Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians has been celebrated with the highest possible praise. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it ‘the divinest composition of man.’ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 1. It has likewise been described as ‘the crown of St. Paul’s writings’ and ‘the Queen of the Epistles.’ John Mackay, former President of Princeton Theological Seminary, described Ephesians as the ‘greatest,’ the ‘maturest,’ and ‘for our time the most relevant of all Paul’s works. For here is the distilled essence of the Christian religion, the most authoritative and most consummate compendium of our holy Christian faith.’ Recounting his own conversion through the reading of this letter, Mackay says, ‘I saw a new world…everything was new…I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes to other people. I loved God. Jesus Christ became the center of everything…I had been ‘quickened’; I was really alive.’ (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity, 1979), 15–16. This aptly describes what Ephesians is all about.
Realizing the profundity of this book may make us apprehensive. We should realize, however, that though Ephesians is profound it is marked by a simple clarity. James Montgomery Boice wrote: ‘If Ephesians is profound, it is so not for the mysterious nature of its unfathomable deep secrets, but for the clear way it presents the most basic Christian truths…What is the appeal of this book? In my judgment it is just this: it presents the basic doctrines of Christianity comprehensively, clearly, practically, and winsomely.’ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 11. What makes Ephesians so beloved and valuable is not its genius or complexity but its clear and thorough teaching of the doctrines of salvation, of the church, and of the Christian life.
Following the custom of his day, Paul began this letter with his name and office: ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus.’ Paul wrote thirteen biblical books, comprising just under one quarter of the New Testament. Apart from Jesus Christ, it is hard to think of anyone who left so great a mark on the history of the Christian church.
F. F. Bruce began his study of Paul’s life by frankly admitting his love for the great apostle. He extolled Paul for ‘the attractive warmth of his personality, his intellectual stature, the exhilarating release effected by his gospel of redeeming grace, the dynamism with which he propagated that gospel throughout the world.’ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 15–16. Paul is best known for the depth and coherence of his theological writings, yet he ‘was first and foremost a missionary…who wrote letters to churches in order to sustain his converts in their newfound faith.’ (Downers Grove, Ill: 2001), 37–8.
Paul describes himself simply as ‘an apostle of Jesus Christ.’ The word apostle means ‘one who is sent,’ or simply, ‘messenger.’ In the New Testament era, apostles were missionaries who traveled about preaching the gospel and forming churches. Most importantly—and surely Paul intends to emphasize this—apostles bore the authority of Christ in their teaching and rule, an authority granted them by the risen and exalted Lord Jesus himself. Martyn Lloyd-Jones defines an apostle as ‘one chosen and sent with a special mission as the fully authorized representative of the sender.’ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 38. Peter O’Brien writes, ‘As an apostle he has the authority to proclaim the gospel in both oral and written form, as well as to establish and build up churches.’, 84.
The apostles include the original twelve disciples of Jesus, with Matthias added to replace the betrayer Judas Iscariot. Acts 1:22 establishes the qualification that an apostle must have been personally discipled by Jesus and personally witnessed the resurrection. Paul fulfilled these criteria by his conversion experience on the Damascus Road, when he was also commissioned by the Lord. He was not one of the original disciples, but in Galatians 2:1–10 Paul recounts being received by them and accepted as apostle to the Gentiles. What Jesus said to the twelve just before his ascension into heaven, equally applies to Paul, ‘You will receive power…You will be my witnesses’ (Acts 1:8). He asserts his authority as an apostle in all of his writings, presenting his credentials and drawing attention to the official character of his writing.
Paul adds that he is an apostle of Christ ‘by the will of God.’ This was not a job Paul had sought and worked toward on his own. He was called by God and equipped by God’s grace. It is on this basis that his teaching is to be received, not because of his own native genius and persuasive power, but in submission to God’s will and Christ’s commission. This contrast between divine and human authority was important to Paul; the opening words of Galatians work this out even more clearly: ‘Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father’ (Gal. 1:1). This means that whatever we find taught in this letter—and there are some challenging truths in Ephesians—comes from God himself and must be accepted in obedience to him.
