The Mystery of Christ | A Bible Class on Ephesians 3:1-13
In this section of Ephesians, Paul speaks of “the mystery of Christ” (v 4). What is a mystery biblically? We often think of a mystery as something we cannot know. However, “mystery” in biblical language has more to do with God’s purpose which he kept hidden but has now revealed. You could almost think of a biblical mystery like a mystery novel—there’s a mystery throughout the book, but the mystery is solved at the book’s end.
The idea of a mystery as God’s will hidden for a time and then revealed to man comes from Daniel.
- “Then Daniel went to his house and made the matter known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon. Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night” (Dan 2:17-19).
- “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (Dan 2:28).
- “The king answered and said to Daniel, ‘Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery” (Dan 2:47).
When we read about a biblical mystery, we should expect scripture to give us an explanation of what the mystery is. The mystery in this passage is that God has brought Gentiles into his fold. Of course, non-Jews could become full members of the covenant of Abraham if the males underwent circumcision. The Ethiopian eunuch was almost certainly a proselyte. Sometimes part of the penis was removed as well as the testicles when one was made a eunuch—if that’s the case, he would have been a “God-fearer,” for he could not have been circumcised to become a proselyte. Since he had been to Jerusalem to worship, he was following Yahweh and had some connection to Judaism. That’s obvious, for Philip did not object to baptizing him. By the first century, males and females who wanted to convert to Judaism had to be immersed to remove the stain of being a Gentile.This mystery had been prophesied in the Old Testament (e.g., Is 19:25). Some in the Old Testament (e.g., King David) welcomed non-Jews into fellowship (e.g., 2 Sam 6:10-11; 8:18; 15:18-22; 18:2; et. al.).
However, it’s painfully obvious that in the first century neither the Jews nor Gentiles fully understood God’s plan. Peter did not even realize God’s plan when he went to Cornelius’ home. God used a vision and the baptism of the Holy Spirit on Gentiles to prod Peter to accept this truth. Peter got carried away with hypocrisy and refused to eat with Gentiles.
It would have been difficult, of course, for the Gentiles to understand that they could come to God. They did not have the Old Testament scriptures where the mystery of God’s accepting Gentiles was prophesied. What might truths we miss if we do not know the scriptures?
Why did people not realize that Jews and Gentiles were allowed to come to Christ? Why do some people today have difficulty grasping the clear teaching of scripture? How can we grasp the true, clear teaching of Scripture?
Public speakers and writers in Paul’s day often used pathos. Pathos was an emotional appeal to one’s hearers/readers.
Paul reminded his readers that he had suffered for the ideal of bringing Jews and Gentiles together. The apostle appealed to his physical suffering and asked his readers not to make his suffering in vain. The church universal needs to accept people of all races and ethnicities because Paul suffered to make that unity a reality. How might Paul’s suffering impact the way that we view the unity of races in the church today?
Two paragraphs make up this section of Scripture; we can divide the two paragraphs like this:
- Paul’s stewardship, vv 1-3.
- Revelation of the mystery, vv 4-6.
- Paul as a minister, vv 7-9a.
- Revelation of God’s wisdom, vv 9b-10.
- Eternal purpose in Christ, vv 11-12.
- Paul’s suffering, v 13.
Paul’s Stewardship (vv 1-3)
“For this reason.”
The “for this reason” is that the church—composed of both Jews and Gentiles—is being built “into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” However, Paul digresses from his thought and only returns to it in verse 14: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father.” Such digression was common in ancient writing.
“I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.”
Ancient writers would often seek compassion from their readers; such compassion would often cause readers to pay more careful attention to what was written.
Paul was a prisoner. This would be his first imprisonment in Rome. Paul was in Roman imprisonment only because he had appealed to Caesar. Before Festus, Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. . . . I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:10-11). The assessment of Festus and Agrippa was that Paul had done “nothing to deserve death or imprisonment” (Acts 26:31). In fact, Agrippa said, “[Paul] could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32).
If Paul could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar, why would he ever appeal to Caesar? Simply put, the Lord had chosen Paul to carry his message to Caesar. To Ananias, the Lord said, “[Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Paul was willing to stay in prison and make the arduous journey to Rome in order to fulfill his divinely-given mission. If you had been able to gain your freedom, how likely would you have been to stay in prison and suffer to the cause of Christ? What lessons about obedience can we learn from Paul’s appeal to Caesar? What lessons about submission can we learn from Paul’s appeal to Caesar?
