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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

- Ephesians

by Editor - Joseph Exell


TILL the days of De Wette, who was followed by Baur and Schwegler, Dr. Samuel Davidson, and some others, it was never doubted that the Epistle to the Ephesians was written by St. Paul. This had been all along the uniform tradition of the Church. The external evidence in his favor is about as strong as the ease admits of. The list of early writers who are believed to attest this includes Ignatius, Polycarp, Marcion, Valentinus, Irenaeus, Clemens Alexandrinus, Tertullian, and the author of the Muratorian Canon, and thereafter the Epistle is constantly included among the Pauline writings. It is not alleged that there is the faintest external evidence in favor of any other writer.

It is solely on internal grounds that the anti-Paulinists base their opinion.

1. Generally, it is alleged that the Epistle is a somewhat wordy repetition of that to the Colossians, and that so fresh and vigorous a mind as that of the apostle would not have been likely to repeat itself in such a way.

2. There are expressions that seem to show that the writer had never been at Ephesus; e.g. Ephesians 1:15, he has heard of the faith, etc., of the Ephesians; Ephesians 3:2, Ephesians 3:3, the Ephesians may have heard of the commission given him; Ephesians 4:21, "If so be ye have heard him." Such expressions seem to show uncertainty as to their position and knowledge.

3. There are no salutations to the members of the Church at Ephesus, as we should certainly have looked for, considering how long St. Paul was there (Acts 20:31).

4. The Church at Ephesus consisted of both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 19:8-10, Acts 19:17); but the Epistle is addressed wholly to Gentiles, and rests mainly on the fact that privileges of equal value had been brought to them by the instrumentality of the apostle.

5. Many things in style, sentiment, and aim are not Pauline.

The hypothesis as to the authorship which those who hold these views have adopted is that some worthy man, residing at Rome, wishing to do good to the Ephesians, or perhaps to a cluster of Churches of which that at Ephesus was one, wrote this Epistle, and, in order to obtain acceptance for it, issued it in the name of Paul; nor was this an absolute fabrication, for, as it consists to a large extent of the views of Paul as expressed in the Epistle to the Colossians, it really is in substance Pauline. People were not very critical in those days; they received it as genuine, and ever after it passed as such. The date at which it is supposed to have been written is various; De Wette assigns it to the apostolic age; Schwegler and Baur give it the same date as that of the fourth Gospel — the middle of the second century; but Davidson is compelled to place it between A.D. 70 and 80.
In this hypothesis, the error is committed, so common with critics of the new light, of removing one set of difficulties by creating much greater. The difficulties of the new view are both moral and intellectual. Morally, there is the very serious difficulty of giving, as author of the Epistle, the name of one who was not its author. The guilt of this is aggravated by the way in which the writer's claim to be listened to is set forth, "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God," and by the fact that all writings that were really apostolic carried to the Church supernatural authority. The real writer assumes Paul's name; he not only trifles with the apostle, but with the Divine authority which all true apostles enjoyed. Intellectually, the hypothesis has this difficulty — it maintains that Paul could not have been the author, yet that, from the very beginning, the Church accepted him as the author. The writer makes it plain that he was never at Ephesus, but the blind Ephesians received the letter as from Paul, who had been three years there. The style, the sentiment, the aim, are not Pauline, yet they were accepted as such. The writer was so careless that he did not take the trouble to avoid expressions that could not have been written by Paul; and the recipients were so stupid that, in spite of these things, they accepted it as his. An hypothesis so clumsy and hanging so ill together refutes itself.
The objections referred to, though attended with considerable difficulty, are not at all conclusive. The very principle of the DeWette hypothesis, that the Epistle was passed off and accepted as Pauline, may show that it cannot contain anything obviously un-Pauline, it is true that many topics are the same as those handled in Colossians; bat the matters peculiar to Ephesians are very remarkable (e.g. the statement of salvation by grace, Ephesians 2:0.; the prayer for the Ephesians, Ephesians 3:0.; the Christian panoply, Ephesians 6:0.). Every devout reader feels that the parts peculiar to the Ephesians contain some of the finest of the wheat; and though repetitions are not usual with the apostle, there is no reason why he, like any other letter-writer, should not have repeated to the Ephesians what he had written to another Church, if their circumstances required a similar communication.

