“To the Ephesians”
September 9, 2001
Last Lord’s Day we began our consideration of Ephesians by reminding ourselves that it originated as a letter written by Paul, the titan of apostolic Christianity, and comes to us across the ages still bearing the indelible marks of his genius, his passion, and his personal experience of Jesus Christ.
Today we complete our introduction to the book by thinking about the people to whom it was originally written. Ah, but here we encounter a difficulty. Unlike any of the other letters of Paul in the NT, there is in the case of Ephesians some real question as to its original destination.
It seems clearly to have been written at broadly the same time as Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It is similar to Colossians in many ways as even a casual comparison of the two letters will show. Paul told the believers in Colossae (4:7) that his assistant, Tychicus – who apparently had been deputed to carry Paul’s letter to Colossae – would give them a more complete report of Paul’s situation. Paul was a prisoner in Rome at the time he wrote Colossians and he says explicitly in 3:1 and 4:1 that he is a prisoner as he writes Ephesians. And, at the end of Ephesians (6:21), we find almost the same words about Tychicus bringing a more complete report, we assume when he brings this letter as well. The cities of Ephesus and Colossae were not very far from one another and it is quite natural to think of Paul writing two letters, noticeably similar to one another, and sending them to these two churches by the hand of the same messenger. Indeed, that has always been widely thought to have been the case with these two letters, both written at Rome, while Paul was a prisoner there, under the house arrest that is described at the end of the Book of Acts.
However, simple and straightforward as all of that seems, there are real complications. The first is that Paul had previously spent more than two years in Ephesus teaching, preaching and building the church there. Luke gives us a description of Paul’s tumultuous but very fruitful time in Ephesus in Acts 19. However, in this letter “to the Ephesians,” Paul speaks as if he had never met these people. Unlike letters he wrote to churches which he had planted or which he had visited, Ephesians contains none of the terms of personal endearment or reference by name to friends in the church. And then we have statements such as these:
1:15: “…ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus
and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks
for you, remembering you in my prayers.”
3:2: “Surely you heard about the administration of God’s grace
that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to
me by revelation…
4:21: “Surely you heard of [Christ] and were taught in him in
accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.”
These statements simply do not sound like remarks Paul would make to Christians he knew well and whose life and situation he was thoroughly acquainted with because of his long sojourn with them a few years before.
That fact – that Paul does not write Ephesians in such a way as to suggest he knew the church well and its members personally – is made all the more significant by the incontestable fact that the words “in Ephesus” in the first verse are missing from some very important early manuscripts of the New Testament. Two of the great complete 4th century Bibles, very important witnesses to the authoritative text of the NT, do not have “in Ephesus” in their first verse of the letter. They read simply, “To the saints, the faithful in Christ Jesus.” What is more, one of the earliest texts of the Epistles of Paul, a papyri dated around A.D. 200, more than a century earlier than the two great Bible’s I just mentioned, also is lacking “in Ephesus” in v. 1. More than this, striking as this manuscript evidence is in its own right, some of the church fathers clearly had before them texts of this letter that did not identify it as addressed “to the Ephesians.” I did not investigate this thoroughly myself, but the standard works on this question conclude that Origen and Tertullian in the third century and Basil in the fourth, did not have “in Ephesus” in the text of this letter that they had. [Cf. Lincoln, 1] Otherwise virtually all other manuscripts of the Greek NT and all other patristic witnesses support the reading “in Ephesus” in v. 1.
Now, what are we to do with this? Well, different proposals have been made. First, those who believe we should retain “in Ephesus” and accept that the letter was originally written to the church there, often propose that the omission in some important early texts of the letter should be explained as the result of copying the letter for the purposes of Christian worship. Some of the texts that omit “in Ephesus” are associated with Alexandria, Egypt. Well, suppose that the church there intended to read Ephesians in its worship services. It might want to universalize the text – that is, make it just as applicable to Alexandria as to Ephesus – by omitting the specific destination in the text that was used for reading in church. Then it would seem as if Paul had written the letter to every church and to every community of Christians. Perhaps they not only left out “in Ephesus,” but, at that point, the reader would have said, “To the saints in Alexandria…” You may remember a version of the New Testament published in the South some years ago and given the name “The Cotton Patch Edition of the New Testament.” In that version, the letters of Paul were addressed not to Rome and Ephesus and Philippi, but to Atlanta, Birmingham, and Savannah. Perhaps there was something like that at work here. There is very little evidence to suggest that there was, but it is one at least plausible explanation for the omission of those words in some very important manuscripts. But, of course, that does not explain why, though according to Acts Paul not only founded the church in Ephesus but had a very extensive ministry there, in the letter itself he does not seem to know the church personally and he does not, as he characteristically did, include any personal greetings, the sort of greetings we find for example, at the end of Colossians.
