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New Testament: Ephesians

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EphesusEphesians proclaims the unity of Jew and Gentile in one household of God and spells out real-life implications of the gift of reconciliation with God and with one's fellow human beings. After announcing the priority of God's action with the news that "by grace you have been saved through faith," the letter exhorts readers to live mature Christian lives by speaking the truth in love, by separating from pagan influences, and by being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

So What?

At a time when hope for Christ's imminent return is fading and believers need to be reminded of his ongoing presence with the faithful, Ephesians fills this need. The letter portrays Christ as one whose past actions of making peace and providing leaders to the church are relevant for the present time when he has not yet returned. Ephesians encourages readers with the news that, through Christ's work, the church is reconciled to God and outfitted for tasks as varied as living peacefully in a congregation, serving one another within a household, and withstanding hostile cosmic powers.

Where Do I Find It?

Paul's Letter to the Ephesians is the tenth book in the New Testament. It is situated in the midst of the "Pauline corpus," the collection of letters attributed to the Apostle Paul (the books of Romans through Philemon).

Who Wrote It?

Ephesians claims to be a letter from Paul, yet a number of elements make it significantly different from Pauline letters whose authorship is undisputed. These differences of vocabulary, christology, and ecclesiology, as well as its apparently generic occasion and audience, have led many modern scholars to conclude that the letter was written in Paul's name by a student of Paul's theology after the apostle's death.

When Was It Written?

The author refers to himself as a prisoner. If Paul wrote the letter, it was probably written late in his life during an imprisonment in the early 60s C.E. If a student of Paul wrote the letter, it dates from the last quarter of the first century. References such as that in Ephesians 2:20 to the household of God having been "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets" argue for a time when the work of first-generation apostles was far enough in the past to be seen as finished.

What's It About?

Paul's Letter to the Ephesians proclaims to Gentile readers the cosmic and mundane implications of Christ's work on their behalf to remind them of their own adopted inclusion into God's household and to encourage them to behave toward one another with the same kind of mature, self-giving love that Christ practiced in his life and death.

How Do I Read It?

The letter uses abundant adverbs and adjectives to create an over-the-top report of God's abundant gracious activity on behalf of humankind. In addition, the formulaic language of liturgy (for example, "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all," Ephesians 4:5-6) involves the reader in doxology. Ephesians is as much prayer and praise as it is correspondence between a letter writer and recipients.

AUTHOR: Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament

1. Introduction (Ephesians 1:1-2)
The salutation lists Paul as the author and addresses the letter to "the saints who are in Ephesus." The earliest extant manuscripts do not include the words "in Ephesus."

2. Praise for Unity in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-3:21)
In extravagant language, the author heaps praise on God for working in Christ to reconcile Israel and the Gentiles into one household. Gentile readers are reminded that they have moved from death to life, from "having no hope" to having been "brought near by the blood of Christ."

3. Exhortation to Live a Life Worthy of the Gospel (Ephesians 4:1-6:20)
Unity, truthfulness, and mutual submission are the identifying marks of both the universal church and the Christian household. The armor of God outfits believers to withstand the devil and other cosmic powers.

4. Final Greeting (Ephesians 6:21-24)
In language nearly identical to Colossians 4:7-9, Tychicus, the apparent carrier of the letter, is commended to readers.

AUTHOR: Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament

According to Ephesians, Christ and believers are seated in the heavenly places, the church bears witness to God's wisdom in the heavenly places, and the armor of God is made available for believers to battle "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). Both the salvation Christ has won for believers and the threats they still endure are cosmic in scope.

This cosmic message is addressed to Gentiles. They are described as having formerly had no hope and having been without God before God's intervention through Christ on their behalf. From the two groups--Israel and the Gentiles--Christ has made "one new humanity." Peace is the result.

After peace between Israel and the Gentiles is proclaimed in the second chapter, the issue of reconciliation across ethnic lines disappears from the letter. In its place is a call for readers to build up the body of Christ by practicing virtues such as gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love.

