Introduction to Ephesians

Lesson ▪ 2020
Tags: Ephesians; Ephesus; Paul; Church at Ephesus; Paul's Epistles
Related Resources: Sin, Grace, and Works: An Exposition of Ephesians 2:1-10 ▪ Principalities and Powers

Prominent Texts in Ephesians

Teacher Note: Conduct a discussion about prominent texts in the book of Ephesians. The intent is to help participants begin to perceive the book’s salient themes. Engage learners in an inductive activity, moving from what they already know to what they have yet to learn. The following questions may prompt the discussion:

  • Do you recall having committed any verses from Ephesians to memory?
  • Do references such as Ephesians 2:8-9 or Ephesians 6:1 mean anything to you?
  • If I were to begin quoting some texts from Ephesians, could you complete them?
    • “For by grace you have been saved ….”
    • “Let no corrupting talk ….”
    • “Be kind to one another ….”
    • “… do not get drunk with wine ….”
    • “Put on the whole armor of God ….”

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3).

“In him you … were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (1:13-14).

“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” (2:4-5).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:8-10).

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8).

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (3:20-21).

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29).

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (4:32).

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:15-21).

“‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph. 5:31-33).

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:1-4).

“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” (6:11-13).

The Letter’s Destination

Teacher Note: Ask participants if their Bibles contain a comment about the phrase “in Ephesus” in reference to Ephesians 1:3. Use this as the basis for introducing New Testament textual criticism, taking care to stress the integrity of the text and the authority of Scripture. Following this, discuss the letter’s destination; if desired, ask for volunteers to read various Bible references.

There is considerable debate as to the original destination of the letter that we know as Ephesians, due in large part to the fact that important ancient manuscripts lack the phrase “in Ephesus” in 1:3 (Arnold 243-45; McDonald 320). It is clear that the letter was written to a group that included a significant Gentile component (2:11ff.; 3:1ff.; 4:17-19). Also, the author—named as the apostle Paul (1:1)—and the recipients had some knowledge of one another (1:15ff.; 3:1-2; 3:13; 6:18-22).

The description of Tychicus in 6:21-22 seems to establish some commonality between Ephesians and Colossians (cf. Col. 4:7-9). It is possible that Paul wrote both epistles around the same time, relying on Tychicus to deliver the letters to their destinations (Carson and Moo 488-89, 521; Robeck). Since both Ephesus and Colossae were located in the Roman province of Asia, such a hypothesis fits well with Ephesus as the destination of one of the letters.

Ephesians lacks personal greetings and concrete situational references that are common in Paul’s epistles. Nevertheless, the book’s language and theological perspective are clearly consistent with other letters attributed to Paul. We proceed here with the tentative conclusion that Ephesus was the original destination, recognizing that the truths contained within the letter are applicable regardless of time or place.

The City of Ephesus

Lee McDonald’s introduction to the city of Ephesus yields the following insights, among others:

  • Ancient Ephesus was situated at the mouth of the Cayster River in near modern Selçuk on the western coast of Turkey” (318).
  • It was an ancient city, in existence for hundreds or perhaps even a thousand years before it was taken by Alexander the Great in 334 BC (318-19).
  • In the New Testament period it was a large city, with an estimated population of 250,000 (319).
  • The capital of the Roman province of Asia (318), it followed only Rome and Alexandria in prominence (319).
  • It was the site of “the famous Artemision, or temple of Artemis, commonly identified as one of the seven wonders of the world” (319). Devoted to the worship of this goddess, the city accommodated emperor worship while under the rule of Rome (319).
As the accompanying images illustrate, ruins of ancient Ephesian buildings attract the attention of modern tourists. Little remains of the Artemision, but a model has been erected in another Turkish city, Istanbul. The library of Celsus and the temple of Hadrian were constructed in the early second century AD, and thus were not present during Paul’s ministry.

Great Theatre, Ephesus” by Austrian Archaeological Institute is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


Miniaturk 009” by Zee Prime is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


Temple of Hadrian Ephesus” by Kitkatcrazy has been released into the public domain.


Paul’s Ministry to the Ephesians

Given the importance of the city of Ephesus in the first century, it is not surprising that it is mentioned in five New Testament books other than Ephesians: Acts, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Revelation. The following bullets summarize what these books have to say about Ephesus and the church there.