Verse 1 presents the first of four times in chapter 1 that Paul speaks of ‘the will of God.’ This directs us right from the start to one of the great themes that runs through this epistle: the sovereignty of God. Ephesians tells us from start to finish that the gospel and Christianity are under the sovereign control of God. God sovereignly accomplished our redemption through Jesus Christ; by his sovereign will he sent apostles to preach the gospel; he sovereignly chose us from before creation to be saved; and at the time of his choosing he will sovereignly consummate and complete his redemptive plan to the glory of his name. Salvation is all a matter of God’s sovereignty; we encounter this truth in the first verse of the book, just as we will find it standing out in glory all through Ephesians.
Scholars have posed two questions that are important to our study of Ephesians. The first has to do with whether or not Paul actually wrote the letter. Indeed, it is surprising to find that the majority of biblical scholars today deny Paul’s authorship, most of them arguing that some brilliant assistant wrote Ephesians many years after Paul died, falsely using his name for credibility.
Those who deny Paul’s authorship point out the impersonal character of Ephesians, which seems odd in a letter written to a church he had led for two and a half years. This is explained when we realize that Ephesians was written as a theological tract for wider circulation. Scholars also cite a supposed difference in language and style between Ephesians and other known Pauline letters. Forty-one words appear only here and eighty-four more are found in the New Testament but not elsewhere in Paul. Yet other letters have their own distinctive style and vocabulary, and, as William Barclay observes, ‘It would be ridiculous to demand that a man with a mind like Paul’s should never add to his vocabulary and should always express himself in the same way.’ (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 64. Others note the similarity between Colossians and Ephesians, arguing that the writer of Ephesians used this other Pauline letter as his model. It is hard to see, however, how this similarity argues against rather than for Paul as the author of Ephesians.
Most importantly, this letter in God’s Word explicitly claims to come from the apostle Paul. For another writer to have used his name involves a great deal of fraud, especially since he asks for the readers to pray for his—Paul’s—ministry. Such a situation is inconceivable within a biblical view of the divine inspiration of Scripture, and as Charles Hodge observed, Ephesians ‘reveals itself as the work of the Holy Ghost as clearly as the stars declare their maker to be God.’ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), xii. The early church vigorously excluded pseudonymous writings from the canon, punishing those who attempted to pass off their own writings as apostolic. Yet the early church universally accepted Ephesians as Pauline, and objections to the contrary speak more eloquently against the state of scholarship today than they do about the authorship of this great letter.
The second issue has to do with the recipients of Ephesians. The problem is that many early manuscripts do not contain the words ‘in Ephesus’ in verse 1. This, combined with the impersonal style, argues that Paul did not write this letter specifically to the church in Ephesus. The best explanation is that Paul wrote Ephesians as a circular letter or tract, which he sent with Colossians for the general benefit of the churches in western Asia Minor. Since his messenger, Tychicus (see Eph. 6:21 and Col. 4:8), would travel through Ephesus and up the Lycus Valley, Paul wrote Ephesians for the benefit of the churches along the way. This also explains the similarity between Ephesians and Colossians.
Obviously, some mystery remains, but we can be sure that Paul the apostle wrote Ephesians, along with Colossians, for the benefit of churches in western Asia Minor, probably in the early 60’s during his first imprisonment at Rome.
Paul concludes his greeting with words found at the beginning of almost all of his letters: ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Paul always interjects theology into his greetings, and here he puts before us two main themes of this letter: grace and peace. This expression serves as a table of contents: chapters 1–3 extol the greatness of God’s grace, while chapters 4–6 call us to the life of peace. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes: ‘Grace is the beginning of our faith; peace is the end of our faith. Grace is the fountain, the spring, the source…But what does the Christian life mean, what is it meant to produce? The answer is “peace.”’ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), 36.
Before looking at the meaning of grace, let us first consider the peace that comes from God and the Lord Jesus Christ. The first thing we need to understand is what the Bible means by peace versus how it is normally used today. For people today, peace is simply the absence of strife, of war, or of conflict. We sign peace treaties and the only effect is that the actual fighting comes to a halt. The hatred is still there, the causes of strife are unrelieved, and no sense of unity arises, much less actual love. Yet we celebrate such things as peace. The Bible, however, ridicules such an idea. The prophet cried, ‘“Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace’ (Jer. 6:14).
The biblical idea of peace is so very different. Here, the idea comes from the Hebrew word shalom, the state of blessedness and harmony. Leon Morris comments, ‘Paul…is not saying here that he trusts that the Ephesian believers will not find themselves caught up in a war. He is speaking about the deep and abiding peace that comes when people are right with God.’, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 13. This is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world gives do I give to you’ (John 14:27).
