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by Donald C. Fleming
The letter of Paul that we know as Ephesians is more general than his other letters. Much of it is concerned with the union that exists between Christ and the church, and the results that this union should produce in the lives of Christians. Paul says nothing specific about his relations with the church in Ephesus or with individuals in the church, even though he spent more time with the Ephesian church than with any other.
At the time Paul wrote this letter, a particular kind of false teaching had caused trouble among the churches in and around Ephesus. Paul’s special messenger apparently took a number of copies of the same letter and distributed them around these churches. Someone may have written the name of the receiving church into the introduction as copies were distributed. If this was the case, it would explain why some ancient manuscripts include the word ‘Ephesus’ in the opening greeting, but others omit it (Ephesians 1:1; see translators’ note). Paul’s letter to the church in the nearby town of Laodicea may have been another copy of this letter (Colossians 4:16).
The Ephesus region
Christianity probably came to Ephesus when Paul visited the city towards the end of his second missionary journey. He could not stay long, but left his friends Aquila and Priscilla there, and as soon as possible returned (Acts 18:18-23; Acts 19:1). Ephesus was the chief city of the Roman province of Asia (in western Asia Minor; see map in the commentary on Acts), and Paul saw that if Christianity was established in Ephesus it would spread throughout the province.
Paul’s ministry in Ephesus lasted three years and was the major work of his third missionary journey (Acts 20:31). In strengthening the church he trained many disciples, and these, it seems, were the people who took the gospel to the scattered towns and villages of the province (Acts 19:8-10). This outreach was probably the cause of churches being founded in Colossae, Hierapolis and Laodicea (Colossians 1:7; Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:13; Revelation 3:14), and possibly also in Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis and Philadelphia (Revelation 2:8,Revelation 2:12,Revelation 2:18; Revelation 3:1,Revelation 3:7).
Ephesus was a centre for some of the pagan religions of the region (Acts 19:35). This meant that the Christian converts came from a society where superstition and false religious ideas were widespread (Acts 19:18-19,Acts 19:26-27), and Paul knew that sooner or later the church in Ephesus would be troubled by false teaching (Acts 20:17,Acts 20:29-30). He knew also that a society with false religious beliefs usually has low moral standards, and his letter to the Ephesians deals with the sorts of problems that arise when a church is planted in such a society.
Purpose of the letter
It seems that Paul wrote this letter during the time of his first imprisonment in Rome, when he was under house arrest for two years (Acts 28:16,Acts 28:30; Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 6:20). Tychicus was about to go from Rome to Colossae with letters from Paul to the Christians there, so Paul thought it worthwhile to send this more general letter, which Tychicus could pass on to Ephesus and other churches of the region (cf. Ephesians 6:21-22; Colossians 4:7).
A kind of false teaching was spreading around the region and creating much confusion among Christians. It was an early form of Gnosticism, a religious philosophy that regarded Jesus Christ as neither fully human nor fully God, but as a sort of semi-angelic being. This teaching asserted that, although Jesus Christ was superior to the Christians who followed him, both he and they needed help from unseen angelic powers if they were to reach perfection. Paul deals more specifically with this false teaching in his letter to the church in Colossae, a town not far from Ephesus. In that letter Paul shows that Christ is supreme over the universe, and needs no help at all from angelic beings. Christians, being already complete in Christ, likewise need nothing to be added to them. (For further details see introductory notes to Colossians.)
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul repeats his assurances that Christ is supreme over the universe, and this includes all the angelic powers, good and bad. They can add nothing to him (Ephesians 1:20-21). There is no possibility that anything in the universe can fill up some lack in Christ. On the contrary he fills the universe (Ephesians 1:23; Ephesians 4:10). By his death and resurrection he has triumphed over all the evil spiritual forces of the universe. Because of this, Christians likewise can have victory in their battle against evil (Ephesians 2:2-6; Ephesians 6:12).
Paul considers not only Christians personally, but also the church as a whole. The church is the body of Christ, and it shares with him in his victory over all angelic powers (Ephesians 1:21-23; Ephesians 2:6). The church does not have to humble itself before angels. Rather angels are humbled before the church, as they see in it an overwhelming demonstration of God’s wisdom and power (Ephesians 3:10). All this is good reason for the Christians in and around Ephesus not to allow themselves to be persuaded by the clever, but wrong, ideas of the false teachers (Ephesians 5:6).
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