Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – an overview

1. Why this letter was written

When we are seeking to understand a book of the Bible, our first question must be, “Why was this particular book written?” Once we have a good idea as to why the book was written we can begin to interpret it. The reason we use this method is that the purpose of the writer must control the interpretation of the reader. We cannot interpret any verse in the Bible in a way that the writer never intended.

Now there are books of the Bible where the writer tells us why the book was written. For example, John says in John 20:31, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John in this verse tells us why he wrote his gospel. With other books, the writer does not tell us why he wrote the book. We have to read the book itself and then deduce the purpose of the writer in writing it. This is the case with Ephesians. Nowhere in this letter does Paul tell us explicitly why he wrote it. However, when we read the letter, his reasons for writing it become clear. There are four main reasons why Paul wrote this letter:

1. He wanted the church at Ephesus to understand that our salvation is something that God planned from eternity and that he planned it in such a way that it would show the glory of his grace.

2. He wanted to teach them that as the saved people of God they were greatly blessed and he wanted to remind them of some of these great blessings they received when they came to salvation in Christ.

3. He wanted to remind them that in Christ the middle wall of partition between the Jews and the Gentiles had been brought down, so that now in Christ there are no racial or tribal distinctions.

4. He wanted to encourage them to live their lives worthy of the calling they had received. He wanted to show them that those who are saved must now begin to live distinctive lives here on earth. In this letter, therefore, Paul gives very specific teaching on how we are to live our lives in the local church, in the world and in the home.

2. A broad outline of its contents

The letter to the Ephesians is divided into two sections. Chapters 1-3 consist primarily of doctrinal teaching on how God planned our salvation from before the foundation of the world and what are some of the consequences of this plan. Then in chapters 4-6 Paul applies this doctrinal teaching by giving very detailed and specific applications on how we are to live as the people of God. This is a broad outline of its contents.

Part I, Doctrinal

1. A description of the grand plan of salvation (1:3-14). We often think of salvation from our own point of view: how we came to Christ in repentance and faith and how we received forgiveness for our sins and were adopted into the family of God as his beloved children. Ephesians, however, looks at our salvation from God’s point of view and not from ours. Paul begins by teaching us that our salvation did not begin with us, it began when God elected us and planned our salvation. These verses in chapter 1 follow a Trinitarian pattern: election and predestination by God the Father (vs. 3-6), redemption and forgiveness through God the Son (vs. 7-12) and sealing by the Holy Spirit (vs. 13-14). At the end of each section (i.e. in vs. 6, 12 and 14) we have the words “to the praise of his glorious grace” or “to the praise of his glory” which reminds us that the primary purpose in our salvation is the glory of God and of his grace.

2. Paul’s first prayer for the Ephesians (1:15-23). A correct understanding of theology will do three things: it will move us to pray, it will inspire us to live a godly life and it will encourage us to reach the lost. Paul wrote great theology in vs. 1-14 and this immediately moved him to pray for the church at Ephesus. This is a model prayer that all pastors need to study carefully and to pray for their members. Paul knows Christians will only understand great spiritual truths when the Spirit of God himself enlightens them; these things are not discerned naturally but spiritually. And so his first prayer for his readers is that God would give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that they may know him better.

3. Paul illustrates that the work of salvation is the work of a gracious and loving God (chapter 2). He uses the example of the Ephesians themselves to show the sheer power and beauty of the gospel. Here was a city which was full of idolatry and sin because her people were dead in transgressions and sins. There was no way they could save themselves since they were spiritually dead and full of sin. But when Paul came to the city to preach, the power of God came upon the Ephesians and they were made alive and created in Christ Jesus for good works. The Ephesians themselves knew well enough that their salvation could only be ascribed to the grace, mercy and power of God. Having been saved, they were reconciled to God and were brought into his kingdom where there are no racial or tribal walls: all such walls have been destroyed by Christ through the gospel.

4. Paul the preacher of the mystery of God (3:1-13). In this passage Paul explains to the Ephesians the ministry that he has been given by Christ. He says that he was called to preach the mystery of God to the Gentiles, that they, the Gentiles, are heirs together with Israel and are members together of one body (3:6).

5. Paul’s second prayer for the Ephesians (3:14-21). Having reminded his readers of God’s wonderful wisdom in the plan of salvation, Paul prays that his readers would be strengthened, that Christ would dwell in their hearts through faith and that they would grasp the great love of God.

Part II, Practical

Having explained to the Ephesians the great plan of God in salvation, Paul now gives them practical instructions on how they are to live a life worthy of the calling they have received. Broadly speaking, this part of the letter falls into four parts:

1. Living the Christian life in the local church (4:1-16).

2. Living the Christian life in the world (4:17-5:21).

3. Living the Christian life in the home (5:22-6:9).

4. Putting on the full armour of God (6:10-20).

3. Preaching Ephesians

The letter to the Ephesians is one of the most encouraging, instructive and inspiring books in the Bible. The passages which describe God’s great plan of salvation reach to the highest places in heaven, and the passages which instruct us on how we are to live godly lives here on earth address in great detail our lives here on earth. Where Christians have a man-centred doctrine of salvation, this letter will bring correction, where there are tribal or class divisions among Christians, this letter will bring unity, and where there is confusion with regard to day to day holy living, this letter will bring light and hope. The pastor who studies it carefully will find great benefit for his own soul, and when he preaches it he will feed his people rich food from God’s word.

4. Helpful commentaries on Ephesians

The three commentaries I have found the most useful are:

Charles Hodge, Ephesians, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964.
Walter Liefield, Ephesians, Leicester: IVP, 1997.
Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005.

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