Background of Ephesians
Author, Date, and Recipients
The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the churches in Ephesus and the surrounding region c. AD 62 while imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28). During this time he also wrote Colossians and Philemon. All three letters were sent with Tychicus and Onesimus.
There are three main themes of Ephesians: (1) Christ has reconciled all creation to himself and to God; (2) Christ has united people from all nations to himself and to one another in his church; and (3) Christians must live as new people.
Ephesians offers general instruction in the truths of God’s redemptive work in Christ; the unity of the church among diverse peoples; and proper conduct in the church, the home, and the world.
1. All people are by nature spiritually dead. They disobey God’s law and are ruled by Satan (Ephesians 1:7; 2:1–3, 5, 11–12).
2. God predestined his people to redemption and holiness in Christ (Ephesians 1:3–14; 2:4, 8–9).
3. God’s rich mercy in Christ has saved sinners. This free gift is by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 1:7–8; 2:4–14).
4. Jesus’ saving work was part of redeeming a fallen creation for God. For this he deserves glory, honor, and authority in this age and the next (Ephesians 1:15–23; 3:1–13).
5. Jesus unites Jews and Gentiles into his one body, the church, as a new creation (Ephesians 1:23; 2:10–22; 3:1–21; 4:1–6).
6. Christ’s people are saved to new lives of holiness in thought, word, and deed. They must reject their old, sinful lifestyles (Ephesians 4:1–3, 17–32; 5:1–20).
7. Holiness in life includes submission to proper authorities, in home and family life, and those in authority must care for those in submission to them (Ephesians 5:21–6:9).
8. Jesus has given powerful gifts to his church. These bring unity, maturity, and defense against the devil and his allies (Ephesians 4:7–16; 6:10–19).
I. Introduction (1:1–14)
II. Paul’s Prayer of Thanksgiving (1:15–23)
III. Salvation by Grace through Faith (2:1–10)
IV. Unity and the Peace of Christ (2:11–22)
V. Revelation of the Gospel Mystery (3:1–13)
VI. Paul’s Prayer for Strength and Insight (3:14–21)
VII. Unity of the Body of Christ (4:1–16)
VIII. Paul’s Testimony (4:17–24)
IX. Encouragement for a Holy Lifestyle (4:25–32)
X. New Life in Love (5:1–20)
XI. Submission to One Another (5:21–6:9)
XII. The Whole Armor of God (6:10–20)
XIII. Conclusion (6:21–24)
The Setting of Ephesians
The Global Message of Ephesians
The message of Ephesians for the global church is that in Christ God has reconciled to himself all things by his free grace, and in so doing he has enabled humans all over the world to be reconciled with one another. In light of these two great reconciliations, Christians worldwide are empowered to live a new life of light and love.
Ephesians and Redemptive History
The vision of redemptive history presented in Ephesians stretches all the way back to the beginning of time and before, and all the way forward to the end of all things. In Ephesians 1 Paul says that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). And at the end of this passage Paul strains his eyes to look forward to the end, when “we acquire possession of” our inheritance (Ephesians 1:14). In it all, Jesus is the one through whom this eternal plan is enacted (Ephesians 1:10; 3:11).
Yet Paul says something startling to his hearers in chapter 3. He says that there has been a “mystery” kept hidden for countless generations, but which has now been revealed (Ephesians 3:4–5, 9). This mystery is that God’s favor is not only for the Jews. It is for all people (Ephesians 3:6, 8–9). At the height of human history, Christ came and made salvation freely available to all those who have faith in him (Ephesians 2:8–9). The result is that this salvation is now spilling over the banks of ethnic Israel and flooding out to the nations. There is “one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:6). Because the “dividing wall of hostility” between us and God has been torn down, the hostility can also be torn down between us and other people (Ephesians 2:14–16).
Universal Themes in Ephesians
God’s Great Love and Grace
The grace of God reaches back into eternity (Ephesians 1:3–5). Before the world’s foundation, God himself foreknew and predestined for salvation a people from every tribe and tongue and people group. And the grace of God overcomes every possible obstacle: God saved us not when we were merely sick or wounded, but when we were spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1–3). He has demonstrated “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7), who suffered in our place and is making all things new. This love stretches the bounds of our comprehension with a “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). To a world awash in cynicism, hypocrisy, apathy, and selfishness, Ephesians sends us out with a message of the boundless love of God in Christ for all kinds of people.
