“It was a dark and stormy night.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.” Every great book has a great beginning.
What do these first words from famous books have in common? First, the words arrest our attention and rivet it on what is being said. Second, they paint a picture of what is to come. As a result, the words whet our appetite to turn the page and find out what is coming next.
That is exactly what Paul does in the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians. He structures the first sentence in the standard formal greeting of his era, stating the letter’s author, recipients, and purpose. But in these first words Paul masterfully arrests our attention and paints a picture of what is to come, to whet the Ephesians (and our) appetite:
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The first thing that Paul does is to make clear who he is. There are some things that we read where it is helpful to know something about the author, and there are other works where knowing the author is of little importance. But Paul understands that it is absolutely vital that the Ephesians grasp who he is: without their understanding of his identity Paul’s letter will be powerless to accomplish its purpose.
So note carefully who Paul chooses to say he is: “an apostle of Christ Jesus.” Why did he choose that title? He could have chosen many titles or descriptors— a student of Gamaliel, a Pharisee, a Roman, a teacher approved by Peter, an aged and wise one, an evangelist, someone who had been mystically caught up to heaven, or who had suffered many beatings and mistreatments, or who had traveled the world, or who had renounced many comforts and pleasures.
Instead, he wants the Ephesians to know him as an apostle of Christ Jesus. This is the title he used repeatedly in his epistles: the greetings of Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, & Titus all identify Paul as an apostle.
Why was the title “apostle” (which literally means “messenger”) so critical to Paul and to this letter? Because of the identity it gave to the letter itself: for Paul to say that he was an apostle gave this letter authority and power beyond anything else the Ephesians could read.
How so? Well, like us, the Ephesians had many “sources” of truth: their own opinions, local teachers in their church, traveling orators, circulating letters, as well as the great body of non-Christian religious material to which they had been exposed over the years. But with the title “apostle” Paul immediately arrests their attention to claim, “I am different from all of these, I am in a unique category, my words are the words of an apostle.” With that title he announces to the Ephesians that his letter will not be based on popular opinion, reasoned logic, researched theory, or even mystical wisdom. In fact, they will not be his words at all: he is an apostle, a messenger of Jesus Christ. The words in Ephesians are the very words of Christ, full of supernatural truth, light, power and authority that supersede any other teacher.
Paul announces this divine authority to us as well: he is an apostle of Jesus Christ; his words are truth and they are life. We have many wise men of God who we can read and listen to today, but none speak with the divine authority of Paul. No book, no sermon, no conference can rise to the level of life-transforming light and truth that Jesus has given us through Paul.
Immediately after “apostle of Christ Jesus” Paul uses the phrase “by the will of God.” Paul wants to make it absolutely clear that this role of apostle was put on him by God and God alone. He was not placed into his position by the will or vote or consensus of men. Paul states in Galatians 1:1 that his apostleship came “not from men nor through man.”
Men must in some way justify that what they say is worthy to be listened to, either by appealing to their learning or their experience or their success or their popularity or the agreement of others. Look at the back cover of any book: it shows us why we should read the book based on famous people who liked it, or based on the popularity of the author or even his airbrushed photograph.
But Paul had no need for such vain appeals: he boldly staked his epistle’s worthiness solely on his apostolic appointment from God. Paul was personally, verbally called and appointed by Jesus Christ to be an apostle. As Paul testified in Acts 22, after he saw Christ and was struck blind the man who healed him pronounced, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.” In an instant Christ changed Paul from His persecutor to His messenger.
Paul was not the first man that God chose “out of the blue” to be His messenger. Moses was an eighty year old nomadic shepherd when God placed a burning bush in his path. Out of nowhere, God stepped into his life and chose him to be His messenger (and Moses tried to turn Him down!). Samuel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah— the Bible is full of messengers that God chose, then came and revealed Himself to, then commanded what they should speak. To Jeremiah God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” We have Ephesians and all the Bible because God supernaturally stepped into space and time and chose men to speak for Him, so that no man could claim that his own intelligence or talent or even desire brought him or made him worthy to be a messenger of God, but God and God alone.
So, in writing that he is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” Paul sets forth to the Ephesians that the letter that they held in their hands, and that we now hold in our hands, are the very words of God by the will of God.