  • Paul’s first recorded visit to Ephesus occurred toward the end of his second missionary journey, when he stopped there en route from Corinth to Antioch-Syria. Although he reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue, it is not evident that he stayed long enough to plant a church. (According to McDonald, “there is considerable question about the origins of the Christian community in Ephesus” [319]). When Paul left Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s associates in tentmaking and in ministry, stayed there (Acts 18:18-22). The couple was instrumental in guiding the faith development of Apollos, a powerful orator from Alexandria. Apollos would soon travel from Ephesus to Corinth, where he would seek to persuade Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:24-28).
  • Ephesus was an important ministry venue during Paul’s third missionary journey. Acts 19:1-20:1 highlight the following aspects of his work there:
    • Interaction about a dozen disciples who had previously submitted to John’s baptism; after Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus, they spoke in tongues and prophesied (19:1-7)
    • Engagement with Jews in the synagogue over the course of three months; this attracted converts to Christ but also engendered opposition (19:8-9)
    • Daily instruction in the hall of Tyrannus over the span of two years; this led to broad dissemination of the gospel in Asia (19:9-10)
    • Powerful demonstration of the Spirit’s power, including miraculous healings, liberation from evil spirits, and converts’ public destruction of books associated with magic (19:11-20)
    • Persuasion of many people to abandon idolatry, threatening the interests of craftsmen who made paraphernalia associated with the worship of Artemis; the gathering of a mob in the city’s theater produced tense moments for Paul, other Christians, and the Ephesian officials, after which Paul left for Macedonia (19:21-20:1)[1]
  • Paul’s extended stay in Ephesus—described in Acts 20:31 as three years—gave him the opportunity to write 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 16:5-8; 16:19; see Carson and Moo 421). Some scholars believe that he authored additional letters there (McDonald 320).
  • Paul left his apprentice Timothy to minister in Ephesus and later wrote to him there (1 Tim. 1:3).
  • At the end of his third missionary journey, Paul decided not to delay his travel to Jerusalem by visiting Ephesus. However, he visited the coastal city of Miletus and summoned the elders of the Ephesian church to meet him there, where he urged them passionately to continue caring for their flock and defend it from perverse teaching (Acts 20:15-38). Trophimus, a Gentile convert from Ephesus, apparently accompanied Paul to Jerusalem. Jews from Asia noticed Trophimus and surmised that he had entered the temple with Paul; they incited an uproar that led to Paul’s arrest and extended imprisonment (Acts 21:27ff.).
  • Late in his ministry, Paul acknowledged Onesiphorus as having served him in Ephesus as well as Rome (2 Tim. 1:16-18). At this time he also sent Tychicus, a persistent traveling companion and emissary, to Ephesus (2 Tim. 4:12; see Robeck).
  • Paul’s Ephesian ministry is known to have impacted the entire province of Asia. According to McDonald, outreach from Ephesus may well have “led to the founding of churches at Laodicea, Colossae, Hierapolis and elsewhere” (320). The book of Revelation begins with letters to seven churches located in Asia (Rev. 2-3), the first of which was the congregation in Ephesus. A generation after Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, the church had not succumbed to the false teaching of which Paul had warned (Rev. 2:2-3, 6). However, it had lost its spiritual passion (Rev. 2:4-5)—surely a call for vigilance on the part of every congregation!

Paul the Apostle, second missionary journey” by
Roberto Reggi has been released into the public domain.


Paul the Apostle, third missionary journey.svg” by
Roberto Reggi has been released into the public domain.

The videos available at the following links show how visits to Ephesus and its environs factored into two of Paul’s missionary journeys:

Ephesians within the Timeline of Paul's Letters

Teacher Note: Project one or both of the graphs to show that Ephesians is likely one of several prison epistles written to congregations late in Paul’s ministry.

Based on information shared at various points in the letter, Paul wrote Ephesians while he was in prison (3:1; 3:13; 4:1; 6:20). Incarceration was not an uncommon occurrence in Paul’s ministry; in fact, he claimed to have suffered “far more imprisonments” than his opponents (2 Cor. 11:23). The book of Acts describes Paul’s incarceration in Philippi, Caesarea, and Rome, and scholars have speculated about imprisonment details that the author of Acts did not record (Carson and Moo 503-06; McDonald 319-20).

