The letter to the Ephesians was written by Paul around the late 50s AD. It addresses general topics and appears to have been intended for circulation among the various Congregations. Jesus is exalted throughout, with gentle appeals for righteous living.
As in all his letters, Paul begins with greetings to fellow believers. He identifies himself as one sent out by God.
We always need to remember the tremendous blessings we have received as a gift, one given out of love. But what are we to conclude from the statement “he chose us for himself before the foundation of the world ”? Note first of all that the purpose of the choice was for us to be holy and flawless; it does not say the purpose was for us to be saved by force. Salvation is well-established in all Paul’s writings as being solely by faith, a faith we excercise by free will. So what God chose for us who believe is that we will be made holy. God also decided that we would be more than servants; we would be children.
Grace is the favor bestowed upon the lesser by the greater, and this is what God did in offering Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins. This was a legal matter in that the charges against us were dropped as a result. In addition, God revealed that this salvation by faith for all was the goal to which the progression of history was aimed. But it should be pointed out that this offering of Jesus was a self-sacrifice, not a human sacrifice, as the skeptics allege. As Paul states in Col. 1:19, Jesus embodies the entirety of God.
Once again we see something about destiny, and once again we note that it is not salvation that was chosen for us, but that those who were the first believers would glorify God. And everyone who would believe would be given something unique in all of history: the “down payment that guarantees our inheritance”, that is, the Holy Spirit to live within each believer. No other group outside of “the church age” would be blessed in this way. No righteous person before Pentecost was said to have this lifelong indwelling or this guarantee.
Paul was overjoyed that the Ephesians had placed their faith in Jesus, and he promised continued prayer for their spiritual growth and maturity. As their understanding of their riches in Jesus increases, so too will their gratitude. And we are promised the power to grow, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and seated him above all other authorities and powers. All power comes from him, and it enables his Body, the believers, to grow to completeness.
Paul describes our current condition as being dead to sin. The majority of translations say “you were dead in sin”, but that is not in the Greek. It is the present tense, and the implied article there is never translated as “in”. But the concept of death in that culture and time had the primary meaning of separation, not inability. To be dead to God is to have a broken relationship with him, and to be dead to sin is to have a broken relationship with it. It doesn’t mean we can no longer sin, but only that we are no longer in agreement with it.
Then Paul goes on to contrast how we are in our new relationship compared to the old. We obeyed the flesh and the devil and thus deserved the wrath of God. But in spite of that, God showed us all mercy by buying us with the blood of Jesus and restoring our broken relationship with God. And it was all on God’s initiative; we didn’t ask him to do this. But of course we need to accept the free gift God offers because of what Jesus did, and we do this by trusting in him. Then we will be dead to sin and alive to God.
It is by God’s favor and initiative that we can be saved by faith, not by our own works or plans. We didn’t ask Jesus to sacrifice himself for sin. But knowing this, nobody can boast about themselves.
Some teach that vs. 8-9 say our faith itself is a gift from God, but it doesn’t say that at all. It is the whole thing— salvation by grace through faith— that is the object of “not of yourselves”. This is an issue of Greek grammar and syntax and does not come through clearly in English. But from the totality of New Testament teachings we know that this gift is the whole plan of God: salvation through faith because of Jesus. So God does not have to give us faith before we can be saved; rather, he gives us the choice, the opportunity, to be saved if we just put our faith in Jesus.
Those who believe are held up as a prize, a masterpiece made by Jesus Himself. We are the crowning achievement of his suffering, death, and resurrection, and a sign of defeat to Satan. We must not forget that we are the work of Another and become proud of ourselves instead of Jesus. We are to honor him by doing the good things he has planned for us. Again, there is no hint of being forced to do these things; the Letters are filled with pleas for us to choose to do right. God has plans for us, but we are not forced to carry them out. Our future rewards are based upon how well we chose God’s path instead of our own.
Before Jesus came, the Gentiles were without hope of salvation. Yet we know that individuals could convert to Judaism and be considered righteous in God’s sight. So Paul is not saying no Gentile could be saved before, but that the Gentile nations had not been “chosen people” of God. They were outside of both the Promise and the Law— as people groups, but not as individuals. God may choose groups for his purposes without violating individual free will (see Romans for a more detailed discussion).