Next Paul identifies his audience: “to the saints who are in Ephesus.” Paul addresses them by a title for Christians that he loved to use: saints, “set apart ones.” He accomplishes two things with this title: first, he is telling them, “Remember who and whose you are. You are saints; you are set apart by God for God and His purposes and His glory. Live in this truth.” He wants them to live knowing they are saints, as Christ wants us to live in this reality as well.
Second, in using “to the saints” Paul makes clear that his words are for the ears of the church. These are not mere wise words or proven techniques guaranteed to better the life of any hearer. Paul is no “Dr. Phil” to anyone who he can get to listen. He has no desire for Ephesians to make the best-seller list. No, these words are meant for saints, children of God who alone can take these words as food for their soul, and have the Holy Spirit use the words to show them God’s glory and God’s truth. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 4, we have the incredible privilege of seeing “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” which is hidden from the world.
Paul next states that they are the saints “who are in Ephesus.” Beyond the obvious naming of their city, for Paul to say “who are in Ephesus” reminded these saints that they were not alone, that there were saints scattered in other cities as well. That may mean little to many of us who now live where there are churches on every street corner, but this small band of believers must often have taken comfort knowing that even when they felt isolated, they in fact had brothers & sisters scattered hundreds of miles away who they had never seen. They were all saints, all one body, all praying for each other through the suffering and persecution, hoping for the day that they would be finally together, home in heaven.
Paul then describes that the Ephesians “are faithful.” Again, he could have chosen many descriptors, but he chose the word “faithful.” How central the issue of faithfulness is in the Christian walk: the Ephesians doubtless knew Christ’s parable of the talents, and the blessing that Christ had for the ones that had been found faithful: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
What an encouragement that must have been to the Ephesians, to have Paul the apostle recognize them as being faithful. It was not easy to be a Christian in those days: already waves of persecution and even martyrdom were spreading over the world. People who were only casually interested in this new religion soon turned away. But Paul exhorted them “You are faithful. I know it, and Christ knows it. ” During the dark days they could in faith look forward to Christ saying to them “Well done.” Does that thrill your soul as well, to think that Christ will one day find you faithful to him, and say to you “Enter into the joy of your master.”?
Which brings us to the kind of faith they have: “in Christ Jesus.” Why that phrase? What is critical about their faith being “in Christ Jesus”? Because the what, who, and where of our faith is the difference between life and death. We often think positively about “faith” of any sort, but we must remember that faith in and of itself has no intrinsic goodness. James in his epistle castigated his readers by reminding them that even demons believe in God. There are many who are faithful to their own beliefs and religions about God, but Jesus taught that hell will be full of those who know about Jesus. Having “faith” means absolutely nothing to God— unless that faith is placed solely and totally in the life and death of His Son to turn us from our sin & rebellion to true worship and obedience of the risen Christ. “In Christ Jesus” asked the Ephesians, as it also asks us, to search their hearts to ensure that their faith was indeed placed in Christ Jesus.
“In Christ Jesus” also reminds us that our faithfulness and our very life does not consist of our own efforts but by our being “in Christ Jesus.” This is the first of nearly forty times Paul describes saints as being in Christ, through Christ, or with Christ in this letter. Like admiring a precious diamond, Paul will circle around the wonder of us being in Christ, looking at it from dozens of different viewpoints to know its beauty and wonder in all its fullness.
As we journey through Ephesians Paul starts in his greeting by showing that our faithfulness is in Christ, and then will direct our gaze to our being chosen, blessed, adopted, united, sealed, given an inheritance, receiving power, becoming alive, being raised up, brought near to God, given riches, boldness, promises, forgiveness and strength ALL solely because we are in Christ. By telling the Ephesians that they are in Christ Jesus in verse 1 Paul sets the stage for them to see and savor all these glorious blessings that are theirs because of their union with Christ.
First Paul says “I am an apostle, listen to the very words of God.” Next he says, “Think about who you are, that you are saints who are faithful.” As Paul considered the Ephesians and their faithfulness, he next states his purpose, what the Ephesians desperately needed to continue to walk as faithful saints: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Here was Paul, the brilliant systematic theologian who wrote Romans, Paul the evangelist who had been responsible for planting churches over half the Roman world, Paul the apostle who spoke as the mouthpiece of God. When they first received this letter, the Ephesians must have wondered, “What would he say? Would it be a message of judgment, of rebuke, of anger? Of flowery oratory or of obtuse mysticism?”
