Imagine a magnificent Mediterranean metropolis and a populous destination known as the Queen City of Asia, located on the west coast of modern Turkey. Picture the cultural heartland of ancient Greece two thousand years ago and a thriving seaport with a robust religious vibe, where people gathered at a pagan temple, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Fancy a library where students from a famous school of philosophy studied. Then, visualize a zealous missionary of the Lord Jesus Christ arriving and instructing the inhabitants of the city to stop worshipping manmade gods (Acts 19).
“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” the rioters shouted when Demetrius, “a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis” (Acts 19:28)[i], told them how the Apostle Paul had disturbed their commercial business in no small way. Paul wanted to address the Ephesians who had gathered in the local theater, which held twenty-five thousand people. However, for his own safety, Paul laid low and departed for Macedonia after the riot quieted down. Later, he delivered his message by letter, which is called “The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians,” and is our next stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible.[ii]
Paul made his way to Miletus, where he called for the Ephesian elders to visit him (Acts 20:17-38). After a tearful goodbye, the apostle left for Jerusalem, “constrained by the Spirit,” knowing that he would suffer much. Loyal Jews in the Holy City stirred up the crowd against Paul and had him arrested. Again, for Paul’s safety, and because he appealed to Caesar, they took him to Rome, where he remained under house arrest for two years.
In 1:3, Paul writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” This verse contains a summary appraisal of our spiritual wealth in Christ by telling us what we inherited (“spiritual blessings”), where it is located (“in the heavenly realms”), who gave it (“the Father”), and why it was given to us (“praise be to God”). In so many words, Paul wrote this epistle to tell the Ephesians believers and us, “You are worth a fortune in Christ!” However, the Ephesians were ignorant of their wealth and lived like spiritual paupers.
The Ephesians, like many Christians today, remind me of people on the popular reality television program called Antiques Roadshow, where world-class experts appraise family heirlooms, flea market finds, antiques, and other collectibles. Is it trash or treasure? The look of surprise on some people’s faces is priceless when they discover they own a real treasure, the kind that might make their retirement years more golden.
Followers of Jesus should not be surprised to learn we are spiritually rich. Being “in Christ”—a phrase Paul uses many times in Ephesians—is the key to unlocking the value of our heavenly inheritance. "In Christ" means more than just being saved from sin’s penalty; it suggests living in personal and vital union with Jesus, as a branch is to a vine (John 15:1-17), as a man and woman are in marriage (Eph. 5:22-23; Gen. 2:24), as a head connects to other members of a body in a single organism (1 Cor. 12:12-27). All the spiritual wealth we possess is because we are in Christ. The fact that our blessings also exist in the “heavenly realms” reminds us that the most valuable things in life are unseen.[iii]
In the Greek language, 1:3-14 is a continuous, unbroken sentence. Paul gets so excited about our spiritual blessings in Christ that he barely takes a breath. He groups his thoughts into a Trinitarian flow, which we could express this way: The wealth of the Father is yours (1:3-6), the riches of the Son are yours (1:7-12), and the blessings of the Spirit are yours (1:13-14). In Christ, believers are chosen, holy, blameless, predestined, adopted, beloved, redeemed, and forgiven. But the good news does not end there. God’s children also possess a divine inheritance, and the Holy Spirit guarantees our salvation with His seal.
By Grace Through Faith
Paul begins chapter 2 by diagnosing our human condition.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 2:1-3
Before Christ made us alive in Him by faith, we were spiritually dead, decaying rapidly, and living like spiritual zombies—the walking dead! As Wiersbe says, “This means that our world is one vast graveyard, filled with people who are dead while alive." Furthermore, we were on the wrong course, under the wrong control, engaged in wrong conduct, and “children of wrath.” Is there any hope for humankind? The words “but God” transition Paul’s thoughts.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 2:4-7
Through His Son Jesus Christ, God makes all the difference. He made us alive, set us free, and exalted us to a high position. Why did He do this wonderful thing? Because He loves us and is rich in mercy. Consider this: God has more mercy than all the millionaires and billionaires in the world have money.
Paul summarizes the gospel in 2:8-10. Salvation happens by God’s grace and through faith, “not a result of works” but “for good works.” Then, Paul describes how the gospel reconciles broken relationships (2:11-13), breaks down walls of hostility (2:14-18), and builds the household of God (2:19-22).
