Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » How We Taught the New Testament in the Past: Lesson 39: “For the Perfecting of the Saints”

How We Taught the New Testament in the Past: Lesson 39: “For the Perfecting of the Saints”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 09, 2011

Our current lesson focuses on a scattering of verses teaching various doctrines under the general heading of “perfecting the saints.” This lesson, from Russel B. Swenson, The New Testament: The Acts and the Epistles (Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1946), provides some background for the epistle that might help teachers in introducing the Epistle (I dunno about you, but when we move so rapidly through the books of the Bible discussing doctrines rather than the text itself, I find it very useful to give some sort of introduction to the various books so that class members have some sense that the scattered doctrines have a context and an order and aren’t just plucked out of thin air.)

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians

This is one of the great epistles in the New Testament. it has an exalted sublimity of mood and a profound grandeur of expression quite unlike Paul’s other epistles. Its basic conception and central theme is the reconciliation of the confusion and strife in nature and human society through the eternal and cosmic significance of Jesus Christ. The instrumentality through which this is accomplished here on earth is His church.

However, this letter is unlike Paul’s other letters in that its contents do not give us any knowledge of clear-cut issues and immediate problems confronting him. It is difficult to determine what were the conditions under which he composed this letter. There are no personal greetings or mention of his co-workers as in other epistles. There is no tone of intimate warm affection for the recipients as is so customary with him. It lacks the sharp vivacity and thrust of his usual manner of expression. it does not have that driving nervous energy which made him leap from topic to topic and back again as new ideas and interpretations drove him to express his thoughts in a precipitous fashion. It is characterized by a solemn, meditative, prayerful, calm and serene mood. Paul was frequently in an exalted state of mind, but this was frequently preceded and followed by a variety of emotional moods: angry, tender, sorrowful, affectionate, stern, compassionate, sad, etc. but in this epistle, a solemn exalted serene tone is consistently maintained throughout. It has a rhythmic and stately flow of language reminiscent of a great liturgy whose basic purpose is to induce feelings of awe, reverence, and devotion.

The words “in Ephesus” in the opening words of the epistle are missing in the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament. This has led some scholars to conclude that the Ephesians was a circular letter or theological tract which was written to a group of churches at large and not to one particular church. The lack of personal greetings, specific issues, and intimate relationships lend themselves to this interpretation. However, it does have some marked similarities to Colossians in structure and thought, and it was borne by the same messenger, Tychicus, which might indicate its composition at the same time as Colossians, about 61 A.D. But its marked difference in style of expression, its emphasis upon the Church as a whole, and its marked adulation of the apostles set it off distinctly from the other letters. Paul in his other letters emphasized the individual churches, but not the universal Church to the same extent as in Ephesians. Thus a number of great scholars regard the letter as not written by Paul, but by one who was imbued with extreme reverence for Paul and his basic theological conceptions. Other equally eminent scholars think that Paul is the author, that the variety of mood and thought and expression are due to the fact he was consciously and carefully composing a highly theological and devotional tract which purposely left out any personal and intimate allusions. But though the question of authorship is still baffling many, none deny the great worth of this epistle for its nobility of expression and its profundity of thought. It has great eternal truths which are an inspiration for all who read and contemplate them.

The opening words of Ephesians are simple and brief. “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus. Grace be to you and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:1, 5.) with supreme reverence and poetic rapture he sets forth the supreme importance of Christ and the necessity of union with Him. (1:3-14.) This is one of the most liturgical and exalted sections of the letter. In the original Greek it is one long sentence composed of many lengthy clauses. it is a doxology of praise to God for having sent His beloved son who has brought spiritual blessings from heaven to his faithful saints and predestined the faithful believers to become God’s children. he brought redemption by means of spiritual union with Him and through His blood. He gave a perfect insight to the faithful of His divine purposes when everything in heaven and earth should be united in Christ.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: that in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him, in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will, that we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. In whom ye also trusted, after that he heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession unto the praise of his glory.” (1:3-14.)

