For what are you willing to die? Have you ever though about what are you willing to die for? Many of us have families that God has given us to watch over and to take care of. If someone was to break into your house and threaten to kill your children, would you be willing to die in order to protect them? What if you were at a bank with a friend, and a robber comes in and holds everyone as hostages. They are willing to let a customer go, and you two were the only customers there. Would you be willing to let your friend go, knowing that there is a good chance that it might be the last time you see her again? I think most of us would be willing to make those decisions fairly easily. We would be willing to protect our family and friends if the opposite meant their death. We hold their lives to be important, and we think it is a necessary thing to allow them to live.
I wonder, though, how often we think that way about spiritual life. Would you be willing to put yourself in harms way for another person if they were unbelieving, and not only will they one day physically die, but on the other side of that death is the promise and guarantee of eternal death? Would you be willing to put yourself out there for another person so that they might hear the gospel, knowing that you may be persecuted, even if it meant your death?
Depending on how you answer that question, you will find yourself either in good company or bad this evening. That is the exact situation that Paul was in as he was in prison waiting to be heard by Caesar. And as Paul thinks on his imprisonment, he considers why it is that he has lived the life in the gospel that he has, and I think that from his reflections, we will see some good encouragement and correction as we look at this passage together.
Paul has just finished in Ch. 2 pondering the make up of the holy temple of God, no longer made up of rocks and slabs, but made up of living stones, with Christ as the cornerstone. Both Jews and Gentiles as one new man in Christ, having peace with the Father because of the work of he Son. And now he begins vs. 1 of Ch. 3 starting into a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has done. But he doesn’t get to the prayer, yet. Something stops him. He gets out, “For this reason, I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles...” Then, he doesn’t get to the actual prayer until vs. 14.
What we have in our passage tonight is a big, long parenthesis. Paul gets caught on the idea of His being a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of the Gentiles, and then begins to think about what God has done in his life leading up to his imprisonment for them; and what we have in vs. 2-13 is what lies in the background to the statement, “a prisoner of Christ Jesus for you of the Gentiles.” He summaries his being imprisoned in vs. 2 - the stewardship of the grace of God which was given to me for you. Two main ideas are related to this stewardship, and they will split the passage well: The Revelation of the Mystery of God’s will (vs. 1-7), and The Role of the Ministry which God gave (vs. 8-12).
A question you may be asking is this: In what way was Paul a prisoner of Christ Jesus? Wasn’t he rather a prisoner of the Roman empire? Well yes, but Paul recognized that it was actually Christ who has all things in His power as the sovereign King of the Universe, and at any point, if Christ as King desires Paul to be released, he would be released. But taken in context, we see that he was the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you of the Gentiles. What does this mean? Think back to how Paul got into prison to begin with back in Acts 21:17-36. It was his proclamation of the law-free gospel of Jesus to the Gentiles that led directly to his arrest and detention in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and eventually Rome.
And this was such a landmark event not only in the life of Paul, but also in the life of the church, that Paul says, “surely you heard of the stewardship of the grace of God given to me for you. This construction in the Greek is very emphatic, used to make explicit the underlying assumption. Surely they had heard. Paul’s imprisonment because of the gospel was a huge news story for the early church. But even though Paul knows that they must of heard the story already, he takes this opportunity to tease out a few details.
First, we see that Paul understood his imprisonment to be part of the stewardship that God had given him. The two went hand in hand. Remember Christ saying at the beginning of Paul’s ministry, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” It was part of what Paul was called to do.
Now, some of your translations may have economy, or dispensation, rather than stewardship. The Greek word oikonomian is where we get the word economy, having the idea of God’s administration over the universe. But when used of humans, it refers to our administration of what was given to us by God, or stewardship. Think of the parallel passage in Col. 1:25, “of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known.”
What does Paul have stewardship over? “Of the grace of God, which was given to me for you.” Paul had stewardship over the gospel, God’s grace, to the nations. Paul was not given grace for his own personal enjoyment. It was given to him “for you.” And it is just as truly “for you” as it was for the believers in Asia Minor.
What was the content of the stewardship that was given to Paul? Vs. 3 tells us that it was, “the mystery made known to me by revelation.” Well, what is a mystery? Did Paul know a secret? Yes, he did, sort of. But it was a secret that he was to tell everyone. The word used here for mystery was often used in first century mystery cults to speak of the knowledge that one could not have unless one was initiated. Paul will go on to tell the details of this mystery in the coming verses.
