Study Guide Prepared by: John McVay
Key Texts: Ephesians 1-6
- Reviewing the Epistle to the Ephesians chapter by chapter, what candidates for “life texts” do you see, passages that can inspire and shape Christian discipleship throughout life?
- With Paul’s thesis statement in Eph 1:9-10 and his theme of unity in mind, work through each chapter of the letter, highlighting how that chapter helps to develop the theme of unity.
- Review stories of people inspired by studying the Epistle to the Ephesians (“The Impact of Ephesians in History: Five Case Studies,” at the end of this study guide), and ask, “How does God wish to transform my life though this buoyant, Christ-saturated letter?”
How might we review the Epistle to the Ephesians through the lens of Paul’s teaching about the church in the letter?
What is Paul’s “job description” for the church in Eph 3:10 and how are we to understand it?
- What is the essential role of the church?
- What is the church to reveal?
- To whom is the church to reveal this truth?
- For what purpose?
What does Paul mean by “the church” (Greek, ekklēsia) in Ephesians? In earlier letters, Paul usual means “local congregation” when he uses the term. However, in Colossians and Ephesians, he means the church at large, or the church “universal,” rather than a local group.
Paul uses vivid metaphors to help believers understand the church and what it means to be part of it. What are metaphors and how do we go about trying to understand them? A metaphor is a “figure of speech whereby we speak about one thing in terms which are seen to be suggestive of another.”1Janet Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Clarendon, 1985), 15. Understanding these metaphors requires some attentiveness from us, since Paul draws on the first century Greco-Roman world. We should take them seriously since divine revelation uses them to communicate truth to us.
What are four major metaphor Paul develops for the church? What does each reveal about the church?
- The Church as the body of Christ (Eph 1:22-23; 2:16; 4:1-16; 5:29-30; cf. Rom 12; 1 Cor 12). The most developed use comes in Eph 4:1-16, where he underscores relationships among members, emphasizing that ministers of the Word were given to the church by Christ from His position of leadership over the cosmos. The metaphor emphasizes the need for healthy relationships among members and cohesion to Christ who as “Head” directs and energizes His church to fulfill His purposes in the world.
- The Church as the temple of God (Eph 1:19-22; cf. 1 Cor 3:9-17; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1). The metaphor functions as a culminating image for the inclusion of Gentiles as full partners in the church, with Jews and Gentiles together forming “a holy temple in the Lord.” In Paul’s metaphor, God is both Builder (implied) and Occupant of the structure. The foundation is “the apostles and prophets,” the cornerstone is Christ, and the building materials consist of both Jewish and Gentile believers, with the metaphor illustrating their cohesion in the church. A number of common ideas about temples are active here including structural integrity (a building or temple made of different materials coheres), the process of building (temples are built), and habitation (since the temple is “a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit,” NIV).
- The church as the bride of Christ (Eph 5:25-33; cf. 2 Cor 11:1-4). In offering counsel to Christian husbands, Paul uses the idea from the OT of the people of God as His bride or wife (e.g., Hosea; Jer 2–3; 13:20–27; Ezek 16, 23), which he had employed earlier (2 Cor 11:1–4), to focus on the relationship between Christ and the church. Elements and roles of the ancient wedding ceremony are consolidated in Christ in a bid to portray all Christ does for His church. In addition to his central role as groom, Christ himself is the bride price, the one who administers the bridal bath, and the one who presents the bride (to himself!). All of these stretch ancient wedding practice, but the stress on the metaphor serves only to emphasize the importance of Christ for the church. The offers eschatological expectation in the future “presentation” (v. 27). At that time, Christ’s Second Coming, the full result of the bridegroom’s work will be manifested in the splendor of the bride.
- The church as the militia of Christ (Eph 6:10-20; cf. Rom 13:11-14; 1 Thess 5:8; 2 Cor 10:3-6). Paul uses an extended, detailed military metaphor—the church as the army of God—to summarize and conclude the letter. The metaphor could be misunderstood as urging actual combat but Paul carefully guards it, advocating the virtues of kindness, tenderheartedness and forgiveness (see esp. Eph 4:17–32) and clarifying that the church is to proclaim “the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15). Paul’s military metaphor depicts the church’s battle against evil as combat that requires full, sustained, and energetic engagement of the foe. Believers are not merely sentinels, who stand stoically at watch, but combatants (albeit in the interest of peace). The passage represents a call to arms that is especially interested in the esprit de corps of believers. It does not envision Christians (or Paul) as lone warriors battling in splendid isolation, but instead portrays “the church militant” in which the addressees are to enlist as fellow soldiers against the church’s foes.
