Lecture 8: Ephesians
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The letter to the Ephesians has for many Christians been as beloved or nearly, as the letter to the Romans and arguably the second most influential book among the Pauline corpus, after Romans as well. Like that epistle, Ephesians sets out in a very organized fashion, many key tenants of the Gospel message, though less with respect to a point by point progression of taking the believer from their plight in sin through the steps of salvation to glorification. As in focusing on what Christ has done and his benefits for the church as a whole, though certainly derivative for the believer and thus the responsibility of the church ethically to live out its collective salvation as a testimony to a watching world and to the cosmos, we will see perhaps the central means to accomplishing that mandate is as the church reflects unity in the mitts of its diversity. Hence our title, powers includes not only earthly but also heavenly and other worldly, angelic and demonic powers along with unity and diversity.
Ephesus, like Corinth and Philippi have received considerable archaeological attention, spectacular ruins remain or have been renovated so that tourists can see the pillars that surrounded the market place. The very stunting facade of the pagan philosopher Celsus, extensive personal library, the marble slab tiled roads that crisscross the city center at more than one location with pillars that once held up the shops that lined those roads. And even when the marble no longer appears, the columns enable people to see how long and wide and majestic these main streets were. In this case the road heading out to where the harbor would have been in the 1st century but now silted over making the sea further away. The Ephesian theatre is one in the Greek world that still remains in tack.
With the nearly three year period that Paul spent in Ephesus as shown in the Book of Acts, one would expect this letter to have many personal touches perhaps reflect distinctive problems relating to the cultural community of Ephesus. In Romans, we find almost none of this, but Paul had not visited that church or community. With Ephesians, one cannot make sense out of the phenomena in this fashion. We will return to this question. But after our survey of the outline and highlights, we will also suggest that perhaps the problem itself is over played.
There is no doubt if one looks at the outline of the book, it can be easily divided in half even more so than letter to the Romans, into a section of theological exposition followed by a section of ethical implication. That section of theological exposition if not exactly the plan of salvation as in Romans, can be viewed as describing the blessings of salvation. The introductory greetings include one of the potential keys to solving the mystery of the abstract nature of the letter’s content and also to the vexed issue of the authorship of the thesis. Even more so than Colossians and also 2nd Thessalonians, the authenticity of Ephesians in the modern biblical scholarship, aka the last 250 years or so, has been called into the question. Not merely by the lack of apparent connection with the particulars of the Ephesian church but as with the letter to the Colossians being a very different style from the undisputed letters of Paul. Where Colossians had very clear particulars such as the heresy that Paul had to combat, enabling some to account for the difference in style, in Ephesians, one has to deal with both problems of abstract content and unique style and as we noted in our introduction, a style very similar to that of Colossians. But with contents nearly as distinct from the undisputed Pauline’s as the case with Colossians, largely because of anything like the Colossian heresy. And also because as F.F. Bruce in his commentary as well as others have pointed out, even though the style is different, phrase by phrase and concept by concept, a large part of Ephesians reads like a compendium, using F.F. Bruce’s phrase, the quintessence of Pauline thought, as if perhaps a follower of Paul wanted to create a collage of the best of Paul’s teachings.
The one other datum that begins to lead us in the direction of a solution is the lack of the words in Ephesus from the three earliest known reliable manuscripts of this letter. Could it be that Ephesians was originally not written merely to one unique congregation or community of house churches? It’s intriguing that in the letter to the Colossians in 4:16 Paul writes, ‘after this letter has been read to you see that is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and you in turn read the letter from Laodicea. The latter letter obviously hasn’t been preserved. Here is clear evidence that Paul intended that one of his letters to be read by more than one church. Now Laodicea was close enough to Colossae that they both were infested by the same false teachers so that Paul’s words proved appropriate for both churches, but we also see in the Book of Revelation for a document which was intended to be read by seven churches, including Ephesus and also Laodicea. It doesn’t seem that Paul initially having intended Ephesians to be addressed to more than one church insomuch that he had to write at a more abstract level without greetings people of one community, without dealing with specific problems of a particular community and that rather than having to create a copy for each community, he simply didn’t include a specific destination in his opening greetings leaving individual churches to make a copy for themselves.