First, Paul says that they already know of the mystery, because he has already told them: “in brief, according to which you are able to perceive my insight in the mystery of Christ when reading.” Now, where did they read about this in brief? Is there a 2 Ephesians out there somewhere? Well, he could be referring to a short portion of Colossians, 1:25-27, where he spells out much of what he does here. Remember, both Col. and Eph. were likely circular letters, written to be passed from church to church. But, I think he is likely speaking to earlier portions of this letter, specifically 1:9-10 and 2:11-22. In 1:9-10, the mystery is “to unite/sum up all things in Him, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” In 2:11-22, we see the joining together of Jew and Gentile into one new man. Once separated by the Law, now joined together in Christ Jesus. Once far off, now being brought near by the blood of Christ. In this chapter, we will see further in vs. 6, where Paul actually explains what this mystery is, that the Gentiles are co-inheritors, co-members, and co-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
This teaching also goes along with the context of vs. 3, in that this mystery was made known to him by revelation. What revelation? Think of Paul’s conversion and of the Messiah’s revelation of Himself to Saul in Acts 9:10-16. After Paul is knocked to the ground by a blinding light, Jesus tells him “rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” And then Ananias is told by Jesus “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” When the mystery was revealed to Paul, the message was that of the joining of Jew and Gentile into one new man.
But as a whole, though, we must understand the mystery not simply to be the tearing down of the ethnic, cultic, and moral walls that separated Israel and the Gentiles, but the tearing down of the wall that separated God and all people - the mystery here is the Gospel, which has specific bearing on the Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. Think of what Paul said in Gal. 1:11-12. It was the gospel that Paul had revealed to him by Jesus. So let us recognize that when Paul speaks here of reconciliation of Jew and Gentile, that behind that reconciliation, there is a larger reconciliation going on - that of the Creator to His creation.
And this revelation of the mystery of which Paul speaks is that which the readers are “able to perceive my insight in the mystery of Christ, when you read it.” As you read Paul’s account of the gospel revelation throughout his epistles, one gets the sense that he knows what he is talking about. He speaks as one who has a message to bring to you. Not only does the message permeate his intellectual life, but this man lives the gospel, even to the point of imprisonment and possible death, caring not for his own body, but for the souls of those to whom he brings the message. In Paul’s writing we literally “understand his understanding of the mystery of Christ.”
But our understanding of Paul’s understanding was not always understood. In vs. 5, Paul says that the mystery “to other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as now it is revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit.” This is an antithetic parallelism, like we often see in the psalms. There are two lines: To other generations/now | was not made known/it is revealed | to the sons of men/to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit.
This divine secret is at the heart of why the Gospel was a mystery. Paul says in Rom. 16:25-27, “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but 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.” And in Col. 1:25-27, again, we see that Paul was made a minister “to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations, but now revealed to his saints.”
Now, what was not made known in past generations? That the Gentiles would be included in the kingdom of God? No, the Jews expected that! Think of the origin of the covenant between God and Abram - in Ch. 12 of Genesis, as soon as Abram - the father of Israel - comes on the scene biblically, we see that he is told by God that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” That the Gentiles were to part of the kingdom of God was not unexpected.
The mystery was that the Gentiles did not have to submit themselves to the law of Moses to be of the Kingdom of God. Previously, to be of God’s kingdom, you must come to God through the covenant that He made with Israel in the dessert, thus undergoing the rite of circumcision, the entryway into the covenant people of God. But now, while we still must come to God through covenant (how else could we presume to come into relationship with a holy, omnipotent God?), we do not submit ourselves to the law given to Moses for Israel, but we come to Christ, who is Israel, who was sacrificed for our breaking of the Law, and who submitted himself to that Law for our righteousness. Our entryway into the covenant people of God is baptism, which images forth the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Israel - that is the gospel. That is what was hidden from past generations, but now is revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit. It was the manner of inclusion that was surprising, not the fact of inclusion.
And we see that this mystery is now revealed to “his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit.” Again, just as in 2:20, we see two NT roles that played a large part in giving shape to the church in her early days - apostles and prophets. Both being guided and given revelation by the Holy Spirit. And today, just as 2000 years ago, we are guided by that same revelation by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets, deposited to us as the Word of God. We too have access to the mystery that was once not made known, but is now revealed. And we too have need to take it to those who still do not have access to the gospel because it has not been made known to them. You can see how Paul’s stewardship is similar in many ways to our stewardship of the mystery given to us.