Paul, according to history and from what we can glean from Scripture, was released from his imprisonment after appealing to Caesar and then rearrested later, imprisoned, and beheaded under Nero’s reign of terror. The Book of Acts, likely written as part of Paul’s defense (did Theophilus play some role in judging Paul?), ends with Paul’s being under house arrest in Rome. The fact that Paul had not appeared before Caesar or had any sort of Roman trial by the end of Acts lends great credence to the theory Acts was written as part of Paul’s defense.
Paul’s trial in Rome apparently resulted in his release. Paul appealed to Caesar about AD 59. Nero was emperor at the time (he came to power in AD 54). The first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful. After those first five years, Nero became the monster history remembers.
Since Paul died somewhere between AD 64-67. Even with his two full years of house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:33), there is plenty of time for his release, continued preaching, and another imprisonment. The main reason for the belief in a second imprisonment is the the message of 2 Timothy just doesn’t fit the imprisonment in Acts. While the reader doesn’t know if Paul will be released or not, there is no hint whatsoever that Paul’s life is in imminent danger. In 2 Timothy, however, Paul’s time of “departure has come” (2 Tim 4:6). The only thing which makes sense from the biblical account is for Paul to be released from the imprisonment recorded in Acts (during which he wrote Ephesians), continue his work, and then to be arrested again under Nero, and then be subsequently beheaded.
Paul was “a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of [the] Gentiles.” Paul understood his imprisonment to be for the glory of Christ Jesus. He was, after all, able to demonstrate Christian suffering, fulfill the suffering to which Jesus called him (Acts 9:16), and preach to kings and other Gentiles. Are there times we might suffer for the cause of Christ? What are those times? How can we be examples when suffering for Jesus?
Paul was arrested over confusion about disobeying Jewish law concerning Gentiles (Acts 21:27-36). Paul had not actually taken Trophimus into the temple, but the Jews in Jerusalem thought he had. Because of the situation which lead to his arrest, Paul could say that he had been imprisoned on behalf of the Gentiles. Paul was demonstrating his commitment to the unification of Jews and Gentiles in the church of God. How committed are we to unification in the church of God? What are some ways we can show ourselves committed to unification in the church?
“Assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you.”
“Assuming” doesn’t convey the proper sense of what Paul wrote here. An assumption may or may not be valid. However, in Greek Paul used two particles which mean “if indeed” or “surely.” (A particle is a word which has little meaning on its own but has a grammatical function). One of the terms Paul used is untranslatable by itself into English. The syntax expresses assurance. In other words, Paul says, “You have indeed heard about the stewardship God gave to me.” The syntax of “heard” further cements this—Paul said that the Ephesians had indeed heard of his stewardship.
The Ephesians had heard of Paul’s stewardship. When had they heard of his stewardship? Why does it matter that they had heard of his stewardship? (Does it even matter?)
The Ephesians had heard of Paul’s stewardship. In antiquity, a “steward” was someone—normally a slave (although occasionally a freedman)—who managed a wealthy person’s household. The steward had both great responsibility and great prestige. Paul likely did have a slave steward in view here to convey the concept that he was a slave of God. What is a slave of God? How did Paul live as a slave of God? How can you live as a slave of God? What can you learn about Paul’s example as a slave to be a better slave of God?
This stewardship “was given” to Paul for the Ephesian [Gentile] Christians. In Greek grammar, the syntax here is called a “theological passive.” The idea is that the passive verb shows God did the giving without specifically mentioning God.
Why was it important God was the One who gave Paul his stewardship? What might have happened had Paul attempted for force his way and take the stewardship by force?
The stewardship God gave Paul was “God’s grace.” The Greek syntax demonstrates that “God’s grace” is what Paul’s stewardship contained. What is God’s grace? Why is God’s grace important? Why was it important that Paul be given a stewardship of God’s grace? How did Paul manage the stewardship he had been given?
The stewardship was given to Paul. Why Paul? What qualities did Paul possess that made him a sound recipient of this stewardship?
The stewardship was given to Paul for Gentile Christians. Why did God send Paul to the Gentiles instead of someone else? Paul spent many years in Judaism. Philippians 3:4b-6. How could someone so steeped in Judaism be the right person to carry the divine word to Gentiles?
“How the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.”
The stewardship of God’s grace given to Paul contained God’s mystery made known to Paul by revelation.
The mystery was made known to Paul by revelation. As we have already noted a “mystery,” is the will of God which he kept hidden for a season but has now been revealed. There were many “mystery religions” in Paul’s day. They claimed to have special knowledge from God (as in the case with the Gnostics) or from the gods (as in the case with pagans). Those who were uninitiated could not know the mysteries. This obviously led to a spirit of superiority among adherents of the mystery cults. Paul, of course, does not use “mystery” in any way that would associate him or other Christians with the mystery religions.
