Ephesians: The Eternal Purpose of God

Ephesians: The Eternal Purpose of God—–A Brief Overview of The Epistle to the Ephesians

The Epistle to the Ephesians has been one of the most influential and earliest attested documents in the history of the Christian church.[1] Despite the letter’s early attestation, it is not among the indisputable writings of Paul.

Authorship & Recipients

Within the last few hundred years there have been a growing number of scholars that contend that the letter was written pseudonymously from a later follower of Paul because of its striking similarity to Colossians and its dissimilarity to other letters of the apostle.

Andrew T. Lincoln is convinced that the terminology used in Ephesians is unlike anything in the Pauline corpus.  He also argues that the theology contained in the epistle is far more developed than in previous letters.  Lincoln finds the letter impersonal “having no intimate connection” with the intended audience.[2]

Is it possible that readers have been a bit hasty in their decision to credit Ephesians to a later admirer of Paul?  Can the student or scholar be so quick to overlook the claims the letter makes concerning authorship (1:1; 3:1)?

H.J. Cadbury asked: “Which is more likely—that an imitator of Paul in the first century composed a writing ninety or ninety-five per cent in accordance with Paul’s style or that Paul himself wrote a letter diverging five or ten per cent from his usual style?”[3] D.A. Carson mentions that the letter was viewed as Pauline by numerous apostolic fathers and it was not even questioned until the modern era.

Furthermore, writing under the name of someone else was not a wide practice within the early Christian church.[4] A closer examination of the epistle within the Pauline corpus, and an allowance for theological expansion upon earlier material, may enable the reader to accept Paul as the author and learn from his revelation.

The next matter of debate comes in the later part of the first verse:  “to the saints who are [in Ephesus] and the faithful in Christ Jesus.” Bruce Metzger writes that the words “in Ephesus” are absent from several important manuscripts.

Clinton Arnold believes there is still “strong manuscript support” for keeping the original reading.[5] It could be that the phrase “in Ephesus” was omitted in later manuscripts in order to universalize the letter and pass its message along to other churches in need.  This is a reasonable explanation.

The absence of “in Ephesus” has led many scholars to conclude that the letter was definitely intended to be circulated.[6] Scholars have weighed in on this problem and offered several other solutions. Conservative scholarship believes that the author intended the letter to be circulated among the churches in the city of Ephesus, a city with a first-century population of one-quarter million, and possibly in the entire west coast region of Asia Minor.[7]

Historical Setting and Purpose

The ancient city of Ephesus was first excavated in 1863.[8] The partially reconstructed ruins are some of the largest and most visited of all ancient cities. Today the city is located a few miles inland from the Aegean Sea along the west coast of Turkey.

In the first-century, Ephesus was a metropolitan port city with a thriving harbor. Like the city of Corinth, Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, was filled with temples and theaters. The temple to Artemis, the Greek god of fertility and hunting, was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens. In Acts 19, Paul’s preaching conflicted with the religious practices that existed in Ephesus.[9]

Many scholars struggle to see any specific Sitz im Leben (setting in life) addressed in Ephesus. In fact, the epistle does not reflect the standard Pauline address directed to saints in a particular location. Ben Witherington writes: “Ephesians is a circular homily included in a document… it does not deal with any particular problems… this document should not be compared to letters, as it really is not one.”[10]

It is likewise acknowledged by other scholars that the epistle is styled much differently from the rest of the Pauline corpus, however, there is not sufficient evidence to remove the writing from the realm of letter (e.g. 4:17-6:9).

What can be known? What is the occasion and purpose for the epistle?

In the letter we learn that Paul is writing from prison (3:1; 4:1). Scholars insist that this places the epistle during the time of his house arrest in Rome toward the end of his life in the early 60’s. This would certainly allow for a theological development—a grand view of the eternal purpose—set forth in the letter.

Paul preached among the Ephesians and remained with them for some time (Acts 19:8, 10; 20:31). His love and affection for them can be seen in his farewell address (Acts 20:17-38). Scholars that doubt Pauline authorship find the letter lacking in emotion and thus affirming their suspicions. However, the argument for a letter lacking in emotion is contestable (1:15-16; 3:14-21).

Overview of Epistle

A simple reading of the epistle reveals that Paul is addressing a predominantly Gentile audience (2:11-22). It could be that the church has grown significantly since Paul’s last visit, for there seems to be some distance between them (3:1-6). His message to his audience is that the “mystery” hidden in Christ has now been disclosed to all saints, to bring all things in the cosmos under the headship of Christ Jesus (1:9-10), and to form one new humanity from Jew and Gentile (2:14-16; 3:5-6). Flowing from the glorious revelation of the “eternal purpose” of God in Christ (3:7-13), comes a “unity of the Spirit” in the building up of believers through the church—the dwelling of God (4:1-16). For the wisdom of God to be made known, the saints are called to live intentionally (i.e. put off/put on) as “children of the light” (4:17-5:21). This life “in Christ” permeates all relationships (5:22-6:9). Therefore, the saints must “stand firm” and be on guard against spiritual evil that works against God’s eternal purpose in Christ (6:10-18).

