Here’s a short summary of Ephesians: Ephesians was written by the apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus and the churches in the neighboring cities to help them see all that God had done for them in Christ and how that should shape their life.
In the first half of the letter (chapters 1-3), Paul paints a breathtaking panorama of how magnificent the church is as God’s people in Christ: being blessed beyond measure, made alive, and formed into a new humanity and into the very dwelling place of God by the Spirit.
In the second half (chapters 4-6), Paul calls the church to “walk in a manner worthy” (4:1) of this magnificent identity they’ve been given: to live together in unity and be equipped for every good work; to put on the character of Christ; to embody the self-giving love of Jesus in their homes; and to stand firm against the spiritual forces of wickedness. All of this is crucial because, as the very dwelling place of God, the church is headquarters for God’s work in the world.
Backstory to Ephesians
During the days of the apostle Paul, the city of Ephesus was one of the four largest and most influential cities of the Roman Empire. It lay on the western coast of what is modern-day Turkey (then called “Asia Minor”), near the Aegean Sea. Though today its harbor is silted up, in Paul’s day Ephesus was an important port city with a large harbor.
Some estimate the population was around 250,000 and say it was second only to Rome as a cosmopolitan center of trade and culture. Its Temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. All roads in Asia Minor were measured in distance from Ephesus. In every way, its influence was felt all throughout western Asia Minor.
And it’s for that reason that Paul made it a key part of his missionary endeavors.
“Ephesus was second only to Rome as a cosmopolitan center of trade and culture.”
Paul stopped by Ephesus at the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19-21). Then on his third missionary journey (in the mid-50’s A.D.), he spent 3 years there, using it as a base of operations for the gospel. During this time, Paul’s coworkers and disciples spread the news about Jesus to the surrounding cities, places like Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae, and thus “all Asia heard the word” (Acts 19:10), by which the author means all of Asia Minor.
About 4-5 years later, around A.D. 61, Paul found himself in Rome under house arrest. It’s during this time that Paul wrote Ephesians, and it likely came about like this:
While Paul was under arrest, Epaphras, one of Paul’s coworkers from the city of Colossae (which was near Ephesus and started out of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus), visited Paul in Rome and shared the progress of the gospel in the region around Colossae. He also shared some particular problems that were troubling the church there which were undermining their stability in Jesus. So Paul wrote a letter to the Colossians.
Having written a letter to the Colossians, Paul decided that much of what he said would be valuable for Ephesus and some of the other churches in the region. So he dictated a second, more general letter, the letter we call Ephesians, not dealing with the specific issues troubling Colossae but passing on some related critical teaching to help establish and strengthen the other churches throughout Asia Minor. In fact, Ephesians and Colossians (and Philemon) are all sent at the same time and delivered by a man named Tychicus.
“Having written a letter to the Colossians, Paul decided that much of what he said would be valuable for Ephesus and some of the other churches in the region.”
So the letter to the Ephesians was most likely written to both Ephesus and a number of other churches in the neighboring cities. Scholars refer to this as a “circular letter” because it was meant to circulate through the churches in the area. And that fact explains several interesting features about the letter. It explains why in some ancient copies of the letter, the introduction doesn’t say “to Ephesus.” It’s also probably why, in a letter to a city he spent so much time in, there are no greetings to specific people and why the letter speaks about the church in such broad and general terms.
This broad approach to the church is actually central to one of the major themes of the letter, namely that God is carrying his plan for the world in Christ through the church. Or, as I like to say it, as those in Christ, the Church is the headquarters for God’s work in the world.
“The Church is the headquarters for God’s work in the world.”
Was Paul really the author of Ephesians?
There has been some debate among scholars whether Paul was really the author of Ephesians or not. Personally, I’m one to discount these kinds of debates because I distrust the reasoning of some of these scholars, which is typically along the lines of “some of the vocabulary is different from Paul’s writings” and “the theology is different.”