The graphs that follow show the dates of authorship that conservative evangelical scholars have assigned to Pauline epistles. In each case, Ephesians is seen as a prison epistle that was authored around the same time as Colossians, accounting for the overlap between the two letters. In this view, since the later letters all have a pastoral emphasis, Ephesians represents Paul’s most mature theological insights. If he continued to study the Old Testament scriptures, reflect deeply on theological matters, and even experience new revelation from God late in his ministry, it should come as no surprise if his later epistles introduce new concepts or emphases.

Carson and Moo

Carson and Moo

Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles

Köstenberger et al.

Key Themes in Ephesians

Teacher Note: Project the word cloud and word table as entry points for understanding the themes developed in Ephesians. Potential observations may include the following:

  • Christ is central (note occurrences of Jesus and Lord as well as Christ).
  • The occurrence of love, mystery, body, and Gentiles signal emphases.
  • The prominence of one, wife, and put may be surprising at first glance, but actually reflect important points of discussion.

Guide discussion as to the themes that correspond to the various keywords. Conclude discussion by presenting significance levels of various branches of doctrine.

Word Cloud: Most Common Words in Ephesians (ESV)

This word cloud depicts the frequency with which 49 words occur in the ESV text of Ephesians. The list excludes stop words, but otherwise includes all but two of all the words that occur five or more times in the letter.

Word cloud

Table of Words Occurring Five or More Times in Ephesians (ESV)

This table shows the frequency of 110 words that occur five or more times in the ESV text of Ephesians.

Table of common words

Doctrines Emphasized in Ephesians

The graphic that follows illustrates the extent to which Ephesians contributes to our understanding of various biblical doctrines. Darker shades indicate more significant contributions based on two factors:

  • the extent to which the book addresses the doctrine
  • the extent to which the book contributes uniquely to our understanding of the doctrine
Doctrines emphasized in Ephesians

Significance Level 1

Eschatology (The End Times)

  • The book does little to advance our understanding of the end times.
  • Many future events are mentioned, but without substantial details:
    • “a plan … to unite all things in him” (1:10)
    • “the hope to which he has called you” (1:18)
    • “the coming ages” (2:7)
    • “the day of redemption” (4:30)
    • “no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (5:5)
    • “the wrath of God comes” (5:6)
    • “he will receive back from the Lord” (6:8)

Significance Level 2

Bibliology (The Scriptures)

  • The book’s most substantive teaching regarding the Scriptures concerns the revelation of the mystery of Christ (3:1ff.).
  • The book also contains references to the word of God (5:26; 6:17), the word of truth (1:13), and speaking the gospel (6:19-20).

Anthropology and Hamartiology (Humans and Sin)

  • Ephesians 2:1-3 is a compact but important summary of the depravity of man. It is complemented in Ephesians 4:17-24 by a contrast between the old self and the new self.
  • Sin is dark, unfruitful, shameful, and destined to incur divine wrath (5:5ff.).
  • There are divinely ordained roles for men and women in marriage (5:22-33).

Significance Level 3

Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)

  • The Holy Spirit is the agent whereby believers are sealed (1:13; 4:30) and the guarantee of our future inheritance (1:14).
  • He is our source of wisdom (1:17), the means by which we enjoy access to God the Father (2:18), and the agent by which believers are strengthened and filled with God’s fullness (3:14-19; 5:18).
  • The Holy Spirit is intimately involved with the church. Not only has he revealed truth to the church’s apostles and prophets (3:4-5), but he is the agent of our collective development as a divine dwelling (2:22). Moreover, he is the source of unity within the body (4:3-4).
  • Sin in a Christian’s life is a source of grief to the Holy Spirit (4:30). We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (5:18ff.), to equip ourselves with the Word of God as the Spirit’s sword (6:17), and pray in the Spirit as a form of spiritual warfare (6:18ff.).
  • In Ephesians Paul refers to Christ giving spiritual leaders to equip the church (4:7ff.), but elsewhere he describes this as the work of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12).

