A little background before we get started…
As I think about studying Ephesians, one of the first questions that comes to mind is, “What do I know about the letter to the church at Ephesus?” Before beginning to study any book in the Bible, it helps me if I understand some simple facts and background information. In this lesson we are going to focus on some information to help us understand the background of Ephesians.
When I think about Ephesians, what first comes to mind are some simple facts…
Author…this information is found in verse 1, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…”
Audience…also found in verse 1, “To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus…”
Date written…this information is not quite as clear, but there are some clues in Ephesians that historians use to help date the letter. Consider three verses…
Ephesians 3:1, “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles…”
Ephesians 4:1, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
Ephesians 6:20, “…for which I am an ambassador in chains…”
The common element in each verse is a reference to being a prisoner. It is generally accepted that Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote the letter to the Ephesians (by the way, in case you did not remember, Ephesians is referred to as a prison epistle). Based on best estimates, the letter was likely written about 62 a.d. Simply put, Paul was writing to Christians in Ephesus while a prisoner in Rome.
The next fact I am curious about is location. Do I even know where Ephesus was (or is)?
What about Ephesus?
If you look at a map with cities in the Bible, you find that Ephesus was on the western border of what was known as Asia (or Asia Minor; see the map below).
When I think about the location of cities in the first century, I also wonder where they are in today’s geography. Looking at the map below, you see that Ephesus is still a city today in what we know as Turkey.
The location is important because we can recognize that Ephesus was an important city for trade. People would travel from the east to reach Ephesus where their goods could be traded, or sold for shipment to other parts of the world. Traders would come to Ephesus from the west by water, bringing goods for sale and trade in Ephesus and destinations to the east. Ephesus was an important center of commerce.
Paul’s time in Ephesus…
We now understand that Ephesus was an important city during Paul’s life. Another question to consider is what was Paul’s connection with Ephesus, and the people that lived there? Most of the letters in the Bible that Paul wrote were addressed to people (either individuals or a group), that he knew. Ephesus is one of those letters. The people were known to Paul because he had spent time in Ephesus. Three chapters in Acts (18, 19, and 20) have information about Paul’s time in Ephesus.
If you remember some of Paul’s history, you likely recall that he completed three missionary journeys that we know about. Paul traveled and preached the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, and established congregations of Christ’s church. Some of his journeys included returning to places he had previously visited. Ephesus is one of those places.
We read in Acts 18:18-26 of Paul’s first visit to Ephesus, which was during his second missionary journey.
“18 Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken. 19 They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. 21 But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch.”
The first visit did not last long; we are not sure how long. We learn from Acts 18 that he was there long enough to teach in the synagogue and reason with the Jews. We also learn that Priscilla and Aquila stayed in Ephesus and continued teaching after Paul left. From Acts 19 we learn that Paul returned to Ephesus.
Acts 19:1, 8-10
“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus…8 Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”
Paul’s second trip to Ephesus lasted much longer…over two years. It is interesting to note the impact of Paul’s teaching. Notice in verse 10, “…all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” The good news of salvation through Jesus Christ was heard not only in Ephesus, but as people heard and believed the message, they took it with them and shared the good news throughout the province of Asia.
The impact of the gospel…
We learn from verses 11 and 12 in Acts 19 that God did extraordinary works through Paul.
“11 God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”
So effective was Paul’s preaching that many who had practiced paganism and sorcery burned their valuable scrolls (see Acts 19:19-20). Another impact of Paul’s teaching was that people who formerly worshipped false gods stopped such practices. This point is important to understand because not only was Ephesus an important center for trade and commerce, it was also the location of the temple of Diana (or Artemis), which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. [If you are curious about the seven wonders of the world, check out this site, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/sevens-wonders-of-the-ancient-world.]
You might be wondering, “Do I need to know that Ephesus was the home for the temple of Diana?” It really does matter, because disrupting the worship of Diana was a major problem in Ephesus. If you read Acts 19:23-20:1, you learn there was a riot in Ephesus led by the silversmith Demetrius (and other craftsmen), who made a living selling images and other goods that were important to those who worshipped Diana. The effectiveness of Paul’s teaching was a disruption to the business associated with the worship of Diana. Shortly after the riot in Ephesus, Paul left for Macedonia.
There is one more record in Acts of Paul being in contact with the Ephesians. In Acts 20:13-38 we read about Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders. He encouraged them to remain faithful and warned them that false teachers would be a problem in the future.
I encourage you to read Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders because it highlights for us that the Christians in Ephesus were very important to Paul. So much so that Paul writes them a letter while he is in prison.
Why write Ephesians?
This brings us to one more question about the letter to the Ephesians, “Why did Paul write the letter?” Or at least, why do I think Paul wrote the letter?
A unique feature of this letter is that Paul does not address any false teaching or any particular problem. The purpose of the letter seems to be that Paul was writing to remind the Ephesians of the good news they had heard from him, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.
As you read and study Ephesians I think you will find that Paul wrote to encourage the Christians in Ephesus (and us by extension!) to be prepared for times when threats and difficulties did come. We find in verse 3 of Ephesians chapter 1, a key focus of this letter…
“3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
A very important topic in Ephesians is our spiritual blessings. Paul wanted the Ephesians (and us) to live in the spiritual blessings that come through Jesus Christ.
Through this study of Ephesians we will focus on the spiritual blessings we have in Christ, and if we better understand those blessings, will be able to live more confident and fruitful Christian lives.
Next up, Ephesians Chapter 1 and learning about our spiritual blessings.