But that all seems very weak to me. A writer can use some different words depending on whom he’s writing to and what he’s writing about, and a theologian can talk about things in different ways depending on his audience or his point. So, rather than trust the modern “experts,” I’d rather trust the ancient ones who were closer to the original writing, and they all thought Paul wrote it.
So, what are some reasons for thinking Paul actually wrote it?
- The author claims to be Paul and there are tons of first-person references in the letter that are tied to major points within the letter. All of that is tough to fathom if Paul didn’t write it.
- Even more, this letter speaks of getting rid of lying and speaking the truth in love. How can that have any credibility if the author is deceiving them about his own identity?
- The first list of accepted Christian books, the Muratorian canon (c. A.D. 180), includes it with Paul’s letters—and this list as well as others was written to excluded books claiming to come from apostles but were falsehoods.
- From quotes in the church fathers, it’s clear that the epistle to the Ephesians was well-known, viewed as authoritative from Paul, and in wide circulation from very early on.
In short, there’s no good reason to say someone other than Paul wrote it.
“From quotes in the church fathers, it’s clear that the epistle to the Ephesians was well-known, viewed as authoritative from Paul, and in wide circulation from very early on.”
An Overview of Ephesians
Ephesians divides neatly into two halves: 1) chapters 1-3: theological considerations, and 2) chapters 4-6: lifestyle implications. The first half shows who we are as God’s people in Christ, and the second half calls us to live out who we are as God’s people in the world. By living out who God has made us to be, the church embodies God’s ways and furthers his work in the world.
After the introduction and greeting in 1:1-2, Paul praises God with a beautiful prayer and reflection on God’s goodness to us in Christ in 1:3-14. God is to be praised because he has blessed his people with “every spiritual blessing.” Then Paul begins to list off some of those spiritual blessings. It’s important to note that all these spiritual blessings are “in Christ,” and Paul emphasizes this over and over by mentioning “in him,” “in Christ,” “through Christ,” and the like. All of these blessings are to the praise of God’s glory (vv. 6, 12, 14), and it all looks forward to the time when we will receive all that God has for his people in fulfillment of all of his promises.
In 1:15-22, Paul follows this up by praying that God would grant them wisdom so that they would know all that they possess in Christ. He asks that God through the Spirit would enlighten the eyes of their heart so that they would grasp the hope, riches, and power they have in Christ—the very kind of power demonstrated in Christ’s resurrection and exaltation over all powers and authorities.
Summary of Ephesians: “These spiritual blessings are ‘in Christ,’ and Paul emphasizes this over and over.”
In 2:1-10, Paul describes how the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus have been experienced by those in Christ at the present time. Before coming to Christ, all people—both Jews and Gentiles—were dead in sin. But now, because of God’s immense love and grace, they have been raised up with Christ and seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. This new life and new status is sort of like phase one of their resurrection and glorification. (Phase two will occur at the resurrection of our body when Christ returns.)
All of this is because of God’s grace, not because of anything they have done. It’s all a gift. But it does give new motivation and new power to live out the good works that God’s created his people for.
Ephesians 2:11-22 can feel like a hard shift because, all of a sudden, Paul begins talking about Jews and Gentiles. But the relationship between Jews and Gentiles has been in the back of Paul’s mind in all of the preceding material and now it comes to the fore because both groups of people are saved the same way: by God’s grace. Even though Gentiles were far away from God, God reconciled them and the Jews to himself and to each other as one new family through Christ. In Jesus, God has torn down the wall that divided them, made peace, and united them together. As one, they are now the very dwelling place of God by his Spirit.
Summary of Ephesians: “Even though Gentiles were far away from God, God reconciled them and the Jews to himself and to each other as one new family through Christ.”
For Paul, the fact that God did this is absolutely breathtaking, and he is amazed that he gets to be a part of it. So, in 3:1-13, before he offers another prayer, Paul describes how God graciously gave him the privilege of proclaiming to the Gentiles the gospel of full participation in the people of God. Paul is stunned by this privilege because he knows he was so unworthy of it. So even though he’s in chains for the gospel, he’s not discouraged, and he doesn’t want the original readers to be either.
