Vincent's Word Studies

Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union Theological Seminary New York.

The Epistle to the Ephesians


The church in Ephesus was founded during Paul's long residence there (Act 19:10; Act 20:31). He left the city immediately after the great riot (Acts 19), and never returned. His last personal contact with the church was when he met its elders at Miletus (Act 20:18, Act 20:35).

There has been much dissension as to the destination of the epistle. The principal views are three: 1. That it was addressed to the church at Ephesus. 2. To the church at Laodicaea. 3. That it was an encyclical or circular epistle, intended for the church at Ephesus along with a body of neighboring churches. Some also have regarded it as designed for the churches of Ephesus and Laodicaea, and others for the Laodicaean church along with a circle of churches.

I regard the epistle as addressed to the Church at Ephesus. Such was the general opinion of the early church. The words “in Ephesus” (Eph 1:1), though omitted in two important manuscripts, are found in the majority of manuscripts and in all the old versions. The Laodicaean theory was started by Marcion, who was severely taken to task by Tertullian for altering the title to “the Epistle to the Laodicaeans.” Marcion himself inserted the epistle in his canon as “the Epistle to the Ephesians;” and it is significant that no manuscript which omits “in Ephesus” substitutes “in Laodicaea.” The encyclical theory rests mainly on internal grounds, such as the general tenor of the epistle, and the absence of personal reminiscences, appeals and greetings, and of local references. But when addressing a circle of churches, Paul is wont to specify the fact, as in First and Second Corinthians and Galatians. If the words “in Ephesus” be rejected, the epistle is entirely without local designation, and is catholic rather than encyclical. Moreover, whenever Paul, in the address of an epistle, uses τοῖς οὖσιν which are, he follows these with the name of a place, as at Rome,” “at Philippi,” “at Corinth.”

The Ephesian church, so far as is indicated by the letter, furnished no special reason for its composition. It contains no references to the dangers which Paul predicted at Miletus, no allusions to his personal relations with the church, and no salutations to individuals. Its theme is the Church of Christ, founded in the will of the Father, developed by the work of the Son, and united in him through the indwelling and energy of the Holy Spirit.

The body of believers is chosen of God: their privilege is adoption: the motive of adoption is grace, its medium Jesus Christ, its element love, its end holiness and the glorification of divine grace (Eph 1:3-6).

The work of the Son in this scheme is redemption, remission of sins, and the gift of wisdom and discernment. His central position in the divine plan will appear in the consummation, which will consist in the summing up of all things in Him (Eph 1:7-12).

The agent and earnest of this inheritance of believers is the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14).

Hence the prayer that the operation of the Spirit may appear in the bestowment of wisdom and revelation (compare Eph 1:8), and of quickened spiritual discernment; so that believers may recognize the divine call, and experience the hope which it engenders, the riches of the inheritance which it assures (compare Eph 1:11), and the efficiency of the divine power which is exhibited and pledged to them in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ (Eph 1:15-22).

The election, the call, the redemptive work, the adoption, the personal holiness, the knowledge and discernment - all find their embodiment in the Church the body of Christ, in which the divine fullness dwells (Eph 1:22, Eph 1:23).

The scope of this plan is universal, including both Jews and Gentiles. Its operation is illustrated in the turning of the Gentiles from their sins, and in the destruction of the national and religious barriers between them and the Jews, making of the two one Church in Christ, the dwelling-place of the Spirit, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ as the corner-stone (2:1-22).

The inclusion of the Gentiles in the divine covenant is a mystery of which Paul has been made the minister. The intent of this mystery is to manifest through the Church to the heavenly powers the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3:2-10).

Thus far the theme, the Church, is struck at Eph 1:22, Eph 1:23; Eph 2:19-22; Eph 3:10.

The prayer (Eph 3:14-21) includes the points already touched - the universal fatherhood of God; the sonship of Christ; the work of the Spirit in believers; the indwelling of Christ by faith; love as the element of christian life; knowledge of the deep things of God - and returns to the main theme, the Church.

The key-note of the practical portion of the epistle is given in Eph 4:1 : “Walk worthy of your calling.” The practical exhortations contemplate individuals in their relation to the Church. The fundamental duty is unity through the one informing Spirit (Eph 4:3, Eph 4:4). The great factors of church fellowship are specified: “One Lord” (Christ); one principle of “faith,” uniting to Christ; one formal sign, “baptism,” marking admission to the body of Christ; one universal “Father,” ruling, pervading, and dwelling in all (Eph 4:5, Eph 4:6).

This unity of the Church includes and is furthered by various manifestations of the Spirit in the form of different gifts; and the authority of Christ to confer and distribute these gifts is indicated by His descent to earth and Hades, and His ascent to the glory of the Father (Eph 4:7-16). In the thought that the purpose of these gifts is the edifying of the body of Christ, the theme - the Church - is again sounded.