Paul’s use of “mystery” relies on Daniel 2. Nebuchadnezzar had had a dream which greatly troubled him, and he asked the wise men of Babylon to tell him his dream and then interpret it. Not a single wise man was able to do so—they kept asking the king to tell them the dream so that they might interpret it. Nebuchadnezzar was furious and ordered that all the wise men in Babylon be destroyed. Daniel prayed to God for revelation. Notice Daniel 2:17-23. From the text, we can deduce a “mystery” is:
- Unknown to man—indeed, it is unknowable.
- Concerns God’s will for history.
- Is revealed by God to his servants.
This usage perfectly fits what Paul wrote about the mystery of God Ephesians 3.
The mystery was made known to Paul by revelation. “By revelation” in Greek is used adverbially and expresses the made by which the mystery was made known. The fact that the mystery was made known by revelation demonstrates that no man could possibly know this mystery—God had to reveal it. Most Jews believed that God’s revelation to man ended when the Old Testament prophets died. Of course, for 400 or so years that was absolutely true. Paul’s claiming to be a prophet who knew the divine mystery would underline the uniqueness of the Christian claim.
Paul had written briefly in the Epistle to the Ephesians about this mystery from God.
Revelation of the Mystery (vv 4-6)
We have at length discussed the biblical use of the term “mystery” throughout the Scriptures, but especially as Paul used the term in Ephesians 3. Yet, there are three truths presented in these three verses which greatly clarify the definition of “mystery” in Ephesians.
First: When they read this epistle, the Ephesians would be able to “perceive [Paul’s] insight into the mystery of Christ.”
If the first-century readers could “perceive” what Paul understood about the divine mystery, the mystery of Christ cannot be something unknowable. In fact, Paul’s statement at verse 4 is the exact opposite of being unable to understand the mystery of Christ.
Second: Paul informed his readers not only that they could perceive his insight into the divine mystery but exactly what the mystery of Christ is: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v 6).
In all fairness, the words “this mystery is” are not in the original Greek text; they have been supplied by the translators of the English Standard Version (the translators of the New International Version also added these words). However, the text makes abundantly obvious that the phrase “this mystery is” are implied by verse 4. Paul told his first-century readers precisely what the mystery he wrote about was—the inclusion of the Gentiles into the family of God. How could Paul tell the early church what the mystery was if a mystery is not something one can know in this modern world.
Third: Paul told the Ephesian readers than the divine mystery of which he wrote was revealed by God.
The mystery of Gentiles’ full inclusion into fellowship with God “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (v 5). A divine mystery takes a divine revelation to be known. If God had not revealed to “his holy apostles and prophets” his mystery, man would still be left with questions instead of answers. Because this is a divine mystery, God can reveal or not reveal the mystery when he sees fit. Yet, without God’s revealing the mystery, man has no clue what the mystery is all about.
“When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.”
The Ephesians would read the epistle. This reading would take place in the public worship of the church, for most people would illiterate in antiquity. Without the public reading of Scripture, people of the first-century church would not ever have known what the New Testament taught.
The New Testament elsewhere makes reference to the public reading of New Testament Scripture. “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). If—as seems almost certain—that the Epistle to the Ephesians was actually a circular letter intended for multiple congregations, the letter from Laodicea is likely Ephesians. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (Rev 1:3). The New Testament references to reading portions of the New Testament in the public assembly of the church is a subtle acknowledgement that the New Testament saw itself as inspired Scripture on the same par as the Old Testament. Only inspired Scripture was suited for the public reading in the church.
Extrabiblical sources also reference the Christian practice of reading the New Testament in the Lord’s Day assembly.
- “And on the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of al who live in a city or a rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits” (Justin Martyr, Apology I, 67).
- “We meet together in order to read the sacred texts, if the nature of the time compels us to warn about or recognize anything present. In any case, with the holy words we feed our faith, we arouse our hope, we confirm confidence” (Tertullian, Apology, 39).
Obviously, the modern church does not need to engage in the public reading of Scripture for the same purpose as the early church. However, do you think that the modern church gives enough time to the public reading of Scripture? What might be some ways to improve the public reading of Scripture in the modern church?
Within the statement the the Ephesians would perceive Paul’s insight into the mystery when they read the epistle is the acknowledgement that the scriptures are understandable. Timothy had known “the sacred writings” from childhood (2 Tim 3:15). Only if “the sacred writings” were understandable could someone know them from childhood. On the other hand, there is the acknowledgement in the New Testament that not all sections of sacred scripture is equally understandable (2 Pet 3:16).