Unpacking the rest of the first three chapters, the prayer or thanksgiving as in 2nd Corinthians but unlike other letters surveyed thus far is couched as a Jewish (בְּרָכוֹת – Barakhah) praise or blessing rather than an explicit thank you. It is interesting that comments and wordings of prayer continue to punctuate the first three chapters. So in chapter three, Paul begins as if he is concluding the long first part of the body of the letter, ‘for this reason, I Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you gentiles,’ but then breaks off not resuming his line of thought until verse 14, ‘for this reason I kneel before the Father’, the posture for prayer and by the end of chapter three, Paul is in a mode of prayer. It is the Greco-Roman literary, epistolary sub-form of an encomium, prayer praise to the gods or for wealthy civil benefactors often inscribed on buildings and columns erected and made possible by their patronage, in which we fine the closest possible parallels to the first three chapters of the Ephesians.
The formal thanksgiving prayer however spans 1:3 – 14 which in the Greek, creating one unified long sentence, clearly divisible in thirds according to the respected works of the triune God-head with each section concluding with the reframe to the praise of his glory. The uniqueness of the Father is the work of predestining or election on which I recall my comments on Romans 8 & 9 and note that here, even more clearly, it is only believers that are in view and only single predestination which is unambiguously spoken of and that even though this is election in the Christian era which refers to eternal salvation which seems to require an individual component to it, nevertheless, can still be spoken of in terms of cooperative election, for it is we the church who was chosen in Christ and in his love such as we become related to Christ through our response to God’s wooing but not deterministic initiative; he declares us to be the elect, he signifies that we are those who are predestined by virtue of in cooperation into Christ and his body. Jesus Christ is the one who has redeemed us to his cross work and the Spirit is the one who comes to live in us, to mark us and seal us, to form a deposit or down payment guaranteeing the rest to come, our full eternal inheritance. But although the formal blessings ends with 1:14, verse 15 begins, ‘for this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I have not stopped in giving thanks.’ Still the language of one in prayer as it says in the second part of verse 16, ‘remembering you in my prayers.’ In verse 17, I keep asking and verse 18, I pray and what he prays for, spans the next several verses, shading into theological affirmation about what Christ has done and made possible for us. We may understand this section as continued prayer for believers, a greater understanding of the hope of the future and even now the power in the present that Christ death and resurrection have made possible.
By the time we get to chapter 2, a newly begun paragraph or sentence in the Greek, we are at least in uninterrupted declarative and indicative teaching for some time. Though as we have already mentioned, the prayer mode will resume by chapter 3:1. The main point of chapter 2:1 – 10 as Paul turns to the benefits that are available to those who are in Christ as a result of Christ’s work, would appear to be the certainty of that salvation, present and future for the believer because of the finished work of Christ and the fact that, it is made available to the believer by the grace of God. Verses 1 – 7 may be thought of as playing with these various times and tenses in which Paul alternates, entitled the future as past. Particular striking in these verses is Paul’s use of compound verbs, all put in the past tense, to describe the believers’ unity in Christ and the blessings available in that unity. Less clear in the English, the language in verse 5, being made alive with Christ and verse 6, being raised up with Christ and being seated with him, are verbs that could be more literally rendered co-resurrected, co-made alive, co-seated, co-exalted or something like this; and yet, except for the beginning stages of being made alive in Christ, we have not been resurrected bodily, seated in the heavenly places, using the language of chapter 1 and elsewhere or exalted with Jesus into heaven.
