The Epistle to the Ephesians sets forth the grand theme of the church’s unity in Christ. Being one of Paul’s writings during his confinement in Rome, it reflects the maturity and spiritual insight of one whom the Holy Spirit had prepared for such a task.
Paul addresses this Epistle to the “saints that are at Ephesus” (Eph 1:1). There has been extensive debate as to whether this is correct. Some hold the opinion that this letter was not intended for the church at Ephesus, but for many churches in Asia Minor. William Hendriksen summarizes the arguments in his Bible Survey. We briefly present them here.
1. The words, “in Ephesus” (Eph. 1:1) are omitted in the best and most ancient manuscripts. Counterargument is: in all the ancient manuscripts (except one corruption by the heretic Marcion) the Epistle has the title, “To the Ephesians.” All the ancient versions have “in Ephesus” in verse one. Could it be possible that someone tampered with some of the most ancient manuscripts as Marcion did with the title?
2. In Ephesians 1:15 we read, “For this cause, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which is among you.” This would indicate that Paul did not know them personally, something which could not be said of the Ephesians, among whom Paul labored for more than two years. Counterargument: Paul simply refers to the fact that he heard about their faith. He hadn’t been there for over five years; now he gladly affirms once again that he heard good things about their faith in Christ Jesus.
3. In every Epistle addressed by Paul to a congregation with whom he was acquainted, there is reference to the fact that he was their spiritual father and that he had labored in their midst. This is lacking in this Epistle. In fact, there are no intimate touches, nor is any personal information given. Counter-argument: true, there is no such information, yet it can be explained if we consider two things. First, in all likelihood there were no pressing problems in the Ephesian church which necessitated Paul’s making such references. Besides, he included in the letter a reference to Tychicus, the bearer of the letter, who would bring them up to date concerning his own personal affairs (Paul’s condition) and comfort their hearts (Eph. 6:21, 22).
4. The Epistle has no personal greetings. If it was intended for the Ephesians, whom Paul knew so well, would he not have included these? Counterargument: II Corinthians, Galatians, I and II Thessalonians are letters for churches which do not have such-personal greetings either.
We view this letter as having been intended for the Ephesian congregation. The evidence warrants this conclusion. Besides this, the content of this letter is appropriate for such a congregation as the Ephesians, for they too had matured in the faith under the ministry of Paul. This is not to say that the letter was not intended to be read by others, for the writings of Paul were regularly used in the churches. It was addressed to the Ephesian church.
The Scriptural account of Paul’s labors in Ephesus tells us something about the church there. Paul made his first contact with the church during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19). At that time he made a hasty visit to the Jewish synagogue and they expressed interest in learning more of the gospel. But Paul had to leave for Jerusalem. Soon g afterward Apollos visited Ephesus and preached the baptism of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-3). After Paul arrived during his third missionary journey, he made Ephesus the center for his entire Asian ministry. According to Acts 19:8-10, he visited the synagogue and taught there for three months. Opposition forced him to leave and he turned to the philosophical school of one named Tyrannus. He labored among the Ephesians for two years, so all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus. The people of Ephesus thereby heard more teaching from Paul than did any other people. We read his own summary in I Corinthians 16:8, 9: “But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries.” Of this opposition we read in Acts 19:23-41, where we have the details of the uprising over Demetrius, the silversmith who made shrines to Diana and caused the people to rise up in anger because he saw his trade threatened. Finally, we recall the touching farewell given by the elders of Ephesus at Miletus when Paul bade farewell for the last time, Acts 20:17-38.
The members of the church at Ephesus had to contend with that miserable temple of Diana. It was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was not only a temple for worship, but a museum as well. We can appreciate the tremendous business that image-making generated. Interestingly, none might be arrested for any crime who resided within bowshot of its walls. Hence, a village of criminals and even murderers sprang up there within the shadow of this temple.
In the midst of such heathendom, God brought forth a church. This church had a special calling to testify of Christ and His love over against the heathen rites of Diana. God blessed these efforts, for soon the worship of Diana fell off, and in A.D. 262 the temple was consumed by fire and never rebuilt. By A.D. 341 an important council of the Christian church was held in this city. Eventually the Turks destroyed the city and it fell into oblivion.
