The Dual Blessings of Believers
Grace to you and peace (1:2a)
This was a common greeting among Christians in the early church. Charis (grace) is God’s great kindness toward those who are undeserving of His favor but who have placed their faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. To greet a Christian brother or sister in this way is much more than a wish for their general well-being. It is also an acknowledgment of the divine grace in which we stand and which has made us mutual members of Christ’s Body and of God’s divine family.
Grace is the fountain of which peace (eirēnē) is the stream. Because we have grace from God we have peace with God and the peace of God, “which surpasses all comprehension” (Phil. 4:7). Peace is the equivalent of the Hebrew shālôm, which, in its highest connotation, signifies spiritual prosperity and completeness.
The Dual Source of Blessing
from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1:2b)
The dual source of blessing is the same as the dual source of authority—God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Those are not separate and distinct sources but two manifestations of the same Source, as indicated by the connective kai (and), which can indicate equivalence, and here indicates that the Lord Jesus Christ is deity just like God our Father.
Paul’s message throughout this epistle is that believers might understand and experience more fully all of the blessings granted by their heavenly Father and His Son and their Savior, Jesus Christ.
Introduction to Ephesians
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As I study books of the Bible I find that those who write commentaries invariably extol their particular book as deepest, most important, or most relevant. Writers on Ephesians are no exception. William Barclay calls Ephesians “the queen of the epistles.” The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed this book “the divinest composition of man” because, as he believed, “it embraces, first, those doctrines peculiar to Christianity, and, then, those precepts common with it in natural religion.” John Mackay, a former president of Princeton Theological Seminary who was converted at the age of fourteen through reading Ephesians, called it the “greatest … maturest … [and] for our time the most relevant” of all Paul’s writings. “This letter is pure music,” he said. Ruth Paxson called Ephesians “the Grand Canyon of Scripture,” meaning that it is breathtakingly beautiful and apparently inexhaustible to the one who wants to take it in.
All superlatives aside, I want to begin by emphasizing the simple clarity of this letter. If Ephesians is profound, it is so not for the mysterious nature of its unfathomable deep secrets, but for the clear way it presents the most basic Christian truths. There is nothing in Ephesians that is not taught elsewhere. In his unfinished but valuable exposition of this letter, B. F. Westcott included an appendix in which he discussed the letter’s distinct doctrines. He found twenty-seven of them, running from God the Father, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity through the will of God, the world and creation, the unseen world, angels, evil powers, and the devil to the church, the communion of saints, the sacraments, and the Christian ministry. Not one of these doctrines is unique to Ephesians. They are just basic Christianity.
What is the appeal of this book? In my judgment it is just this: It presents the basic doctrines of Christianity comprehensively, clearly, practically, and winsomely.
I can put it another way. The focus for all the other doctrines in Ephesians is the church as God’s new society, so in a sense the book links these truths of Christianity to us, God’s people. In other words, it is practical. We are told who we are, how we came to be as we are, what we shall be, and what we must do now in light of that destiny. John R. W. Stott writes, “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.”
The Church at Ephesus
The letter is addressed to the Ephesians, but there is some question about its destination in scholarly circles. The words “in Ephesus” are absent from three of the oldest Greek manuscripts: the Vatican and Sinaitic uncials and the Chester Beatty Papyrus, which predates them. Nor is it just a question of two missing words. We know from the account of Paul’s travels in Acts that the apostle spent two years at Ephesus on his third missionary journey (Acts 19:10). Ephesians was written from prison (Eph. 3:1), presumably from Rome, which means that it was composed subsequent to this extended mission in the city. Since that is the case, it is surprising that the letter is without any of the personal greetings found in such letters as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Colossians. To complicate matters further, in the second century the heretic Marcion referred to Ephesians as the letter of Paul to the Laodiceans, thereby suggesting that his copy contained the word “Laodicea” for “Ephesus” in verse 1.
There are two main theories to explain this situation. The first is based on the fact that the letter to the Colossians and the letter to the Ephesians are closely related (thirty-five verses in the two letters are substantially the same) and that in Colossians 4:16 Paul writes, “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.” It is argued that Ephesians was actually this Laodicean letter and that the two churches were to exchange them.
That seems plausible, but unfortunately it does not explain how our letter came to be identified as our letter to the Ephesians or why there are no extant manuscripts that say “Laodicea.”
The second explanation, probably the best, is that Ephesians was originally composed as a circular letter intended for all the seven churches of Asia—those established by Paul or his followers during the time of his ministry in Ephesus—and that the name Ephesus became identified with the epistle because it was the chief city. Whatever the explanation for the missing words in some manuscripts and the lack of personal greetings in all, there is no doubt that the letter was identified as a letter from Paul to the Ephesian Christians from the earliest centuries. In the commentary referred to earlier, Westcott cites references to Ephesians from Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origin, and Clement of Alexandria, as well as others.
