There are many popular misconceptions about what it means to be a Christian, but it is vital that we base our thinking on the authority of the unchanging Word of God. And Paul’s letter to the Ephesians provides a wonderful description not only of what it means to be a Christian but also of how a Christian should live. Actually, this is one of the misconceptions some people have. They think that if someone behaves like a Christian, that makes them a Christian. But the Bible is clear that first I must become a Christian and then I need to behave like a Christian. Acting like a Christian doesn’t make me a Christian; but there is something radically wrong if someone claims to be a Christian but doesn’t act like one.
In this series of articles, I would like to use Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians as a guide to understand and rejoice in these great truths. It is important to remember that these epistles were written to those who were already Christians, so he starts with the wonder of what Christ has already done for them before going back to explain in chapter two how they came into the good of what Christ has done. And I am also writing this primarily for those who are Christians to help you understand the glorious privileges that are yours as well as the expectations that God has for you.
But if you are not yet a Christian, we are glad that you are taking time to read these words and invite you to consider “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8) presented here and to receive the gift of God, which is salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9).
Overview of Ephesians
Let’s survey the book at the outset so we know where we are headed before going into a bit more detail in future articles. The dominant theme of Paul’s letter is that of unity. In the first half of the letter, he speaks of our positional unity and in the second half he speaks of our practical unity. By positional unity, we mean that, whether we knew it or not, when we trusted Christ something real took place in our experience that changed our position before God. By practical unity, we mean that we need to make this spiritual reality evident and visible to God and others by our actions and attitudes.
This positional unity is described in two distinct and yet related ways. In Ephesians 1:1-2:10, Paul describes our unity with Christ; and in Ephesians 2:11-3:21, he describes our unity with the body of Christ. We will look at these in more detail later.
Our practical unity is then described in chapters 4-6 in terms of our Christian walk. Paul uses this expression repeatedly in the second half of the book and we will discuss them more fully as we come to them, but let’s make a note of them now. He calls on us as Christians to walk worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1); to no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk (Eph. 4:17); to walk in love (Eph. 5:2); to walk as children of the light (Eph. 5:9); and to walk circumspectly or carefully (Eph. 5:15). Then in chapter 6, he calls on us not now to walk but to stand against the wiles of the devil (Eph. 6:11). We will spend some time looking at each of these aspects of the Christian life that will help us not only in our own personal walk but also to enable us to walk in unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sometimes Bible teachers will say that the first half of Ephesians is doctrinal and the second half is practical and while there is some truth in this assertion, there are also associated dangers. Firstly, we will see that the first half of Ephesians is immensely practical, and the second half is deeply doctrinal. Secondly, some people think that doctrine is either boring or divisive and they just want to get to the “practical stuff” right away. But when we speak of “doctrine”, we simply mean a summary of what the Bible teaches on any given subject and it is a great privilege to discover these truths that God has graciously revealed to us. And if we skip the doctrinal basis for our actions and attitudes, we won’t understand why we are doing these things and run the risk of either rejecting biblical standards of behaviour or of blindly following rules. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explained that under the Mosaic Law believers were considered children under a guardian or tutor; but as New Testament believers, we are considered adult sons with legal authority and privileges and are therefore given clearer explanations and greater freedoms (Gal. 4:1-7).
Introduction to Ephesians
The opening verses of this epistle to the Ephesians are quite typical of first-century letters but also contains some great truths that we don’t want to miss.
First, he introduces himself “as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (Eph. 1:1). He will later tell us that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). These apostles were specifically chosen by the Lord Jesus and sent out by Him as His official and authoritative representatives. Through their preaching and teaching, they communicated the truths that were revealed to them by the Holy Spirit, as promised by the Lord Jesus (John 16:12-15) during His Upper Room ministry. That foundation was laid during the lifetime of the apostles and we continue to build upon that same foundation. Although the gift of apostleship ceased in the first century, we still benefit from their ministry recorded for us in the pages of Holy Scripture. I think it is vital that we emphasise the unique, delegated authority given to these men so that as we read these epistles, we recognise that their words carry the same authority as the “red letter” words of Jesus and the “Thus saith the Lord” of the Old Testament. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonian believers, he praised them because of the attitude they displayed when they accepted the apostolic preaching:
For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.1 Thessalonians 2:13
But we also want to notice the way in which Paul addressed this letter to the Ephesians: “To the saints who are in Ephesus and faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1). These are not two groups or classes of people; rather, the saints in Ephesus were also the faithful in Christ Jesus.
Many people are surprised when they hear Christians described as “saints” because they have been taught that saints are a class of “super-Christians” who have died and have an excess of merits that they can share with struggling Christians. But there is no basis for that teaching in the Word of God. The word “saint” simply means one who has been sanctified or “set apart” by the Holy Spirit and is used in the Scriptures to describe every person who has been born again by the Holy Spirit through faith in the Lord Jesus. In other words, it is describing “positionally” every true Christian. In God’s eyes, if you are a believer, you have already been made holy; but in practice, we are still working to become holy in all our behaviour and this epistle will help us develop that holiness.
But notice also that he uses the word “in” twice. These believers were “in Ephesus” and also “in Christ Jesus.” Physically, they were in Ephesus; spiritually, they were in Christ Jesus. And as we will see, this idea of being “in Christ” or “in Him” will be significant in understanding the first half of Ephesians 1.
To understand this idea better, we need to look at Paul’s teaching in Romans 5. Even though he doesn’t use these exact terms, Paul demonstrates that there are only two kinds of people in this world: people are either “in Adam” or “in Christ”. Every child comes into this world “in Adam.” We are born in his image and likeness and share his sinful condition and his destiny, which is death. But God sent His Son, born of a virgin so that the Christ Child would not be born in Adam’s image and share his sinful condition. Adam was the original head of the human race, but Jesus came as the Head of a new humanity and those who put their faith in Him are born again into that new humanity and are now no longer in Adam but in Christ and share His life and destiny.
Paul then concludes his introduction to this Ephesian epistle with a beautiful and profound greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:2). Grace reminds us that God has treated us better than we deserve because grace is God’s unmerited favour to us. And peace reminds us that we have been reconciled to God and brought into a place of acceptance and rest. And this double blessing comes from a unified source: “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” These are clearly two distinct Persons and yet they are united as the singular Divine source of grace and peace. So often in the New Testament we discover these subtle reminders of the equality and distinction of Divine Persons that led to the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, a truth that is not stated in Scripture but that is essential to understanding the nature of God and His provision of salvation as we shall see in the next section of Ephesians.