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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through Ephesians

The Address ( 1, 1–14 )

Ephesians identifies the sender as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” The absence from some manuscripts of the designation “in Ephesus” ( 1, 1 ) is one reason why Ephesians is considered by some to be a circular letter— intended for a wider audience rather than for the specific community at Ephesus alone. No particularities regarding the Ephesian community are mentioned as is customary when Paul writes to a community he knows as well as he should have known the Ephesians (see Acts 19, 10 ). The lack of a personalized greeting further supports the view that this is a letter to all the churches written by a Pauline disciple.

A doxology or blessing of God replaces the personal thanksgiving characteristic of Paul's letters (Eph 1, 3–6 ). As if conscious of the great mystery of the church he is about to describe, the author begins by proclaiming the blessedness of God. The recurrence of the term “blessed” and the many liturgical references suggest that this prayer of praise is inspired by the Jewish liturgies in which believers, mindful of the wondrous works of God, cannot but bless the Creator. The focus is on God's blessing in Christ in whom the divine plan for the salvation of all people is achieved. The Holy Spirit is described as the “first installment” ( 1, 14 ) of our inheritance toward redemption.

The Body of the Letter ( 1, 15–6, 20 )

The message of Ephesians has two parts. The first or doctrinal section ( 1, 15–4, 24 ) unfolds the church as the fulfillment of God's plan for salvation, inaugurated in Christ. A second section ( 4, 25–6, 20 ) contains ethical “imperatives” concerning the daily conduct of believers, providing practical applications of Paul's teaching.

The Teaching on the Church ( 1, 15–4, 24 )

Ephesians develops the New Testament teaching about the unity of the church and the church's worldwide mission. Integral to this mission is the significant role of the apostle in its promotion. We shall briefly consider each of these teachings.

Unity of the Church ( 1, 15–2, 22 ). The ecclesiology, or theology of the church, in Ephesians is integrally linked to its Christology. That is to say that its view of the church follows from its view of Christ and Christ's saving work. Therefore, to understand the emphasis on the unity of the church that occurs in Ephesians, we must see the perspective on Christ developed there. The Christology and ecclesiology in Ephesians and Colossians is developed beyond that in Paul's major letters to the Corinthians and the Romans. Yet this development has its roots in Paul, for whom the image of the church as the body of Christ helps to express the unity of Christians and the salvific work of Christ's death and resurrection.

The description of the church as the Body of Christ appears first in 1 Corinthians 12, 12–27 and Romans 12, 4–8 . Paul urged the Christians in Corinth and Rome to express their unity in mutual love as members of the same body, Christ. But in Ephesians and Colossians there is a major change in the image. Here Christ is referred to as the “head of the body, the church” (Eph 1, 22–23; Col 1, 18 ). This shift in the image leads away from the mutual participation and responsibility of all the members to centralized authority in the person of Christ, who is portrayed as above every principality, authority, and dominion (cf. Eph 1, 21–22 ). Nevertheless, the recipients are still reminded that in the body of Christ, we are members of one another ( 4, 15 ) and of Christ ( 5, 30 ).

By his resurrection, Paul asserts, Jesus became Lord of all, Jews and Gentiles and every creature (see 1 Cor 12, 3 ). This is so because in Christ's resurrection God has conquered sin and death; it is the beginning of a new era. Paul's writings speak of the humiliation (death) and exaltation (resurrection) of Christ by which God vindicated Jesus because of his obedience. Jesus now sits at God's right hand. At Jesus' name, every knee bends and every tongue proclaims that Jesus is Lord (Phil 2, 6–11 ). This is one of the oldest Christological proclamations (Rom 10, 9 ). Jesus' lordship is an expression of his sovereignty over all created things and his word reconciling the whole of creation to God. Yet even now the universal recognition of Jesus' lordship has not been completed. The mission of preaching Christ's lordship and bringing all creation under God's reign is entrusted to the church.

Some time after AD 50, when Paul was writing Galatians and Romans, it is clear that one of the major problems facing the church was the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles under one God and one Lord. Distinctions between Jews and Gentiles were symbolized by such practices as circumcision, dietary laws, and restrictions regarding table fellowship, intermarriage, and other forms of social interaction. These, Paul insisted, were obliterated by Christ's death. Yet the apostle himself had to struggle to resolve the tensions between Israel and the Gentiles (see, for example, Romans 9–11 ). The teaching about the church in Ephesians seems to reflect a time or place in which these tensions are resolved. The Gentiles are portrayed as those who were once “far off…strangers to the covenants of promise.” Now they have “become near by the blood of Christ” ( 2, 13 ). The images of the church as the body of Christ and Christ as the head of the church serve to illustrate the intrinsic unity of the church of Jews and Gentiles, that is, of all people in Christ.

