An Ounce of Prevention
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 1:1–1:2
We are often told by those in the helping professions—whether it be medicine, education, family life, or law enforcement—that there are two ways to deal with problems.
The first is to employ “corrective measures,” which begins by identifying the root cause of the problem and then taking the remedial steps necessary to correct the problem and to prevent it from occurring again in the future.
The second method is to employ what are known as “preventive measures.” That is where potential problems are foreseen and steps are taken to prevent them from occurring.
The difference between the two is that correction is “reactive,” whereas prevention is “proactive.” As we make our way through life there will be place for both, but in the final analysis most of us would have to agree with Ben Franklin that “an ounce of prevention (surely) is worth a pound of cure.”
The Apostle Paul must have had that in mind when he was moved by God, while under house arrest, to write the Letter to the Ephesians. Unlike most of his epistles, which addressed doctrinal controversies and internal disputes within local churches, the content and tone of Ephesians is quite different. In short, this letter was written not to correct error, but to prevent it.
Elsewhere this same Paul cautioned, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Most of us don’t realize how close we are to falling until we actually fall. Looking back we realize that there were things we might have done and measures we may have taken that would have kept us from falling. That is Paul’s main purpose. Therefore, as we begin to explore this letter together over the next few months, the exhortation for us all is to “take heed.”
In order to do that, let me suggest some things here at the outset that will help us to do that. Commit to reading through the six chapters of Ephesians each week we will be in this letter. A chapter each day—Monday through Saturday—will get you ready for the Lord’s Day, but every now and then read the entire letter in one sitting. As you read, take notes of those things that strike you as particularly meaningful, and ask questions of those things you don’t understand. You’ll be amazed at how much you will glean from your own private study of this book.
In addition, pray as you read. Pray for yourself, your elders and deacons, and fellow-church members. These are the ones with whom you have covenanted and who will be going through this epistle with you on Sunday mornings. In short, come to each service prepared to receive what the Lord has to say to His church at Temple Hills.
As we enter into Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this morning, there are a number of preliminary matters that should be addressed, lest we miss the historical context in which it was written. But before we do that, let’s look first of all at...
The opening greeting (1:1-2)
Verses 1 and 2 read,
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
There is nothing unusual about this salutation. It follows the general pattern found in all of Paul’s thirteen New Testament letters. But “unusual” does not mean “ordinary.” Never let the familiar words of Scripture obscure their significance. Let me show you what I mean.
Take the author’s identification of himself. He is “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” The name of “Paul” would have carried great weight among the believers in Asia Minor, and particularly in Ephesus and its surrounding area. He had been there twice, stopping briefly near the end of his first missionary journey (cf. Acts 18:24-28) and returning there near the start of his third journey (cf. Acts 19:1-41), where he conducted a ministry of more than two years. During that time, he likely planted a church in that location—perhaps more than one—before being forced to leave. Even then, his heart remained with the believers there, as evidenced by his impassioned speech to and prayer with the Ephesian elders when he called for them at Miletus in Acts 20:17-38). Whether he ever saw them again or not is unclear, but about five years later—while being under house arrest in Rome where he awaited trial for preaching the Gospel—he penned this letter of concern to them.
The fact that he was a recognized “apostle of Christ Jesus” would have given his written words great authority. Therefore, when this letter was received it would have been eagerly read by the believers in Ephesus. The word “apostle” means “one who is sent,” and could in a general way be used of anyone who was sent on a mission on behalf on another. But the designation, “apostle of Jesus Christ,” was a special one. It referred to one who had seen the risen Lord and had been invested with His direct authority to bear the message and fulfill the ministry of Christ. Therefore, there are no “apostles” in the truest sense of that word today. We will discuss that more fully when we get to chapter 4 of this epistle.
Paul continues by saying that he was “an apostle of Christ Jesus (now note) by the will of God.” As we remember from his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:1-9), apostleship was not a calling he sought. It was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust upon Him by the will of a sovereign God. Until the day he died, Paul never got over meeting the resurrected Christ. It compelled his every thought and every move for the rest of his days. Three times his conversion experience is recounted in the Book of Acts (cf. Acts 22:1-11 and 26:9-19).
The original recipients of this letter are mentioned in the second half of verse 1. They are identified as “The saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Contrary to the understanding of some, “saints” are not those who are among the so-called “super spiritual.” Scripture makes it clear that it is a designation used of every follower of Christ.