Now, through Jesus, there is to be no more dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. All are “chosen” on the basis of faith alone. The old Law was voided by virtue of Jesus’ death, and our adoption by faith was made possible by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection. All can come to God on the same basis and be reconciled. This new entity or “house” is built upon one foundation, the Ambassadors (trad. “apostles”), whose cornerstone is Jesus. Such a building is more than a house; it is a temple holy to God.
Note that Jesus is the cornerstone. A cornerstone is laid at the foundation, not put up on top of the roof. This is his function as a human, and the example he gave for us all to follow. As illustrated in Phil. 2:5–11, Jesus demonstrated what we are to follow: laying aside privilege and power in order to get under others and lift them up. Jesus expressly taught this in his rebuke to the disciples for wanting positions of importance in the coming kingdom (see Mt. 20:20–28 and Mk. 10:35–45). In his humanity Jesus both showed and taught the attitude and actions his followers must have.
The reason Paul is a prisoner at this time is because of the very thing he’s been writing about: the Gospel is for everyone, including Gentiles. God had entrusted Paul with making known his plans for this age, plans that God had revealed directly to him personally. It was something that had never been revealed before.
In spite of this, Paul considered himself the very lowest of the Ambassadors. Yet this served the purpose of making it all the more obvious that this was of God and not Paul. God was now revealing his ultimate plan of salvation via the community of believers, an entity nobody saw coming. This sent a message to all the “rulers and authorities in the heavenlies” that God is supreme and cannot be out-witted. Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection was the very epitome of all God’s plans through the ages.
For all of these reasons, Paul asks the people not to be discouraged by what he is currently suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Instead they should be proud of this suffering, because it will strengthen them and help them grow, giving them ever-increasing appreciation for the gift of God.
Now he implores the people to live and act according to their understanding of the great things God has done for them. We are all of one Spirit, forming one Body, through one Gift. We have one Master, one faith, one immersion, one God and Father. But we should remember that our unity comes from this, and not from a false peace imposed externally.
Paul begins to talk about spiritual gifts but introduces the topic with references to Jesus’ accomplishments. What does it mean that Jesus “captured captivity”? There is much speculation because the context doesn’t give us much to go on. Likewise, what does it mean that he also “descended into the lower parts of the earth”? Certainly we’d all agree that Jesus came to the earth, which could be considered “lower parts” as compared to having “ascended”. Some claim it must mean he went into the realm of the dead, but differ over exactly where and why. Certainly it would be ridiculous to think that Jesus was tortured by Satan but escaped, as some speculate. But a case can be made for saying Jesus went to the place of the dead and took out of there all the righteous people who had died before him. They could only now be taken to heaven since the Sacrifice had finally been made.
Whatever those statements mean, they had to happen in order for Jesus to dispense gifts. We cannot assert that any of the lists of such gifts are meant to be exhaustive; that is, that these are the only gifts there are. Paul seems to be mentioning a few of them to give some idea of what the Spirit does within the body of believers. Does the order of gifts signify importance or a hierarchy? This context says nothing about that, but Paul did say that he and the other Ambassadors were laying the foundation (see 1 Cor. 3). Yet again we must remember that the foundation supports and lifts up the rest of the building from beneath it, not from the rooftop. If there is any hierarchy in Christianity, it is upside-down to the worldly model.
These are gifts, not “offices” or positions of domination, or any kind of clergy class (which implies that they are special or privileged) over the common people. These people are gifted to nurture, not to oppress, dominate, rule over, or boss. They build up, not tear down. While it is obviously wise to listen to the spiritually mature and gifted, it is their example that is most important. They lead by being what the others should aspire to, not by decree or command. That is exactly how Jesus led while on the earth.
Here Paul seems to refer to the common Greek belief at the time, that the body grew out of the head. Thus the head was the source or originator of the body. Yet the head and body are one unit, of the same substance. This is how Paul illustrates our relationship to Jesus. He is both our source of eternal life and our own “flesh and bone”. No other body part is also a source of eternal life. Each believer reports to God, not to each other, just as each body part only reports to the brain and not the other parts. And just as the head provides nourishment to the body, the body provides support to the head.
