The first chapter is concerned with introductory matters, including Paul’s standard greeting of “Grace and peace to you,” and his invocation of God as the source of that peace. He cannot get through this first chapter without launching heavily into the praise of God for this grace and speaking of how the believers were chosen before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and the redemption according to Christ (1:7).
It is difficult to not note who Paul is, and what he went through at Ephesus with the church there. You should refer to Acts 19 (here) and Acts 20:13-36 for that information. Suffice it to say here that Paul was no stranger to the Ephesians, both the church and the wider population.
In Focus: Finding a focus in Ephesians 1 is like choosing which bite of a wonderful steak is the best. Is it the praise of Christ and His grace? The glorious truth of God’s unshakable adoption of His people? Perhaps we should focus on the spiritual blessings inherent in Christ. The riches of His grace, the fullness of of the times and all things in Jesus?
Through all of this, I think we can take a cue from the likely origin of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Paul is most likely in his Roman imprisonment here (Acts 28). He had visited the Ephesians on his way back to Jerusalem (Acts 20:13-36, mentioned above). He had been warned, there, that he would be delivered over to the Romans. The church was concerned for Paul’s well-being.
They are, on the surface, right to be worried. Possibly all they know is that Paul was arrested by the Romans and is on his way to Rome for trial and possible execution. What about this? What of their mutual faith?
Then this letter arrives. Paul, from his captivity, writes of God’s predestination. Not merely of a fatalistic “this was always going to happen” view, but of the reality that before the foundation of the world, God predestined life according to God’s purpose. Whatever stresses and strains the Ephesians may have, whatever worries may come, Paul wants them to know that God is not only in control, but God is also not reacting to anything. He is proactive in His control of the universe and the affairs of men.
In Practice: Practically, this can lead us to despair and laziness if we fall back to the fatalism. There is a challenge here for us to choose the other response, the response of passionate obedience. Why? Because God has a purpose, and therefore His commands have a purpose. If He has commanded that we tell the world of Jesus, then He has an eternal purpose that we do so. After all, how will they believe if they do not hear? (Romans 10:14, anyone?)
Further, we can trust that the moments that surprise us do not surprise God. This is more than just a little good news. It remains that we must trust Him for why things happen, but we must read the whole of Ephesians 1 and see that this is not just any god at stake. This is a good, grace-giving God. The One True God. We can trust His character even as we learn to trust His ways.
In Nerdiness: Nerd questions like authorship, date, and setting are always good ones. The general view is Paul, 60-62 AD, during his probably first Roman imprisonment. Other possibilities are earlier imprisonments or a latter Paul impersonator.
I’m with the tradition here, though I like the suggestion in a few sources (I think the IVP Dictionary of Paul was one) that Ephesians served as the introduction letter for the early church’s collection of Pauline Epistles. It is a rich summary of his view of grace and Jesus, perhaps even better at that than Romans.
There is also a great deal to explore here regarding God’s predestination. I will assert this: Ephesians does not know a God who is dependent on any human agency for His will. Ephesians also does not know a humanity that is not responsible for their response to God.