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A quartet of men left Rome in the year AD 62, bound for the province of Asia which was located in what was designated as Asia Minor and is currently called Turkey. These men had on their persons four of the most sublime compositions of the Christian faith. These precious documents would be invaluable if they were in existence today. Rome did not comprehend the significance of the writings of an unknown prisoner. If she had, these men would have been apprehended and the documents seized.
When these men bade farewell to the apostle Paul, each was given an epistle to bear to his particular constituency. These four letters are in the Word of God, and they are designated the “Prison Epistles of Paul,” since he wrote them while he was imprisoned in Rome. He was awaiting a hearing before Nero who was the Caesar at that time. Paul as a Roman citizen had appealed his case to the emperor, and he was waiting to be heard.
This quartet of men and their respective places of abode can be identified:
- Epaphroditus was from Philippi, and he had the Epistle to the Philippians (see Phil. 4:18);
- Tychicus was from Ephesus, and he had the Epistle to the Ephesians (see Eph. 6:21);
- Epaphras was from Colosse, and he had the Epistle to the Colossians (see Col. 4:12); and
- Onesimus was a runaway slave from Colosse, and he had the Epistle to Philemon who was his master (see Philem. 10).
These epistles present a composite picture of Christ, the church, the Christian life, and the interrelationship and functioning of them all. These different facets present the Christian life on the highest plane.
Ephesians presents the church which is Christ’s body. This is the invisible church of which Christ is the Head.
Colossians presents Christ as the Head of the body, the church. The emphasis is upon Christ rather than on the church. In Ephesians the emphasis is on the body, and in Colossians the emphasis is on the Head.
Philippians presents Christian living with Christ as the dynamic. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).
Philemon presents Christian living in action in a pagan society. Paul wrote to Philemon, who was the master of Onesimus and a Christian: “If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself. If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee aught, put that on mine account” (Philem. 17–18).
The gospel walked in shoe leather in the first century, and it worked. This is the thing that we are going to see in this Epistle to the Ephesians.
Ephesians reveals the church as God’s masterpiece, a mystery not revealed in the Old Testament (see Eph. 2:10). It is more wonderful than any temple made with hands, constructed of living stones, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is the body of Christ in the world to walk as He would walk and to wrestle against the wiles of the devil. Someday the church will leave the world and be presented to Christ as a bride.
Dr. Arthur T. Pierson called Ephesians “Paul’s third-heaven epistle.” Another has called it “the Alps of the New Testament.” It is the Mount Whitney of the High Sierras of all Scripture. This is the church epistle. Many expositors consider this the highest peak of scriptural truth, the very apex of Bible revelation. That may well be true. Some have even suggested that Ephesians is so profound that none but the very elect (in other words, the chosen few) can understand it. I have always noticed that the folk who say this include themselves in that inner circle. To be candid with you, I do not even pretend to be able to probe or plumb the depths of this epistle nor to ascend to its heights. This epistle is lofty and it is heady. It is difficult to breathe the rarefied air of this epistle—you will find this to be true when we get into it. We will do the very best we can, with the aid of the Holy Spirit who is our guide, to understand it.
On several occasions I have had the privilege of visiting Turkey, and I have visited the sites of all seven churches of Asia Minor. Ephesus is where I spent the most time. I reveled in the opportunity of visiting Ephesus which was the leading church of the seven churches and was in a great city.
The Holy Spirit would not permit Paul on his second missionary journey to enter the province of Asia where Ephesus was the prominent center: “Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6). The Holy Spirit put up a roadblock and said to Paul, “You can’t go down there now.” We are not told the reason, but we know God’s timing is perfect. He would send him there later. So Paul traveled west into Macedonia—to Philippi, down to Berea, down to Athens, over to Corinth, and then, on the way back, he came by Ephesus. Oh, what a tremendous opportunity he saw there! “And he came to Ephesus, and left them there: but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews” (Acts 18:19).
Paul was so favorably impressed by the opportunities for missionary work that he promised to return, which he did on his third missionary journey. He discovered that another missionary by the name of Apollos had been there in the interval between his second and third missionary journeys. Apollos had preached only the baptism of John and not the gospel of grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. At that time Apollos didn’t know about the Lord Jesus, but later on he himself became a great preacher of the gospel.
Paul began a far-reaching ministry in Ephesus. For two years he spoke in the school of Tyrannus, and the gospel penetrated into every center of the province of Asia. Evidently it was at this time that the churches addressed in the second and third chapters of Revelation were founded by this ministry of Paul.
It is my firm conviction, after having visited Turkey and seen that area and having read a great deal on the excavations that have been made there, that the greatest ministry the gospel has ever had was in what is today modern Turkey. In that day there were millions of people living there. It was the very heart of the Roman Empire. The culture of Greece was no longer in Greece; it was along this coast, the western coast of Turkey, where Ephesus was the leading city. It was a great cultural center and a great religious center. The climate was pleasing, and it was a wonderful place to visit. The Roman emperors came to this area for a vacation. This is where the gospel had its greatest entrance.
Ephesus was the principal city of Asia Minor and probably of the entire eastern section of the Roman Empire. It was second only to Rome. The city had been founded around 2000 BC by the Hittites. It was what we call an oriental city, an Asian city, until about 1000 BC when the Greeks entered. There one would find a mixture of east and west. Kipling was wrong as far as Ephesus was concerned. He said, “East is east and West is west and ne’er the twain shall meet,” but they did meet in Ephesus.
Over this long period of about twenty-five hundred years, Ephesus was one of the great cities of the world. It was on a harbor that is now all filled up, silted in. It is not a harbor anymore; in fact, it is about six miles from the ocean today. At the time Paul went there, he sailed right up to that beautiful white marble freeway. It was a very wide street, and the marble for it was supplied from the quarries of Mount Prion.
