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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

- Ephesians

by William Barclay



The Letters Of Paul

There is no more interesting body of documents in the New Testament than the letters of Paul. That is because of all forms of literature a letter is most personal. Demetrius, one of the old Greek literary critics, once wrote, "Every one reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer's character, but in none so clearly as the epistolary." (Demetrius, On Style, 227.) It is just because he left us so many letters that we feel we know Paul so well. In them he opened his mind and heart to the folk he loved so much; and in them, to this day, we can see that great mind grappling with the problems of the early church and feel that great heart throbbing with love for men, even when they were misguided and mistaken.

The Difficulty Of Letters

At the same time there is often nothing so difficult to understand as a letter. Demetrius (On Style, 223) quotes a saying of Artemon, who edited the letters of Aristotle. Artemon said that a letter ought to be written in the same manner as a dialogue, because it was one of the two sides of a dialogue. In other words, to read a letter is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. So when we read the letters of Paul we are often in a difficulty. We do not possess the letter which he was answering; we do not fully know the circumstances with which he was dealing; it is only from the letter itself that we can deduce the situation which prompted it. Before we can hope to understand fully any letter Paul wrote, we must try to reconstruct the situation which produced it.

The Ancient Letters

It is a great pity that Paul's letters were ever called epistles. They are in the most literal sense letters. One of the great lights shed on the interpretation of the New Testament has been the discovery and the publication of the papyri. In the ancient world, papyrus was the substance on which most documents were written. It was composed of strips of the pith of a certain bulrush that grew on the banks of the Nile. These strips were laid one on top of the other to form a substance very like brown paper. The sands of the Egyptian desert were ideal for preservation, for papyrus, although very brittle, will last forever so long as moisture does not get at it. As a result, from the Egyptian rubbish heaps, archaeologists have rescued hundreds of documents, marriage contracts, legal agreements, government forms, and, most interesting of all, private letters. When we read these private letters we find that there was a pattern to which nearly all conformed; and we find that Paul's letters reproduce exactly that pattern. Here is one of these ancient letters. It is from a soldier, called Apion, to his father Epimachus. He is writing from Misenum to tell his father that he has arrived safely after a stormy passage.

"Apion sends heartiest greetings to his father and lord Epimachus.

I pray above all that you are well and fit; and that things are

going well with you and my sister and her daughter and my brother.

I thank my Lord Serapis [his god] that he kept me safe when I was

in peril on the sea. As soon as I got to Misenum I got my journey

money from Caesar--three gold pieces. And things are going fine

with me. So I beg you, my dear father, send me a line, first to let

me know how you are, and then about my brothers, and thirdly, that

I may kiss your hand, because you brought me up well, and because

of that I hope, God willing, soon to be promoted. Give Capito my

heartiest greetings, and my brothers and Serenilla and my friends.

I sent you a little picture of myself painted by Euctemon. My

military name is Antonius Maximus. I pray for your good health.

Serenus sends good wishes, Agathos Daimon's boy, and Turbo,

Gallonius' son." (G. Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri,


Little did Apion think that we would be reading his letter to his father 1800 years after he had written it. It shows how little human nature changes. The lad is hoping for promotion quickly. Who will Serenilla be but the girl he left behind him? He sends the ancient equivalent of a photograph to the folk at home. Now that letter falls into certain sections. (i) There is a greeting. (ii) There is a prayer for the health of the recipients. (iii) There is a thanksgiving to the gods. (iv) There are the special contents. (v) Finally, there are the special salutations and the personal greetings. Practically every one of Paul's letters shows exactly the same sections, as we now demonstrate.

(i) The Greeting: Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Php_1:1 ; Colossians 2:1-23; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1.

(ii) The Prayer: in every case Paul prays for the grace of God on the people to whom he writes: Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Php_1:3 ; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2.

(iii) The Thanksgiving: Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; Php_1:3 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3.

(iv) The Special Contents: the main body of the letters.

(v) Special Salutations and Personal Greetings: Romans 16:1-27; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Php_4:21-22 ; Colossians 4:12-15; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.

When Paul wrote letters, he wrote them on the pattern which everyone used. Deissmann says of them, "They differ from the messages of the homely papyrus leaves of Egypt, not as letters but only as the letters of Paul." When we read Paul's letters we are not reading things which were meant to be academic exercises and theological treatises, but human documents written by a friend to his friends.

