“Paul and His Letters”
September 2, 2001
Having concluded the Gospel of John and, before that, having preached a long series of morning sermons on the Book of Genesis, and, further, having been in the Old Testament so long in my evening sermons, it has seemed to me high time for us to take up one of the letters of Paul. I have never preached through Ephesians before, though I have preached sermons on separate passages in the letter.
For most Christians, their understanding of the Christian faith and, still more, their understanding of the Christian life, is a Pauline understanding. If, as one early church father wrote, “The Gospels supply the wool, but the epistles weave the dress,” Paul does by far the largest part of the weaving. Peter and John and others do their share, but no one more or so significantly as Paul. It is to Paul that we turn first for our understanding of justification by faith, but it is also to Paul that we turn first for our understanding of the relationship between justification and our daily life as Christians, or what we call our sanctification. It is Paul who explains to us in the most thoroughgoing manner how Christ’s conquest of sin and death in his life, his death, and his resurrection is applied to sinners in their own lifetimes so as to bring them to salvation and peace with God.
Thirteen of the twenty-seven books that make up our New Testament were written by the great Apostle to the Gentiles and, among them, are some that set forth our faith and our life in the clearest and most systematic way. Two of those books are his Letter to the Romans and this letter, to the Ephesians, which I have chosen for our next course of Lord’s Day morning sermons. If we were to relate Romans to Ephesians, we might say that Ephesians is Romans without the controversy, without the problems that are troubling the church and have to be addressed by the apostle in his letter. There is little or no controversy in Ephesians, just a sustained exposition of salvation, from its origins in the love and counsel of God the Father through its achievement in the work of Christ, to its outworking in every Christian individual’s experience, from the dawning of faith in Jesus to full maturity in godliness. It is a panorama of salvation and of the Christian life. One author described Ephesians as “the Switzerland of the New Testament.” [Pierson in Simpson, 17] And another speaks of it as “a Pisgah survey of the land of the New Testament” after the mountain from which Moses surveyed the Promised Land. [Simpson, 17] Along the way we will encounter some of the most sublime passages in the Word of God. Paul’s exposition both of salvation and of the life that flows from it is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Now, you will see immediately that Ephesians bears characteristic marks of one of Paul’s letters. Not only is the greeting and opening benediction characteristic of all of Paul’s letters, the structure of the entire book is famously Pauline. You will see that the first three chapters are theology and the last three are ethics. The first three are about what God has done and the last three about what we must do. And the connection between them, at 4:1, is that connection that you find also at Romans 12:1 and Colossians 3:1 and any number of other places in the various letters of Paul. In other words, Paul connects his exposition of the Christian life to his exposition of salvation, the one flows from the other. The NIV has rendered his statement rather colorlessly, with a “then” seven words into the sentence of 4:1. But it reads, “Therefore, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received…” That is, live in response to, live in gratitude for, live in keeping with, live by the power of the great salvation that I have just described for you in chapters 1-3. Christians do not live unto life, they live from life. Everywhere in Paul you have this fundamental insight, and it is the conviction, the doctrine that so decidedly separates Christianity from all the other religions and philosophies of the world.
At virtually any university in the land, in virtually any philosophy of religion class, nowadays, students are taught that all religions are the same at bottom. They are all variations on the same theme. They are all expressions of man’s search for God, for the ultimate, for salvation, whatever one wishes to call it. And they all see a moral life, however that life is defined by each religion, as the path to that salvation. And, in my judgment, that is correct, that is true of the world’s religions and also of its secular philosophies, if you except, if you exclude, biblical Christianity! All of the world’s faiths in their own unique way say to us: “Do this and you will live.” They differ among themselves as to what this amounts to: Hinduism teaches us to do one thing, Buddhism to do another, Islam another. And they differ among themselves as to what live means: In Islam it is Paradise, In Hinduism and Buddhism it is Nirvana, escape from existence, or, in secular naturalism, it is vaguely a good life for as long as you live in this world. But all of them, in their own way, say to us: “Do this and you will live.” Christianity, however, in total contradiction of that religious principle, says God and Christ have given you life, now live that life they have given you, live it to the full, live it for love and for thanksgiving and for the sake of its own goodness, and live it for others also. The religions say: “Do and live.” Christianity says, Paul says, “Live and do!” That, in a nutshell, is Romans and it is also Ephesians.
