Ephesians and Colossians are exactly what they're billed as in the title: epistles. That's just a fancy word meaning letters. And why would Paul write a letter? Well, he's in prison, for starters, so he can't be there to deliver his advice in person. The letter is sort of a stand in for him. It's a way for him to forge a relationship with his friends in Ephesus and Colossae from far, far away.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Let's call it a day.
Not so fast. While Colossians seems like a pretty typical letter, Ephesians is missing lots of stuff that people usually put in their correspondence. Paul doesn't reference many specific people, places, events, or issues in Ephesus. It's more like he's writing a general sermon than some personal advice to a group Christians he knows and loves (source, 1113). It would be like you sending an email to your best friend with your Biology essay pasted into it. Pretty impersonal.
That doesn't mean Ephesians isn't a letter. It may have passed through the mail at some point, but it's also a bit of a genre-bender.
Paul is always pushing limits, isn't he?
New Testament authors never titled any of their works. But…do you put titles on all your texts? We didn't think so. When these books made there way into the Bible though, folks needed some system for telling them all apart. And that's why they slapped titles on 'em.
The most commonly used titles for these two—The Epistle to the Ephesians and The Epistle to the Colossians—pretty much say it all. It just means that these books of the Bible are:
Pretty simple, right? Just the way we like it.
These two letters were sent nearly 2,000 years ago. They were written to people in foreign lands and authored by folks whose experiences are pretty darn different from ours (no iPhones in 1st century Asia). If all that sounds terribly confusing…it is.
Paul spent quite a bit of time in Ephesus during his missionary journeys across the Roman Empire. It was located in the western half of modern-day Turkey on the coast of the Aegean Sea. Back in the day, it was a major commercial hub (because it was right on the water) and was home to both Jews and Gentiles. When Paul stopped by, he managed to convert some folks, cause a pretty fantastic riot (Acts 19:21-41), and get thrown to wild beasts (1 Corinthians 15:32).
Trouble just follows him everywhere.
But for a place that Paul had so many exciting adventures in, he doesn't offer too many specifics about what life was like in Ephesus. Paul only mentions the name of one person in town, even though he usually likes to pack in shout-outs to everyone he know. He also doesn't discuss any of the local problems… and you know things were tense for Christians because Paul totally caused a riot and fought with wild animals the last time he was in town.
Because of all this stuff (and more), most scholars don't think that Paul actually wrote this letter or that it was sent to the real-life Ephesians. Another big hint is that the address "to the saints who are in Ephesus" doesn't even appear on the oldest versions of this manuscript. And every time the letter gets mentioned up through the 2nd century, no one seems to know that it was sent to the folks in Ephesus. Those are some serious red flags right there.
It's way more likely that Ephesians was meant to be a letter that would circulate to various churches in the area around Ephesus, which 1st-century folks just referred to as Asia. People would read it during services or celebrations as a way to teach and encourage the community. Someone who was close to Paul probably wrote it down after he died in the mid-60s as a kind of meditation on Paul's thoughts and theology. That means were talking anywhere from the 70s to 80s CE. (Source, 1165-67.)
Sure, it's close, but it's no Paul.
The Epistle to the Colossians, on the other hand, is more likely an actual letter from Paul sent to actual folks in Colossae. Back in the 1st century, Colossae was a huge, big-deal kind of city in the Lycus Valley (in modern-day Turkey). It benefitted because it was one of the stops on the road from the Euphrates River to the seaport in Ephesus. Along with it's neighbors, Laodicea and Hierapolis, Colossae was large and in charge in this area.
The town had a pretty tight monopoly on wool production until around the 3rd century CE. Even after things started to decline when other towns started cranking out the quality textiles, Colossae was still famous for a special kind of purple fleece that was only made there. Hey, people gotta have their adorable purple fleece blankets, areweright?
Paul says that his pal, Epaphras, was the one who first started the churches in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Even though there were a mix of Gentiles and Jews in town, it seems like almost everyone Epaphras managed to convert was a Gentile.
Since Epaphras was a native of Colossae, he was in a good position to spread the word about Jesus there. This was actually a little lesson that Paul learned after he was forced to start from scratch evangelizing in places like Philippi and Thessalonica. It was rough. He soon figured out that the best way to spread the word about Jesus was to have people go back to their hometowns to talk about him. It was actually a pretty good plan.
When Epaphras came back to Colossae after meeting Paul in his travels, he wouldn't have had to look for work in town to support himself. He'd also have a network of family and friends who would at least have to humor him while he went on and on about Jesus. It's kind of like what happens when your cousin decides to start selling Tupperware.