If the scriptures are understandable, why do some people claim not to be able to understand the Bible? What role might some translations play in the understandability of scripture? What role might preconceived ideas play in the understandability of scripture? What role might Satan play in the understandability of scripture? What role might the Spirit play in the understandability of scripture? What role might church leaders play in the understandability of scripture? What steps might one take to understand the scriptures more clearly?
Paul was given insight into the mystery of Christ. Paul will later say in this same sentence that the mystery of Christ “has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” God didn’t give perception of the mystery to anyone who wanted it. Even some who prophesied and ministered to Old Testament saints did not understand what they wrote (1 Pet 1:10-12).
God wanted everyone to know the mystery of Christ. That is obvious, for Paul identified the mystery to ancient Christians in writings preserved for modern saints. Yet, he chose those to whom he gave the mystery carefully.
Earlier we discussed some qualities that made Paul a suitable apostle to the Gentiles. We don’t need to repeat that here. However, what are some qualities that made Paul a good person to reveal the mystery of Christ?
The mystery of Christ—“that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel”—“was not made know to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
Why would God not reveal from the very beginning that Gentiles would be part of the church? Through the prophets, God had said a time was coming when Gentiles would join his people. “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance” (Is 19:25). “And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people” (Zech 2:11). While we read these texts and see what God intended and what God did, the prophets and their first hearers would not have fully understood. For a Jew in the days of Isaiah and Zechariah, the thought that a Gentile could be accepted as God’s people would have been anathema. While the prophets’ first hearers may have struggled to comprehend fully what God was teaching, the mystery “has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:26).
God used progressive revelation with his people. Jesus about the Holy Spirit’s coming: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:13). Why would God use progressive revelation to give his will to men? In other words, why didn’t God give all his truth to man at one time? Jesus: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (Jn 16:12).
We specifically see God’s progressive revelation vis-à-vis Gentiles as Peter struggled to baptize Cornelius. When he received his vision of the sheet full of food, he refused to eat food which was forbidden under the Law of Moses (Acts 10:9-16). However, under the new covenant, God had made such foods clean and not common (cf. Acts 10:15). Peter did not yet understand he could eat pork and other foods.
Peter did understand the message that he could associate with Gentiles. When he entered Cornelius’ home, he said, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
Even before Cornelius and his household received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, Peter understood that the gospel was for all people—even Gentiles: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). Peter was truly beginning to understand the mystery of Christ which had been hidden for ages and that God was at that time making known.
While Peter was sharing the good news of Jesus with Cornelius and his household, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44). God used the baptism of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate conclusively to Peter and the Jews who were with him that Gentiles could be heirs in the kingdom (Acts 10:46).
Although God did much to demonstrate the inclusion of the Gentiles, Jewish Christians who were entrenched in separation between Jew and Gentile had great difficulty accepting Gentiles. The “circumcision party” criticized Peter (Acts 11:2-3). Peter then explained how God led him to Cornelius, how he had received a divine vision, and how the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and his household “just as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). “When [the circumcision party] heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). The “circumcision party” did not understand the mystery of Christ. Yet, Peter explained the mystery of Christ to them and they then understood God’s plan.
Although the “circumcision party” to whom Peter spoke understood the mystery of Christ, many other Jewish Christians did not grasp the divine truth that God had granted to the Gentiles “repentance that leads to life.” Thus some men came down from Judea to Antioch in Syria and said, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Because these men had come from Judea, the brethren feared that they spoke with apostolic authority. Therefore, Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to get to the bottom of this teaching.
“The apostles and elders . . . gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). Peter spoke first and recounted how that God chose him to go to the Gentiles that they “should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7). Barnabas and Paul then spoke and “related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12). James, Jesus’s brother, spoke next and used the prophecy of Amos 9:11-12 to show God had always intended to bring Gentiles into the fold (Acts 15:13-21). The apostles and prophets then sent a letter to the Gentile believers (the letter was inspired by the Spirit—Acts 15:28) that they did not need to worry about obeying the law of Moses but could be fully accepted (Acts 15:28-29).
God did not make the mystery of Christ “known to the sons of men in other generations.” As mentioned above, God had revealed a little of this truth to the prophets. However, he did not make it clear, for the time was not right for the revelation of the mystery. Furthermore, Jewish interpreters of Scripture held multiple views about the Gentiles based on different texts.
Now the mystery “has been revealed to [God’s] holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
God has always used men to share his word with other men. When Nebuchadnezzar had his dream that none of his “wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers” could interpret (Dan 2:27), God gave the mystery to Daniel who revealed it to the king. Daniel made clear to Nebuchadnezzar, however, that he did not know the mystery apart from divine revelation: “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days” (Dan 2:28).
The God in heaven who reveals mysteries used “his holy apostles and prophets” to share the mystery with others. Paul here claims apostolic authority on the same level as the Twelve.