But Paul uses the emphatic use, a future referring to the use of the past tense, perhaps something similar to the emphatic perfect in Hebrew. For it is a comparative rare form outside of Greek, influenced by Semitic language and thought. To say emphatically that these future promises are so certain that we can speak of them as if they are already past. Maybe the best known verses in all of Ephesians or at least in the theological half of Ephesians are 2:8 – 9. For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast. Here we may label the play with tenses as the past as present. As he has already done once in the briefer statement in verse 6, Paul uses what is called a periphrastic construction, to say with two verbs a form of the verb, to be, followed by a participle. What in the vast majority of instances, Greek employed only one verb to communicate and thereby to the extent he uses two separate tenses in those two different verbs can say what we cannot say nearly so fluently in English, namely in this case, ‘for it is by grace that you have been and continue to be saved through faith.’ We don’t like the covenantal nomist about whom we talked about in introducing the Letter to the Galatians, preaching salvation by grace but perseverance by works. It is as Paul puts it in Romans 1:16-17, what we introduced as the thesis statement of that letter, justification, a partial synonym for salvation, by faith from first to last, a revelation of the righteousness of God in the Gospel by faith. We refer also to Galatians 2. But that is not to say that good works do not have a part to play, for the verses not nearly as well known, tellingly as 8 – 10 afterwards adds, ‘for we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.’ Neither Paul nor any other apostolic or foundational Christian writer was against good works or believed that salvation was possible if one’s faith never resulted in good works. Works are not things that bring about salvation but the out-growth of it. It is a response for gratitude for Christ’s completed work on the Cross for us appropriated entirely by faith.
Chapter 2: 11 to the end of chapter 3 may then be seen as moving on to the reconciliation that salvation offers. Beginning here, unlike Colossians, immediately with the reconciliation of Jew and gentile; the most warring factions of Paul’s day, little wonder that the theme of unity pervades. The rest of chapter 2; precisely because the Gospel is a Gospel of grace which is entirely by grace through faith, Jew and gentile come after Christ has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between them (2:14). They come on utterly equal terms to create peace (verse 15) and Paul believes that in his apostolic commission, a steward of this unity. A stewardship that he begins and takes for granted that his Ephesians audience knows but not everyone else at the other churches that this letter may be delivered to, may know and so he interrupts the beginning of his prayer in 3:1 to remind them of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to him, which he speaks of in verse 3 as a mystery once hidden but now reveals both on the plain of salvation and personally in his life. And this mystery that previous generation did not know or understand (verse 5) is defined specifically in verse 6 as that through Gospel, the gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together as one body in Christ Jesus. Moreover, the goal in creating such a unity, mysterious indeed to the Israelites of the Old Testament when they seemed always at odds with their surrounding neighbors.
That mystery in verse 9 is to be made plain, to be disclosed to everyone now is the Christian age, through the church, through the local expressions and worldwide expressions of the community of God’s true followers in Christ, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known and also to the rulers and authorities, not even in this life but in the heavenly places, in another world, according to his eternal purpose. There is a message here for Christian witness and evangelism. We don’t need any new tools or strategy or resources although there might be new developments in those areas, to have an impact on our world in the 21st century for good for producing more followers of Jesus Christ. If we would take seriously the task of uniting true Bible believing born-again evangelical Christians, tragically that wing of the church seems in recent decades due to the accesses of the modern ecumenical movement. But create the needed unity for those to trust in Christ like in the days of Paul’s writings. And there are probably implications also for the nature and made up for any individual Christian congregation. There is a time and place for homogeneity, for like-minded individuals in the same age bracket or any other walk of life to join together to discuss and encourage and be challenged and nurtured in common concerns. But too a contemporary church have so divided into separate groups, that there are few if any avenues left for fellowship and to get to know young adults at a deeper level, for people to come together within a given community for the common cause of the kingdom, for different cultures and peoples to not just know a few people but to have cherished brothers and sisters in relationships that are natural enough that others will know about them and wonder why such people are gathered together like this who have no natural human reason for doing so, it is then the question of a supernatural power cannot be avoided. Thus through this, people will come to Christ.
