Ephesians is different than most of Paul’s letters. Paul is usually straightforward and earnest, but Ephesians is ornate, even wordy. Paul’s letters are usually personal, naming names and addressing specific issues, but Ephesians is formal—strange, considering that Ephesus was arguably Paul’s missionary “home church.” Paul usually writes to address an issue, but the occasion of his letter to the Ephesians is not apparent, and the content addresses general, rather than specific, issues.
This has led some scholars to conclude that Paul didn’t write Ephesians. However, it may be instead that he wasn’t writing a letter in the usual sense. Ephesians may be an encyclical letter, that is, a sermon wrapped in a letter and intended to be read and passed around from church to church.
Thus, we should expect it to be different because a sermon is a kind of speech and should conform to the style for speeches of the day. Fourth-century philosopher Aristotle identified three kinds of speeches: deliberative, to impel the audience to action; forensic, to prove or disprove a proposition; and epideictic, to praise what is good and disavow what is not.* Ephesians fits that last category nicely.
Ephesians breaks into halves: Chapters 1–3 describe salvation history from a heaven-down perspective, and chapters 4–6 describe how the revelation of these cosmic “mysteries” should inform the way that believers live, from the ground up. The halves correspond to the address in 1:1. Salvation, like Paul’s apostleship, is “by the will of God” (chapters 1–3), which leads to “saints who are … faithful in Christ Jesus” (chapters 4–6).
By the Will of God
Commentators often remark on the repetition and long sentences in the first half of Ephesians. This, too, is in accordance with Aristotle’s recommendation:
“As flute-players begin by playing whatever they can execute skillfully and attach it to the key-note, so also in epideictic speeches … the speaker should say at once whatever he likes, give the key-note and then attach the main subject.”
Ephesians 1 is a eulogy, or a “good word,” in this case about God, and the “key-note” is variations on the same root: εὐλογητός (eulogētos), “blessed, praiseworthy”; εὐλογέω (eulogeō), “to praise, to bless”; and εὐλογία (eulogia), “blessing, gift.” Paul skillfully lavishes praise on the entire Trinity: Praise God the Father for the gift of Jesus Christ (1:3–12), which is sealed with the Holy Spirit (1:13–14). In so doing, he grounds all that follows in the good character of God.
In Ephesians 2 Paul riffs on the theme of salvation as seen from the outside and from above. Salvation in Christ is a free gift given to sinners by the will of God, by his own means, and for his own ends (2:1–10). From salvation in the general sense, Paul then focuses on salvation of the Gentiles specifically (2:11–22).
Ephesians 3 zooms in on Paul’s personal salvation and then wraps up the first half of the sermon with a doxology, a formal expression of praise ascribing glory to God.
Saints Who Are Faithful
The first half of Ephesians traces the subject of salvation from the greater and more general (God’s grand design, 1:3–22) to the lesser and more specific (Paul, “the very least of all the saints,” 3:8). From here, Paul turns the sermon inward, inviting each listener to consider how to apply these truths, to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1).
It’s debatable whether Ephesians 4–6 are epideictic or deliberative rhetoric, since praising good morals and scorning wickedness (epideictic) can easily cross the line into exhortation to do good and to avoid wickedness (deliberative). These chapters proceed from Paul’s appeal to unity (4:1–16) and an individual focus on the new life in Christ (4:17–5:21), to how that new life manifests in the family and the household (5:22–6:9).
The ending of a speech should summarize what came before and leave the listener with something memorable and clear. In the “Armor of God” section (6:10–20), Paul reframes the second half’s call to everyday righteous living as part of the cosmic conflict hinted at in the beginning, reminding the listener that even seemingly mundane acts have eternal consequence. Ephesians is the “Think globally, act locally” of its day: Paul takes the abstract theology of the first half and puts it into concrete terms in the second, with simple and clear steps that the listener can take to join the conflict.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
* Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Translated by J. H. Freese., ed. J. H. Freese, vol. 22 (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd., 1926), 1358b.
** Aristotle, Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Translated by J. H. Freese., ed. J. H. Freese, vol. 22 (Medford, MA: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd., 1926), 1414b.