The Immediate Situation

With a very few exceptions, all Paul's letters were written to meet an immediate situation and not treatises which he sat down to write in the peace and silence of his study. There was some threatening situation in Corinth, or Galatia, or Philippi, or Thessalonica, and he wrote a letter to meet it. He was not in the least thinking of us when he wrote, but solely of the people to whom he was writing. Deissmann writes, "Paul had no thought of adding a few fresh compositions to the already extant Jewish epistles; still less of enriching the sacred literature of his nation.... He had no presentiment of the place his words would occupy in universal history; not so much that they would be in existence in the next generation, far less that one day people would look at them as Holy Scripture." We must always remember that a thing need not be transient because it was written to meet an immediate situation. All the great love songs of the world were written for one person, but they live on for the whole of mankind. It is just because Paul's letters were written to meet a threatening danger or a clamant need that they still throb with life. And it is because human need and the human situation do not change that God speaks to us through them today.

The Spoken Word

One other thing we must note about these letters. Paul did what most people did in his day. He did not normally pen his own letters but dictated them to a secretary, and then added his own authenticating signature. (We actually know the name of one of the people who did the writing for him. In Romans 16:22 Tertius, the secretary, slips in his own greeting before the letter draws to an end.) In 1 Corinthians 16:21 Paul says, "This is my own signature, my autograph, so that you can be sure this letter comes from me" (compare Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17).

This explains a great deal. Sometimes Paul is hard to understand, because his sentences begin and never finish; his grammar breaks down and the construction becomes involved. We must not think of him sitting quietly at a desk, carefully polishing each sentence as he writes. We must think of him striding up and down some little room, pouring out a torrent of words, while his secretary races to get them down. When Paul composed his letters, he had in his mind's eye a vision of the folk to whom he was writing, and he was pouring out his heart to them in words that fell over each other in his eagerness to help.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


The Supreme Letter

By common consent the Letter to the Ephesians ranks very high in the devotional and theological literature of the Christian Church. It has been called "The Queen of the Epistles"--and rightly so. Many would hold that it is indeed the highest reach of New Testament thought. When John Knox was very near his end, the book that was most often read to him was John Calvin's Sermons on the Letter to the Ephesians. Coleridge said of Ephesians that it was "the divinest composition of man." He went on: "It embraces first, those doctrines peculiar to Christianity, and, then, those precepts common with it in natural religion." Ephesians clearly has a place all its own in the Pauline correspondence.

And yet there are certain very real problems connected with it. These problems are not the product of the minds of over-critical scholars, but are plain for all to see. When, however, these problems are solved, Ephesians becomes a greater letter than ever and shines with an even more radiant light.

The Circumstances Of The Writing Of Ephesians

Before we turn to the doubtful things, let us set down the certainties. First, Ephesians was clearly written when Paul was in prison. He calls himself "a prisoner for Christ" ( Ephesians 3:1); it is as "a prisoner for the Lord" that he beseeches them ( Ephesians 4:1); he is "an ambassador in chains" ( Ephesians 6:20). It was in prison, and very near to the end, that Paul wrote Ephesians.

Second, Ephesians has clearly a close connection with Colossians. It would seem that Tychicus was the bearer of both these letters. In Colossians Paul says that Tychicus will tell them all about his affairs ( Colossians 4:7); and in Ephesians he says that Tychicus will give them all information ( Ephesians 6:21). Further, there is a close resemblance between the substance of the two letters, so close that more than 55 verses in the two letters are verbatim the same. Either, as Coleridge held, Colossians is what might be called "the overflow" of Ephesians, or Ephesians is a greater version of Colossians. We shall in the end come to see that it is this resemblance which gives us the clue to the unique place of Ephesians among the letters of Paul.

The Problem

So, then, it is certain that Ephesians was written when Paul was in prison for the faith and that it has in some way the closest possible connection with Colossians. The problem emerges when we begin to examine the question of to whom Ephesians was written.

In the ancient days letters were written on rolls of papyrus. When finished, they were tied with thread, and, if they were specially private or important, the knots in the thread were then sealed. But it was seldom that any address was written on them, for the very simple reason that, for the ordinary individual, there was no postal system. There was a government post, but it was available only for official and imperial correspondence and not for the ordinary person. Letters in those days were delivered by hand and therefore no address was necessary. So the titles of the New Testament letters are not part of the original letters at all. They were inserted afterwards when the letters were collected and published for all the Church to read.

When we study Ephesians closely, we find it in the last degree unlikely that it was written to the church at Ephesus. There are internal reasons for arriving at that conclusion.