What was Ephesus like? Ephesus was the capital of proconsular Asia and as such was the political and commercial center of a large and prosperous region. That is why Paul spent so much time there. Ephesus was on the Cayster River, not far from the Aegean coast. Its port was large and so became the chief communication and commercial link between Rome and the East. Merchants flocked to it. It became a melting pot of nations and ethnic groups. Greek and Roman, Jew and Gentile mingled freely in its streets. In Paul’s day Ephesus played a role not unlike that of Venice in the Middle Ages or Constantinople today.
Ephesus boasted the largest of all Greek open-air theaters; it held twenty-five thousand spectators. There was a stadium for chariot races and fights with animals. Chiefly, however, Ephesus boasted of its great temple to Diana or Artemis. It was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It measured 425 by 220 by 60 feet (about four times the size of the Parthenon) and housed the statue of Diana, believed to have come down from heaven. This temple was a depository for huge amounts of treasure and was, in effect, the bank of Asia. It was served by hundreds of the priestesses of Diana, who were temple prostitutes.
To this city the apostle Paul came to preach—briefly on his second missionary journey and extensively on his third. In this city God was pleased to establish a faithful church. To the Christians of this city, attempting to live for God in the midst of utter paganism, the apostle directs this letter.
The Writer to His Readers
If Paul was writing this letter during his imprisonment in Rome, as we believe, he had already achieved a great deal in Christ’s service. He could have begun his letter with a rehearsal of his many accomplishments or even a reminder of what he had personally endured to bring the gospel of Christ to Asia. Paul does not do this. Instead, he introduces himself (as he does in many of his other letters) as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”
An apostle was one appointed by the Lord to be a recipient and authenticator of the New Testament revelation. As Paul said in writing to the Corinthians, he was one who spoke “not in words taught … by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13). This is important because it means that the book Paul wrote is not to be regarded as other books written by mere men or women but as God’s own revelation. It is from God. Therefore it is all true; it speaks with authority.
However, in view of the emphasis upon God’s sovereign, electing grace which follows in verses 3–23, I am inclined to think that in this letter Paul’s emphasis does not lie so much on the fact that he was an apostle, as wonderful as that was, but on how he became one. 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.
This is true of all of us. The gospel is a wonderful thing. It is the word of life in Christ. But however wonderful the gospel may be, we would never have responded to it or have become a part of that marvelous new creation the church, about which Paul is soon to speak, 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. If we are going to talk about the basics of the gospel, as Ephesians does, we must start at this point and from the very beginning of our exposition be sure that we relate everything to God. God called Paul. God called the Christians at Ephesus. God calls us, if we are truly Christians.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “Much of the trouble in the church today is due to the fact that we are so subjective, so interested in ourselves, so egocentric.… Having forgotten God, and having become so interested in ourselves, we become miserable and wretched, and spend our time in ‘shallows and in miseries.’ The message of the Bible from beginning to end is designed to bring us back to God, to humble us before God, and to enable us to see our true relationship to him.” He adds, “And that is the great theme of this epistle.”
The Saints at Ephesus
It is also the theme of the second part of verse 1 in which Paul turns from himself to his readers, identifying them as “the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.” This phrase contains three definitions of believers, or what D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls “the irreducible minimum of what constitutes a Christian.”
- Christians are saints. The biblical meaning of this word is different from what the church or even general secular society has made it. In the Roman Catholic Church a saint is a particularly holy person who is exalted to be a saint by ecclesiastical procedure. The person is nominated for the position. Then a trial is held in which one advocate pleads the virtues of the nominee (showing among other things that he or she was responsible for at least one miracle) and another advocate, called “the Devil’s Advocate,” tries to tear the person down. When the person’s worthiness is properly established he or she is officially declared a saint. Similarly, the world looks upon a saint (if it sees one) as a particularly good person.
This is far from the biblical idea, as I have indicated. In the Bible to be a saint means to be set apart. It is something God does quite apart from human merit. We see this meaning of the word in Exodus where Moses was instructed to sanctify the laver and the altar of the Jewish tabernacle. He was to make saints of them. This does not mean that in some miraculous way Moses changed the nature of the material that made up the laver or the stones that made up the altar. They did not become holier. It only means that he set them apart to a special, sacred use in the temple service. In the same way, when Jesus prayed in John 17, “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified,” he did not mean that he wished to become holier. He already was perfectly holy. He meant rather that he was dedicating himself (setting himself apart) to the task of making atonement for our sins on the cross so we could become set apart for God. A Christian is set apart when God reaches down through the person and power of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him, and thus draws him into the company of God’s church.