Paul probably wrote this letter while he was in prison in Ephesus between 53-54 CE. Remember the riots? They didn't like him there. He also spent a few years in lock up in Rome in the early 60s, but he wrote other stuff then. (Yup, that's right. Paul did a lot of time in prison. More on that later.) Besides, it makes more sense that this letter would have come from Ephesus because it's only about 120 miles from Colossae. Rome is a much farther trip for one little letter to make.
So Colossae sounds nice, right? Maybe you'd like to add it to your travel plans? Well, we hate to break this to you, but a few years after this letter arrived, in 60 CE, a major earthquake hit the Lycus Valley. Laodicea and Hierapolis were rebuilt, but Colossae never got the same treatment. By, the 9th century, the town had been totally abandoned. Today, it only exists in ruins. (Source, 1191-92.)
Poor Colossae! We hardly knew ye!
Unlike in Ephesians, Paul does get down and dirty with what's going on in Colossae. Apparently, there are some "false teachers" who are causing a tiny bit of trouble. Note: this is truly a tiny bit of trouble. In his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians, Paul is facing serious attacks from guys who are way more influential than these guys in Colossae. In other towns, Paul's so angry he's practically foaming at the mouth. But in Colossae, he has a hard time getting more than mildly annoyed.
It's kind of hard to figure out what these false teachers were saying because Paul is pretty vague in his warnings. Some of them may have been talking about ideas that took their root in Judaism. Maybe they wanted people to keep following some Jewish laws. But there was also some talk about "elemental spirits of the universe" (Colossians 2:8) and the "worship of angels" (Colossians 2:18). In any case, Paul doesn't get too worked up about it because it seems like these guys aren't actually a real threat to his ministry. He just tells the Colossians to watch out in general. (Source, 1191.)
Remember when we mentioned that Paul went to jail a lot?
Both of these epistles say that the author was behind bars when he wrote them. Philippians and Philemon were produced in lock up, too. In another letter, Paul brags that he's suffered "far more imprisonments" (2 Corinthians 11:23) than his rivals. The dude took pride in his time in the Big House. Trust us, he got around…and got into trouble.
Paul's main issue was that, wherever he went, he started telling people about Jesus. Eventually he would rile up some group in town. Sometimes he made the Jews mad by saying Jesus was the Jewish messiah; other times, he ticked off the pagans by saying that there was only one God and his son was named Jesus Christ. Whatever happened, it tended to end with him being arrested, beaten, and taken to trial.
For a good part of his life, Paul was held in captivity, and according to Acts, Paul was imprisoned for 4 years while he waited for his trial in Rome (Acts 24:27, 28:30). We can't resist pointing out that it's sort of ironic that Paul, who once imprisoned Christians, was then imprisoned for being a Christian himself.
God sure does have a funny sense of humor.
How did Paul's prison setting affect his writing? Well, it probably made him want to reach out to friends a little more. He couldn't visit any of the people he's writing to, so he did the next best thing and sent a letter. He was also hoping that he'd hear some good news back from these areas so he didn't have to fret so much while he's doing his time. Oddly enough, his mood in Colossians is pretty darn cheerful. Life on the inside wasn't getting him down.
But Paul's not the only author who spent his time inside writing. Here are just a few more examples of major works penned from behind bars:
• The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
• Fanny Hill by John Cleland
• The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade
• Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
• The Sixteenth Round by Rubin "Hurricane" Carter
What other stuff was going on at the time? Well, slavery was kind of a big deal. Paul talks directly about the relationship between masters and slaves in his letters.
Slaves were pretty common around the Roman Empire at the time. They worked in people's homes, businesses, and even for the government. As you might imagine, the lives of Roman slaves were no picnic. They could be beaten or even killed by their owners for any reason. Judaism also allowed for Jews to own slaves, but the Torah at least had some standards for how they should be treated. Sure, the standards were pretty low, but at least it was something. (Source.)
But for the most part, people just accepted this as the norm. Paul doesn't really even question the institution of slavery, but he does say that Christian slaves and masters have an obligation to each other. Slaves work hard and masters be nice. Why? Because every Christian has to serve God—their true master—first. Sure, it's no Emancipation Proclamation but it's a start.
What about the roles of women and children? Paul talks about how wives, sons, and daughters should obey the man of the house. What's up with that?
