Today we begin what is known as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. However, most of the earliest manuscripts do not contain the words “in Ephesus” in 1:1. This is believed by many to be a circular letter, written for the purpose of copying and passing on to other churches. The fact that there are no personal reference to anyone in a specific church would seem to back this up. It is possible that Tychicus, a traveling companion of Paul (see Acts 20:4) was sent by Paul to distribute copies of the letter (6:21-22) along the main postal route in Asia Minor, which would include Ephesus (the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 would be the churches included on this route). This may mean that the letter to the Laodiceans (see Col 4:6) is this same letter. The letter is believed to have been written while Paul was in Rome (see Acts 28:30). The content of the first half of the letter is similar to what Paul wrote to the Romans about the salvation of Jews and Gentiles as one people.
After greeting and blessing the church (1:1-2), Paul begins by introducing three major themes of the letter. First, Paul is writing about spiritual matters. We have been given spiritual blessings (v. 3). Second, everything God has done for us has been done according to His eternal plan (v. 4). He predestined the saints for salvation and holiness from eternity past (v. 5). Third, these blessings are because of our union with Christ. We are blessed in Him (v. 4, 6), predestined through Him (v. 5), redeemed us through His blood (v. 7), and the Father set forth His will in Christ (v. 9). And what is revealed in Christ is the mystery of God’s will.
This mystery (see Rom 11:25, 16:25), as we will see, is that God has elected one spiritual people from eternity. We are what is united in Christ: the fullness of the elect saints in heaven and on earth – the elect of all time (v. 10). We, in Christ, have inherited what God purposed for us (v. 11) all for His glory (v. 12 – see also v. 6). Note that God’s glory and praise are a result of His sovereign plan being worked out in us. Also, the down-payment of our inheritance is the Holy Spirit (vv. 13-14). Like circumcision was the sign and seal of the Old Covenant, the Spirit is the sign and seal of the New Covenant (as God planned – see Jer 31:33-34, Ezek 36:16-37:28).
For this reason: that the saints of Asia Minor have been granted justifying faith (v. 5), Paul continually prays for them that the Father of glory, who sovereignly worked out His plan in Christ, and Who has given them the Spirit, may sanctify them according to the same Holy Spirit (v. 17-19) Who unites us to Christ. Note that all of this is a spiritual reality in heaven where Christ now is (vv. 20-21) where He functions as the head of the body (v. 22-23).
Paul then points to God and the believers’ election through faith and by His justifying grace. This is completely the sovereign work of God. We were once sinners who were spiritually under the domain of Satan and the powers of darkness (2:1-2). We lived according to our flesh because we were spiritually dead (vv. 1-3). But God, because of His love for us (the elect), even while we were dead (and dead men can’t do anything for themselves!) made us alive with Christ by His grace (v. 5) and raised us up with Him (v. 6 – see Rom 6). Spiritually speaking, we reside in heaven with Christ! God did this to show His grace to us, once again, in Christ.
Then we have one of the more well-known and quoted verses of the New Testament. But we cannot separate verses 8 and 9 from verse 10. Otherwise, we miss the purpose of it all. Our purpose! We wind up with a “what” without a “so what.” We have been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Since we were dead when God did this (see v. 1, 5), this is all Him. We did nothing to earn or add to our justification. But the reason God did it is that we would be sanctified. That we would live lives of holiness. That we would – in Christ – do good works which God predestined along with our election from eternity past (v. 10). This is what Paul says in 1:11-12. We were saved by God to show His salvation to the world through our good works, thus bringing to faith the rest of the elect!
Paul then addresses the saints of Asia Minor as Gentiles (v. 11). He points to the distinction between Jews and Gentiles that existed “at that time” (v. 12); the time being when we (Gentiles) were dead in our sin before the coming of Christ. We were separated from Christ – the eternal Son of God – because we were not part of the “commonwealth” of physical Israel. Paul is speaking of national identity. This word for “commonwealth” is used only one other time in the New Testament: in Acts 22:28 when Roman “citizenship” is being discussed. He is talking about our (the non-Jews) disinheritance by God at Babel and our separation from His elect physical people (see Deut 32:8-9).
But by our union with Christ, we have been brought near, into the spiritual people of God (v. 13). Christ has made “us both” one (v. 14). The “us both” are Jews and Gentiles. He has through His death removed the division between Jew and Gentile (“the dividing wall of hostility”). How? By abolishing the Law in Christ with the express purpose of making one people (spiritual people) where there were formerly two people (physical people). This He did for “us both” (Jews and Gentiles) through the cross (v. 16 – see the book of Romans and the restoration promises of every single writing prophet in the Old Testament).
