The Themes of Ephesians
“Good homiletics is built on even better hermeneutics.” I do not know who first made this statement or where I first heard it, but I use this axiom as a rallying cry of sorts in my preaching classes. I genuinely believe you cannot rightly preach what you have not first accurately understood. In this post, I will explore how recognizing some of the themes of the book of Ephesians can strengthen your hermeneutics and thus enhance your homiletics. Here I am not arguing that text-driven preaching is simply discovering and preaching themes. Rather, awareness of these doctrines affords a heads up in the interpretation of Ephesians and provides a head start for what we may apply to our audience. Both impact homiletics. In this article, I have addressed five themes to consider as you preach through this book.
The Worship of God because of Redemption
Unfortunately, what has often been missed in Ephesians chapter 1, especially verses 1 through 14, which has become a battleground for the debate over election, specifically, and reformed versus non-reformed theology, generally, is the emphasis on God. Regardless of your specific understanding of what happens in salvation or where it originates, you should not miss the worth and worthiness of God. No less than four times in these 14 verses, Paul blesses God for the benefits of salvation or states that a result of salvation is to the praise of God. I believe the intent of this section of Ephesians is to recognize the blessing of salvation from God and the blessedness of God as the One who saves. When we take a text-driven approach to preaching through the letter, this emphasis should rise to the surface.
The Work of God in Redemption
In chapter 2:1–10, who can miss the rich doctrines, which are explicitly expressed. The theme which is the most overt, however, seems to be the emphasis on God’s initiative and work in salvation. This perspective on salvation certainly should be noted from the juxtaposition that occurs in verse 4 with the phrase “But God.” Notice this contrast immediately follows the description of the Ephesian believers, and by application us, before redemption.
Our state was one of deadness and rightly under the righteous wrath of God. We were, as it were, helpless. “But God” . . . made us alive together with Christ. The emphasis on God’s initiative and action in salvation is further emphasized by repetition of the “by Grace you have been saved,” once in verse 5 and once in verse 8. Paul presses the point further when he describes this salvation as a gift and excludes the boasting of the one who has received this gift. Now, in no way does this theme detract from the responsibility and culpability of man to respond for salvation, for it is “by grace you have been saved through faith,” but in our preaching of the book of Ephesians, we do well to recognize the theme of God’s Role in Salvation.
The Reconciliation of God through Redemption
I cannot read the second half of the second chapter of Ephesians without hearing Ronald Reagan’s now iconic statement from the speech he gave in West Berlin on Friday, June 12, 1987 — “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” It seems that at least part of the occasion for the writing of the Ephesian correspondence was that a dividing wall existed between the Jews and Gentiles in the church. Perhaps Paul was alluding to the actual wall that separated the Gentiles from the Jews in the Temple in order to picture this separation.
A part of the division between Jews and Gentiles related to how each understood God. Their beliefs and “worship” is partly what made them Gentiles and not Jews and what made Jews view them as inferior. We know that the Gospel breaks down the dividing wall and there is no superior “religion.” By this, we mean that in the good news of Jesus Christ we see that all who are in sin are unrighteous before a holy God, and that same Gospel points to Christ as the only way for Jews, Greeks, or anyone to be reconciled to this God. Furthermore, in the good news of Jesus Christ, we must also recognize that no superior ethnicity exists, and the Gospel breaks down the dividing wall and reconciles man to man. When you preach Ephesians, preach this reconciliation.
The Pattern for Marriage
Ultimately, Paul calls these reconciled people of God to “imitate God” in life, generally, and in attitude, speech, and actions towards one another, specifically. We are commanded to “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). This command, I believe, governs and guides the correct interpretation of the pericopes that immediately follow verse 21 of chapter 5. In other words, we must understand the commands related to our marriage and homes in light of the call to subject ourselves to one another. The first way this command is applied is between a husband and wife.
Husbands and wives are to mutually subject themselves to one another. Now, the way they obey is noticeably different. Essentially, the husband leads his wife by self-denial. He is subject to her by serving her and seeking her sanctification. He “subjects” himself to his wife by his willingness to lead her spiritually and accept responsibility for her practically. The wife subjects herself to her husband by following his Christ-like leadership, respecting him and his role in the marriage, and submitting to his oversight of her sanctification.
Near the end of this discussion, Paul reveals a deeper significance to his instruction. “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). I love how my mentor Dr. Steven Smith once described God’s priority in marriage. “God did not create the gospel to illustrate marriage. He created marriage to illustrate the gospel.” The priority is the Gospel. So when preaching through Ephesians, preach the roles of marriage. Do so with a priority on the Gospel. Do so as an illustration of the Gospel.
The Plan for Parenting
This second way mutual subjection is applied to human relationships is between children and parents. The obvious application of this subjection is from the child to the parent. Children are commanded to “obey” their parents. This call is straightforward.
The way that parents subject themselves to children is by making a commitment to the child’s discipleship. This subjection, much like as with a husband to his wife, requires the parents’ self-denial. Notice in the parents’ subjection to the child, not only does the action of discipling count, but so does the manner in which oversight is carried out. The parents’ commitment to children’s spiritual maturity requires both formative and corrective discipleship. “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Therefore, when preaching Ephesians, be aware of the need for both instruction and discipline in the home and apply this concept to those who hear you. In doing so, you will bless the church and instruct our culture.
One other major theme arises from the content of the Ephesians correspondence that I feel compelled to address. Prayer! On at least three occasions (chapter 1, chapter 3, and chapter 6), Paul either prays for the church or pleas for the church to pray for him. On average, then, a prayer is recorded every two chapters. It would seem that prayer is not a rhetorical device, lip service, or even a good theme intertwined with other good themes. Rather, prayer appears to be the setting in which all the other content is set. Therefore, if we desire to preach Ephesians in a text-driven way, perhaps we should draw out the pattern of prayer imbedded in the book as we prepare our sermons and preach the book, as with every portion of God’s Word, in a posture of fervent prayerfulness ourselves. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father . . .” (Ephesians 3:14-19).
Adam Hughes is Dean of Chapel, Director of the Adrian Rogers Center for Expository Preaching, and Assistant Professor of Expository Preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.