Toward the end of his second apostolic journey (in the year 52) Paul stayed for a while in Ephesus (Acts 18:19ff), one of the great cities of Asia Minor, where he preached and founded the Church to which this letter is addressed. Shortly after this, a distinguished personality, Apollos, appeared in Ephesus; he received instruction from Aquila and his wife Priscilla, two disciples of Paul (cf. Acts 18:24-26) and he, in his turn, prepared the ground for Paul’s preaching (54-56). Paul’s visit was not without incident (cf. Acts 19-20): He was forced to leave the city because of an uproar caused by Demetrius the silversmith.
Paul did not forget the Ephesians, and, from Rome, he wrote them this letter. Some scholars think that this was really a circular letter, addressed to all the churches—on the grounds that there are no personal references in it, nor does it have the opening greeting and the signoff which are so characteristic of the apostle’s letters. Without the heading (which is not included in some codexes), this theory makes sense. However, the more common opinion, among ancient and modern scholars alike, is that the letter was addressed in the first instance to the Ephesians—not just because of the title it bears but because this is confirmed by Irenaeus, the Muratorian fragment, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and others.
Paul’s main purpose in writing seems to be to explore the great mystery of the redemption, of which Christ himself is the cornerstone (2:20), the foundation of the entire spiritual building into whom all Christians should be built. The letter therefore divides into two main parts:
1. Dogmatic section (1:2-3:21): Here Paul shows that the benefits of the redemption are available to everyone: Everyone is predestined from before the creation of the world to become a son of God; both Jews and Gentiles are called, without distinction, to be one in Christ Jesus, to make up one body, the new people of God, the Church.
This union of all in Christ is the express will of God the Father; it is merited through the redemption wrought by the Son and brought to fulfilment in people’s souls through the action of the Holy Spirit. To proclaim this mystery to the Gentiles, God chose Paul.
A direct implication of this teaching is that Christians should have an open, universal, ecumenical outlook. “If the Church is to be in a position to offer all men the mystery of salvation and the life brought by God, then it must implant itself among all these groups [people who do not know the Gospel message] in the same way as Christ by his incarnation committed himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the men among whom he lived.”
2. Ethical section (4:1-6:9) In the second part of the letter the apostle exhorts all Christians to live one and the same faith, to be consistent with their faith; that is, he encourages them to practice solidarity, to seek always what unites, and to avoid anything which gets in the way of the peace and love which should flow from this solidarity, this unity, which is one of the characteristics of the true Church. He specifically reminds them of duties involved in marriage and family life–teaching which still applies today: Referring to Christian married couples, Vatican II says that “in virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony by which they signify and share (cf. Eph 5:32) the mystery of the unity and faithful love between Christ and his Church, they help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in the rearing of their children. Hence by reason of their state in life and of their position they have their own gifts in the people of God.”