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In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul tells us about the Ephesians themselves. Years after the exciting events of the early days of Christian mission in Ephesus, the Ephesians struggled with the significance of their Christian faith.
Paul, once the troubler of the economy of this fourth-largest city in the Roman Empire, is now sidelined and imprisoned. Writing from prison, he worries that the believers in Ephesus may “lose heart,” forgetting any active sense of what it means to be disciples of Jesus in the sophisticated, urban, and thoroughly pagan culture of Ephesus. Though his hearers are already Christians, Paul’s tone is one of recruitment. He seeks to reenlist them in Christian faith, to reignite the fire of their devotion to Christ, and to resurrect the excitement of being part of God’s great enterprise in the world, the church.
Because the Christian faith is all about Christ, Paul radiates admiration and worship of Him. If wobbly Christian disciples are to regain their footing, it will be because they recapture their first love for Jesus and establish fresh trust in His grace and power. So Paul highlights Christ’s exaltation in heaven, above all the powers and deities that seek to attract the devotion of believers in Ephesus. Jesus is the goal of the divine plan for the ages, a plan in which believers, as the church, play an important role in God’s plans to unify all things in Christ.
As Paul seeks to draw believers in Ephesus into fresh devotion to their Lord, he does not dumb down the demands of Christian discipleship. He spells out in some detail what Christian behavior and community look like. Christians are called to Spirit-inspired, Christ-honoring, God-directed worship, which Paul illustrates again and again. A devotion to Christ impacts how one acts and speaks. To love Christ means to respect and value fellow believers. It means resisting the patterns of mean-spirited and sexually decadent behavior so rampant in their culture. It means, in our relationships within church and household, borrowing from the example of self-sacrifice offered by Christ. It means offering fellow citizens of Ephesus clear examples of a new pattern of human existence.
Paul spends a good deal of his letter expressing his excitement for this new pattern of what it means to be human through membership in God’s church. He is especially invigorated by the thought that God has joined estranged segments of humanity — Jews and Gentiles — as one in the church. In living out unity where hostility would be expected, they have an opportunity to exhibit the characteristics of God’s new society and the coming kingdom.
In pursuing the importance of being part of God’s church, Paul develops four metaphors for the church. Believers make up the body of Christ, demonstrating their devotion to Christ and their unity with each other. They are a living temple, built through the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, in which God is worshiped. They are the bride of Christ, who look toward a grand marriage ceremony when the Bridegroom comes to claim them as His own. In a final metaphor that expresses Paul's efforts to reenlist them in Christian faith, they are the army of Christ, which wages peace in His name, combating the forces of darkness in God’s strength as they look toward Christ’s return.
Ephesians, then, speaks especially to times like our own in which the allure of the world and the passing of time threaten to dull Christian discipleship. It lifts up Christ and accents the significance of following Him as engaged, active members of His church as we live out the hope of His return. This quarter we have the privilege of listening prayerfully to Ephesians and experiencing anew the excitement of following Jesus in challenging times.
John K. McVay, Ph.D., is president and professor of religion at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington, USA, where he has served since 2006.
Lesson 1 June 24-30
Read for This Week’s Study: Acts 18:18-21; Acts 19:13-20:1; Acts 20:17-38; Eph. 1:1, 2; Eph. 6:21-24; Eph. 3:13; Eph. 1:9, 10.
Memory Text: “Making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9, 10, ESV).
When we write something, we have a purpose for doing so, sometimes a weighty one. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, wrote his famous Gettysburg address in 1863, after the terrible devastation in the American Civil War battle there, which left about 7,000 soldiers dead. In that address, invoking the founding fathers, Lincoln expressed his belief that the Civil War was the ultimate test as to whether the nation created in 1776 would endure or would “perish from the earth.”
Paul has a profound purpose that motivates his letter. Partly because of his imprisonment (Eph. 3:13, Eph. 6:20), and partly because of ongoing persecution and temptations, the Ephesians are tempted to lose heart. Paul reminds them of what happened when they were converted, accepting Christ as their Savior and becoming part of the church. They have become Christ’s body (Eph. 1:19-23, Eph. 4:1-16), the building materials in a temple (Eph. 2:19-22), the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:21-33), and a well-equipped army (Eph. 6:10-20). They play a strategic role in fulfilling God’s grand plan, to unite everything in Christ (Eph. 1:9, 10). Paul writes to awaken the believers in Ephesus to their full identity and privileges as followers of Christ.
Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, July 1.
Sunday ↥ June 25
What does Paul do on his first visit to Ephesus, at the end of his second missionary journey? (Acts 18:18-21).
Ephesus was one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire, with a population of about 250,000. It was the capital of one of the Empire’s richest provinces, the province of Asia, which covered much of what we know today as Asia Minor. In Paul’s day, the province was enjoying a time of growth and prosperity. A port city, Ephesus was also at the crossroads of important land routes. While the people worshiped many deities in the city, Artemis, regarded as the protector goddess of the city, was supreme. Her worship was the focus of civic ceremonies, athletic games, and annual celebrations. (Artemis was called Diana by the Romans; see Acts 19:24, 35, KJV; NKJV).
