Ephesians 6 Commentary
Instructions to Children and Parents (6:1 – 4)
The Greek word for “fathers” in verse 4 can mean “parents,” but more likely Paul is turning attention specifically to fathers. Fathers had legal control of children and were responsible for their instruction from about age seven. Girls did not normally receive formal education, but were taught household duties. Leon Morris is probably correct in saying it is significant that Paul wrote “children” instead of “boys.” Girls were valued less in ancient society, but Paul did not accept such a limitation.
In the ancient world fathers had absolute control and were sometimes harsh; that is why Paul includes the warning against provoking children to anger.
But the text instructs children to obey and honor their parents. What this means in practical terms will depend on the age of the child and the integrity of the parents. Obedience will be different for a five-year-old and a twenty-year-old, even though honor may be much the same. Especially in our culture the freedom of young adults is a given, but even with that freedom honor of parents should remain.
The text assumes an ideal, but what if the reality is far worse? The less integrity a parent has, the more difficult honor will be. At times honor may even be reduced to honor for the “office” of parent rather than the person. Showing honor should never require distorting the truth. The guideline here, as everywhere, is speaking the truth in love. Where the parents’ will conflicts with God’s will, again the attitude of the early church is the right path: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). All application of this section must remember that these commands are an application of the larger ethic of Ephesians to a specific area. The whole letter is the framework for applying these instructions.
Instructions to Slaves and Masters (6:5 – 9)
THESE VERSES CONTINUE the House Codes that started in 5:22. Paul almost certainly drew from well-known early Christian teachings in framing these sections. He could have treated numerous relations or problems, but these topics were chosen because they are traditional and because Christianslike Jewswere seen as subversive elements in the society and especially as a threat to the family structure. Christians needed to show they did not threaten order and decency. The very form of the Christian house codes is an apologetic to turn aside slander and accusations.
That Christians were seen as a threat to the household structure is understandable. As we have seen, women were told to submit to their husbands “so that no one will malign [blaspheme] the word of God” (Titus 2:5). A similar statement occurs in reference to slaves: Slaves should consider their masters worthy of full respect “so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered [blasphemed]” (1 Tim. 6:1). Such slandering could arise because Paul had set aside valuations based on whether one was free or a slave (Gal. 3:28), wrote about slaves being freed by Christ (1 Cor. 7:21 – 23), and made slaves brothers of their owners (Philem. 15 – 16). Slaves, like wives, often would have been expected to adopt the gods of the family, which would have created further conflict for Christians. And regarding children, several of Jesus’ sayings placed allegiance to him over allegiance to the family.
The directions given to slaves removes any suggestion that this new faith upset the cultural order; on the other hand, these verses are still extremely subversive. Slave owners may have been pleased with the service they would get, but in the process they lost control, for slaves now had a higher allegiance than to their owners. Slaves no longer belonged to their owners, did not really serve them, did not merely do their will, did not seek to please them, and were no different from them. They were slaves of Christ, served him, and did God’s will, and the slave owners were to treat them the same way as slaves were to treat owners. The idea that in dealing with human beings they were really dealing with Christ is reminiscent of Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
This section makes specific to slaves (and masters) what was asked of everyone in 5:10, 17, 21: pleasing the Lord, doing his will, and mutual submission. To apply mutual submission to slaves and slave owners was a startling redefinition of slavery. In 1 Corinthians 7:21 – 23 Paul even told slaves that slavery should not matter, that they were Christ’s freed people, that both free and slave were slaves of Christ, and therefore that they should not be slaves of humans! The ease with which Paul made these points was based on his conviction that slaves, their owners, and he were all slaves of Christ. He referred to himself frequently as a slave of Christ, which should not be surprising insofar as Christ himself took the form of a slave. The background for this theology is already in the Old Testament (see esp. Lev. 25:55).
That masters are asked to treat their slaves “in the same way” is cryptic, but still shocking. For them to follow this instruction, they would have to treat their slaves with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart as to Christ. That alone should have abolished slavery for Christians! Owners would also have to give up playing to audiences and do the will of God as slaves of Christ. Moreover, just as slaves had to give up slacking off, masters had to give up threatening, which fits neither service to Christ nor the life of humility and gentleness called for in 4:2 – 3. This ethic moves beyond the Golden Rule, that is, beyond treating others as we want to be treated; it instructs us to treat others as we would treat our Lord.
In the Greco-Roman world slavery was so much a part of life that hardly anyone thought about whether it might be illegitimate. Only the Therapeutae, a Jewish sect in Egypt, and perhaps the Essenes, rejected slavery in principle. It was considered an economic and practical necessity, an assumed part of life as much as birds and trees. Scholars are reluctant to hazard estimates about the numbers, but as many as one-third of the people in Greece and Rome were slaves. In addressing them Paul was addressing an enormous number of people. People became slaves through various avenues: birth, parental selling or abandonment, captivity in war, inability to pay debts, and voluntary attempts to better one’s condition. Race was not a factor.