Practical exhortations follow, to spiritual renewal, truthfulness, peace, honesty, purity of speech and life, love, godly caution, temperance, holy meditation and christian interchange, gratitude, and the reciprocal duties of husband and wife, in which last the church-theme is once more enunciated in typifying by the marriage-rite Christ's love for the Church (4:7-5:33).

The Church includes the household. The exhortations to fidelity in household relations are continued (Eph 6:1-9) The ideal of the Church and of individual character is realized only through conflict with the evil world and the powers of darkness, in which the power of God alone can insure victory. Hence the Christian is urged to clothe himself with the divine panoply (Eph 6:10-18).

The authenticity of the epistle has been challenged on the ground of dissimilarity to the other writings of Paul, unusual words and phrases, and a general un-Pauline character in doctrine and diction. As regards doctrine, the charge is beneath notice. As to diction, the argument from unusual expressions would bear equally against the genuineness of some of the best attested epistles. While there are forty-two unique words in this letter, there are thirty-eight in Colossians, above a hundred in Romans, and two hundred and thirty in First Corinthians; while the well-known peculiarities of Paul's style are as evident in this as in the other epistles.

The epistle has also been assailed as “a mere verbose expansion” of the Colossian letter. There are, indeed, marked resemblances between the two both in matter and form, and sometimes literal correspondences, as might be expected in two epistles written about the same time; but both the subject and the treatment of the two epistles present too many differences to bear out this charge of amplification. On the contrary, the same subject is sometimes treated more concisely in Ephesians than in Colossians (Eph 1:15-17; Col 1:3-6; Eph 4:32; Col 3:12-14). Ephesians, moreover, contains matter not found in Colossians (Eph 1:13-14; Eph 4:8-15; Eph 5:7-14, Eph 5:23-31; Eph 6:10-17).

The polemic element in Colossians is wanting in Ephesians. The Christology of Colossians is more metaphysical than that of Ephesians, while the predestinarianism of Ephesians does not appear in Colossians.

This epistle presents peculiar difficulties to the student. Dean Alford says: “The difficulties lie altogether beneath the surface; are not discernible by the cursory reader, who finds all very straightforward and simple. But when we begin to inquire why thought succeeds to thought, and one cumbrous parenthesis to another - depths under depths disclose themselves, wonderful systems of parallel allusion, frequent and complicated underplots - every word, the more we search, approves itself as set in its exact logical place; we see every phrase contributing by its own similar organization and articulation to the carrying out of the organic whole. But this result is not won without much labor of thought, without repeated and minute laying together of portions and expressions, without bestowing on single words and phrases, and their succession and arrangement, as much study as would suffice for whole sections of more exoteric epistles.”

While the diction is marked by a peculiar sonorousness and depth of tone, it does not surpass in variety and picturesqueness that of some other epistles, Second Corinthians, for instance. The shorter epistle to the Colossians contains thirty-eight unique words to forty-two in Ephesians. But no writing of Paul equals this in the liturgical majesty of its movement. The Epistle to the Romans is the ever-deepening flow of a stately river; Second Corinthians is the rush of a rapid; Ephesians is the solemn swell of a calm sea. Not a familiar and personal letter like Philippians and Philemon, it is, equally with these, devoid of official stateliness. Its dignity is that of the seer rather than of the bishop and teacher. It rises at times to the height of apocalypse. The impression of a teacher expounding his theme is largely merged in the impression of a great mind and an adoring soul mastered and swept onward by the theme.

The figure of a cathedral, into which Professor Longfellow has so finely cast his general conception of the “Divina Commedia,” equally well, perhaps, even better, suits the Ephesian letter. If the expression may be allowed, that epistle is the veritable high-Gothic of sacred literature; every line and detail carrying the eye upward, and the whole combining in one great upreach, irradiated with the rich hues Of a the many-tinted wisdom of God.” Even as St. Ouen mirrors its lines in the font at the portal, the whole magnificent ideal of the Church of Christ condenses itself into the inscription round the baptismal layer - “one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.” Every window is blazoned with its story, but in each the central figure is the same - now the Victim of the cross, now the Conqueror with his train of captives, now the King ascended and throned in light. No partition with its rigid lines sunders the band of worshippers. Jew and Gentile kneel side by side, every face turned toward the cross. On the very threshold the ear is greeted with a burst of choral thunder. The vast aisles throb with praise, crossed with the minor chords of penitent rehearsal, and the deep sighs of tempted souls struggling with the powers of darkness; while from the side-chapels float the words of admonition to the newly-wedded, and of homely precept for the children and servants; and over all the sweet, sad, triumphant tumult is heard the voice of the great apostle, rising with the incense-cloud from before the altar in that wondrous prayer, never surpassed save by the intercessions of Jesus Himself - “That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend, with all saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled unto all the fullness of God.” 

Taken from: "Vincent's Word Studies" By Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

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