(a) The letter was written to Gentiles. The recipients were "Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise" ( Ephesians 2:11). Paul urges them "no longer to live as the Gentiles do" ( Ephesians 4:17). The fact that they were Gentiles did not of itself mean that the letter could not have been written to Ephesus; but it is a fact to note.

(b) Ephesians is the most impersonal letter Paul ever wrote. It is entirely without personal greetings and without the intimate personal messages of which the other letters are so full. That is doubly surprising when we remember that Paul spent longer in Ephesus than in any other city, no less than three years ( Acts 20:31). Further, there is no more intimate and affectionate passage in the whole New Testament than Acts 20:17-35 where we have Paul's farewell talk to the elders of Ephesus, before he left Miletus on his last journey. It is very difficult to believe in face of all this that Paul would have sent a letter to Ephesus which was so impersonal.

(c) The indication of the letter is that Paul and the recipients did not know each other personally and that their knowledge of each other came by hearsay. In Ephesians 1:15 Paul writes: "Because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus." The loyalty of the people to whom he was writing was something which had come to him by information and not by experience. In Ephesians 3:2 he writes to them: "Assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you." That is to say: "If you have heard that God gave me the special task and office of being the apostle to Gentiles such as you." The Church's knowledge of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles was something of which they have heard, but not something which they knew by personal contact with him. So, then, within itself the letter bears signs that it does not fit the close and personal relationship which Paul had with the Church at Ephesus.

These facts might be explained; but there is one external fact which settles the matter. In Ephesians 1:1 none of the great early manuscripts of the Greek New Testament contain the words in Ephesus. They all read: "Paul...to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus." And we know, from the way in which they comment on it, that that was the form in which the early Greek fathers knew the text.

Was Paul The Author?

Some scholars have gone on to find still another difficulty in Ephesians. They have doubted whether Paul was the author of the letter at all. On what grounds do they base their doubts?

They say that the vocabulary, is different from the vocabulary of Paul; and it is true that there are some seventy words in Ephesians which are not found in any other letter written by Paul. That need not trouble us, for the fact is that in Ephesians Paul was saying things which he had never said before. He was travelling a road of thought along which he had not before travelled; and naturally he needed new words to express new thoughts. 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.

They say that the style is not the style of Paul. It is true-- we can see it even in the English, let alone in the Greek--that the style of Ephesians is different from that of the other letters. The other letters are all written to meet a definite situation. But, as A. H. McNeile has said, Ephesians is "a theological tract, or rather a religious mediation." Even the use of language is different. Moffatt puts it this way--generally speaking, Paul's language pours out like a torrent; but in Ephesians we have "a slow, bright stream, flowing steadily along, which brims its high banks." The length of the sentences in Ephesians is astonishing. In the Greek Ephesians 1:3-14; Ephesians 1:15-23; Ephesians 2:1-9; Ephesians 3:1-7 are each one long, meandering sentence. McNeile very beautifully and rightly calls Ephesians "a poem in prose." All this is very unlike Paul's normal style.

What is to be said to this? There is first the general fact that no great writer always writes in the same style. Shakespeare can produce the very different styles of Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, and the Sonnets. Any great stylist--and Paul was a great stylist--writes in a style to fit his aim and his circumstances at the time of writing. It is bad criticism to say that Paul did not write Ephesians simply because he has evolved a new vocabulary and a new style.

But there is more. Let us remember how Paul wrote most of his letters. He wrote them in the midst of a busy ministry, when, for the most part, he was on the road. He wrote them to meet a demanding problem which had to be dealt with at the moment. That is to say, in most of his letters Paul was writing against time. Now let us remember that Paul, if he wrote Ephesians, wrote it when he was in prison. That is to say, he had all the time in the world to write it. Is it any wonder that the style of Ephesians; is not the style of the earlier letters?

Moreover, this difference in style, this meditative, poetical quality is most apparent in Ephesians 1:1-23; Ephesians 2:1-22; Ephesians 3:1-21, and they are one long prayer, culminating in a great doxology. There is in fact nothing like this in all Paul's letters. This is the language of lyrical prayer, not the language of argument or controversy or rebuke.

The differences are far from proving that Ephesians is not by Paul.