There are two matters to address here. First, Christ said that He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. How, then, can Paul say that He Himself who is our peace and made “us both” one (Christ) did it by abolishing the Law? I think we are often confused on this point because we like to take verses out of their context so much more often than we think we do, and because we lose sight of the fact the the New Testament was not written in English. Christ said:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17–18)
In this context, “the Law or the Prophets” is a reference to the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole. In Ephesians, Paul is talking about the Law of Moses specifically, calling it “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (v.15). When Christ talks about heaven and earth not passing until all the law is accomplished, He is still speaking in a wider sense than just the Law of Moses – He is speaking of the fulfillment of everything the Old Testament promises (which we are part of – see Eph 2:10). When Paul talks of the Law being abolished, he is referring to the Law of Moses that was part of the covenants and the promises that we Gentiles were excluded from (see v. 12).
In addition, Jesus uses the word καταλύω (kataluo) for abolish, which comes from the root meaning to loose or unbind. Paul uses the word καταργέω (karargeo), which comes from the root meaning to render useless. Jesus said that the Old Testament is still binding (the promises, the covenants to Abraham and David, the moral law) on God’s people. He fulfilled the Mosaic Law in our place, but like His finished work fulfilled so much of the Old Testament, the church is still fulfilling much of it while we wait for Him to come and complete it. Paul is saying that the Mosaic Law fulfilled its purpose (see Rom 7, the whole letter to the Galatians).
The second matter to be addressed is the clarity of what Paul is saying here. Here, like in Romans and Galatians, Paul is so clear that there is and only ever has been one spiritual people of God. The Mosaic Law, and the physical people of God it was given to, have served their purpose in God’s plan and are no longer part of that plan. We cannot make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles since the coming of Christ. We cannot believe God has any current or future plan for Israel, and neither can we believe that the Jews are somehow not to be evangelized and brought into the spiritual fold of God. Misunderstanding any of this has led to a lot of false theology (I love you my dispensationalist brothers and sisters, but your theology is dangerous), and a lot of Christian anti-Semitism (brothers and sisters, as Paul said in his letter to the Romans, we owe God’s physical people a great debt for what they were in the plan of God!).
Paul is really nailing the point home here in the first three chapters of this letter. We are one people. Christ reconciled believing Jew and believing Gentile to God as one people (vv. 15-16). Remember, Paul is talking about spiritual realities, not physical perspectives. Since the Gentiles were reconciled along with the Jews, we who were once alienated from the commonwealth of Israel (v. 12) are now, along with the believing Jews, fellow citizens of the household of God’s people (v. 19). Paul then likens us to a physical structure (metaphorically). We are a dwelling place for God (v. 22) – the true Temple (v. 21) – built on the foundation of the Word of God (the apostles and prophets – v. 20)1, with Christ as the cornerstone. This house, this Temple, this spiritual structure is made of Jews and Gentiles – Old Testament saints and New Testament saints. We are at this moment being built by the Spirit (our sign and seal of our inclusion in the New Covenant – see 1:13) together (Jew and Gentile). We are – “us both” – priests in the true Temple of God (see Isa 56:3-7, 61:66, 66:18-21).
In 3:1 Paul refers to himself as a prisoner, likely pointing to his first house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30). He tells the believers of Asia Minor that the mystery (that Jews and Gentiles are one) was revealed to him by direct revelation (v. 3). This mystery is now revealed in Christ (v. 4) and by the Holy Spirit (v. 5). Paul clearly tells us what the mystery is (v. 6). Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles is to preach the Gospel: that we can all be part of the people of God – all those elect from eternity past who are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone – Jew and Gentile. Even now, the spiritual powers of darkness are being made aware that this was God’s eternal plan (v. 10). They realize it as the church expands to the end of the earth through the Gospel (see Acts 1:8). This was always God’s plan (v. 12). This is why we can carry out our mission with boldness and confidence.
Paul then praises the Father for all He’s done. He has named every family (or “lineage”) as His own (v. 15). Paul prays that the Christians would be strengthened by the Spirit to carry out their calling (v. 16), through Whom they are united to Christ Who dwells within them (v. 17), and that they would spiritually comprehend (that which surpasses knowledge) the love of Christ (vv. 18-19). Through them, God’s power will work more than they can imagine (v. 20), and God’s glory will be spread through the end of time (v. 21).
1 The prophets and apostles here are both agents of New Testament revelation, as in 3:5. The idea is that the New Testament reveals the truth latent in the Old Testament which could not be fully understood until the completed work of Christ.