The Temple of Diana in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was the largest Greek temple ever constructed, 418 by 239 feet, four times larger than the Parthenon but very similar to it. It was built over a marsh on an artificial foundation of skins and charcoal so that it was not affected by earthquakes. The art and wealth of the Ephesian citizens contributed to its adornment. It had 127 graceful columns, some of them richly carved and colored. It contained works of art, such as the picture painted by Apelles of Alexander the Great hurling the thunderbolt.
Inside this beautiful temple was the idol of Diana. This was not the beautiful Diana of Greek mythology. It was the oriental, actually the Anatolian, conception of the goddess of fertility. It was not the goddess of the moon, but the goddess of fertility, a vulgar, many-breasted idol of wood. All sorts of gross immorality took place in the shadow of this temple.
A flourishing trade was carried on in the manufacture of silver shrines or models of the temple. These are often referred to by ancient writers. Few strangers seem to have left Ephesus without such a memorial of their visit, and this artistic business brought no small gain to the craftsman.
It was to such a city that Paul came. He went first to the synagogue and spoke boldly for the space of three months. Then he went into the school of Tyrannus and continued there for two years “… so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). This was probably the high water mark in the missionary labors of Paul. He considered Ephesus his great opportunity and stayed there longer than in any other place. The people of Ephesus heard more Bible teaching from Paul than did any other people, which is the reason he could write to them the deep truths contained in this epistle.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost. For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:8-9). Because Paul’s preaching was putting the silversmiths out of business, there was great opposition, and as a result there was a riot in the city. Paul was preaching the gospel of the living God and life through Jesus Christ. God marvelously preserved him, which encouraged him to continue (see Acts 19:23–41). Paul loved this church in Ephesus. His last meeting with the Ephesian elders was a tender farewell (see Acts 20:17–38).
A great company of believers turned to Christ. I think the gospel was more effective in this area than in any place and at any time in the history of the world. I believe the Ephesian church was the highest church spiritually. It is an amazing thing to me that there were people living in that pagan city who understood this epistle—Paul wouldn’t have written it to them if they couldn’t have understood it. Furthermore, in the Book of Revelation we find that Ephesus is the first one of the seven churches of Asia mentioned in a series of churches that gives the entire history of the church. Ephesus was the church at its best, the church at the highest spiritual level.
You and I today cannot conceive the high spiritual level that the Spirit of God had produced in these Ephesian believers. They loved the person of the Lord Jesus and were drawn to Him. I have been a pastor for many years and I love to minister in our churches today. I must confess, however, that we are far from the person of Christ today. We are so enamored with programs, with church work, with an office in the church, that we get farther and farther from the person of Christ. The essential question is how much we love Him. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. Do we return that love? Do we respond to Him? Can we say, “I love Him because He first loved me”? This letter to the Ephesians ought to bring us very close to Christ.
Two books of the Bible which the critic says cannot be understood are Ephesians and Revelation. Liberalism says that Revelation is just a conglomerate of symbols that no one can decipher. Liberalism also says that Ephesians is so high it is beyond us.
Let me say that the two books of the Bible which can be arranged mathematically and logically are Ephesians and Revelation. There are no books more logical than they are. Years ago I got tired of hearing folk say, “I believe the Bible from cover to cover,” when they didn’t even know what was between the covers. They were just making a pious statement. If one really believes it is God’s Word, he will try to find out what it says. We need to get off this gimmick of methods and how to communicate to the younger generation and how to better organize the church and instead really learn what is in the Book. To help folk learn what the Bible is all about, I wrote a book called Briefing the Bible in which I attempted to give a helpful outline of every book in the Bible. As I was doing this, I found that Ephesians and Revelation were the two easiest books in the Bible to outline. Do you know why? Because they are logical. I don’t pretend to understand everything that is in these books, but I do say that they are logical and they are easily outlined.
Paul is logical in Ephesians and John is logical in Revelation. John was told to write of the things he had seen, of things that are, and of things that will be. There is a clear threefold division. And the book is arranged according to sevens. You couldn’t find anything better than that. The Epistle to the Ephesians is very logical. Of the six chapters, the first three are about the heavenly calling of the church and are doctrinal. The last three are about the earthly conduct of the church which is very practical. You see, the church has a Head. The Head of the church is Christ, and He is in heaven. We are identified with Him. But the feet of the church are down here on earth. Paul won’t leave us sitting up there in the heavenlies; he says, “Walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Eph. 4:1). In other words, Christian, it’s nice to sit up there in the heavenlies and boast of your position in Christ, but, for goodness’ sake, get down out of your high chair and start walking. We need to remember that in Paul’s day believers were walking in a pagan society in the Roman world. The first half is doctrinal and the last half is practical, which makes a very logical division in the book. We need both. We are not to live in the first three chapters only. They are wonderful, but the message must get down here where we live, down where the rubber meets the road.
The doctrinal section is also very logical. In chapter 1 the church is a body. In chapter 2 the church is a temple. In chapter 3 the church is a mystery.
When we get to the practical section, we find in chapter 4 that the church is a new man. The church is to exhibit something new in the world: walking through the world as a new man. In chapter 5 the church will be a bride. Don’t get the idea that the church is a bride now; the church is not a bride today. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “… for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.” In effect he says, “I’m getting you engaged to Christ today, and someday the church will be His bride.” In chapter 6 the church is a soldier. A wag who heard me give this outline said to me, “That’s interesting. The church will be a bride, you say, and the church is a soldier. In a lot of marriages down here, they get married and then the fighting starts.” Well, that is not the way Paul meant it. He was being very practical. The church is a soldier, and there is an enemy to be fought. There is a battle going on in this world. The bugle has sounded. We need to stand for God today.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 47: Ephesians. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)