“To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1b)1
Review and Advance
In our previous post we explored who wrote the letter of Ephesians (Paul). In this post we will look at who the letter was written to. Paul gives us four characterizations of the recipients of this letter: their status (saints), their location (Ephesus), their steadfastness (he calls them “faithful”), and most importantly their union with Christ (he says they are “in Christ Jesus”). We will apply each of these points to ourselves as we move along rather than saving the application until the end.
Paul begins by addressing them as “saints...” Now we want to be careful here because the Bible uses this term a little differently from what you might be used to. Most of us are used to the Catholic conception of a saint. In Catholicism one may be considered a saint if (1) they lived a particularly holy life; (2) they preformed at least two miracles; and (3) their lives are thoroughly investigated and their miracles authenticated by the church.2
But it’s instructive to compare this idea of sainthood to the idea of sainthood presented in the Bible. The recipients of Paul’s letter have not likely performed at least two miracles each. So in what sense then are they saints? The biblical conception of a saint—the way Paul uses the term here—is just a “holy one.” A holy one is someone who has been set apart.3 This setting apart has a dual aspect: (1) Believers in Jesus are set apart from sin on the one hand. (2) And they are set apart to God on the other.4
This setting apart happens the moment that a person believes in Jesus. It is as if God says in that moment, “They are mine. They are set apart to me.” It is a position; it is a status. Therefore, every true believer in Jesus Christ is a saint.5 Biblical commentator Markus Barth writes: “Even the wild Corinthians are called ‘sanctified’ and ‘perfect’ (1 Cor 1:2; 2:6). While occasionally Paul presupposes a sharp division between ‘those outside’ and ‘those inside,’ between ‘the unbelieving’ and ‘the faithful,’ he has no room for half- or three-quarters Christians.”6
Because sainthood is a position and a status that we enjoy in Christ, it is something that is always true of us. It doesn’t change. Think about the implications of this. Your status as “holy” or as a “saint” is every bit as much true of you when you are sinning as a Christian as it is when you are worshiping God on Sunday morning!7 Now to be clear your actions in that moment are not aligned with your status—and they certainly need to be (more on that later!). But that does not change your status. You are still a saint. This was true of the Ephesians in the first century. And it is true of us today. If you are a believer in Jesus...you are a saint! It’s a position that has been given to you by God. And it is not a position that is dependent on doing miracles or even on being holy. It depends only on having placed faith in Jesus Christ.
But this position, this status as holy ones does and should have an impact on our lives. As a believer you are called to “be what you are.”8 Precisely because you are holy, therefore, you should seek to live a holy life.
Paul writes to “the saints who are in Ephesus...” (Eph. 1:1b). Ephesus was a city of the Roman empire located in what is today Western Turkey. As many as a quarter of a million people may have lived there in the first century AD.9 Not too shabby as far as ancient cities are concerned! It was a prominent center of commerce, culture, and religious life.10 It was located along important trade routes11 and boasted a theater, a stadium (where one day Christians would be persecuted),12 and the temple of Artemis/Diana—considered one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world.13 This temple housed a “sacred stone” that had fallen from heaven (Acts 19:35)—likely a meteorite.14 The Romans saw it fall from the sky, recovered it...and benightedly worshiped it!
Paul visited Ephesus briefly in 52 AD as his second missionary journey drew to a close (Acts 18:19-21). His third missionary journey found him back in Ephesus when he would have carried out the majority of his ministry there (see Acts 19).15 According to the chronology in Acts, he stayed and ministered in Ephesus for almost three years making this his longest recorded missionary stop.16 His stay was not uneventful.
