This letter is a sharp contrast with Galatians, with an extended word of praise to God, encouragement to the church and thanksgiving for them. Here as in many other letters is contained a re-telling of the Gospel narrative with the key difference that a rich language of the Trinity features prominently.
The letter to the Ephesians tells the Gospel as a work of the Triune God. In the first chapter it is God the Father who chose the people of God (the Church), which Christ made manifest by calling the Disciples and revealing the mysteries of God and sent the Holy Spirit who would be the 'seal' of God's calling on them until all the purposes of God had been accomplished. This Triune revelation of God as experienced by the Church is the cause of Paul's praise.
This idea is reiterated a number of ways, speaking of how God had worked to take his people out of death and sin and into life. Not only making the Church alive in God but also calling them to participate in God's purposes (Eph. 2:10); not only saving the people of God but transforming them (Eph 2:22). The Holy Trinity works together not only to save in the work of Christ on the Cross but also to preserve, teach and sanctify the people of God in the future and even to bring about many more wonderful works in the world.
Once Paul has expounded this far-reaching and mighty power of the God who is Father, Son and Spirit he prays that the Ephesians would "have strength to comprehend" (Eph 3:18) all of these mysteries. This prayer for the Church to understand the wondrous and mysterious character of God is the grounding for a following section of ethical teaching.
Is it possible that Paul is confused in this teaching? He has previously written that "by grace you have been saved through faith" (Eph 2:8), yet later he says "For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God." (Eph 5:5). To many readers this appears as a tension. However Paul does not expect anyone to make some moral effort to make themselves acceptable to God. In his prayer he expects there to be a "power at work within us" (Eph 3:20) of which the first fruit includes "bearing one another in love" (Eph 4:2).
Therefore, the work of God amongst us and our willful effort are not opposed but united in one saving work of God. It is those who are resisting this saving work who are excluded from the inheritance of the Kingdom, since they have in actuality rejected the Gospel's call to turn away from sin and follow Christ. This is not to say that those who have professed faith and commit sins are not saved, rather Paul is suggesting that Christians can have a reasonable expectation of the Spirit to be at work in Church to make it morally pure.
One of the climactic statements of the letter instructs the reader to "walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph 5:2). Is this the result of and inward change in desire that the Spirit does without the believer knowing, or is this a command which can be reasonably fulfilled by anyone? It is a great mystery, the specifics of how the efforts of individual believers and church communities participate in the work of the Triune God. Paul's response to this is not to make more moral demands, rather it is to remind the church of the Gospel and to pray that they would understand it.
The results of this sanctifying and saving power found in the Triune God are clear to Paul: Marriages which reflect God's love, families which nurture children and working environments of fairness and harmony. The armor of God metaphor in the closing of the letter inspires and equips the reader to imagine other areas where their Gospel-shaped lives might overcome the "present darkness and...spiritual forces of evil" (Eph 6:12).
Paul writes to the Ephesians to explain how God has worked and continues to work on their behalf in his own power. Paul also wants to invite the Church to participate in this wonderful power. Though the work is God's alone, God is not a genii who works magic, rather God's work through us includes our willing and striving and working for his glory.
3 Formation Questions
- What part of Ephesians stuck out to you? Was it an exposition of the Gospel, or a more practical command or teaching?
- How might the work of the God in Trinity affect your life in ways Paul hasn't discussed in this letter?
- Who could you share this news of the mighty power of God, perhaps using your own testimony about how God has continued to help you?