But Ephesians is unique as well. There are significant differences between Ephesians and other writings of Paul, significant enough to lead even some evangelical scholars to conclude that the letter was not written by Paul himself, but later, by one of his disciples. It is Pauline, they claim, hence the title, but it was not by Paul himself. I will not trouble you with the arguments pro and con. I am certainly not persuaded that there is adequate reason to believe that Paul was not the author of the letter. The early church certainly thought that he was and the fact that no one disputes its “Pauline” character amounts to an admission that the letter in very many respects is what we would have expected of Paul. Scholars doing their research and writing their books can often become convinced of things the man on the street knows are implausible for perfectly ordinary and commonsensical reasons.
But, the letter is different from other letters of Paul in some interesting ways. I already mentioned that there is no controversy in the book. He speaks of Jews and Gentiles in the church but pays no attention to the difficulty those two groups of Christians had in forming a single brotherhood. There is almost no attention in the letter to eschatology, to the future of the kingdom of God and to the consummation of salvation in the world to come. The future of our salvation is mentioned specifically only once – in 1:14 – and then in a rather oblique way. When you read the letter through at one sitting that omission becomes striking. Paul is happy to speak of the church as already “in the heavenly places” with Christ in 2:6, but the letter leaves us in this world. We are, in Ephesians, not so much waiting for the day of the adoption of the sons of God, as we are planning on a long life in this world in which the church is to grow up into her Head and become mature in him. Some have even criticized Ephesians for a triumphalistic view of the Christian life. The church seems to be presented in consistently positive terms, there is little reflection on the dark side of life, or the failures of the church or of Christian people. You haven’t the ambiguities of life here that you find in the letters to the Romans or the Corinthians or the Thessalonians or the Galatians. [A.T. Lincoln, WBC, lxii-lxv, xcvi]
I am, of course, happy to see this as simply the emphasis on certain poles on various continuums of biblical truth. Surely there is nothing in Ephesians that you cannot find elsewhere in Paul. You simply have an emphasis, a particular perspective being given its own day in this great letter to the Ephesians. Paul was too great a man and his mind too large to write all of his letters the same way or to think about the salvation of God and the life of faith always in the same way. Here was a man who, himself, had seen the risen and ascended and exalted Lord Christ and heard him speak on the Damascus Road. Here was a man who had actually been up into the third heaven, by a vision or not he does not know for sure, and seen wonders there that he was forbidden to tell. But here was a man who had been stoned and shipwrecked and imprisoned for years at a time. Here was a man who as a Christian had been betrayed by close friends and rejected by fellow Jews. They had tried on several occasions to kill him. He had suffered the loss of all things. He knew great joy and great sorrow in his own life. He knew unprecedented success and influence and, at the same time, bitter failure. His own life was a transcript of the entire range of Christian perspectives and experiences. No wonder his letters should not all be the same and should express the multifaceted dimensions of Christian faith and life. Indeed, we cannot consider Ephesians apart from the man who wrote it, Paul, himself.
So, before we begin our exposition of the book, it will do us good to consider its author and so this particular letter in its personal and historical context. Today we will consider Paul as the author of the letter and next Lord’s Day we will consider the church in Ephesus or the churches of that region as the recipients of the letter. We cannot think of Christianity apart from Paul and his letters. As J. Gresham Machen observed two generations ago in his great work on Paul:
“The Christian movement…in A.D. 35….would have appeared to a superficial observer to be a Jewish sect. Thirty years later it was plainly a world religion. This establishment of Christianity as a world religion, to almost as great an extent as any great historical movement can be ascribed to one man, was the work of Paul.” [The Origin of Paul’s Religion, 7-8]
Paul is one of the most significant men who ever lived. One of the great glories of our faith as Christians is the heroes that it has produced, the noble men and women who have devoted their lives to the cause of Jesus Christ and have so gloriously adorned that cause with their lives and their work. Chief among them all is Paul.
