians,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 148 (January-March, 1991), 72-89. Epouranioi is used five times in Ephesians: 1:3, 20; 2:6, 3:10; 6:12. and the context makes it clear that the apostle is thinking not primarily of human opponents, but rather about the place where spiritual forces are at work in a deadly struggle (6:12):

The use of the terms “principalities” and “powers” suggests that the attack against Christ’s people is neither haphazard nor sporadic. Rather it is organized, deliberate, and strategic… “Darkness” rules where Christ has been rejected. The complex statement “spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places” suggests that the very atmosphere of human habitation, “the air” (2:2) itself, is polluted with the demonic![35]Paul T. Eckel, “Ephesians 6:10-20,” Interpretation, 45/3 (July, 1991), 289-90.

These supernatural forces are opposed to God’s purpose, and do not give ground easily.[36] On the general subject see especially G. B. Caird, Principalities and Powers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956). For a “postmodern read­ing” see Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). On Ephesians 6 see the commentaries, (e. g. Martin Kitchen, Ephesians [London and New York: Routledge, 1994], 122-28), and Robert A. Wild, “The Warrior and the Prisoner: Some Reflections on Ephesians 6:10-20,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 46 (April, 1984), 284-98. For that reason, Christians are summoned to take their stand “against the devil’s schemes” (6:11). This requires the whole panoply of God (panoplia, 6:11,13; cf. Lk. 11:22). In view of the multiplicity of options vying for the allegiance of today’s young minds, Ephesians speaks powerfully about the dangers of religious extremes (cults and sects) and behavioral aberrations (family abuse, random violence, pornography, substance abuse, and the like).

The imagery used to describe the Christian soldier is very graphic and has both Old Testament connections[37]Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Use of the Old Testament in Eph­esians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 14 (1982), 16-57. and links with the equipment used by Roman soldiers. All of the language is symbolic and highly suggestive of the real spiritual battle which is underway. Integrity is obviously impor­tant, so the Christian warrior is to be equipped with “the belt of truth” around the waist, and “the breastplate of righteousness in place” (6:14), just as the Messiah was described similarly in Isa. 11:5, and God himself is depicted as donning the breast­ plate of righteousness when he sets out to establish justice (Isa. 59:17). Great prominence is thus given to Christian character in waging war against the forces of evil. To advance the proclamation of the gospel, Paul insists that the believer’s feet be “fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (6:15). Here the gospel message is likened to the defensive and supportive footwear worn by the Roman soldier (thus contrasting with the barefooted running of the messenger described in Isa. 52:7).

Other weapons are mentioned such as “the shield of faith,” seen as an essential piece of equip­ment in the contest with demonic forces, by which “the evil one” could be overcome.[38]This passage deserves to be compared with the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer, where Christ instructed his disciples to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13; tau ponerou is understood in a personal sense in the NIV translation). This metaphor­ical shield recalled the large oblong Roman shield which protected the entire person. This shield was covered with leather and bound with iron, and “was specifically designed to put out the dangerous incendiary missiles which were then lit and fired.”[39]John R. W. Stott, God’ s New Society: The Message of Ephesians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 281. And finally the necessity of prayer is underscored, inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:26-27) and offered to meet all kinds of pressing needs and situations (6:18). To reinforce the practical value and importance of intercession, Paul specifically asks for his readers to under gird his preaching of the gospel with prayer so that he can speak boldly and fearlessly (6:19-20).

Paul thus encourages his brothers and sisters in Christ to utilize the same weapons which he himself has found to be so effective and indispens­able in serving his Lord. He is concerned that they may win real victories in “the heavenlies,” and he knows that mere human resources and determina­tion will not prove sufficient. As he already reminded the Corinthians: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). The ultimate aim of the battle is to be victorious in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 2:14-16).


The present study found ample justification for the comment of Ralph Martin on the significance of Ephesians, and its value for Christian proclamation:

No part of the New Testament has a more contemporary relevance than the letter to the Ephesians. Its importance as God’s mes­sage has been recognized by both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars, and this is especially true when a divided Christendom seeks to find a common ground by participat­ing in a joint study of the Scripture.[40]Ralph P. Martin, “Ephesians,” The Broadman Bible Commentary Vol. 11 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1971), 125. Cf. the masterful com­ments on “the character of Ephesians” made by Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 372-73.

Professor Dale Moody put it well: “There is hardly a major issue of contemporary Christianity that does not come up for clear consideration and for a most majestic approach toward the solution.”[41]Moody, Christ and the Church, 12. Thoughtful men and women in our day who take their discipleship seriously will do well to heed the admonition directed to all earnest Bible students to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the contents of this wonderful book. Then, armed with its mighty teaching, they will be equipped to go forth victoriously, proclaiming God’s order to a needy world.

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