Introduction to Ephesians

The City of Ephesus and the Founding of the Church

The City of Ephesus

Designated by the Romans as the capital of the province of Asia, Ephesus was a very influential city. Situated on a plain near the mouth of the Cayster River that flowed westerly into the Aegean Sea, the city was strategically located. J. Eadie writes (p. xiii), “It was the highway into Asia from Rome; its ships traded with the ports of Greece, Egypt, and the Levant (i.e.; Western Asia, most notably including the countries of Lebanon, Syria and Israel, as well as the Sinai region).”

The city’s eventual decay and downfall may be traced primarily to the gradual silting up of its once bustling harbor; however, in the first century A.D., it teemed with wealth and luxury. Ephesus boasted the largest of all Hellenic open-air theatres, capable of holding 50,000 spectators. But the city’s chief source of architectural pride was the Temple of Diana (also known as Artemis), reckoned as one of the seven wonders of the world, whose treasury formed the bank of Asia Minor (E.K. Simpson, p. 15.)

From its earliest history, Ephesus was regarded as sacred to the goddess Diana. Her image, a many-breasted, mummy-like figure of oriental symbolism, was housed in her famous temple constructed in the Greek Ionic style. The temple’s vast dimensions, its costly building materials, its extended colonnades, the numerous statues and paintings with which it was adorned, its vast treasury of wealth, these are the things that made it one of the wonders of the ancient world (C. Hodge, pp. v-vi.)

The highest title the city could have assumed, and that which was impressed on its coins, was “Temple Sweeper”—servant of the great goddess. One of the most lucrative occupations of the Ephesian craftsmen was the manufacture of miniature representations of the temple wrought in silver (C. Hodge, p. vi.) J. Eadie comments (p. xviii), ancient writers often make mention of these little silver shrines, and few travelers seem to have left Ephesus without such a memento of their visit.

Like the Phoenician or Syrian goddess Astarte, with whom she appears to have been identified, the goddess Diana was honored as the source of fertility (as her many-breasted image would indicate.) E.K. Simpson goes on to say (p. 17), “It may be imagined how foul were the orgies sanctioned under such auspices, and, worst of all, sanctioned in the outraged name of religion.” Furthermore, also associated with the worship of Diana from the earliest time was the practice of sorcery. The “Ephesian Letters,” mystical monograms, used as charms or amulets, are spoken of frequently by ancient writers. Ephesus was, therefore, the chief seat of necromancy, exorcism, and all forms of magic arts for the whole province of Asia (C. Hodge, p. vi.)

To this city, steeped in material prosperity, but shrouded in spiritual darkness and held captive in spiritual bondage, would come the light and life-giving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, initially ministered by the Apostle Paul. To that subject we now turn our attention.

The Founding of the Church

Paul’s initial visit to Ephesus, occurring in the midst of his second missionary journey, is recorded in Acts 18:18-21. Upon departing from Corinth on his way to Syria, Paul, in the company of Priscilla and Aquila, made a brief stop over at Ephesus. There he spent some time reasoning with the resident Jews in their synagogue. After a brief time, the apostle set sail for Syria and Caesarea, leaving Priscilla and Aquila at Ephesus and promising to return, God willing.

Acts 18:24-26 tells of Apollos’ visit to the city. Luke in Acts identifies this man as a Jew who came from the Egyptian city of Alexandria. He was a learned man with a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. Apollos had been instructed in the way of the Lord and, it is reported, “he taught about Jesus accurately.” But he was only acquainted with the baptism of John; that is to say, he was only familiar with John the Baptist’s message of repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah, whom John identified as being Jesus of Nazareth. As Apollos spoke boldly in the synagogue, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately; no doubt, relating to him the full message of the gospel as it was delivered to them by the Apostle Paul.

