You visit a dealership to buy a car. You’re welcomed (accosted?) by a salesman who leads you to a shiny new vehicle and points out the car’s best features. That’s what we’ll do today with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—introduce it by pointing out just a few important features .
We left Paul in his rented house in Rome chained to a Roman guard around the clock awaiting his trial before Caesar. While there, Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (60-62 A.D.)
Paul had evangelized in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-20:1) fall 52 A.D. to spring 55 A.D. In that city, he received the most violent opposition yet (Acts 18:23-41; 2 Corinthians 1:8-10). But among a population of at least 250,000 he planted several house churches, with more in villages not far from the city and larger churches in Asia Minor cities like Laodicea, Pergamum and Sardis. Scholars generally agree Paul intended Ephesians to be circulated among all those churches—a considerably large body of believers.
Ephesus, though, was the recognized center of religious and political life in the area of the Roman empire. The imperial cult was everywhere present in the city—temples of Claudius, Hadrian, Julius Caesar, and Augustus for Romans to pay homage to their emperors.
The temple of Diana (or Artemis) stood as the largest building in the region and the city’s primary religious site. The platform on which it was built measured more than 100,000 square feet, the temple itself was 425 feet long by 220 feet wide by 60 feet high. Made entirely of marble with pillars overlaid with gold and jewels, it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Not surprisingly, Ephesus was a center for magical arts and various occult practice, the chief of which was “Ephesian Letters” (Ephesiagrammata), six magical terms said to possess power to ward off evil spirits.
One popular story told of an Ephesian wrestler unbeaten in the ancient Olympics because he wore the “Ephesian Letters” on his ankles. Officials discovered and removed them—the wrestler then lost three consecutive matches.
Among Diana’s attributes was power over demons of the dead. Her followers invoked her authority to raise the dead, heal the sick and protect the city.
Perhaps the presence of pagan temples and belief in a goddess like Diana led Paul to write that well-known text, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Paul explains our “struggle” (Greek–palay, “wrestling, conflict, fight”) is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” What struggle? The fight of faith, the fight of obedience, the fight of living a life worthy of our calling, even the fight of living a moral life as an unbeliever. We are opposed and that by spiritual powers of evil. “Bad things” can’t be ultimately caused by “bad people.” More than human wrongdoing accounts for “wrong” in the world. We might say there are ghosts under our beds. And only Christ can defeat them.
During and after Paul’s ministry in Ephesus Gentiles joined the Jews in the house churches. Coming from popular pagan religions, they needed grounding in the gospel and in Christian living. The influx of Gentiles also created tension in the churches, especially since Gentiles didn’t particularly value the Jewish heritage of the faith and Jews treated them as outsiders.
That situation likely prompted Paul’s powerful words . . .
“So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:12-22).
Racism remains a cancer in America. Paul announces it can overcome (Jew/Gemtile; black/white; etc.P not by educatio, or protests, or government programs, but by Christ’s transforming work that makes all believers “one new humanity . . . thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” The local church should be the body where all races find unity in their new Christ-identity.
John Piper has called Romans “the greatest letter ever written.” If so, Ephesians is a close second. It’s been called “the crown of St. Paul’s writings” and “Pound for Pound . . . may well be the most influential document ever written.” Sounds like we’re in for a mind-stretching, soul-feeding, Christ-exalting walk through a breathtaking letter.
With that in mind, the most excellent way to end this brief introduction is by praying one of Paul’s magnificent Ephesians prayers–a prayer I pray God will answer in part through our study . . .
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (1:17-19).