Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon from prison. He would doubtless have preferred to be with them in person (Phil 1:8), but as he was kept apart from them, he ministered from where God had placed him as best as he could. We don’t get any sense that Paul felt his life was on hold; he continues to make the most of his daily circumstances (Col 4:3ff), preaching to the palace guards and all those around him (Eph 6:19 Phil 1:13), and sending out messengers with handwritten letters to the churches to encourage them and receive news for his own prayers and encouragement (Eph 6:22; Phil 2:18; Col 4:7-9). And we see clearly that although his relationships with these churches were different, his priorities—for clear gospel teaching and the church to be built up in maturity in his absence—remained the same.
Although our circumstances are very different to those of Paul, there are a few parallels that seem instructive. In this current climate of COVID-19 lockdown, the pastoral load of our churches has been significantly increased, while access to those in need significantly restricted. We need to re-think how we can care for people from a distance. There are things we can learn from Paul about how he ministers to these churches as well as how he encourages them to minister to one another. Just by looking at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we are helped in our task of ministering from a distance.
Paul’s primary concern is that the Ephesians know who they are in Christ, which is the starting point for shaping their lives:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved, And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:4-7)
Paul reminds the Ephesians that they belong to Jesus Christ and not the world which once dominated them by their sin and Satan’s lies (Eph 2:2). God in his mercy has brought them from death to life in Christ Jesus, and they are now seated in the heavenly realms, sharing in Christ’s eternal inheritance. These verses are filled with rich reminders of God’s goodness to them, not only in the present but in a glorious future hope.
Paul goes on to show them how this spiritual reality has transformed their relationship with their God and also with their fellow believers (Eph 2:11ff). Whereas they were once separate, excluded from Christ, “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12), now they have been brought near to God through the blood of Christ (vv. 12-13), Christ is their peace (v. 14) and they have access to the Father by one Spirit (v. 18). And as fellow believers, they have a new, unique relationship with each other. They are now “fellow citizens with God’s people, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets with Christ himself as the chief cornerstone” (v. 20). Together, they are being built up to become a holy temple, a dwelling place for God (vv. 21-22). And as a building, a dwelling place, there is a dependency on one another which shapes the way they consider and care for each other.
Having reminded them again of their new-found identity, Paul next demonstrates his care for the people of Ephesus as well as urging them to care for each other and live lives which honour Christ.
Paul prays for them, not only praying for the Ephesians but telling them the things he prays for them, sharing model prayers of thanksgiving and for continued works of grace in their lives (Eph 1:15ff; 3:14ff). He also asks the Ephesians to pray for him (Eph 6:19)—that he might proclaim the gospel fearlessly, thereby demonstrating his own dependence on his Lord as the only one who can accomplish what he is asking for (Eph 3:20). This models their need for prayer and the prayers of each other, as well as what they are to pray for and how to can share this as an encouragement.
Paul urges them to care for one another as a body, “built up in love as each part does its work” (Eph 4:16): “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1). Of particular importance is how they speak to one another. In chapter 4 verse 29, Paul says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen”. More specifically Paul says “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs … always giving thanks to the Lord” (Eph 5:19-20). This then is how the Ephesians were to cheer each other on, building each other up and pointing to Jesus.
Again in light of their unity as one body of believers, Paul encourages the Ephesians to work out their own faith, actively putting off their our old selves by being renewed in the spirit of our minds so that they might put on the new self created to be like God (Eph 4:22-24). Paul paints a picture of what it looks like to plug away at living a Christian life in all areas, speech, attitudes, behaviour and instructions for family relationships. As each part does its work (Eph 4:16), the church as a whole benefits and is strengthened. The Ephesians also need to be strengthened for their own sake as well (Eph 6:10ff), because the spiritual powers of the world will be trying to bring them down (Eph 6:12, 16). So he urges them to be strong in their faith and pray (for themselves and “the saints”—6:18) so that they may be able to stand their ground.
Paul’s pastoral ministry to the Ephesians from prison shows us his love for them as well as his concern for their love for each other. He knows them and is in contact with them through messengers as well as letters. His priority is that the gospel is proclaimed, he proclaims it to the Ephesians to remind them of its riches, and he continues to proclaim it to those in his daily life. He prays and longs for them to be built up in the love of Christ (Eph 3:14ff) and urges them to pray for each other, build each other up in truth and strengthen their own faith. If our ministry in times of isolation can reflect the priorities of Paul, we will be doing well.