Mystery of the Church – Ephesians 3:1–13
Read the Passage: Ephesians 3:1-13
Revelation of the Mystery (3:1–7)
As he explored the importance of justification by faith alone in Eph. 2:11–22, Paul reminded his Gentile readers that they had previously been outside of God’s unfolding plan of redemption—at least in an ethnic and practical sense. Indeed, it was not until God adopted the Gentiles into His family that they became God’s children and partakers of His benefits. While God still does have future plans for many of the Jewish people (cf. Rom. 11), the Gentiles have now become “Abraham’s seed” (Gal. 3:29), “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), and “the circumcision” (Phil. 3:3), for they have been grafted in to the vine of God’s kingdom (cf. Rom. 11:17). Since it is God who saves, via the gift of faith conferred through the conduit of His Word, and it is God who adopts Jews and Gentiles into His church, there is great cause for unity, for all believers have the same Father.
Note that Paul uses the word “mystery” seventeen times in his epistles, seven times in the book of Ephesians alone, and four times in Eph. 3:1–13. In Pauline terminology, a mystery is a truth that was previously hidden in redemptive history but has now been revealed. Things which Paul labels a mystery include: the future glorification of the material body (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51), the present apostasy by the Jews (cf. Rom. 11:25), the current lawlessness of the world (cf. 2 Thess. 2:7), and the unity of Jews and Gentiles within the church (cf. Eph. 3:4–5; Col. 1:27). The fact that God planned to redeem the Gentiles was alluded to in the Old Testament (cf. Gen. 12:3; Isa. 49:6), although this mystery did not become clear until God redeemed Paul and commissioned him to become an apostle to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 9:15; Rom. 15:16). This, of course, is why Paul’s missionary journeys were to Gentile lands.
Eph. 3:6 Paul specifically states the mystery he referred to in Eph. 3:3–4, which is “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel.” The people of God in the Old Testament era were ethnic Jews, plus a nominal number of Gentile proselytes, who had faith in the promised Messiah. However, now, writes Paul, the people of God would have no racial, class, or social distinctions. In the New Testament era the church consists of all those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, now, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This fact had been hidden in redemptive history, but was now made known to the church. Given its mysterious nature, as well as their own ethnic bias, it is not surprising that the early church struggled with this issue.
Unfolding of the Mystery (3:8–9)
In Eph. 3:8–9 Paul writes of his own unworthiness to be a gospel bearer, let alone to “preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Paul frequently noted that he felt unfit to serve God, for he “was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (1 Tim. 1:13), even calling himself the chief of sinners (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15). Indeed, given that he was ethnically Jewish and a former persecutor of Christians, from a human standpoint, it seemed very unlikely that Paul would be a profitable servant of God among the Gentiles. Yet, as is oftentimes the case, God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the wise (cf. 1 Cor. 1:27–29). The reason, writes Paul, why God operates this way is so “that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Cor. 1:29). Paul’s statement in Eph. 3:8–9, then, was not false humility, but an accurate depiction of how God works.
Purpose of the Mystery (3:10–13)
In Eph. 2:6–7 Paul wrote that one of the reasons why God saves mankind is so “that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). That is to say, one reason why God saves sinners is to display his grace for all eternity. Here in Eph. 3:10–11 Paul similarly writes that one reason why the Gentiles are included in the church is so “that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” In other words, one reason why God redeems Gentiles is to show off His wisdom to angels and demons. Note that angels do rejoice over the conversion of sinners (cf. Luke 15:10), they minister to believers (cf. Heb. 1:14), they long to look into the gospel message (cf. 1 Pet. 1:12), and they observe the practices of the church (cf. 1 Cor. 11:10).
- In what ways is Christianity unique, especially in comparison to other world religions, in regard to how it affects people within the cultures in which it is manifest?
- Why does God choose to keep parts of His plan of redemption a mystery? Why does God reveal some spiritual truths early, some later, and some not at all?
- In what ways is the idea of unity within diversity a uniquely Christian idea? What is needed for there to be authentic unity within the diversity of the church?
- What types of things can churches do in order to create unity among believers who differ in regard to race, class, and social status, among other distinctions?
- Are you ever tempted to become discouraged by the seeming lack of spiritual progress of the church? Do you often pray for national revival?