As was his practice he began to share the gospel in the local synagogue (Acts 19:8). When some of the Jews began to speak against Christianity, Paul moved his operation to a local lecture hall owned by a man named Tyrannus (Acts 19:9). (From the synagogue to the university so to speak.) God attested Paul’s message with remarkable miracles. Even articles of clothing he had come into contact with could be used to heal or cast out demons (Acts 19:11-12). We don’t have an example of this anywhere else in Paul’s ministry or even anywhere else in the New Testament.17 It is quite possible that given the goddess Diana’s reputation for power and might18 that God was doing such extraordinary miracles to demonstrate that he was stronger than their false goddess. Not only were there these miracles, but God gave the gospel message great success. Public confession of sin took place (Acts 19:18) as well as public burning of books of magic (Acts 19:19).
When so many people in Ephesus turned to the gospel some of the local craftsmen who made their living by selling shrines of Artimes began to feel the pinch (Acts 19:23-27). (Yes, the gospel frequently has economic repercussions!) Incited by a craftsman named Demetrius, they rioted in the theater of Ephesus (Acts 19:24, 28-34) until the town clerk finally settled them down (Acts 19:35-41).
If Paul ministered in Ephesus from around 53-56 AD19 and likely wrote Ephesians some four to five years later,20 then no doubt many of these events were still in the back of his mind as he wrote this letter.
But now a question confronts us. Does the fact that Paul is writing to specific individuals at a particular point in history mean that there is little or no relevance for us today? Are we in effect reading someone else’s mail?
Now from the divine perspective this is certainly not so. God speaks into specific situations (which is why they call letters of the New Testament “occasional”—there was an “occasion” that prompted them!)21 But he fully intended his Word in those specific situations—which was eventually included in his Word the Bible—to transcend those specific situations. This is sometimes true for us as well. It would be like if you were to write a letter to a specific person but you knew that other people would eventually read that letter as well. And you fully intend to communicate with them also. So, yes, you are communicating with the person to whom you are writing the letter—but you also intend to communicate with everyone else who will eventually read the letter. So from the standpoint of the inspiration of Scripture and God’s authorship of Scripture, we can say that these words are intended for us.
But on the human level Paul himself likely also intended this letter to be read by more than merely the Ephesian Christians. The early church noticed that Paul wrote to seven churches (the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica) and, since the number seven represented completeness, they interpreted this fact to mean that Paul intended these epistles for the church as a whole.22 Most would not find that reasoning particularly convincing today. Far more compelling than that, however, are the historical circumstances of the letter to Ephesus itself and what Paul himself says about one of his other letters (Colossians).
Ephesians is part of a cluster of letters that Paul wrote while he was in prison probably around 60-61 AD. This cluster consists of Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and a lost letter to Laodicea.23 At the end of Colossians Paul says: “Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:15-16). Paul wanted these letters circulated and read at various churches. If this was true of the letters to Colossea and Laodicea it was likely true of the letter to Ephesus as well.
In fact—and this might be a little unsettling for some of us—some of our early manuscripts of Ephesians don’t have the words “in Ephesus” in this opening greeting!24 You may have a footnote in your Bible alerting you to that fact. And I draw your attention to it because I want you to hear it from me! The letter may have been a general letter that became historically attached to Ephesus (it’s first destination?) so that the address was added.25 But it seems more likely to me that the letter was in fact written to the Ephesians but was so generally helpful26 that the original address was dropped from some of the manuscripts as the book was copied.27
Whatever the case, this letter speaks beyond its historical context. So the church father Tertullian could say in the third century AD: “the title is of no interest because in writing to a certain church the apostle is writing to all” (Adv. Marc. 5.17).28 Yes, God intended it to speak to the Ephesians. But he also intended it to speak to you and to me. So we are not exactly reading someone else’s mail when we come to Ephesians. We are encountering something God intended for us.
Paul characterizes them as “faithful.” Now we may be liable to misunderstand this word just as much as we were liable to misunderstand the word “saint.”29 When we think about the idea of faithfulness we probably imagine various things about devotion in our Christian life. Maybe we imagine it means something like being faithful in terms of exercising spiritual disciplines. We imagine that on fire Christian who is:
In prayer every second of every day
Constantly craving Bible study
Telling other people about Jesus every chance they can get
In church every moment the door is open
Just about done removing sin from their life30
But the faithfulness Paul has in mind here is not so much about these types of things. It’s not so much about doing your Bible study every day (though you should be in the Word!). It’s actually primarily about believing. It’s about believing in Jesus. Trusting in his life, death, and resurrection on our behalf.31 If we translated the word used here (pistos) actively, we would render it “believing.” However, almost all Bible translations render it passively—“faithful.”32 Why might the passive rendering be slightly better? Because there may be a nuance here of continuing to believe.33 Continuing to hold on to the Christian faith.34 Continuing to persevere in belief in Jesus. Remaining steadfast. Not wavering.
Now what we usually think of as “the faithful Christian life” is going to flow out of that kind of faith. And to some extent we may even consider the spiritual disciples as tools that help us persevere in faith. But in a more definitive sense, they are the river and FAITH IN CHRIST is the source.35
So...are you persevering in the Christian life? Do you continue—from the heart—to hold onto Jesus day by day? If someone were writing a letter to you, could they characterize you as “faithful” in this sense? I leave the questions between you and God.
But there is one last thing we must look at. We’ve saved the most important point for last.
Their Union with Christ
Paul says they are “in Christ Jesus.” This is a frequent phrase that Paul employs36 and it constitutes one of his most important theological concepts.37 To say that someone is “in Christ” means they are spiritually united to Jesus.38 Believers are connected to him.
This is connection that is spiritual. It is formed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. We are in him, we are united to him, precisely because he lives in us. Marriage is primarily a physical union—a one flesh union (1 Cor. 6:16). (Not that there is not a spiritual dimension to it.) But our union with Christ is a spiritual union—a one spirit union (1 Cor. 6:17). It makes us (spiritually) one with him.
It is also a connection that is inextricable or unbreakable. Once formed it is not able to be broken. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). Once we are united to Jesus no one can snatch us from him. We will see this later when we get to Ephesians 1:13-14 on the giving of the Spirit.
It is a connection that is corporate.39 It is true of every believer—together as one body. The temples in the Old Testament were made of stones. The stones would be built up into a structure and God would dwell there. The temple in the New Testament is not made up of stones but of people. Each one of us is a little unit in the corporate dwelling of God’s Spirit that is the church (1 Pet. 2:5; 1 Cor. 3:16-17).
Finally it is a connection that is communicative. There are consequences/results of union with Christ. We become his. And everything Christ is and has becomes ours.40 This is where our righteousness comes from. We don’t have any righteousness of our own. It is communicated to us—imputed to us—by our union with Christ. This is where our eternal life comes from. Recall the Getty’s line, “one with himself I cannot die”? If we are connected to the One who is life itself then we have life.41 If we are forever connected to the One who is life itself, then we cannot ever die. Our connection to him is also where our power comes from. The indwelling Christ gives us gifts to serve his church. All these things come from our union with Christ. In fact Paul is going to say in his opening remarks in this letter that we have every spiritual blessing in Christ! This is true because we are connected to the one who possess all things.42
So all these things we have looked at about the Ephesians are interconnected43 (except their location in Ephesus!). The only reason that the Ephesians possessed their status as saints is because they were “in Christ Jesus.”44 The only reason they were able to continue on faithfully was because they were “in Christ Jesus.” The same is true for us today. It is only because of our vital connection to Jesus that we have the status of saints. It is only because of our vital connection to Jesus that any kind of faithfulness can flow into and out from our lives. So let us stay connected to Jesus. Let’s abide (i.e. remain!) in him (John 15:5). So that it may be said of us that we are saints in Wisconsin Rapids faithful in Christ Jesus.
1 Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Adapted from Kevin Cotter, “How Does Someone Become a Saint? A Five Step Process” posted at https://focusoncampus.org/content/how-does-someone-become-a-saint-a-5-step-process (accessed April 30, 2019).
