This commentary on Ephesians, redesigned with a new cover and updated ESV Scripture references, celebrates our full redemption in Christ and explores the mystery of the church.
About the Author
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and former professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
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Celebration of Blessing
WHEN ONE TAKES UP the study of Ephesians, he finds that commentators and preachers outdo themselves in lavish encomiums. It has been called "[t]he crown and climax of Pauline theology," "[t]he sublimest communication ever made to men," "the quintessence of Paulinism," "the consummate and most comprehensive statement which even the New Testament contains of the meaning of the Christian religion. It is certainly the final statement of Pauline theology." Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it "the divinest composition of man." John A. Mackay, past president of Princeton Theological Seminary, waxed eloquent as well: "Never ... was the reality of Revelation more obvious and the reflective powers of the Apostle's mind more transfigured than in the great book which is known by the title, The Epistle to the Ephesians."
These eloquent recommendations alone are sufficient reasons to be enthused about the prospect of study, but there is furthermore the grand theme of Ephesians and its dual focus on Christ and on the Church — the "mystery" of "Christ and the church" (5:32). The theme is clarified when we compare it to that of Colossians. Colossians explains Christ's person and work in relation to the whole universe — the cosmic Christ, whereas Ephesians explains what the Church's cosmic role is as the Body of the cosmic Christ. Ephesians reveals the position and job description of the Church in effecting God's new order. It answers the question, what does it mean to be in Christ, and what does this demand of us?
Because Ephesians has such a magisterial theme and because it is so practical, it is also immensely powerful. John Mackay, in his book God's Order, recounts how he became spiritually alive as a fifteen-year-old. One Saturday about noon in the month of July 1903, young Mackay was attending a "preparation" service for an old-time Scottish Communion in the open air, among the hills in the Highland parish of Rogart, in Sutherlandshire. A minister was preaching from a wooden pulpit to several hundred people sitting under the shade of trees in the glen. Though Mackay could never remember what was said, he was quickened that halcyon day and knew he was called to preach. For the rest of the summer he lived in the pages of a tiny New Testament that he had purchased for a penny. Most of his time was spent in Paul's letters — especially Ephesians, which became his favorite book of the Bible. Mackay later wrote:
From the first, my imagination began to glow with the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ. It was the cosmic Christ that fascinated me, the living Lord Jesus Christ who was the center of a great drama of unity, in which everything in Heaven and on earth was to become one in him. I did not understand what it all meant, but the tendency to think of everything in terms of Jesus Christ and a longing to contribute to a unity in Christ became the passion of my life. It became natural then, and it has remained natural ever since, to say "Lord Jesus."
Ephesians — carefully, reverently, prayerfully considered — will change our lives. It is not so much a question of what we will do with the epistle, but what it will do with us.
We should also note that the Letter to the Ephesians is compellingly ecumenical and catholic in the primary sense of these words. The designation "in Ephesus" is not in the earliest manuscripts, and we conclude that it was a circular letter meant for all the churches in Asia Minor. Thus, its ecumenical message is for the Church everywhere and in every age: namely, that Christ reconciles all races and cultures by bringing them to himself and making them one with him and with one another. It is a message of unity, a message for the Church, and a message for a fragmented, war-torn world.
The structure of the book is typically Pauline: first Paul states the doctrine (chapters 1 — 3), then he states the duty (chapters 4 — 6). The duty section ends with a description of spiritual battle, so some like to divide it in two. Thus the book can be given an easy-to-remember division such as:
The wealth (1–3), walk (4 — 5), warfare (6:10f)
sit (1–3), walk (4 — 5), stand (6:10f)
The opening verses of Ephesians are a "celebration of blessing." The mood is exuberant joy. Paul buoyantly begins a song (modeled on the Hebrew berakhah or blessing song) celebrating God's work in bringing us salvation. In quick order Paul celebrates himself, the saints, their God, and their blessings.
Celebrating Self (v. 1a)
Paul's personal celebration is centered in the fact that he is "an apostle of Christ [Messiah] Jesus by the will of God" (v. 1a). This certainly was not due to his own will. At the onset of Christianity he had been a militant opponent of Christ, even an accessory to the murders of believers (Acts 7). But then on the Damascus off-ramp he met the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and heard his call: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me. ... I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:4, 5). The effect was radical conversion, so radical that in a few days Saul "confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ" (Acts 9:22). It was a miracle, and nothing else, that made him one with the Twelve!
As an apostolos, one sent, Paul's authority was not self-generated but was ordained of God. He therefore could not help but preach Jesus. "[I have] no ground for boasting," he said, "For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Corinthians 9:16). This was something to celebrate! But it was not a cause for selfish vanity. Before he met Christ he was "Saul," named after the tallest (and vainest) of the Benjamites, King Saul, from whom he was descended (Philippians 3:4–6). But now, after coming to know Christ, he takes the name "Paul" — small. The Lion had cut him down to size. Now he humbly says, "But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Corinthians 4:7). Paul's smallness became the medium for God's bigness, his weakness a channel for God's power.
