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Ephesians – What is the Main Theme?

June 20, 2007

One of my most exciting ministry responsibilities is helping our church student team prepare for Sunday lunch bible studies. We’re already planning ahead for next Autumn when we intend to study the letter of Ephesians with eager students (God willing!). You might be interested in part of what I wrote to the team recently about the challenge of identifying Ephesians’ main theme. Maybe you have some thoughts on the central idea/ideas in Ephesians.

Compared with Paul’s other letters, Ephesians is harder than most to pin down in terms of a central theme. Two simple reasons for this are:

a) There is no agreement about who this letter was originally intended for. Many reliable early manuscripts don’t have the words “in Ephesus” (verse 1). Furthermore, the letter lacks Paul’s usual intimate warmth when writing to a church he knows well. One possible explanation is that Ephesians was a circular letter which eventually came to reside in Ephesus.

b) There is no obvious “ocassion” for the letter (i.e. a problem Paul was sorting out). Though some have ventured that the apostle was sorting out problems between Jewish and Gentile Christians, or that he was instructing new Gentile Converts, we really can’t be sure. Moreover, there is no purpose statement such as we have in 1 John 5, John 20, which pinpoints the aim of Paul’s argument.

These problems aside, there are a number of obvious emphases in Ephesians. I’ll mention five and protide an additional comment from Carson, Morris and Moo’s Introduction to the New Testament.

1) Grace – “The letter begins with a section putting a strong emphasis on the divine action in bringing salvation…This massive emphasis on the place of the divine is expanded with continuing references to grace.” ['Grace' occurs twelve times in Ephesians, only less than Romans, Acts and Corinthians; books which are much longer. No wonder Mark Dever simply entitles his Ephesians overview: "Grace"]

2) Christ -”Christ’s saving work is stressed in the opening….This emphasis persists throughout the letter: it is plain everywhere that who Christ is and what he does is at the heart of the Christian way.”

3) Christian Growth in Knowledge – “…this letter emphasizes divine disclosure. “I pray also tha the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know…’ (1:18), which is seen against the background of hte darkness of the Gentiles (4:18). The readers are ‘light in the Lord’ and they are to live as ‘children of light’ and ‘find out what pleases the Lord’ (5:8-10); they are to ‘understand what God’s will is’ (5:17). No one who has grappled with the thought of this letter can doubt the importance of growing in knowledge.” [See also the emphasis on 'mystery' 1:9, 3:3, 6:19]

4) Living Life in Conformity with God’s Salvation – “The kind of life the Gentiles live is contrasted with the new life believers live (4:17-5:21)…. This has important entailments for specific groups – wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters (5:22-6:9)

5) The Church – “The letter’s emphasis on the church is unmistakable; Ephesus clearly tells us about the church universal than do other writings in the Pauline corpus.”

———————
Further Ephesians Resources

Audio material
Mark Dever Ephesians overview (1 sermon)
James Montgomery Boyce Ephesians overview (4 sermons!)
All Souls Ephesians series (12 sermons) – need to register by giving email address
R Kent Hughes Ephesians series (31 sermons)
John Piper Ephesians sermons (45 sermons)

Written material
Founder’s notes on Ephesians
Geoff Thomas Ephesians series
John MacArthur Ephesians series

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12 comments

  1. For what it’s worth, when I studied Ephesians with students, we found “the Christian’s new identity in Christ” as a helpful lens to look at the book.

    ch.1a – repeated ‘in him’ where we receive every spiritual blessing
    ch.1b – we are God’s inheritance; Christ as our head

    ch.2a – by grace we are alive in Christ, seated in the heavens
    ch.2b – in Christ we are reconciled, now a temple

    ch.3a – under the apostles’ ministry, we are the declaration to the world of God’s mystery

    ch.3b – prayer that we might know what we are in Christ (cf ch.1b)

    ch.4-6 – lots of exhortation based on the Christian’s new identity (4:1, 16, 24, 5:1, 8, etc.)

    The ‘unity’ theme that many pick up on may just be a subset of this ‘identity’ theme that seems to cover the letter more thoroughly.

    Perhaps lastly, the letter may have been used to bring encouragement (6:22).

    John

    PS Thanks for your posts. You asked for feedback in a recent post – keep on doing what you’re doing as it’s a great encouragement for a young trainee!


  2. I preached through Ephesians to begin our church plant. I think when you look at the book as a whole, the theme is the gospel. The four main gospel truths are emphasized over and over (God, Man, Christ, Response). When I was done preaching through the entire book, I did a summary message and here were my 4 points (themes):
    1. The Eternal Purpose of God.
    2. The Total Sinfulness of Man.
    3. The Suffering Exalted Savior.
    4. The New People of God.