Paul later returns to Ephesus on his third missionary journey (Acts 19:1-12), and remains there “for three years” (Acts 20:31). The apostle makes a significant time commitment to Ephesus, with the intention of firmly founding Christianity there.
What strange event leads to widespread reverence for “the Lord Jesus” in Ephesus? (Acts 19:13-20).
Luke shares the strange story of seven itinerant, Jewish exorcists in the city. Mingling the names of both Jesus and Paul in their incantations proves to be a misguided venture for these exorcists. When the news flashes through the streets of the city, “everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised” (Acts 19:17, NRSV). The event also had a profound impact on some of those who had already become believers, who publicly burned their expensive handbooks of magic arts, worth “fifty thousand silver coins” (Acts 19:19, NRSV). With the wider residents of the city, believers learn that the worship of Jesus must not be diluted with the worship of anything or anyone else.
What did the burning of their own books signify, even at such an expense to themselves? What does that say about a total commitment to the Lord?
Monday ↥ June 26
Read Acts 19:21-20:1. What lessons can we draw from this story?
Paul’s witness in the large, sophisticated city of Ephesus was so effective that it impacted an important economic engine for the city, tourism focused on the Temple of Artemis. And what a temple it was! This magnificent structure was composed partly of 127 pillars, each 60 feet high, of Parian marble, a pure-white, flawless marble highly prized for sculptures. Thirty-six of these pillars were sculpted and overlaid with gold, earning the temple its reputation as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Concerned that Paul’s anti-idolatry rhetoric was draining financial support from the temple (Acts 19:27), Demetrius the silversmith whipped his fellow craftsmen into a frenzy. A rapidly expanding and highly energized crowd swept from the marketplace into the large amphitheater, which seated some 25,000 people. There the commotion continued, featuring two continuous hours of shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34, ESV). After the crowd is dispersed by the town clerk, Paul meets with the believers and leaves the city.
At the end of his third missionary journey, Paul meets with elders of the Ephesian church. How would you summarize Paul’s concerns? (See Acts 20:17-38).
A tentative chronology of Paul’s relationship to Ephesus:
“Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears,” said Paul (Acts 20:31, NKJV). What do you think Paul would warn our church about today, and why?
Tuesday ↥ June 27
Paul wrote Ephesians to be read aloud in the house churches of believers in greater Ephesus. In the intervening years since Paul’s departure, the Christian movement in Ephesus had grown, and the number of house churches had multiplied. For those early believers, it would have been an important event to have Tychicus, the personal representative of the founding apostle Paul, stand among them and share a letter from him. As suggested by the epistle itself, the assembled group likely included members of the host household — father, mother, children, and slaves (Eph. 5:21-6:9). At the time, a household included others as well — clients (free persons who depended on the householder for support) and even customers. So these may be present too, as well as members of other households.
In conjunction with the outline of the letter below, read through the entire epistle, preferably out loud (it will take about 15 minutes to do so). What themes echo through the letter as a whole?
What key theme seems to come through in this letter? What does it say to you? What specific point or points touch home?
Wednesday ↥ June 28
How does Paul begin and end his letter to the believers in Ephesus? What do we learn about his deepest desires for them? See Eph. 1:1, 2; Eph. 6:21-24.
At the outset of the letter, Paul identifies himself as the author (Eph. 1:1). Near the middle of the letter, Paul again identifies himself by name, labeling himself “the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles” (Eph. 3:1, NKJV), which introduces a personal reflection on his work as an apostle (Eph. 3:1-13). Near the end of the letter, he again refers to his imprisonment (Eph. 6:20) and concludes with personal words (Eph. 6:21, 22). While some scholars deny that the letter was written by Paul, it is important to note that the epistle clearly lays claim to Paul as its author. Most Christians accept, and rightly so, Paul as the author.
How does Paul worry about the effect his imprisonment will have on believers in Ephesus? See Eph. 3:13.
Ephesians seems to share the same general timing and circumstances with other letters Paul writes from prison, Colossians (see esp. Col. 4:7, 8) and Philemon. Also, considerable time seems to have passed since Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Eph. 1:15; Eph. 3:1, 2). Paul probably composed Ephesians in a prison in Rome about A.D. 62.
In Ephesians, Paul offers few specifics about the situation of his audience in Ephesus. The scope of his attention is wide. He deals with a grand span of time, beginning with God’s decisions made “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), and reflects broadly on grand themes of God’s salvation offered in Christ. In doing so, the letter exhibits an exalted, literary style, with long sentences, repetitive expressions, and developed metaphors. Paul can use such a style elsewhere (e.g., Rom. 8:31-39), but it is concentrated in Ephesians, which features a great deal of praise, prayer, and worship language (Eph. 1:3-14, Eph. 1:15-23, Eph. 3:14-21) and offers carefully crafted, highly rhetorical passages (e.g., Eph. 4:1-16, Eph. 5:21-33, Eph. 6:10-20).
Thursday ↥ June 29
How does Paul announce the theme of his letter? Eph. 1:9, 10.