The other very common conclusion is that the omission of “in Ephesus” in those early texts indicates that the letter was not in fact written to the church in Ephesus, or, better, was not written to it alone. It has been widely thought that the letter we call “Ephesians” was, in fact, a circular letter, written at the same time as Colossians, and was taken to various churches in the province of Asia by Tychicus. It was not intended for just one congregation but for several, the congregation in Ephesus being just one of these. Some even suggest that the original copies would have had a blank at the place we find “in Ephesus” today and Paul had asked Tychicus to fill in the name as he visited each church and left a copy with the saints there. That is a plausible suggestion and perhaps the best one going, but there are problems with it. Chief among them is the stubborn fact that no manuscripts of the letter have been found with any other church’s name at 1:1 besides “Ephesus.” Further, Galatians was a circular letter, intended for several churches at the same time, and Paul did not address it in the way that these scholars are suggesting that he addressed his circular letter to the churches of the province of Asia.
Perhaps this is a problem we cannot solve with the information at our disposal. It does not matter to the interpretation of the letter because Paul does not address in Ephesians specific problems that he knew had surfaced in the church or churches to which he was writing. There is nothing in the interpretation of the letter that depends upon our knowing to what church it was originally sent. It will not matter to our understanding of the letter whether it was originally addressed to one church or several.
So, if that is so, you might ask, why bring up the question at all? Do we really need to spend time talking about ancient manuscripts and church fathers? Why don’t we simply expound the text? Well, I brought this vexing question up, because there is a most interesting and, I think, important consequence that results from our not knowing for sure where the letter was first sent. And that consequence is this: there is a universality and an immediacy to Paul’s letter that results from its being written “to the saints.”
There is nothing historically relative about Ephesians. There is nothing that sets its argument in the particular context of some church and its situation in the middle of the first century. There are no false teachers troubling the church as in the churches of Galatia or Corinth. There is no internal strife such as Paul had to address in the church in Philippi. It is always possible that the very specific circumstances that lay behind those letters will produce in us a certain detachment. After all, we live far from those times and there may not be in our circumstances the precise sort of problems that Paul addresses in his various letters. It may be easier for us then to read those letters merely as historical documents, deposits of divine truth to be sure, but lacking immediacy. They were not, after all, written to us, but to Christians in a very different place and time and facing a very specific set of circumstances.
But there is nothing of that here. Ephesians – and that is what we will continue to call this letter, on the strength of the church’s uniform tradition – Ephesians could be written to any church, any community of Christians, at any time. There is nothing that places it in any context different from our own. For all we can tell, Paul might have written it to us here at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington, last week.
Rabbi Duncan, the saintly Presbyterian Hebrew scholar and theologian of the 19th century Scottish church, whose name I have often mentioned to you, was for several years a missionary to the Jews in Hungary. One of his converts was Alfred Edersheim, who was to become one of the celebrated biblical scholars of his generation and whose great work, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, is still in print today. It was Duncan’s habit to gather his young converts around him daily to read the Word of God together. As one of them later put it, “They used to read day after day the Epistles of Paul, as if they had been letters that had come by that morning’s post.” [A. Moody Stuart, The Life of John Duncan, 71]
Well that is how we are to read all the letters of Paul, but none of them is so easy to read that way as Ephesians, so little does it identify itself with any specific place, time, or historical situation. It is Paul’s letter to Christians everywhere and always.
And that being so, it is highly interesting and valuable to consider how it is that Paul does address those who were to receive his letter. If they are not Ephesians, or Laodiceans, or citizens of Smyrna or Philadelphia; if we cannot identify them that way, who are they and what can we say about them.
Well, Paul leaves us in no doubt about that. He is writing, he says in v. 1 to the saints, that is, the holy ones, who are also the faithful in Christ Jesus. He uses “saints” five more times through the letter to identify and describe his Christian readers and “believing” or “having faith” four more times. In 6:24 he describes them as those “who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.” He calls them “children of light” and also “God’s workmanship” his “new creation.” They are people who have been given and have experienced the grace of God he says several times in the letter and also God’s love and Christ’s love. They are the people who have been redeemed by Christ’s blood, that is by his death on the cross for them. They are people who have been reconciled to God, have been forgiven their sins, granted salvation, and sealed by the Holy Spirit, given a guarantee of eternal life.
They belong to the Christian brotherhood, the fellowship of all the saints, and to the church of Jesus Christ. They have been adopted into God’s family and have become both his dearly loved children, sons and daughters, and members of his household. They are also members of Christ’s body, part of God’s temple – a temple which has Christ as its keystone and the apostles and prophets as its foundation – and belong to a single humanity created out of Jews and Gentiles.
To be sure, we could say about the Christians to whom Ephesians is addressed that they are still very sinful, that they fail in many ways to live worthy of the grace they have received, that their transformation, at this stage, is very incomplete. But that is not what Paul says in describing them or speaking to them. At least that is not what he says here in Ephesians. He has defined for us the proper, the dominant self-image that every Christian ought to have, the right view of oneself. Surely, we are not going to forget our sinfulness, our unworthiness, our many failures and the misery that we have brought upon ourselves and others in so many ways. There is reason enough to be humble and to live in this world with a consciousness of our need and of our ill-desert. We must always remember that, sinners that we are, we have no claim on God’s goodness.