Thus the Ephesians, at least the Jews living in that city, received the initial preaching of the gospel by the Apostle Paul, as well as further ongoing instruction by Priscilla and Aquila, with Apollos also benefiting from their teaching and no doubt imparting what he learned to his fellow Jews. But the Ephesians, both Jew and Gentile, were about to receive a far more extensive gospel ministry when the Apostle Paul returned to the city during his third missionary journey. The apostle’s return to Ephesus is recorded in Acts 19:1-20:1.

Luke reports that at that time Paul spoke boldly in the synagogue for three months. But when some of the Jews became hardened and disobedient, “maligning the Way before the multitude” (speaking evil of the Christian faith to their Gentile neighbors), Paul removed himself from the synagogue, taking the disciples with him. Thereupon the apostle proceeded to conduct daily discussion sessions in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. He did so for two years. As a result, all Jews and Greeks throughout the entire province of Asia heard the gospel. As E.K. Simpson suggests (p. 16), it was, no doubt, through this work of gospel ministry that the foundations of all the Seven Churches of Asia (addressed by the Lord Jesus in Revelation 2-3) were laid.

The Book of Acts also makes mention of the extraordinary miracles wrought by the Lord Jesus through the Apostle Paul in the city of Ephesus. Handkerchiefs or aprons that were touched by the apostle were brought to the sick, and by virtue of coming into contact with such items they were healed. In other cases evil spirits were exorcised by the same means. Thus the Lord Jesus dramatically displayed His divine power and the truth of the gospel in this city that was, as has been pointed out, the chief seat of all forms of magical arts for all of Asia. Although the Lord Jesus made known His divine power and supremacy as Lord over all (a theme that the apostle will emphasize in his epistle; note, especially, Eph. 1:20-22 and 4:8-10), He would not permit His name and His power to be exploited for personal gain. This becomes evident from the incident involving the traveling Jewish exorcists. When two of them, identified as sons of a certain Sceva, sought to cast out a demon in the name of Jesus, the demon turned on them and overpowered them. In consequence of this incident, the power of Jesus was not questioned, as though perhaps it was not strong enough to overcome every demon; on the contrary, the name of Jesus was exalted to an even greater degree. We read that all who heard about this were seized with fear and the name of Jesus was held in high honor. Furthermore, many believed, confessing their evil deeds. In demonstration of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repentance from their former lifestyle of darkness, they brought together their books of sorcery and held a great book burning. Acts 19:20 states that the Word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

Acts 19:23-20:1 reports a riot that occurred in the city, the result of greedy and panic-stricken men’s opposition to the success of the gospel. We are told that Demetrius, the silversmith, gathered together his fellow craftsmen to express his concerns. As noted previously, the city of Ephesus, and especially the silver craftsmen, engaged in a very lucrative trade manufacturing and selling silver replicas of the famous Temple of Diana. But, in the words of Demetrius, Paul was leading large numbers of people “astray” by speaking out against the folly of idolatry. Demetrius expresses his concern that the temple of the great goddess Diana will be discredited, and, of even greater concern to him, is the fact that their trade is being adversely affected in a serious way. Demetrius succeeds in arousing the anger of his fellow craftsmen. Their fury soon incites the entire city into an uproar. Eventually the riot is quelled by the city clerk who quiets the mob and restores order. Shortly thereafter the Apostle Paul departed for Macedonia, after having first encouraged the disciples.

C. Hodge sums up (p. viii) the effects of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus as follows: (1) The conversion of a great number of Jews and Greeks; (2) the diffusion of the knowledge of the Gospel throughout the province of Asia; (3) such a marked diminishing of the zeal and numbers of the worshipers of Diana, as to excite general alarm that her temple would be despised; and (4) a large and flourishing church  established in the city of Ephesus.