It’s vital to note that the mystery was not known by the “holy apostles and prophets.” Instead the mystery was made known “by the Spirit.” While the “holy apostles and prophets” shared the mystery with others—Paul wanted the Ephesians to grasp his insight into mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4). Paul’s saying that the mystery was revealed by the Spirit is equivalent to “thus says the LORD” found throughout the prophetic works. The fact the mystery was revealed through the Holy Spirit allowed Paul’s readers (and us) to know beyond any doubt whatsoever that Gentiles can be accepted into the divine kingdom. Since the revelation of the mystery came from a God who cannot lie (cf. Tit 1:2), everyone can take full confidence in knowing Gentiles may come to God through Christ. Why is it important to know that Gentiles can come to God through the Lord Jesus? What would the world be like if Gentiles were not accepted in the church? Why did God wait until the church’s establishment to accept Gentiles (Cornelius was likely baptized into Christ about 10 years after the cross)?
“This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
The words “This mystery is that” are not found in the Greek text. However, they are heavily implied. The Greek literally reads “Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Not every modern translation adds the words “This mystery is that,” but they do all make clear that the Gentile inclusion into the church is the mystery of which Paul has been writing. For example, the New American Standard Version reads: “to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The adding of the phrase “to be specific” makes clear that Paul was discussing defining the mystery of Christ.
Again, we see the idea of a biblical mystery is something God keeps hidden from man until he is ready to reveal it. Just as Jesus came into this world when the time was just right (cf. Gal 4:4), I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to believe that God reveals mysteries when the circumstances are just right.
Gentiles are “fellow heirs.” A “fellow heir” shares possession with another. The Greek term can mean people who co-share. In Greek papyri, the word was used to refer to those who were joint possessors of a house.
The concept of “heir” refers back to the Old Testament truth that the Promised Land was Israel’s inheritance. When Abram sojourned in Canaan, the Lord appeared to him and said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gen 12:7). Being an heir of the Promised Land, however, required one to be circumcised. Genesis 17:9-14. It was completely unfathomable for anyone uncircumcised to be accepted as an heir with the Jews.
As a “fellow heir” a Gentile would have the same rights and privileges as a Jew. No longer are God’s promises exclusively for the descendants of Abraham (or those who joined them through circumcision); his promises are for everyone. What’s the significance of God’s making his promises available to everyone? What responsibility do you have because God has made his promises available to everyone?
Gentiles are “members of the same body.” There is no division in the church, i.e., there isn’t a “Jewish church” and a “Gentile church.” Gentiles were permitted in the outer courtyard of the temple (the Court of the Gentiles). The inner sanctuary was off limits to them. Gentiles would be killed if they attempted to enter the inner sanctuary. The wall which separated the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of the Women was about four feet high. On the wall were posted warning signs in Latin and Greek which read: “Any foreigner who passes this point will be responsible for his own death.” Interestingly, Paul was arrested because the crowd in Jerusalem mistakenly thought he had taken Trophimus into the temple (Acts 21:28b-29). Such division no longer exists; instead, Jews and Gentiles are both part of the “same body.”
A clear implication that Jews and Gentiles are “member of the same body” is that there is only one church (cf. Eph 4:4). In the context of Ephesians 3, what’s the significance that there is only one church? In the context of Ephesians 3, what responsibility do you have because there is only one church?
Gentiles are also “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” God’s promises play an important role in the Old Testament (e.g., God’s promise after the Flood never again to destroy the world with water, God’s promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son, God’s promise to make Abraham a great nation, God’s promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan, and God’s promise to David that he would always have a descendant on his throne). Just as God made great promises to his people in the Old Testament, God has made great promises to Gentiles through Christ.
There seems to be a connection between God’s promise to bless the descendants of Abraham and his allowing Gentiles to become “partakers of the promise.” The promise to the Israelites included a homeland, God’s continual blessings, and divine fellowship. God’s promise to Gentiles is quite analogous to his promise to the Israelites (you could think of the homeland promise as the church or even heaven).
How do you partake of the promise in Christ Jesus daily? What part of God’s promise has blessed your life most richly? What part of God’s promise gives you the most comfort in trial?
The promise to Gentiles is found in Christ Jesus. The promise to the Israelites was found in Abraham; the promise to Christians is found in Christ Jesus. Why must Gentiles find the promise in Christ Jesus?
Of course, part of God’s promise to Abraham was the blessing of Gentiles through the Messiah (cf. Gen 12:3). Ironically, even the promise in Christ Jesus for the Gentiles is based in the promise to Abraham. Of course, Abraham is the father even of Gentile Christians (cf. Rom 4:11, 16-17). What qualities did Abraham possess which allow him to be the “father of us all?”
