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Ephesians 3:1-12 (13-21)

One of the main questions that circulates among scholars regarding Ephesians is whether or not Paul wrote it. Without delving too deeply into that debate, I think there are good reasons to be confident that Paul did indeed write Ephesians.[1] Certain more recent framings of Paul’s theology, like the Apocalyptic and the Paul within Judaism approaches show that Ephesians is addressing similar concerns and painting similar theological portraits as Romans and Galatians. In my opinion, a more pressing question is this: did Paul write this letter to the Ephesians? The fact that “in Ephesus” (v. 1) does not appear in the earliest manuscripts we have of this letter suggests that this was not originally written to Christians in that city. Likewise, this is a letter that many see as having a late date, but if Paul is the author, writing this late in his ministry, it does not make sense that it would be written to the Ephesians, a community he spent a lot of time with and with which he had a deep familiarity. The letter itself seems to suggest that Paul is not intimately acquainted with this church (1:15), and that they are less familiar with his ministry and theology (3:1-4; 4:1; 6:19-20). The reference to Tychicus both here (6:21) and in Colossians (Col 4:7) may suggest that he was carrying both letters (perhaps joined with Onesimus carrying Philemon?). The Western text of Acts suggest that Tychicus was an Ephesian (and therefore would not need an introduction to Ephesians). All this, along with the many literary similarities between Ephesians and Colossians, suggests that what we know as “Ephesians” may be “the letter from Laodicea” that Paul mentions in Colossians.


A quick survey of the landscape of Ephesians, shows that this is a letter concerned with spelling out the work of Jesus and the implications of that work for the gentiles. Paul places all of this within a cosmic framework, with an apocalyptic flavor. All things are gathered up in the Messiah (Eph 1:10), who was raised from among the dead ones and seated at God’s right hand in heaven, above every rule and authority and power (1:20-23). Likewise, these gentiles to which Paul is writing, have been rescued from these enslaving powers, which is a rescue from the powers of Death and Sin (2:1-3), and by God’s free grace through their faithful allegiance have been seated with the Messiah at God’s right hand (2:4-9), participating in his victory over Sin and Death and the powers that be, and cooperating in his righteous redemptive work for the good of creation (2:10).


The climax of this train of thought occurs in the second half of chapter two. This has been accomplished for the gentiles by the Messiah. They who were once estranged from God’s people, the covenants, and God, have been brought near by the Messiah’s faithfulness (2:11-12). This, too, is consistent with Paul’s vision, spelled out particularly clearly in Romans. The gentiles have been brought into the covenants. They have been brought near to Israel, not replacing them as God’s people, but joined to them in the Messiah. The law no longer functions as a dividing wall between Jews and gentiles, but they have been joined into one new humanity, maintaining their ethnic diversity, but abolishing the hostility between Israel and the nations (2:13-22). This is the vision of peace that Isaiah proclaimed God’s Messiah accomplishing (Isa 52:7-10; 55:1-5; 56:1-8), and it is that vision of peace that Paul urges this little local community to embody in tangible ways (Eph 4:1-5:2).


This is where our current text picks up. It begins with Paul recapping his role and status as apostle to the gentiles and prisoner for the Lord. Both identities are for the sake of the community to which Paul writes. Paul is a steward of the mystery, which God has revealed (3:3), and which Paul is commissioned to “bring to light” (3:9). This mystery is about how the Messiah has made the definitive difference within creation. The mystery is spelled out most clearly in verse six: “the gentile nations have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (NRSVue, slightly adapted). This is very close to what Paul in Galatians calls the gospel preached ahead of time to Abraham: “all the gentile nations shall be blessed in you” (Gal 3:8, NRSVue, slightly adapted). Christ has made the definitive difference in history and in creation, and Paul has been entrusted to make that reality known and shepherd communities into that reality.


This mystery has been made known to Paul, and through Paul to the nations, so that this people might exist as a body united in the Messiah, a people brought together from many peoples, Israel and the nations existing as the new humanity in the church. Here again things take on an apocalyptic tone: “and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:9-10 NRSVue). The purpose of bringing this new humanity into being and seating them with Christ at God’s right hand is to let the rulers and authorities (often depicted as hostile to God’s purposes and ordering) know that a new regime is in charge: a redeemed, rectified, and peaceable people, seeking to work good in the world, who understands power not as domination but as dispersed and diffused self-giving love. The fact that God is working this dramatic vision of transformation of the cosmos in this little local community is cause for rejoicing, and therefore they should not be dismayed at Paul’s imprisonment for their sake in this work, it is for their “glory” (3:13).


The generosity of superabundance of this vision spills out into a prayer of blessing and a doxology. A church that is going to live by this vision, shunning the way that the world conceives of power, shunning the disharmony and antagonism of nations, is going to have to be empowered by the depths of the love of Christ and the life-giving power of the Spirit (3:16-19). Though they may come from many nations and many families, they are united in the love and generosity of the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth receive their name (3:15). Ultimately they will have to live “rooted and grounded in love” (3:17).


This epiphany, it will be good to hear these words from Paul afresh in our polarized political climate and our war-torn world. God has revealed the decisive event in all creation’s history in Christ, in whom God’s covenant people have been joined with all nations. The little local communities gathered in his name all over the earth are to bring this reality to light, to show forth this new possibility, by the way they live as they are knit together by the life-giving Spirit into a community of care for each other and a community that is at work for blessing the whole world. No other way of being church will “reveal” God to the world. False grabs for power, racism and ethnic nationalism, seeking after wealth and prestige, or rancor and antagonism, will obscure the mystery that God has made clear in the Messiah Jesus. But a humble people (4:2 31-32), committed to peace, committed solely to embodying the way of Jesus, is where the fullness of God is pleased to dwell (1:23; 2:21-22; 3:19; Col 1:19-20).

[1] See the recent discussion in Luke Timothy Johnson, Constructing Paul, The Canonical Paul. Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 81-85, 90-92; Timothy G. Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010); Douglas A. Campbell, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).