Questions Regarding the Destination of the Epistle

The Testimony of the Church Fathers

Iranaeus, in the second century, has numerous references to the Epistle, and prefaces a quotation from Ephesians 5:30 with the words, “as the blessed Paul says in his epistle to the Ephesians.” Nor is the testimony of Clement of Alexandria, later in the same century, less decisive. In the fourth book of his Stromata, quoting Ephesians 5:21, he says, “…wherefore also in the [epistle] to the Ephesians he [Paul] writes.” In the next century we find Origen, in his tract On Prayer, expressly referring to a statement found “in the [epistle] to the Ephesians.” The witness of Tertullian is in full agreement. For example, in his book De Monogamia, chapter v, while quoting Ephesians 1:10, he speaks of the apostle writing to the Ephesians. Cyprian, in the next age, is on less definite. In the seventh chapter of the third book of his Testimonies, he speaks of the Apostle Paul writing to the Ephesians and then proceeds to quote Ephesians 4:30. Such is the verdict of the ancient church. But though its testimony is so decisive, it is not unanimous (J. Eadie, pp. xx-xxii.)

The Missing Words

The crux of the matter centers on the question, Are the words, “in Ephesus,” as they appear in the opening verse of the Epistle, a genuine part of the original manuscript? All the old versions (i.e.; the ancient translations of the Greek New Testament) are unanimous in favor of their authenticity, as are the vast majority of the Greek manuscripts, all except three. But, as W.G.M. Martin points out (p. 1015), these three are among “the most authoritative manuscripts.” These three include: Papyrus 46; Codex B (also known as Codex Vaticanus), which, according to Dr. Bruce Metzger, is “one of the most valuable of all the manuscripts of the Greek Bible” (The Text of the New Testament, p. 47); and Codex Aleph (also known as Codex Sinaiticus.) It should be noted that in Codex B the words, “in Ephesus,” stand in the margin, as an apparent correction of the discovered omission that the original copyist had supposedly made. In Codex Sinaiticus, although absent in its original form, once again the words are supplied in the margin by a later scribe (J. Eadie, p. xxii.)

As previously noted, all the versions without exception include the words, “in Ephesus,” and since, as D. Guthrie points out (p. 509), some of these versions are of great antiquity, there is at least the possibility that they have actually preserved a purer text than the Greek manuscripts. Moreover, the fact that the title, “To the Ephesians,” is attached to all the Greek manuscripts (in much the same way that the various titles are placed at the head of each of the books of the English Bible) reflects the tradition current at the time that this epistle was addressed to the church at Ephesus, in spite of the possible omission of the words in the actual text of Eph. 1:1.

As to how the words, “in Ephesus,” came to be dropped out of the text (if that, indeed, is the case), J. Eadie suggests (p. xxx) that perhaps some early copyist omitted them in order to give the Epistle more of the character of universal applicability. (As we shall discuss in the next section of this article, the Epistle to the Ephesians is unique in that it does not appear to be addressing any specific situation with which the church was presently confronted; rather, it is very general in nature.) Another possibility suggested by Eadie is that all the churches located in the province of Asia, claiming an interest in the Apostle Paul and his epistles, might have had in their possession copies of this Epistle without the original designation, “to the saints in Ephesus.”

However, before considering the case to be closed, it should be noted that there is some evidence within the Epistle itself that questions whether, indeed, it was intended exclusively for the church in Ephesus. It is argued that the apostle sends no greetings to the church to whom this Epistle was sent, something that is seen as a strange omission (for an epistle allegedly sent to the Ephesian church) in light of the fact that he had labored in Ephesus for three years and must have known personally the majority of the members of the church. But, according to J. Eadie (p. xxx), this argument is two-edged. Paul’s long years of labor at Ephesus must have made him acquainted with so many Christian people there, that their very number may have prevented him from sending any personal greetings. It may be that the omitted greetings were conveyed by Tychicus in person when he delivered the Epistle to the church (E.K. Simpson, p. 19.)

But there is also other internal evidence that needs to be considered. Judging from Eph. 1:5, 3:2 and 4:21, the writer does not appear to know the readers personally. The passages mentioned suggest that the recipients of this epistle had only heard of Paul, but this certainly was not the case with the church at Ephesus. In rebuttal, it has been maintained that the first passage cited (1:5) could perhaps be referring to what Paul had heard of the Ephesian Christians since his departure from the city; and the other two references (3:2 and 4:21) may be no more than rhetorical hypothetical statements (D. Guthrie, p. 509.) But, having said this, Guthrie goes on to state: When this consideration is added to the fact that no term of endearment or reference to any beloved individual  or faithful brethren is found and only an indirect concluding benediction is given, it would seem highly improbable that the Ephesian church was specifically in mind as the only intended recipient of the Epistle.