In words reminiscent of Colossians Jesus, absolute cosmic supremacy is affirmed over all the “principalities and powers” in this world and the next. He is also most significant as the head of the Church “which is his body the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” (1:14-23.) those who have believed in Him have became regenerated from their old life of sensuality and sin to a new life. (2:1-10.) They have become dead to their old evil impulses and have been pardoned by the infinite mercy of God. The faith which made this possible is not due to any merit or works on their part, but is purely a gift from God.

Through the death of Christ he has reconciled the two factions within the Church, the Jewish and the Gentile, and the Law is forever abolished. (2:11-22.) the apostles and prophets are the foundation of the Church and Jesus himself is its cornerstone. ‘Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.” (2:19-21.)

Through union with Christ the Gentiles have now become the fellow-heirs with the Jews. 93:1-13.) One aspect of the great secret of the gospel message for which Paul is a prisoner is now disclosed to mankind, is this concept. This is the primary purpose of his divinely appointed mission. “Which in other ages was not made unto the sons of man, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” (3:5, 6.)

The first half of the letter closes with a fervent prayer that God will strengthen them mightily through his spirit so that through their faith they shall grow into a rich understanding and experience of the limitless love of Christ. This petition ends with a brief doxology of praise, which reflects admirably the basic mood of the epistle. “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” (3:20, 21.)

The last half of the letter deals with practical moral exhortations. there is a fervent plea for unity in the Church against sects or divisions. (4:1-16.) this is not like Paul’s attack of the problem of factions in the Corinthian epistles. it is aimed at doctrinal heresy as in Colossians more than mere party strife. In Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders he forewarned them against the rise of sectarian divisions. (Acts 2:29-31.) This is now the background which best explains the plea of this letter for doctrinal unity. “there is one body, and one spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (4:4-6.) In order to maintain this unity god had appointed the officials of the church. “and he gave some, apostles, and some, prophets; and some, evangelists, and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ; till we all come in the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight [trickery] of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” (4:11-14.) They must hold to the truth and grow into perfect union through the head, which is Christ Himself. Under His control and love the whole church will be harmoniously integrated, and each particular part will function perfectly.

Not only must the saints be unified in faith and doctrine, but they must also live worthy lives. he sets forth the attitude of mind and sins of the Gentiles and then holds up for contrast the virtues which should characterize the Christians. (4:17-5:21.) The sins of the Gentiles are particularly those which historians have found most prevalent in the Greek cities of the Empire. There is a sharp criticism of the greed, theft and idleness which were so common. then vice, with its indecency, sensuality, and immorality is attacked. Peculiarly Greek is the tendency toward excesses in speech. Loud, abusive, scurrilous, bitter, lying, extravagance in speech is thoroughly condemned. Drunkenness comes in for rebuke, one of the few places where it is condemned in the New Testament. Ignorance and foolishness are similarly castigated. Ignorant and foolish people do almost as much damage as their more clever sinister brothers. And then again, the sectarian heretical problem is sharply attacked.

In order to combat these evils the brethren should be full of love, tenderness, and forgiveness. They are encouraged to do manual work and get gain in order that they might give to the needy. they are strongly urged to be intelligent, to say the right thing at the proper time, not to be misled by clever arguments, and to control their speech. They are to be energetic and wide awake in their Christian living. it is interesting to observe the exhortation to sing. “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (5:19, 20.) Paul well knew the power of music to influence and guide emotional behavior. Music was a most popular Greek art. some of the loveliest of ancient Christian church music came from Greek music.

As a vigorous, energetic leader Paul knew the importance of the strength and influence which righteous anger could accomplish. had he not defeated a powerful uprising in the Corinthian church through this medium? however, he knew its danger of falling into excess. Thus, his recommendation to let one’s anger burst forth at times but not to the extent of falling into sin is commendable. “Be ye angry, and sin not. Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” (4:26.)

The admonition to members of the household relative to their respective duties and responsibilities toward each other which Paul gave to the Colossians is repeated here with additional amplification and specific recommendations. Children are to obey their parents because of the commandment. “And ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (6:4) Servants are to give complete obedience and wholehearted service to their masters. The saints are urged allegorically to put on the armor of righteousness to fight against evil, whose source is not in human nature but in the demonic power which is dominant in the world. (6:10-20.) He concludes the epistle with a brief notice about the coming of Tychicus and a farewell greeting. (6:21-24.)


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