The objections which we have marked 2, 3, 4, do certainly cause a feeling of surprise. We should certainly have expected the apostle to refer to his personal intercourse with the Ephesians, and to send salutations to some of them, especially the eiders he had met at Miletus; and we should not have expected the Epistle to be written so preponderatingly to Gentiles. But, in point of fact, in many of his Epistles the apostle sends no personal greetings; to do so was by no means his universal habit. Besides, as the Epistle was sent by Tychicus, a personal friend in whom he had great confidence, the greetings might be conveyed orally by him. We find, too, that in his Epistle to Philemon, who was one of his own converts, he uses that very expression, "hearing of thy faith and love," which in Ephesians is said to prove that the writer had never been at Ephesus. And as for the composition of the Ephesian Church, there are several incidents which show that, from the Jews, there came for the most part only bitter opposition (Acts 19:9, Acts 19:13, Acts 19:14; Acts 20:19); so that the great majority of the Church, which was a very numerous one, must have been Gentries. In fact, the shrine-makers for Diana would have had no cause for fear if it had not been for the multitude of pagans whom Paul was persuading to abandon the old religion. Moreover, in our everyday life, we are ever finding things that are mysterious to us when our information is imperfect, but that become plain and simple when some missing link of explanation is supplied. It is certain that the early Church did not see in the features of the Epistle now adverted to any reason for doubting that Paul was the author. As to the allegation that the style, tone, and sentiment are in many respects not Pauline, no weight is to be attached to it. To trace salvation to grace as its fountain; to magnify the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ; to proclaim the freedom of the new dispensation; to interlace doctrine and duty in the web of exhortation; to sound the military trumpet, as it were and stimulate his readers to intrepid action in the service of Christ; — what were more eminently Pauline objects than these? and where are they more characteristically promoted than in this very writing?

A conjecture has been adopted by some writers that this Epistle was not addressed to Ephesus only, but was a kind of circular letter, sent first to Ephesus, but afterwards to various neighboring Churches. On this hypothesis it has been held that an explanation may be given of those things which create a feeling of surprise. To this hypothesis we shall have to advert further on.
The Epistle bears throughout to have been written by Paul, and, as he speaks in several places in the character of "a prisoner of the Lord," it appears that he was a captive at the time. There were two places where he suffered captivity — Caesarea and Rome. The reference to Tychicus, the bearer of the letter for the Colossians as well as of this one for the Ephesians, and other allusions, make it probable that he was at Rome when he wrote this letter. It is usually thought that the Epistle to the Ephesians was written shortly after that to the Colossians, while both were dispatched together, and that their date is A.D. 62. No one could have inferred from the tone of the letters that at the time the writer was confined in bonds. Anything more bright, cheerful, and even exulting than the tone of the letter to the Ephesians can hardly be conceived. No doubt some critics would say that this showed that the letter could not have been written in such circumstances. But negative critics are never more at sea than in estimating spiritual forces. The triumphant tone of the letter is no proof that the writer was not in prison, but it is a signal proof that his Master had kept his word to him, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world."


The words of the first verse (as it is in our text), ἐν Εφεìσῳ, sufficiently show the destination of the Epistle; but the authenticity of these words has been disputed. Basil the Great received the Epistle as addressed to the Ephesians, but quoted and commented on ver. 1 so as to show that ἐν Εφεìσῳ was not in the manuscripts he used, at least not in those of early date. In the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus the words are written by a later hand. Marcion appears to have called it Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans, and quoted Ephesians 4:5, Ephesians 4:6 as from that Epistle. But the liberties taken by Marcion with the canon and canonical books show that but little weight is to be attached to him. Undoubtedly a difference was introduced in the manuscripts at an early date. It is not easy to decide whether the words were omitted in some manuscripts from the original text, or whether they were inserted in other manuscripts where the text had them not.

By some it has been thought that the Epistle was originally addressed to the Laodiceans, and that it is therefore the writing referred to in Colossians 4:16. Bleek favors this view, while he holds that the letter may have been an open one, intended for Laodicea in the first instance, but for other places near Laodicea that were even less known to the apostle personally. In opposition to this view, it is to be remarked that in no manuscript are the words ἐν Λαοκιδειìᾳ to be found in place of ἐν Εφεìσῳ and, moreover, the letter referred to in Colossians is not a letter to the Laodiceans, but an Epistle from Laodicea. What that Epistle was is unknown, and can be only matter of conjecture.

