A Letter With No Address

A Letter With No Address

The Occasion, Purpose, Recipients, and Opponents of Ephesians

Although the Bible we hold today says “The letter of Paul to the Ephesians,” the phrase “in Ephesus” (1:1) is omitted in some of the most early and significant manuscripts. Without a definite address, this has prompted speculation that Ephesians “was originally meant as a circular letter.”[1] There is nothing against the view that “one letter was sent to a number of churches.”[2] Some have suggested that Ephesians was “sent perhaps to churches throughout Asia and Ephesus kept a copy of this letter without an address. . . as time passed, readers outside of Ephesus might have assumed that Ephesus had initially received the letter.”[3]

If we wanted to write a mass letter to several churches today, we would just leave out the address, then make copies, and plug in the different names. However, we live in an easy time of carbon paper and photocopiers. Paul’s technology was significantly slower. Each copy would have to be painstakingly handmade.[4] Therefore, the circular letter hypothesis has difficulties. Carson and Moo conceded that we might never know for sure who the letter was originally intended, but the traditional view of the church of Ephesus is probably best.[5]

There was no specific occasion or problem that inspired the letter to the Ephesians though Paul does mention that he desired for them to know how he was faring in confinement.[6] Paul is writing during his two-year “captivity”[7] in Rome toward the end of his life (which would mean a date in the early 60s.[8] He’s letting a church that he started and that he loves know that he is ok.

The purpose for the writing, however, can be ascertained: its words to a church Paul sees as needing further instructions on some important aspects of faith.[9] Actually, due to the letter’s impersonal nature, “public speech” seems a more appropriate label than “letter.”[10]

Paul gives this speech/letter an overall hint of the “cosmic redemptive work of God in Christ”[11] to counter the fact that Ephesus had a reputation as a “center for the learning and practice of magical arts,”[12] In fact, the phrase, “Ephesian writings” carried with it the connotation of spells, sorcery, and other such enchantment hocus-pocus. It is then no surprise that Paul leans heavily on phrases such as, “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (1:21, 2:2, and 3:10) and to the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (6:12).[13] He is defending the One True Faith in a language they understand.

Seeing as Paul intimately knows these people it may seem strange that Paul remains so impersonal throughout his letter. However the following principle appears to apply to the Pauline writings: “the better Paul knew a church, the fewer personal greetings he included, and the less he knew a church, the greater number of personal greetings he added.”[14] In Romans 16, Paul uses several personal greetings, even though he didn’t know any of them. But, Ephesians “contains no personal greetings at all because Paul did not wish to single out individuals in a congregation he knew so well.”[15] Given today’s temperamental and easily offended church attendees, one can appreciate Paul’s diplomatic handling of such situations.

There are no apparent opponents of Paul in these areas that we can tell from the letter. We can only imagine that he had his usual trouble with the Judaizers. I suppose we can also say the general atmosphere of Ephesus and its fixation on the occult could be seen as an opponent in itself. We could also view the “possible tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians” as an opponent although an interior one.[16]

 Looking at this last possibility, Paul strenuously promoted unity and responded by enlightening his readers of the “mystery (1:9, 3:14-15, 6:19)” now explained. This mystery was “a deep and hidden truth that none of us could have worked out but has now been revealed by God.”[17] And that mystery is the inclusions of Gentiles (5:8-10). Paul is calling for universal Christian unity: Wives or husbands, children or parent, slave or master, and Jew or Gentile all are constructed into one humanity (2:11-22) and one membership.[18] “This kind of love leads Paul to speak of ‘a profound mystery—but I am talking about “Christ and the church’ (5:32).”[19]


            One last thought on the purpose of the letter:

Could it have been that Paul was just checking in? Is there anything wrong with that? Just checking in because you are aware that someone might be worried about you? Of course not. We all do that! Also, the members at Ephesus may have now questioned Paul’s credibility. Imagine today if something similar happened to any one of us: We started going to a church and then the guy who planted it moves on to plant another one. Then, shortly later, we hear that he has been arrested and is in jail! What would we think? Had we been duped? Was this guy a con-artist? Obviously he is a criminal or he wouldn’t be in jail, right? Well, I think some (if not all) of those thoughts would come to mind in even the most devout Christian. So, Paul is letting them know that he is fine and that he is ministering now even in captivity. In fact, Paul is now able to reach people he could never access specifically because of his time in jail. All appointments are God-ordained, even the ones we may not understand or think are appropriate.

[1] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 488.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2003), 437.

[4] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, 488.

[5] Ibid., 490.

[6] Crossway Bibles, The Esv Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2,258.

[7] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, 431.

[8] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, 486.

[9] Ibid., 482.

[10] Ibid., 490.

[11] Crossway Bibles, The Esv Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2,258.

[12] F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000), 291.

[13] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, 492.

[14] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, 438.

[15] Ibid., 438.

[16] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, 490-491.

[17] Ibid., 495.

[18] Ibid., 479.

[19] Ibid., 496.


 Bibles, Crossway The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Bruce, F. F. Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000.

Carson, D A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005.

Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament, Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2003.


Submitted to Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the completion of the course NBST 520 New Testament Orientation II

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