Come Follow Me: Ephesians

My picture, from the Kidron Valley.

As always, it’s important to start with setting and context. Remember back in Acts 19, where the silversmiths who make Athena shrines start a riot and get Paul thrown out of the city? “Great is Diana of the Ephesians”? Paul met some disciples there and stuck around for three months, and now he writes to that congregation. Paul himself is now apparently in prison (Eph 4:1) and writing letters. Whether in Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea, we don’t know.  Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon are known collectively as The Captivity or Prison Letters. These are Paul’s Folsom Prison Concert, if you will.

With Ephesians, I feel like channeling The Church Lady; “Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is neither Paul’s nor to the Ephesians. Discuss”

Scholarly opinion regarding the Pauline authorship of Ephesians is divided, with perhaps a majority of scholars today holding that the letter was not written by Paul.- Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, “Ephesians, Letter To”

The style is different. The vocabulary is different. The theology assumes some different things.


[While] many careful scholars have doubted it. It’s clear that some of it is written in quite a formal way, without the rapid-fire, almost street-level debating style Paul uses in some of the other letters. On the other hand, some scholars have established their image of Paul on the basis of a particular way of understanding Romans and Galatians, and have then felt that Ephesians can’t be by the same person, because it doesn’t support that point of view. Some have taken a compromise position, and said that though Paul may not actually have written it himself, it may have been written by an assistant under his direction. My own view, which I will follow in going through the letter here, is that, once we understand Paul’s thought in the way I think we should, there is no difficulty about holding together what he says here with what he says in the other letters. The writing style is indeed a little different, but Paul wouldn’t be the first or the last writer to use different styles when different occasions demand it.
The second point follows from this: who was the letter really addressed to? This question comes up in the very first verse of the letter, because in three of the best and earliest manuscripts of Paul we possess (from the third and fourth centuries) the words ‘in Ephesus’ are missing.
All sorts of theories have been suggested to explain this. The best, I think, is that this letter was originally intended as a circular to various churches in the Ephesus area. It was written while Paul was in prison, then taken round here and there. A copy might well have remained in the possession of the church in Ephesus, and someone later on might have assumed that it was written to Ephesus rather than from there.
Since in Colossians—which is very similar to Ephesians in many ways—Paul says that he’s sending a letter to Laodicea which will be passed on to them, it’s clear he did indeed sometimes write circular letters. The present letter might even be that ‘letter to Laodicea’, though we can’t now be sure of that. And at the start of chapter 3 of the present letter, Paul seems to be talking to various people who don’t know him and his work first hand—which would hardly have applied in Ephesus itself, where he spent a long time. If we suppose that he intended the letter to go to several young churches within a hundred miles or so of Ephesus, we shan’t go far wrong.- Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon (my emphasis)

I wanted to address Eph 5:22 onwards, which constitutes what is called a “household code,” something that lays out the norms that should govern family relationships. (Another one is found in Col 3:18-4:1) As written, it neither reflects modern views nor did it quite match Paul’s Greco-roman context.

Most ancient writers expected wives to obey their husbands, desiring in them a quiet and meek demeanor; some marriage contracts even stated a requirement for absolute obedience. This requirement made sense especially to Greek thinkers, who could not conceive of wives as equals. Age differences contributed to this disparity: husbands were normally older than their wives, often by over a decade in Greek culture (with men frequently marrying around age thirty and women in their teens, often early teens).

In this passage, however, the closest Paul comes to defining submission is “respect” (v. 33), and in the Greek text, wifely submission to a husband (v. 22) is only one example of general mutual submission of Christians (the verb of v. 22 is borrowed directly from v. 21 and thus cannot mean something different).

5:25. Although it was assumed that husbands should love their wives, ancient household codes never list love as a husband’s duty; such codes told husbands only to make their wives submit. Although Paul upholds the ancient ideal of wifely submission for his culture, he qualifies it by placing it in the context of mutual submission: husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, by willingly laying down their lives for them. At the same time that he relates Christianity to the standards of his culture, he subverts his culture’s values by going far beyond them. Both husbands and wives must submit and love (5:2, 21)-  The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament

NTWright says of this,

The fascinating thing here is that Paul has a quite different way of going about addressing the problem of gender roles. He insists that the husband should take as his role model, not the typical bossy or bullying male of the modern, or indeed the ancient, stereotype, but Jesus himself. But, you say, Jesus wasn’t married. No; but throughout this letter Paul has spoken of the church as the body of the Messiah, and now he produces a new twist from within this theme. The church is the bride of the Messiah, the wife of the king.

The church became the Messiah’s bride, not by being dragged off unwillingly by force, but because he gave himself totally and utterly for her. There was nothing that love could do for the Messiah’s people that he did not do. Although the crucifixion plays a central role in Paul’s thought in almost every topic, nowhere else outside this passage is it so lyrically described as an act of complete, self-abandoning love.

