Introduction to the Letter to the Ephesians


The Book


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.


It was John Calvin’s favourite letter. Armitage Robinson called it “the crown of St Paul’s writings” and C.H. Dodd similarly called it “the crown of Paulinism”. William Barclay quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s assessment of it as “the divinest composition of man” and adds his own dictum that it is “the Queen of the epistles” John Mackay says, “this letter is pure music…. What we read here is truth that sings, doctrine set to music.” E.J. Goodspeed described it as “a great rhapsody of the Christian salvation” and “like a commentary on the Pauline letters”. It is indeed an exposition of the Pauline mission and message.


One of our chief evangelical blind spots has been to overlook the central importance of the church which is the central theme of the Ephesians. We tend to proclaim individual salvation without moving on to the saved community. Ephesians is the gospel of the church. For God’s new society is characterized by life in place of death, by unity and reconciliation inplace of division and alienation, by the wholesome standards of righteousness in place of the corruption and wickedness, by love and peace in place of hatred and strife, and by unremitting conflict with evil in place of a flabby compromise with it.


Markus Barth suggests that the letter endears itself and its author to us by three characteristics:


[1] Ephesians is intercession. More than any other NT epistle, it has the character and form of a prayer.


[2] Ephesians is affirmation. It is neither apologetics, nor polemics. Instead, it abounds in bold and even jubilant affirmations about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.


[3] Ephesians is evangelism. It boldly asserts God’s saving purpose and action (ch.1-2), God’s ongoing work in his self-manifestation to and through the church (ch.3-4), and the bold and joyful ambassadorship of Christians in the world (ch.5-6).




Some object to the authorship of Paul based on the letter’s distinctive vocabulary and style. They tot up the number of words in Ephesians which do not occur in Paul’s other letters, and the number of his favourite words not found in Ephesians. His style is far less impassioned than usual, his “baroque, bombastic, or litany-like style.” But this is largely subjective judgment. But, why should we expect such an original mind as Paul’s to stay within the confines of a limited vocabulary and an inflexible style? Different themes require different words, and changed circumstances create a changed atmosphere.


Others use the historical argument that concerns a discrepancy between the Acts account of Paul’s longstanding and intimate acquaitance with the Ephesian church and the entirely impersonal and “hearsay” relationship which the letter expresses. Although his first visit had been brief (Ac 18:19-21), his second lasted three years (Ac 19:1—20:1,31). During this period, he taught them systematically both “in public and from house to house”, they came to know him well, and at his final parting from the church elders, their affection for him had been demonstrative. It comes as quite a shock, therefore, to discover that the Ephesian letter contains no personal greeting such as conclude Paul’s other letters. Instead, he addresses his readers only in generic terms, wishing peace to “the brothers” and grace to “all who love our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:23-24). He gives no indication that he and they know one another personally.


This impersonal character is certainly surprising. But there can be explanations. Paul may have been addressing a group of Asian churches rather than just the Ephesian church. Paul may have been addressing those members of Gentile origin whom he did not know personally. In any case, this is no definite proof against Paul’s authorship.


Others use the theological argument. Some emphasized that in Ephesians, as distinct from other letters of Paul, the role of Christ assumes a cosmic dimension, that the sphere of interest is in “the heavenly places” in which the principalities and powers operate, that the focus of concern is the church, that “justification” is not mentioned, that “reconciliation” is more between Jews and Gentiles than between the sinner and God, that salvation is portrayed not as dying with Christ but only as rising with Him, and that there is no reference to our Lord’s second coming. None of these points is more than a comparatively minor shift of emphasis, however. And there can be no mistaking the letter’s essentially Pauline theology.


A.M. Hunter rightly says that “the burden of proof lies with those who deny Paul’s authorship.” There are external and internal evidences that the author is Paul. Externally, there is the impressive witness of the universal church for 18 centuries. Internally, the letter not only purports to be written by the apostle Paul throughout, but its theme of the union of Jews and Gentiles by God’s gracious reconciling work through Christ is wholly appropriate to what we learn elsewhere about the apostle to the Gentiles.


