Paul crafted his message to the Ephesian Christians well. He set forth how believers had been granted every spiritual blessing in the Lord Jesus Christ: predestination, election, adoption, an inheritance, the Spirit; all were lost in sin, but God showed great love, grace, and mercy in Christ; in Christ God killed the hostility between Jew and Gentile, and reconciled them into one body; the mystery of the Gospel is the inclusion of the Gentiles (Ephesians 1:1-3:12). Paul had prayed for the Ephesian Christians to have their hearts enlightened to perceive the great love God has manifested in Jesus according to the power at work in them (Ephesians 1:15-20, 3:14-21). On this basis Paul encouraged them to walk worthily and consistently with this calling: uphold the unity of the church, building up the church in love, no longer living as in darkness but manifesting the light of Jesus, walking wisely, living according to the will of the Lord (Ephesians 4:1-5:21).
Paul applied what it meant to live according to the will of the Lord in the marriage relationship, speaking of husbands and wives in terms of Christ and the church, and vice versa in Ephesians 5:22-33. He continued in the same theme, addressing parents and children in Ephesians 6:1-4: children are to obey their parents in the Lord, and fathers must not exasperate their children, but raise them in the Lord’s discipline and admonition. Paul grounded his exhortation to children in the fifth commandment given in Exodus 20:12: honor your father and mother. Those who honor their parents prove more likely to live quality lives as upright citizens; those who dishonor their parents are more liable to end up in ruin and despair. Yet children are to obey their parents in the Lord; if their parents demand anything contrary to the Lord’s will, children must obey God rather than man (cf. Acts 5:29). Children do not raise themselves; they need good boundaries, commending what is good and chastising what is evil. Children without boundaries yearn for them for the rest of their lives. Christians do well to provide those boundaries as the discipline of the Lord Jesus according to His revealed will.
Paul then turned to the relationship of masters and slaves in Ephesians 6:5-9: slaves were to prove obedient to their earthly masters, working as unto the Lord, knowing they would receive good from the Lord for doing so; masters were to treat slaves well without threatening, remembering they all have a Master watching over them in heaven. We today find such a passage difficult: how could Paul countenance such an institution as slavery? We must remember that slavery in the Roman world was not like the chattel slavery practiced in the American South; if a slave can obtain freedom, Paul would have him obtain it, and Paul’s powerful appeal to Philemon for Onesimus shows his concern for slaves (1 Corinthians 7:21, Philemon 1:1-22). The primary purpose of the Gospel is to reconcile people with God and each other in Christ; only in such radical equality can the inhumanity of owning another person become truly manifest. Slavery was pervasive in the ancient world; it was only circumscribed as a practice when Christianity expanded its reach. Whenever people sit at the Lord’s table together it proves difficult to justify the systems of mankind which considers some superior or inferior to others. Nevertheless Paul’s wisdom applies well to employers and employees today: work diligently at whatever you do, and do not exploit or threaten those under your charge.
Paul brought his exhortations together and to a close in Ephesians 6:10-20 by encouraging Christians to remain strong in the Lord and the strength of His might. He explained how Christians are in a struggle not with fellow humans (“flesh and blood”) but with all sorts of powers and principalities, cosmic forces ruling over this present darkness (Ephesians 6:12). To this end Christians must equip themselves with the armor of God in order to stand against the devil’s schemes (Ephesians 6:11, 13). Paul used traditional Roman armor to make his case. A Roman soldier’s armor was held together by the belt; Christians must gird themselves with the belt of truth, which thus holds everything else together (Ephesians 6:14). The breastplate would provide protection for the internal organs; righteousness serves that role for the Christian (Ephesians 6:14). Good shoes proved important if the army would move efficiently and effectively; Christians wear the “shoes” of the preparation of the Gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15). The Roman shield was the front line of defense, made to withstand spears and even fire arrows; Roman soldiers lined up in maniple formation, in which each soldier’s shield protected part of him and also part of the man next to him; Christians use faith as a shield, not in isolation, but in formation together with fellow members of the body of Christ, able to extinguish the fire arrows of the Evil One (Ephesians 6:16). The helmet protects the head; Christians are preserved in salvation (Ephesians 6:17). The offensive weapon for the Christian is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God; the sword is the machaira, a short sword used for stabbing, presuming close quarters in battle (Ephesians 6:17). Battles are won or lost on the basis of effective communication: to this end Christians must always be in contact with “headquarters,” praying at all times, making supplication, watching in prayer for all the Christians, and also Paul himself, that he might speak the Gospel with boldness as he had opportunity, living as an ambassador of Jesus in chains (Ephesians 6:18-20). When all the exhortation is said and done Christians must remember they are in the midst of a war. They did not ask to participate in this war, but the war goes on all around them, and they are all caught up in the conflict whether they recognize it or not. Likewise the Christian must remember it is a spiritual war, not a physical one; far too many have justified horrendous acts of barbarity and cruelty in war in the name of Jesus, something Jesus never commended in life or through His Apostles. Christians are not the heroes of this war; Jesus is. It is not for the Christian to storm the enemy’s gates; as Paul insisted and repeated time and again in Ephesians 6:10-20, it is for the Christian to stand firm, to resist the forces of evil. He is equipped more in defense than offense, and must act accordingly. Christians will not stand because of their own heroic strength; they stand because they trust in the Lord and in His might to withstand the array of evil forces against them.
The letter to the Ephesians provides little personal detail about Paul’s condition; Tychicus, Paul’s Asian companion, would provide such detail in person (Ephesians 6:21-22). Paul ended his letter to the Ephesians with a standard conclusion for a letter, that peace, grace, and love with faith may come to all who love the Lord with an incorruptible love (Ephesians 6:23-24). In this way Paul has left with the Ephesian Christians and all Christians throughout time a compelling and majestic explanation of the great blessings with which God has blessed us in Jesus, and how Christians are to live in light of all those blessings. May we prove ever thankful for God’s glorious display of grace, love, and mercy in Jesus, walk worthily of our calling, and stand firm in the Lord and His strength!
Ethan R. Longhenry