Well, feminism hadn't exactly taken hold in the 1st century Roman Empire. Back then, the man of the house—a.k.a. the paterfamilias—had absolute and total control over his household. He was the only one would could earn money and own property and his wife and children were expected to support and obey him in everything he did. A dad could even disown, kill, or sell his own kids in slavery if they made him mad. You did not want to step out of line with Roman daddies. (Source.)
Basically, it was a man's world. Although (if we can even use "although" in this sense), Paul also encourages husbands and dads not to act rashly and to be loving and kind in their interactions with their family. That was just a tiny bit radical back then, so we'll take it as a step in the right direction.
If you've ever seen a battle (or at least watched an episode or two of Game of Thrones), you know that armor can sure come in handy when you're engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Christians may not literally be taking the field of battle, but Paul sure thinks they're involved in spiritual warfare. And even in a metaphorical fight, it's important to be well armed.
One of the most famous images from the Epistle to the Ephesians is Paul telling his Christian readers to suit up for battle:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)
The idea here is pretty clear. There are dangerous forces out there—both actual people and institutions and evil forces—waiting to take Christians down. The best defense is a good defense, so Paul wants his readers to arm themselves so that they'll be protected when the time comes.
Paul is basing his description off the battle-wear that Roman soldiers would put on, so this whole section is actually meant to be a little satirical. Christians don't have the power of Rome and can't defend themselves with literal weapons. But they do have the power of God and can break out all the spiritual big guns:
Sounds like Christians are ready to rumble. Watch out, Roman Empire.
As brilliant as Paul is, he didn't come up with these images all on his own. The idea of putting on armor for spiritual warfare is big in the Hebrew Bible:
[God] saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle. (Isaiah 59:16-17)
The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes. (Wisdom 5:17-20)
You'll notice that in both these verses, it's God who's getting suited up for the fight. In Ephesians, Christians are the ones who are supposed to don the armor. God must be letting them borrow his clothes.
This image has been pretty powerful throughout history. See, in the years after Jesus died, Christians had a bit of an underdog complex going. That's probably because they were actual underdogs when compared to the big bad Roman Empire. The idea of putting on God's armor was a way for Christians to regain the power that had been stripped from them by society.
Oddly enough, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, they switched over to wearing literal armor with no problems at all. Sure, it was still important to arm yourself with faith, but a really sharp sword wouldn't hurt either. The Crusades and the Inquisition also weren't the church's finest armor-wearing hours.
No matter how mighty Christianity got, the image of spiritual warfare always stuck around. The shield of faith gets its name from this passage in Ephesians. The Christian superhero, Bibleman transforms by putting on the armor of God. John Bunyan clothed his hero in the armor of God during his journey in The Pilgrim's Progress. Hymns about spiritual battle are all over the place, too.
Anyone who's ever had a broken foot knows it's pretty tough to get around without the help of that appendage. We take our bodies for granted when they're working well, but when something goes wrong, we see how much we need every single bit of ourselves to function. The same is true for the Christian community—at least according to Paul.
Paul uses the metaphor of a person's physical body to describe the way that Christians all should be working and living together:
There is one body and one Spirit […] But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift […] The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ[…] We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:4, 7, 1-12, 15-16)
Basically, Paul is saying that Christians are all like different parts that make up one body. They each have to play their part in order to keep this thing going. Even body parts no one cares about (pinky toe—we're looking at you), can turn out to be vitally important (ever try walking with a broken pinky toe?).
Wait a second…does that mean someone has to be the butt? And someone the brains? Well, Paul doesn't say who gets rear-end duty, but he's pretty clear on who's the head:
That's right. Jesus is large and in charge of this body.
So Christians are all one body. Everyone's working together, sharing, loving, living. But Paul takes the metaphor a step further. This is no ordinary body Christians are part of:
No one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body." (Ephesians 5:29-30)
That's right. This is Jesus' bones we're living in, okay. The church is made up of all different people, but when they work together, they become Christ's body. That's like saying that when we all join in with each other we have the same power and impact of Jesus working in the world. It's sort of like what would happen if the Power Rangers came together to form a giant robot Jesus instead of the Megazord.
Of course, lots of different folks have different ideas about what this image could mean. That's the tricky thing about symbols—they can mean a bunch of stuff. Some Christians believe that you have to be part of a certain denomination to be considered as part of the body of Christ. Others think the idea is more universal and that anyone who believes can become Jesus. It just depends who you ask.
What's clear is that Paul wants to say that we're all related to each other and that we're all in this together. Peace, love, and fully-functioning body parts for all.
Living is pretty great, right? That's why humans like to stay alive as long as possible. Sometimes, they even become vampires to do just that.