Paul's opening words celebrate a self that had been liberated from the crushing bondage of ego, included (by God's sovereign decision) in the apostolic band, and imbued with divine authority and purpose. And so, writing from prison, Paul's song went forth, just as later would that of St. John of the Cross from his Toledo cell, and John Bunyan from the Bedford jail, and Charles Colson from a modern prison.
Paul's song is ours in a less dramatic, perhaps, but equally significant way. For in Christ, every one of us has been delivered from self and has been given position and purpose and authority in him. And that is something to continually celebrate.
Celebrating the Saints (vv.1b, 2)
Paul's celebration moves from self to others with his simple designation, "To the saints who are ... faithful in Christ Jesus" (v. 1b), for the designation is a celebration in itself. Why? Because in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the people of Israel, and sometimes even the angels, were given the honored title "saints." Therefore, as Marcus Barth explains, "By using the same designation ... the author of Ephesians bestows upon all his pagan-born hearers a privilege formerly reserved for Israel, for special (especially priestly) servants of God, or for angels." Applying the privileged word "saints" to pagan Greeks was mind-boggling to those with a Jewish background. Hebrew detractors considered it a rape of sacred vocabulary. But from the Christian perspective it was a fitting word to celebrate the miracle of God's grace.
"Saints" means "holy ones, those set apart and consecrated." The word was descriptive of what had happened in their hearts. They were saints though living under the shadow of pagan temples amidst the moral decay of Asia Minor. They were saints while going about their lives — shopkeeping, sailing, building, raising children.
Paul also adds that they were "faithful" — they were actively believing and trusting God. Their saintliness grew out of their believing. As Calvin said, "No man is ... a believer who is not also a saint; and, on the other hand, no man is a saint who is not a believer." This was all because they were "in Christ Jesus" — they were personally and intimately in him, as appendages are part of the body or branches are part of the tree.
"Saints" — "faithful" — "in Christ Jesus" — what a cause for celebration! And how does he celebrate it? "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 2). This greeting bears the poetry of redemption, for the regular Greek greeting was "Rejoice!" (chaire), and the regular Jewish greeting was "Peace" (Hebrew shalom, Greek eiriene). But here Paul combines the two and then replaces rejoice (chaire) with the similar sounding but far richer charis — "grace." He in effect combines the greetings of the Eastern and Western worlds, then modifies the Western and gives the whole world the sublime Christian greeting, "Grace to you and peace." This greeting celebrates how the gospel works. Grace comes first, and as it fills our lives through the Holy Spirit, it brings shalom — peace, reconciliation, wholeness.
This is a huge Christian greeting! There never had been anything like it in the world. This "Grace to you and peace" has enabled thousands to lift up God even when the world is falling in. Consider H. P. Spafford, who composed one of the Church's great hymns as he sailed over the watery grave of his family, drowned on the Ville du Havre:
When peace like a river attendeth my way.
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot. Thou hast taught me to say, "It is well, it is well with my soul."
This is what we have to offer to others — a brand-new greeting from another world: "Grace to you and peace." All who truly want this can have it through Jesus Christ.
Celebrating Their Blessings (v. 3)
Paul has celebrated himself: his calling, his mission, his deliverance from self. He has also celebrated the saints. Now he celebrates their mutual blessings: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (v. 3). This is a dramatic, introductory prelude to a song that extends to the end of verse 14, one long rhapsodic sentence.
At the root of Paul's celebration here is the idea that both he and the Ephesians, by virtue of their being in Christ, have been elevated to "the heavenly places." That is, they occupy the place where Christ is now enthroned, seated at the Father's right hand (1:20). This is also where all of us who are united to him through faith are seated: "And [God] raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (2:6). "The heavenly places" are "the immaterial reign, the 'unseen universe' which lies behind the world of sense" — the place of Christ's throne, where we are enthroned with him! Temporally we live here on earth; but spiritually we live in the heavenly realms where Christ lives. Paul calls us to immerse ourselves in this truth and to celebrate.
But there is more. We have been blessed "in Christ with every spiritual blessing." Under the old covenant, God's promised blessings were largely material, such as those promised to obedient Israel in Deuteronomy 28:1–14 — fruitful wombs, flourishing crops, abundant flocks, bread in every basket, prosperity, and world influence. Likewise, under the new covenant Jesus takes care of his own materially and charges them not to worry about their needs (Matthew 6:25–34). As Spurgeon once said, "He that gives us heaven will surely give us all that is needful on the road thither." And, "We shall have enough spending money on the road to glory; for he who has guaranteed to bring us there will not starve us along the way."
But in addition to this, the overwhelming promises of the new covenant are spiritual (cf. Jeremiah 31:31–34). The song, the berakhah, in verses 3–14 includes five dynamic spiritual elements: 1) holiness, 2) adoption, 3) redemption and forgiveness, 4) the Holy Spirit, and 5) the hope of glory. The fact is, we receive thousands of blessings under these headings, all crowned with "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22, 23).
