In Rome, Paul was in official custody. Although his movements were restricted, he continued to guide the early church and preach the gospel. The Romans could imprison Paul, but they could not imprison the spread of the Good News. Numerous local assemblies had sprouted up along the routes of Paul’s three missionary journeys. The members of these churches were still proclaiming the gospel, not only by what they said, but also with their lives. Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians to strengthen these congregations. He wanted them to understand the spiritual reality behind the numerous groups that gathered in houses all over the Mediterranean world, and he wanted them to encourage each other in the faith. They were the body of Christ.
Author and Date • Paul identifies himself as the author of Ephesians at the beginning and in the middle of the letter (1:1; 3:1). Internal evidence supports Pauline authorship. The fact that the author describes himself as being imprisoned points to Paul, for Luke describes Paul as being under house arrest in Rome in Acts 28. The letter is similar in content to Colossians, suggesting that both letters were written during the same imprisonment in Rome, around A.D. 60. The vocabulary and thought of the letter are typical of Paul, with his characteristic emphasis on justification by faith (2:8). New uses of old words are merely examples of the apostle’s genius and versatility. Finally, the early church fathers were unanimous in ascribing the letter of Ephesians to Paul.
Modern scholars have recognized the clear Pauline themes in the letter, but some have used this characteristic of the letter to prove an alternative theory about the authorship of Ephesians. These scholars contend that when the body of Pauline epistles was collected, someone else constructed Ephesians as an introduction to Paul’s writings. However, this elaborate theory still has to surmount the convincing evidence for Paul’s authorship of the letter.
Setting • Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia (today part of Turkey). Located at the intersection of several major trade routes, Ephesus was a vital commercial center of the Roman Empire. It was the site of a famous temple for the fertility goddess Diana that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Most importantly, however, Ephesus figured prominently and dramatically in early church history, for Paul used the city as a center for his missionary work in that region.
Paul visited Ephesus briefly at the end of his second missionary journey. When he departed, he left behind Priscilla and Aquila to continue the ministry in that city (see Acts 18:18–21). On Paul’s third missionary journey, he spent about three years in Ephesus. When the apostle’s gospel message was rebuffed by the Jews in the Ephesian synagogue, Paul taught Scripture to both Jews and Greeks in the school of Tyrannus. Paul’s ministry at Ephesus was marked by several Spirit-empowered miracles. As a result, the city became a center for evangelistic outreach to the rest of the province of Asia (see Acts 19:18–20). In fact, so many people in Ephesus turned to Christ and renounced their pagan ways that some craftsmen in the city started a riot because the gospel threatened their trade of making and selling idols.
In Acts 20:17–38 Paul warned the elders of the Ephesian church about “savage wolves” who would not spare the congregation. About four decades later, the Lord Jesus Himself dictated to the apostle John a letter to the same congregation (see Rev. 2:1–7). He commended the Ephesians for hearing Paul and not tolerating false teachers, but He exhorted them to recapture their first love for God.
Recipients • There is much evidence that the Epistle to the Ephesians was originally a circular letter sent to several congregations in the province of Asia, where Ephesus was the capital. Some manuscripts lack “in Ephesus” in 1:1. Another clue that Ephesians is a circular letter is its lack of personal references. The phrases in 1:15 and 3:2 imply that Paul had only heard of the recipients of the letter but had never met them. This is especially noteworthy since Paul had spent three years ministering at Ephesus. It seems likely that the apostle would have mentioned at least some of the Ephesians by name in his letter. In addition to the lack of personal references, the content and teaching of the letter is itself very general. Paul refers to the church as the body of Christ as a whole, and not to a specific local church. If the letters to the Corinthians bristle with local congregational problems, Ephesians lacks such allusions entirely.
The idea that Ephesians is a circular letter is not unparalleled. In a way, all the New Testament epistles are circular in the sense that they eventually were circulated among many churches. While the question of destination is interesting, it does not strongly affect the meaning or the relevance of the letter. To a greater or lesser extent all the letters in the New Testament are for the general edification of the church.
Themes • Ephesians, like so much of Paul’s writing, underscores the truth that salvation is by faith alone and not through works or human striving. The first half of the epistle (chs. 1–3) addresses the central doctrines of the Christian faith, while the second half of the letter (chs. 4–6) describes how those spiritual truths should be reflected in a Christian’s behavior. Some would divide the second half of the letter into two sections—first the Christian’s conduct and then spiritual conflict with the forces of evil. Such a division highlights the familiar passage describing the spiritual armor of a Christian.
The whole letter emphasizes the truth that all believers are united in Christ because the church is the one body of Christ. In the early chapters, Paul describes how God formed this new body from Jews and Gentiles with His Son as the Head. Through Jesus’ death, God reconciled sinful people to Himself. This reconciliation with God has its effects on earth. People who were normally divided, like the Jews and the Gentiles in the first century, were reconciled to each other through Christ. In Ephesians, Paul exhorted his readers to live out the spiritual truth of being joined together with Christ. Whether Jew or Gentile, they had to work together to make the unity of the church a reality. In the rest of his letter, Paul gives a number of practical ways for church members to unite against the forces of evil. Each individual has to do his or her part in order for the whole body to function properly. Each person has to display Christ’s love, patience, humility, and gentleness as they use their gifts to build up the church. From parent to child, employer to employee, each person has a unique task in the body of Christ (5:22–33).
The NKJV Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), Eph.