These Christians were called to take their identity from Christ, regardless of the circumstances. Revolt was out of the question, but their lives were to be a quiet protest and a witness to a higher calling.
For the early church to advocate revolt would have been the death of the Christian movement. Slavery and other social issues were not their focus; the gospel and its description of life were. They did not work out the sociological implications of the gospel except where it related to reception of the message and relations within churches. But as they presented life in Christ, they put in motion a process that would eventually destroy slavery.
Slaves and masters (6:5 – 9). The application of the teaching on slaves and masters is obviously relevant for work relations, but it actually involves every relation and act. No relation is merely a relation; it is a context for relating to Christ. No job is merely work; it is a context for serving Christ.
Relations with people. The first application of this text concerns the way we understand ourselves and others. Society sends signals that declare our relative value and tell us where we fit in the hierarchy, but this text gives a different system of valuing. The hierarchy does not exist. We all have roles and tasks, but they do not render people more or less valuable. We all have the same Lord and face the same judgment. Arrogance and feelings of inferiority are out of place, as is favoritism. If God does not show favoritism, neither should we. We typically show favoritism to the rich and powerful, but little respect for the poor and powerless. Both are sins.
It is so easy for us to demean people we consider to be “low on the totem pole.” We do not have slaves, but we do have “service personnel” and people who “do not count.” It is easy to dehumanize and tyrannize them. We “chew them out” when we are unsatisfied. We view them as faceless numbers when the time comes to downsize. By lack of attention, body language, or attitude we communicate to them, “We do not really care about you.” Yet such people are as important as any “star” or power-broker, and our Christian witness depends on how we treat them. We must relate to them as if we were relating to Christ.
Be Strong Against Evil (6:10 – 13)
An English translation cannot easily show it, but the imperatives throughout this section are plural. We usually interpret them as if they were addressed to individuals, but without denying their relevance for individuals, we should understand them as Paul’s instructions for the church collectively to put on God’s armor and stand as one person (cf. Phil. 1:27).
The Armor of God (6:14 – 20)
A decision about “the belt of truth” is the most difficult, but the other three items in verses 14 – 16 (“righteousness,” “readiness,” and “faith”) emphasize a human response to God’s saving work. This passage is an appeal for human action. Clearly, “righteousness” in verse 14 does not refer so much to the gift of righteousness (Rom. 5:17) as to righteous acts by believers (see 4:24; 5:9). “Salvation” and “the word of God” in verse 17, however, are clearly gifts from God, which at the same time enable and motivate human obedience.
The “breastplate of righteousness” is from Isaiah 59:17, which describes God’s putting on armor to come in judgment. Paul was not writing about judgment, but the fact that the new being is created to be like God (4:24). To put on the breastplate of righteousness means that Christians are to reflect the righteous character of God in their actions.
“Feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (v. 15) is adapted from Isaiah 52:7, which describes the messenger of good news. Usually this is understood in terms of willingness to share the gospel, but the intent is broader than sharing the good news.
With the shield Paul has in mind the large shield Roman infantry used to protect their whole bodies. Such shields were four feet tall and two and one-half feet wide and were constructed of leather stretched over wood, reinforced with metal at the top and bottom. Especially if soaked in water, they were effective in stopping burning arrows.
“The helmet of salvation” (v. 17) is also from Isaiah 59:17, again describing God’s own armor. M. Barth suggested the helmet is a ceremonial helmet, a helmet of victory, which indicates the battle has already been won, though this is questionable. In Isaiah God strapped on a breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation to bring righteousness and salvation. But in Ephesians, the believer puts them on to do righteousness and to receive salvation.
With the sword of the Spirit a change occurs. With the earlier pieces of armor, the second element identified the first. For example, the belt was truth. With the sword of the Spirit, this is not the case, for the sword is the word of God. The Spirit is the one who empowers the sword. Throughout Scripture God’s word is the instrument by which his power is shown. The wording here may be influenced by Isaiah 11:4.
“Word of God” does not refer to the Bible but to the gospel message. The Greek word used here (rhema) usually refers to a teaching or prophetic utterance or, more specifically, to the gospel.
Tychicus, the letter carrier & Closing benediction (6:21 – 24).
WE TEND TO ignore the relevance of texts like this. Their application may be limited, but they still are significant in shaping how we view God and ourselves. Paul’s view of his friends and his concern for them deserve to be copied. By viewing other Christians as in the Lord and by desiring God’s gifts for them, we change the way we relate to them. We cannot extend God’s peace and love honestly to people we do not care about.
Snodgrass, Klyne. “Ephesians 4:1 – 16” In The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians. By Klyne Snodgrass, 193-228. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1996.