Nov 21, 2011

Introduction to Ephesians

Paul HeneburyBy Dr. Paul Henebury
Veritas School of Theology

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The great city of Ephesus lay on the main route between the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire, and was one of the major cities of the ancient world. By Paul’s time, it had become the capital city of the province of Asia (in modern Turkey). Ephesus was renowned as a “political, commercial, and religious center.” We are also told that “it boasted a 25,000 seat theatre, a race course, and the temple of Diana ... one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.” (R. Gromacki, New Testament Survey, 242).

The city’s prosperity was due not only to its being one of the great ports of the Mediterranean, but also to its status as the center of the cult of Artemis (known as “Diana” to the Romans). The goddess Diana was regarded “as queen over both the heavenly powers, including the potent zodiacal powers, and the gods of the underworld.” (M. Turner, New Bible Comm. 21st Century ed. 1228). Local artisans crafted statuettes of the image of Diana in the temple, and these were thought to have magical powers. Diana was believed to have a “magical influence in the unseen world [which] encouraged astrology and sorcery.” (D. E. Hiebert, An Introduction to the New Testament 2.255) It was because of the threat that Christianity posed to this religion that the city was in uproar at Paul’s preaching in Acts 19:23-41.

It was crucial, therefore, that Paul emphasize the superiority of Christ over all powers, Diana included (Eph. 1:10, 19-22; 2:2, 3:9, 10, 16, 20; 6:10ff). One recent book puts it very well:

“Ephesians strongly emphasizes the theme of power; the whole concern of Hellenistic magic was to obtain access to and use supernatural power, a power gained by manipulating the spirit world. Ephesians, more than any other epistle in the NT, addressed the Christian response to the spirit world and provides teaching on the power of God.” (C. E. Arnold, Ephesians: Power and Magic, 39).
And we are not surprised to read in Acts 19:11-20 of open manifestations of God’s power in this pagan city.

Character of the Letter

It is generally conceded by saints and unbelievers alike, that Paul’s epistle to the church at Ephesus is one of the most sublime creations in the whole of literature. [1] Unending tribute has been paid to this “queen of the epistles,” and this in spite of the fact that it is the most impersonal of Paul’s writings. One writer has said, “Ephesians is more general in character than any other of Paul’s epistles.” (T. Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament I, 484).

Yet in spite of this, the letter is written in a sustained loftiness of thought, which rises to greater descriptive heights than any other New Testament document in its setting out of the doctrines of the Church, the Headship of Christ, and the Supremacy of God. The teaching is profound, and some would argue, “Ephesians is the deepest book in the New Testament.” (Hiebert, 2.267). Paul offers no small prospect to his readers; his subject matter is heavenly. Our full concentration is prerequisite to a fruitful understanding of his language. “It is the greatness of this epistle which makes its meaning so difficult to apprehend. Its thoughts are too big for its words.” (W. G. Scroggie, The Unfolding Drama of Redemption 3.198). [2]

Although its doctrine is profound, this book is arguably the place where modern Christians need to meditate in the most. Today’s saints need a vision of their place within God’s grand purpose that frees them from the insular rigidity of so many local churches. We must begin to see how we function within the family of God: that we are an integral part of the ‘big picture,’ which Paul is presenting us with. When we see this we can better appreciate the role of our local church in God’s purpose.


The truths pertaining to the Church in Christ Jesus are most conspicuous in Ephesians. By the Church we mean “…the whole family in heaven and earth…” (3:15). As Hiebert observes, “No local church is mentioned ... its theme is rather the Church universal, the Church as the Body of Christ.” (Hiebert, 2.267, 268) [3]