But, that is not the great thing about us. That is not the defining thing. That is not what must be known about us first and last. Sinfulness and guilt does not distinguish or define us. That can be said of every human being. And that is not the view of ourselves that Paul teaches us in this letter to carry about with ourselves. No, he describes us as Christians really are and as they must remember themselves to be: holy, the faithful, the children of God, the children of light, lovers of God, God’s workmanship or creation, the objects of Christ’s great love and redemption, members of Christ’s body, and heirs of eternal life.
Such an exalted view of ordinary human beings! But that is Paul’s view of you and of me if we are true followers of Jesus Christ, if we are real Christians. Now let me put the question directly to you: Do you think about yourself the way Paul describes you in this letter? Do you have the same view of yourself as a Christian that he did? Day by day, in the push and pull of ordinary life, do you remember that you are God’s workmanship, that you are a son or a daughter of the Almighty and a member of his household? Do you find yourself frequently reckoning with the fact – in facing a particular circumstance or in speaking with a particular person – that you are one of God’s saints, his holy ones: St. Carol, or St. Miriam, or St. Don, or St. Steve. Do you get a lift during the day from remembering from time to time that you are a child of light, that you belong to Christ and to his body, that you are a son or daughter of God?
Let me put it to you another way. One of the key word groups in the first half of Ephesians is that of rich/riches. In 1:18 we read of “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints”; in 2:4 we read of God being “rich in mercy”; in 3:8 we read of the “unsearchable riches of Christ”; and in 3:16 of God’s “glorious riches.” One of the key words in the second half of Ephesians is walk, “walk” used in the sense of live. In 4:1 we are told to “walk worthy of the calling we have received”; in 4:17 we are told that as Christians we must not “walk as the Gentiles do”; in 5:2 we read that we must “walk in love”; in 5:8 that we must “walk as children of light”; and in 5:15 that we must “be careful how we walk.” God’s riches in the first half and our walking in the second half of the letter.
Now, one simple way to formulate the question and the challenge of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is to ask: are we walking, are we living like wealthy people or like spiritual paupers. Do we walk as if we had been given great riches, greater riches than can be conceived? Or do we walk as if we were wondering where our next meal might come from? [Prof. Robert Reymond] Does our sense of ourselves agree with and correspond to our actual position, our actual situation in Jesus Christ. Do we walk like we are children of the light and the sons and daughters of Almighty God, the creator of heaven and earth, and members of the body of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and ourselves his own workmanship, his own new creation?
Surely, we must admit, to our shame and to our regret – for no one suffers more for this than we ourselves – that far too often we live as if Paul’s description of us in this letter he wrote were not accurate, were not realistic, were not true. We grumble, and worry, and fret over things as if we were not a prince or princess of the divine household. We seem to stumble about in the darkness as if we were not children of the light. We live lives so worldly that we do not appear to ourselves or to others to be the saints, the holy ones of God.
But, that is what we are! That is what every Christian always is, even if he or she forgets it for a time. Can an adult become an actual child again? No, of course not. Can an adult act like a child? Can he or she behave childishly? Certainly. And when he does we naturally tell him to grow up; to act his age. Well, so with the saints. Can they become children of darkness, children of the Devil, members of his household. No, of course not. But can they act as if they are. Of course. And when they do, we tell them to get a hold of themselves and behave properly as befits their station in life.
And Paul is going to tell us that in many different ways in this letter. We are the holy ones of God, we are his workmanship, we are the children of God and members of his household, we are the objects of God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice. Now let us remember that, rejoice in that and, then, let us act accordingly. Let us walk like the people we are. Let us behave like the people God and Christ have made us to be.
William Cowper, the English poet, wrote a poem entitled “The Christian.” And it has Paul’s Ephesians tone all through it.
“Honour and happiness unite
To make the Christian’s name a praise;
How fair the scene, how clear the light,
That fills the remnant of his days.
A kingly character he bears,
No change his priestly office knows;
Unfading is the crown he wears,
His joys can never reach a close.
Adorn’d with glory from on high,
Salvation shines upon his face;
His robe is of th’ethereal dye,
His steps are dignity and grace.
Inferior honours he disdains,
Nor stoops to take applause from earth;
The king of kings himself, maintains
The expenses of his heavenly birth.
The noblest creature seen below,
Ordain’d to fill a throne above;
God gives him all he can bestow,
His kingdom of eternal love!
My soul is ravished at the thought,
Methinks from earth I see him rise;
Angels congratulate his lot,
And shout him welcome to the skies!
That is what you are and that is your honor and your dignity and your reward if you are a Christian, by living faith in Jesus Christ. It may not seem so at the moment, if you are lying in pain in a hospital bed, or broken-hearted over some great loss, or, weak and worldly, stumbling into some temptation. But you are just that great human being, that privileged, that honored, that mightily loved person, that one with such indescribable riches lavished upon him or her and more still to be lavished. Saint, child of God and child of light, God’s own workmanship, member of Christ’s body. That is you! Those exalted titles and honors belong to you!
Now, says Paul, live worthy of the calling you have received. No grumbling, worldly, discouraged, mucking about. But walking as the extraordinarily wealthy man or woman, boy or girl that Jesus Christ has made you to be.
You – not some distant, long-ago Christian, but you, right here, today. Paul is talking to you. “To the saints, the faithful in Christ Jesus.”