These various factors have led many to conclude that this Epistle may have been written as an encyclical letter, intended to be circulated among all the churches in the province of Asia. It has even been suggested that a blank space may have been left for the address to be filled in as copies of the letter were taken to the various churches. But this view, too, presents a problem, for the name of no other church has been preserved in any manuscript, other than that of Ephesus (E. Harrison, p. 311.) Furthermore, the possibility of this Epistle being a cyclical letter with a blank space provided for various addresses to be inserted would be more likely if the preposition, “in,” had not been omitted from the manuscripts (D. Guthrie, p. 511.) In other words, if the opening verse of the Epistle read, “to the saints in,” as opposed to reading, “to the saints,” the cyclical letter theory would be more compelling.

D. Guthrie (p. 311), offers the following as a possible solution: If the original text did not possess the words, “in Ephesus,” the Epistle may be taken as addressed in a very general way “to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus.” This would well fit the theory that the Epistle was meant to be a general letter intended for distribution among a number of churches. It would then be suitable for the Christian communities located throughout the province of Asia, especially in those areas where Paul was not known personally. It may be assumed that as Tychicus was the bearer of the circular letter, there would be no particular need for a specific address. M. Tenney adds (p. 316) the comment that, if it were a circular letter intended for the churches throughout the province of Asia, undoubtedly one copy was sent to Ephesus. Since Ephesus was the largest church of the province, the copy in its possession would be the most accessible and the one most frequently reproduced. As such, the early church may have come to identify the Epistle with the church in Ephesus.

Is This the Epistle to the Laodiceans?

At the conclusion of his Epistle to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans, and that you likewise read the epistle from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16.) Since the words, “in Ephesus,” are omitted in some of the important manuscripts of this (Ephesian) Epistle, it has been suggested that perhaps this Epistle is actually the one to which the apostle refers in Col. 4:16 and is, in fact, the Epistle to the Laodiceans. But the evidence is decisively against this suggestion. Paul urges the Colossians to read the letter from Laodicea, (which, according to the suggestion under consideration, is the Epistle that in our Bibles is designated as being addressed to the Ephesians,) and to send their letter to Laodicea. Since the similarities between these two Epistles (the one undisputedly addressed to the Colossians and the other generally accepted as having been addressed to the Ephesians, but alleged to perhaps be the letter to the Laodiceans) is so striking, it is questionable whether there would have been any benefit in exchanging them. Therefore, as J. Eadie states it (p. xxviii), Whatever may be meant in Col. 4:16 by the epistle from Laodicea, it is plain that it cannot be the epistle before us (i.e.; the one commonly designated as the Epistle to the Ephesians.) In addition to the aforementioned obstacle, is the fact that there is a total lack of manuscript evidence: in none of the Greek manuscripts, where the location of the church appears, is “Laodicea” ever found instead of “Ephesus” (D. Guthrie, p. 510.)

The Occasion and the Theme of the Epistle

The Occasion for Writing

The occasion for the Apostle Paul’s writing of the Epistle to the Ephesians (or, the Epistle intended to be circulated among the churches located throughout the province of Asia) was indirect, as opposed to being written in response to a pressing problem facing the church. The real problem was being faced by the church in Colossae; also there was the need to address a letter to a faithful Christian brother named Philemon. Thus, these two conditions, requiring that epistles be sent by the apostle to the Colossians church and to Philemon, who resided in Colossae, became the occasion for the writing of the Epistle to the Ephesians.

