Introducing Ephesians

As we study the first three chapters of Ephesians over the next two weeks, our guest writer is Dr. David Starling. David teaches New Testament with me at Morling College and is head of Bible & Theology. He used to be the senior pastor at Petersham Baptist Church in Sydney, and is the author of UnCorinthian Leadership.

The Ephesians and Us | Eph 1:1 and Acts 19

As a general rule, it helps to know something about the people a New Testament letter was written to when we set about the task of interpreting and applying its contents. If we want to understand and apply the things Paul writes in 1-2 Corinthians, for example, it makes sense that we try and piece together a picture of what was going on for the Christians in Corinth, as the context into which Paul writes the things that he does within the letters that he sends to them. Same for Philippi and the Philippians, Galatia and the Galatians, and so on.

In the case of Ephesians, that task is complicated by two factors. First, there is the fact that the phrase “in Ephesus” is missing in some of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the letter. The oldest, for example, simply reads “…to God’s holy people, who are also faithful in Christ Jesus.” And then second, when we go on to read the rest of the letter, we find a surprising lack of references to named individuals or to the particular dilemmas, questions and problems that the readers were facing. Compared to, say, Galatians or Philippians or 1-2 Corinthians, there is not a lot of direct, explicit interaction with things that were happening on the ground in Ephesus, within the readers’ lives. More than that—although Luke tells us in Acts 19 that Paul had spent more than two years living in Ephesus and establishing the church there, he refers to the readers of Ephesians in language that seems to suggest a relationship that seems quite distant, almost second hand (e.g. 1:15; 3:2; 4:21). So was this a letter for the Ephesians or wasn’t it?

The answer, it seems, is a bit of both. When we combine the observations of the previous paragraph with the curious overlaps and similarities between Ephesians and Colossians (e.g. compare Eph. 6:21 with Col. 4:7) the theory that best explains the facts seems to be that Ephesians is not so much a response to a particular set of events and circumstances unique to the churches in Ephesus, as it was a circular letter, intended by Paul to be shared among the various churches in the towns and cities of the surrounding region and carried from church to church by Tychicus, the letter-bearer. (On this theory, Colossians would have been a variation on the general theme, adapted by Paul from the more generic letter of the Ephesians and addressing the particular problems and issues that he was aware the Colossians were facing. The letter to Philemon, too, would probably have been delivered in the same mail run.)

The relevant background to bear in mind when we read Ephesians, then, is not really a set of specific problems and goings-on within the Ephesian churches; rather, it is the general climate of life in ancient Ephesus and the towns and cities of the province. Luke’s account of the early days of the church in Ephesus, in Acts 19, paints a vivid picture of the kind of context Paul’s readers lived in.

Read Acts 19, keeping an eye out for all the examples Luke gives of the cultural and religious context that the Ephesian Christians lived in. Note in particular:

  • the passionate devotion to the religious traditions of the city, and the place that the goddess Artemis Ephesia occupied within people’s sense of identity and honour (e.g. 19:27–28, 34);
  • the prevalence of magical practices and the quest for spiritual power (e.g. 19:13–20);
  • the extent to which both magical practice and pagan worship were built into the economy of the city (e.g. 19:19, 25);
  • the fierce hatred that could be whipped up against people who disturbed that set of religious/cultural/economic arrangements (e.g. 19:28–31); and
  • the power exerted by the guardians of the political order (at the pinnacle of which was the emperor in Rome) (e.g. 19:35–41).

Converting to Christianity within a context like that meant cutting yourself off from a deeply-ingrained set of traditions and practices that had previously defined your identity. It would be easy to feel rootless, powerless and marginal, and to deal with those feelings either by sliding back into the habits and patterns of life that had always come so naturally, or by retreating from engagement with the city into a defensive, frightened little Christian enclave. Paul’s letter, as we’ll see over the next couple of weeks, addresses all of those temptations, building up the Ephesians in a strong sense of their identity as a community of believers in Jesus, and reminding them of the calling that goes with that identity.

Our focus over the coming fortnight will be on the first half of the letter (chapters 1–3) and on the way in which those chapters function to shape and reinforce the readers’ sense of identity. As we read them, you might want to pray that God will be at work, reminding you of your own identity in Christ, and of what it means for your to belong to the community of believers that God has made you part of.

To think about:

As you read through Acts 19 and piece together a picture of the religious traditions and spiritual/magical practices that surrounded the Christians of ancient Ephesus, what similarities do you see to our own context in modern-day, post-Christendom Sydney (or wherever else it is that you live)? What differences stand out as important?

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