Shepherds guard and protect those who cannot protect themselves. When people are first saved, they are vulnerable and dependent. But if the shepherds do their jobs properly, these infants grow to adulthood, to the point where they can eventually become shepherds themselves. They are not to remain children perpetually. These tender ones are the people who must be treated tenderly and protected from falsehood. Two important implications arise from this:
Paul now implores the people to get busy and stop acting like unbelievers. Continuing to live in such a hard-hearted way will result in their falling prey to sin and vice. The more we push in the wrong direction, the easier it gets to keep sliding downward. Instead, the whole idea of repentance is to change direction and go God’s way. We must throw away all that drags us down and be renewed in truth and holiness. No more deceiving each other or losing control. We must stop nursing grudges and get over ourselves. Otherwise we “give the Slanderer an advantage”.
We must also stop being lazy, which can be applied to growing spiritually as well as to providing for physical needs. And we must not think that only certain words are considered by God to be “foul”. In any given church, one may hear few curse words but much backbiting, slandering, tearing down, and improper judging. This is in stark contrast to building up. Yet again, remember that we’re talking about how believers are to treat each other. If someone teaches heresy or an unbeliever attacks, those are legitimate times for harsh words and judgment.
Jesus is our example to follow; he sacrificed himself out of love for all people. But does verse 5 mean we can lose our salvation if we persist in these things? Not at all; what Paul has written teaches the opposite. As before, he is contrasting the actions and attitudes of the saved and the lost. We should stay so far from such things that people have no reason to even suspect us of doing them.
We are warned to also stay away from smooth talkers, people who are out to deceive and undermine our faith. We are of the Light and must not wallow in darkness anymore. Some, who believe that all evangelism must begin with establishing friendship with unbelievers, frequently go to the point of listening to their arguments. They are not well-grounded enough in the Bible to give a strong defense or to see the errors in the unbeliever’s thinking. So error creeps in, and apostasy follows. Instead of leading the unbeliever to the truth, these immature believers follow the unbelievers into falsehood.
Here we see a command to expose error. Many today think this is wrong, but to see evil and not report it is every bit as sinful as any other form of disobedience. God told Ezekiel (ch. 33) that a faithful guardian must warn of danger. If they fail to do so, they are guilty of treason. Or as James put it, “So, if you know what’s best but don’t do it, you fail” (James 4:17). All of this requires effort on our part to practice discernment. We need to pay attention and keep our eyes open, walking the narrow path and not turning aside. We need the Spirit’s power to accomplish this.
In beginning his long description of Spirit-filled living, Paul commands mutual respect among all believers. This is the complete opposite of domination or assuming authority over others, as already pointed out. He will now list ways in which we can be filled with the Holy Spirit.
He begins by contrasting this filling with that of alcohol. Notice that the scripture here does not say “never touch alcohol”, but simply that we must not let it overcome us. The Spirit cannot work through people who fill themselves with mind-numbing substances. If there is any void in us, we must let the Spirit fill it instead. We can also keep a song in our hearts in praise to God, and share these with others. And no particular form of music or method of producing it is either condemned or commanded. Whatever comes from a pure heart in praise of God is the point. The entire Bible never singles out any music or art form as being intrinsically evil. And above all, we must be thankful.
The last item in this list of ways to be filled with the Spirit begins a sub-list of its own about ways to support each other. Each item in this list points back to that thought. Most translations cut into the middle of “being supportive of each other because you fear the Anointed (wives, to your own husbands, as to the Master)” to break the part about wives and husbands from the statement about mutual support, making it an entirely new topic. The wives-to-husbands part is a fragment that has no verb of its own; it is dependent upon “supporting one another”. And it means that whatever this support is, that which is for women is identical to that which is for all believers; what is true of one is true of the other since they share the same verb.
Here again Paul speaks of the head as the source of the body, not its ruler or commander. They are one unit, one flesh and one spirit. Paul clearly presents this union of husband and wife as a depiction of the union between Jesus and the community of believers. Jesus is God, of course, but Paul is not stressing divinity here, only unity. Yet why does he call the man the source of the woman? It can be seen as a reference to Eve being made from Adam, but in this context it seems to refer to his being the support and protector, since he is both physically stronger and socially more powerful. There is another element of context to consider, but first we must address what Paul says to husbands.
Notice that it is the love of Jesus that the husband is to model— not his divinity, salvation, or purification. Paul says “love your wives in the same way” and “so this is how men must love their wives”. What he says about Jesus’ other qualities and accomplishments are reasons to love, not mandates to copy. We must not confuse the divinity of Jesus with his humanity, nor to assign one aspect to men but the other only to women. And since we all are the Body of Jesus, and he does not abuse us nor squash our personalities, so also a husband must not abuse his wife nor deny her personhood. The two are of one flesh.