The Thought Of The Epistle

Certain scholars wish to go on to say that the thought of Ephesians is beyond the thought of any of the other letters of Paul. Let us see what that thought is. We have seen that Ephesians is intimately connected with Colossians whose central thought is the all-sufficiency, of Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ were hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge ( Colossians 2:3); all the fulness of God dwelt in him ( Colossians 1:19); in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily ( Colossians 2:9); he alone is necessary and sufficient for man's salvation ( Colossians 1:14). The whole thought of Colossians is based on the complete sufficiency of Jesus Christ.

The thought of Ephesians is a development of that conception. It is summarized in two verses of the first chapter, in which Paul speaks of God as, "having made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth." ( Ephesians 1:9-10).

The key thought of Ephesians is the gathering together of all things in Jesus Christ. In nature as it is without Christ there is nothing but disunity and disharmony; it is "red in tooth and claw." Man's dominion has broken the social union which should exist between man and the beasts; man is divided from man; class from class; nation from nation; ideology from ideology; Gentile from Jew. What is true of the world of outer nature is true of human nature. In every man there is a tension; every man is a walking civil war, torn between the desire for good and the desire for evil; he hates his sins and loves them at one and the same time. According to both Greek and Jewish thought in the time of Paul, this disharmony extends even to the heavenly places. A cosmic battle is raging between the powers of evil and the powers of good; between God and the demons. Worst of all there is disharmony between God and man. Man, who was meant to be in fellowship with God, is estranged from him.

So, then, in this world without Christ, there is nothing but disunity. That disunity is not God's purpose but it can become a unity only when all things are united in Christ. As E. F. Scott has it: "The innumerable broken strands were to be brought together in Christ, knotted again into one, as they had been in the beginning." The central thought of Ephesians is the realization of the disunity in the universe and the conviction that it can become unity only when everything is united in Christ.

The Origin Of Paul's Thought

How did Paul arrive at this great conception of the unity of all things in Jesus Christ? Most likely he came to it in two ways. It is surely the inevitable outcome of his conviction, stated so vividly in Colossians, that Christ is all-sufficient. But it may well be that there was something else which moved Paul's mind in this direction. He was a Roman citizen and proud of it. In his journeys Paul had seen a great deal of the Roman Empire, and now he was in Rome, the imperial city. In the Roman Empire a new unity had come to the world. The pax Romana, the Roman peace, was a very real thing. Kingdoms and states and countries, which had struggled and warred with each other, were gathered into a new unity in the Empire which was Rome. It may well be that in his imprisonment Paul saw with new eyes how all this unity centred in Rome; and it may well have seemed to him a symbol of how all things must centre in Christ, if a disunited nature and world and humanity were ever to be gathered into a unity. Surely, so far from being a conception that was beyond his thinking, all Paul's thinking and experience would lead him precisely to that.

The Function Of The Church

It is in Ephesians 1:1-23; Ephesians 2:1-22; Ephesians 3:1-21 that Paul deals with this conception of the unity in Christ. In the second three chapters he has much to say of the place of the Church in God's plan to bring about that unity. It is here that Paul strikes out one of his greatest phrases. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is to be hands to do Christ's work, feet to run upon his errands, a mouth to speak for him. So, then, we have a double thesis in Ephesians. First, Christ is God's instrument of reconciliation. Second, the Church is Christ's instrument of reconciliation. The Church must bring Christ to the world; and it is within the Church that all the middle walls of separation must be broken down. It is through the Church that the unity of all the discordant elements must be achieved. As E. F. Scott has it: "The Church stands for that purpose of world-wide reconciliation for which Christ appeared, and in all their intercourse with one another Christians must seek to realize this formative idea of the Church."

Who But Paul?

This is the thought of Ephesians. As we have seen, there are some who, thinking of the vocabulary and the style and the thought of this letter, cannot believe that Paul wrote it. E. J. Goodspeed, the American scholar, has put forward an interesting--but unconvincing--theory. The probability is that it was in Ephesus about the year A.D. 90 that the letters of Paul were first collected and sent out to the Church at large. It is Goodspeed's theory that the man responsible for that collection, some disciple of Paul, wrote Ephesians as a kind of introduction to the whole collection. Surely that theory breaks down on one salient fact. Any imitation is inferior to the original. But so far from being inferior Ephesians might well be said to be the greatest of all the Pauline letters. If Paul did not write it himself, we have to postulate as its writer someone who was possibly greater than Paul. E. F. Scott very relevantly demands: "Can we believe that in the Church of Paul's day there was an unknown teacher of this supreme excellence? The natural assumption is surely that an epistle so like the work of Paul at his best was written by no other man than by Paul himself." No man ever had a greater vision of Christ than this which sees in Christ the one centre in whom all the disunities of life are gathered into one. No man ever had a greater vision of the Church than this which sees in the Church God's instrument in that world-wide reconciliation. And we may well believe that no man other than Paul could rise to a vision like that.