The letter blends ethereal and mundane concerns. It proclaims the cosmically significant unifying work of Christ and then exhorts readers to practice the implications of that unity in everyday relationships, for instance, by speaking only what is useful for building up and by being kind to one another.

Concern for the household of God intersects with concern for households of believers. Specific directions are given to husbands, wives, fathers, children, masters, and slaves for behaviors of mutual respect. Scholars disagree on whether these directions offer any significant Christian revision or critique of ethical commonplaces in Greco-Roman philosophy.

AUTHOR: Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament

Audience. No other Pauline letter is so lacking in local color. The letter addresses no specific issues of congregational life. The author greets no one by name. Moreover, the location of recipients named in the opening verse, "in Ephesus," is not in the earliest manuscripts, and the second-century author Marcion knew the letter as the Epistle to the Laodiceans. Both the content of the letter and the textual difficulties with Ephesians 1:1 point to the conclusion that the letter was likely a general epistle intended for circulation beyond the congregations in any one city. As such, it is unlike any of the other letters bearing Paul's name.

Authorship. Ephesians uses several Pauline concepts in ways not present in the letters about which Pauline authorship is not in doubt. For example, in Ephesians, "church" is always singular, and it never refers to local gatherings of believers. In Ephesians, as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus, Christ's body is a metaphor for the church, but unlike the phrase's use in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, the metaphor in Ephesians includes a hierarchical element: Christ is said to be the head of his body, the church. In addition, the view of apostles and prophets as foundational to the church (Ephesians 2:20), as well as the list of church offices in Ephesians 4, lead many to believe that the letter is more likely to have originated after Paul's death than during his lifetime. If so, it is likely to have been written by a follower of Paul familiar with the letters he wrote.

Household code. Like Colossians and 1 Peter, Ephesians includes specific directions to members of Christian households. In Ephesians, a general direction is given to all: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21), and then specific instructions are meted out to wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters. Although the household code in Ephesians invokes Christ, it is not clear how distinctively Christian its ethic is. In fact, some critics argue that the household codes represent a dangerous accommodation to Greco-Roman society. To these scholars, the household codes use the name of Christ to minimize, if not overturn, Jesus of Nazareth's own refusal to defer to the social hierarchies of his time.

Offices in the church. Ephesians 4:11-12 is a list of occupations or roles, all intended to "equip the saints for the work of ministry." The author lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. No mention is made of bishops, and no hierarchy of offices is explicit in the list. Even so, readers of the letter sometimes see here the beginning of professional Christian roles or offices of ministry.

The Old Testament in the New. Of all the Pauline letters whose authorship is disputed, Ephesians is the only one to make use of several Old Testament citations and allusions. The letter understands Scripture functioning in various ways. The Old Testament describes Christ's work, such as when Ephesians borrows from Isaiah for the phrase that describes Christ as bringing "peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near" (Ephesians 2:17). The letter also repeats ethical instruction from the Old Testament, as when it uses a verse from Psalm 4 to counsel, "Be angry but do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26), and it exhorts believers to put on armor that elsewhere in Scripture had belonged to God or God's servant.

AUTHOR: Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament

Cosmic elements. Ephesians imagines a multiple-layered universe populated on all levels with spiritual beings: "rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 3:10), a "ruler of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2), "cosmic powers of this present darkness," and "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). Yet the cosmic realm is not given over entirely to evil forces; it is also the place where both Christ and believers have been raised up and seated (see Ephesians 2:6). Paul's letters sometimes imagine new life in Christ according to a tension in which it is present now and yet to be revealed, although Ephesians expresses this "now and not yet" tension in spatial terms rather than temporal ones. Believers simultaneously live in the earthly realm and the heavenly places.

Mystery revealed. In Ephesians, the gospel is a mystery hidden for ages and now revealed. The author understands his work to be to proclaim the content of this mystery with boldness so that the church as well as the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places may know God's will. The content of the revealed mystery is that "the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Ephesians 3:6).

Relation between election and ethics. Both in Ephesians 2:4-10 and in the letter as a whole, the grace of God and the good works of human beings are bound together. Christ's reconciling work is not an end in itself but the means by which readers' lives will be transformed.

AUTHOR: Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament