Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.
Today we start a 4 week series on a letter that claims Paul wrote it to the church at Ephesus. We have good reasons to doubt Paul himself wrote it and that it was written to people in Ephesus. In the New Testament there are 14 letters attributed to Paul. Seven of these New Testament letters were almost certainly written by Paul himself: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. These letters were most likely written during the height of Paul’s missionary activity, between 50 and 58 a.d. which makes them the oldest writings in the New Testament (Mark, the oldest of the 4 Gospels was likely written between 60 and 70 ad). The other 7 letters credited to Paul were probably written by co-missionaries or students of Paul (At the time, if you wrote something based on another person’s teachings and ideas, you didn’t just attribute it to them with a footnote or something, you put their name on it). This division of books of by Paul and not by Paul is based on structure, use of language and content. This is not something modern scholars made up with new science or some dark secret the church hid from people for centuries. Since the second century, Christians divided Paul’s letters in this way, seeing both groups of letters as the inspired word of God, with good news in them. Since the address to the Ephesians in this letter does not appear in the earliest manuscripts and it does not address any issues specific to a particular church, most people believe Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was meant to be a general circulating letter that went to the church in Ephesus but also to other churches and communities.
Ephesus was an important city, one of the major ports of the ancient world. It was located on the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Western Turkey). It was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. (a few pieces of which still stand today) . Worship of Artemis, one of the Greek gods who took on a local character there, was an important part of life and commerce in Ephesus. Paul’s successful evangelism and conversion of people to Christianity, then called “the way” angers the priests and merchants who earned their living selling things related to the temple. Paul had visited Ephesus a few times and lived there for a while. In Acts 18:19-21 we learn Paul and his coworkers arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus.
Paul also passes by Ephesus later on but does not stay, choosing instead to send for the leaders of the leaders of the church in Ephesus and meet with them someplace else. Paul wanted to go directly to Jerusalem. In Acts 21, we learn: Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost. From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
The Letter to the Ephesians presents and celebrates Paul’s vision for the church. This vision is summarized by the last verse we just heard from Acts 21: I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus . Christ’s death and resurrection united Jews and non-Jews. The Jewish law, outlined in the first 5 books of the Old Testament, served to separate and set apart those who followed it from those who did not. The message revealed by Jesus teachings and the events of his life meant that the law was no longer necessary, people where connected to God by grace through faith, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, nothing else mattered, nothing else could bring the forgiveness of sins.
It’s hard to exaggerate how radical and strange this was to ancient Greek, Hebrew and Roman societies. People laughed at the idea, people were scared by the idea, people were confused by the suggestion that everyone was the same. To say the death and resurrection of Jesus was more important than how you were born, what group you belonged to or where your citizenship was, that was crazy talk. Societies at the time were highly divided, that was how social and political life functioned. There were patrons and clients, rich and poor, first born and later born, sick and healthy, clean and unclean, Jews and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, priests and not priests. These divisions were strong, seen as part of the natural world. Going from one group to another was usually impossible or could only be done with a great amount of effort, luck and help. Paul’s word that to God all people were the same, undeserving sinners saved by Grace, was hard news for people to hear. Even people on the wrong side of these divisions struggled to accept this joyful news. In fact, a lot of Paul’s letters to churches criticize the communities for not living this equality out.
Paul frequently uses this idea of adoption and inheritance to talk about what God has done through Jesus death and resurrection. (This comes up in Galatians 4 and Romans 8 as well). During Paul’s time, there were several words for adoption, each had a different meaning. When talking about being joined to Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul always uses the one that meant giving full and total status as a child to the one adopted. There are no classes of people in God’s kingdom, there is only saved by grace. One of the most hateful and angry things I hear during difficult times in the life of a family is that step children, adopted children or estranged members are called “not real”, that somehow since they were born to different parents, screwed up in the past, or where not there to help, they did not deserve a voice in planning a funeral, a spot in a service or a part of an inheritance. The early church faces the same exact challenge, that natural inclination that we should get what’s fair, what we deserve. God’s grace does not work that way, the church has no use for that way of thinking.
In addition to radical inclusion, the other main focus in Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is the conflict between good and evil, the forces of God and the forces of demonic evil. This is a battle constantly fought but one that God has given us the power to win. We see look at this when we get to week 3 and 4.