In this part of Ephesians, we find that the theme of unity and diversity continues. What does it mean to grow up and mature into that Christian unity? Each believer is given one or more gifts that may or may not be identical to the gifts of others as shown in 1st Corinthians 12 and also mentioned in Romans 12. We shouldn’t be surprised at the source of these gifts being from the triune God which is the perfect analogy of unity and diversity (verses 1 – 6). The entire purpose of the giving of the gifts of the spirit as we read in chapter 4:12 is to equip his people for works of service so that the body of Christ is built up until we reach unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God. This can also be described as being mature or measuring up to the fullness of Christ in us. As chapter 4 continues, Paul’s ethical exhortations become a bit more general, more like an abstract virtue list similar to other Greco-Roman literature. Time prevents us from commenting on all of them except for 4:15 of speaking the truth in love. Not even a full sentence in the original Greek but so much of the Christian morality is encapsulated in it, and so much of Christian individuals have an imbalanced appropriation of one or the other of these two attributes over-shadowing the other. We must speak the truth, doctrine; biblical teaching in detail, the exposition of Scripture, the legitimate application of God’s inerrant truthful word must be a central part of Christian ministry of every kind in every place and age and of individual Christian witness to both insiders and outsiders to their faith. So many branches of the church and segments of Christian ministry and idiosyncrasy of individual personalities have been so afraid of offending others or an exaggerated way concerned with the unity of the church. The truth has been sacrificed, not peripheral issues but fundamental Christian issues. So too, a large segment of the Christian church, at times even in reaction to the first trend, swung the pendulum back in the opposite direction when the truth was clearly emphasized but love was clearly lost in the process. People were figuratively, if not literally, beaten over their heads with the truth in a way that made it almost impossible to hear that truth when a far more tactful and loving and kind approach could have accomplished so much more in application of Jesus’ golden rule of doing to others as you would have them do unto you. We need them both and in balance.
4:17 – 5:16 continue to broaden out themes of walking in Christian morality more generally. But the imagery, much like of taking off old clothes and putting on new clothes symbolized in the new baptismal garments which the first several centuries of Christians were regularly amerced. Imagery of putting and putting off is perhaps the most pervasive or dominant one in this segment of the letter to the Ephesians. Elsewhere the order is chorological of putting off and putting on, here the focus is of the Ephesians have already become and what they are to grow into becomes first in having particularly the image of God renewed in them following the language in the parallel passage in chapter 3:10 of Colossians to interpret 4:24 which reads to put on the new self, the new person created to be like God, that is, in his image, morally though not anthologically in true righteousness and holiness, clarifying that it is morality that we are talking about. And thus the old person is put off with all of the falsehoods associated with it. Of the many things we can comment on 4:25 – 5:16, perhaps, one of the least focused on and yet crucial, particularly for modern western Christians who are caught up in the frantic pace of 21st century life in the West in 5:15. Be very careful then on how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil. As fast a pace as life is and as transient and fleeting as the years of our lives are, we dare not waste any of it. This is no call for work-alcoholism as some of us need to slow down and do less. But it is a call whether in desperate needed physical recreation to bring us back to physical and mental health, whether it is in family time, so crucial when so many families have so little time together and often fracture as a result or whether it is in more explicit Christian service or at the work place living out ones vocation, recognizing as we saw in 2nd Thessalonians that working well is a part of holiness, itself. And in whatever area we find ourselves in, let us make sure that what we do pleases God and counts in some way for his ongoing kingdom work and priorities, because the days are not only fleeting as we know from watching the world around us, first hand and virtually. The days are very evil.
With the paragraph, arguably begun at 5:17, Paul now prepares to introduce an equivalent of sorts with the domestic house code we saw in the second half of Colossians. 5:17 begins, ‘therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is,’ and as we mentioned in 1st Thessalonians 4 and Romans 12, again it is going to be unpacked, among other things, in fundamentally moral terms. And what is the Lord’s will? Verse 18 summarizing with, ‘and do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.’ What does it means to be filled with the spirit? We see in the Book of Acts, believers repeatedly, sometimes the same ones, are said to be filled with the spirit in context with the implication sometimes, they had not been. In the Book of Acts, whenever someone is said to be filled with the spirit, he or she is empowered for bold witness or service, often accompanied by the verbal proclamation of God’s word. Paul also uses language which suggests the filling of the spirit unlike the baptism which is the once for all initiation of a believer into the body of Christ just as water baptism symbolizes that initiation. The filling of the spirit is a continually repeated process for he uses the present tense command in 5:18, be filled and keep on being filled with the spirit, but every time we need our faith to focus on how the spirit would prompt us for obedience to God’s work. He does not fully animate everything that we do. What is Paul particularly concerned about? Is it being the outgrowth of the filling of the spirit in the Ephesian church and the other nearby communities? He goes on to explain, praise God, giving thanks for everything and submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ.