Another supposition, as we have already said, is, that while this letter was addressed to the Ephesians in the first instance, it was not meant for them alone. It is supposed that there were other Churches in much the same condition as that of Ephesus, and that the Epistle was intended as an encyclical letter, to go the round of them all. This might in some degree account for the absence of familiar salutations, and for other features that might have reasonably been looked for in a letter to the Ephesians. On the other hand, and in opposition to this hypothesis, there is nothing to indicate that the letter was meant for a variety of Churches. There is throughout an assumption of the unity of the Church, the letter is addressed apparently to one set of people, whose spiritual history had been marked by the same features.
To get over the difficulty arising from the absence of all personal references, and other difficulties, some have thought that Ephesus was not included among the places to which the letter was addressed; but fresh difficulties arise with this supposition: it makes it impossible to account for the words ἐν Εφεìσῳ occurring so generally, and for the universal tradition that the letter was addressed to that Church. Nor is it easy to conceive that Paul should write to a circle of Churches adjacent to the city where he spent three years, and say nothing to the Christians in that city.

On the whole, taking both external and internal evidence into account, there seems to be no reason for giving up the traditional view that the Epistle was addressed to the Ephesians. It is not a question that admits of demonstration, but the difficulties attending this view are less than those attending any other. Even if it were a perfectly open question, if Ephesus were not now in possession, we should say that it had the best claim; certainly nothing has been advanced to show that that claim ought to be surrendered in favor of any other.


Ephesus was an important city, situated at the mouth of the river Cayster, near the middle of the western coast of the peninsula of Asia Minor. The term "Asia," however, was in those times confined to the Roman province in the west of the peninsula, of which Ephesus had become the capital nearly two hundred years before it was visited by Paul. Its inhabitants were half Greek, half Asiatic, and their religion and superstitions were a compound of the East and the West. Diana, or Artemis, a goddess of the West, was the chief object of worship; but the style of her worship had in it much of Oriental mystery and munificence. The temple of Diana was renowned as one of the seven wonders of the world. It had been two hundred and twenty years building; its roof was supported by one hundred and twenty-six columns, each sixty feet high, the gifts of as many kings. The imago of Diana, said to have fallen from heaven, was of wood, forming a striking contrast to the magnificence around. Ephesus was notorious for its luxury and licentiousness. Sorcery or magic, an importation from the West, was exceedingly common. The Εφεìσια γραìμματα were a celebrated charon, which continued to be used more or less till the sixth century, A.D. Ephesus was a great and busy center of commerce; "it was the highway into Asia from Rome; its ships traded with the ports of Greece, Egypt, and the Levant; and the Ionian cities poured their inquisitive population into it at its great annual festival in honor of Diana." It is known from Josephus that Jews were established there in considerable numbers; it is the only place where we read of disciples of John the Baptist being found, and retaining that designation; while the case of Apollos coming to it from Alexandria, and that of Aquila and Priscilla from Rome and Corinth, show that it held ready intercourse with the rest of the world.

The apostle paid his first visit to Ephesus in his second mission tour (Acts 18:19-21), but it was very short; in his third tour he returned and remained two years and three months. The unusual length of time spent by him in the city shows the importance he attached to the place and the measure of encouragement he received. His labors were very assiduous, for he visited "from house to house," and "ceased not to warn every one of them day and night with tears" (Acts 20:20, Acts 20:31). The opposition he met with was correspondingly great. He writes to the Corinthians that he had fought with beasts at Ephesus, and the tumult that occurred at the instigation of the silversmiths connected with the temple of Diana, where he was assailed ever so long with brute force and insensate yelling, justified the expression. At first, the opposition was chiefly from the Jews; latterly from the pagans too. On his last recorded journey to Jerusalem he sailed by Ephesus, and summoned the elders of the Church to meet him at Miletus, where he delivered a solemn charge to them to continue their work with fidelity and diligence. He labored under a great dread of unfaithful teachers arising from among them, and heartless plunderers falling on them from without, that for selfish ends would make havoc of the Church. The anxiety which the apostle had about the Ephesian Church seems to have led him to place Timothy in a peculiar relation to it. There is no mention of Timothy having been ordained to any special office at Ephesus, but he is called to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Timothy 4:5). The apostle speaks of him more as his assistant and personal friend than as sustaining an independent and permanent office in the Church (1 Timothy 1:3, 1 Timothy 1:18; 1 Timothy 3:14, 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 4:9, 2 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 4:21). It has always been the tradition of the Church that the Apostle John spent the last part of his life at Ephesus, although very recently this has been questioned by Keim, who holds that the John who labored at Ephesus was not the apostle, but another John. This view, however, has obtained little support.

