Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is more general than his other letters, in the sense that it deals with issues concerning the whole church rather than with those of a particular local church. In the letter Paul discusses the union that exists between Christ and the church, and the results that this union should produce in the lives of Christians.
He says nothing specific about his relations with the Ephesian church or with individuals in the church, even though he spent more time with the Ephesian church than with any other (Acts 20:31). At the time Paul wrote this letter, a particular kind of false teaching had affected the churches in and around Ephesus. It seems that Paul’s special messenger took a number of copies of the same letter and distributed them among the churches of the area. The name of the receiving church was probably written into the introduction of the letter as copies were distributed. If so, that would explain why some ancient manuscripts include the word ‘Ephesus’ in Paul’s opening greeting, but others omit it. Paul’s letter to the church in Laodicea may have been another copy of this letter (Col 4:16).
Background to the letter
Regardless of how many copies of the letter may have been distributed, there seems no doubt that one of those copies went to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a town on the west coast of Asia Minor and was famous for its heathen religions (Acts 19:35). This meant that the society from which the Christian converts came was one where superstition and false religious ideas were widespread (Acts 19:18-19,26- 27). Paul saw that the church in Ephesus would be troubled by false teaching (Acts 20:29-30), and such teaching seems to have arisen by the time Paul was first imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28:16,30; cf. Eph 4:1). The false teaching that affected the Ephesus area also affected neighbouring towns such as Laodicea and Colossae. From prison Paul wrote to these churches in an effort to correct the false teaching and the wrong conduct that had resulted from it. Tychicus was the messenger who took the letters to the churches and who passed on to them news of Paul’s circumstances in Rome (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7,16). It appears that the false teaching was an early form of Gnosticism. This was a kind of religious philosophy that regarded Christ as neither fully human nor fully God, but as some sort of semi-angelic being. According to this teaching, Christ was far superior to the Christians who followed him, but both he and they needed help from unseen angelic powers if they were to reach the fulness of purity and perfection. In reply Paul asserted that Christ is supreme over the universe, including all the angelic powers, good and bad. Angelic powers can add nothing to him (Eph 1:20-21). So far from anything in the universe filling up some lack in him, he fills the universe (Eph 1:23; 4:10; cf. Col 1:19). By his death and resurrection he has triumphed over the evil spiritual forces of the universe and, because of this, Christians likewise can have victory in their battles against evil (Eph 2:2-6; 6:12). Paul considers not only individual Christians but also the church as a whole. The church is the body of Christ and shares with Christ in his triumph over all angelic powers (Eph 1:21-23; 2:6). The church is not humbled before angels. Rather angels are humbled before the church, for they see in it an overwhelming demonstration of the wisdom and power of God (Eph 3:10). All this is good reason for the Christians in and around Ephesus not to allow themselves to be persuaded by the clever, but false, teaching of the Gnostics (Eph 5:6).
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Contents of the letter
In an opening expression of praise to God, Paul reminds his readers of the great blessings that they have because of their union with Christ. In fact, the whole universe will find its full meaning only in him (1:1-14). He prays that Christians might understand God’s great purposes and experience his victorious power in their lives (1:15-23). God saves helpless sinful people by his grace (2:1-10), and brings them into a united body, the church, where there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. All are one in Christ (2:11-22). God unites Jews and Gentiles in one body, and this divine work displays God’s wisdom. It also brings a response of love from those who have tasted his love (3:1-21). Having been united in one body, God’s people then grow spiritually through the gifts that the risen Christ has given them (4:1-16). They no longer follow former ungodly practices, because they now have new standards of behaviour (4:17-32). Their behaviour is patterned on the character of Christ (5:1-20), and as a result their relationships with everyone else change and become truly Christian (5:21-6:9). Because of the hostile powers of evil, the Christian life is a constant battle, but through the spiritual resources God has given them, Christians can have confidence and victory (6:10-24).