Onesimus, a slave owned by Philemon who was a businessman of Colossae, had absconded with some of his master’s property. He had gone to Rome, intending to lose himself in the crowds of that great city. But while in Rome, Onesimus encountered the Apostle Paul and subsequently was converted. Realizing the necessity of righting the wrong Onesimus had committed, Paul sent him back to his former master with a letter (the Epistle to Philemon) requesting that he be forgiven and received back as a brother in Christ (M. Tenney, pp. 316-317.)

There was also the necessity of addressing an epistle to the church in Colossae. That church was being threatened by a heresy consisting of a synthesis of legalistic Judaism mixed with incipient Gnosticism. (Note: Gnosticism, derived from the Greek word, “gnosis,” or, “knowledge,” was a philosophic-religious system that put a premium on esoteric knowledge as a way of freeing one’s self from the materialistic realm in an attempt to achieve a spiritual relationship with God.) In the case of the Colossian heresy, this early form of Gnosticism, (it would not be until the second century A.D. that Gnosticism became a full fledged religious philosophy,) was embraced by legalistic Jews who incorporated it into their ascetic teaching (note, especially, Col. 2:16-23.) This false teaching was posing such a threat to the life of the church that an immediate response from the apostle was imperative; therefore, he dispatched to them the Epistle to the Colossians.

Thus it was that the Apostle Paul commissioned Tychicus, a faithful brother who had been assisting the apostle in Rome, to accompany Onesimus back to Colossae, carrying with him the Epistle to the Colossian church and the one addressed to Philemon, as well as the general Epistle to the Ephesians.

The Theme of the Epistle and Its Content

As D. Guthrie observes (p. 487), the Epistle to the Ephesians differs from the other Pauline epistles in that it is not addressed to any specific situation in the life of the church. C. Hodge maintains (p. xvi) that this absence of specific reference to any particular situation in the church is in keeping with the overall purpose of the Epistle; namely, to explain to Gentile believers in particular the source, the result, and the purpose of their redemption.

In the words of C. Hodge (p. xvii), the apostle addresses himself principally to Gentile Christians. His object was (1) to bring them to a true appreciation of the plan of redemption, as a thing devised from eternity by God, for the manifestation of the glory of his grace; (2) to make them aware of the greatness of the blessings conferred upon them in Christ; (3) to assure them of the equality of status they now enjoy with fellow believers from among the Jews as members of the household of God; and (4) to exhort them to live in accordance with their new identity as children of the light, as opposed to continuing on in the morally depraved lifestyle from which Christ has redeemed them. Throughout the chapters of this Epistle the Apostle Paul “leads the Christian from an understanding of the origin of his salvation in the thought and action of the triune God to the practical application of that salvation in everyday life” (M. Tenney, p. 318.)

The Epistle also serves as a safeguard against the very heresy that was presently threatening the church in Colossae. As J. Eadie states it (p. l), “In Colossians the heresy is pointedly and firmly refuted; but in Ephesians, principles are laid down that might prove a barrier to its introduction.” We may take special note of such passages as Eph. 1:20-23 and 4:8-10, passages in which the supreme supremacy of Christ is asserted; the very truth that was being undermined by the Judaistic-Gnostic heresy that plagued the church in Colossae (note, especially, Col. 2:8-23.) It should be noted, too, that in the Epistle to the Ephesians the apostle, in detailed manner, urges the church to take up the whole armor of God as the only means of gaining victory in the spiritual conflict in which we as Christians find ourselves engaged. This exhortation is a necessary reminder to all believers, but it was especially pertinent for those living in the city of Ephesus that was, as we have seen, the chief seat of the occult in the province of Asia.


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Erickson, Richard J.; “Ephesians,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.

Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, Eighth American printing, January 1979.

Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third printing, October 1968.)

Hodge, Charles; A Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, Reprinted 1980.

Martin, W.G.M.; “The Epistle to the Ephesians,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1953 (Reprinted October 1967.)

Simpson, E.K.; “Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1957 (Fifth printing, August 1970.)

Tenny, Merrill C.; New Testament Survey; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1961 (Eighth printing, February 1967.)