By saying that the promise to Gentiles is in Christ Jesus, he implied that the promise could be found nowhere else. Only in Christ can Gentiles find the promise. Why can Gentiles only find the promise in Christ Jesus?
The promise to Gentiles is “in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Gospel would be the entirety of what we believe. In this specific context, the emphasis would be on the preaching of the gospel. In the next sentence Paul said that he was made a minister of this gospel (Eph 3:7).
The promise is found in Christ Jesus through the gospel in that Gentiles would learn of Christ and the promise found in him through preaching. Why is preaching important? What good can be accomplished by preaching? Is there any harm that can be done by preaching? Could harm be done by the preaching of some men?
Paul as a Minister (vv 7-9a)
“Of this gospel.”
Paul has just informed his readers about “the mystery of Christ” (v 4). The mystery is that Gentiles are now fully accepted in Christ “through the gospel” (v 6).
That very gospel—the one which brings Gentiles into the church of God—is the one of which Paul was a minister. The Greek is literally “of which” here—Paul wrote: “Of which I was made a servant according to the gift of the grace of God. . . .” Although the English Standard Version renders Paul’s word slightly more forcefully in English, the point remains—Paul was pointing to the fact that he was a minister of the gospel which brings Gentiles into the church of God.
Paul here began to write about the truth that he was singled out as the apostle to the Gentiles. This section of Ephesians makes clear that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Why would God make Paul the apostle to the Gentiles? Why would God not make a Gentile (e.g., Luke) or a half-Gentile (e.g., Timothy) to be the apostle to the Gentiles?
“I was made a minister.”
“Was made” is in the passive tense in the Greek. This is what’s known as a “divine passive” (this is the first of two divine passives in this sentence. The divine passive demonstrates God as the One doing the action without naming him directly. In other words, God was the One who made Paul a minister.
When did God make Paul a minister?
What is a minister? What are some of the duties of a minister? What are some activities which a minister might do? What are some of the activities Paul did as a minister? How did Paul perform those duties?
“According to the gift of God’s grace.”
We typically think of divine grace as it affects our salvation; in other words, we tend to think of God’s grace as that which saves us from sin. “Grace,” though, is a broader term and means “gift.” Paul envisioned being called to minister to the Gentiles as a gift. How was his call to minister to the Gentiles a gift? How could Paul have seen his ministry as a gift from God when he suffered so much because of it?
In Paul’s case, of course, his call to minister included great grace to forgive his past sins. (That, of course, is the case with any servant of God). In verse 8, Paul mentions that he was “the very least of all the saints.”
“Which was given me by the working of his power.”
“Was given” is another divine passive and demonstrates once more that God gave Paul his ministry and grace.
The Old Testament often spoke of divine power being given to God’s servants. For example, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship” (Ex 31:2-3). “When [Samson] came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him. Then the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands” (Judg 15:14).
Why did Paul need divine power to serve as a minister? Do modern ministers need divine power? Why or why not? How might God’s power be manifested in modern ministers?
“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given.”
Paul claimed to be “the very least of all the saints.” Why would he make such a claim? Might there not have been other Christians guilty of sins comparable to Paul’s? Could Paul’s statement here be a false humility? Why or why not?
Paul did not claim to be the least of all the apostles (as he did in 1 Cor 15:9). Instead, he claimed to be the least of all the saints. What is a “saint?” The Greek term is literally “holy one.” How could Paul ever be a “holy one” in any way shape or form after all the stunts he pulled? Who are modern day saints? Might the literal definition of “holy ones” impact the way they live? How so?
Once more Paul emphasized that he became a minister through God’s grace. Paul did not choose to become a minister of God’s gospel; rather, God chose him. Paul subtly wrote here that God simply came to him and appointed him an apostle. For example:
- “Of this gospel I was made (not I chose to become) a minister.”
- God’s grace “was given me (I didn’t ask for it) by the working of his power.”
Paul made this statement twice in two sentences.
Did Paul have a choice when God called him? If Paul had a choice, how was he made a minister and how was grace given to him? Does God call modern ministers? If he calls them, do they have a choice as to whether or not they will serve?
God grace was given to Paul “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
Paul’s specific minister was proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles. Does God have a specific role in mind for modern ministers? If the Jews are God’s chosen people, why would the Lord want an apostle to spend time preaching to the Gentiles?
Paul’s message to the Gentiles was “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” What are the riches of Christ? How are they unsearchable?
Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles was “to bring to light for everyone. . . .”
In what specific ways does preaching bring light to people? Does preaching ever bring darkness to people? How can we make sure that preaching is light and not darkness?
