The Epistle to the Ephesians

by Ed Gallagher

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32
Eustache Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus, 1649, Wikimedia Commons

What was Paul’s relationship with the Ephesian church? According to Acts (20:31), Paul had spent three years in Ephesus, a period of his ministry described in Acts 19. But now, read Ephesians 1:15 and 3:2. Does it sound like Paul has a close relationship with the recipients of this letter? It seems like Paul does not know well the readers of his letter. In this way, the letter sounds much different from the letters to the Corinthians, or Galatians, or Philippians, letters which show that Paul obviously had an intimate connection with his readers. If Paul spent three years in Ephesus, it is odd that his letter to the Christians there is not more personal. It is unlikely that he wrote the letter before visiting Ephesus (as in the case of Romans), because Acts 19 gives the impression that there was not much of a church before Paul got there. Some Bibles have a note in Ephesians 1:1 attached to the phrase “in Ephesus,” attesting that three of our best and earliest manuscripts (these three: 1, 2, 3) do not contain the phrase. (See, for example, the note in the NET Bible.) So, many scholars believe the letter was not originally addressed to the Ephesians but was instead a circular letter, written to several different churches in Asia Minor, just like Revelation (written to seven church in Asia Minor). One of these churches was Ephesus, and somehow the name of that location later entered the address of this letter. Not everyone agrees with this idea; some scholars think this letter was originally address specifically to Ephesus.

Google Maps. The ruins of Ephesus are located near the modern city of Izmir in western Turkey.

Read Ephesians 3:1; 4:1; 6:20. Where is Paul when he writes this letter? Paul is a prisoner, but he doesn’t say what city he is in. In what cities does the New Testament tell us that Paul was a prisoner? Acts shows that he was a prisoner for a brief time in Philippi (16:22–40), and about two years in Caesarea (24:27), and again in Rome (28:30). He may also have been a prisoner at one time in Ephesus (cf. 1 Cor 15:32; 2 Cor 1:8–13), though he probably didn’t write this letter from that location. The traditional location for all of Paul’s prison letters is Rome, which would date it to about AD 60–62, late in Paul’s ministry. What other letters did Paul write from prison? Philippians (cf. Phil 1:13), Colossians (cf. Col 4:3), Philemon (cf. Phlm 1, 9), and 2 Timothy (cf. 2 Tim 1:8). Tychicus brought this letter to its recipients (Eph 6:21–22; cf. Col 4:7).

One of Paul’s primary purposes in this letter is to explore the nature of the church. What is the purpose of the church? There could be different answers to this question, and Paul provides one answer in Ephesians 4:11–16. According to this passage, what is the goal of the church, and how does it accomplish this goal? Here, Paul expands on his metaphor of the church as a body—which he already introduced at 1:22–23, and touched on again at 2:16; 3:6; 4:6; just as he also uses the same metaphor at 1 Corinthians 12:27; Romans 12:5; Colossians 1:18. In Ephesians 4, this body is supposed to be united in faith so that we can attain “to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (v. 13). We will be grounded in the truth (vv. 14–15) and work together for “the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (v. 16), so that we can “grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (v. 15). That is, through our mutual love and sharing of our gifts, we help each other become like Christ, and collectively we form his body. 

How does the earlier passage about the “seven ones” (4:1–6) relate to this message? Paul emphasizes the unity that should characterize the church. We should “show tolerance for one another in love” (v. 2) because we are a part of one body enlivened by one Spirit, sharing one hope, serving one Lord, confessing one faith, receiving one baptism, created and redeemed by one God. Such unity does not entail uniformity: we each have different gifts (vv. 7–8), which we exercise for the good of the whole. This is easier said than done (cf. 1 Cor 12–14). (Some reflections from Bonhoeffer here.)

The Christians Paul is addressing were able to express this mutual love (= unity) because the church included people from different walks of life. For instance, Paul stresses in 2:11–22 that Jews and Gentiles are united as members of the same body. The Gentiles had been in a hopeless state (vv. 11–12), but Christ brought peace and united the two groups (vv. 13–14) so that they now form one body (v. 16). They form one household (v. 19), or even a temple that is growing into a dwelling place for the Lord (vv. 20–22). This is not something they themselves have been able to accomplish, but rather God has done the impossible (vv. 8–9). 

Other examples of groups whose relationships should be transformed by the gospel include husbands and wives—who together exhibit mysteriously the relationship between Christ and the church (5:22–33)—parents and children (6:1–4), and slaves and masters (6:5–9). Note especially in this last instance, that Paul enjoins masters to “do the same things” for the slaves that the slaves do for them, that is, serve one another, recognizing their joint Master (v. 9). 

Several times Paul mentions a mystery connected with the gospel (1:9; 3:3–5, 9; 6:19; cf. 5:32). What is this mystery? Judging from 3:6, the mystery seems to be that the Gentiles would receive the gospel and become united with Jews, which had seemed utterly impossible. The theme of church unity and love again proves foundational for Paul’s message. Indeed, it is the church’s responsibility to make known “the manifold wisdom of God” (v. 10) according to God’s “eternal purpose” (v. 11). This unanticipated (by most people, including Paul) development in God’s plan leads Paul to exult in the wisdom and love of God through Christ (vv. 14–21). 

In Paul’s mind the church itself seems to be extremely important, because the church is where God’s mysterious plan for humanity is accomplished. In this context, accepting God’s salvation on a personal level (i.e., becoming a Christian) is insufficient to fulfill God’s purpose; one needs also to become a part of a community of believers, in order to live out the unity and love that the gospel encourages. God has accomplished a surprising and wonderful reconciliation of different types of people (Jew/Gentile, slave/master, etc.), and the church displays God’s manifold wisdom (3:10) when his people live together in love, in accordance with the ethical principles required of a Christ-follower (4:17–5:21), which again can be summarized as “love.”


It is not always easy to be a Christian engaged in church-life. We would prefer a club in which everyone present looks and thinks like us, and the church too often resembles such a club. The vision for the church that Paul promotes involves disparate people overcoming their differences to live together in sacrificial love in praise of God’s redemption accomplished by Jesus.

Additional Questions for Discussion

How does Paul use the imagery of the living and the dead to describe people in the world (2:1–7)? 

Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ probably more often in this letter than in any other letter (1:22–23; 2:16; 3:6; 4:6, 14–16). Why does Paul employ this imagery? 

What is the mystery that Paul talks about in Ephesians 3? 

What does Paul mean about taking off the old man and putting on the new man? See Ephesians 4:22–24. 

How does the gospel affect the relationship between different groups of people, such as husbands/wives, parents/children, and slaves/masters? See Ephesians 5:22–6:9.

Additional Resources

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