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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

Ephesians Overview







THE Epistle itself, according to the great mass of authorities, names Ephesus (chap. Ephesians 1:1) as its original destination, and the letter has been called ‘The Epistle to the Ephesians’ since the middle of the second century. Comp. Tertullian (contra Marcion, 5, 11.)

But the testimony of Tertullian shows that Marcion designated this writing of Paul, ‘The Epistle to the Laodiceans.’ Furthermore, external diplomatic and historical evidence shows that as early as the time of Basil the Great (died 370) copies existed without the words ‘in Ephesus’ in the address (chap Ephesians 1:1); the only copies of that date (א, B.) which we possess, originally omitting the phrase which later correctors have inserted, (Another manuscript of the twelfth century shows the same omission, but as a later correction.) It should be remembered that Basil did not deny the Ephesian destination, nor do any of the Fathers. In recent times, however, it has been urged that it was scarcely possible for Paul to write to a church where he was so well known and so greatly beloved, without sending personal greetings, of which this Epistle contains none whatever. These phenomena have occasioned four theories respecting the destination of the Epistle.

(1.) The very improbable view has been suggested that chap. Ephesians 1:1, was without any local designation, because the letter was not addressed to any one church or circle of churches. The Greek phrase, without any local qualification, gives a very harsh and unusual sense. Moreover, this view fails to assign any reason for the most obvious fact in connection with the Epistle, namely, that ‘in Ephesus’ occurs almost universally in the early authorities for the Greek text.

(2.) There is some plausibility in the view that this Epistle was originally addressed ‘to the Laodiceans.’ Marcion’s opinion (see above) is not of great weight, yet the apparent corroboration found in the reference to an Epistle to Laodicea (in Colossians 4:16), has led many to adopt it. The view has probably gained supporters from the unwillingness to believe that a letter written by the Apostle has been lost (see on Colossians 4:16.). But since the Epistle to the Colossians and this one were written at the same time (see § 2), this view involves the strange inconsistency, that in the letter to the Laodiceans there are no greetings to that city, while in that to Colossae, written at the same time, we find not only references to Laodicea (Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:16), but personal messages to that place (Colossians 4:15). A modification of this view regards the Epistle as designed alike for the churches at Ephesus and Laodicea; and hence as originally existing with a blank space for the address. Others (Lewin, Life and Epistles of St. Paul) combine the Laodicean destination with the design for wider circulation (see below).

(3.) The opinion that the letter was addressed to Ephesus alone is open to very few objections. The absence of personal greetings may be readily accounted for. The theme of the Epistle is a universal one; the bearer, Tychicus (chap. Ephesians 6:21-22), was probably intrusted with such messages. Moreover, the very fact that Paul was so well known at Ephesus would call for so many personal greetings as to exceed the limits of an ordinary letter. It may also be remarked that in the Epistles addressed to those churches which he had not yet visited (Romans, Colossians), there are most personal references, and in every case where his relations were most intimate there are few or none (comp. the close of the various Pauline Epistles). Meyer, who thinks the Epistle was written at Cæsarea (see § 2), and addressed to Ephesus, thinks that Paul might have special motives of prudence for his silence. He would guard his friends at Ephesus from the hostility of the Jews or from the avarice of Felix. This is purely conjectural, and rests on an improbable view of the time and place of writing.

(4.) The view which is now most generally held regards the Epistle as intended for a circle of churches about Ephesus, as well as for that city. The omission of the phrase ‘in Ephesus’ is due to the influence of very early copies in the possession of other churches, while the importance of Ephesus naturally gave to the Epistle its present title, and to most copies this local designation in chap. Ephesians 1:1. Most of those who accept this view admit the general correctness of the title, ‘To the Ephesians;’ some holding that, while addressed to Ephesus, it was put into such a form as would admit of this wider circulation. This view covers all the facts of the case, but has no positive evidence to support it. It must be added that the Epistle bears no distinctive marks of such an encyclical character. The growing favor accorded to this view is probably due to the discovery of N, which omits the phrase ‘in Ephesus.’

We are safe in affirming that the Epistle was designed for the church at Ephesus, whatever wider circulation was intended by the Apostle.

