Ephesians was written (or more accurately dictated) by Paul the apostle during one of his sojourns in a Roman prison. We do not know for certain as to whether this was during his captivity in Caesarea (see Acts 23) or Rome itself (see Acts 28) or another confinement entirely. Paul wrote other letters from prison – Philippians, Colossians, 2Timothy all being examples – and Ephesians shares many similarities with Colossians in particular. In fact, scholars suggest that the letter we call Ephesians may have been written specifically for the church in Ephesus in the province of Asia (different from the modern day continent of Asia) or it may have been a circular letter written to many churches in that region.
Ephesians is unique in Paul’s writings for a few reasons that are worth noting here and paying attention to as we read it.. First of all, Paul corrects no doctrinal error during the epistle. This is different from, say, Galatians, where the churches in that region had slipped into legalistic practices having been convinced that Jewish practices such as circumcision were vital for Christian salvation. Secondly, Paul confronts no pastoral problem either. This is different from, say, Philippians, where Paul has to appeal to two women in the church, Euodia and Syntyche, to resolve their differences and agree in the Lord. Thirdly, Ephesians bears no personal greetings from Paul. In his letter to the Romans, the longest of all his epistles, Paul had spent what in our modern Bibles is an entire chapter greeting friends and acquaintances. All of these factors make reading Ephesians a very different experience from reading Paul’s other epistles. Then there is the language. In our English Bible, Ephesians is made up of six chapters; the first three and the last three are very easy to separate into two parts: the former is concerned with great spiritual realities that Paul describes at length, the latter with outworking practically those realities in believers’ every day lives. But in order to do that in the first three chapters of Ephesians, Paul really stretches language to the limit. There are four incredibly long sentences in the first three chapters of Ephesians: 1:3-14, 1:15-23, 2:1-9 and 3:1-7. (These are helpfully brought out in the literal-literary translation of Ephesians Tim Mackie has produced on the Bible Project website.)
Why does any of that matter? I think it matters because learning to read the Bible involves learning to the read the Bible. What do I mean? Well, Ephesians is a letter, yes; however, it’s a certain kind of letter. Maybe it was a circular to a whole host of different churches; that wouldn’t reduce its divine inspiration one little bit but would explain its lack of personal greetings or pastoral problems. It’s a letter full of praise and prayer. Two of Paul’s greatest prayers are recorded in Ephesians: the first in chapter one and the second in chapter three. There is plenty of what we call doxology: praise to God. And, finally, there is so much revelation in Ephesians, especially of the place of the church in the unfolding purpose of God. I mentioned earlier that Ephesians and Colossians share a lot of material. One difference they have, for me at least, is that in Colossians, Paul’s emphasis is primarily on the supremacy and greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In Ephesians, however, Paul seeks to emphasise the cosmic significance of the church in God’s plans. (It is very, very hard, I think, to read Ephesians 3 and 4 and not be completely convinced that God has placed the church of Jesus Christ, the community of people all across history and geography right at the centre of his plan.) Why the difference in the letters? One of the reasons is that Paul had never met the Colossians; he says so in the letter itself. It would make sense, as an apostle, a steward of the mysteries of Christ, to want to bed these disciples into the Lord Jesus first and foremost. But to the Ephesians (or to which other groups in Asia would hear this letter) Paul can expand at length about God’s plan to use his people to show off his manifold wisdom to the powers in the heavenly places and describe the simple but stupendous plan to build up the body of Christ through gifted people, each of whom would carry an aspect of Christ Jesus’ fivefold ministry.
So, without further ado, can I urge you as Paul would (see Ephesians 4:1), read Ephesians. Read it! Reread it! Read it aloud to yourself. Read it in multiple translations. If you can, find an audio version and have a talented voice actor read it to you as well. (My audio Bible of choice is the NIV read by David Suchet.) You could follow Watchman Nee’s structure for the book and note how the Christian life is made up of sitting, walking and standing. Or you could see how so much of the rich spiritual truth of the first three chapters is outworked in simple, specific ways in chapters four to six. Think about it: the realities of Ephesians – summed up as our teaching series shows in that phrase ‘in Christ’ – is meant to affect our minds, our mouths and our marriages. It affects how we live, work and love. One final thing: remember, too, that Ephesians was written to a church community. Yes, every word applies to you personally as it does me. But Ephesians – as with most of the Bible – cannot really be explored or explained in isolation. It requires community. For example, Paul concludes with the injunction to ‘be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might’ (6:10) before describing the armour of God we are to put on. But he only describes a single soldier, not an army. That is because, while each of us can adorn ourselves with the armour of God, it is as one body most of all that God wants us to do that. So read the book of Ephesians. Enjoy it and be inspired. And then show up at your Small Group or Sunday gathering or wherever else you can meet your church family and endeavour to work out together all you have learned.