In 3:14-19, as the culmination of the first part of the letter, Paul offers another prayer. The focus of this prayer is for Christ to dwell in and among them so that they would have the strength comprehend the love of Christ and to be filled with all God’s fulness.
This leads to a doxology in 3:20-21 in which Paul praises God for God’s power that’s at work in his people so that he will be glorified in the church and in Christ. Having painted a breathtaking panorama of who God has made his people in Christ in chapters 1-3, Paul now shifts to calling us to live out who we are.
Summary of Ephesians: “Having painted a breathtaking panorama of who God has made his people in Christ, Paul now shifts to calling us to live out who we are.”
In 4:1-6, Paul calls them to live out the oneness that God has created when he joined them together in Christ. The church is one new people, formed around a seven-fold oneness: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. This oneness is God’s doing. Our job is to maintain it, and Paul lists some character traits that make that possible: humility, gentleness, patience, and love.
As the body of Christ, the church needs to grow up to maturity. So, in 4:7-16 Paul explains how Christ gave gifts to his people that will enable them to be grow. These gifts turn out to be various roles people play in the church so that God’s people can be equipped for the work of serving God in the world. As the church is equipped and each person does their work, the whole body grows to maturity.
Next, in 4:17-24, Paul reminds them that they must not act like the pagan world around them which is blind to the truth and separated from the life of God. The way of Christ that they learned is completely different from the way of their surrounding culture. So they must put on the new man—the human way of life embodied in Jesus who is the true image of God.
Summary of Ephesians: “They must put on the new man—the human way of life embodied in Jesus who is the true image of God.”
Then Paul gets specific. In 4:25-5:5, Paul describes genuine Christian character. He does so by contrasting their old patterns of living (the way of life of the world around them) with the truly human way of living as seen in Christ. They must put off the old practices and put on the new virtues.
This leads Paul to restate that living this way is in keeping with who they are. When they put off the old and put on the new, they are living out who God has made them to be. He tells them in 5:6-14 that they are light in the Lord. As such, they must get rid of the deeds of darkness. And then in 5:15-20, he calls them to carry out their new life wisely, being filled with and controlled by the Spirit of God.
Paul applies all of this to the Christian household in 5:21-6:9. The family and household is one the key spheres where this new life in Christ needs to be lived out. The example of Jesus shapes the relationship between husbands and wives (5:22-33), children and fathers (6:1-4), and slaves and masters (6:5-9). One of the things that’s important to note about this section is that Paul gives three different instructions to the same person, namely to the head of the household. He’s the husband, father, and master, and Paul’s instructions to him are counter-cultural because the gospel transforms human relationships.
“The family and household is one the key spheres where this new life in Christ needs to be lived out.”
In 6:10-17, Paul calls them to stand firm against the powers of evil (notice the emphasis on standing firm in vv. 10-12). This is the well-known armor of God passage, in which Paul uses the imagery of a Roman soldier’s equipment to envision the “equipment” that Christians have been given to stand firm in this world: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God. All of this is set in the context of struggling not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of wickedness.
This, then, leads Paul to a call to be prayer-filled in 6:18-20. Notice the words “all” and “every” in these verses that emphasize how all-inclusive and all-encompassing our praying is to be.
Paul signs off the letter in 6:21-24 by noting that Tychicus will fill them in on the details of Paul’s situation and with a benediction for peace, love, and grace to be with them all.
Summary of Ephesians in 10 Passages
1. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.”
2. “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the boundless greatness of His power toward us who believe.”
Summary of Ephesians: “…that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the boundless greatness of His power…”
3. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our wrongdoings, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”
4. “But now in Christ Jesus you who previously were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall …that He might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross.”
—Ephesians 2:13-14, 16a
5. “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.”
6. “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”
Summary of Ephesians: “I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”
7. “We are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of people, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
8. “You are to rid yourselves of the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you are to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self.”
9. “Nevertheless, as for you individually, each husband is to love his own wife the same as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.”
10. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.”
Summary of Ephesians: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.”
 All Scriptures are taken from the New American Standard.
For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.