Paul was first and foremost, of course, a missionary. His letters that form such an important part of the New Testament, were just that: real letters to the churches he had founded, to churches he had not visited but which were part of the circle of new Christian churches being established in the Gentile world, or to members of his missionary team, associates in his work. Fact is, we cannot think of the spread of Christianity apart from Paul’s missionary work. He was a man who devoted all of his powers, and they were great powers, to the spread of the gospel. Latecomer though he was among the apostles of the Lord, he tells us candidly and unaffectedly that “he worked harder than any of them,” though he goes on quickly to add that it was not he, but the grace of God in him that worked so hard and so effectively. And his letters were part of and the overflow of that remarkable life devoted to missionary labor. Paul would have thought of himself primarily as an evangelist, a preacher of the Gospel. The letters were just a way to extend the effectiveness of his main work. He would not have thought of himself as a writer, even though his writings have become some of the most important in the history of the world.
Like the true letters that they are, they were occasional, that is, Paul was prompted to write them by specific circumstances. He did not compose a single one of them as a study in theology or as a treatise on Christian doctrine or as a manual of Christian living. They serve in all of those ways, of course, but even more wonderfully precisely because they were real letters to real people facing the challenges of real life. In some cases they were responses to letters that he had received.
How wonderful, really, when one thinks about it, that the New Testament, as the Old Testament before it, should be the kind of literature it is. That there should be this so completely personal element in it. It arises out of life and out of a man’s work on behalf of the gospel of God. Everywhere it commends itself to us as the living voice of a great man in the midst of a great work. There is nothing merely theoretical about it, nothing detached, nothing impractical. Paul’s letters come to us across the centuries still conveying the passion and worry and the excitement and the thrill of a great cause out of which they were born.
And, one of the reasons for that is the particular man whom God used to write these letters that he would make his own Word and place forever in his Holy Scripture. Paul was a great man in every way. You may not realize this, but his letters as a body, quite apart from their importance as a major section of the New Testament, are one of the great artifacts of world literature. That cannot really be said of any of the other authors of the books of the New Testament. As one scholar writes,
“Of all the New Testament authors, Paul is the one who has
stamped his own personality most unmistakably on his writings. It is especially for this reason that he has a secure place among the great letter-writers in world literature – not because he composed his letters with a careful eye to stylistic propriety and the approving verdict of a wider public than those for whom they were primarily intended, but because they express so spontaneously and therefore so eloquently his mind and his message. ‘He is certainly one of the great figures in Greek literature…” [F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 15-16]
So we can set Paul beside Euripides and Sophocles and Thucydides. That is a remarkable compliment to be paid to the genius of a man who claimed to be a Hebrew of the Hebrews! [R. Reymond, Paul: Missionary Theologian, 24]
But Paul’s letters are not only great literature. They are the overflow of a great mind and heart. They are the sentiment of a great Christian and a great Christian servant and soldier. And they come white-hot out of his heart. Listen to this about Paul’s style as a letter writer.