The Destination Of Ephesians

We must now return to the problem which earlier we left unsolved. If Ephesians was not written to Ephesus--to what church was it written?

The oldest suggestion is that it was written to Laodicea. In Colossians 4:16 Paul writes: "And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea." That sentence makes certain that a letter had gone from Paul to the church at Laodicea. We possess no such letter amongst Paul's letters as they stand. Marcion was one of the first people to make a collection of Paul's letters, just about the middle of the second century, and he actually calls Ephesians the Letter to the Laodiceans. So from very early times there must have been a feeling in the Church that Ephesians was actually sent in the first instance to Laodicea.

If we accept that interesting and attractive suggestion, we still have to explain how the letter lost its individual address to Laodicea and came to be connected with Ephesus. There could be two explanations.

It may be that, when Paul died, the church at Ephesus knew that the church at Laodicea possessed a wonderful letter from Paul; and wrote to Laodicea asking for a copy. A copy may have been made and sent off, omitting only the words in Laodicea in the first verse, and leaving a blank as the earliest manuscripts have a blank there. Almost thirty years later the letters of Paul were collected for general publication. Now Laodicea was in a district which was notorious for earthquakes, and it may well have been that all its archives were destroyed; and that, therefore, when the collection was made, the only copy of the Letter to the Laodiceans was that which survived in Ephesus. That letter may then have come to be known as the Letter to the Ephesians, because it was in Ephesus that the only extant copy survived.

The second suggested explanation was propounded by Harnack, the great German scholar. In the later days the church in Laodicea sadly fell from grace. In the Revelation there is a letter to Laodicea which makes sad reading ( Revelation 3:14-22). In that letter the church of Laodicea is unsparingly condemned by the Risen Christ, so much so that he says to her in that vivid phrase: "I will spew you out of my mouth" ( Revelation 3:16). Now in the ancient world there was a custom called damnatio memoriae, the condemnation of a man's memory. A man might have rendered many a signal service to the state, for which his name might occur in books, in the state annals, in inscriptions and on memorials. But if such a man ended in some base act, some utter wreck of honour, his memory was condemned. His name was erased from all books, obliterated from all inscriptions, chiselled out of all memorials. Harnack thinks it possible that the church of Laodicea underwent a damnatio memoriae so that her very name was obliterated from the Christian records. If that were so, then the copies of the Letter to Laodicea would have no address at all; and when the collection was made at Ephesus, the name of Ephesus might well have become attached to it.

The Circular Letter

Both these suggestions are possible but still another suggestion is far more likely. We believe that Ephesians was not in fact written to any one church, but was a circular letter to all Paul's Asian churches. Let us look again at Colossians 4:16. He writes: "And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church at Laodicea; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea." Paul does not say that the Colossians must read the epistle to Laodicea; they must read the epistle from Laodicea. It is as if Paul said: "There is a letter circulating; at the present moment it has reached Laodicea; when it is sent on to you from Laodicea be sure to read it." That sounds very like as if there was a letter circulating among the Asian churches,. and we believe that letter was Ephesians.

The Quintessence Of Paul

If this be so, Ephesians is Paul's supreme letter. We have seen that Ephesians and Colossians are very close to each other. We believe that what happened was that Paul wrote Colossians to deal with a definite situation, an outbreak of heresy. In so doing he stumbled on his great expression of the all-sufficiency of Christ. He said to himself: "This is something that I must get across to all men." So he took the matter he had used in Colossians, removed all the local and temporary and controversial aspects, and wrote a new letter to tell all men of the all-sufficient Christ. Ephesians, as we see it, is the one letter Paul sent to all the eastern churches to tell them that the destined unity of all men and of all things could never be found except in Christ, and to tell them of the supreme task of the Church that of being Christ's instrument in the universal reconciliation of man to man and of man to God. That is why Ephesians is the Queen of the Epistles.

Study Method

In Ephesians Paul's argument is very closely woven together. It often proceeds in long complicated sentences which are difficult to unravel. If we are really to grasp his meaning, there are passages where it will be better to read the letter, first in fairly long sections and then break down these sections into shorter passages for detailed study.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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