Paul, of course, lived in a world where women were not only regarded as lesser beings but, as often as not, as impure. Their regular bodily functions were deemed to make them dangerous for a man who wanted to maintain his own purity. Paul sees the action of Jesus—and, by the parallel he has set up, the action of the husband—as taking the responsibility to bring the wife into full purity. Instead of rejecting the wife at times of technical ‘impurity’, the husband is to cherish and take care of her, to look after her and let her know at all times that she is loved and valued. If husbands—not least Christian husbands!—had even attempted to live up to this wonderful ideal, there would be a lot less grumbling about bossy or bullying men in the world today.

Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration (which is still not a reality in many places), should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage, the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead—though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.- Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon

And the Oxford Bible Commentary reads

In the first part of the rule (5:21–33) the transformation begins at once. That wives should be subject to their husbands (5:22; Col 3:18; 1Pe 3:1) accorded with the moral sensibilities of the time; here we need to recall that in the law and ethos of the time households were patriarchal institutions and that the paterfamilias (father of the family) had absolute power over the other members of the family. But the rule is already softened by prefacing it with a call to be subject to one another (5:21; cf. Gal 5:13; 1Pe 5:5): in a Christian household the power of the paterfamilias was not absolute. And the reminder that wifely submission is to be ‘as to the Lord’ (5:22) sets the whole relationship within the primary context of mutual discipleship (cf. Mk 10:42–5).

It is true that the placing of the relationship of husband and wife parallel to that of Christ and church (5:23–4) seems to set the wife in an intrinsically inferior status (cf. 1 Cor 11:3). But that again reflects the ethos of the time (the marital law which treated wives as the property of their husbands was only changed in Britain in the 19th cent.). And the main thrust of what follows is clearly intended to transfuse and transform that given relationship with the love of Christ. The paradigm for the husband is Christ as lover and saviour, not as lord and master.

As we will see in Philemon, Paul largely takes part in the culture he was raised in, though changes it.

Should these be normative today? Does it appear that we can simply take any scripture as being eternal and unmediated by human culture? We really can’t. Nor can we simply  and easily reject things with the “taint” of culture, because all scripture is encultured. Everything’s been given to us through humans, and we ourselves are human, with our own culture, biases, and views. So, we proceed very carefully and cautiously.


  • If Eph 1:3-14 seems hard to read in any translation, know that all eleven verses are one long complex sentence in Greek.
  • Note the descriptions of grace in Eph 1:3-6 and Eph 2:8, which sound typically Protestant to our ears. In Paul’s view, this grace is completely compatible with the requirement in Eph 4:1 to “live a life worthy of your calling” and the list of exhortations to Christian living in Eph 4:22-5:21. The same Paul wrote them both. Have students read them all together, 4:22-5:21 and call out important things he exhorts them to do. And again, note that “grace” should NOT be understood in a modern Lutheran/Protestant kind of way.
  • Eph 6:12 reads “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Just as there was a Jewish ranking of various angels and archangels (i.e. heavenly powers with positive alignment), so too were their corresponding demons ranked, and this is what Paul gets at here.

    This verse, which sets out the nature of the enemy, explains further why it is that believers need the divine armor if they are to stand. The spiritual and cosmic nature of the opposition makes such armor absolutely necessary. This is the only place in the Pauline corpus where believers are explicitly said to be in a battle against evil spirit powers…. In conformity with the contemporary world-view, the writer depicts human existence as under the influence of powers that work evil….The evil powers, who are opposing believers and who are listed in this verse, appear to be subject to the devil (v 11), to the ruler of the realm of the air (Eph 2:2). They include the “principalities” and “authorities” already mentioned in Eph 1:21 (cf. also Eph 3:10) as those over whom Christ rules not only in this age but also in the age to come. Because this age continues and believers live in it as well as enjoying the benefits of the age to come, these powers are still able to threaten and menace them. Also listed are “the world rulers of this darkness.” The term κοσμοκράτορες, “world rulers,” originated in astrological discussion where it referred to the planets and their determination of human fate and world affairs. The sun in the magical papyri and other planets in later Mandaean Gnosticism are described in this way….Also in the magical papyri, gods such as Sarapis and Hermes are called world rulers, and the use of this term for evil spirit powers here may indicate that the writer shares the view of Paul in 1 Cor 10:20 that pagan gods are closely linked with demonic forces (cf. Arnold, Ephesians, 65–67). The second-century C.E. Testament of Solomon also employs this term for evil spirit powers. In it the demons introduce themselves to Solomon in 8.2 as stoicheia who are world rulers and in 18.2 (probably under the influence of the language of Ephesians) call themselves “the world rulers of the darkness of this age.” –Word Biblical Commentary

    Do we share Paul’s Second Temple Jewish view of evil spiritual powers and demons?

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