“There never was a writer whose style more clearly reflected the mood and the purpose of the hour. It completely reveals the man, and its rapid changes are just the lights and shadows flitting over his face. It indicates the pulses of his feeling, shows him quivering with nervous excitement and anxiety, or flashing with indignation, jubilant with Christian triumph, or calm with the hidden depths of Christian peace. It is not polished or careful as to form, rather the reverse; it not seldom labours under the burden of thought, becomes involved, digresses, goes off at a word, draws clause out of clause in telescopic fashion as one new idea suggests another, until the main purpose is almost forgotten, and there is either a violent turn to recover it, or an abrupt conclusion and a new start altogether… ‘the thought straining the language until it cracks in the process – a shipwreck of grammar…’ ”
It is unlikely that the Apostle wrote any of the Epistles we possess entirely with his own hand. He made his mark or sign in them; as he says [he does] ‘In every Epistle so I write’ (2 Thess. 3:17); but he seems usually to have dictated his message to a friend or amanuensis. This also left traces on the style. We feel we are all the time listening to a speaker – one whom we may imagine walking up and down his room, while the pen of the shorthand writer flies swiftly over the parchment to keep pace…All the Epistles have this air of being spoken, reported, and passed on without much [revising]. [R.D. Shaw, The Pauline Epistles, 7-10 cited in Reymond, 21-22]
“Time and again Paul starts a sentence that never reaches a grammatical end, for before he is well launched on it a new thought strikes him and he turns aside to deal with that. When he comes back on to the main track, the original start of the sentence has been forgotten. …All this means that Paul is not the smoothest of authors, or the easiest to follow, but it does give us an unmistakable impression of the man himself. He has something worth saying, and in saying it he communicates something of himself; there is nothing artificial or merely conventional about the way he says it. And what he has to say is so important – for readers of the twentieth century as much as for those of the first…” [F.F. Bruce, Paul, 456-457]
These Pauline scholars, in describing Paul’s eccentricities as a writer, are speaking about just such things as Paul’s 202 word sentence that begins in Eph. 1:3. He got started and couldn’t stop.
“We could scarcely have imagined a literary form less likely to be chosen to convey a great religious revelation to the world. Yet its advantages are obvious. How living it makes the page! How vivid, natural, and full of human interest! Such records do not seem hand-written but heart-written: as Luther said, ‘They are not dead words; they are living creatures, and have hands and feet.’ Here, we perceive, is a man who has lived the great life and understands it; who believes and therefore speaks; who thinks, and says what he thinks; who is filled with the Spirit, and speaks as he is moved by the Holy [Spirit].” [R.D. Shaw, The Pauline Epistles, 7-10 cited in Reymond, 21-22]
Well we have all of that in Ephesians, all of Paul the man and the missionary and the preacher and the follower of Christ and the ardent servant of the lost as well as the builder of the church. The letter is not only instruction for us in our faith as Christians, an account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the way of salvation and then a description of the life that Christians are called to live. It is also an example of the way a great Christian and great servant of Jesus Christ himself felt about all of this divine love and wonder and all of this human calling and duty. We are not only to take the truth off the page and weave it into our daily life, we are to take for ourselves the warmth and the spirit and the tenderness and the iron out of these pages too, all that Paul put into them because he wrote it out of his own great heart and out of his own wonderful and mighty devotion to Jesus Christ.
One of Paul’s passionate outbursts in Ephesians, the sort of passionate outburst that people ought to hear from us, is found in 3:20-21:
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations for ever and ever! Amen!”
Well, you see, we are one of the generations of the church who can and ought to bring glory to God and to Jesus Christ. Paul is speaking to and about us! And, because Ephesians is Holy Scripture, because the Holy Spirit speaks in and through it, Paul’s voice with all of its power can cross the ages and make its impression on us just as it did upon those who first unrolled the scroll and read the letter.
In his Lyra Apostolica, John Henry Newman imagines having the dream that every earnest Christian has from time to time: viz. that he or she lived at such a great time, such an eventful time, such an epoch making time as those times described in the pages of Holy Scripture, when God was at work in so mighty a way.
“I dreamed that, with a passionate complaint,
I wished me born amid God’s deeds of might,
And envied those who saw the presence bright
Of gifted Prophet and strong-hearted Saint,
Whom my heart loves, and fancy strives to paint,
I turned, when straight a stranger met my sight,
Came as my guest, and did awhile untie
His lot with mine, and lived without restraint.
Courteous he was, and grave – so meek in mien,
It seemed untrue, and told a purpose weak:
Yet in the mood, he could with aptness speak,
Or with stern force, or show of feelings keen,
Marking deep craft, methought, or hidden pride:
Then came a voice – “St. Paul is at thy side.”
Well, when we take up Ephesians as the living voice of God we do not have to dream that Paul is at our side. The great man speaks still and powerfully and beautifully, carried along as he was then and is now by the Holy Spirit.
We enter upon this great letter, therefore, eager to know all that Paul will teach us and to gain for ourselves a portion of the great man’s spirit.