At Ephesus, Paul was helped by Aquila and Priscilla, and by Apollos, and he likewise enjoyed a special manifestation of supernatural power, for many miracles were wrought by him. The first scene of his preaching labors was the synagogue; but his reception there was so unfavorable that he had to leave it, and then he reasoned daily in the school of one Tyrannus. His success among the Gentiles was much greater than among the Jews. The power of the Word of God was so great that it even subdued those who had become rich by lucrative sin. The power given to Paul to cast out evil spirits was so manifestly above any that they possessed, that many exorcists and persons who practiced magical arts became converts to Christ, and gave proof of their sincerity by braining their books and abandoning forever a business which may have enriched them for this world, but would have ruined their souls.

The sovereignty of Divine grace was shown in the wide difference between the conduct of the believers and that of the men who feared that the gospel was going to dry up the sources of their wealth, and raised the tumult that led to the expulsion of the apostle. Those who were led by a Divine hand surrendered everything for Christ; those who followed the impulse of their own hearts would have crucified the Son of God afresh rather than given up their gains. A Church that had surrendered so much for Christ could not but be very dear to the apostle. It may be said that we do not find in the Epistle any special allusion to this sacrifice. But neither does any such allusion occur in the address to the elders at Miletus nor in the Epistles to Timothy. Possibly the form of expression in Ephesians 3:8, "the unsearchable riches of Christ," may have been suggested by the fact that, for his sake, many Ephesians had given up the riches of this world. But both in the Epistle to the Ephesians and in those to Timothy the mind of the apostle seems to have passed from the minuter features of the individual character and life to those broad manifestations of corruption, on the one hand, that marked their unregenerate life, and those precious fruits of Divine grace, on the other, that thereafter began to adorn their character. The anxieties he had about the Ephesian Church arose from a restlessness and selfishness of which doubtless he saw many evidences. It seems to have been a strongly emotional Church — distinguished for the warmth of its first love (Revelation 2:4). Where there is not a strong backbone of conscientious fidelity to truth and submission to law, Churches of the emotional type are very liable to degenerate; hence the anxiety of the apostle, and hence those forebodings of coming declension that, in one point at least, were verified before the close of the century (Revelation 2:1-7).