But what was this mystery from which we can perceive Paul’s insight because of the revelation to him? Vs. 6 begins with an epexegetic infinitive that tells us the content of the mystery mentioned first back in vs. 3. And as he explains this “mystery,” Paul employs three words to help understand the union that believers have with one another. He takes three words and adds the Greek sun to them, which means with or together.
First, Gentiles and Jews are “co-inheritors.” Paul said in Gal. 3:29, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” We have inheritance along with the Hebrews, as Paul said in 1:14, that the HS is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire our possession of it. There is not one inheritance for Israel (the land and blessings of the Old Covenant), and a different one for the church. We are co-inheritors.
Second, Gentiles and Jews are “co-members.” Paul actually makes this word up. We’ve seen Paul in the previous chapter use three metaphors to describe the church: fellow-citizens, members of the household of God, and a building being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Now he uses the metaphor of the body, bringing out the unity of Gentiles with Jews as the members/parts of the body are in union. He will pick back up on this theme in Ch. 4. We are “co-members.”
Third, Gentiles and Jews are “co-partakers of the promise.” The idea of partaking of the promise has already been broached in this letter. Remember back in 2:12, where Paul lays out clearly that “at one time we were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” And then back to 1:13, where we see that believers are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” We now partake in God’s presence because of the work of the HS. As Paul said in 2:18, “through Him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” We are co-partakers of the promise.
And each of these designations of togetherness are all ours “in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” you inherit nothing outside of Jesus Christ and without the gospel. You are members of nothing outside of Jesus Christ and without the gospel. You are partakers of nothing outside of Jesus Christ and without the gospel.
And it is of this gospel and through this Christ that the mystery becomes un-mystery. Knowledge of God’s eternal plan shines light on the darkness of our hearts so that we see mystery no more. And it is of this gospel that Paul says in vs. 7 that he became a minister/servant. And his becoming a minister/servant was not because of his overwhelming desire to serve Christ, but was “according to the gift of the grace of God which was given to me according to the working of His power.” This grace not only knocked Paul to the ground, but changed his hard heart to soft, and that assuaged the hot wrath of God towards this sinner.
As we still consider understanding the Stewardship of the grace of God, we see that Paul moves from the Revelation of the Mystery of His Will, to the Role of Ministry which God gave.
Paul begins to focus on what the ministry given to him looks like.
In speaking of his ministry, Paul begins to look at his place among the “holy apostles and prophets” of vs. 5, to whom the mystery was revealed. We also see the mindset of Paul as he receives this grace, that he was “the least of all the holy ones.” Paul has said elsewhere in 1 Cor. 15:9 that he was the “least” of the apostles, and in 1 Tim. 1:15 that he was the “first and foremost” of sinners, but here in Eph. 3, Paul goes out of his way to show that he considers himself to be unworthy of God’s grace in his ministry. He makes up a word, not just a superlative (least), but a comparative of a superlative - the leaster.
But notice that this verse does not focus so much on Paul’s unworthiness, but on the grace of God and the unfathomable riches of Christ! This was the purpose of God giving the grace of ministry to Paul. To proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ. This word, aÓnexicni÷aston, can be translated as unfathomable/untraceable/unsearchable/unable-to-comprehendable. You cannot ever fully know or experience the fullness of the riches of Christ! And here we have Paul comparing his utter least-er-ness to the unfathomable greatness of Christ.
But then Paul focuses on a second purpose of the grace that was given to him in his ministry, that he was to “bring to light what is the stewardship of the mystery of what has been hidden from the ages in God who created all things.” This verse does not simply repeat the first purpose of God’s grace to him from vs. 8. The thought shifts from the content of the message to the condition of those to whom it is proclaimed. Not gospel, but darkness. And we see that this is what Paul’s commission by Christ was in Acts 26:17-18: “to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.”
This verse is also different in the object of what Paul spoke. In vs. 8, Paul spoke of the unfathomable riches of Christ, and here Paul speaks of the church. The church, the congregation of both Jews and Gentiles, had been hidden from the ages in God. It was God’s plan for the church to be the bride of His Son, Jesus. This verse also differs in that in vs. 8, Paul directs his ministry to the Gentiles, while in vs. 9 his ministry is to all men, because God created all things, and is now creating a new humanity from Christ of both Jew and Gentile. The purpose of God redeeming out of the world is always to redeem into the church. This is how God recreates the world.