The Ephesian church had been virtually founded by Paul himself. Near the close of his second missionary journey, A. D. 54 (Acts 18:19-21), he came from Corinth to Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla; leaving these two there, he went to Jerusalem. They were joined by Apollos during his absence (Acts 18:24-28). During Paul’s third journey, he returned to Ephesus, remaining there three years (A. D. 54-57). The Epistle to the Galatians was probably written near the close of this visit to Ephesus. The success and conflicts of his ministry are narrated in Acts 19, his great influence being indicated by the effect produced upon the trade in silver shrines of Diana. The silversmiths found their profits interfered with, and instigated a riot which drove Paul from the city. This fact indicates further that the church was composed mainly of Gentiles. The affection subsisting between Paul and this congregation is shown in the touching interview between him and the elders who came from Ephesus to meet him at Miletus (Acts 20:17-38).

The city of Ephesus was in the first century the capital of the Roman province of Asia. It stood on the south of a plain about five miles long from east to west, and three miles broad, with mountains on three sides, and the Icarian sea on the west. It was very early brought into intimate relations with Greece, being on the same parallel of latitude with Athens. Famous for its trade, art, and science, it was even more celebrated for the presence of the temple of Diana, reckoned one of the seven wonders of the world. This was a building of the Ionic order of architecture, which had been burnt by Herostratus, to gain immortality for himself, on the night of the birth of Alexander the Great (B.C. 355), but rebuilt in the course of centuries at great cost. Contributions to its restoration were made through all Greece and western Asia. This temple was of immense size (425 feet long and 220 feet broad), and built of the purest marble. It contained wonderful treasures of sculpture and painting. In the centre of the court was a rude image of the goddess, believed by the superstitious to have fallen from heaven. There were other buildings of great size, notably the theatre (Acts 19:29), the largest ever built by the Greeks. The city is now a complete desolation; a miserable Turkish village called Ayasalouk (in remembrance of St. John) alone remains. Our knowledge of the city has, however, been greatly increased through the labors of Mr. J. T. Wood, who spent eleven years (1863 to 1874) in exploring the ruins. Some find in our Epistle an allusion to the temple of Diana (chap. Ephesians 3:20-21), but this is unlikely.

Clearly, however, this was a point admirably adapted as a centre for evangelical influence. That Paul should labor there was natural; that he should write to the church there is exceedingly probable. (The labors of Timothy, and of the Apostle John in Ephesus, cannot be touched upon here.)

§ 2. Time and Place of Composition.

Two points are indisputable: (1.) The Epistles to the Ephesians, to the Colossians, and to Philemon, were written and sent at the same time; (2.) Paul was a prisoner when he wrote them. In Colossians (Ephesians 4:10-14) we find the same persons sending greetings as in Philemon (Ephesians 4:23-24); and the two larger Epistles were sent by the same messenger with the same commission (Ephesians 6:21-22; Colossians 4:7-9). The great similarity of these two Epistles furnishes corroborative evidence, if any were needed. All three Epistles indicate that the writer was in prison (see chap. Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 4:1; Ephesians 6:20; Colossians 4:10; Colossians 4:18; Philippians 1:9-10; Philippians 1:13). There is nothing whatever to warrant so late a date as the time of the second Roman imprisonment, hence we must decide between the confinement at Caesarea (Acts 23:33 to Acts 26:32) A. D. 58-60, and the imprisonment at Rome (Acts 28:30-31, A. D. 61-63). The general belief has been in favor of the later place and date (comp. the subscription in the E. V.). The number of companions referred to, the comparative freedom in preaching the gospel, the fully developed doctrinal tone of the Epistles themselves (see below, § 4), all accord better with this hypothesis.

On the other hand, Meyer, in common with several modern German scholars, defends the earlier date. It is argued (a) that Onesimus, a fugitive slave from Colossae (see Philemon; comp. Colossians 4:9), would have been more likely to go to Caesarea than to Rome; (b) that messengers from Rome would arrive at Ephesus before reaching Colossae, whereas the silence respecting Onesimus in the Epistle to Ephesus indicates that Tychicus had already left Onesimus at Colossae, which might be expected if they had started from Caesarea; (c) that Ephesians 6:21 points to other persons whom Tychicus would have seen before delivering the Epistle at Ephesus; (d) Philemon 1:22 points to an anticipation of a speedy journey to Colossae, whereas Philippians 2:24 indicates that in Rome Paul expected to visit Macedonia after his release. These arguments are sufficient to render the case doubtful, but they are not conclusive. Fugitive slaves usually find greater safety in large places; the silence respecting Onesimus in writing to a church where he was not known proves nothing; Ephesians 6:21 (see notes there) does not necessarily imply that Tychicus had visited others, and those who suppose that Paul could not have entertained the purpose of visiting both Macedonia and Phrygia in a journey from Rome, forget entirely his habits as an Apostle.

