Ephesians: Purpose, Background and Structure

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A few weeks ago, I started a Wednesday night series on the book of Ephesians. I chose to teach Ephesians because I think Christians today need some help with two things: reclaiming and re-imagining our identity in Christ and how that identity calls us to live. It turns out that is exactly how Paul structured his letter to the Ephesians (more on that in a minute).

City of Ephesus

  • Second in importance only to Rome
  • Made capital of Asia (Turkey)
  • Some say up to 250,000 in Ephesus but probably too high…more like 50-60k
  • Home of the temple of Artemis (one of the 7 wonders of the world) and that is reflected in Acts 19:24
  • Ephesus was a city that had a lot of magic and idolatry (Acts 19:17-20) and the letter to the Ephesians often reflects that in Paul’s discussion of spiritual forces at work in the world and the supremacy of Christ over them: (1:18-23, 2:2-3, 6:10-12)

Paul’s activity surrounding Ephesians

Paul took 3 missionary journeys and went to Ephesus near the end of the first journey and then at the start of the second.

  • Journey #1 – Antioch to Cyrpus to Asia Minor (Turkey) and back to Antioch (with Barnabas)
  • Jerusalem council – Acts 15 (48/49 AD) dealing with how to bring Gentile Christians into the new covenant
  • Journey #2 Jerusalem (49) to Antioch (dispute over John Mark) – Barnabas carries on with John Mark and Paul picks up Silas – Derbe – Lystra (meet Timothy) – Philippi – Athens – Corinth (Priscilla and Aquila – followed him on to Ephesus) – Ephesus – Caesarea – Antioch (1 year)
  • Journey #3 – Galatia – Ephesus (2 years see Acts 19:10 – wrote Corinthians during this time) – Macedonia – Achaea – Philippi – Troas – Miletas – Tyre – Caesarea – Jerusalem (arrested)
  • Imprisoned in Caesarea (2 years)
  • Transferred to prison in Rome (2 years) – ends book of Acts

Tradition says Paul was released from prison to do further ministry but was imprisoned again by Nero and executed. The book of Acts doesn’t tell us what happened to Paul because Acts isn’t Paul’s story. Acts is the story of the fulfillment of Acts 1:8, that the Gospel is to go to the ends of the earth and Acts ends with the Gospel going to Rome. So Paul was in Ephesus twice, the second time staying 2 years (third missionary journey). He established this church and knew these Christians.

  • Acts 19:1-2 – when he got to Ephesus there were already some believers there (from his 2nd journey?)
  • Acts 19:8ff – Paul teaches the Ephesian Jews about Jesus for 3 months – mixed results (19:9 but 19:17-18)
  • 20:1 – Paul left the disciples there and went on his way to Macedonia (3rd missionary journey)

That is when Paul was in Ephesus…but when did Paul write the letter?

  • Eph 3:1 – prisoner of Jesus Christ
  • Eph 4:1 – I, the prisoner of the Lord
  • Eph 4:11 – prisoner for the Lord
  • Eph 6:19-20 – ambassador in chains
  • Most think this was written during his first imprisonment in Rome

Ephesians is one of Paul’s 4 prison letters, which include:

  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • Philippians
  • Philemon

Why did he write the letter? The Occasion of Ephesus

Occasion drives the purpose. So if we can figure out a plausible reason why Paul would have said something, we might have a clue as to what was going on in that church to instigate Paul’s writing the letter. You don’t teach correctively on problems in worship if the church has no problems in worship. As you read Ephesians it reads as if it is written to a church that has a mix of Jew & Gentile Christians:

  • 1:12-13 – “we who were first to put our hope in Christ…and you also” reads like Jews/Gentiles
  • 2:14 – “He is our peace, who has made the two groups one…”

It is highly possible that Ephesians was written primarily to ex-pagan Christians who had made their way out of a pagan past but needed to be taught why and how (in that order) to live for Christ and to the Jewish Christians there in Ephesus to explain to them the mystery (1:8, 3:3,9) of God’s including the Gentiles into the family of faith.

The structure of Ephesians reflects its purpose:

Ephesians is pretty clearly divided into two sections – Ephesians 1-3 & 4-6.

There are 41 commands in Ephesians, 1 of which is found in chapters 1-3. That command is found in 2:12 – “remember”. Contrasted to that are the 40 commands Paul gives them in chapters 4-6 (thanks to Dr. Oster for initially pointing that out to me). If you look at 4:1 it serves as a great transitional statement between the two major sections of the letter, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” The calling they have received was what Paul was describing in Ephesians 1-3 and the way to live the life that is worthy of that calling is what Paul lays out in Ephesians 4-6. Chapters 1-3, then, are the things one needs to know to live that life and chapters 4-6 is what one needs to do to live that life. Paul starts with “why”…before all the commands and “to do’s” he tells them why it is necessary because what we do is driven by what we know.

Genre: Letter writing in the Roman World

Ephesians and all of Paul’s writing are letters. In Paul’s day letters were written in a very particular way and Paul follows exactly that format in how he wrote his letters. Here is how it plays out in Ephesians:

  • Name of writer: “Paul” (1:1)
  • Name of recipient: “to God’s holy people in Ephesus” (1:1)
  • Greeting: “Grace and peace to you…” (1:2) [for more on this see below]
  • Prayer/thanksgiving: “Praise be to the God and Father…(1:3ff, see also 1:16 – thanksgiving and prayer!)
  • Body: 2:1-6:20
  • Final greeting: 6:21-24

Contemporary letter example:

Here is an example of an ancient letter written in the second century in Egypt to give you an idea of how that format worked in a non-biblical example (ancient letters were usually more like the length of Philemon. Paul’s letters are lengthy]. There are thousands of ancient letters that have been found and the majority follow these rules.

Claudius Agathas Daimon [name of writer] to most beloved Sarapion [name of recipient], greetings [greeting]. Since I am going to Thebes, I salute you dearest, sweetest Sarapion and I exhort you also to do the same thing. If you need anything from Thebes, I encourage you to write to me, dearest, and it shall be done [body]. I pray for your health continually together with that of your children, Farewell [prayer/final greeting].

One of the interesting things Paul did in writing his letters was to take the customary greeting “Greetings” and Christianize it charein/χαρειν, which means “greetings” or “hail” to charis/χαρις, which means “grace”. Paul not only adapted the typical Greek greeting but added to it the traditional Hebrew greeting of “peace” (Hebrew “shalom” or in Paul’s case Greek “eirene”. See Acts 15:23-29 as another example (Uses greetings instead of grace)

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