A question that I often think of, is why does God save anyone at all? He is not constrained to do it by some outside court of fairness. There is nothing other than His own will that keeps Him from damning us all eternally, and outside of Christ He is just to do it. But here in vs. 10, we see the purpose of the purposes of the grace of ministry that was given to Paul. Not only was the grace of ministry given to Paul for the purpose of proclaiming to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and not only was it for the purpose of bringing to light what was hidden from the ages in God, but the purpose of those purposes are this: “in order to make known now the manifold wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies through the church, according to the eternal purpose, which He did in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Why did God send His Son, very God of very God, to die for sins? Why does God send forth the gospel to run and conquer? What does God enlighten anyone? It is for the purpose of making known now the manifold wisdom of God.
Manifold is a word that pertains to that which is different in a number of ways. In the LXX, it is used to describe Joseph’s coat of many colors. It means many-sided, many-colored, many-faceted. And we see that this manifold wisdom is not to be made known to us in the taking of the gospel, but to be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies through us, the church.
The picture that Paul is painting is this. God has written a play, thus He is the playwright. He has written it for a troop of actors, the church. And He has written it for a specific audience, the angels (which is what the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies are). Just like any playwright does well, God has written history in such a way that the audience does not know what will happen, but when they find out, they praise the manifold wisdom of the playwright. Think of Job 1, when the scene is the throne-room of God, and we see a gathering of angels, both good and evil, around the throne of God. And what are they doing? Watching the lives of men. The picture that Paul paints is that as these angels watch history unfold as the story that God has written, ultimately, His wisdom is made known through the church.
Let this sink in a little - your life is not about bringing praise to you and all of your great accomplishments. You are given a role in this life only for one purpose, and that is to bring praise to God for His manifold wisdom.
And all of these purposes, are summed up in the one “eternal purpose, which he did in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This harkens back again to 1:11, In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined, according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of His glory.” That is exactly what Paul is saying here in 3:10-11.
And through the person and work of Jesus, the Messiah, our Lord, we “are having boldness and freedom to enter with confidence through His faithfulness.” The very one in whom the eternal purpose of God was done, we now may enter to God through Him. We at one time could not come before God because we were at that time separated, but now we are bold in Christ. We at one time would not come before God because we were enslaved to our own sinfulness, but now we are free in Christ. And we at one time should not have come before God because we had reason to fear Him, but now we are to have confidence through Christ. Why? What has changed to allow us to be bold, free, and confident to come before God? “His faithfulness.”
Some of your translations will have “through faith in Him,” but this same construction, when used elsewhere in Ephesians, would be translated “through His faithfulness.” In 1:7, through His blood; 3:16, through His Spirit. In fact, it is not used the way the translations do anywhere else in the Pauline canon. It is through “His faithfulness” to the “eternal purpose” of God that we can now come boldly, freely, and confidently before the throne of God. Because Jesus was faithful, we are given grace. This does not discount the necessity of our faith, but our faith is not the cause of our ability to come before God. We’ve already read from the closing doxology of Rom. 16:25-36, “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but 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...” The mystery was made known to bring about the obedience of faith, but it is through Christ’s faithfulness that happens.
After Paul has summed up the mystery and his ministry, all of which was a digression from a prayer he was about to start, he finally in vs. 13 gives an inference which was likely the point of the whole parenthesis to begin with: “Therefore, I ask you not to be discouraged in my tribulations for you, which is your glory.”
Why are Paul’s tribulations the church’s glory? Remember how we got into this parenthesis. Paul mentioned his being a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the Gentiles. The fact is that, because Paul is being faithful in his following after Jesus, even to the point of imprisonment and eventually death, the members of the church that are reading this have had the gospel brought to them, and they heard, and they were converted, and they are now in union with Christ, which is their glory - all because of Paul’s tribulations. And you, too, are believers because of Paul’s ministry of the mystery. His tribulations are your glory, as well.
I wonder how many of us are willing to be used by God the way Paul was. Willing to undergo “tribulations” for the sake of others? Willing to suffer? Willing to go to the unsafe place and do the unsafe thing? Do we even go to the safe places?
Do recognize that the call that Jesus put on Paul’s life is not unlike the call He has put on everyone’s life who follows after Him. Die to yourself, take up your cross, and follow after me. Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks to our reasoning skills that kick in when we read something like that - oh, surely not literally die, and not follow Him there, right? He would want us to be safe so that we can continue to support missions and raise our families and do all of the things that we are accustomed to do “for Him.” Paul did not understand the ministry of the mystery that way. Should we? Will anyone ever be able to be encouraged by your tribulations?
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