Angelology and Demonology (The Spirit Realm)

  • The devil is “the prince of the power of the air” (2:2) who is at work among the unsaved.
  • Believers are participants in a cosmic spiritual struggle with the devil and evil forces (3:10; 4:27; 6:11-12). “More than any other Pauline letter, Ephesians stresses the hostile role of the principalities and powers … against the church” (Arnold 247).
  • We are enjoined to be strong in the Lord, to take up the divine armor, and to stand firm (6:10ff.).

Significance Level 4

Theology Proper (God the Father)

  • Ephesians characterizes God as one who is supremely purposeful and able to work out his will (1:5; 1:9; 1:11; 3:11).
  • God the Father is the source of numerous spiritual blessings bestowed by grace on those who are in Christ (1:3ff.); these include election, predestination, and forgiveness of sins.
  • The Father raised Jesus from the dead, seated him at his own right hand, placed all under his authority, and appointed him as the church’s head (1:20-23).
  • In his immeasurable mercy and love, God gave us new life and forgiveness in Christ (2:4-6; 4:32). He imparts wisdom to us through his Spirit (1:17ff.) and desires that we know the magnitude of his power in our lives (1:19-20).
  • We who are in Christ are God’s workmanship, created in his likeness for good works (2:10; 4:24).
  • In liaison with the Son and the Spirit, the Father is active in strengthening us to know his love, fullness, and power (3:14-19). He is worthy of thanksgiving and glory now and forever (3:20-21; 5:20).

Christology (Jesus Christ)

  • Jesus Christ is the object of Christians’ hope and faith (1:12-13; 1:15).
  • Ephesians contains abundant references to the blessings that are conferred on believers in, through, and with Christ (e.g., 1:3; 1:5; 1:11; 2:5-7; 2:10).
  • Christ’s death and resurrection are central to our faith. We have “redemption through his blood” (1:7) and we “have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He is our peacemaker and mediator of access to the Father (2:13-18).
  • Overcoming death by the Father’s power (1:19-20), he has taken his rightful place above all and as the church’s head (1:21-22; 5:22).
  • He is the cornerstone in whom the church grows to become a temple for God’s dwelling (2:20-22). He gives leaders to the church for our growth in him (4:7-16).
  • His love for us is vast (3:18-19; cf. 5:2). He has given his life for the object of his affection, the church, and we owe him devoted, pure love and submission in return (5:22ff.).
  • He is our Lord, the one whose will we should seek (5:17) regardless of our station in life (5:22; 5:25; 6:1-9). Life in Christ entails putting off our old life and putting on the new (4:20-24).
  • The work that God has accomplished through his Son epitomizes “his eternal purpose” (3:11). Therefore, it was Paul’s privilege “to preach … the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8).

Soteriology (Salvation)

  • Salvation is a gift that God offers in his love and mercy (2:4-5; 2:8); we receive it through simple belief in Jesus Christ, as expressed in the gospel (1:13; 1:15; 2:8).
  • Salvation entails God’s gracious conferral of blessings, among which are election, predestination, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, and summation (1:3-10).
  • God the Father purposed and planned our salvation to his own glory (1:5-6; 1:11-12). We access the blessings of salvation in the person of Christ (e.g., 1:4; 1:7; 1:11), made possible by his sacrificial death (1:7; 2:13) and victorious resurrection (2:5-6). The Holy Spirit is also involved in our salvation, sealing us and guaranteeing our full future inheritance (1:13-14).
  • Salvation is not the result of our own good works, but it demands that we practice good works (2:9-10).
  • To a significant extent, the latter half of Ephesians is an explanation of what it means to live worthy of our calling (4:1). Sanctification requires us to renounce the old self, submit to the renewal of our minds, and put on the new self (4:22-24). Old practices must be set aside and news ones adopted in their place (4:25-5:21). We practice the will of God in the mundane—in our homes and workplaces (5:22-6:9).
  • Christ’s death on the cross was sufficient to reconcile us to God solely on the condition of faith in him. Salvation thus unites Jews and Gentiles in a single body, the church (2:11-22; 3:6). We grow in Christ in association with one another (4:11-16).
  • Paul refers to God’s saving work among the Gentiles as “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (3:8). The gospel message is thus to be shared boldly (6:18-20).