The didactic and aloof tone of the epistle makes it certain that Paul is not writing to the Ephesian congregation about their local church. Throughout, the vision is of all the children of God (1:5). Paul speaks of “the Body” (1:23, 2:16, 3:6, 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30); “the Church (1:22, 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32); “the household of God” (2:19); “the family (3:15); and “the Temple” (2:21). In none of these places is Paul speaking about a local assembly. In fact, by just looking at 2:16, 3:6, 21, 4:12, 5:23, 25, 27, 32, any reader would be forced to admit that the universal Church is to the fore in the Ephesian letter. Again, this is admitted by all interpreters. For example, the Baptist, Scroggie writes,
“The ‘Church’ of this epistle is not any local assembly, nor any denomination, but the aggregate of all believers in Christ, disciples of Christ everywhere throughout the Christian age” (Scroggie, 3.182).
Or, more recently,
“Clearly the writer wants his readers to catch the vision of one church, thoroughly united in the Lord, though it contains members of various races and is equipped by God to render significant service in this world” (D. A. Carson, D. J. Moo, L. Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 315).
The unity of the Body is given emphasis in this epistle (2:5-7, 13-22 [note especially the oneness in Christ of Jewish and Gentile believers]; 3:67; 4:1-13, etc.) To bring out his theme the apostle pictures the Church as a Body (1:22, 23; 4:16) a building (2:20-22) and a Bride (5:25-32).


It may come as a bit of a surprise to discover that Ephesians is not considered to be from the hand of Paul by the majority of modern ‘scholarship.’ This is because of the influence of naturalistic criticism creeping into conservative circles. What have we to say about it? Certainly there is no need for Bible-believers to panic. Apostolic authorship has been very ably defended (see especially Zahn, I, 500-522). [4] In fact, it was not even disputed until the second half of the 19th century. The letter itself declares its author (1:1, 3:1). Those who object to Pauline authorship (e.g. C. L. Mitton, A. T. Lincoln) have yet to come up with arguments strong enough to challenge the compelling evidence, both internal and external. As one modern writer expresses it,
“When all objections are carefully considered it will be seen that the weight of evidence [of those who say Paul did not write Ephesians] is inadequate to overthrow the overwhelming external attestation to Pauline authorship, and the epistle’s own claims.” (D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 507).


Ephesians is usually dated around 60-62 AD. According to 3:1, 4:1, and 6:20, Paul was in prison, assuredly in Rome (despite some opinions to the contrary) [5] from there he sent by Tychicus the letters to the Colossians, Philemon (with Onesimus) and this one to the believers at Ephesus (6:21, 22). Most conservative scholars date Ephesians to this period. [6]

The Ephesian Church

The Apostle Paul founded this church on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19-21). Reading on in Acts 18, it looks as if Aquila and Priscilla and their new convert, Apollos, helped to establish the work (we cannot think that Apollos did nothing in Ephesus.) When Paul returned, he stayed in Ephesus for 3 years (20:31) building up the Christians there. By the time the Ephesian church received this letter, they would have been a large and very well-informed congregation. [7]

[1] Lloyd-Jones begins his great series on Ephesians with these words:
“As we approach this Epistle I confess freely that I do so with considerable temerity. It is very difficult to speak of it in a controlled manner because of its greatness and because of its sublimity. Many have tried to describe it. One writer has described it as ‘the crown and climax of Pauline theology.’ Another has said that it is ‘the distilled essence of the Christians religion, the most authoritative and most consummate compendium of our holy Christian faith.’ What language! And it is by no means exaggerated.” (D. M. Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 11)
[2] “The language…has difficulty in compassing the thought, struggling in…flow of words, in linked sentences, with the presentation of an idea that transcends it…” (K. Braune, The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, in Lange’s Commentary, 3)
[3] To say this is not to throw out the doctrine of the local church. The local church is the means whereby God works through believers in their community. To hold to the one should not lead us to reject the other.
[4] See also W. Hendriksen, Ephesians, 32-56.
[5] Some interpreters place the writer in prison at Caesarea or even Ephesus itself. Their speculations need not detain us here.
[6] E.G. T. Zahn, I, 492; H. C. Thiessen, 245; R. C. H. Lenski, 327; R. Gromacki, 245; H. Hoehner, 614.
[7] When one considers that after Paul, both Timothy and (according to strong tradition) the Apostle John succeeded him as overseer of the Church at Ephesus. This might account for the severity of Christ’s warning given to this church in Revelation 2:5.