Every Christian is a saint, and every saint is a Christian. Moreover, every true Christian is in some sense separated from the world. It does not mean that we are taken out of the world. That is not the way God operates. But it does mean that we are removed from it in the sense of not really belonging to the world any longer. If we are truly Christ’s, we have a new nature, a new set of loyalties, and a new agenda. We belong to a different kingdom.
This also means, to carry it a step farther, that although being a saint does not primarily refer to being a good person, all saints will nevertheless be better than they would otherwise have been and will in increasing measures develop and show forth the character of Christ. In the second chapter of this letter we are going to see that the Christian has been saved by grace through faith alone—not by works (vv. 8–9). But we will also see that the one who has been saved is predestined “to do good works” through God’s working within him (v. 10). Theologians state this by saying that no one is justified who is not also regenerated. That is, we are saved by faith alone, but we are not saved by faith which is alone. All Christians are saints, and all saints must increasingly be saintly.
- Christians are faithful. When Paul calls the believers at Ephesus “faithful in Christ Jesus,” he has two ideas in mind. The first and primary meaning of the word “faithful” is “exercising faith.” That is, a Christian is one who has heard the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and who has then exercised faith in that gospel or believed it.
This faith has three elements. First, there is an intellectual element. Faith involves content. For faith to exist, that content must be proclaimed and understood. Second, there is an emotional element. The content that is understood, if it is understood rightly, is not something that can simply be passed off as interesting but of little real importance. It involves the death of the very Son of God for me, a sinner. Faith at this level warms the heart and draws forth a loving response to God, who has revealed himself in Christ. Third, there is a volitional element. Having perceived and understood the gospel and having been affected by it, the true Christian now makes a personal commitment to Christ who died for him.
There is a beautiful example of this third element in the conversion of Thomas as recorded in John 20. At first Thomas had refused to believe, but then Jesus appeared to him. Jesus did more than convince Thomas intellectually of the truths of the atonement and resurrection—he also touched his heart—and Thomas immediately made a commitment, declaring, “My Lord and my God” (v. 28). All Christians are faithful in that sense, and all who are thus faithful are Christians.
The second meaning of the word “faithful” is “to continue in faith” or, as we might say, “to keep the faith.” It involves the idea of perseverance in the Christian life, enduring to the end. Jesus said, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22). Usually, when Reformed Christians talk about the perseverance of the saints, they mean the perseverance of God with his saints. They wish to say that the only reason why any of us are ever able to stand firm to the end is that God is faithful to us. Well and good! But it is also true that precisely because God perseveres with us, we also must persevere. We must be faithful. It is therefore also proper to say that a Christian is one who is characterized by a full faith to the very end of life.
- Christians are in Christ. This is an idea to be dealt with at greater length later, for it is characteristic of this book and indeed of Paul’s writings generally. The phrases “in Christ,” “in him,” or the equivalent occur nine times just in Ephesians 1:3–23. They occur 164 times in all Paul’s writings. The phrases mean more than just believing on Christ or being saved by his atonement. They mean being joined to Christ in one spiritual body so that what is true of him is also true for us. On this basis Paul goes so far as to say that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Harry Ironside considered this last idea so important that he used it as a title of his published expository addresses on Ephesians.
This is a difficult concept, and the Bible uses numerous images to teach it to us: the union of a man and woman in marriage (Eph. 5:22–33), the union of the vine and the branches (John 15:1–17), the wholeness of a spiritual temple in which Christ is the foundation and we the individual stones (Eph. 2:20–22), the union of the head and other members of the body in one organism (1 Cor. 12:12–27).
But whether we understand it or not, union with Christ is in one sense the very essence of salvation. John Murray, an able expositor of this theme, wrote, “Union with Christ has its source in the election of God the Father before the foundation of the world and it has its fruition in the glorification of the sons of God. The perspective of God’s people is not narrow; it has the expanse of eternity. Its orbit has two foci, one the electing love of God the Father in the counsels of eternity, the other glorification with Christ in the manifestation of his glory. The former has no beginning, the latter has no end.”
Apart from Christ our condition is absolutely hopeless. In him our condition is glorious to the extreme.
The last words of Paul’s introduction are: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 2). They may be applied to what we have said in this fashion.