But according to Paul, even though you're walking around living and breathing in the world, you can still be dead as a doorknob. Oh, do tell, Paul.
Paul uses life and death as images for the transformation that Christians go through when they put their faith in Jesus:
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2:1-5)
Here, Paul uses death as a way of explaining how things were for Christians before they met Jesus. They were living in sin, so it was like they were non-existent. They might as well have fallen off the face of the Earth because God shouldn't even have seen them standing there. They should have been dead to him. But he loved them anyway. God's wacky like that.
But once they hopped on the Jesus bandwagon? Then they came alive. Now, they're walking around, living, breathing, and experiencing a life with God. And life is good. Talk about a resurrection.
So being dead is bad, right? Being alive is the way to be. Shmoop prefers breathing to lying in a coffin, personally. But sometimes you need to give the bad stuff in your life the death penalty, too:
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). (Colossians 3:2-5)
A couple things are going on here. Christians are alive in God's eyes, but they're dead to the world. That just means they don't conform and do what everyone else out there does. Now they're non-existent to the rest of society. Paul also wants them to take some of their impulses and love for the world and kill those suckers. This time, death is a good idea. Christians need to take all the bad stuff in their lives and toss it in a grave somewhere. (Figuratively, of course. That could get weird otherwise.)
This is kind of a symbol flip flop. Before these guys had Jesus in their life, they were dead to God but alive as far as the rest of the world was concerned. Now they're persona non grata out in society, but they're living and breathing beings in the kingdom of God. And according to Paul, they got the right idea now. He's such a non-conformist.
If you've ever searched for a flashlight or candle in a power outage, you can understand why Paul feels the way he does about light. Darkness can be scary when you can't see where you're going and anything could be out there waiting in the shadows to gobble you up. It always feels good to turn on that little beam of light and finally see.
Right away, Paul tells us that light is good:
Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." (Ephesians 5:8-14)
For Paul, believing in God and Jesus is like a sunny day. Everything is illuminated and bright and clear. He's like a shining beacon of goodness telling you which direction to head. And now Christians can see exactly where they're going. (Heaven, duh.)
Darkness, on the other hand, stinks:
Oh man, that does not sound good. Darkness puts a cloud over everything. You can't see two feet in front of your face, so you're stumbling around trying to figure out exactly what's going on. Next time, stick with Jesus, guys. He brought the flashlights.
These two letters are pretty tame.
Paul only mentions sexy stuff—like lust, fornication, and passion—a handful of times, and he's always super disapproving of getting it on outside of marriage. There's no violence or drugs, though Paul does advise Christians not to get drunk, so we're guessing he'd be in favoring of just saying no.
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
Not only does this play take place in Ephesus, but the Bard also throws in some references to Paul for good measure. Luciana says that, in preparation for becoming a wife, she'll "practice to obey." She's taking Ephesians 5:22 pretty darn literally.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
God alludes to Colossians 1:16—"In [Jesus] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers"—when he declares his son, Jesus, to be Lord over everyone. The Almighty announces, "Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Vertues, Powers, Hear my Decree, which unrevok't shall stand. This day I have begot whom I declare My onely Son." Satan is not amused.
The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Will Shakespeare really loves him some Pauline epistles. Katharina (the shrew) seems to allude to Ephesians 5:22-24 in her final speech when she says, "Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, the keeper, thy head, thy sovereign" and that wives are "bound to serve, love and obey." Is Kate being sarcastic? It all depends on how you read it.
The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells
This book about a man who literally wakes up after sleeping for 203 years has a title that sure seems like a shout out to Ephesians 5:14—"Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs
This 2004 self-help book is based on Paul's advice to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:33: "Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband." Basically, the author agrees with Paul and thinks the key to a happy marriage is providing your man with respect and your lady with love.
The West Wing
The episode "War Crimes" opens with a discussion of a sermon on Ephesians 5:22-33. President Bartlet doesn't mind the whole wives obey and husbands love part—he just hates a lackluster sermon. And there's oh-so-much walking and talking going on!
In the episode "The Field Where I Died," the main baddie is Vernon Ephesian, the leader of an apocalyptic religious cult who gets his last name from The Epistle to the Ephesians.
The Care Bears
Some folks have speculated that the name of Tenderheart Bear actually comes from Ephesians 4:32: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another." Who knew Paul could be so warm and fuzzy? Can we get a Care Bear stare up in here to celebrate?
This Christian superhero wears the armor of God with protective items straight out of Ephesians 6:13-17: "fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace […] take the shield of faith[…] Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit." He's fully dressed and fully blessed!