The Purpose of Ephesians – still a mystery…

With my grad students, I have been studying Ephesians. I had to admit that this is the first time in my life I have really thought about and studied deeply this letter. Recently, my research has been consumed with Colossians, but it is refreshing to turn to Ephesians and find so many similarities as well as differences.

There are many challenges to reading Ephesians. Authorship. Provenance. Literary integrity issues. The ethnic make-up of the first recipients. These are important issues, but I am pretty much bored to tears with the exhausting repetition of the same tired arguments. I think that the more critical question is the purpose of Ephesians. (I acknowledge knowing who wrote it and to whom helps us along in this, but I am just tired of the authorship debates.)

Most scholars are committed to thinking that Paul had no serious or urgent concern, but this is more of a homily, a general word of praise to God and a generalized call for unity. I would say this seems more appropriate than thinking that Paul was battling a very specific threat (Gnostics, Judaizers, etc…). However, I really do not feel like Ephesians is as general as it is sometimes made out to be. Just because it is pleonastic and repetitive with a poetic quality, doesn’t mean that Paul wasn’t aiming for some kind of serious change. Many people treat it as an “FYI” letter – just “for your information.” This, I think, makes too little of Ephesians’ “edge.” Here are a few reasons why I think Ephesians has a directed message

1. The persistent use of divine-election language. It is so emphatic that there seems to be more of a reason for this than just “identity formation,” though it is at least that much.

2. Intentional alternation of “we” and “you” pronouns. This is especially obvious in ch 2, where Paul draws clear distinctions between “you” (Gentiles) and “us” (as Jews) and “us” (as Jews and Gentiles). The call for unity could be general, but it seems to me to be so dramatic that Paul seems even desperate to get his point across.

3. The place of Paul (in prison) and the mission of Paul (as apostle). Paul does not just mention it. He hammers it into the letter. Also, the very end of the epistle focuses quite strongly on Tychicus communicating to the Ephesians (or whoever) Paul’s own situation and condition (6:20-22).

4. The emphatic and specific moral teaching in chs. 2 and 4. Yes Paul gives stock paraenetic advice in all his letters, but it would seem gratuitous in Ephesians if this were an FYI letter only.

Now, just because I think that Ephesians is another “word on target” (like Romans) doesn’t mean I see Judaizing opponents in the background. Here is my own guesswork scenario.

1. Paul sees the destruction of the problematic mystical philosophy on the Colossians, including how this leads to fighting and disunity within the church.

2. Paul sends a letter to a wider circle of Gentile believers concerned that

a. Gentiles fear evil powers

b. Many Gentiles are attracted to Jesus communities and salvation in Christ

c. Some Jewish believers have a tendency to urge Gentiles that they must accept Torah to be truly safe from evil powers and also to be fully “one” with God’s people.

d. Gentiles tend to (a) give in and follow Torah, (b) push back against this pressure and even express libertine “freedom” by flaunting sin, or (c) scratch their heads, confused about what it means to follow Christ and be a part of the church.

It is not that Paul knows of some serious problem in Ephesus or somewhere else specifically in Asia Minor and sends this letter. The situation in Colossae caused Paul to reflect on certain intra-communal tendencies that lead to fear, rivalry, legalism, anti-nomianism, boasting, and a kind of worship setting that takes the focus away from the Most High God. So, this letter aims at remedying this. Thus, on the one hand, it is “general” insofar as it is sent to a larger region and Paul is not trying to remedy a problematic situation he specifically heard about. On the other hand, it is “specific” insofar as he really wants to see something specific change in the way that Jews and Gentiles interact and worship.

When it comes to actual purpose statements, then, I think O’Brien comes pretty close to what I think to  be the case.

 “Having addressed a specific problem in Colossians, Paul has remodeled his letter for a more general Christian readership. He writes Ephesians to his mainly Gentile Christian readers, for whom he has apostolic responsibilities, with the intention of informing, strengthening, and encouraging them by assuring them of their place within the gracious, saving purpose of God, and urging them to bring their lives into conformity with this divine plan of summing up all things in Christ (1:10).” (Ephesians, Pillar; p. 57)
Some might think that my perspective is dangerous because it reads too much into the text. True enough, I am hypothesizing a background or contextual scenario. It becomes dangerous, though, only if I use this imaginative construction to force the actual text into my perspective. With my students, I try not to let the hypothetical contextual construct dictate interpretation. No, my goal is to continue testing the hypothesis while reading the text more generally. Having a proposed background theory is freeing when it is held rather loosely (in want of more evidence), but constraining when it becomes the only possible determinant of all exegetical concerns.
What do you think?
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4 thoughts on “The Purpose of Ephesians – still a mystery…

  1. Well, it certainly reads as if you think there’s no question but Paul was the author, and I’d suggest that bears very heavily on purpose. If he wasn’t then “universalising” Paul becomes a seriously possible purpose.

  2. Nice piece, Nijay. Do you know Max Turner’s important article ‘Mission and Meaning in Terms of “Unity” in Ephesians’ in Antony Billington, Tony Lane and Max Turner, eds., Mission and Meaning: Essays Presented to Peter Cotterell (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995) 138-66? It’s well worth reading and giving to students to read.

  3. Is there not usually some hint of purpose in the thanksgiving, especially in the Pauline Epistles? And it may be my achitectural background but with the number of building terms in the text and Acts 19 as the backdrop it seems like the context is really still about born Jews and Gentiles fitting together into one corporate humanity that the seams disapear. Hence the 4 dimensions used to measure the love in chapter 3 (with the fourth term used typically as a measurement of the base of a temple if I am not mistaken.) Coupled with the acclaimation (that all make calling us together) “one lord, one faith, one baptism” juxtaposed to the citizens of Ephesus that acclaim “great is artermis of all the God’s” that call them into an assembly in Acts 19 (see the town clerks comments.)

    If this were true then perhaps the Epistle stands on its own and while Paul may use similar terms in it compared to Colossians they aren’t necessarily the same intent because of the context. Then the ‘we/you’ corresponds to the numerous uses of ‘all’ (and ‘in ever way’) through the book.

  4. Thanks for the Turner reference, Steve. I see it is online at http://www.missiology.org.uk/pdf/cotterell-fs/09_turner.pdf

    I come at Ephesians more as a preacher than as a NT scholar. Reacting against the experience of hear grace/salvation reduced to Eph. 2:8-9, I present the parallel structure of 2:1-10 & 2:11ff (grace overcoming our separation from God and grace overcoming the separation of Jew & Gentile), and then ch. 3 & 4 (the power of grace that drives Paul’s life, and the power of grace in the life of the church). Admittedly, this makes the most sense of these three chapters, rather than drawing the whole into a unity.

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