Paul was to bring truth to light “for everyone.” Paul, although he was the apostle to the Gentiles, always went to the Jewish synagogues first. Acts 17:1-3. He did so because the gospel was first to the Jew and then to the Gentile (cf. Rom 1:16).
When the Jewish people rejected the truth about Jesus, Paul went to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 18:6).
Paul’s divine mission was to preach the gospel to everyone. Have some people been overlooked in the preaching of the truth? What are some characteristics of some who have been overlooked in the preaching of the gospel? How can you see that the gospel is going to all people?
Revelation of God’s Wisdom (vv 9b-10)
We have spent considerable time discussing the mystery of Christ in this context (viz., that Gentiles are now accepted in Christ as part of God’s people) and how that is a mystery (viz., God hid that truth until the time was right to reveal it). We won’t repeat that information here. Instead, we wish to see how God chose to reveal that mystery and to whom he chose to reveal that mystery.
Paul was “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things.”
God had a plan for his mystery. The Greek term for “plan” can refer to the management of a household or family. The idea is careful planning or stewardship or arrangement. God did not come up with the idea of bringing Gentiles into his kingdom or keeping it secret until the right time willy-nilly; instead, the Lord carefully planned what he did. What are some other things God planned? What can we learn about God from his planning? How should we live because God plans?
The divine mystery about the Gentiles was hidden for ages in God. This was God’s mystery; he kept it hidden.
Paul reminded his readers that God created all things. What might the creation of all things have to do with the mystery of Christ? God had a plan for his mystery; the creation shows planning. The mystery shows great power (bringing Gentiles into the fold took breaking down many barriers and reconciling many people); the creation shows great power. If God created all things, he created both the church and Gentiles. He, therefore, would have a right to bring in Gentiles if he so chose. The tenor of this entire passage demonstrates that God’s ultimate plan for all history—his creation—is the church. “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v 11). The church is what the creation is all about; this body of believers is that important. Do people realize just how important the church is? Why or why not? How can we help people understand the importance of the church? How can you demonstrate the church’s importance?
God’s ultimate plan for all history is the church “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.”
God reveals his wisdom through the church. God does not simply make known his wisdom through the church; he makes known his “manifold wisdom.” The Greek term for “manifold” originally referred to being “marked with a great variety of colors.” It was applied to paintings and cloth. The word came to be applied more generally to mean “manifesting itself in a great variety of forms.”
How is God’s wisdom “manifold?” In what ways (besides the establishment of the church) has God revealed his manifold wisdom?
What qualities of the church show God’s wisdom in her establishment? Let’s ask the question a little differently:
- Why is it wise for Christians that God established the church?
- Why is it wise for the world that God established the church?
- Why is it wise for world leaders that God established the church?
Through the church God’s manifold wisdom has “now [been] made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Notice, please, that God’s manifold wisdom was not made known through the church to man. Instead, God’s wisdom is made known to the angelic hosts. Why would the angelic hosts need to know God’s wisdom through the church? How would the angelic hosts know God’s wisdom through the church?
Eternal Purpose in Christ, vv 11-12
All God has done—including in the Gentiles among his people and his manifold wisdom being made known through the church to the heavenly hosts—“was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The church is God’s eternal purpose. God planned the church and including Gentiles in the church before the world was ever created. In fact, he planned this from eternity—there was never a time [there’s no time in eternity, but you get the point] that God did not plan to 1) establish a church and 2) include Gentiles in her. The church and Gentiles are that important to God.
If God’s purpose from eternity was to create a church and bring Gentiles into her, how important should the church be to us? Should we have a purpose—i.e., a plan—for the church? If so, what should that purpose be? How important should the inclusion of all people be in the church? What steps can you take to demonstrate that importance?
God’s eternal purpose has been “realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Greek term for “realized” means “to make” or “to produce.” God had an eternal purpose, and he made that eternal purpose a reality. This surely demonstrates God’s power. After all, Paul has already said that God “created all things” (v 9). If God created the cosmos and all contained therein, he surely can create a people of his own.
God’s eternal purpose has been brought to reality “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus is the instrument through whom God created the church. Jesus died for the church and built her.
In Christ “we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.”
“Boldness” in the English Standard Version or “freedom” in the New International Version means “freedom of speech, outspokenness, or frankness” in the original Greek. The Athenians claimed this freedom as their privilege. They somewhat thought of themselves as having something akin to our First Amendment and the right to speak openly and freely. The context is clearly prayer. Paul was speaking about entering God’s presence; at verse 14, Paul begins a prayer. Thus, Paul said that the Christian through faith in Christ has freedom of speech and can be outspoken and frank with God in prayer.