Should we choose a favorite among these four metaphors or treasure them all? Since every metaphor highlights some aspects of reality while it hides others, we are best served by valuing all these metaphors for the church and treasuring what each teaches us about being part of God’s plan to unify all things in Christ. In the church of which you are a part, “God is building the multiracial, multiethnic, multigenerational church of Jesus Christ, which stands as a monument to his triumph over the powers of darkness” and points the way to the fulfillment of His plan to unite the cosmos in Jesus.2Timothy G. Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 182.
The Impact of Ephesians in History: Five Case Studies
Case Study #1: The Conversion of John Mackay
In 1903, young Scottish lad John Mackay, later president of Princeton Theological Seminary, experienced “boyish rapture” through reading Ephesians “in the Highland hills” of Scotland. He writes, “To this book I owe my life . . . in the pages of the Ephesian letter, I saw a new world. . . . Jesus Christ became the center of everything. The only explanation I could give to myself and to others was in the words . . . . ‘And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins’” (Eph. 2:1, KJV)—God’s Order (Macmillan, 1956), pages 6, 7, 9.
Case Study #2: An Explosion of Joy in the Life of Heather Holleman
Christian author Heather Holleman writes, “For most of my life, I fought to earn a seat at the ‘table’ I thought would finally bring me happiness . . . As a result, I lived in a constant state of comparison and jealousy.” One day, she read Ephesians 2:6. “God says we’re already seated with Christ . . . we’re already at the table. A lightning bolt of realization hit me . . . I’m already at the Greatest Table with the Greatest King, so my life explodes—not with comparison and jealousy—but with worship and joy as I live seated with Christ.”—www.proverbs31.org.
Case Study #3: Ephesians Inspires Watchman Nee
In his devotional classic, Sit, Walk, Stand, Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee summarizes Ephesians: “The Christian life consists of sitting with Christ, walking by Him and standing in Him. We begin our spiritual life by resting in the finished work of the Lord Jesus . . . the source of . . . a consistent and unfaltering walk in the world. And at the end of a grueling warfare with the hosts of darkness we are found standing with Him at last.”—(Christian Literature Crusade, 1962), pages 63, 64.
Case Study #4: The Conversion of Martin Luther and John Wesley
Ephesians 2:8-10 has played a role in the conversion of many. Martin Luther found there a grace that won his heart and discovered as well central affirmations of the Reformation: Salvation comes by faith alone, through grace alone, by Christ alone, and to the glory of God alone. In 1738, eighteen days after experiencing conversion in London’s Aldersgate Street, John Wesley preached at Oxford University offering “a cry from the heart” and “the manifesto of a new movement.” His text? Ephesians 2:8.—A. Skevington Wood, “Strangely Warmed: The Wesleys and the Evangelical Awakening,” Christian History (magazine), vol. 5, no. 1 (1984).
Case Study #5: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church proclaim Eph 2:14
During World War II, Nazi theologians in Germany struggled with Ephesians and its truth that the church is made up of both Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-22; 3:1-13). That Christ, on the cross, demolished the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14) was especially offensive to them. So they attempted to deflect Paul’s powerful indictment of Nazi antisemitism by arguing that the wall was not a horizontal one between Jews and Gentiles but a vertical wall between humans and God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church saw through this perversion of truth and adopted Ephesians 2:14 as a central, biblical argument against Nazi philosophy. What truth, proclaimed in Ephesians, do you need to stand for today?
Case Study #6: Erasmus and Ephesians
Ephesians 6 has inspired a great deal of Christian literature, including The Manual of the Christian Knight, written in 1501 by Erasmus (William Tyndale, the Bible translator, valued it highly). Here is a sample of its advice: “After your enemy is overcome . . . be diligent to avoid crediting anything about the victory to your own merits, but thank only the free gift of God.”—(Methuen & Company, 1905), p. 236, English translation updated.