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Nov 11, 2016

Ephesians: A Letter to the Children of God

Thomas Smith

Ephesians has been called the crown jewel of the Pauline epistles. It reveals the breadth and depth of the Father’s love for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. In this profound letter, St. Paul not only teaches us our identity in Christ but points out that this identity can only be understood within a community—the Church. In fact, each of the six chapters reveals a different way of reflecting upon the Church as (1) Body, (2) Communion, (3) Mystery, (4) Household, (5) Bride, and (6) Army.

Stadium in Ephesus where armored gladiators once fought.

The Church as the Family of God

Within these six images of the Church is a single overarching theme that flows through each of the chapters—the Church as the family of God. We not only “belong” to God but to a mystical body of Christ that reveals us to ourselves. We are empowered sons and daughters of an Eternal Father endowed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavens” (Ephesians 1:3).

A Letter for Our Time

Rediscovering our identity in a community of faith is vital in our age, which has seen the increasing disintegration of the family and confusion not only about gender identity but even what it means to be a human person. In these challenging times, Ephesians stands like a lighthouse, guiding us to safety, peace, and security. Its words show us that we have an eternal identity within a spiritual family that remains secure despite our society’s ever-changing norms.

It is only from this bedrock foundation of our identity in Christ and membership in his Church that the “domestic” church can be protected, sustained, and nourished. It is one family—the Church—that Christ established for the deliverance of the whole human family (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2850).

Let’s look in more detail at how St. Paul describes this Family of God.

One God and Father of All

Every human family begins with a father, and this supernatural family is no different. It has a single “God and Father of All.” God’s Fatherhood is reflected in each of the letter’s six chapters, in Ephesians 1:2–3, 2:18, 3:14; 4:6, 5:20, and 6:23.

The Father is the source of grace and peace, and St. Paul wastes no time praising him. This opening blessing (1:3-14) is the longest continuous Greek sentence in the New Testament, which isn’t so surprising. After all, St. Paul is here trying to extol the immeasurable riches of God in Christ Jesus. In it, we learn that the Father has given his children “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3). The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah tells us that God chose him while he was still in the womb (Jeremiah 1:3), but St. Paul proclaims that the Father chose us in love to be his adopted children before the cosmos was even created (1:4-5). If that doesn’t take your breath away, I don’t know what will.

In the prayer that follows this benediction, the apostle asks that the “Father of glory” give us wisdom, revelation, and knowledge to understand the glorious inheritance we possess in this new family of God and the immeasurable greatness of the indwelling power that we possess as God’s children (1:17-19). All these spiritual riches are available to us because of Christ’s saving work on the Cross. It is through Christ alone that we have “access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:16-18).

Reflecting on the grace of God in Christ drives St. Paul to his knees again in prayer (3:14-21). He bows before “the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth is named” (3:16). All human fatherhood is not merely analogous to God’s fatherhood; it is derivative of it.

This one Fatherhood is also the source of unity for the whole Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:6 reminds us that we have “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all in all” and that we unite through the bond of peace under the one Lord (Jesus), with one faith and one baptism.

When we step back for a moment and think about all these truths, it provokes a spirit of thanksgiving to the Father in Jesus’ name (5:20).

The final direct reference to the Father appears in the concluding benediction (beautifully bookending St. Paul’s blessing of the Father in 1:2). It reminds us that he is the inexhaustible source of grace, peace, faith and love (6:23-24).

Household Rules

Every good parent sets house rules: acceptable behaviors and responsibilities for each family member. St. Paul will do the same for the family of God. He proposes they emulate their Heavenly Father, “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1). To preserve unity in the family, St. Paul begs the believers to practice humility, patience, self-control, and love (4:1-3). Dishonesty, theft, laziness, immorality, impurity, covetousness, silly talk, and undue anger should never be found in this family (4:25-28, 5:3-5). Instead, words spoken by family members should always edify, fit the occasion, and impart grace to the hearer (4:29). One of the ways we can lift each other’s spirits is through “addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual song, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (5:19).


Faith-filled Family Fighting

All of us probably remember family fights that would break out on summer vacations, those “Mom, he’s touching me!” moments. St. Paul also speaks of family fighting but in a positive way. For the apostle, there is only one enemy—namely, those spiritual forces opposed to the plans and purposes of God. This ensures a unity of purpose in the family of God. In arguably the most famous verses of the epistle, St. Paul offers a description of seven pieces of armament for spiritual battle that we must all wear if we hope to survive in spiritual warfare (6:10-19). I want to focus on two of those pieces: the shield of faith and perseverance in prayer.

The Shield of Faith

In ancient times, an archer’s arrows were often oil-soaked and flaming, designed to ignite an enemy soldier’s shield, causing chaos among the ranks. But the shield of our faith has been soaked in water (likely a reference to baptism) and will extinguish every attempt to harm us (6:16). These ancient shields were substantial in size, often four feet high by two-and-a-half feet wide, large enough to protect the body from a frontal attack while leaving a soldier exposed on his sides. This is because they were designed to overlap, so each soldier would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his comrades, forming an impenetrable wall of protection that can also advance with confidence. This image invoked by St. Paul is one of my favorite pictures of the Church as a faith-filled fighting force. We never fight alone; we fight together, which is the surest path to victory.

Pray at All Times

Though it is not associated with physical armor, perseverance in prayer is the ultimate spiritual protection proposed by St. Paul (6:18-19). As Servant of God Patrick Peyton said nearly sixty years ago, “The family that prays together stays together.” This important principle is not only true for the domestic church at home but for our parish communities, as well. As with the shield of faith, prayer is not a purely personal activity. Our greatest strength is realized—and our greatest weapon is exercised—when we pray with and in the Body of Christ. As Catholics, we recognize the highest form of prayer is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is the place where all the pieces of spiritual armor are strengthened, repaired and empowered. It is there where the Church is best equipped for advancing the civilization of love and for welcoming all we meet to join this supernatural family of God.

Jeff Cavins and I have recently completed writing a new Great Adventure study on Ephesians that goes deeper into these themes and the incredible wisdom in St. Paul’s letter. The study shows how to assess and improve key areas in your life by applying and living the lessons Ephesians teaches. Jeff eloquently lays out the benefits of faith formation in context of the small group. In a time when the very nature of community and family are under such great attack, Ephesians is uniquely suited to equip you with the armament you need to withstand this attack. Experiencing this study with a small group of fellow believers will be transformative for all those who partake.

To learn more about this newest study in the Great Adventure series, and for a chance to ask Jeff Cavins questions about it, sign up for the Ephesians: Discover Your Inheritance webinar here.


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Ephesians: Discover Your Inheritance

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Putting on the Armor of God

Ephesus and Ephesians: Windows into what it means to be Church

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