Place and Date


Most Biblical scholars believe that the letter was written by Paul when he was in prison in Rome (Eph 3:1; 4:1; 6:20) at about AD 60.


Originally a Greek colony, Ephesus was now the capital of the Roman province of Asia and a busy commercial port. It was also the headquarters of the cult of the goddess Diana (Roman name for the Greek goddess Artemis) whose temple, after being destroyed in the 4th century BC, had gradually been rebuilt to become one of the seven wonders of the world.


There is a problem with the destination of the letter. The words “at Ephesus” are not to be found in the earliest papyrus manuscript from the 2nd century. Origen in the 3rd century did not know them. Moreover, Marcion in the middle of the 2nd century referred to Ephesians as having been addressed “to the Laodiceans”. Some thought that Ephesians could be the so-called “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). Certainly, Tychicus was the bearer of the two letters (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-8).


An explanation proposed by Beza (16th century) and supported by Ussher (17th century) was that Ephesians was originally a kind of apostolic encyclical or circular letter intended for several Asian churches, that a blank space was left in the first verse for each church to fill in its own name when read, and that the name of Ephesus became attached to the letter because it was the principal Asian city. However, this explanation is entirely speculative.


Charles Hodge thought that perhaps the letter was “written to the Ephesians and addressed to them, but being intended specially for the Gentile Christians as a class, rather than for the Ephesians as a church, it was designedly thrown into such a form as to suit it to all such Christians in the neighbouring churches, to whom no doubt the apostle wished it to be communicated.”




The letter focuses on what God did through the historical work of Jesus Christ and does through His Spirit today, in order to build His new society in the midst of old. The subjects:


1. The new life which God has given us in Christ

2. The new society which God has created through Christ

3. The new standards which God expects of His new society

4. The new relationships into which God has brough us—harmony in the home and hostility to the devil


The first half on what God has done through Christ and the second half on what we must be and do in consequence.




Christian Doctrine OR Faith



New Life





Life of blessing





Life of prayer





Life of resurrection



New Society





New humanity





New ministry





New confidence


Christian Duty OR Practice



New Standards


















New Relationships

















Part I, Section A, Passage (1)

2 parts, 4 sections, 12 passages


The letter focuses on what God did through the historical work of Jesus Christ and does through His Spirit today, in order to build his new society in the midst of the old.


It tells how Jesus Christ shed His blood in a sacrificial death for sin, was then raised from death by the power of God and has been exalted to the supreme place in both the universe and the church. We who are “in Christ”, organically united to Him by faith, have ourselves shared in these great events. We have been raised from spiritual death, exalted to heaven and seated with Him there. As a result, through Christ and in Christ, we are nothing less than God’s new society, the single new humanity which He is creating and which includes Jews and Gentiles on equal terms. We are the family of God the Father, the body of Jesus Christ His son, and the temple or dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.


Therefore we are to demonstrate plainly and visibly by our new life the reality of this new thing which God has done: [1] by the unity and diversity of our common life, [2] by the purity and love of our everyday behaviour, [3] by the mutual submissiveness and care of our relationship at home, and [4] by our stability in the fight against the principalities and powers of evil. Then in the fullness of time, God’s purpose of unification will be brought to completion under the headship of Jesus Christ.


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.


Paul writes of nothing less than a “new creation”. Through Jesus Christ God is [1] recreating men and women “for good works”, [2] creating a single new humanity in place of the disastrous Jewish-Gentile division, and [3] recreating us in His own image “in true righteousness and holiness”.


The church is the one for which Jesus gave Himself up (5:25); it is His body, and it is His fullness (1:23).



Main References:


Bruce, F.F. (1984): The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. New International Commentary on the New Testament Series.

Stott, John R.W. (1979): The message of Ephesians. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Stott, John R.W. (1998): Ephesians: Building a community in Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.



Other References:


Life Application Bible: New International Version (1991). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale.

The Zondervan Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (1975). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Wycliffe Bible commentary (1962). Chicago: Moody.