We have been and are now blessed "in Christ with every spiritual blessing." "To be in Christ ... is to partake of all that Christ has done, all He is, and all that He ever will be." Of course, it remains for us to grow and thus claim more and more of these blessings that are now ours. What a wonderful pursuit! The devil may curse us, but if God blesses us, what does it matter?
Paul's stupendous assertion about our status of blessedness demands our careful attention. First, we must believe it. Paul's statement in 1:20 that Christ is seated at the right hand of God in "the heavenly places" is fairly easy for believing hearts to accept. But it is not so easy for the same believers to truly embrace the fact that they themselves are seated in "the heavenly places," as 2:6 asserts. "After all, we've never been there," they object, "and we've had no heavenly experiences like Paul claimed to have had. Perhaps Paul was speaking symbolically or metaphorically." This seems to be plausible reasoning, but it is absolutely wrong! For if we are merely there metaphorically, it must be the same for Christ.
The truth is: Christ is in the heavenly realms and so are we! He is there literally, and we are there representatively, as members of his Body. He is there as our Head and brings our actual presence with him because we are in him. Believing this will greatly elevate our Christian living. Paul's massive conception of the heavenlies and his present relation to them that we see here in Ephesians and in such passages as 2 Corinthians 12:1–6, Colossians 3:1–4, and Philippians 3:20, 21 endowed him with noble motivation and great energy for his earthly ministry.
We are seated in the heavenly realms. We do have every spiritual blessing. Belief is the beginning.
Second, we must focus on this truth. Paul calls us to be spiritual extraterrestrials — to live in the supra-mundane. We must reject the deadly notion that this is mystical, incomprehensible, and beyond our ability to practice. Paul says, "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Colossians 3:1, 2). What is our mind set on? Position? A new car? A promotion? Our wardrobe? Paul says, Stop! Rather, keep on seeking the things that are above. This is our divinely-given responsibility.
Third, we must ask for the blessings. Jesus says in Luke 11:13, "... how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" What does Jesus mean? Isn't the Holy Spirit already given to believers? The answer is explicit in the Greek grammar, which means the operation of the Holy Spirit. Prayer brings increased fullness and the power of the Holy Spirit. We must ask! As we ask for more holiness — a greater sense of adoption, more peace, more love, more patience, more power from the Spirit — we will receive it all.
Celebrating God (v. 3)
In all of this Paul celebrates God. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places."
Our highest response to all this must be to hold our gifts up to God and sing the boundless praise of him who reigns above! Our theology must become doxology.
Late in his life Dr. Mackay reflected on his Ephesians-experience with Christ:
Fifty years almost have passed since that boyish rapture in the Highland hills. ... The sun of life is westering, and this mortal pilgrimage must, in the nature of things, be entering the last lap before sunset. Life has been throughout an adventure, a movement from one frontier to another. For me, as I reflect upon the passage of the years ... A subjective fact, an experience of quickening by God's Holy Spirit in the classical tradition of Christian conversion, moulded my being in such a way that I began to live in Christ and for Christ, and 'for His Body's sake which is the Church.' My personal interest in God's Order began when the only way in which life could make sense to me was upon the basis of an inner certainty that I myself, through the operation of a power which the Ephesian Letter taught me to call 'grace,' had become part of that Order, and that I must henceforth devote my energies to its unfolding and fulfillment.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ephesians"
Copyright © 1990 R. Kent Hughes.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word,
1 Celebration of Blessing (1:1–3),
2 Celebration of Election (1:3–6),
3 Celebration of Redemption (1:7–10),
4 Celebration of Salvation (1:11–14),
5 A Prayer for Enlightenment (1:15–19),
6 The Fullness of Him (1:18–23),
7 From Death to Life (2:1–7),
8 All of Grace (2:8–10),
9 God's Amazing Work (2:10),
10 Alienation to Reconciliation (2:11–18),
11 The Third Race (2:19–22),
12 Mystery of Christ (3:1–13),
13 A Prayer for the Third Race (3:14–21),
14 Building the Church's Unity (4:1–6),
15 Growing the Church (4:7–16),
16 The Divine Wardrobe (4:17–24),
17 Living under the Smile (4:25–32),
18 The Cookie Jar Syndrome (5:1–7),
19 Shades of Life (5:8–14),
20 The Fullness of the Spirit (5:15–21),
21 The Mystery of Marriage, I (5:21–24),
22 The Mystery of Marriage, II (5:25–33),
23 Instructions to Children and Parents (6:1–4),
24 Slaves and Masters (6:5–9),
25 The View for Victory (6:10–12),
26 Armed for Battle, I (6:13, 14),
27 Armed for Battle, II (6:15, 16),
28 Armed for Battle, III (6:17),
29 Armed for Battle, IV (6:18–20),
30 Glad Benedictions (6:21–24),