It is safer, therefore, to fix upon Rome as the place where this group of Epistles was written; the earlier period of the Roman imprisonment, before it assumed a very rigorous character, the more probable date (about A. D. 62). That the Epistle to the Philippians was written afterwards is the common opinion, and, notwithstanding the able discussion of Bishop Lightfoot (Philippians), seems as yet more probable.(1)

The resemblance to the Epistle to the Colossians is very great. There are at least thirty passages of some length which may be regarded as parallel. But there are also marked differences (see §§ 3, 4) quite sufficient to disprove the theory which makes our Epistle only a wordy expansion of that to the Colossians (see § 5). The question whether this Epistle or that to the Colossians was written first has occasioned some discussion. In the latter Timothy is mentioned (Colossians 1:1), in the former not, although he was probably well known there. From this fact some argue the priority of the one, and others that of the other. The internal phenomena are as inconclusive. It is argued, on the one hand, that the universal thought respecting the church of Christ, found in the Epistle to the Ephesians, would naturally come first; and that the same theme would be given a more practical turn, as an after-thought in writing the Epistle to the Colossians. But Alford, among others, argues the other way: ‘both Epistles sprung out of one inspiration, one frame of mind; that to the Colossians first, as the task to be done, the protest delivered, the caution given; that to the Ephesians, begotten by the other, but surpassing it, carried on in some parts simultaneously, or immediately consequent.’ Certainty is impossible; but many find it easier to believe that the more lofty Epistle came first, and the more polemic one second, even as the transfiguration on the mount preceded the conflict at its foot. The theme of the Epistle is such that it is unnecessary to seek for any special occasion or purpose.

§ 3. Theme and Contents.

The fundamental thought of the Epistle undoubtedly is: ‘the Church which is in Christ Jesus.’ It treats of Christ and His mystical body. ‘The Church of Christ has its root in eternity, in God’s fatherly heart, with its thoughts of peace toward a wicked, yet beloved world, and lifts its head into eternity again by the throne of God, ramifying into all the institutions given in creation, even the most special, through all the centuries of developing history, and all this in Christ’ (Braune). The Epistle has, here and there, a Trinitarian division, and also refers constantly to the universalism of the gospel, the calling of the Gentiles into fellowship with God’s covenant people. But the latter thought is not extensive enough to be the theme, and the former scarcely furnishes the basis for the logical plan of the Epistle. In fact the Epistle eludes exhaustive analysis. The same thought, the same movements of thought in fact, recur, like the strain which forms the theme of some musical composition. In the earlier part of the Epistle, three great facts are combined in various ways: God in the economy of redemption, Father, Son, and Spirit; Christ and His Church, lifted out of spiritual death into fellowship with Him; Jew and Gentile made one in this new fellowship in Christ, to the praise of God. The entire thought might be thus expressed: The Church of Christ Jesus, in which Gentile and Jew are made one, is a creation of the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Ghost, decreed from eternity, destined for eternity.

The Epistle naturally falls into two parts:—

I. Chaps. I.-III. THE DOCTRINAL PART (having as its theme, chap. Ephesians 1:22-23). The Church is chosen, redeemed, and united in Christ.

II. Chaps. IV.-VI. THE HORTATORY (OR PRACTICAL) PART (having as its theme, chap. Ephesians 4:1). Therefore let the Church walk in unity, in love, in newness of life, as respects personal and relative duties, in the strength of the Lord, and in the armor of God. Even in this part of the Epistle the great thoughts of the previous portion appear again (notably in chap. Ephesians 4:4-16).

§ 4. Character of the Epistle.

In many respects this may be regarded as the most profound of all the Pauline Epistles. Coleridge calls it, ‘the divinest composition of man;’ Luther reckons it among ‘the best and noblest books of the New Testament;’ Bishop Ellicott speaks for all thoughtful and believing commentators when he alludes to the first chapter as presenting difficulties’ ‘so great and so deep that the most exact language and the most discriminating analysis seem, as they truly are, too poor and too weak to convey the force or connection of expressions so august, and thoughts so unspeakably profound’ (Ephesians, Preface).

It is the greatness of the Epistle which makes it so difficult; the thought seems to struggle with the words, which seem insufficient to convey the transcendent idea.

Hence it is that a certain class of writers, including so accomplished a scholar as De Wette, and so brilliant a litterateur as Renan, find the Epistle verbose, and doubt its Pauline origin. ‘As the wonderful effect of the Spirit of inspiration on the mind of man is nowhere in Scripture more evident than in this Epistle, so, to discern these things of the Spirit, is the spiritual mind here more than anywhere required’ (Alford). Hence dogmatic and rationalistic prejudice alike unfit men for appreciating, to any great extent, the wonderful exaltation of this Epistle.

