Posted by: Jonathan Stepp | May 9, 2008

Who is Paul Talking About?

Is Ephesians only talking about believers or is all of humanity in Christ?

This question comes up from time to time and came up recently in an email from a good friend. It’s very easy to assume that what is said in Ephesians, and the other epistles, only applies to Christians. Here are my thoughts:

All the epistles were addressed to Christians and what’s more they were addressed to specific Christians in a specific place. So, hypothetically, you could argue that not only do the words not apply to non-Christians they don’t even apply to non-Ephesians, like people in 21st century Nashville for example.

Obviously there are two questions in interpreting the epistles that are more important than “who was the original audience?” They are:

1. “Who is Jesus?” Ephesians says (Eph. 2:15) that he is the one in whom God has made one new humanity out of Jew and Gentile. This a biblical way of saying he has made one new humanity out of all people since, in bible terms, there are only two kinds of people in the world: Israel and non-Israel (the Gentiles). Eph. 4:10 says that Jesus “fills the whole universe,” that means you, me, and everyone. So, since Ephesians says that Jesus is the one in whom all humanity is included and the one who fills all humanity, we know that what is said in Ephesians has to be true of all people, not just Christians and not just 1st century Christians at Ephesus, because all people are in Christ and Christ is in all people.

The problem with the words of Ephesians is not that they don’t apply to non-Christians, the problem is that non-Christains, by definition, don’t know and/or don’t believe that the words of Ephesians apply to them.

2. “What is Paul talking about?” If I write you a letter talking about global warming, the disaster in Burma, and a host of other problems facing the entire global community I am clearly talking about everyone on the planet. Just because the letter is addressed to “John Doethius” doesn’t mean that it’s contents only apply to John. You have to read what I’m saying to find out what I’m talking about.

Again, Eph. 2:15 and 4:10, as well as 1:10 and 4:6 make it clear that even though Paul has addressed his comments “to the church at Ephesus” he is talking about the human condition in and with Christ.

Presumably the Ephesians, like us, believe what he is saying – thus making themselves distinct from other people – but their belief does not make the words true only of them since the words themselves are about not only the Ephesians but all of humanity, including those of us who live 2,000 years later and half a world away.

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Responses

  1. Very refreshing and a good answer to the original audience argument. It is a struggle I’ve had as well in thinking through the gospel announcements written to the church and how christ’s work effects those not yet given the “present” of faith.

    Thanks again for sharing these thoughts with us.

  2. Thanks for reading and thanks for the encouragement!

  3. There is no question that 1:10 is about everyone, but does it really follow that everything in the entire letter is also about everyone? Verses 13-12, for example, speak of “we who were the first to hope in Christ” in contrast to “you [who] also were included.” Neither of those two groups includes everyone. When Paul is writing about everyone, there is no reason for us to shy away from it, but when he is not writing about everyone, there is no reason to shy away from that, either. When Paul writes about Jews or Christians in particular, he is not writing about all people, even though some things he writes about Jews or Christians may in fact be true of all people. Some passages in Ephesians refer to believers in particular, some to Jews in particular, some to gentiles in particular and some to humanity in general. The fact that God has in Christ reconciled to himself all humans is demonstrated in passages that refer to all humans, not in passages that refer specifically to believers. Such passages would include Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:19-20, 1 John 2:1, John 3:17, Romans 11:32 and 2 Corinthians 5:19.

  4. Good point, Mike

    I should have clarified that I had in mind verses like Ephesians 1:5, that we are predestined for adoption. The larger context makes clear, I think, that such statements are referring to humanity in Christ.

    As you point out, Ephesians, like any such document is a mix of discussions about different groups.

    Thanks for the comment!

  5. It is good to see a community of believers in actual direct dialog with each other. The WCG is fairly unique in this was from my limited experience as a deoniminational member. Keep it up. Theology, as you know, was meant to be done in community.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement, Brian! We are beginning to realize just how blessed we are to be in WCG (www.wcg.org).


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