Almost all Bible scholars accept Paul as the author of the Epistle. This includes the early church fathers Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Clement of Rome. Paul’s name appears in the Epistle twice (Eph. 1:1 and Eph. 3:1), and there is a personal reference to his conversion (Eph. 3:2-8). The only question of Paul’s authorship is raised by more modern schools of interpretation in which they point out things such as vocabulary, (Ephesians has 38 words not found elsewhere in the New Testament and 44 more words which Paul uses only here in Ephesians); he expressed himself in a way that he doesn’t anywhere else in his writing; and even the author expresses thoughts regarding the headship of Christ and unity of the church which Paul did not acknowledge in his other writings. All these seeming problems, however, can be answered by careful comparison and taking into consideration that Paul matured in the faith and wrote this to a congregation that had also matured with him.
Of more interest is the question of date and circumstances under which Paul wrote this Epistle. This Epistle to the Ephesians is considered one of the “Prison Epistles” written by the apostle when he was in bonds. The other three are Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. All four Epistles make reference to Paul’s bonds. This is true in Ephesians in Ephesians 3:1, 4:1; and Ephesians 6:20. Similarly in Philippians 1:7, 13, 14; Colossians 4:18; and Philemon 1 and Philemon 9. From Colossians 4:7 and Ephesians 6:21 we learn that Tychicus was the person who carried those two Epistles to their recipients. In addition, we learn from Colossians 4:9 that Tychicus was a companion of Onesimus, the run-away-slave who carried Paul’s letter back to his master, Philemon. Epaphroditus carried the letter to the Philippian church, Philippians 4:18.
The question that becomes rather involved is this, which imprisonment is implied here? There are three possibilities, each considered at length in Harrison’s New Testament Introduction. The one we choose will determine the approximate date of the writing as well.
Did Paul write this letter from Ephesus itself? This idea is derived from references by Paul in his letter to the church of Corinth. In II Corinthians 11:23 Paul speaks of being in prison more frequently than others, in I Corinthians 15:32 he mentions how he fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, a figurative description, no doubt, of his opponents. In II Corinthians 1:8-10 Paul speaks of the sentence of death that he had on himself while at Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila endangered themselves for Paul’s sake, possibly at Ephesus (Romans 16:4). In evaluating this, however, we conclude that these are general references, hardly linking it with Ephesus, especially not that Paul was actually imprisoned for such a long time that he would write letters to the churches from that prison.
What about Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea? We know that he was in prison there for about two years and that he could receive some friends while there, Acts 24:23. However, there is no indication that Paul could preach except to the rulers as recorded in Acts 24-26, to Felix, Festus, and Agrippa. In the Ephesian letter (Eph. 6:19, 20) and in the letter to the Colossians (Eph. 4:3, 4), Paul requests prayer that he may be able to witness though he was in bonds. There is no proof that he could do this in Caesarea. Finally, in Philemon 1:22 he wrote, “But withal prepare me also a lodging for I trust that through your prayers, I shall be given unto you.” He obviously expected to be released. This could not apply to his imprisonment in Caesarea, for at that time he never expected release. He appealed to Caesar and was bound for Rome.
The imprisonment that is best suited for the bonds mentioned in the four Prison Letters is that at Rome. Here he could receive guests and preach, and eventually he gained temporary freedom. This imprisonment also fits the historical record of Acts 28 and following chapters. The traveling companions mentioned in these Epistles correspond also with those who traveled with him to Rome. Thus Luke is mentioned in Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:14 and Aristarchus is mentioned in Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:10.
We can place the writing of these Prison Epistles during Paul’s first imprisonment at Rome when he was confined to a house under guard. He was taken to Rome in A.D. 61 and remained in prison for two years. So we can date this letter to the Ephesians as written about A.D. 62.
In the quiet and yet threatening environment of this imprisonment, Paul reflected on the truth as it is in Jesus and wrote this letter to a church that had come to love him. The Holy Spirit led him to write on the great theme of unity in Christ.
What comfort this must have been for Paul, who from an earthly point of view was imprisoned for the sake of the gospel and unable to travel and preach. Was that not a hindrance to the work of Christ? The Holy Spirit led Paul to see that the victory of the church is not in men, but in Christ, in Whom the whole church is gathered together in a spiritual unity that man cannot destroy. God is working through Jesus Christ Who is the head of the church, the very fullness of God Who is all in all. Through Christ God unites His own unto Himself. This message is good news for the church of all ages.