3 Cf. independently the discussion in D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1:1 to 23 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 25-27. Though I do not think that Lloyd-Jones distinguishes enough between positional and practical holiness in his treatment of this concept.
4 I believe I owe this way of expressing the definition of holiness (“set apart from sin to God”) to a forgotten source. But this is a frequently used expression.
5 Cf. John MacArthur, Ephesians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1986), 2: “Every Christian is a saint...”. But this is a frequently used expression; cf. the verbatim expression in Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 27.
6 Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3, Anchor Bible, vol. 34 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 68; as quoted in Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 282.
7 Cf. independently Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 42 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 6.
8 Cf. Warren W. Wiersbe, Be What You Are: Twelve Intriguing Pictures of the Christian from the New Testament (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1988). John Stott may have originated this phrase.
9 Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 88. However, Howard F. Vos, “Ephesus,” in The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, eds. Merrill F. Unger, R. K. Harrison, Howard F. Vos, and Cyril J. Barber (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988), 366, places the estimate around half a million!
10 Vos, “Ephesus,” 366.
11 Vos, “Ephesus,” 366.
12 See “The Stadium,” available at http://www.ephesustoursguide.com/ephesus/the-stadium (accessed May 1, 2019).
13 Vos, “Ephesus,” 367; cf. independently Hoehner, Ephesians, 83.
14 This follows MacArthur, Acts 13-28, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1996), 189 (quoting John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary [Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1992], 413).
15 Hoehner, Ephesians, 21.
16 Vos, “Ephesus,” 366; cf. independently Hoehner, Ephesians, 79.
17 With the possible exception of Acts 5:15. Does Luke intend to imply that this worked?
18 See Hoehner, Ephesians, 86. Hoehner quotes Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians: Power and Magic. The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of Its Historical Setting (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989), 22. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Diana was the name William Moutlon Marston gave to the alter ego of his character Wonder Woman.
19 Hoehner, Ephesians, 21.
20 See below on the dating of the letter.
21 This point has been made by many authors.
22 Lincoln, Ephesians, 4.
23 Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 42, 46; MacArthur, Ephesians, xii.
24 MacArthur, Ephesians, xii; cf. independently Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 23; Lincoln, Ephesians, 1; Hoehner, Ephesians, 78.
25 MacArthur, Ephesians, xii; cf. independently Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 23; Lincoln, Ephesians, 3.
26 Cf. independently Lincoln, Ephesians, lxxxi.
27 Cf. independently the slightly different version of this scenario proposed by Lincoln, Ephesians, 4; cf. independently Hoehner, Ephesians, 78-79.
28 As quoted in Lincoln, Ephesians, 4.
29 Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 28.
30 Of course I am being facetious here. Contrary to some theological traditions we will never be “just about done” removing sin in our lives this side of heaven.
31 Following Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 28-30; also William Hendriksen, “Ephesians,” in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker 1967), 70 n. 11; Lincoln, Ephesians, 6; MacArthur, Ephesians, 2; Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, World Biblical Commentary, vol. 44 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1982), 4.
32 Cf. Hoehner, Ephesians, 142.
33 See the argument of Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 78-79.
34 Following Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 30 (similar), 31; Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 79. Lloyd-Jones, however, sees this as a “secondary meaning” with the idea of “believing” as the primary meaning (28-30).
35 Cf. independently (or at least before review), MacArthur, Ephesians, 2.
36 Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, 77.
37 Hendriksen, “Ephesians,” 70-71.
38 Cf. independently Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 31.
39 See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 844.
40 On this and the following cf. the similarities (before review) in MacArthur, Ephesians, 10; cf. independently Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 32.
41 Others have made this point in this way as well.
42 Cf. (before review) Grudem, Systematic Theology: “...because our lives are inseparably connected to Christ himself, the Holy Spirit gives us all the blessings that Christ has earned” (843).
43 Cf. independently Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, 31.
44 Cf. (independently?) Hendrikesen, “Ephesians,” 70-71.