When I was discussing the setting for this epistle I pointed out that in the three oldest manuscripts the words “in Ephesus” do not occur. That may indicate that in its original form the letter was an encyclical designed for several churches. But whether that is true or not, one copy of the letter was certainly directed to the Christians at Ephesus, and this means these faithful saints, who were “in Christ,” were nevertheless also in the world—in Ephesus—and were obliged to live for Christ there. In the same way we must live for Christ in Philadelphia, in London, in New York, in Singapore, or wherever God has placed us. And our world is like Ephesus! Was Ephesus crassly commercial and materialistic? So are our cities. Was it pagan, preoccupied with sex, superstitious? So are we. What can keep Christian people faithful to God in such environments? What can enable them to be saintly continually?
There is only one answer. It is what Paul speaks of in his greeting: “grace and peace,” and particularly grace, from God the Father. As the book goes on we are going to learn what we should be in this world. But from the very beginning there is no mystery about how we are to be it—by the will and strength of God, who alone can help us. We have no other strength, but by his grace we can triumph.
Recognize the Strength of Your Message (1:2)
In the opening salutation Paul gives the message that he wants to impart in the rest of the book: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:2). These people are living amidst gross and powerful paganism. Their lives are threatened by it and touched by it, and yet the apostle is offering grace amidst sin, and peace amidst the storms of conscience and likely persecution. How can he offer such hope in the midst of such difficulty?
The Power of Grace (1:2a)
Paul can offer such hope because the grace and peace he offers are not of human origin. They are “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” and therefore do not have the limitations of human strength and effort. These words are common for the opening of Paul’s letters (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; 2 Thess. 1:2; Philem. 3; also in an abbreviated form in Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1). It has often been noted that Paul combines the ancient Jewish greeting of shalom (“peace”) with a Christian modification of the common Gentile salutation. The standard Greek greeting chairein (meaning “hello” or literally “rejoice”) has been changed to charis (meaning “grace”). Thus, with these simple words Paul underscores the good news that God provides what we cannot provide for ourselves.
The divine origin of the grace in Paul’s life pervades his message in many ways. Even the order of the divine names (Lord Jesus Christ) in his salutation reflects the progress of grace in the apostle’s own life. When he was breathing out threats and seeking to earn divine approval by his zeal, this Jew formerly known as Saul was seeking to pacify God the Father. But then this zealot was struck down on the road to Damascus in a blinding light and heard a voice demanding, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul responded: “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” was the reply (Acts 9:4–5). And soon Paul begins to proclaim this Jesus as the “Christ” (9:22).
The Power of Peace (1:2a)
Paul’s salutation to the Ephesians echoes the progress of his understanding of overpowering grace through the sequence of his experience with the persons of the Trinity. When Paul (as Saul) was God’s enemy, the Father sent the Son to claim him. Through no effort on Paul’s part—in fact, in the face of Paul’s contrary efforts—the Son took the steps to make Paul a true child of God. For this reason Paul recognizes Jesus to be his Messiah, the Christ. The knowledge of a God who acts in behalf of his people without any merit of their own is the grace self-evident in Paul’s life. He proclaims this grace to the Ephesians not simply as their hope but as their peace, because such grace means that God is not holding their sin against them. God has overcome the obstacles of the human heart and the powers of human evil. Because Paul knows this grace, he knows peace—and he shares both, knowing that when grace is understood as the compassionate and prevailing power of God in behalf of his people, then peace comes.
Peace is what enabled Paul to keep going when he suffered, when churches resisted his ministry, and when his ministry seemed incapable of overcoming the obstacles outside and inside the church. Even though Paul was in prison as he wrote to the Ephesians, he remained confident of God’s love and purpose. Because he was at peace, Paul’s ministry continued. Through his life we understand that peace is the power for ministry, as well as the fruit of grace. Perhaps this is the reason Paul began this letter with a promise of peace, since what he will say in the remainder of his epistle about the church’s ministry will be so challenging.
We should be aware of this power in peace as well. The Lilly Endowment recently recorded statistics regarding the pastors of local churches: 30 percent are doing well—they are gifted for the task and seem to be effective in their efforts; however, 40 percent are “just muddling through”—they feel largely ineffective, see themselves as stuck in dead-end locations and ministries, treading water that feels more and more like mud; the remaining 30 percent are already on the edge—they are barely hanging on, under attack, believing that they are failures, looking for any way out that they can find. What this means is that 70 percent of pastors see themselves as ineffective in ministry. The obstacles have become too big. The pastors wonder if anything will ever change, and believe they have run out of options to make a difference.
One does not have to be a pastor to wonder if the ministry challenges are too great to expect change. Some of us work with young people who, despite being in church, seem hardened to the gospel and in bondage to their culture. Others face counselees whose problems are so deep, complex, prolonged, or evil that we wonder what we could possibly say or do that will help. Others of us work in environments where secular values are no longer questioned, making our Christian witness seem antiquated and even bigoted. We may even worship in a church compromised by generations of bitterness, license, and indifference.