Why would a Christian need to be frank with God in prayer? Can you think of any biblical examples where people were open with God as they prayed? Notice Psalm 137:7-9. It was a common practice for conquering nations to take the infants of their foes and throw them against rock walls in order to call them. How could the psalmist (inspired of God, of course) wish for the little babies of Babylon to be destroyed? I used the passage in Psalm 137 because it is a shocking, strong, and frank statement in holy writ. However, you must remember that the writer penned this words prior to Jesus. He did not have boldness through Jesus through faith.
From the cross, Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Some act as though it’s wrong to question God in prayer; however, the Son of God did so. Jesus spoke to his Father with raw emotion, and through Jesus you can do the same. Have there ever been times you have wanted to question God? Are there any times you might wish to share?
As you think about sharing raw emotion with the Father through Jesus, remember God already knows your emotions. Absolutely nothing you say in prayer is going to shock your Father. You can cast “all your anxieties on [God the Father], because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). You can share anything at all with God in prayer. You may share even your most mundane worries—when Peter said “all your anxieties,” he meant all. Do you believe some Christians are reluctant to share some “little” anxieties with God? Why might some disciples not wish to share every single anxiety with God in prayer? How can you grow to share every concern with God?
Paul pleaded three times with the Lord about his thorn in the flesh, “a messenger of Satan” sent to harass him (2 Cor 12:7-8). Paul did not see fit to record his prayers to the Lord. However, it’s difficult to imagine that he would have prayed three times for the thorn to be removed without some real openness and frankness. Yes, that’s all speculation, but it fits what we know about Paul’s strong personality and what he wrote here.
How can you be frank and open with God in prayer? Is it difficult for you to be open and frank with God in prayer? Obviously, one always must be respectful of the Almighty; however, we are able to open with God.
Not only can God’s children be openly frank with God, but they also have “access with confidence.” What gives the Christian confidence when he prays? Why must the Christian be confident? What might hinder confidence as one prays? How can the modern disciple grow in her confidence as she prays?
The frankness and access with confidence the Christian has is “through our faith in” Christ. Without faith in Christ, prayer has no effect. Why does one need faith in Christ for prayer to be successful? James 1:6-8. Why would someone pray to God without faith in Christ? How can one increase his faith as he prays?
Part of praying through faith in Christ is praying in Jesus’s name. “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:14). What does it mean to pray in Jesus’s name? How does one pray in Jesus’s name?
Paul’s Suffering (v 13)
Paul asked that the Ephesians, therefore, not “lose heart over what [he was] suffering” for them.
Paul returned to the theme with which he began this section of Scripture. At verse 1, he said, “I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.” This technique of bracketing material around similar words, phrases, or ideas in Scripture is known as inclusio. In a day and age without nearly universal literacy, inclusio was used to allow the hearers of Scripture to have a structure to aid memorization. This would also have been useful in a day and age without chapter and verse numbers in the Scriptures. What inclusio does for the modern reader is to allow him or her to recognize a complete thought in the Scriptures.
When we began studying this section, we noted how that Paul was in prison because some Jews mistakenly thought he had taken the Gentile Trophimus into the temple (Acts 21:27-36). Paul was suffering to assist in bringing unity between Jews and Gentiles, the key idea of this bracketed section of the epistle.
Why would the Ephesians have lost heart over Paul’s imprisonment? Roman imprisonment was normally regarded as a matter of shame. One would ordinarily have felt shame toward a prisoner. “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord nor of me his prisoner” (2 Tim 1:8). Why would Paul tell Timothy not to be ashamed of him as a prisoner of Christ unless that would have been the natural reaction? Onesiphorus was not ashamed of Paul’s chains (2 Tim 1:16). Only because Onesiphorus would ordinarily have been ashamed of a prisoner did Paul mention that he was not ashamed of the apostle’s chains. Why should the Ephesians not be ashamed of Paul?
Among some ancient Jewish and Christian writers, one finds the idea that God has a specific amount of suffering in store for the world before the end came. That idea seems to appear in Revelation 6:11: The martyrs under the altar “were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” If Paul alluded to that idea here, he may be saying that some of the suffering the Ephesian Christians would normally have expected to experience had been placed on him.
Paul’s suffering for the Ephesians was their glory. How can suffering bring glory? How can suffering for others bring glory to them? Are there ever times we need to suffer for other people? If so, when? Might some of that suffering be for their glory?
Some of the idea here might come from Matthew 10:41: “The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.” Since the Ephesians had helped Paul in his ministry, they would share in his reward. What are some ways that we might share with others in their ministry? How might we share in their reward?
This Bible class was originally taught by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at Church of Christ Deer Park in Deer Park, Texas.