As we start a new year, we are also going to start a new book of the Bible. We are going to look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In order to do that, we must look at the city of Ephesus and learn about that city so that we can see why Paul writes the way he does. Then we must look at the letter itself and try to ascertain what the main message of the letter is and why we should study it and learn from it, and what practical benefit it can be for us.
So, we start with the city of Ephesus. At the time when Paul wrote this letter, Ephesus was the chief city of Turkey (called Asia Minor in Paul’s time). It had an estimated population of 250,000 people. This city, along with Rome, Alexandria (in Egypt) and Antioch, ranked as one of the greatest cities in the Roman Empire. It had a theater which could seat 24,000 people. It had a stadium which could stage chariot races, athletic games, and gladiatorial fights. The stadium provides for us the background as to why Paul tells us to put on the armor of God in chapter 6. Just as you might get ready for a gladiatorial fight, so also get ready for spiritual warfare.
Ephesus also had religion in a major way. Its temple to Artemis of the Ephesians was the single largest building in the entire Greek world. It was one of the 7 ancient wonders of the world. This temple was the reason why Paul uses temple imagery in chapter 2 of Ephesians. Only, instead of a physical temple, it is a spiritual temple, and one even more magnificent than the temple to Artemis. There were also various cults that emphasized mystery, something unknown. That helps to explain why Paul uses the language of mystery. However, Paul doesn’t mean the same thing at all. Paul means something that was hidden, but has now been revealed. That is what Paul means by the word “mystery.” We do not worship an unknown god, but the God who has revealed Himself in the Word.
Now, Paul’s own experience in Ephesus is quite extensive. He spent three entire years there building up a ministry to the people. He was persecuted for doing so. You might remember what is said in Acts 19: Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while. About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So these people were very serious about religion. They were not secular people who denied the existence of divine beings. Rather, they worshiped many wrong gods. Artemis, by the way, is a goddess of the Greek and Roman religion. She is the goddess of the hunt, and was the patron goddess of Ephesus.
Well, if that helps us to understand a bit about the city of Ephesus, then next we need to examine what the letter itself says. The letter can be divided into four parts. There is an opening and a closing of the letter. The opening, or greeting, is the first 2 verses. The closing of the letter is the last 4 verses of chapter 6 at the very end. The main body of the letter, therefore, can be divided in half. The first section is doctrine, and the second half is practical. This, by the way, is how Paul structures all his letters. For instance, the first 11 chapters of Romans are doctrinal. The last 5 chapters of the letter are practical. Sometimes, he mixes them up a little bit more than he does here. In Ephesians, the split is very clear. The first three chapters are doctrine, and the last three chapters are practical. Now, in saying that, I do not wish for us to be nervous that you are going to hear impractical doctrine for the first three chapters and no doctrine in the last three chapters. As we will see, the relationship between doctrine and practice is much closer than that. We will see that Paul’s doctrine is extremely practical. In fact, there is no such thing as impractical doctrine in Paul. By the same token, however, we will also see that Paul’s doctrine is rooted in the doctrine. To put it simply, Paul tells us first what to believe; then he tells us how we are to live in the light of that belief. First he tells us what God has done; then he tells us what we are to do.
Well, if that is how Paul structures his letter, then what does it say? Ephesians is about the church as Christ’s body. That is the main theme of Ephesians in a nutshell: the church is Christ’s body. In chapter 1, Paul tells us about salvation; how God saves the church. In the second chapter Paul tells us that since God saves us, we are one in Christ. In the third chapter, Paul tells us about the mystery of what God has revealed about the church. In the second half of the book, Paul tells us about body-life, the life of the church. We walk not as the pagans do, but as ones who are worthy of the calling to be Christ’s body. In chapter 5, Paul tells us about walking in love. Paul gives some specific examples of that in marriage, parenting and business situations. Finally, Paul tells us that we, as the church, are to fight in the spiritual warfare that is always going on.
So what are we to take away from Ephesians? Well, firstly, that none of us is an island unto ourselves. We are not individual Christians here and there. Rather, we are the church, the body of Christ. We ought not to act like we can do it on our own. Rather, we are actively to pursue body life; interaction with our fellow believers (instead of TV?), Bible studies, evening worship and not just morning worship, hospitality, evangelism and other aspects of the church life. Let’s stop being so selfish with our time and resources. If the church has a need, we should fill it. We are not islands to ourselves, but one body of Christ.
Secondly, we are to have a firm grasp of what salvation means. We are saved by grace through faith. Even that faith is a gift from God. Our salvation is based on the predestinating grace of our Lord God, and that is evidence of His love. Our salvation is in Christ Jesus, who is the head of the church. Christ saves His church. Yes, of course He saves individuals. But He does not make them into a hand or a foot and them leave them outside the body. A hand or a foot doesn’t do a whole lot if it is severed from the body. When Christ saves us, he plugs us into the church, the body of Christ.
Thirdly, and lastly, we are to have a firm grasp of spiritual warfare. We do not deny the existence of demons, nor do we think of them as having more power than Jesus Christ. They are our enemy (and Satan is the chief enemy), but they are a defeated enemy. Christ has already won the victory for us in His resurrection from the dead. We are to take this warfare seriously and with prayer, but we are not ever to despair, since the battle belongs to the Lord. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. That is the promise of Christ to His church, and it is the promise of Ephesians. Welcome to the New Year!