“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Eph. 1:15-16).
At this point in the Epistle, the Apostle has completed the theological-doxological prelude about God’s predestination and the centrality of Christ for our salvation and has now moved on to talking to his audience directly. There is controversy about whether or not this Epistle was written to the church in Ephesus. From what I understand, the reason is that some very early manuscripts do not contain a reference to Ephesus in v. 1. In any case, let us take some time to consider what we can know about his audience given what he says here.
Let me start by saying that I have not studied the history of Paul’s missions in very much detail, so I am sure that others who are more knowledgeable can clear up any confusions that may arise in what I am about to say. First, let us consider Paul’s history in the city of Ephesus. According to Luke in Acts 18, Paul did stop very briefly on his way to Jerusalem in Ephesus to speak with the Jews in the synagogue, but he does not spend a longer period of time (vv. 18-21). Priscilla and Aquila remain behind, presumably to continue the mission work. Then Apollo arrives in Ephesus and Priscilla and Aquila take him under their wing, teaching him more accurately in the way of God (v. 26). There is, by this point, a community of Christians in Ephesus, because these help Apollo when he leaves (v. 27). Then Paul returns to Ephesus in ch. 19, encounters some believers who had not received the Holy Spirit and whom he then baptizes in the name of Jesus (v. 4-6). Then Paul seems to remain in Ephesus for a while and teaches both in the synagogue and in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, spending around two years there (vv. 8-10). Then there is the famous riot in Ephesus, after which Paul leaves to go elsewhere.
From what Paul says in this verse, it would seem to me that he is writing to a group of people whom he has never met before. He mentions in 3:1 that he is a prisoner at the time of his writing, his imprisonment only taking place some time after his missions in this area. For this reason, it would seem that scholars date this letter as having been written when he was imprisoned at Rome, in the year AD 62, some four years after he was last in Ephesus. The Apostle, then, is writing to a group of Christians in a church he last saw four years earlier.
Paul here demonstrates a pastorly concern for a church where he spent much time. As an apostle of the Lord and a pastor of the Church, Paul is concerned to know that God’s children are doing well. He remembers them in his prayers and he thanks God for their faith and love for all the saints, a love and a faith whose fame has reached distant parts of the empire. I think there is a lesson to be learned from Paul here. Sometimes in life we must depart from a group where we had spent much time. This could be leaving a church to go to another one, or perhaps even leaving one sub-tradition of Christianity to adopt another one. Perhaps we can learn from Paul not to forget where we came from and where we spent so many years of life, to pray for those persons whom we have left behind for whatever reason and to mention them to God in prayer. (Of course, our experience will probably not be perfectly analogous to Paul’s.) We may even consider thanking God for the time we spent there, insofar as those experiences, even if they were bad but especially if they were good, led to our sanctification and to a deeper fellowship with God.
On the other hand, from the Ephesians we can learn what it means to be good Christians. It means to have a faith in the Lord Jesus that expresses itself through love for all the saints. The Roman playwright composed those famous lines: homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto — I am a human being; nothing human is foreign to me. Perhaps we say in a similar vein that we are Christians and that no one who believes in Jesus is a stranger to me. It is easy to fall into skepticism and mistrust of other Christians who believe or act differently than we do. Mainline Protestants may perhaps be contemptuous of evangelicals who are themselves doubtful of the faith of mainliners, all of whom are held in derision by traditionalist Catholics, the bane of more progressive Catholics, both camps being excluded from the fold by zealous Orthodox converts, who are apostates from the Gospel according to conservative Calvinists, who … and so on. I personally find this attitude distasteful. We can have disagreements about this or that, we can discuss this or that, but — as far as I am concerned — everyone is my brother or sister who loves Jesus Christ from the heart.