No specific object occupies the apostle's attention in this Epistle, as in those, for instance, to the Galatians and the Colossians. His design is a general one — to confirm, animate, and elevate. By God's blessing on his labors while he was among them, they had started aright on the Christian course; he now desires to give them a fresh impulse in the same direction. The evils of which he had warned the elders at Miletus had not yet begun to break out; against these, therefore, he does not require to sound the trumpet anew. At the moment of his writing there was little to correct either in doctrine or in practice, and there was little to disturb the serenity of the apostle's mind in the contemplation of their state. The atmosphere of this Epistle is thus very calm, and the sky bright and sunny. The apostle and his correspondents seem to walk together on the Delectable Mountains; they sit with Christ in heavenly places. We seem to hear the call and enjoy the scenery of the Song of Solomon: "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." We are near the New Jerusalem, and the Lord is to us an everlasting light, and our God our glory.
After the usual salutation, the apostle breaks out into a fervent thanksgiving on behalf of the Ephesians, for the Christian blessings now in their enjoyment, tracing these to their ultimate source, the good will of the Father who had placed their welfare on the securest possible footing, seeing he had chosen them in Christ before the beginning of the world, and blessed them with all the blessings of the Spirit. From the beginning of the Epistle the several functions of the three Persons of the Trinity in redemption are recognized, and the medium or element in which all the blessings of redemption are possessed and enjoyed by believers is made prominent "in Christ Jesus."
Then we have an earnest prayer for the spiritual growth of the Ephesians, and more especially for their growth through experience in their souls of that Divine power of which the nature and the measure were seen in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and in his elevation to the position of Head over all things to the Church. The Church is declared to be Christ's body, and, in subsequent parts of the Epistle, this figure is worked out in a practical way.
The spiritual history of the Ephesians is then more fully and minutely dwelt on, in order to bring out the sovereignty and riches of the grace which they had experienced. From death they had been brought to a state of Life; from wrath to acceptance; from lying spiritually in the grave to sitting with Christ in heavenly places; from moral distance to moral nearness. No atom of this was due to themselves, — it was all of grace; and one purpose why they had been so treated was that the riches of God's grace might thereby be forever revealed. Jew and Gentile were thus on an equal footing in the sight of God, and a great spiritual temple was in the course of being reared, in which Jew and Gentile would equally share, and which would, when completed, exemplify the fullness of blessing and the fullness of beauty of the new creation in Christ Jesus.
The apostle then makes a digression to emphasize the goodness of God in placing Jew and Gentile on the same level, and he takes occasion to show the greatness of the privilege conferred on himself as the instrument that God chose to announce his goodness to the Gentiles. Having shown that the Gentiles had received a right to all the unsearchable riches of Christ, he proceeds to offer an earnest prayer to the effect that they might practically receive and enjoy a larger measure of these riches — a larger measure of blessing in their relation to each of the three Persons of the Godhead.

Then begins, at Ephesians 4., the more practical part of the Epistle. Some principles have yet, however, to be laid down. The relation of believers to each other, and also their relation to Jesus Christ, are made the basis of encouragement and exhortation; Christ, as Head of the Church, treating his Church as one, has obtained for her and bestowed on her certain gifts with a view to edify all the members and advance them in the direction of completeness. The office-bearers of the Church, whether temporary, like the apostles and prophets, or permanent, like pastors, teachers, and evangelists, are gifts of Christ for this end. As such they are to be received and prized, and all members of the Church are to aim at growth in the direction of perfection.
Coming closer to the region of character, the apostle contrasts the principles of Gentile character with those of the Christian, and on the latter urges that they should walk worthy of their vocation. Personal holiness and purity are urged under the figure of putting off the old man and putting on the new, and on the ground of the oneness of believers as one body, whose welfare all are bound to seek. The spirit of love and forbearance is specially urged by the consideration that in Christ our Father has forgiven us, and we all ought to be imitators of our Father. Another figure is then taken up — children of light, and similar exhortations are based on it to a holy life.
The apostle proceeds to further exhortation based on the several social relations of Christians as husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants. Being united to Christ, and living in the element of union to him, their character in all these respects should be the very purest possible.
Lastly, in the view of all the powers, earthly and spiritual, that were ranged against them and their souls, he exhorts them to put on the whole amour of God, and maintain a vigorous and fearless conflict with the forces of evil. And after a few words about himself, he closes with prayer and benediction, invoking peace and other blessings on the brethren of Ephesus, and grace on all who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.
The Epistle is marked by a tone of great exuberance and spiritual elevation. The frequent occurrence of such expressions as "fullness," "riches," "abounded," "exceeding riches," "riches of glory," "exceeding abundantly," and the like, shows that the writer was in the spirit of glowing satisfaction and delight at the thought of God's provision for the wants of sinners. The three Persons of the blessed Trinity are ever present, in the various functions which they fulfill in the economy of Godhead. The foundations of the believer's security and blessedness are laid deep in the eternal counsels of God. The believer is not viewed merely as an individual, but also, and very specially, in his relation to the Church, both to its Head, Jesus Christ, and also to its members. The moral counsels of the Epistle are searching and salutary. The standard of Christian privilege is very high, but so also is the standard of Christian character. The great aim of the writer is to urge the Ephesians to aspire to the very highest reach of Christian attainment, and thus bring the greatest revenue of glory to their God and Savior.
No part of Scripture presents in a more striking light the riches of the grace of God, or furnishes his people with stronger inducements to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith they are called.

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