The Mystery of Christ and His Church
If you love a good mystery, you will love chapter 3 of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where the apostle introduces the mystery of Christ and His church. Paul says this mystery was “made known to me by revelation” (3:4). In the Bible, a mystery is something God once concealed but is now revealed. In 3:6, Paul defines what he describes as the “mystery of Christ,” by saying, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Paul considered it a sacred trust or “stewardship” to minister the gospel to the Gentiles, “according to the gift of God’s grace” (3:7). He preached “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8) to the Gentiles “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). In other words, the church of Jesus Christ is the custodian of God’s wisdom and is on full display before angels and demons. Think about it. Angels and demons are watching us do church, and they are either rejoicing or laughing at us.
Paul devotes the rest of chapter 3 to his second prayer for the Ephesians (3:14-21; see also 1:15-23). If you want to know how to pray for others, study Paul’s prayers for the churches he planted, which are not “now I lay me down to sleep” prayers. Rather, Paul prayed for the Ephesians, for example, “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (3:16) and “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (3:19). Paul’s benediction in 3:20-21 is about as optimistic and uplifting as a prayer gets.
In chapter 4, Paul transitions from doctrine to duty, from our position in Christ to our practice as believers in the body of Christ. The power of biblical community bursts forth. Eloquently, Paul writes, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6).
God's people are always better together than apart. That is why the church is still the best incubator for spiritual formation. With others in the body of Christ, we discover our purpose, fulfill our calling, use our spiritual gifts, and mature in our faith. There is nothing more powerful on planet earth than the unified church of Jesus Christ doing life and ministry together.
Paul gets practical by urging the Ephesians and us to “speak the truth in love (4:15), “no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds” (4:17-20), and to “put on the new self” (4:21-24). After a short course on honesty (4:25), anger management (4:26-27), and the importance of “doing honest work” (4:28), he says not to grieve the Holy Spirit (4:30). Paul ends the chapter with soothing words that make life together in Christ enjoyable. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (4:32).
Walk in Love and Light
The word “walk” appears seven times in the short letter Paul wrote to the Ephesians, each time suggesting that following Jesus is more than a Sunday stroll in the park. Make no mistake about it. The Christian life is a vigorous, purposeful, ambulatory movement toward a gospel and Jesus-centered life.
In Ephesians, unbelievers walk in step with the world, the devil, and the sinful passions of the flesh (2:1-3).Believers should walk in good works (2:10), worthy of our calling (4:1), and not like those who do not know God (4:17). In chapter 5, Paul instructs the Ephesians and us to walk in love (5:2) and walk as children of light (5:9). Finally, he says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil”(5:15-16). On the heels of Paul’s instruction about walking wisely, he urges, “Be filled with the Spirit” (5:19).[iv]
In 5:22-33, Paul instructs husbands and wives in the profound “mystery” called marriage, which “refers to Christ and the church.” That means your marriage is not primarily about you and your happiness; it is a gospel picture, which elevates the importance of your marriage thriving and the necessity of you and your spouse following God’s plan for marriage. Paul establishes the husband as “the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” He summarizes God’s plan for a dream marriage by saying, “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
Our new life in Christ transforms more than the marriage relationship. In chapter 6, Paul continues by instructing the relationships between parents and children (6:1-4) and slaves and masters (6:5-9).
Then, Paul turns his attention to the spiritual battles we face daily in the heavenly realms (6:10-20). Like bookends, Ephesians starts with spiritual wealth and ends with spiritual warfare.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 6:10-12
The battle in the invisible realm is real. The powers of darkness are fierce. But the weapons of our warfare are stronger. Therefore, believers must put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, and gospel shoes. We must pick up the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. We must also engage in warfare prayer. Are you dressed for spiritual battle? Are you winning the daily struggles you face against the world, the flesh, and the devil?
I wonder. If Paul had made his way to the theater in Ephesus and delivered this message to the rioters, would they have changed their shouts from “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” to “Great is Jesus, who is the Christ!”? I also wonder who you are shouting for today.
[i] Artemis was a Greek pagan god, known by the Romans as Diana.
[ii] Ephesians is one of four “prison epistles” Paul wrote during his first Roman imprisonment in A.D. 60-62. Others include Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Customarily, Paul lays out his doctrine (1-3) followed by the Christian’s duties and responsibilities (4-6).
[iii] Paul mentions the “heavenly realms” five times in his letter to the Ephesians (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12).
[iv] Similarly, in Galatians 5:16 Paul writes, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”