Studying the Bible is one of the greatest gifts God has given His people, and within that, Paul’s letter to the church in and around the city of Ephesus is one of my favourite letters for how it has so often spoken to me. ‘Studies in Ephesians’ is my attempt to share, in written form, those lessons and promises that God has revealed to me in my studies through this magnificent book.
Studying Ephesians, while not as laden with theological weight as Romans, for example, is nevertheless a weighty task in and of itself – if for no other reason than for the praise it has garnered from Christianity’s own heavyweights. The letter was John Calvin’s favourite; FF. Bruce described it as “the quintessence of Paulinism”; Martyn Lloyd-Jones confessed in the very first sentence of his studies through Ephesians that he did so “with considerable temerity”1. William Barclay called it “the queen of epistles”, while poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge labelled it “the divinest composition of man”.
Due caution is required when approaching Ephesians – as Lloyd-Jones himself believed – for it is possibly the beautiful expression of the Christian faith made available to us through God’s Word. The letter to the Romans, as Martin Luther said, is “the most important document in the New Testament” for being “the gospel in its purest expression”, but Lloyd-Jones rightly contends that, that being the case, “the Epistle to the Ephesians is the sublimest and the most majestic expression” of the gospel2. Or to say it another way, quoting this time from James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians “presents the basic doctrines of Christianity comprehensively, clearly, practically, and winsomely.”3
As for why we should study it, John Stott said it best: “The letter to the Ephesians is a marvellously concise, yet comprehensive, summary of the Christian good news and its implications. Nobody can read it without being moved to wonder and worship, and challenged to consistency of life.” 4
Such unrepentant and millennia-spanning praise for this book must compel us to wonder, Why? Why is Ephesians so beloved? Why is it so important?
There are two things that can happen when retelling a story over and over again – say for example the story of how you were proposed to. First, though relatively unlikely with such an important story, the story can grow in the telling – like the story of the man who caught a small fish from a pier, and a year later recounted the epic encounter he had with a Great White Shark. Secondly, and much more likely with something as important as a proposal, your story becomes more succinct. It becomes briefer, stopping only on the most important bits that make the story special, and discarding the minutia like what you were eating for breakfast that morning and what colour his shoes were.
Paul is believed to have written Ephesians around A.D. 61-62 while he was a prisoner in Rome. Nearly 30 years had passed since Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) and only 4 or 5 years remains until he is (traditionally) said to have died. Nearly all Paul’s major writings have been written, and by the time he was imprisoned were likely being circulated throughout the world (or, at least the world in and around Paul’s mission field). He has reprimanded the church in Corinth, repeatedly; opposed false teaching in Colossae; and defended his own teaching to the church in Thessalonica.
If asked to explain what he believed, I suspect that Paul would be able to do so without much hesitation.
The letter to the Ephesians is the direct result of these many years of writing, preaching, teaching, and repeating the gospel that God gave to him to spread through the world. Furthermore, Ephesians was not written in response to anything, like most of Paul’s letters. Almost all of Paul’s letters are ‘occasioned’ by something – such as the need to challenge the work of false teachers in Corinth. Ephesians, however, was written (seemingly) for the sole reason of encouraging the believers in and around Ephesus – providing them with the fundamentals of the Christian faith, and bolstering their courage in their very-real fight against spiritual forces. Paul had no need to spend any portion of his letter on correcting false beliefs, leaving him able to clearly, and succinctly, share the gospel with them.
Which is the reason for such overflowing praise bestowed upon Ephesians – it is, as James Montgomery Boice explains, “A mini-course in theology, centred on the church.”