In its language the Epistle abounds in unusual expressions, but the character of the thought, already indicated, will readily account for this. The style is exceedingly complicated; the combinations of genitival phrases remarkable; the involution clauses such as to ‘try the powers and principles of grammatical and logical analysis to the very uttermost’ (Ellicott). ‘The first chapter has, so to speak, a liturgical, psalmodic character, being, as it were, a glowing song in praise of the transcendent riches of the grace of God in Christ, and the glory of the Christian calling(Schaff). The absence of personal and historical references has already been remarked upon (§ 1), and there is no allusion whatever to false doctrine or false teachers; there is no reminder whatever of those sharp conflicts which called forth the Epistles to the Galatians and Corinthians; nor any trace of the hearty personal affectionateness which appears everywhere in the Epistle to the Philippians. Notwithstanding the close resemblance to the Colossian Epistle, there is a marked difference in tone; in fact, the theme is modified in the latter Epistle. Here Christ, the Head over all things, is presented as Head of the Church; there Christ is presented as Head over all things, and that, too, in antagonism to local errors. This is the ideal treatment; that the practical.

It is significant that this most churchly Epistle has little to tell us regarding orders, polity, ritual, and discipline. These things are not brought into prominence, but rather dwarfed, by the mighty thoughts of Christ and His mystical body which filled the Apostle’s mind. The ideal here presented, instead of encouraging the narrowness of ecclesiasticism (of any form), should humble all Christians, by revealing to them how far all earthly organizations fall below this conception of the Church. Such humility will be the best preparation for the coming in of that ‘Church of the future’ which the Apostle sketches in chap. Ephesians 4:13-16.

§ 5. The Genuineness of the Epistle.

The APOSTLE PAUL is named as the author in the Epistle itself (chaps. Ephesians 1:1; Ephesians 2:2), and some well-known facts in his life are referred to; and this not incidentally, but as essential parts of the treatment. The character of the Epistle, as to both matter and form, agrees with the claim it makes. The peculiarities in language and style which distinguish it from the earlier Epistles, can readily be accounted for. The mention of Tychicus (the only other personal reference; chap. Ephesians 6:21), accords with what is known from other sources respecting this companion of the Apostle (comp. Acts 20:4; Colossians 4:7-8; 2 Timothy 4:12; Titus 3:12).

The testimony of the ancient church points clearly to the Pauline authorship. While too much importance should not be attached to the supposed allusions to this Epistle in the writings of Ignatius and Polycarp, it may be fairly claimed that the latter, in one passage at least, indicates an acquaintance with this Epistle. From the date of the Canon Muratori down to the beginning of the present century, no doubts were expressed in regard to its Pauline origin.

Schleiermacher seems to have been the first to suggest that this Epistle was written by an attendant of Paul under his direction. De Wette formally denied the Pauline authorship, attributing the letter to a gifted disciple of the Apostle. Others, with various modifications, have presented the same view. There is no positive evidence to sustain this opinion. Against it is the fact that no one can be found in that age competent to write such an Epistle, if it has the character usually accorded to it. On the other hand, if the Epistle were what the defenders of this opinion claim it to be: ‘a wordy expansion of the Epistle to the Colossians’ (De Wette), ‘filled with useless words and repetitions’ (Renan), then it is impossible to account for its obtaining universal and early acceptance. The main argument relied upon to oppose the genuineness of the Epistle is based upon certain peculiarities of language and style, which, it is claimed, are not those of the Apostle Paul. These, according to this claim, existed in a successful forgery. But forgery, to be successful, seeks to avoid such unlikenesses. The whole argument is, therefore, self-contradictory, and such arguments from the use of single words have always been precarious.(1)

Baur of Tübingen and his followers regarded the letter as a Montanist or Gnostic production. But a fair exegesis fails to discover traces of these heresies, which arose after this Epistle was written, and which stand in antagonism to its leading thought. Moreover, Baur’s view implies that both this Epistle and that to the Colossians are forgeries. If both were forged by one person, the argument against the genuineness drawn from similarity falls to the ground. For if it be admitted that a forger could repeat himself, it is useless to deny that Paul could. If two persons forged the two Epistles respectively, then the resemblance cannot be accounted for.

Every view which denies the Pauline authorship may be traced to ‘subjective criticism,’ and Bishop Ellicott’s language remains true: ‘the objections have been so fairly and fully confuted that they can no longer be considered to deserve any serious attention.’


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on Ephesians:4 Overview". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". 1879-90.

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