The Epistle to the Ephesians


The city of Ephesus, where the church was situated to which this letter was written, was thirty miles south of Smyrna, in Asia Minor. It was surrounded on three sides by mountains, and upon the west there stretched away the blue waves of the Mgean Sea. Ephesus was situated upon a plain five miles long by three miles broad. It was in the way of commerce from the East to the West, from Asia to Rome. It had become, long before the time when our Epistle was written, a very great and rich and powerful city.

The remains of a theater which was open to the sky have been exhumed in these modern times, and the stone seats of that theater would hold an audience of thirty thousand men. But the most remarkable distinction of the city was that which made Ephesus to be Ephesus, as much as the university makes Oxford to be Oxford, the magnificent and vast temple that was erected there to the goddess Artemis, or Diana. The goddess, half Greek and half Oriental, was represented in the court of the temple by a strange, misshapen idol of many breasts, indicating the nutritive and productive powers of nature. That temple was one of the seven wonders of the world. It was four hundred and fifty feet long by two hundred and twenty feet broad. There was a colonnade of Parian marble, each column of which was sixty feet in height, and each of these was the gift of a prince. There were treasures of sculpture and painting there, such as existed almost nowhere else in the known world. Ephesus was the gathering-place of strangers from every clime. There were all kinds of schools there. It was a place of rhetoric and philosophy; and it was in this place that the apostle Paul in one of his early journeys stayed for one single Sabbath day.

On his second missionary journey, as he made his way back to Jerusalem, he made only a brief stay with Aquila and Priscilla. When they begged him to stay longer, he said that he could not at that time, but if God willed he would come back. There he left Aquila and Priscilla, who doubtless did good work among the Gentiles, and went back to Jerusalem. After three months more he returned; and as his first visit was in the year 53, his second visit was in the year 54 of our Lord. Then he made perhaps the longest stay that he ever had made up to that time in any single city of the Gentiles. He was for three months preaching in the synagogue; and when it was not possible for him to preach longer there without great opposition and difficulty, he betook himself to the school of Tyrannus, a Greek rhetorician, and there conducted his lectures, or preaching services, for two whole years. His whole stay in Ephesus, as he tells us afterward, lasted for three years.

His preaching was followed by very great success. Multitudes became disciples of Christ. He had greater success in Ephesus than he had had in any other heathen city; and the work went on until the powers of heathenism around him began to be shaken. Those who had been devoted to magical arts brought their books of magic and burned them publicly, so that the value of the books thus burned amounted to fifteen thousand pieces of silver, or between seven and eight thousand dollars, a testimony to the reality of the conversion of those who sacrificed so much for the cause of Christ.

But this very success aroused opposition. He tells us afterward, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, of his fight with beasts at Ephesus. There is but little doubt that this fight with beasts was metaphorical. There was no general persecution at that time, and it is not possible that Paul could have been thrown to the lions in any amphitheater. The fight with beasts was evidently his conflict with the bitter and subtle enemies who were constantly upon his track. The Jews lay in wait for him. He was opposed by the silversmiths of the city, whose business was making and selling silver shrines, or miniature temples, in the likeness of the temple of Diana. Their trade was almost taken away, and they rose up in a mob and riot and drove Paul from the town. A little while afterward, going to Miletus, the seaport of Ephesus, he calls the elders of the Ephesian church, and there we have one of the most affecting events of Paul's career. How tender was the love between him and them, that pathetic scene bears witness. Paul gives them his last instructions. He kneels with them on the seashore and prays for them. He commends them to Jesus Christ, their Saviour. He tells them how, for a space of three years, he ceased not, day or night, to warn men, preaching to them publicly and teaching from house to house. The evidences of affection between Paul and his converts are very marked. He leaves them at last, goes on his final journey to Jerusalem, and sees Ephesus no more. Paul apparently puts the church in charge of Timothy; when Timothy is taken away, it seems to have come under the direction of the apostle John, who writes to them one of the letters addressed to the seven churches in Asia. That is the last we read of the church in Ephesus in sacred history.

The Epistle to the Ephesians was undoubtedly written from Rome, and was written in the year 63, just ten years after Paul's first visit to Ephesus. Circumstances had greatly changed with the apostle. The time of his public unhindered work was now at an end. He was in a Roman prison. His imprisonment was not very stringent, it is true. He had his own hired house; and yet he was chained, chained by his right wrist to a soldier, and this soldier by his left wrist was fastened to him. So every single word that Paul wrote of these Epistles—the Epistle to the Ephesians, the Epistle to the Philippians, the Epistle to the Colossians, and the Epistle to Philemon—every word that was written of all that group of Epistles during Paul's first Roman imprisonment, must have been written with the heavy load of a chain weighing upon his hand. Very naturally and affectingly he speaks of himself as "the prisoner of Jesus Christ." He does not attribute his imprisonment to human powers or enemies; he considers it as ordained by the Saviour; he bears it for him; he writes and works "in a chain," as the words in the Greek literally signify.

