The Maturity of Writer and Readers
John Heading, Aberystwyth
All the Epistles have their own distinctive messages. They contain strands of doctrine, correction and exhortation, each being relevant to the needs of the churches and individuals to whom they were written. It is essential, therefore, to find out what were the circumstances surrounding the writing of any particular Epistle; these circumstances, together with the needs of the recipients, provide the explanation of the choice of subject matter contained in the Epistle.
Time Scale of Paul's Service. The various spiritual activities of the apostle Paul were subdivided amongst the span of years available by the guidance of God according to His will. God knew beforehand how these years would be sub-divided, but Paul and any subsequent reader could perceive this overall plan only as they looked back on his completed life. Paul (as Saul) was converted in about the year A.D. 34. Immediately, he knew that the Lord had a great plan for him, since he would be made a minister and a witness, being sent to the Gentiles to open their eyes, Acts 26. 16-20. But Saul at that time did not know how this great divine plan would be worked out; only 32 years later could he testify at the end, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith", 2 Tim. 4. 7. Originally, he had shut up the saints in prison, Acts 26. 10, but at the end he himself was shut up in a Roman dungeon.
During the first ten years after his conversion, A.D. 34-44, his name remained Saul, and he was not openly designated an apostle (although this was the Lord's purpose for him). During these ten years, as he testified in Damascus, Jerusalem, Judaea, Caesarea, Tarsus and Antioch, the Lord was preparing His servant in many differing ways for apostolic service. It was during his first missionary journey, perhaps A.D. 47-48, that he was first called "Paul", and when the description "apostle" was first used. During the second journey, probably A.D. 50-51, churches were formed at Philippi, Thessalonica and Corinth. At the end of this journey, he spent a few weeks in Ephesus as he travelled towards Jerusalem, Acts 18. 19-21. He promised to return "if God will". Meanwhile, his faithful friends Priscilla and Aquila remained in Ephesus, serving in a quiet way, and helping Apollos "in the way of God more perfectly".
Paul knew that Ephesus was wholly given over to Diana worship, yet he realized that it was God's will that he should return there on his third missionary journey, about A.D. 52-57. The first three years of this journey were spent in Ephesus. His first converts were delivered from being disciples of John the Baptist, Acts 19. 1-7. Afterwards, "all ... in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus", v. 10, (not necessarily directly from Paul's lips, but from other preachers who had first learnt from him, Col. 1. 4, 7-9). The new converts in Ephesus burnt their religious arts and books, with the result that the word of God grew and prevailed, Acts 19. 19-20.
Discourse to Ephesian Elders. At the end of his third journey, Paul bypassed Ephesus, but called the elders of the assembly to meet him in Miletus, Acts 20. 17. This was in A.D. 57, when he delivered to them his most touching address in verses 18-35. From this address, we learn more of his previous three-year stay in Ephesus. He recalled the past, vv. 18-21, how he had conducted himself amongst them from the first day, how he had kept back nothing that was profitable, declaring "all the counsel of God", v. 27, including the divine plan for the church and its members so closely associated with Christ. Then the apostle spoke of the present, vv. 22-27'; he was going to Jerusalem (with a large collection of money for the poor saints there) knowing that "bonds and afflictions" awaited him. He spoke of finishing his course with joy, to complete his ministry in the gospel that he had received from the Lord. He felt that they would see his face no more; he possessed no gift with which to foretell the details of his future experiences, since in the event he would sec them again after his first imprisonment in Rome. Finally, he spoke of the future, vv. 28-35. The elders had to take heed to themselves and then to the flock, for there were spiritual dangers ahead — Paul was a prophet and could discern these dangers, even though he could not foresee the details of his own future life and service. These dangers were: (i) evil wolves would come in from the outside to join themselves to the leadership, and (ii) some of the elders themselves would seek an un-spiritual dominion over the flock. In effect, here was a warning against the growth of a system of clerisy, and of unsaved men dominating over large sections of Christendom.
Thus Paul was taken prisoner when in Jerusalem, ultimately to be in prison in Rome for about two years. Rejoicing in spite of this tribulation and although cut off from assembly fellowship and service, he wrote the four so-called Prison Epistles: (i) Philippians, to thank the assembly for a gift, (ii) Colossians, to warn and correct them, (iii) Philemon, to give him news, and (iv) Ephesians. The last three were sent at the same time by Tychicus and Onesimus.
The recorded history of Ephesus closes in two stages, (i) Paul was released about A.D. 61, when he revisited Ephesus, leaving Timothy there while he pressed onwards into Macedonia, 1 Tim. 1.3. Timothy had to "charge some that they teach no other doctrine", namely, only the "counsel of God" that the apostle had taught before. In the first Epistle to Timothy. Paul also expounded at length the qualifications and work of elders and servants in a local assembly, ch. 3. In A.D. 65, Paul was back in Rome as a prisoner, when he was finally martyred for his faith, (ii) But thirty years afterwards in about A.D. 95, a final letter was sent to Ephesus by John, being the direct words of the Lord Jesus Himself, Rev. 2. 1-7. This letter was concerned with the rise of the works and doctrine of the Nico-laitans, which the Lord hated. In the light of verse 2, where the Lord commends the church for refusing to recognize the lying credentials of certain false apostles who sought to dominate the leadership, we understand Nicolaitanism to refer to the growth of clerisy — some usurpers and unspiritual leaders who sought to lord it over the rest of the flock.
In the light of this, we can now briefly examine the contents of the Epistle to the Ephesians.
The Epistle Summarized. In keeping with his discourse in Acts 20, and with his exposition in 1 Timothy (together with the Lord's later message to Ephesus in Revelation 2), as he wrote Paul had prominently before him the counsel of God as well as spiritual leadership and service. So as to reiterate this truth, in Ephesians chs. 1-3 the apostle deals with doctrine, while in chs. 4-6 he deals with practice. This balance must be maintained; the attitudes "we want doctrine...we want practice" (perhaps held subconsciously) are to be avoided.
In 1. 1-14, we read of the purpose of God the Father in Christ and in the saints; this is the counsel of God, stretching from the eternity past right into the eternity future.
family and household relationships, using the husband-wife relationship to rise to the highest thoughts concerning the love of Christ for the church.
In 6. 10-18, the defensive spiritual weapons of power are outlined — nothing can go wrong in conduct, service, doctrine and leadership when believers abide by these exhortations.
Finally, in 6. 19-24, Paul concludes with (i) a request for prayer for himself in bonds and for his service, together with (ii) his intention to send Tychicus "a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord" to bring them news of his affairs.
A spiritual assembly needed (and needs) these exhortations, warnings and positive presentations of truth, if the dangers that Paul foresaw in Acts 20. 28-31 were to be combatted and avoided. The Lord's commendation in Revelation 2 was the outcome of Paul's discourse to the elders, of Paul's letter to them, and of Timothy's later teaching. Assemblies today need the same truth, if progress is to be made and maintained amidst the surrounding darkness.