Studies in Ephesians #3 – Paul, Villain turned Hero 1


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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.

Click here for the rest of the series. 

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will:
To the faithful saints in Christ Jesus at Ephesus.” — Ephesians 1:1

So far we have looked at the overarching theme of the letter to the Ephesians, and the world in which the letter arrived, by studying the city of Ephesus itself. Before our studies into Ephesians begin in earnest, however, there is one last introductory matter that I believe is vital to deal with – and that is the letter’s author. It may seem somewhat unnecessary to spend any length of time investigating the author of something – like studying J.R.R. Tolkien to read The Lord of the Rings: You don’t need to know anything about Tolkien to read his books and enjoy them, but you do need to know about Tolkien if you want to read his books and grasp more than just the surface story.

In the same way, we turn to look at the Apostle Paul, one of the three heavyweights of the early church (alongside the Apostles Peter and John), and presumed author of Ephesians. Assuming everything traditionally accredited to Paul was actually written by him, the Apostle Paul wrote approximately 23% of what we now call the New Testament.[1][2] He is responsible for two of the defining expositions of Christianity – the letters to the Romans and Ephesians – and quite literally helped Christianity spread across the known world. God most certainly could have used someone else but he chose Paul to be his primary missionary to the world.

I don’t just want to run through a biographical account of Paul’s life, but rather look closely at the first verse of this letter: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will” (Ephesians 1:1).

Letters in the ancient world followed something of a strict form. According to one commentator, “They began by identifying the writer and the readers or addresses. This was usually followed by a greeting and a prayer or wish for health (even in secular letters).”[3] Christian letters in the ancient world used the same formula as their secular counterparts, but Christianised it, as can be seen by Paul’s own greetings:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will:

To the faithful saints in Christ Jesus at Ephesus.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. —Ephesians 1:1-2

Paul follows the same form, but expands on the traditional elements – “The author and recipients are not merely identified; they are also described by their relation to Christ.”[4] – and never one to miss an opportunity, Paul dives straight into teaching his readers by describing himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will” (emphasis mine).

In fact, this is how Paul regularly greeted the recipients of his letters, going out of his way to again and again simply describe himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus”. In nine of the thirteen books traditionally held to be written by Paul, he describes himself as an apostle. But in Ephesians, Paul explains that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ “by God’s will.” There are two ways to look at this. First, if you hold to the theology that one’s faith is the direct result of God and God alone – that He alone is responsible for your faith – then we are all Christians by God’s will, and therefore we are all missionaries, or apostles, or pastors, or business executives, by God’s will. This is a simple understanding, and is in no way incorrect – it just doesn’t cover the whole of what Paul is saying.

The first time we get a glimpse of Paul, he is going by the name Saul, and it is one of those first impressions one would rather not be associated with. Acts chapters 6 and 7 depict the story of Stephen, who was brought before the Jewish religious leadership, the Sanhedrin, and accused of “speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.” (Acts 6:11) Stephen then launches into one of the greatest sermons ever told, which concludes with him labelling the Jews a “stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears!” (Acts 7:51) In a completely unsurprising turn of events, the Jews were less than pleased with this, and “threw him out of the city and began to stone him.” (Acts 7:58)

“And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:58)

It’s not the greatest entrance into history, by our standards, and it gets worse. A few verses later, Luke records that “Saul agreed with putting [Stephen] to death” and “was ravaging the church. He would enter house after house, drag off men and women, and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:1-3)

Paul grew up the perfect Jew: According to his own words, he was “a Jewish man, born in Tarsus of Cilicia but brought up in [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel and educated according to the strict view of our patriarchal law.” (Acts 22:3) He was a Roman citizen, and had one of the best religious educations you could ask for at the time, under Gamaliel, a leading Jewish teacher of the day – “a teacher of the law who was respected by all the people” (Acts 5:34). We don’t know what Paul did between his years as a student and when he became known as the leading persecutor of the Christian church, but we know that he did so because he was a zealous man. “Being zealous for God, just as all of you are today, I persecuted this Way[5] to the death, binding and putting both men and women in jail, as both the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. After I received letters from them to the brothers, I travelled to Damascus to bring those who were prisoners there to be punished in Jerusalem.” (Acts 22:3-5)

At this point, however, Paul’s life changed dramatically.

Acts 9 starts with Saul “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”, and goes so far as to ask the high priest for permission to go to Damascus to bring any followers of Christ as prisoners to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2) However,

“As he travelled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’

‘Who are You, Lord?’ he said.