It has been said that Paul presents a cosmic Christ, a realized eschatology, and an advanced ecclesiology in this magnificent Epistle to the Ephesians.[11] As Paul pours out his divine revelation after years of service as Christ’s bond-slave, listen and be moved to join the triumphant Lord and his bride whom he has seated in the heavenlies.

The following overview of Ephesians may help you to capture the flow of the epistle before or as you read it:

1:1-2 Greetings—salutation to saints in Ephesus

1:3-3:21 God’s Eternal Purpose in Christ

1:3-14   Prayer of praise and thanksgiving—inclusion into promised Holy Spirit and guaranteed inheritance.

1:15-23   Continued prayer of thanksgiving and supplication—full knowledge of the hope and glorious riches in Christ.

2:1-10   God’s mercy and kindness in Christ—created to walk in goodness as a proper response to grace.

2:11-19   Remembrance of exclusion from promise—now included in Christ as a new creation.

2:19-23   New creation is set in motion by Christ, apostles, and prophets; manifested through the dwelling of God together with the saints.

3:1-13   Paul called to Gentiles—mystery of Christ made known through apostles and prophets—Gentiles are included in the mystery and the promise.

3:14-21   Paul’s ecumenical prayer for the experience of Christ’s riches with encouragement to discover love over knowledge (gnosis).

4:1-6:20  Living in Christ

4:1-16   Knowing the eternal purpose calls for living worthy of it—unity in the Spirit—obtain a full knowledge of Christ through the building up of the body—corporately grow up into Christ.

4:17-6:9  Living intentionally in Christ

4:17-5:2   put off former conduct of the flesh—put on Christ.

5:3-14      call to purity—be on guard.

5:15-6:9    live not as unwise, but as the wise—relationships.

6:10-20    Stand firm against spiritual warfare—put on the armor of God.

6:21-24  Final Comments—Tychicus sent to encourage saints

Conclusion–Applying the Text

If you have followed this brief overview of Ephesians, I think you should be able to see the aged apostle Paul used up for Christ in Rome.  The gospel has reached the heart of the empire, and the story that began ages ago has been fulfilled in Jesus.  Paul had previously described an astounding revelation of the cosmic Christ in his Letter to the Colossians.  He was so fond and familiar with his language to those saints—even having hidden it away in his heart—that it spills over into his Epistle to the Ephesians.

As Paul grew older, his vision of Christ matured.  This seasoned revelation is evident in his presentation of the “mystery” of God in Christ, which is the central message to the saints in Ephesus and all those who have believed on the Lord Jesus (Eph. 1:9-12).

The eternal purpose of God in Christ is that through the church God’s glorious grace might be known in all the earth; that all things would be gathered up into Christ.

The lack of historical and cultural issues in this epistle makes application fairly easy.  For the message is transferred to the reader with little to stumble over.

The God who existed before time, placed man in the Garden, traveling through the wilderness to Canaan, and sent the Son up a hill to Calvary, has been vindicated by the resurrection of Jesus.  He has revealed his eternal purpose in Christ.

Out of Adam… God brought forth Eve.  Out of Jesus… he called out a Bride.  The Trinitarian God, who is heavenly community, looks for a dwelling in his children upon the earth.  By the power of his Spirit and the fullness of his grace we are included in his plan.

Are you participating in the eternal purpose of God in Christ?

The overwhelming glory of God invites us to join him in the building of a spiritual house.


[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 1-2.

[2] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians. Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), lix-lxi.

[3] H.J. Cadbury, “The Dilemma of Ephesians,” NTS 5 (1958-59): 101.

[4] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 480.

[5] Clinton E. Arnold, “Letter to the Ephesians.” The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament. ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 324.

[6] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 532.

[7] Clinton E. Arnold, “Introducing Ephesians: Establishing Believers In Christ.” SWJT 39, no. 1 (September 1, 1996): 9.

[8] Hoehner, Ephesians, 79.

[9] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 499-500.

[10] Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 217-218.  [Witherington says: “The profound theological and ethical reflections found in Ephesians would have sounded more like  a philosophical oration to Gentile ears.” p. 219]

[11] Charles B. Cousar, The Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 174-175.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 15 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

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