Though he was chained to that soldier in his own house at Rome, he had opportunity of receiving all who would come to him. He preached the gospel with all the more success because of the difficulties that surrounded him; and the gospel made great headway in the imperial city.

He had long periods of meditation; in his confinement he meditated over the great truths of the gospel as never before; and the Spirit of God unfolded to him the inner significance of those truths as never before. As he looks back to Ephesus, where God had given him his most wonderful success in the preaching of the gospel, and to that church that had received him with open arms, and where God had shown the greatest depths of his power, his heart goes out toward them, and his desire is to give them this new blessing which he himself has received. This larger knowledge of the truth he is bound to communicate to the disciples of Christ; and, as he cannot publicly preach to them the word, as he is divided from them by continents and seas, he will do what he can do, he will give to them the truth by letter. So we owe to Paul's imprisonment, and the larger unfolding of the truth of God which was made to him in his imprisonment, the most wonderful of the letters which were written by Paul.

This Epistle to the Ephesians is chief among all the letters of Paul for the profoundness of its exhibition of Christ's truths: truths set forth here that are set forth nowhere else with the same power. Coleridge thinks it is "the divinest composition of man "; and there can be no question that the depths of God's mercy and love were never set forth in any human composition as they are set forth here.

The object of Paul is to show to these converts who have been brought in from heathenism, how wonderful are the privileges that have been conferred upon them in the gospel, and how solemn are the duties that devolve upon them as the servants of Christ. As Paul treats of the privileges of believers in Jesus Christ he is carried beyond himself. The first chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians, and in fact the larger portion of the Epistle, reads like a solemn hymn.

It is liturgical, and at times it is psalmodic in its manner. There is a glow to the thought, and there isan exaltation to the expression, that make it surpass all the Epistles of Paul for sustained fervor and majesty. It begins by saying, after the salutations: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before him in love "; and then goes on, little by little, until the apostle's great prayer is uttered. He prays God that they may have the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ, that they may know what is the hope of their calling and what the riches of the glory of their inheritance in the saints and what the exceeding greatness of his power in those that believe, according to the working of that mighty power which he wrought in Christ when he raised him from the dead and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principalities and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named both in this world and that which is to come, and hath put all things under his feet and given him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.

Now, there is a rhythm and a power in these words such as you find almost nowhere else. Ellicott, the commentator, declares that the genitives in this Epistle in the Greek tax the resources of Greek syntax to the very uttermost. When interpreting it we require all the helps that syntax can possibly give; simply because the apostle, in the greatness of his thought, struggles with earthly language. Language staggers, so to speak, under the weight of meaning he would lay upon it. In this Epistle to the Ephesians we have one of the greatest productions of inspiration, an Epistle which we can read for the first time and be deeply impressed by it; and yet it is only the tenth or twentieth or hundredth reading that lets us into the secret of its power. It is an Epistle that commends itself not so much to the immature as to the mature Christian; an Epistle which requires an inner spiritual life and the broadest Christian experience for its understanding. Renan, the French skeptic, can condemn it for its useless repetitions and verbosity; but he only shows thereby that he utterly lacks the inner spirit that can enable him to understand it. No Christian can read it without believing that it was inspired of God.

There is an aspect about that Epistle at the beginning which differentiates it from every other Epistle. In some of the very earliest versions, the words "in Ephesus" are lacking, so that it reads: "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God to the saints that are," and there it stops; the words " in Ephesus" are left out. It has been a great puzzle to commentators to know precisely what this means; how it is that in some of the earliest copies the words " in Ephesus" have been lacking; and some have thought that this Epistle was a sort of circular letter, that it was written for many churches and not for one, and that there was a blank place left there so that it could be filled in for the church at Laodicea, for the church in Ephesus, for the church in Smyrna, and so on. There are certain things in the Epistle which lend at first a little plausibility to that view.

For example, the doctrine of the Epistle is general. It is doctrine that applies everywhere, and to all conditions of Christians, and to Christians of every name. There is not the particularizing that there is in many other Epistles. There is nothing like the salutations to individuals; there is nothing like the definite direction of the Epistle to ethical ends, such as we find in Paul's other Epistles.

