Ephesians contains some of the most sublime and compelling reflections in the New Testament: God’s mysterious plan for creation, Christ’s role in this, and the mystery of Christ’s body, the church.
Yet the puzzle remains as to its authorship, audience (the earliest and best Greek manuscripts lack any destination) and its form and function within the letters of Paul.
From 1:15 and 3:2 it is clear that the author did not personally know the recipients of the letter, even though Paul spent two years working in Ephesus.
There are more than 100 terms unique to this letter and, more importantly, some important terms like ekklesia—church (which Paul used to refer to a local congregation) has a different meaning altogether. Christians now, wherever they reside, are members of the church universal.
The Christ of Ephesians is exalted, enthroned and cosmic ruler; all this is more developed than anything in the undisputed letters of Paul. The author of Ephesians speaks from a time later than that of Paul, and with strikingly similar language to Colossians; more than 34 percent and 73 of its 155 verses are parallel. Unlike Colossians, which addressed a particular situation, Ephesians remains a thoroughly general letter, not addressing any local crisis. This raises the possibility that the letter was written as a general introduction to the works of Paul when they were later assembled, making it a legitimate descendant of the original preaching and teaching of Paul.
The apostle Paul has already become a figure from the past, a revered and heroic source of the faith of the author’s present-day church. It is easy to see why Christians of the late first century came to see the earlier apostles as foundation of their churches, alongside Jesus Christ, though never apart from him. We use the term ‘apostolic’ in speaking of the marks of the church. But notice how far this development in Eph 2:20 is from the ‘one foundation’ of 1 Cor 3:10-11.
Centrality of the resurrection
There is now a rich complexity to the theology of the resurrection of the Christian believer. The urgency and expectation of a coming end time, so prominent in Paul, has completely disappeared or been modulated. In its place, one finds affirmations of what has already been accomplished for the believer. In Eph 2:4-8 we are told ‘God made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’.
Significantly, the death of Jesus has torn down the barrier that previously divided Jew and Gentile (an issue that was at its hottest during Paul’s lifetime). Both groups are now equal and can live in harmony without the divisiveness of the law. More importantly, Christ has united both groups with God (2:18-22). Believers have not only died with Christ, they have also been raised up with him to enjoy the benefits of a heavenly existence (2:1-10). This is the mystery of the gospel that was concealed from earlier generations but has now been revealed to ‘Paul’ and through him to the world (3:1-13).
The mystery of the church
The church is described in greater terms than even those found in Colossians – as a more cosmic and universal reality headed by the cosmic Christ. It is much more than a gathering of believers united to Christ in various places. It is essential and vital to the fulfilment of God’s saving plans. It was always a part of the mystery hidden from the ages until now. As Christians needed Christ and God, now in a sense God and Christ need the church to bring word of the ‘mystery of Christ’ to the cosmos. Ephesians stresses less waiting for Christ’s coming and speaks more surely of believers as united with the heavenly Christ now.
In 5:21-6:9 we have the description of life in the household of God, of a church in the world and in time. Yet by its partaking in the mystery of the risen Christ, the church is at once a reality that transcends the categories of space and time while being also a reality that exists within space and time. The church is a group of men and women, brought together by God’s choice of them (1:11), by their mutual hope in Christ (1:12), by the forgiveness of their sins by his blood (1:7), by their mutual possession of God’s Spirit given as a foretaste and promise of salvation (1:13-14) and dedicated to the praise of God (1:14).
In face of the grievous historical division of humanity into Jew and Gentile, one group far from God and the other God’s people, the epistle develops the unity achieved in and through Jesus Christ. The scandal of disunity remains an affront to the oneness that is a mark of the church, and our own contribution to that disunity should be a source of shame. Division within and division from others is far from the unity characteristic of the church as Christ’s body (cf.2:11-19). We are left with the question: What does it mean to be the body of Christ? The starting point always is an understanding of Christ himself.
Ephesians deepened and expanded the Pauline understanding of the mystery of Christ and community. We must hope to produce a spirituality for today which is equally faithful to the wellspring of scripture while honestly speaking to vital questions in the lives of contemporary Christians. While space prevents a reflection on the haustafel, or ‘household code’ of 5:22-32, it is worth remembering that 47 of its words of command are addressed to wives and 143 to husbands—enough to make one think!
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