Overview of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians
As we begin our teaching series on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we will ask the Lord to guide us in seeing how this letter is relevant to our lives even today. To this end, we should first take a general look at the letter in its fullness. In general, in this blog series, I’d like to offer you some tips on reading this letter with understanding.
Preparatory steps for delving into Scripture
Stage 1 — The General Overview
Before digging into the text in depth, it’s good to read the letter from beginning to end to understand the overall message of the text. The temptation can be to read only brief passages from Scripture, a small collection of verses, and to try to go deep into these verses time and again without ever reading the passages in their Scriptural context. The result of selective reading absent of an understanding of context is that we miss the big picture and the central message of the text in which the passage is contained.
I would recommend reading the letter 3 whole times in 3 different ways in order to get the big picture before digging into smaller passages within the text. First read the text with the question: “What is the central theme of this letter?” Next, you should read the text again and keep an eye out for how certain discussions within the letter relate to the central theme you identified. The third time you read the text, think about how certain keywords in the text relate to the overarching message of the text. None of these 3 times through the letter should be “deep” readings of the text but rather very general readings aimed solely at grasping three different aspects of the big picture: overarching theme, key points and their relation to that theme, and keywords and their relation to the theme.
Stage 2 — Biography of the author
This step is also done before we dig into individual passages or verses of the text. In this step we educate ourselves about the writer of the text and the circumstances in which he lived. Who wrote the letter? What do we know about him? What else did he write? What was his role among other believers? Etc. This step allows us to really consider the point of view of the writer when we dig in to the individual verses of the letter in order to better understand the intended meaning.
Stage 3 — Biography of the addressees
This is the final stage of preparing to really dig in deep as we dive into Scripture! In this stage, we take a look at the people to whom the letter is addressed.
Who is addressed in the letter? Is the letter written to believers? Are they Jews? Gentiles? Both? What circumstances are they facing? Where are they in the world? What is their background? What is their relationship to the writer of the letter?
In this stage, we look at the letter itself in order to answer some of these questions. It’s also helpful to do a simple search in the rest of the Bible for the names of those mentioned in the letter (either through cross references or an online Bible search tool). What is said about them in other places in Scripture? Once we’ve looked through the Biblical witness, we can also take a look at what historians have said about those mentioned in the letter to see what else if anything is known about them or their circumstances.
All of these stages contribute to a helpful understanding of the overall message and circumstances being addressed in any given book of the Bible. Now let’s take a look at how this method can help us prepare for our study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Intro to Ephesians
Stage 1 — General Overview
Paul’s letter can be divided into 2 parts. The first part is more theoretical and is focused on describing God (in Chapters 1–3). The second part is more focused on how the grace of God and salvation are able to impact our lives (Chapters 4–6).
Ephesians is special in how thoroughly it addresses the core of the Good News. The words of this letter are especially relevant for pretty much any congregation as it focuses less on specific circumstances of the congregation in Ephesus and more on issues encountered even in our day.
Central themes in the letter to the Ephesians include: the Will of God, learning the foundations of our faith, the transition from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, spiritual warfare, and how to relate rightly with others.
Some keywords in this letter include: grace (x12), mystery (x6), the Will of God (x7). Paul is exposing us to the mystery of God and the plan of redemption and salvation for humanity, Jews and gentiles alike. As in other letters, Paul really delves into how our salvation is by grace given freely as a gift and not as something that we earn by works.
Stage 2 — Biography of the author
The author of this letter is the Apostle Paul. We get our earliest glimpse into Paul’s biography in the book of Acts Chapter 7 during the stoning of Stephen. Paul had a Pharisaic Jewish upbringing (similar to the religious Judaism of today) and so kept the law and learned at the feet of one of the most revered rabbis of his day.
Paul’s participation in the stoning of Stephen had to do with his earlier commitment to persecuting believers in Yeshua before he had a personal encounter with the Messiah. In Chapter 9 of Acts, we read about Paul’s encounter with Yeshua and how his process of transformation began.
Paul was saved after Yeshua met him on his way to Damascus. In Chapter 13 of Acts, Paul is called to be “an apostle” and sent to proclaim the Good News among the gentiles.
We see the main theme of the message that was preached through Paul by looking at the times he is quoted in the book of Acts and in his 13 letters to the early communities of believers with whom he was especially connected. Paul’s most central message as he put it was “the Messiah and him crucified”.
Paul spoke and wrote often about the Good News and proclamation of the Messiah who freed us from the grip of the Law and delivered us into grace, from the yoke of commands, from insufficient attempts at salvation through works, a freedom to fulfill the perfect Will of God through love and guidance by His Spirit.
Typically in his letters, Paul calls believers to stay focused on the simple truth of the Good News and to steer clear of worthless conversations. Paul as an apostle and spiritual leader (having planted numerous congregations) cautions and advises the believers to whom he writes. Paul even writes with authority to some congregations that he has not yet visited in person.
Stage 3 — Biography of the addressees
Those to whom Paul writes in Ephesians were a group of believers in the Greek city of Ephesus (in the modern day southwestern Turkey). Some of the ancient manuscripts of this letter include the greeting “to the saints who are in Ephesus”, but other manuscripts do not. From a quick reading of the letter, it is clear that Paul is writing to a congregation that is comprised both of Jews and gentiles. One outstanding characteristic of this congregation was their faith and their love for the saints as indicated even in Chapter 1 of Ephesians. We can get some key insights into the community of believers in Ephesus by reading the book of Acts from Chapter 18 onward, by reading Paul’s letters to Timothy, as well as by reading Revelation Chapter 2.
In the book of Acts, we get to see how close Paul truly was with the Ephesian congregation. He was surely deeply connected with the Ephesians seeing as he stayed with them for 2 whole years teaching in their midst. Even though this congregation was known for being full of faith, having received the Good News and excelling in love, they had a lot of room for growth when it came to truly knowing the Lord Yeshua and a life led by a deeper revelation from him. This call to press in for a deeper revelation of Yeshua is relevant to all of us as believers. Perhaps it is for this reason that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was likely read in many of the congregations of early believers and not just in Ephesus.
As you read this blog and follow our ongoing study in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, you will find that we will delve in deeper to each verse and section of the letter with the above things in mind. I want to encourage you now if you haven’t already done so, to take this advice and to do your own general overview of the book (by reading it on your own at least three times and following the advice above).
Whether you’ve been a believer for a while or are just coming to faith, I would especially encourage you to spend some time in Ephesians 1–3 and to internalize the depth of God’s plan and His grace. As Paul encourages in the remainder of this letter to the Ephesians, I will also encourage you: GROW in your knowledge of the Lord Yeshua and put what you know into action in your daily life. He has destined us for so many good things and we have only to step into this rich inheritance.