World Mission of the Church ( 3, 1–4, 24 ). The author of Ephesians identifies himself as “Paul, a prisoner of Christ [Jesus] for you Gentiles” ( 3, 1 ). He then abruptly interrupts this self‐introduction to elaborate on his role in the mystery of God's plan for the salvation of the world. Now imprisoned, Paul continues the work of intercession. Through prayer Paul brings the Gentiles to God. The church—the body of Christ and the family of God—is entrusted with the work of salvation that is to fill all things “with the fullness of God” ( 3, 19 ). Paul understands his work to be essential in God's plan, and yet he is unperturbed either by his own imprisonment or by the failure of some to accept the message of Christ. Salvation as well as creation is in God's hands, and God's plan is being fulfilled in inscrutable mystery.

Again the language reflects that introduced by Paul in his earlier writings. But the conception of the divine plan of salvation is more developed. The church, under the impetus of the Spirit, is bringing all to the “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” ( 4, 6 ). Paul's prayer is that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God” ( 3, 19 ). The mystery of God who ordained that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11, 26 ) now prescribes that we “no longer live as the Gentiles do” (Eph 4, 17 ), but “put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth” ( 4, 24 ). Having described this mystery, Paul goes on to exhort the Ephesians to express their common call to holiness and unity in their daily life.

Ethical Applications ( 4, 25–6, 20 )

Ephesians 5 illustrates how its teaching on the church has practical consequences in the daily lives of believers. Ephesians 5, 1 says, “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.” This could be the summary of the whole of Christian life. The author of Ephesians draws out some implications of imitating God by living in love. Much of this section consists of general moral exhortation, description of what the ideal Christian life with one another should look like.

Christians relate to one another in ways already established and governed, at least to some extent, by outward society. So, for example, wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters all follow Greco‐Roman social norms, which give some direction about the rights and duties of people who are in these kinds of relationships. The author adopts and adapts the traditional philosophical approach to household life that is at least as old as Aristotle and that we call “household rules.” In ordinary Greco‐Roman society the lines of authority and of subservience were clearly drawn. Husbands, parents, and masters all have great power over wives, children, and slaves in a rigid social hierarchy.

For Paul these rules or principles become practical applications of faith for members of the “household of God” ( 2, 19 ), giving directives for various segments of society in their relationships to one another. Paul does not offer a radical critique of certain social contracts, such as slavery or male dominance. Yet for him, relationships among Christians must reflect a new perspective. Christians are motivated to a new way of thinking, determined by their common baptism. Christians share the conviction that all are one in Christ and saved by Christ. This leads to innovations in the usual treatment of household rules: here both parties in a relationship are addressed, whereas in the traditional form, only the male authority would be addressed, and here the inferior party is even addressed first. The Ephesians are urged to “live in a manner worthy of the call you have received…bearing with one another through love” (Eph 4, 1f ). They are exhorted to “be subordinate to one another” ( 5, 21 ), to “nourish and cherish” one another, because they are members of one body ( 5, 29–30 ). The extra verses spent on the analogy of husband to Christ and wife to the church are the springboard for much later mysticism, even as they also have been justification for continued subordinate positions for women. Such a passage as this, along with the exhortations to slave obedience, are paradoxical combinations of beauty, grace, and what today can only be seen as social oppression in the name of faith. They require careful interpretation both in the context of the author's world and of ours.

If we do not let these thorny problems be major obstacles, reading Ephesians today can inspire us to a powerful vision of the church. It leads us to reassess the ordinary way of approaching one another as colleagues, family, clients, and the like. We, like the Ephesians, are urged to remember our real identity and to respect others by relating to everyone in a way worthy of members of the “household of God.” The ordinary hierarchical system that prevails in the world is superseded by a new way of relating to one another in Christ.

Paul finally urges the Ephesians to “pray at every opportunity in the Spirit” ( 6, 18 ). He again asks for prayers for himself, that he may speak “the mystery of the gospel” with boldness and courage even though he is in chains ( 6, 19–20 ).

Conclusion ( 6, 21–24 )

Ephesians does not exhibit the usual personal tone and greetings of Paul's authentic letters. In the conclusion, however, the author indicates that he sends the letter with Tychicus ( 6, 21 ), the name of Paul's messenger of Colossians as well (Col 4, 7 ). The final prayers are for peace and love and grace.

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