‘I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’” — Acts 9:3-6

In one fell stroke, Saul, the man who had done more to oppose the early Christian church than anyone, became its most ardent supporter. Within days Paul “began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues” (Acts 9:20). Later, Paul would explain that he had been chosen by God to preach the word to the Gentiles, a radical idea that would need a radical man. The Lord also spoke to a man named Ananias in Damascus of Paul:

But the Lord said to him, “Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for My name!” — Acts 9:15

From this moment on, Paul viewed his life as existing only to preach the gospel. In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul explained that an obligation had been placed on him to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 6:16), and in his letter to the Galatians Paul explained that “God, who from my birth set me apart and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me, so that I could preach Him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16).

So when we look at Paul’s greeting to the Ephesians, we can see several things. Despite all he would go on to do (much of which he had already done by the time he wrote Ephesians), Paul viewed himself only as “an apostle of Christ Jesus”. Furthermore, he views himself as an apostle “by God’s will”. James Montgomery Boice feels that it was this how that is Paul’s focus here: “It was not by his own will but ‘by the will of God.’ Indeed, if it had not been for God’s sovereign and efficacious will, Paul would not only not have been an apostle, he would not even have been a Christian. Left to himself apart from the grace of God, he fought against God and attempted to destroy His church.”[6]

Paul had experienced first-hand exactly what happened when you followed your own path – no matter how sincere or meritorious you think that path may be. As we’ve already seen, Paul was “zealous for God”. Speaking before King Agrippa, Paul would explain that, “I myself supposed it was necessary to do many things in opposition to the name of Jesus the Nazarene.” (Acts 26:9) And God still chose Paul to be one of his greatest ever proponents. Paul set himself up to oppose Jesus Christ, but God had chosen Paul to preach Jesus Christ. As Beth Moore says in her wonderful book, To Live is Christ, “Christ not only snatched Saul from Satan that pivotal day. He snatched Saul from himself—from his own misguided zeal, from his own obsessions.”[7] According R. Kent Hughes, “The opening verses of Ephesians are a “celebration of blessing.” The mood is exuberant joy.”[8] Hughes goes on to add that, “Paul’s opening words celebrate a self that had been liberated from the crushing bondage of ego”[9].

Earlier, we said that there are two ways to look at Paul claiming he was “an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s Will”. Yes, we are all only Christians because God has made us so. But think harder, look at Paul’s life before and after. Beth Moore’s use of the word “snatched” is indicative of what Paul is hinting at in his opening greeting. Paul was “snatched” in the same way we say ‘a victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat’ – God snatched Paul from the jaws of Satan. In two verses Paul will tell the Ephesians that God chose us, in Christ, “before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight.” (Ephesians 1:4) We have been personally selected by God, kept from our own misguided and ignorant paths so as to keep us from falling into the many snares and traps that line our way. Beth Moore says that just as God snatched Paul from Satan and “from his own misguided zeal, from his own obsessions … He can snatch you from yours too.”[10] Hughes adds, “Paul’s song is ours in a less dramatic, perhaps, but equally significant way. For in Christ, every one of us has been delivered from self”[11]. More descriptively, Boice explains that “we would never have responded to [the gospel] … if God had not first called us from sin to Christ, as in the days of his flesh Jesus called the decaying Lazarus from the tomb.”[12]

In one opening greeting, Paul revealed that which is precious to him – his role as an apostle of Christ Jesus and the fact that God rescued him from sin.

What’s precious to you? What can’t you live without? Paul had accomplished more and suffered through more than most of us will ever encounter, and could have used these examples as the basis for his authority to teach, or as the basis for his self-worth. But he didn’t. Instead, all he rested on was his duty to spread the good news of Christ Jesus, and the fact that God had saved him from sin.

Can we say the same?

[1] For anyone wondering, Luke wrote around 27%, and John 20%
[2] http://apologika.blogspot.com.au/2014/05/who-wrote-most-of-new-testament.html
[3] NIVAC: Ephesians, Klyne Snodgrass, p.37
[4] ibid
[5] ie, Christianity
[6] Ephesians, James Montgomery Boice, p.4
[7] To Live is Christ, Beth Moore, p. 46
[8] Ephesians, R. Kent Hughes, p. 17
[9] ibid
[10] To Live is Christ, Moore, p. 46
[11] Ephesians, Hughes, p. 17
[12] Ephesians, Boice, p. 4

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1 comments
pamalaprice
pamalaprice

Thank you for explaining the root system under the stem of this greeting/ intro of Ephesians. Excellent. Again!