If the problems are so great, the culture so wicked, the church so weak, and the people so human, then what basis is there to expect that any change is really possible?
The apostle teaches us the answer through caring opening words that reveal the key to our power. What Paul says has happened in him can happen for others in the church today. God overcame Paul’s sin, his anger, his murder, and his war against the faith. If God can do that, then we can be at peace knowing that God can overcome any of the great obstacles of this life whether they are products of the culture’s making or of our own weakness. We can be at peace regarding what cannot be accomplished in our own strength because God’s work is not dependent on human strength. We need not despair simply because we are not strong enough to overcome our challenges. When the message of grace yields the fruit of peace, then we possess and reflect gospel power. Human weakness is not the end of the story. God is at work, so believers can be at peace and keep going. The personal peace that grace provides is the hidden power source of unvanquished ministry.
In the face of the overwhelming challenges in Uganda, Rick Gray wrote of a personal incident that reminded him of the source of his strength for facing the opposition and expecting change:
While checking the first draft of the “Katekisimo” (the new catechism being written) I became intent on finishing a certain amount of pages each day. One afternoon as time was ticking away, and my dear Mubwisi co-translator struggled to come up with just the right Lubwisi word to express the English meaning, I grew impatient with him. I became harsh and unsympathetic, impatient for him to go faster. My penchant to get the job done blinded me to Christ’s presence with us, and deafened me to the Spirit’s conviction of my sin.
Unless I maintain a Jesus-centeredness in the midst of ministry, I will be unable to love people well and bring the glory to God! Only as I realize my self-worth is determined by how awesome is the Savior’s love for me, and not by how productive my work is for him, will I be free from my drivenness and need to accomplish tasks. When I gaze upon his nail-pierced hands and believe they are actually reaching out to embrace me, then I am empowered to reach out with similar compassion and care to those around me. It is gospel love flowing through me into the hearts of others that can alone change the folks with whom I am involved in ministry.…
So while I believe the “Katekisimo” and Bundimulinga church discipline are all ministries that God can use to change people’s hearts and lives, I am also convinced that unless these activities are done in partnership with Jesus, and steeped in a deep sense of Calvary’s love, they can easily do as much harm as good.
What great challenges Rick faces: poverty, poor health care, poor education, immature Christians, inadequate catechisms, civil war, and personal danger. Yes, he wonders sometimes if his efforts will make any difference. But he answers such questions by embracing the truths of God’s faithfulness.
The God whose Word and will overcame the obstacles in Rick’s heart is not intimidated by opposing forces in this world. And this same loving God is still saying “grace and peace” to us, indeed, to all who call on his name. When we know his grace, then we can experience his peace no matter what challenges face us. Such peace keeps us from despair or surrender and thus is more powerful than the opposing forces in the world or in us. Peace is the evidence and expression of God’s power. Nothing in this world is more powerful than the peace that is the power of the gospel to them that believe. With such peace the gospel conquers challenges greater than we, and grants us the confidence and compassion to face them in Christ’s name and with his blessing.
2 As is his custom (e.g., Ro 1:7; 1 Co 1:3; 2 Co 1:2; Php 1:2; 2 Th 1:2; Phm 3), Paul substitutes in his salutation the rich terms “grace and peace” for the standard Greek “Greetings” (cf. Ac 15:23; 23:26; Jas 1:1). Using full titles, Paul identifies the dual source of these benefits: “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (or the Lord Jesus the Messiah). In addition to identifying Jesus as the Christ, Paul specifies that Jesus is “Lord.” The LXX replaced the name Yahweh with the title “Lord” (kyrios, GK 3261). Paul has applied that divine title to Jesus, showing that he is the exalted and transcendent one, the one to whom Christians now owe their devotion and worship. On thirteen occasions in his writings, Paul juxtaposes grace and peace as coming from God the Father. Grace (charis, GK 5921) denotes undeserved divine favor that results in salvation, above all (2:5, 8). Peace, from the Hebrew šālôm (GK 8934), denotes completeness, soundness, well-being, and security. Christians uniquely enjoy God’s grace and the peace that being in relationship with Christ brings.
2 The salutation “grace and peace be yours” probably originated in the language of public worship and was taken over by Paul and others as an epistolary greeting. The Christian reference of the grace and peace is emphasized by the added words “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”13 That true grace and true peace come from God Paul would readily have agreed before his conversion. Now the close association of the Lord Jesus Christ with God the Father (under the government of one preposition) bespeaks the place which Paul the Christian accords to his Lord—a place which (he believes) is consistent with the status to which God the Father has exalted him, sharing with him “the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). Divine grace and peace are bestowed supremely in the salvation which the gospel proclaims, and in providing this salvation God and Christ are at one. The grace which lies behind this salvation (cf. Eph. 2:5, 8) is indiscriminately called “the grace of God” (Eph. 3:2) and “the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6); the peace which this salvation produces (cf. Eph. 2:14–17; 6:15) is indiscriminately called “the peace of God” (Phil. 4:7) and “the peace of Christ” (Col. 3:15).
