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Introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians

William Lane wrote, “We must engage Scripture at the level of the informed imagination.” If the imagination provides a bridge between the heart and the mind, reintegrating what was disintegrated by the Fall (Dt 6:4f), then the way we approach the Bible will be affected in several ways.

First, engaging the imagination involves reading with the heart (devotionally) as well as the mind (theologically). Second, cultivating an informed imagination demands that we do our own homework, utilizing commentaries and word studies. We come to the academic material with a different level of expectation. The commentaries are not the final word. Third, we embrace a new appreciation for the Holy Spirit in the process of understanding scripture (See John 14:16f, 16:5-15). We never read our bibles alone if we are followers of Jesus. We always study in tandem with his Spirit, who provides limitless resources. Fourth, we come to various translations with a different level of expectation, understanding that each one has its own presuppositions, strengths and weaknesses.

Lane gives three basic questions to ask when we are listening to Scripture.

  1. Who is the author? What are the author’s unique interests? Their unique vocabulary?

  2. What is the life situation? What is happening within the community the author is writing to? What are the unique struggles being addressed?

  3. What is unique about the letter? This means, in Paul’s case, being aware of the major themes of his other letters. Unique themes also speak to the life situation of the first recipients of the letter.

As we come to study Ephesians, these questions will give us an excellent framework for understanding the letter. Much of the following content is drawn from notes that were part of William (Bill) Lane’s New Testament course, a class that taught me to engage with the Scriptures “at the level of the informed imagination.” I knew Bill as a formidable professor at Western Kentucky University. He spoke multiple languages (fourteen, I believe!) and received his doctorate from Harvard. However, in the twenty-six years that followed I came to know him as a friend, pastor, confessor, and a thousand other things one follower of Jesus should be to another. Bill’s teaching was powerful and his enthusiasm infectious. His ideas are the result of a lifetime of listening to the voice of the author and the life situation of the reader.

Who is the author?

The letter opens by introducing the apostle Paul as the author. In Acts 18 – 20 we read about Paul’s long-standing, close relationship with the Ephesian church. On one visit he spent three years living with the believers and training disciples. He knew the remarkable things they had witnessed, the impact their transformed lives were having in Asia, the difficulties they faced, and the false teaching that had caused problems among them. Some months after leaving Ephesus, Paul came to Miletus, where the elders from the Ephesian church met up with him one last time (Acts 20:13-38). Their parting was raw and painful as they wept and embraced one another. We can only imagine how much it meant to them, around five years later, when they received a letter from Paul—now in prison in Rome, under house arrest and awaiting trial.

Paul’s affection for the believers in Ephesus raises the first question as to the intended audience of the letter. Particularly in light of some of his other correspondence, it would seem strange that a letter written directly to a church he knew well and cared for deeply would not contain any specific personal greetings. In addition, Paul mentions that he has heard about their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for God’s people (1:15). Surely in Ephesus he witnessed it first hand? Interestingly, the phrase “in Ephesus” is not found at the beginning of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. While the letter has become associated exclusively with the Ephesian church, there is much evidence that they were not the only original recipients. Instead, it is likely that this was a circular letter, delivered by Tychicus to several churches connected by the major trade routes in the area, finally ending up in Ephesus and thus becoming associated with the Ephesians.

Lane points out that there is a great deal of similarity and overlapping content between the books of Ephesians and Colossians, suggesting that they may have been written as companion letters. He writes:

In Colossians Paul presents Christ as the head of the church and in Ephesians Paul presents the church as the Body of Christ. These are complimentary statements of truth regarding the nature of Christ and his church. The exchange of these letters would expose the Christians in the Lycus Valley to this fuller perspective.

Given the close ties with the book of Colossians, it’s possible that the book we know as Ephesians is actually the letter referred to in Colossians 4:16 where Paul says, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.”

What is the life situation of the first readers?

If this letter was written to several churches, addressing varied problems and applying the same breath-taking truth to each, it contains a breadth and brilliance that we could easily miss. While each city had its own specific issues to deal with, they shared many common struggles. In a cultural melting pot of clashing belief systems and worldviews, Paul writes using language and terms that would have been readily understood by his hearers, extolling Christ and his supreme place in the story that God has been telling since the creation of the world.

When we discover more about the first recipients of this powerful letter, it helps us better understand its original context. Not only does this “informed imagination” give us insight into Paul’s intent in writing; it helps us intelligently apply the rich truth of Ephesians in a world that is in some ways so culturally different and yet, in others, surprisingly familiar.