Here, his words, particularly to wives and husbands appear in much fuller form than in Colossians: also we will reframe from any further comment on the theology of gender roles until we look at all of key passages in a different lecture. But, however one interprets the mutual submission between wives and husbands, children and parents; note that without that submission, the authority figures to love and give and not harm and not provoke and mistreat those in subordination to them. Without obedience to these twin sets of commands, one cannot say that one is filled with the spirit. We don’t hear much in those contexts in teaching in which the Holy Spirit occurs in the contemporary church. We tend to hear all kinds of things that have no basis in New Testament text where the language of the filling of the Spirit occurs.
Finally, Paul comes to his teachings in 6:10 – 17 about standing firm against the demonic realm; the struggle going on in the heavenly places, probably referring here to that second heaven that we discussed when we talked about 2nd Corinthians 12, the invisible realm between atmosphere and God’s throne room where in common Jewish thought, angles and demons did battle; to use the current vernacular, where spiritual warfare takes place. We can understand why Paul calls it the heavenly places, a term occurring five times in Ephesians and nowhere else in the New Testament where we will see momentarily, perhaps for good reason. How does one resist in this spiritual warfare? Paul answers by one of his famous extended metaphors, just as he had spoken of the body of Christ in 1st Corinthians 12. Taking language from Isaiah and other prophetic texts and reusing it, sometimes in different ways to show us that there are no necessarily deep details between parts of armor and theological attributes they represent but rather that the further package of the appropriate Christian response, however one presents it. Putting on the full armor of God as 6:13 phrases it, involves truth (verse 14), righteousness, the Gospel of Peace and the readiness to proclaim it (verse 15), faith (verse 16), salvation (verse 17) and the Word of God, all supported by prayer and the power of the Spirit (verses 18 – 20). Nothing exotic here, no unusual formulas or bizarre methodologies; just fundamental Godly Spirit filled Christian living supported by prayer, according to his word will do more than enough to keep the devil away, but how little we avail ourselves of it.
At this point, we might be tempted to stop but I promised I would come back after our overview of this marvelous epistle and return to the question whether it is in fact true as so often it has seemed that Ephesians had little to uniquely do with the church in Ephesian. When we read the teaching in chapter 19 of the Book of Acts, we discover that among other things, there was a great cash of magical papyri, documents within magical formulas and occult paraphernalia for invoking various Greek and Roman gods and goddesses in a way that was designed to try to manipulate them into granting people’s wishes. And Paul is described as taking part in what we might call the first book or scroll burning ceremony in the history of the Christian movement. Ephesus for a center for many Greco-Roman cults, not least the dionysiac (Greek – dionysiakos) cult, the god of wine, and of course the shrine of artemis invoked by Demetrius who lead the trade guild of craftsmen that fashioned the silver idols, images of the goddess, herself, was the goddess of the hunt initially, but eventual a goddess of fertility as well. As the many breasted statues of Artemis, once found in the giant temples that formed one of the ancient wonders of the world, including Nephesis, now visible in a miniature replica in the British museum in London. Is it true, that Ephesians has so little to do with Ephesian issues? Clinton Arnal, evangelical Christian writer who has done writings on Ephesians and Colossians argues not and points to a series of phenomena from the beginning to the end of the book which suggests that an integrating theme of Ephesians is this climatic topic at the end of the letter body of spiritual warfare and the victory that the Christian has over it and over the demonic realm.