Background and summary: “Paul … To the saints who are at Ephesus” (1:1–2)
Any study of any Bible book rightly begins with an understanding of the facts of its writing. Who authored the book? When did he do so? And why? Who were the original readers of the book? What themes are highlighted?
These are vital questions—especially when we read the New Testament epistles (letters). Thankfully, these are also questions for which Paul often provides answers in the opening few verses of his correspondence. Such is the case with his letter to the Ephesians. So let us consider the background of the book, beginning with its first two verses. What do we need to know before reading on? There are at least four things:
The author of the letter (v. 1a)
Who wrote the letter to the Ephesians? “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus.” In today’s culture, the author of a letter signs his or her name at the very end of the letter. But the custom was reversed in ancient times. Ancient letters usually begin with the sender’s name rather than ending with it. So it is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul begins this letter, as he does all his New Testament letters, with his own name: “Paul.”
But who was the man who wrote this letter? First notice that he calls himself “an apostle of Christ Jesus.” Paul was not just an ordinary New Testament pastor or missionary, important as those men were. He was “an apostle”: a unique, first-century emissary of Jesus Christ. And, as such, Paul’s ministry—including his letter-writing ministry—carried (and carries) a special weight. The fact that these words were written by “an apostle of Christ Jesus” means that we cannot study this epistle as a mere academic exercise. Some people do that, of course—opening the books of the Bible and reading them as fascinating historical documents that teach us how the early Christians thought, how the ancient world worked, or how Christianity caught on so well among certain groups of people. In other words, some people—even some professing Christian people—read the Bible in the same way we might read the personal papers of George Washington or Queen Victoria: seeking to understand the culture, the times, and the people involved … but little more. But that is emphatically not the way we should approach this epistle! Yes, we want (beginning with this chapter) to understand the culture, the times, and the people that prompted the writing and content of this valuable letter—but not as mere sociological or historical study. We simply cannot proceed in that way—for the simple reason that the man who wrote this letter was “an apostle of Christ Jesus.”
Because Paul was “an apostle of Christ Jesus,” his words come down to us, not merely with historical lessons to teach, but with the authority of Jesus himself. When Paul wrote, he wrote the very words that the Holy Spirit inspired and that Jesus intended his church to possess. Therefore the words before us in the book of Ephesians are not merely instructive and interesting historically and culturally; they are also binding morally.
Remember, also, that Paul was not always an apostle. At one time he had been a Pharisee. His strict religious training, combined with his own sinful nature, had created in Paul’s heart an extreme form of religious self-righteousness. He was right with God, or so he thought, because of how scrupulously religious he had always been. Furthermore, he bitterly resented the teaching (and followers) of Jesus—so much so that he began to round up Christians like animals and to hand them over to the cruelest treatment.
Is this the same man who calls himself “an apostle of Christ Jesus” in Ephesians 1:1? It sounds strange. But perhaps that is why Paul includes the words “by the will of God” at the end of that verse. “Yes, I am an apostle of Christ Jesus,” he seems to be saying, “but only by the will of God. I am only a messenger of the gospel, I am only writing this letter—indeed, I am only a Christian at all—because of the will of God. Had my destiny been left to me, who knows into what kind of creature I may have further devolved! But by the will of God—by the mercy of Jesus who died for my sins, and who met me on the Damascus road and changed my heart [Acts 9]—I am a Christian, and also an apostle.”
Paul had an incredible pedigree—a top-flight education, a religious upbringing, and intellectual powers that were probably second to that of none other in Bible history, except for Jesus himself. Yet he informs his readers, at the end of verse 1, that it was not on account of these things that he became an apostle. In fact, it was perhaps this very set of advantages that Paul had leveraged so expertly in living his life of self-righteousness and sin! So, yes, Paul is careful to point out that he is an apostle, but not on account of anything good in himself. On the contrary, Paul considered himself the chief of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Yet he was made useful to God’s kingdom, not because of something in himself, but “by the will of God.” If we understand the gospel Paul proclaims in this letter, we will be able to say the same of ourselves.
Note also (briefly, but crucially) that Paul wrote this letter from prison—probably in Rome, around the year ad 61. Twice he refers to himself as “the prisoner” of Christ Jesus (3:1; 4:1). In 6:20 Paul calls himself “an ambassador in chains,” giving an additional reason to take his letter to heart. These words were penned by a man who suffered for his faith and yet kept serving the Lord.