During his visit to the United States later this month, Pope Francis plans to “canonize” or confer “sainthood” status upon an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan friar. Aren’t you glad that believers do not have to wait two-and-a-half centuries to be declared “saints...in Christ Jesus.” It is He alone who bestows that title and grants that privilege. We will see that more clearly as we proceed through the epistle.
The fact that Paul adds “and are faithful” means to complement the designation “saints,” and not to refer to a separate category of believers. True “saints” are “faithful” followers of Christ Jesus. By the way, the phrase “in Christ Jesus” and similar ones are favorites of Paul in all of his letters. It speaks of the position or place of security of the believer. We will come across that phrase repeatedly in this letter.
The blessing of “grace...and peace” in verse 2 is a standard in all of Paul’s letters. And while that same greeting has been found in non-Christian letters of that time, the New Testament surely invests in them deeper and more profound meanings. “Grace” speaks of God’s steadfast love and unconditional favor to man, and “peace” refers to that relational state into which one enters as a result of God’s grace. Of these two terms, John Stott has stated that “grace” indicates “God’s free, saving initiative,” and “peace” is what He “has taken the initiative to do, namely to reconcile sinners to himself and to each other.” Both words will be repeated themes throughout Ephesians.
Having introduced the letter, let’s now widen the lens and look briefly at...
The city of Ephesus
Ephesus was a wealthy port city located on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, in what is Turkey today. It was situated along an important trade route connecting the major cities of that region. In fact, in Paul’s day, it was the great commercial metropolis in that part of the Roman Empire. It was also a center of learning and was therefore highly respected. If we can imagine for a moment a world without modern technology and major highways, Ephesus could be prepared with the large cities of ours or any other age.
Perhaps Ephesus’ greatest renown was its affinity for religion. Residents of the city, particularly the upper crust of society, held an incurable fascination for the magic arts and the occult. Astrologists, sorcerers, and exorcists lined the streets like vendors offering their handmade images and services for a fee.
Located there was the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and dating back to six centuries before Christ This impressive structure was built of shining marble and stood just outside the city walls. In the inner shrine was the image of the goddess Artemis, a grotesque woman-like figure having many breasts. According to Acts 19:35 and other sources, the Ephesians superstitiously believed that she had fallen from heaven. People came from all corners of the empire to worship her and to beseech her favor.
It has been traditionally taught that Artemis (whose Roman name was Diana) was associated with sexuality and fertility, as suggested by her many breasts. Recent research, however, has supplemented and perhaps even challenged that traditional belief. In a pair of articles—one yet to be published—Sandra Glahn of Dallas Seminary has concluded as a result of her study (and I quote):
“Rather than viewing Artemis...as a fertility goddess or even as sexually active, people at the time of the earliest Christians appear to have seen in her the ability to deliver a woman through life’s most dangerous passage, childbirth. As the number one cause of death in women was childbirth, (Artemis)...was viewed as presiding at births without herself being associated with sex, fertility, or nurturing.”
In other words, while many associate Artemis with sexuality and fertility, “on further review” it appears that she is to be more accurately identified as overseeing the actual process of childbirth and bestowing either the sentence of life or death to women in labor. In this sense (and Glahn’s study appears to have merit), Artemis would have been more associated with the function of the midwife rather than with sex and fertility. Refusing to make offerings to the goddess of midwifery as a statement of faith in her would have caused an expectant mother great anxiety as the prospect of dying in childbirth would have terrified her.
I digress to make that point in order to help us to better understand the mindset of the Ephesians during the time when Paul ministered there. Ephesus was deeply rooted in religious superstition. Reading Acts 19 with this in mind helps shed light on the riot that ensued in the city when Paul spoke against Artemis and threatened the livelihood of those who made and sold images of her. It may also help to explain what Paul meant when writing to Timothy (who later oversaw the work in Ephesus) and linking it to the Gospel message said, women “shall be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15)...that is, through the childbearing process. And although related, that is another topic for another day.
So let’s take a few moments to consider...
The church at Ephesus
Whenever the Gospel invades an unreached area, it creates enormous theological waves. That has been true in every era of church history. That is why fulfilling the Great Commission is such a dangerous task. Nevertheless, and in spite of the risk, it is what the followers of Christ have been called to do.