The repeated references to the heavenly places in 1:3, 1:20 – 6, 3:10, 6:12 are not a sign of Pauline authorship as some would charge, but of the unique combination of Jewish and Greek thought that lead to this invisible realm of heavenly warfare. Where, but in Ephesus or where as much as in Ephesus could such a center of demonic attack be said to be housed. The universal lordship and the fullness of Christ in 1:10 and 21 – 23, a lot of which believers can share. Read 1:23, 3:19 and 4:13 again, uniquely vanquishing the hostel powers that enslaved the pagan Ephesians and the term for fullness already introduced in Colossians, (Greek – Pleroma) the Pleroma, meaning fullness, eventual a unique term used for the Gnostic god-head. We can forget the initial encouragement that the doctrine of election provided in a pagan world where no one believed. There was possibly uniquely chosen by the god and goddesses giving great security in a world where these deities seemed to act arbitrarily, at least for those who did not fully master the magical rites that could guarantee human power over them. Paul’s repeated prayer that the Ephesians might know Christ’s great power and his love. His resurrection and our co-resurrection with him as a victory over the prince of the power of the earth, Satan himself in this unseen realm of the second heaven is still in view. For Jews as well, the triumph over a feudal background that preserved the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and gentile that led to the division in the temple between court of the gentiles and the Jews, between Jewish women and the men, between the Jewish laymen and priests, between the priests and the holy of holies where the high priest could go alone once a year. The temple itself is a place where God’s dwells; it’s not just a place of individuals but collectively it’s considered one, just like the church, a community of God’s people who are to be holy. Holy in the sense that creates closeness to God.
Paul uses many of the same concepts concerning spiritual gifts and with this in mind speaks of Christ and his resurrection and ascension. He triumphed over the grave and the dead and therefore as a result, he gave gifts to his people, spiritual gifts because of Christ’s triumph over these powers, changing the special metaphor of the underworld, the power of more living and being filled with the spirit, being transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light (verse 5:8); being filled with the spirit as opposed being controlled by the dionysiac cult. Again, hinting to the lecture on gender roles, valuing women as whole persons. If we place the Ephesian house hold of the 1st century background, particularly the Ephesians propensity to look at women as sex objects as baby makers in the worship of the fertility god, Artemis. Nothing remotely of that comes through in Paul’s words of husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, to present them to him unblemished and spotless. Surely, married women can submit to men with that kind of mandate. And even in the mitts of the Ephesians house code, a reminder of a higher authority than the husbands and parents and slave masters as each in his own way must give account to God. Understand that a distinctive feature in a Roman world where in certain arenas of life, the father of the family had the power of life and death over those under him. So by the time we reach the metaphor of spiritual armor, this is not a new topic, it is the climax of the theme of spiritual warfare that has pervaded the entire epistle. Can we believe this was intended to be written in the 60’s by Paul to Ephesians? If there is any truth about anything else we know about Ephesus, the answer would be yes. But notice what is absent in all of this, not a word has been spoken in Ephesians about exorcism, casting out of the devil, warding him off through the kind of rituals and incantations which have often characterized Christian fascination of the devil and his power, practices that more resemble the occult magic that Paul would have nothing to do with in Ephesus.
III. Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians
Following a chart on this topic and adding our own pictorial imagery, what does the Book of Ephesians suggest the believer should do when demons appear to afflict individuals however strong, prayer is always appropriate? Paul’s final word on the topic, Ephesians 6 and because there is additional teaching, additional models as back in Philippi with the slave girl in Acts 16 and models from the ministry of Jesus would appear that there are some who have the ability to cast demons out, to exorcise demons from people who are more seriously oppressed, possessed. But then there is the somewhat uniquely modern phenomena, popular in some circles of exorcising places, building, lands, neighborhoods, rooms, artifacts, though there is no example in scripture of such a practice. Is it possible that certain spiritual powers could uniquely afflict certain geographical areas? There are one or two passages in the Book of Daniel, very difficult to interpret, that might suggest this, though it might not. But even if so, does that justify this type of exoticism? Is there anything less than fully appropriate and adequate than the power of prayer? I think not. In which case is it less productive to the witness of Gospel or take offense to publicly call demons out of pagan temples of cities, nations etc., though some Christians have been caught up in some of these activities.