Another important point is that the man leaves his parents to join to his wife. This illustrates the fact that Jesus left his Father to join to his Bride, and then he went back to his Father’s house to prepare a place for us. When Jesus returns for his Bride there will be a wedding feast as well. It is Jesus who joined to us, not we to him, and it is the husband who leaves home to join to his wife, not she to him. This again is how Jesus modeled humility and service, a model for all believers to follow, not just women.
Now for another element to all this, the Roman law called “the marriage without hand”.1 Since wife abuse was a common practice, in the first century a.d. the Roman emperor Augustus decreed that a woman and her dowry remained under the control of her father and his family. He could take her back from an abusive husband and give her to another man. The intent of the law was to reduce the divorce rate, but instead it only made it worse. The only lasting relationship a woman had was with her birth family, rather than her husband.
The preceding historical note makes the most sense of why Paul only told husbands to love and wives to support: because he told wives to identify with their husbands instead of their fathers. He needed to say the former because he said the latter. The whole message was, “Since you wives are not to go back to your fathers, you husbands must be careful to love your wives and not beat them.” So in contrast to the views of patriarchal society, Paul commands husbands to love and protect their wives. They must follow Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice for the people’s purity by treating their wives at least as well as they treat their own bodies. This means providing and caring for them, recognizing that the two of them are “one flesh”.
In the first century, a woman was considered property. She always belonged to one man or another and had few if any rights. So what need was there for Paul to tell wives to submit to husbands, as many translations put it? He could not have been referring to what society already imposed upon them against their will; they had no choice in the matter. So Paul was saying something quite radical for the time: wives had a choice! They could now choose to defy the Roman household codes and defer willingly to their husbands (and expect deference in return as well), identifying with them instead of their fathers.
Another consideration is the fact that Christians had to be careful about how they worded things. Rome had spies everywhere, and anyone could easily be accused of sedition. That would explain why some things had to be stated delicately or indirectly. And there may have been shared experiences that did not require everything to be spelled out. So the clear passages must take priority over the less clear.
Other groups who needed to “support one another” were parents and children, masters and slaves. Note that Paul is not seeking to instantly overturn all social norms, and to boldly oppose slavery would certainly have brought charges of sedition upon him. Instead, just as God had slowly unveiled his plan for the ages, our freedom in Jesus in some cases had to happen gradually. So in the mean time slaves and masters who were believers had to know how to act. And of course this principle applies also to women; we no longer have a societal taboo against women in leadership, in the workplace, or as full equal partners in a marriage, and women have the ability to earn their own income. There is no more reason to continue first century norms for women than there is for slavery or class distinction.
Our power to do all these things must come from God. The analogy Paul uses here of military armor indicates that our defenses come from God and not our own strength. We must not go out to battle unarmed or unprotected. "Putting on the armor" is not something to be taken lightly or done hastily.
We hear the Truth, the Gospel, which gives us the righteousness of Jesus and not our own. But the shoes we must put on by means of study and learning. This is our preparation, and we dare not leave these shoes off or fail to tie them. And we require a shield, which is firm trust in God. Last but not least is the Sword, an offensive weapon which is meant to be used effectively. A soldier untrained in how to use a sword is as useless as one who is trained but keeps the sword in its sheath.
We need to stop briefly here to clear up a misunderstanding. The Greek word endings indicate that it is the Spirit that is the sword, not the pronouncement (a different Greek word than the one translated “word”) of God. The Spirit is the source of all that God decrees, whether spoken or written. That is our source of power, our strength, our guide. Of course the written Word is part of that, and no less so than when God would speak audibly. It is the One who originates the message that matters, not the means of conveyance. But since we know that God never contradicts himself, then we can use what is written as an anchor, to which all that is spoken must agree.
We are to stand firm then, not run and hide at the first sign of opposition. Most believers seem to avoid any and all conflict, but what kind of soldiers are those? And what kind of shepherds run away from the wolves? (A subtle hint is found in John 10:13!) We must not be cowards but faithful soldiers who keep training for battle.
Prayer is constantly needed in all of this. Paul asks for prayer support in his own battles, for boldness and fearlessness in spreading the Gospel. He had many enemies and needed support as much as anyone.
He intends to send Tychikos to Ephesus to keep them up on his affairs and put their minds at ease about him. This shows Paul’s tender care for the people.
With a final blessing, Paul prays for peace over all the believers.