How can the message of Ephesians be summarized? From prison, Paul sets forth a vision of God’s Christ-centered plan for the fullness of time and the church’s role in it. God has acted in Christ to initiate His plan “to unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10, ESV), and He did so by creating the church as an entity composed of one new humanity of both Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14). Believers are called to act in concert with this divine plan, signaling to the evil powers that God’s ultimate purpose is underway (Eph. 3:10).
As Ephesians 1:9, 10 proclaims, the unity God has in mind is centered in Christ. So it is no surprise to discover that Ephesians is a Christ-drenched letter that everywhere praises the actions of God in Christ and celebrates the access of believers to the spiritual resources offered them in Christ. Paul employs the phrase “in Christ” and similar phrases more than thirty times, and everywhere lifts up Jesus. As you read the letter, watch for these phrases and stay alert to the many ways Paul focuses on Jesus.
Paul seeks to reignite the spiritual commitment of believers in Ephesus by reminding them that they are part of the church, which is at the heart of God’s plan to unify all things in Christ. When he uses the word “church” (Greek, ekkl�"sia) in the letter, he means the “universal” church or the church at large (rather than a local congregation).
A principal strategy he uses is to talk about the church, and he does so using vivid metaphors, four of which he develops in some detail:
Each one of these images, in its own way, reveals what God’s purpose and intention for His church is.
In the church of which you are a part, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, God is drawing together a transnational, multilingual, multiracial, cross-cultural community (Rev. 14:6, 7) that points the way to the fulfillment of His plan to unite all things in Jesus (Eph. 1:9, 10). How can we work in concert with God’s grand plan?
Friday ↥ June 30
Further Thought: The story of the exorcists misusing the names of Jesus and Paul (Acts 19:13-20; see Sunday’s study) helps explain why Paul uses so much language about power in Ephesians. Some new believers, under fresh conviction of the sovereignty of Jesus, throw their expensive magic manuals into the flames. Thanks to the discovery of some 250 papyri dealing with magic as well as other finds, we have ample illustrations of rituals, spells, formulas, curses, etc., similar to those likely featured in these manuals of magic. The volumes had advised believers how to conduct such rituals to persuade gods, goddesses, and spirit powers to do whatever they would ask.
Luke tells us that these volumes were worth 50,000 silver coins, or 50,000 days of wages. (In today’s setting, if you allow for $80/day of wages for a skilled laborer, this amounts to $4 million!). This detail demonstrates the importance and centrality of these volumes to their everyday lives. “It took the sovereign intervention of God for them to be sufficiently convicted that they should completely repent of their ongoing utilization of amulets, charms, invocations, and traditional means of gaining spiritual power.” — Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), p. 34.
We come to understand that Ephesians was written to believers who needed instruction about “how to cope with the continuing influence and attacks of the sinister cosmic ‘powers.’ ” — Clinton E. Arnold, Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), p. 165. Paul’s response is the Epistle to the Ephesians, in which he points to Christ as the One who has been exalted above every power (Eph. 1:20-23) and emphasizes the superiority of the strength that God provides to believers (Eph. 2:15-19, Eph. 3:14-21, Eph. 6:10-20).
Valentina Melentjeva watched helplessly as her home burned to the ground in Kongsberg, Norway. While she was sad to lose her life’s possessions, the thought of losing her Bible devastated her the most.
Valentina grew up in Klaipeda, the third-largest city of the then-Soviet republic of Lithuania. Although her mother was a Christian, her family never owned a Bible, never talked about Jesus, and never prayed.
When Valentina was 45, she noticed that a neighbor named Ira seemed happy even though she endured struggles. Valentina asked Ira about the secret to her happiness, and Ira invited her to her home.
When Valentina arrived, Ira placed an open Bible in her hands. For the first time in her life, Valentina held a Bible. It was opened to Exodus 20.
“Please read,” Ira said.
Valentina began reading the Ten Commandments. When she reached the fourth commandment, she was shocked to read, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.” (Exodus 20:8-10, NKJV).
Four times she read the Sabbath commandment. The seventh day, not Sunday, was the day of rest. For her entire life, she had worked on Saturdays. But now she wanted to live according to the fourth commandment.
The next Saturday, Valentina went with Ira to worship with other Seventh-day Adventists in Klaipeda. On her second Sabbath in church, Valentina received a new Bible in the Russian language. The book became her most-treasured possession, and she was baptized a year later, in 2004. Later, Valentina moved to Norway to learn more about God at an Adventist Bible school. By the time she completed the course, the Bible’s cover had become well-worn. She commissioned a beautiful leather cover for the Bible.
After the 2021 fire, the police and fire brigade cordoned off Valentina’s apartment. When their investigation ended, Valentina’s visiting son walked through the rubble. Valentina was overjoyed when her son returned with the Bible. The Bible, which had been standing on a shelf with other spiritual books, was the only book to remain intact. It suffered only minor fire damage.
“It is amazing what the love of God can do to preserve the most important thing,” Valentina said.
Thank you for your Thirteenth Sabbath Offering three years ago that helped open a center of influence in Sortland, Norway, where more people can learn about Valentina’s favorite book, the Bible.
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