God’s New People, The Church
Ephesians presents a sweeping portrayal of the way the gospel is uniting diverse people into Christ’s one body, the church. The radical inclusiveness of Christ’s work is seen throughout the epistle (Ephesians 1:12–13; 2:11–22; 3:1–15; 4:1–7). In Christ, God is gathering up a people for himself from both Jews and Gentiles. The mystery that has been kept secret from previous generations, but has now been revealed, is that the gospel is offered to Gentiles as freely as to Jews (Ephesians 3:6). In Christ, those who were far off (Gentiles) and those who were near (Jews) have been brought together through the cross (Ephesians 2:13).
God’s Cosmic Scope of Redemption
God revealed his saving purposes down through human history supremely in Christ. He came at “the fullness of time” (Ephesians 1:10) as the climax of all that God has been doing in the world since the fall of humanity recorded in Genesis 3. The breathtaking scope of Christ’s redemptive work, Paul says, is “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10; compare Ephesians 1:22–23; 3:11; 4:10). The word “unite” here means to “sum up” or “draw together.” What happened on a little hill outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago is the high point for which all of history was preparing and from which all subsequent history is flowing. God is restoring the entire created order, starting with humanity (from diverse people groups) but reaching also to the entire cosmos (Ephesians 3:10; 6:10–18).
Ephesians 6 is the Bible’s clearest teaching that the fundamental struggle of believers is not against other people but against the spiritual forces of hell (Ephesians 6:10–18). Around the world today, the church experiences various kinds of spiritual warfare. Sometimes it is more sensational, in the form of witchcraft or demon-possession. Other times it is less obvious and manifests itself in difficulties such as depression, hopelessness, or circumstantial adversity. While we must be careful not to think that every difficulty in this fallen world is the direct activity of Satan, global Christians recognize that their real conflict is with the forces of hell.
The Global Message of Ephesians for Today
The mercy of God in Jesus Christ is the high point of all history, and for the past two thousand years God’s mercy has been running throughout the world to bring together all kinds of people to form one new family of God. This astonishing love of God in Christ reconciles us to God as we receive his love with nothing but the empty hands of faith. God is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4), but he does not extend this mercy to those who think they are worthy of it. Rather, this mercy is for all those who, by grace, know that they are unworthy of it.
Yet while God’s grace is utterly undeserved and in no way dependent on our good works (Ephesians 2:8–9), it does change us. Those united to Christ are those who are now indwelt by the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14; 3:16; 4:30; 6:17–18). They are transformed. They are now empowered to “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1). We are his beloved sons and daughters; it is our joy to imitate the Father.
When, as global Christians, we look around our own neighborhoods and around the world, we realize that we are called to live out the new life that has been granted to us. This includes ridding ourselves of what does not fit the new life of light and purity into which we have been swept up (Ephesians 5:8–9). Sexual immorality, degrading speech, falsehood, bitterness, and anger have no place in our lives anymore (Ephesians 4:17–32). It is not who we are. Not only do we seek purity for ourselves, we also seek God’s blessing in our relationships. In our marriages, jobs, and families, we are called to be mindful of the Lord and to love as we have been loved (Ephesians 5:22–6:9).
In all of this we are seeking to celebrate and to spread the peace, the shalom, the flourishing, that has dawned in Christ (Ephesians 1:2; 2:14–15, 17; 4:3; 6:15, 23). By his Spirit God is restoring the entire cosmos back to the way it was meant to be. As those who have been granted the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14; 4:30), it is our great joy and privilege to be instruments of God’s mercy and peace. Most of us will not change the world, or our own nation, by serving in political office or writing new legislation. Our call is, in fact, far greater: to love those across whose paths God brings us each day. This is a calling whose significance will be revealed and celebrated on the last great day, when Christ comes again. This is a love that springs from our love for Christ, which is, as the last word of Ephesians puts it, “incorruptible” (Ephesians 6:24).