The recipients of the letter (v. 1b)
To whom was Ephesians originally written? The answer comes in the second half of verse 1. Paul addresses these six chapters “To the saints who are at Ephesus”: to the folk who made up the church in the ancient city called Ephesus.
Ephesus was a great metropolis in Asia Minor (a parcel of land that largely overlapped modern-day Turkey). Situated near the merging of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, the city was a bustling commercial center and was home to one of the greatest pagan temples ever built, one of the so-called seven wonders of the ancient world: the temple of the fertility goddess Artemis.
Paul passed through this great city in about ad 52, at the tail end of his second missionary journey. He then returned, within a few months, for an extended period of ministry, preaching the gospel and establishing the Ephesian church over the course of about three years. As he did so, we are told in Acts 19, “the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (v. 20). Many of the city’s pagans, in fact, burned their books of witchcraft and turned away from the worship of Artemis—so much so that the artisans who crafted miniature silver replicas of the Artemis idol lost a significant portion of their business. So this letter was written to many people who had been saved out of paganism and witchcraft, and who lived in the shadow of one of the greatest places of idol worship in the history of the world. Surely the temptations to turn back to the old ways were many. Yet, as Paul writes in 1:1, these Ephesian Christians were “faithful in Christ Jesus.” As such, they are a powerful example to us. We may feel surrounded by infidelity and advancing paganism on many sides, but if the Ephesians lived in such darkness and yet were “faithful in Christ Jesus,” we can be as well.
It is interesting to note that, while Paul, as their former pastor and the one who had planted this church, surely knew many of these “saints” in person, he never calls any of them by name in this epistle. Nor does he directly speak of any specific happenings in this church, whose members he knew so well. Both of these facts are quite unusual. In his epistles, Paul almost always greets various church members by name and addresses specific situations that a given church is facing. But in Ephesians there are no such direct references.
This lack of direct personal address, along with some other peculiarities within the letter, has led many to the conclusion (probably rightly) that the letter to the Ephesians was actually meant as a kind of circular letter. In other words, it seems probable that this letter was written by Paul for the benefit of several churches, not just one. Perhaps it was sent to Ephesus first of all, then copied and passed along from the church there to several other churches4 in the smaller towns round about (perhaps some of the same churches addressed in the first three chapters of Revelation).
Ephesians, therefore, seems to have been intended for a wider original audience than some of Paul’s other letters. Keep that in mind as you read it. All Scripture is breathed out by God and is useful for all Christians everywhere (2 Tim. 3:16–17), but Ephesians is a letter that seems to have been written with the express purpose of being passed from church to church; a letter whose themes are universal and therefore immediately and obviously applicable to all Christians, regardless of where or when they live. The recipients of this letter seem to have been the Ephesians along with an assortment of other churches with all sorts of different people and problems, and yet who would all benefit from this one good word from the apostle Paul. We, therefore, ought to be able to step right in and see immediate application to ourselves, no matter when or where we find ourselves reading this fantastic letter.
The structure of the letter
Remember that this letter (as mentioned already) does not seem to address any specific local-church problems or heresies. Paul did not write Ephesians, as he did Galatians and Colossians, to combat heresy in the church. He did not write this letter, as he did 1 Corinthians, to answer practical questions or to rebuke bad behavior. Rather, the letter to the Ephesians seems to have been written more to promote right belief and behavior than to correct wrong belief and behavior. It is a short, though not simplistic, exposition of the Christian faith and life, an explanation of the good news, and an exhortation to the good life that flows from it.
Perhaps those two phrases—good news and good life—form the best summary of the structure of Ephesians. Chapters 1–3 announce the good news, while chapters 4–6 explain the good life. The first half of the book, in other words, is about Christian doctrine; the second half, Christian living. We will see that two-fold outline unfurl as we work our way through this letter. It is my hope that we will see it unfurl in our own lives, as well.
Christianity is not merely a set of doctrines held rightly in the mind. But neither is it just a system of ethics. Ephesians reminds us that both are involved: mind and action; belief and practice; good news and good living. This is biblical Christianity! Indeed, it is highly instructive to notice that Paul gives a full three chapters to Christian doctrine, and then an equal amount to Christian living. This letter is split right down the middle, as if the Holy Spirit is intent on reminding us not to veer off either side of the narrow path that is the Christian faith.
The themes of the letter
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is, as we have been saying, a broad exposition of the Christian gospel. But that is not to say that there are no discernable themes in the letter. Paul does hover over and/or revisit a handful of particular gospel truths and applications:
It is with the word “grace” that Paul begins his address to his recipients in 1:2: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That is not just a formulaic way of passing along Christian greetings. Paul means what he says: God’s grace abounds to us! This thread of thought runs throughout this epistle, weaving Paul’s various emphases together. Every blessing he describes in this letter is ours only as an undeserved gift! Paul says it most famously in 2:8: “By grace you have been saved … not of yourselves.”