Out of all the things he could have written, how wonderful for them to hear those first words: “Grace to you and peace.” Paul was a man gripped by grace: he uses the word 92 times in his writings. Paul was filled every day by the wonder, beauty, and power of grace, and this poured forth in his life and in his speech. Ephesians is a letter of full of grace, from the first sentence to the last.
Which begs the question, what is this thing, grace, that Paul loves to speak of? Plumbing the depth of God’s grace through words has filled many books, and a theologian could fill you with the types and history and dispensations of grace.
But for us, we can start by knowing that grace is God’s loving undeserved active rich favor toward His children in Christ. What kind of favor? Loving, in that it comes purely as an act of God’s love toward us. Undeserved, in that there is nothing we have done or could ever do to earn, deserve, or merit God’s favor. As Paul correctly reasons in Romans 11:6, if our works are in any way involved in God’s favor then by definition we cannot call it grace. Active, in that it describes not mere feeling or goodwill on God’s part, but always actions that God undertakes on our behalf. Rich, as a picture of the wide open, “spilling over” nature of God’s actions for us. Paul three times links grace with riches in Ephesians, to help picture the extent of what God has done and will do for us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so vividly reminded us, grace is not cheap, it cost God the most precious thing in the universe: the life of His Son.
Speaking of Christ brings us to the last part of our definition of God’s grace: that it is toward His children in Christ. Although theologians speak of a “common grace” which refers to blessings such as the gift of life that God gives to all of humanity, when Paul speaks of grace he specifically means the actions that God directs solely toward the children of God, which are solely as a result of the life and death of Christ. Paul starts his letter with grace and ends his letter with grace, to encourage the Ephesians and us to permeate our lives with the knowledge of God’s grace, the power of God’s grace, and the glory due to God for His marvelous grace.
After grace, the other blessing that Paul brings to the Ephesians is peace. Like the word grace, peace is a word that permeates God’s Word, occurring over a hundred times in the New Testament. And like his use of the word grace, Paul uses the word peace in his greeting to foreshadow its use further along in his epistle.
So, what does Paul mean when he uses the word peace? What is the peace that comes from God? It is no ordinary peace. No, the peace of God is fundamentally different than any kind we can experience without Christ. Jesus gives us a hint of the precious nature of His peace when he taught His disciples in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”
The Ephesians already know this peace in their hearts, for it is a peace given at the moment of salvation. But Paul wants them to know it more deeply and more surely, and will explain the nature of it in more detail starting in chapter 2.
In the last phrase of Paul’s greeting he concretely identifies the source of this grace and peace: it is from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, Paul emphasizes that this is no human message, but that he is only the mouthpiece of God. What comfort, what joy to the Ephesians and to us that God wanted to bring them grace and peace.
Look closely at the title that Paul gives to both God and to Jesus. To God He gives the title “our Father.” This title speaks both to the new vertical relationship that God has established with us as His children that Paul will later describe in his letter, and the new horizontal relationship that we have as brothers and sisters in Christ that Paul develops in detail in chapters 2 and 4.
To Jesus he gives the title “the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note that God is “our” Father, that he is Father only to His children, but in this verse Paul ascribes that Jesus is Lord, the sovereign King over all of humanity and all of creation. As he writes in Philippians Chapter 2, “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Only the saints are able to call God Father, but all of humanity must one day acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
What tremendous riches in such a short greeting! What a great beginning! What a treasure to know that in the letter to the Ephesians we have a letter from the heart of God, graciously sent to His beloved saints, written to give us grace and peace. Let us read Ephesians with reverence, for these are the very words of God that reveal His heart, mind, and glory to us. Let us read it with hunger, knowing that these words will be food to our souls. Let us read it with expectation, that these words of grace have the power to make real and supernatural change in our lives. Lastly, let us read Ephesians with thankful joy, that Jesus Christ our Lord, Savior, and Shepherd has given this letter to us.