The history of the church at Ephesus dates back to Acts 19 when Paul arrived in that region near the recorded beginning of his third missionary journey. He had briefly stopped there a few years earlier (cf. Acts 18:18-19), but rather than personally remaining there longer he left Aquila and his wife Priscilla to begin discipling those who were coming to faith. Upon his return to Ephesus there appears to have been a group of Christians, but we read of no organizational beginning for a church at that point. That became his mission, one in which he invested the better part of three years evangelizing, discipling, and planting a local church (cf. Acts 19:10 and 20:31). During this time he is also believed to have written his first Corinthian epistle (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:9 with Acts 19:22)
As might be expected the make-up of the church in Ephesus was largely Gentile, although there does appear to have been a strong Jewish presence. As was his practice, Paul was not averse to going first to synagogue and reasoning with the Jews about the claims of Christ (cf. Acts 18:19).
When his ministry in Ephesus was concluded, he placed it into the leadership hands of the elders there. After three years of intensive pastoral care, the church recognized those among its number who were qualified to serve in that capacity. Even after having handed off the role of shepherding the saints in Ephesus, Paul’s loving concern for them continued. Some time later while on his return journey to Jerusalem, he stopped at Miletus and called for the Ephesian elders to come to him. There he exhorted them and prayed for him before bidding them farewell for what we believe was the final time.
While his own ministry was about to take a dramatic turn that would result in two Roman imprisonments and his eventual execution, the work in Ephesus would continue with capable oversight. We know from 1 Timothy 1:3ff that Timothy was placed in charge of the work there after Paul had departed for Macedonia. What’s more, the now-elder John—one of the original twelve disciples—was serving there at the time of his arrest and banishment to the Isle of Patmos (cf. Revelation 1:9). It was there that he received his revelation of the exalted Christ and wrote the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. It does not go without notice that the very first of those letters was addressed to “the church in Ephesus” (cf. Revelation 2:1), the church where he personally served.
Sadly, that letter condemns the Ephesian church for having “left their first love” (cf. Revelation 2:4). Thus within a generation this church, which had been planted and cultivated through direct apostolic instruction, had “fallen” and was being called upon to “repent.” Years earlier, during the church’s infancy, Paul was aware of the frailty of human nature. He knew that even when sanctified by grace, these young believers in Ephesus would need the word of caution contained in this letter before any major problems arose. To this day, every church and every Christian is given similar warning lest they too fall prey to the forces that lure us away from our Savior. Indeed, may you and I this morning look to ourselves and vow to maintain constant vigilance. As the church at Ephesus was exhorted, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7)
So, with this brief overview of the city and the church of Ephesus, we turn now to just a few comments regarding...
The epistle of Ephesians
Very few dispute that Paul wrote this letter while under house arrest in Rome, probably around A.D. 62 (cf. Acts 28:30-31). It is one of four—along with Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon—that have been designated “prison epistles.” There are a number of common themes that can be found in both Ephesians and Colossians. The main distinction, however, appears to be that whereas the emphasis of Colossians is on the Person of Christ, the emphasis of Ephesians is on the Body of Christ, the Church. These two letters have together been referred to as “companion volumes.” Both are believed to have been carried to their prescribed destinations by a man named Tychicus, Paul’s “beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:21) and “fellow servant in the Lord” (Colossians 4:7). His report was intended to bring “encouragement” to the believers in both places (cf. Ephesians 6:22 and Colossians (4:8).
As mentioned, Ephesians appears to have been written to prevent error rather than to correct it. Its content can be divided into two equal halves. This may best be described by a series of parallel words or expressions, as illustrated in this chart:
|Chap. 1- 3||Position||Doctrine||Belief||Wealth||Heavenly Calling||Theological|
|Chap. 4- 6||Practice||Duty||Behavior||Walk||Earthly Conduct||Ethical|
In the first three chapters we rise to spiritual heights as we read of “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18), while in the final three chapters we are exhorted to “get our heads out of the clouds” and to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). First instruction, then exhortation.
There is a textual matter with which we must deal before concluding this introduction to the epistle. It is found in the mention of the letter’s recipients in the latter half of verse 1. The English Standard Version reads, “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Now what I am about to say has no bearing on the authenticity, reliability, or the credibility of the text, but it does speak to who the original recipients of this letter appear to have been. In fact, many of your Bibles address this matter in a footnote at the bottom of the page.