There are many ways in which writers and teachers have structured the book of Ephesians. Without dismissing those who have come before, I have found a great deal of benefit from my (somewhat elaborate) outline5:
- Greeting – 1:1-2
- Body – 1:3-6:20
- We Are Blessed – 1:3-23
- Chosen in Love – 1:3-10
- Chosen to Praise – 1:11-14
- Chosen to Know Him – 1:15-23
- Dead or Alive? – 2:1-22
- We were dead – 2:1-3
- But are now alive in Christ – 2:4-10
- We were exiled – 2:11-12
- But now are united together in Christ – 2:13-22
- Jesus is ou peace – 2:14-18
- Revealing the Mystery – 3:1-13
- A Prayer for the Ephesians – 3:14-21
- Instructions for a Church – 4:1-6:20
- The Church – 4:1-16
- Be United – 4:1-6
- Equipped for Service – 4:7-13
- Taught to Grow – 4:14-16
- Live Like Christ – 4:17-6:9
- Be Christ-like in Life – 4:17-5:20
- Be Christ-like in Family – 5:21-6:4
- Be Christ-like in the World – 6:5-9
- The Armour of God – 6:10-20
- The Church – 4:1-16
- Closing – 6:21-24
- We Are Blessed – 1:3-23
Even a cursory glance of this outline reveals some of the main themes that hallmark this magnificent book. Reading Ephesians with an eye for certain words can further reveal Paul’s intentions: grace, Jesus Christ, God, the Holy Spirit, the church, spiritual powers, unity and peace – these are the heart of the letter to the Ephesians, and are deeply intertwined with one another. Without God’s grace we have nothing. God sent His son Jesus Christ to extend God’s blessings to us. Peace was bought for us in Jesus’ body on the cross, uniting Jews and Gentiles together in one church. Jesus promised us and sent us the Holy Spirit, who connects God to us and us to God, who seats us at Jesus’ right hand in the heavenlies, to whom all authority has been given over the spiritual realm.
More simply and practically, according to R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians “answers the question, what does it mean to be in Christ, and what does this demand of us?”6
The very clear delineation of the letter to Ephesians further sheds light on how we should study the book. The first three chapters are decidedly theological in nature, revealing the core roots of Christianity. The last three chapters turn aside from the purely theological and rely almost entirely on providing practical instruction on how to live a Christ-like life. Or, as William W. Klein put it, instructing us in how to live “the lifestyle consistent with Christians’ identity in Christ”.7
This mini-instructional faces off against the many foes Christians face: Again, quoting Klein, these “foes include their former values, cultural practices, and lifestyles, especially the powerful forces that separated Jews and Gentiles, not to mention wives from husbands, children from parents, and slaves from masters.”8 These foes were the antithesis to the unity that Jesus’ death was supposed to have brought to Jews and Gentiles, to the people of the church.
And maybe such opposition might be imagined to be historical only – not relevant to us today?
Jew and Gentile is not today’s most obvious example of opposing sides, nor was it during the middle of the last century, when John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones were writing. But both considered Ephesians as relevant then as it was in Paul’s day. In a world where the world was painted black and white – or more accurately, blue and red, democracy versus Communism – preaching unity was as radical as it came. John Stott wrote that, “As the apostle proclaimed God’s order to the post-Augustan Roman era which was marked by ‘a process of social disintegration’, so Ephesians is today ‘the most contemporary book in the Bible’, since it promises community in a world of disunity, reconciliation in place of alienation and peace instead of war.”9 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, similarly, remarked, “With international conferences taking place almost on our doorstep, with the whole world wondering what its future is to be, and what the outcome of our present troubles is going to be, with men at the end of their wits, and at the end of their tether, how privileged we are to be able to stand and look at this revelation, and see God’s plan and purpose behind it all and beyond it all.”10
The Communist ‘threat’ may have been beaten back, but are we living in a world so different today? The Islamic State has taken the place of Al Qaeda and the Taliban as the next bogeyman; Refugee “crises” are the talk of nearly every “Western” country in the world; and America remains preternaturally unwilling to admit they have a gun problem.
To suggest we are past the need for teaching on unity, God’s grace, and Jesus Christ, is to not only approach the patently absurd, but to rather pull down our pants and slide on the ice of it.
Ephesians is as important today as it was when it was first written – arguably more so.
Its message of unity within the church is vital given the increasing efficacy of the spiritual forces in opposing God’s people. The need to return to remembering God’s grace is paramount as churches and Christians strive to accomplish things in their own strength – and fail, publicly. To forget our position with Christ, and to ignore our blessings is to separate ourselves from the only foundation worth building upon. And to ignore the simplicity of the message in Ephesians is to miss out on hearing the beautiful gospel of our salvation. John Stott says, “The whole letter is thus a magnificent combination of Christian doctrine and Christian duty, Christian faith and Christian life, what God has done through Christ and what we must be and do in consequence.”11
If we are to stand for Christ, then we must be willing to learn how to do so.
- God’s Ultimate Purpose, D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, p11 ↩
- ibid, p12 ↩
- Ephesians, James Montgomery Boice, p2 ↩
- The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, p15, emphasis mine ↩
- This outline will serve to guide us through our studies in Ephesians, and represent the minimum number of studies we will be working through. ↩
- Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ, R. Kent Hughes, p15 ↩
- The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Ephesians ~ Philemon, William W. Klein, p41, ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland ↩
- ibid ↩
- Stott, p16 ↩
- Lloyd-Jones, p21 ↩
- Stott, p25 ↩