Peace is the great need of mankind. Our problem is that there is no peace because of sin. This pertains first to our relationship with God. Paul writes in Romans 8:7 that ‘the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.’ Paul begins Ephesians 2by expounding this problem in detail, speaking of man’s sinfully corrupt nature and unwitting service to the devil. Lloyd-Jones explains, ‘Man by nature, as he is born into this world, is a hater of God…he fights God, he is an enemy…everything in him by nature is utterly opposed to God.’, 38. This is the teaching of Ephesians. People will deny this; perhaps you do. But man in sin is always a rebel to God and his law.
The inevitable result of sin is that God is alienated from us in return. In Ephesians 2:3 Paul says that sinful men and women are ‘by nature children of wrath.’ The peace of the gospel reconciles such people to God through Jesus Christ. This is the great problem of the world—man is at enmity with God and under God’s curse in return. The gospel solution provides peace with God and full restoration.
The bulk of Ephesians 1 is given to praising God for how he solves the problem of sin in granting us peace with himself. First is God’s electing grace, by which he ordained our salvation in eternity past. Then God sent his Son, Jesus, to remove our sin and accomplish our forgiveness by dying in our place on the cross. Verse 5 adds that God adopts us as his children through Jesus Christ. This is real peace with God: not just the removal of conflict and not just a piece of paper saying there will be no fighting for a while, but a righteous and loving relationship with God. In Ephesians 1:2 Paul speaks of peace from ‘God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Paul longs for his readers to know this peace through his gospel message, as believers are brought into God’s family as beloved children and receive power to live in peace under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
The peace of salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ: as Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14, ‘He himself is our peace.’ Do you know peace with God? Are you able to say you know his favor and love? Do you love him in return, longing to do his will? The only way you can enjoy this peace is by coming to God through faith in Christ, confessing your sin, and trusting Christ’s death and resurrection life, all of which were given so that you might have peace with God.
But Paul’s vision is not limited to peace between heaven and earth; he also sees peace reigning in the place of the turmoil of this world. What about peace among the nations—isn’t this the very thing our age is clamoring for? The last decades of world history have revealed continual strife and deadly violence not only on the battlefield but in the streets of the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and even America. There is no peace upon the earth, and man’s attempts to produce it have all failed. Think, too, about our own relationships: our families, our workplaces, our neighborhoods. Is there not division of every kind: racial, economic, ethnic, regional, and professional strife? What is the answer? The answer is not training, not compulsion, and not treaties; the problem is simply too deep for these solutions. Man does not love God, and neither does he love his neighbor. But the gospel declared in Ephesians declares peace with God and peace from God.
Watchman Nee tells of a Chinese Christian who had his rice field on a hill. Every day he had to hand-work a water wheel to lift water up from the irrigation stream at the base of the hill. His neighbor had two fields below his, and one night he made a hole in the wall that separated their property so that the Christian’s water would all drain down into his fields. The Christian was understandably angry, but wanting to honor God he took the matter to his church. There, his fellow Christians reasoned that if he simply retaliated for this hostile act, he would miss a chance to bear testimony to the peace of Jesus Christ. Following their counsel, the next day the Christian went down to the water wheel and pumped water into his neighbor’s two fields. Only then, working late into the day, did he fill his own fields. When he was done, his neighbor came out to ask why he would act in such kindness, which ultimately led to the man’s conversion to faith in Christ., 111–112. The Christian had peace with God, and he extended that peace to his fellow sinful man; we need to do the same, and especially to live in peace with our brothers and sisters in the family of God.
Men and women are at war not just with God and with others, but also within themselves. Isaiah 57:20–21 says, ‘The wicked are like the tossing sea, for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. “There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”’ Man in sin is pulled apart, with an internal conflict we ourselves cannot subdue. On the one hand, sin makes us slaves of the world, the devil, and the cravings of the flesh. On the other hand, man cannot escape his knowledge of God and need for him. Isaiah put it exactly right—we are caught between two great influences like the churning sea with the earth and the moon each pulling it—our flesh desiring sin and our consciences accusing us before God—with no peace of mind, no rest of spirit, and no satisfaction of heart. Like the ocean when it meets the shore, our waves churn up mire and muck.
