Paul’s letter to the Ephesians stands alongside Romans as a classic example of his thought. Ephesians is heavenly in its content and expansive in the truths it proclaims, while remaining approachable and pragmatic in its instructions. Here are three things you should know when you read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
1. Ephesians is deliberately broad and general.
Unlike Colossians, where Paul had not met the people to whom he was writing, he had pastored the Ephesians for three years (Acts 20:31). During that time, he regularly taught in a public lecture hall, laying a broad foundation of Christian teaching in Ephesus before this letter was written (Acts 19:9–10). So, what Paul writes is not a reaction to heresy (as in Colossians) or to public scandal (as in 1–2 Corinthians), but the essential gospel. Ephesians is gloriously and majestically general. It is a digest, hitting the high notes of the years of gospel teaching he provided as their pastor.
Paul’s balanced summary presents the two great functions of faith: to receive the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ and to respond in new obedience. Chapters 1–3 lay out the gospel facts. They recount God’s eternal plans to bless His people, to give new life to those who were spiritually dead, to unite those who had been divided and far off into the one church, and to “do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 1:3–14; 2:1–10, 11–22; 3:20). The first three chapters essentially ask the question, Will you believe?
In the last three chapters, Paul lays out the faithful response to redemption. A person’s “walk” is a motif in the letter. The term first appears when describing how unbelievers “walked” in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1–2). But, beginning in Ephesians 4, believers are called to “walk” as a response of faith. Paul calls the faithful to walk worthily of Christ (Eph. 4:1). Then, there are calls to not walk as unbelievers, but rather to walk in love, to walk as children of light, and to walk in wisdom (Eph. 4:17; 5:2, 8). Chapters 4–6 ask the question, Will you obey?
2. The Ephesian Christians were marginalized.
The Ephesian Christians were a tiny minority in a vast metropolis. The estimated population of Ephesus was 200,000–250,000 people. Only Athens and Rome were larger. The most prominent religion in Ephesus involved the worship of Artemis. However, there were many different cults, including emperor worship. While other religions were welcomed, Christianity was not. It was viewed as a threat to the honor and majesty of Artemis (see Acts 19:27). Ephesian Christians carried in their recent memory the silversmiths’ riot, where some of them had been attacked and dragged into the great theater. Some of them had been there when a mob of fifty thousand angry people shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:23–41). The Christians in Ephesus lived their lives outnumbered, in the shadow of the Temple of Artemis, surrounded by the occult, and under the threat of renewed violence.
The Ephesian Christians were rejected not only by the pagan world but also by the synagogue. Before the rest of Ephesus was even aware of the gospel, the Jewish synagogue had already rejected it, “speaking evil of the Way before the congregation” (Acts 19:9). The marginalization of the Ephesian Christians stands in the background of Paul’s teaching on the church as the household of God and Christ’s body (Eph. 2:11–22; 4:1–16; 5:23–30). In Christ, every believer belongs. The mystery of God’s eternal purposes for them has been revealed. They are secure.
3. The church in Ephesus grew in the midst of spiritual warfare.
The dangers facing the Ephesian Christians were not just the threat of physical violence or social marginalization, but assault from spiritual forces of evil. Paul warns about “rulers,” “authorities,” and “cosmic powers” (Eph. 6:12). Most Christians are familiar with the “armor of God” in chapter 6. Perhaps lesser known are the circumstances that form the backdrop to this text.
Ephesus was a center for the practice of magic (Acts 19:18–19). It welcomed magicians and sorcerers. These were believed to draw power from the worship of Artemis and other occult practices. We might be tempted to say that a false god is “nothing” and therefore no threat (1 Cor. 8:4), but Paul corrects a dismissive approach and warns that demons stand behind idols and receive their worship (1 Cor. 10:20). Hence, Ephesus was a hub of spiritual darkness and demonic oppression.
Notwithstanding the threat, the church grew. The Ephesian Christians were faithful (Eph. 1:15; see also Rev. 2:1–3). The Lord demonstrated through them exactly what He promises: when we believe the gospel, we are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13–14, emphasis added).
This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.