“Grace to you and peace,” Paul writes in 1:2. Christians have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, one of the great consequences of our peace with God is that we ought also to live in peace with one another. Paul expands that theme at length in this epistle to the Ephesians. We are to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3)—between Jewish and Gentile Christians, between children and parents, between Christians with different spiritual gifts, and so on.
The spirit world
Remember that the Ephesian Christians lived in the shadow of the grand temple of Artemis. Many of them were converted out of paganism and even occultist practices. And surely Paul knew that, “faithful” though they were (v. 1), they still lived “at Ephesus”—a dark place where they would be prime targets for demonic temptation. The same sorts of things were likely true of the Christians who read Paul’s letter in the other churches of Asia Minor. So it is not surprising to find that Ephesians, more than any of Paul’s other letters, emphasizes Christ’s victory over, and the Christian’s necessary watchfulness concerning, “the prince of the power of the air” (2:2), “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12), the “flaming arrows of the evil one” (6:16), and so on.
Union with Christ
Chapter 1 is replete with reminders that every blessing we possess—whether predestination, forgiveness of sins, or a heavenly inheritance—comes to us “in Him”: in Jesus! We are one with him—so much so that every good thing we possess is ours because of our link with and standing in the Lord Jesus. If we have peace with each other, it is because we first have peace with Jesus. If we gain victory over the spiritual forces of wickedness, it is because Jesus has already gained the victory on our behalf. If we are seated in the heavenly places, it is because Jesus has gone there ahead of us. “Every spiritual blessing” is ours “in Christ” (1:3). He is the centerpiece of Paul’s gospel!
Watch for these themes as you work your way through the verses and chapters that lie before you in Ephesians. Look, especially, for Paul’s constant focus on the person and work of Christ. Look also for his Trinitarian emphases. These are the great themes of the gospel. It will be no surprise to find them in this letter, one of the greatest gospel summaries ever written.
May God bless you as you study his good Word!
1:2 / The greeting ends with Paul’s usual mention of grace and peace (cf. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; and Titus 1:4 include grace, mercy, and peace). Chairein (“Greetings”) was a common word for greeting in the Greek world (Acts 15:23; 23:26; James 1:1). Paul uses charis (“grace”), which to believers has come to mean God’s free and unmerited goodness upon humankind.
The Hebrews greeted each other with šalôm, a common term for “peace” as well as fullness or wholeness of life. The apostle, likewise, is doing more than just greeting his readers with these terms, because grace and peace are gifts of God given through Christ. By bringing these two gifts together, he is urging that his readers enjoy life because of the favor that God freely has bestowed upon them. Both concepts form an important part of the letter (peace: 2:14, 15, 17; 4:3; 6:15; grace: 2:5, 7, 8; 3:2, 7; 4:7).
One cannot help but notice the significant role attached to Christ in these opening verses. Paul is designated as an apostle of Christ Jesus; the believers live their life in Christ Jesus; and together with God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ bestows the divine gifts of grace and peace upon his people.
In the following discussion it will be noted that Ephesians has a number of stylistic features similar to Colossians. First, Ephesians follows the pattern of praise, thanksgiving, and prayer. In Colossians, Paul began by thanking God for his readers (1:3–8) and then praying that God would accomplish certain things in their lives. In Ephesians, there is a similar structure: The epistle begins with a great hymn of praise or thanksgiving to God (1:3–14) and follows up with a long prayer (1:15–2:20) in which the apostle expresses the concern that his readers understand how God has blessed them through Christ.
A second similarity relates to the hymn and its place in the epistle. In Colossians, the ideas of the Christ hymn (1:15–20) were applied again and again throughout the letter. Much the same could be said of Ephesians, for this opening eulogy serves as an excellent preface to the remaining doctrinal section. The idea of redemption is prominent in the phrases dealing with the exaltation of Christ (1:15–22), salvation by faith (2:1–10), the unity between Jew and Gentile (2:11–22), and the revelation of the mystery of Christ (3:1–12).
Third, Ephesians may be divided conveniently into a doctrinal and a practical section, since we find the author providing a theological base (chapters 1–3) and then applying these truths to the Christian life (chapters 4–6). Such divisions, however, should not be taken too rigidly, for one finds ethical exhortations in the midst of doctrinal discussion (e.g., 1:4; 2:10) and doctrinal teaching continues throughout the last chapters (4:4–16; 5:21–6:9).
 Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (p. 251). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.