Do you know something about this? We are made by God in such a way that we can only have peace within ourselves when we have peace with him. You will never have peace in rebellion against God, by doing things your own way. Peace comes through submission to the Almighty, by faith in the Savior who removes the hostility and sends God’s Spirit of peace. This is why Paul is able to tell Christians, even in the midst of the greatest turmoil this life can bring, in the face of death and sorrow, that through faith in Christ they may have God’s peace. This is why Christians can face the terrible news of a fatal disease, the loss of a job, or persecution from the world. Paul says, ‘In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 4:6–7).
How are we to have peace with God and thus enjoy the peace of God? The answer is by God’s grace. Can we repair our broken relationship with God? Can we perform works to appease him? No! Nothing we can ever do removes the guilt of our past sins, and nothing we do now is free from sinful motives and corruption. In short, we cannot save ourselves and God must therefore save us. This is the true problem Paul sets before us in Ephesians. Chapter 2 explores our need, first drawing out the full extent of our problem in sin and then pointing to our only hope in the grace of God, ‘who is rich in mercy’ (Eph. 2:4, niv).
Grace is, first, an attribute of God: he is gracious. A. W. Tozer writes: ‘Grace is the good pleasure of God that inclines Him to bestow benefits upon the undeserving. It is a self-existent principle inherent in the divine nature and appears to us as a self-caused propensity to pity the wretched, spare the guilty, welcome the outcast, and bring into favor those who were before under just disapprobation.’, (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 145–146.
Grace also describes God’s way of salvation, often defined as God’s unmerited favor. This expression is true, except it does not go far enough. Grace is God’s favor to us when we have merited the opposite. We have earned his hatred, wrath, and condemnation. Yet he causes us to be forgiven and made his precious children, bringing us into his household and lavishing us with every good thing. God gives that which is most precious to himself—his only Son—that he might remove our guilt on the cross, and by his blood reconcile us to God. This is the measure of God’s grace, as taught in Ephesians. Paul writes: ‘I pray that you…may have power…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ’ (Eph. 3:16–18). We are saved by God’s grace alone, he says in Ephesians 2:8, not by our works but by God’s gift; not because we loved him, for we have not loved God, but because he loved us and sent his Son to bear our sins and be our peace. God’s grace finds expression in an unstoppable plan for our salvation, which Paul explains in Ephesians chapter 1. God’s grace ordains our salvation, his Son, Jesus, accomplishes our salvation, and the Holy Spirit applies salvation to us through the gift of faith. A Christian may utterly rely on God’s grace, which is, as Paul sums up in verse 14, ‘to the praise of his glory.’
Finally, grace is God’s power working in us for newness of life. This, too, Paul greatly desires that we should learn in Ephesians. His prayer at the end of chapter 1 makes this clear. He prays that ‘having the eyes of your hearts enlightened,…you may know…what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead’ (Eph. 1:18-20). God has graciously given resurrection power for us to live as children of light, a redeemed people living holy lives to the praise of his name. Does it sound impossible that you would live differently, that you would lead a holy life? Jesus said, ‘with God all things are possible ’ (Matt. 19:26), because of the power of his grace working in our lives.
The grace of God was famously exhibited in the salvation of John Newton, the eighteenth century pastor who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. Newton was raised in a Christian home, but his parents died when he was only six and he was sent to live with a harsh, unbelieving relative. Fleeing abuse, Newton ran away to sea and as a sailor he fell into gross sin. After a while he deserted to live in one of the worst areas of Africa because there he could, as he recounts, ‘sin his full.’
During one voyage home to Scotland, Newton’s ship was struck by a storm and began to sink. Newton was sent down into the pitch blackness of the hold to work the pump with the slaves. For days on end he pumped, and in the darkness his mind recalled the Bible verses his mother had taught him as a child. They spoke of God’s grace and the cross where the Savior died for his forgiveness. The memory of these verses began working in Newton’s life until, after leaving the ship, he repented, found forgiveness through Jesus, and went on to be one of the most powerful gospel preachers of his generation.
His was a story of grace. Newton was a vile sinner, but he saw that God sent his Son to die for him and that by God’s free grace he could be forgiven. He realized that all of his life was within the plan of God’s grace for his salvation, and he came to know God’s grace as a power to overcome his sin. The result was a peace that came from God, that worked through his life, and then went out for the blessing of many others by God’s mighty grace. Writing of his own salvation, and that of countless others, Newton wrote:
Amazing grace!—how sweet the sound—
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind but now I see…
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
the hour I first believed.