It has therefore been urged by some that the Epistle was not written to the church of Ephesus particularly, but that it was written to all the churches as a sort of general Epistle, like the general Epistles of Peter or the general Epistles of John. I think, however, that this is a mistake. The testimony of the early church is perfectly unanimous that this was an Epistle to the Ephesians. Although, at first sight, it does seem strange that Paul, to this church where he was best acquainted and where he must have had the most friends, should not have mentioned the names of those friends or have given his greeting to them; yet we find a parallel to this in the letters to the Corinthians. He was with the Corinthians perhaps the next longest time. He was with the Corinthians certainly two years, and there were multitudes of friends there. Yet, in his letters to the Corinthians, we do not find these personal allusions and salutations. May not the reason have been just this, that he had too many friends there; that, if he had begun to express his salutations to one and another, there would have been no end to it? He could have drawn no line. There would have been no place to stop. As a matter of fact, we find that those Epistles have the most of personal allusions and salutations which were written to churches where Paul never had made a personal visit. As, for example, to the church at Rome. We have a great number of personal salutations there, and in the letter to Colosse we have a great number of personal salutations there; but at the time that Paul wrote these two Epistles he had not visited either place. We must remember, besides this, that the letter to the Ephesians was sent by Tychicus, a dearly beloved brother, and these personal salutations may have been sent by him. So, as there was a living messenger taking the Epistle to those to whom it was written; it might have been much easier, and it might have been, on many accounts, much better, that these personal messages should have been sent orally by him.

Taking all things together, it is better to give credit to the testimony and tradition of the early church, which is unanimous that the letter was originally addressed to the Ephesians, and simply to say that Paul intended the letter for the benefit of the church in Ephesus primarily; but that he also intended it to be communicated to other churches, and therefore gave it such a general form that it was capable of being so communicated. He did not limit it to one particular church even by salutations that accompanied it, so that it was just as good in all its parts for one church as it was for another. Yet it was directed, first of all, to the church at Ephesus that he dearly loved, and he trusted to their love and care to see that from them it should be communicated to others.

Now, the subject of this Epistle to the Ephesians is perhaps the greatest subject that can engage the mind of man. It is this, " Christ, the head over all things to his church." The letter to the Ephesians and the letter to the Colossians have been called twin Epistles; and it will be very useful to carry in mind the relation between the two. They treat different aspects of the same great truth, viz., the relation of the world to Christ. The Epistle to the Ephesians treats of Christ as the head over all things to the church. The Epistle to the Colossians treats of Christ, the head over all things to the universe. And so the twin Epistles are supplementary to each other. We need the two to present this truth in its fulness and roundness.

The Epistle to the Ephesians then sets forth the greatness of Christ; and the apostle does this by dividing his statement, as he commonly does, into a doctrinal part and into a practical part, and here the division is in the middle of the Epistle. There are six chapters; the first three of these have to do with the doctrinal part, and the last three have to do with the practical part. In the first three he would set forth the infinite privileges that belong to the believer in Christ, to him who has Christ for his living head, to him who is a part of this vast temple of God which Christ is erecting p

in the ages. And then the last three chapters, the practical part, urge Christians to walk worthily of this high calling which they have received; in other words, set forth the duties which belong to those who have been so privileged. Privilege then comes first; duty comes last; and they receive a perfectly equal treatment. Three chapters are given to the one, and three chapters are given to the other.

The first part of the Epistle, the doctrinal part, sets forth Christ, the head over all things to the church, in three special ways. The church. is first said to be chosen in Christ, and the first chapter is taken up with God's everlasting choice of those who are united to Jesus Christ. It is not a choice that has taken place for the first time during our earthly life. As the ardent lover said once, in a novel, to the lady whom he was seeking to win: "Why, dear, I have loved you ever since I set my eyes upon you as a child!" God says to us something better than that. He says, "I have loved you with an everlasting love." We are said to be chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. In the depths of eternity past God fastened his eyes upon us, and chose us in Christ, that we should be holy and without blame before him. It is an eternal choice of God that has brought us into union with Christ and has made us Christians. The first chapter, then, is taken up with the fact that the church is chosen in Christ from the eternity past.

The second chapter shows that the church is redeemed in Christ, and there the apostle refers them to their past state as "alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." Then he tells them how, in Christ, they have been redeemed; how the death of Christ has become, as it were, their death; how they have been raised from the death of trespasses and sins, and have been built into a living temple, in which God dwells by the Spirit, an allusion perhaps to that magnificent temple of Diana of which I spoke. The apostle leads their imagination to a far greater and nobler spiritual temple, in which each Christian is a living stone laid by God and inhabited by the Spirit.

As we have in the first chapter the church chosen in Christ, and in the second chapter the church redeemed in Christ, so we have in the third chapter the church provided for by Christ, endowed with the gift of the apostleship, gifted with religious instruction, and so disciplined and prepared for the final heavenly state. All are urged to test this wonderful power and grace of God, "the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God." So we have Christ head over all things to the church, head over all things even in eternity past, head over the church in his redeeming work, head over the church by providing it with its leadership and its various gifts.