The issue is whether the phrase “in Ephesus” (“εν Εφεσω”) was part of Paul’s original composition, or if it was added by a well-meaning scribe some years later for the sake of clarification. Early and reliable manuscript evidence favors the latter. In other words, Paul’s original greeting likely would have read this way: “to the saints and faithful ones in Christ Jesus.”
There are several reasons for favoring the omission of the “in Ephesus” phrase. One is that no mention or reference is made to a particular local assembly of believers. In other words, no specific church-related issues are addressed. Although deeply meaningful to all Christians, the message of the letter is more general than specific. We might even be tempted to say that its message is more applicable to the Universal Church rather than to one isolated church. But then again, we don’t want to make that a hard-and-fast distinction. The truth is the contents of this later are deeply relevant to every local body of believers, including ours.
The absence of personal and historical references, which are so characteristic of Paul’s other epistles, further argues that Ephesians was written as an encyclical epistle to be read by a number of churches in the region of Asia Minor near and including Ephesus. In fact, some even believe that this could be the presumed “missing letter” that Paul wrote to the Laodiceans and which is referred to in Colossians 4:16. What all of this means to us is that this epistle was not intended to be read and applied by only one local church in the 1st-century. Indeed, we may say with confidence that it is “universal” in nature and meant for every local assembly in every age. For all practical purposes, it could just as well have been addressed “to the saints who are in Temple Hills.”
With that in mind, we are now ready to wade into this letter, and we will begin doing just that next Sunday morning. I hope you will be with us because there is much for us to learn and apply together.
As we approach our investigation of the Ephesian letter, we need to keep in mind that Paul’s purpose for writing it was to prevent problems rather than to correct them. This epistle, therefore, calls us to safeguard the Gospel at all costs. It exhorts Christians to carefully consider the treasure that is theirs in Christ before “selling themselves” to a lesser god.
In 1 John 1:9 we read the familiar words, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What a precious promise...and yet how often and how easily we abuse it. In spite of how we may apply this text, it is not to be used as “carte blanche” so that we can go on sinning at will.
When I was growing up, there was a popular Christian song that received a lot of play even on secular radio stations. It contained this refrain:
“And though it makes Him sad to see the way we live,
He’ll always say, ‘I forgive.’”
While the writer probably meant for those words to bring comfort and encouragement to those who would sing and hear his song, I cannot help but wonder how many professing followers of Christ have used them as a “get out of jail free” card. While it is true that God forgives the repentant sinner, it is not a pardon that is granted flippantly. In that same 1 John passage we are told that it is “the blood of Jesus...(that) cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). “The blood of Jesus.” That means that our forgiveness comes at a great cost. It cost the very life of the Lord Jesus. Keep that in mind the next time temptation knocks at your door. This reminder should tell us that God does not take our sin lightly...certainly not as lightly as we often do.
There is a better way than confession of sin, and that is to let our riches in Christ serve as a greater motivator to keep us from sin. And while it is true that “sinless perfection” will elude all of us this side of heaven, it remains the goal toward which we strive, knowing that it is God who at work in us day-by-day conforming us to the image of His Son.
Paul wrote Ephesians urging us to consider the position that belongs already to every true follower of Christ. We have been reconciled to God and unified to one another “in Christ Jesus.” And because of that, he further exhorts us live out our position in our daily practice. So let me suggest a few things that we can do this week:
First, if you have are already doing so, cultivate the habit of spending time reading and meditating upon God’s Word each morning. As I mentioned earlier, read a chapter of Ephesians everyday as we go through it together and ask God to illumine your understanding.
Second, when you find your thoughts drifting to the temptations and pressures of this world, hit the “pause” button and ask the Lord to bring back to your mind those things you read and meditated upon that morning. Keep the vision of Christ ever before you. And with that as a basis, ask Him to renew your spirit and restore His peace and His presence to your heart (cf. Isaiah 26:3).
Third, share with others what God is teaching you through Ephesians. Engage others in conversation and possibly invite them to read through this letter with you...either on your lunch hour or one evening during the week. Pray for wisdom as you do, and remain open to the leading of God’s Spirit.
And fourth, plan to be present each week as we dig into this epistle together. Get a good night’s sleep the evening before and come with eager anticipation of adding to your own reading through the sermon of that day.
Therefore, “To the saints who are in Temple Hills, and are faithful in Christ Jesus. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” May the Lord who safeguards His Gospel cause His church—this church—to faithfully strive to do so as well.