In Colossae, heresy had crept into the church. Seduced by false teaching, it is likely that the believers were straying into early Gnosticism and angel worship. Paul is deeply concerned for them. In Colossians 1:1-3 he writes:

I want you to know how hard I am contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine sounding arguments.

This fatherly, pastoral heart is echoed in the beautiful prayer in Ephesians 1, where Paul prays that …the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph 1:18-19)

We must engage Scripture at the level of the informed imagination. William Lane

As a center of banking with a renowned medical school and a prestigious textile industry, Laodicea was a city known for its affluence. The independent wealth was so great that, following an earthquake, the city was able to be independently rebuilt without any assistance from the power of Rome. When the affluence of Laodicea is set beside the unparalleled riches of the spiritual blessings lavished on them in Christ, we begin to get a feel for the impact of Paul’s words on the believers there. We know from history that their grasp of these truths would be tested in the coming years. When Caesar Domitian declared himself a god and demanded to be worshipped, wealthy believers like the Laodiceans would find themselves faced with the choice to compromise their faith or lose their financial status.

The city of Ephesus was home to the great Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In a culture dominated by this goddess of sexuality, sexual morality was under constant attack, ceremonial prostitution was a way of life, and a two-story brothel near the temple operated freely and without condemnation. Sorcery and magic were a big source of income and on one occasion many new believers publicly burned their sorcery scrolls, totaling vast sums of money. At the end of Paul’s time in Ephesus, persecution of the believers erupted as influential leaders pushed back violently against the dramatic religious, cultural, and even financial implications of the gospel.

Within each of these young churches, Jews and Gentiles found themselves serving, worshipping, and learning together for the first time. In the midst of clashing perspectives, backgrounds, and traditions, one of the over-riding themes of the letter is the importance of unity between the believers. Despite real tensions, it was imperative that the churches learn to live together in a way that intentionally and sacrificially preserved the oneness that had been gifted to them by the Holy Spirit. As the individual churches struggled with the age-old problems of culture and church politics, Paul’s response is to remind them of all they are and have in Christ, urging them to grow to maturity in him, so that, together, they could stand firm in an increasingly hostile world.

What is unique about the letter?

In simple terms, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians can be divided in two. Chapters 1-3 reveal the unfolding mystery of God’s “summing up” of all things in Christ and the extravagant spiritual blessings lavished on believers in him. They are rich with contrasts between the position we were once in as strangers and aliens, hostile to God and his kingdom and the welcome we have now received in Christ. Paul reminds us that this remarkable story is not over yet. Chapters 4-6 are a practical call to “Walk Worthy” of all that we are and have in him, living in response to his grace and love.

William Lane explains another unique feature of Ephesians. He observes:

When Epaphras arrived in Rome, he discovered that Paul had been working on new worship materials for use in the churches. Paul recognized that these materials (prayers, confessions, hymns, etc.) would be useful in calling the Christians of the Lycus River Valley to remember the commitment they made to Christ at the time of their baptism. He worked these new formulations into Ephesians to call Christians to reflect on past commitments and to urge them to advance to maturity as a defense against false teaching.

Lane points out that, within the letter, there are carefully developed units which possess a “liturgical” character. Each is complete in itself:

  1. 1:3-14 A hymn in praise to God (one sentence in Greek)

  2. 2:1-10 A confessional summary of the new life in Christ

  3. (one sentence in Greek)

  4. 3:14-21 A prayer that the readers may understand the mystery of Christ

  5. 4:1-16 Practical instruction supported by creedal confession and the exposition of Scripture: the call to maturity

  6. 5:8-14 An exhortation concluding with a fragment of an early Christian hymn: Walk in the light

  7. 6:10-17 An expanded exhortation to be prepared for spiritual conflict

To sum up in the words of Lane:

In the letter we have come to know as Ephesians Paul is calling his readers back to their first baptismal commitment to Jesus, making clear that the church is the body of Christ and finally instructing his readers in what it really means to be mature in Christ. His primary theme is that everything is moving toward unity under the absolute Lordship of Jesus. As his followers, they are participants in that oneness.

[Editor’s note: Next Friday, Russ Ramsey will be sharing his reflections on Ephesians Chapter 1. As we mentioned last week, our hope is that you will study along, alone or with a group, and then share your encouragements and challenges using the comments section on each post.]

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