|Paul in prison (Rembrandt)|
Paul is obviously a crucial person in the New Testament. He is writing this letter about thirty years after his conversion, during which time he has been very active in spreading the gospel. He has seen the Lord do great things through his ministry, with one of these achievements being the formation of the church in Ephesus. It was the apostle’s practice to plant churches in major urban centres such as Ephesus, and then teach these churches to evangelise the surrounding area, which is what the church in Ephesus did with regard to Colosse, for example. But as we think of Paul just now, I only want to mention two factors.
The first is that he is now a prisoner in Rome. His journey to Rome is described in the closing chapters of the Book of Acts. In chapter 3 of this letter he describes himself as a prisoner of the Lord. This is a reminder to us of how to view our circumstances. For Paul, going through imprisonment was an opportunity to serve the Lord. He could still help other Christians, as he does in this letter, and also evangelise his guards, which did take place, as he tells us in Philippians, another letter written at this time. In a real sense, there are no prison walls that prevent the growth of spiritual life.
The second is that Paul had a definite calling to be an apostle. The word itself means ‘messenger’ and it is used that way at times in the New Testament. But in its precise sense it refers to a particular group of men, each of whom had three qualifications: they had been personally selected by Jesus, they had been given authority by Jesus to be his representatives, and they had been eyewitnesses of his resurrection. They were not to serve Christ in one particular place but were to travel throughout the world spreading the gospel and establishing churches. In addition, some of them wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and these writings are included in the Scriptures. Paul in this book describes apostles as belonging to the foundation of the church (2:20), which means that they were there at its beginning. There are no apostles today.
It is important for us to recognise the authority of the apostles. As John Stott reminds us, Paul is not writing as ‘a private person ventilating his personal opinions, nor as a gifted but fallible human teacher, nor even as the church’s greatest missionary hero, but as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”, and therefore as a teacher whose authority is precisely the authority of Jesus Christ himself, in whose name and by whose authority he writes.’ Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ.
In both these aspects of Paul – as a prisoner and as an apostle – we see God’s grace at work. It was God’s grace that rescued him from sin and gifted him to be an apostle. Paul, who had been a persecutor of the church, became one of its most fruitful servants. Grace not only saved him, not only enabled him to serve Christ, but also sanctified him so that he endured adverse circumstances for Christ.
God’s grace is also seen in the way he overruled to bring Paul and the Ephesians together. If it had not been for grace Paul would not have gone to Ephesus with the gospel. But grace created a bond that geographical distance could not diminish.