Upon this doctrinal basis the apostle builds the subsequent hortatory portion of the Epistle; and so we have in the last three chapters an account of the various gifts of grace that are bestowed upon Christians; we have the various orders and offices of the ministry; and then we have general Christian duties, and especially the duty of having in everything the right spirit. In other words, the internal graces of the Christian character are unfolded; and we are shown how, now that we are Christians and in Christ, it is not the fruits of our old evil nature that we are to bring forth, but the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance; and we are urged, if we have fallen away at all, to awake, to arise, and Christ shall give us light. So we are exhorted to live in conformity with the calling which we have received from Christ, our Lord.

Having detailed these general Christian virtues, which we are exhorted to bring forth, Paul goes on to special duties—the duty, for example, which the wife owes to the husband. There the duty is enforced by the mention of Christ's union with the church; and the relation between the believer and Christ is illustrated by the marriage relation between the wife and husband. Children are exhorted to be obedient to their parents, and servants (or slaves, as the word might be translated) are exhorted to be obedient to their earthly master, seeing in the will of their earthly master the will of their greater master, Jesus Christ, who will give the reward at the last, even though earthly masters fail to reward. And then, last of all, after the exhibition of these Christian duties, there comes a representation of the conflict between good and evil in the world, in which we are to participate and to stand for God. It is told us that our warfare is not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, the spiritual rulers of this world of darkness. In other words, a host of evil influences are arrayed against us; and we are to put on the whole armor of God that we may not be put to shame, but that we may stand until the very last; and, while the conflict is set before us, at the same time we are assured that, in this Christ who is our head, there is given to us a complete and perfect victory. So we have the headship of Jesus Christ over all things to the church carried out, first doctrinally, in such a way that we see the everlasting character of it; and then practically, in the effect which these wonderful privileges of the Christian ought to have upon his righteousness and holiness of life. The church is something larger and more spiritual than a local body of believers or an outward organization. This is the most churchly Epistle in the New Testament; and yet, in this most churchly Epistle, we have least with regard to ritual, with regard to discipline, with regard to details. The ideal character of the church, the universal kingdom of God, so fills the apostle's mind as to swamp, as it were, all thought of the local and the individual. It is the essential relation of the believer to his Lord, that which constitutes a Christian and which makes possible a church, that he has mainly in mind. The matter of ordinances and of discipline he will attend to at other times. Now he busies himself only with this vast conception of the church as a whole, the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

But it is very interesting to observe too, that while the apostle speaks of all sorts of duties that belong to the Christian, there is not one that he does not enforce by the highest motive. There is no appeal to any sordid or interested motive. There is no urging of performances of Christian duty simply for the happiness that will come to us, or for the sake of the good even of those around us; but our thoughts are continually lifted up to Christ. For Christ's sake we are to do all. We are not to lie one to another, and why? Because, in Christ, we are members one of another. It is as absurd for us to be telling lies one to another, as it would be for us to attempt to deceive ourselves. And then we must not steal from one another. That is forbidden, and why? Simply in order that we may do good to the body of Christ, that we may have that which we may give to another. We are to work and to win, in order that we may be helpers to others who are members of the same body with us.

And so when we come to the more spiritual graces, Paul urges us to show faith and all the other Christian graces, simply because they are the natural expression of the Spirit of Christ within. The words "in Christ" appear in this Epistle more frequently perhaps than they do in any other Epistle of Paul, and you cannot read the Epistle intelligently without understanding their meaning. They constitute the key to Paul's Epistles in general, but they especially constitute the key to this Epistle to the Ephesians. "In Christ" means in living union with Chnst, the personal, risen, living Saviour, and Paul sees in Christ God revealed. He takes literally those words of Christ himself, " He that hath seen me, hath seen the Father."

If you want to know what God is, look at Christ. There you have the very manifestation of God in human form; and, therefore, we have in Christ the ideal of our human life. We are to be like Christ. Whatever there is in Christ is to be reproduced in us. Whatever Christ did, he did not for himself alone, but did it for us also. Therefore, we are said to have died together with Christ; we are said to have been buried together with Christ; and we are said to be raised together with Christ and to be seated with Christ in heavenly places; to have suffered together with Christ; and to be glorified together with Christ. In other words, the apostle sees in Christ the germ of the redeemed humanity that God is to bring back to himself. We are in Christ, and we are so united to Christ that Christ's life is in us. Whatever Christ is, whatever Christ has, is made over to our account, so that all things are ours. Whether life or death, things present or things to come, all things are ours, because we are Christ's and Christ is God's. The great thought of the Epistle is Christ, the head over all things to the church, God manifesting himself in humanity, and lifting us up by union with Christ into his own great life, so that all blessings are ours in him.

How vast the conception of the Epistle! How full of comfort and strength to the Christian! Let us study it faithfully, and let us recognize the fact that all God's exceedingly great and precious promises are ours.