    My conclusion was: “Know and Love the Gospel.” There is no area of my life for which the gospel does not have something to say.

    The audio of this message, along with some of the individual messages, is still on my church website:
    http://www.christbc.com/download.php


  3. These thoughts are not original to me, they come through my NT Prof at Seminary, he pointed out that the main theme of Ephesians is “Built in Christ Jesus” with their being multiple building terms throughout Ephesians, more than any other book. This emphasizes the unified nature of the body of Christ. We are one body of composed of many members. (1:23; 2:13-15, 19-22) The word fullness appears repeatedly throughout the letter and the letter ends with the picture of the body plural doing warfare. In addition, look at Peter Obrien on Ephesians in the Pillar Commentary. Many agree this is by far the best commentary on the book. He points out all the building images as well as the body emphasis.

    Matt


  4. Matt,

    Where did you attend Seminary? There aren’t many who pick up on Paul’s construction language, at least not that I have read. The Temple of Artemis was the backdrop for Paul’s construction analogy, and just like any good 1st century rhetorician, Paul uses local color to paint a picture for his readers.

    The theme of “Built in Christ” ties the significance of theology with unity as well. Paul paints everyone as guilty, and then give sole credit of their belief to God, thus leveling the playing field. He then shows how this resurrection life reconciles relational tension, allowing there to be unity in Christ’s church, the Christian workplace, and the Christian home.


  5. Our pastor (Jeff Noblit) preached through Ephesians for over two years (Aug. ’02-Dec. ’04–nearly 100 sermons!) and it reformed the church (or at least started the real reformation process). The centrality of the gospel and the doctrines of grace are now the overriding themes of the pulpit and congregation.


  6. Greg,

    I still currently attend Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City and my NT Prof is Dr. Alan Tomlinson. The way Paul paints in local color can be found throughout all of his letters, from his use in Ephesians of building terms to use of mirror language in Corinthians and most significantly his court room talk in Romans. Good good stuff!

    Much can be said here about contextualizing our message to fit our audience. Not that the unchanging Gospel of Christ and Him Crucified, a stumbling block and offense would change, but rather the terms we use to explain this “Good News”.


  7. Dr. T is a trip man! I took one of his expositional classes on Philippins. He does a great job of recreating the background so that the text comes to life. He changed my aim from “theological exegesis” to “exegetical theology”, as did Dr. Bean…


  8. I have preached many passages from Ephesians and taught 3 exegesis classes on it! What a blessing it has been to me. Harold Hoehner’s commentary on Ephesians is the best I know-even better than Best’s commentary or Lincoln’s in my veiw. His insight into the missing phrase “in Ephesus” is exteremly helpful.

    Most manuscripts do have the phrase included. Of the ones that do not have the phrase, there are three excellent alexdrian manuscripts, but they do not have a blank where the phrase should be making the grammar extremely awkward. Also,there are no manuscripts that have any other city inserted besides Ephesus.

    Hoehner’s commentary is expensive, but usually very helpful.

    My understanding of the theme is: Because God in Christ has manifestly used His power to conquer your enemies, you now have both the capability and responsibility to live a new kind of life! (I have been influenced by Clinton Arnold somewhat in my understanding)There are many themes in Ephesians- Unity, Love, Spirit, in Christ,Power and etc. , but the one that sticks out or at least summarizes is all the divine indictatives that God has done for the Church in Christ. Based upon that (Chps. 1-3), Paul then uses the “Therefore” plus “walk theme” climaxing with spiritual warefare against the powers. So very quickly that is how I understand the theme: basically a power of God in Christ motif with in Christ, unity, building, love, grace and spirit has all supporting themes.

    Thanks,
    I do enjoy O’brein’s commentary as well.
    Tom S


  9. In finding a main theme and purpose for Ephesians I have found it instructive to ask, What is the problem Paul addresses? Usually he addresses some misunderstanding of as aspect of the Gospel, but Ephesians is different. In Ephesians the problem addressed is that all things have not yet been united in Christ (Ch.1). The problem Ephesians seeks to minister to is that caused by the not yet fulfilled nature of God’s salvation plan. This makes Ephesians the most general letter of the NT, the one most appropriate for sending round lots of churches, the one most difficult to identify a clear theme – and the one most suited for general Christian growth, all things being equal. What do others think?


  10. i want to know the 10 ky wors from the book of Ephesians that are used to describe or emphasize the nity of church with references


  11. It seems that at least one major theme in Ephesians is “spiritual blessings and how they should affect our lives.”


  12. The dominant theme in Ephesians is the believer’s position in Christ ch’s 1-3 and how to live that out in our daily lives. ch’s 4-6
    David L. Bucci Marlboro, NJ



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