Significance Level 5

Ecclesiology (The Church)

  • Christ is the church’s Savior (5:23). His death on the cross has made Jews and Gentiles into “one new man” (2:15).
  • The church is referred to as the body of Christ (1:23; 4:4; 5:23). God has appointed Christ as the head of the body (1:22-23; 5:23). Additionally, he has given leaders “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:12). The church grows spiritually as its members are properly related to one another and to Christ, achieving unity, maturity, and stability (4:13-16).
  • The church is likened to a building whose structure includes a cornerstone—Christ—and a foundation—apostles and prophets (2:20). The building “grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (2:21). Believers enjoy privileges as “members of the household of God” (2:19). In relationship with Christ, they undergo a process of ongoing growth, “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (2:22).
  • The intimacy of a loving human marriage provides a glimpse of the deep union that Christ will achieve with his church, which is described as a bride (5:31-33). Christ loved the church and gave his life to make her holy, worthy of himself (5:25-27). He takes care of the church’s needs (5:29-30) and she submits to him faithfully (5:24).
  • The inclusion of the Gentiles among God’s people was a mystery withheld from previous generations (3:1-6). The church fulfills God’s design by displaying God’s wisdom to spiritual rulers (3:10) and bringing glory to him (3:21).

The Form and Content of Ephesians

Teacher Note: Discuss the form and content of Ephesians. Consider having participants volunteer to read texts that illustrate certain features. Project the comparison between Ephesians and Colossians to demonstrate the two books’ similarity. Consider having volunteers read an example of parallel texts.

Unlike many books of the New Testament, Ephesians does not contain many quotations of Old Testament texts. Clinton Arnold acknowledges numerous allusions but counts just four direct quotes (239). Similarly, Frank Thielman cautions “against seeing Ephesians as deeply indebted to major theological themes in the OT” (814).

According to Arnold, a more prominent feature of the book is its use of a eulogy (1:3-14), prayers (1:15-23; 3:14ff.), and a doxology (3:20-21). Moreover, various texts in Ephesians are purported to contain hymnic, poetic, or creedal elements. Whereas some might associate theological expression with dry, sterile language, Paul illustrates that exalted theology is intensely spiritual and worshipful (238-40).

The visualization provides an example of lexical overlap between parallel portions of Ephesians and Colossians—specifically, Ephesians 3:1-13 and Colossians 1:24-29. Orange highlighting identifies English translations of Greek words that occur in both passages. The fact that the two books hold so much in common implies that, when one is studying Ephesians, it may be helpful to refer to Colossians.

Parallelism between Eph and Col

As an example, in Ephesians 5:18 Paul says to “be filled with the Spirit.” Then he refers to expression in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19). The parallel passage in Colossians also speaks of singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16); however, the first half of the verse contains the directive to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” By comparing these two passages, we can infer that being filled with the Spirit is somehow related to immersion in God’s Word.

  • Ephesians 5:18-21: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
  • Colossians 3:16-17: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

[1] According to McDonald, “It may well be that this was the occasion of an arrest and imprisonment of Paul in Ephesus. Paul himself states that his ministry at Ephesus was mixed with danger that included being forced to ‘fight with wild animals’ (or fierce opponents) and ‘many adversaries’ (1 Cor. 15:32; 16:9)” (319-20).

Works Cited

Arnold, Clinton E. “Ephesians, Letter to the.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, InterVarsity, 1993, pp. 238-49.

Carson, D. A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. Zondervan, 2005.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. B&H Publishing Group, 2016.

McDonald, Lee Martin. “Ephesus.” Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter, InterVarsity, 2000, pp. 318-21.

Robeck, Cecil M. Jr. “Tychicus.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, rev. ed., vol. 4, Eerdmans, 1988, p. 930.

Thielman, Frank S. “Ephesians.” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Baker Academic, 2007, pp. 813-33.

Download This Resource

SelectionFile type iconFile nameDescriptionSizeRevisionTimeUser
View Download
Presentation (26 slides)  2845k v. 3 Aug 2, 2020, 1:24 PM Greg Smith
View Download
Teacher's notes (15 pages)  2028k v. 3 Aug 2, 2020, 1:24 PM Greg Smith