The Ministry of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:1-13)

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 by Shane Scott

The Book of Ephesians is about God’s plan to “unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). From 1:3-2:10 Paul explains that God in heaven has made it possible for humans to be united with Him through the death of His Son. And from 2:11-2:22 he explains that the work of Jesus also accomplished unity on earth, bringing Jews and Gentiles together by removing that which separated them for centuries, the Law of Moses. It is this plan, or as Paul calls it, this “mystery of his will” (1:9), that is the focus of the great apostle’s own ministry. In Ephesians 3:1-13, Paul elaborates on this ministry of the mystery.

The Mystery

Let’s first notice what Paul says about this mystery. It is not some kind of strange, esoteric mystery that Paul has in mind. Instead, God’s will or plan was a mystery in the sense that it was once not revealed or known, but is now revealed. “The mystery was made known to me by revelation” (3:3). Indeed, what was revealed to Paul “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” (3:5).

What, precisely, is this “mystery”? Paul delineates its specific elements in verse six: “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 Old Testament spoke of the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s family. The promise to Abraham included the vision that all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). And the prophets saw a time coming when “all nations” would stream to Zion for the Law of the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-4). This plan was what God had in mind along – it was “according to the eternal purpose” of God (Eph. 3:11). So why refer to this plan as a “mystery”?

While it is true that the Old Testament contains many statements pointing to the ingathering of the Gentiles, it did not explicitly reveal how this ingathering would take place. Most Jews assumed it would happen because the Gentiles would become Jews by virtue of circumcision and adherence to the Law of Moses. This is the picture that emerges in the Book of Acts. It wasn’t the preaching to the house of Cornelius that upset the Jewish Christians per se – it was the fact that they were not circumcised that concerned them (Acts 11:1-3).

What was only revealed in Christ was that Gentiles would be accepted as Gentiles – as “fellow heirs”; that as Gentiles they would be “members of the same body”; and that this acceptance would be on the basis of the work of the Messiah and “through the gospel,” not on the basis of the Law of Moses. I love the NIV’s rendering of verse six: “the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Heirs together; members together; sharers together.

This means that the dispensational theology so popular today among evangelicals that holds that God still has a special plan and purpose for the Jewish nation is antithetical to the eternal purpose of God that has been realized in Christ. If there is anything Paul emphasizes in Ephesians, it is the one-ness of Jews and Gentiles in Christ. We are “one new man” (2:15); “one body” (2:16); one “household of God” (2:19). To insist – as popular televangelists like John Hagee insists – that God has two plans, one for Gentiles and one for Jews, is to deny the “manifold wisdom of God” (3:10).

God’s plan was to reverse the disunity and disruption caused by sin (think of Genesis 1-11). Through the death of Jesus the enmity that existed between God and humanity can be removed, and we can be “seated…with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6). And the division among human beings, exemplified by the “dividing wall of hostility” that was the Law (2:14), is now broken down through the work of Christ. The product of this work, the church, consequently stands in defiant rebuke to the powers of darkness that precipitated these divisions. “God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10, New Living Translation).

The Ministry

This awe-inspiring plan was the centerpiece of Paul’s ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). As Paul reflected on his calling as apostle of the mystery of God, he identified himself in several ways.

1.  He was “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (3:1a). Paul’s fundamental identity was wrapped up in Christ, so that while Roman authorities may have controlled his chains, he was not a prisoner of Caesar but “a prisoner for the Lord” (4:1). Whatever station in life we may find ourselves, our identity is ultimately in Christ. We are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (2:10).

2.  He was a prisoner “on behalf of [the] Gentiles” (3:1b). The events that precipitated Paul’s imprisonment in Rome began with the accusation by the Jews that he brought a Gentile into the temple (Acts 21:27-30), so in a real sense he was in prison on behalf of the Gentiles. And much of the opposition he generated in his ministry was due to his willingness to preach to Gentiles (3:8). Paul was so committed to this mission that even the suffering of imprisonment did not deter him, nor did he want it to discourage the Ephesians (3:13). Sometimes our commitment to serve the Lord will require us to sacrifice and suffer for the sake of others, and it is then that we are most like our Suffering Servant (1 Peter 2:21-22).

3.  He was given the “stewardship of God’s grace” (3:2), “according to the gift of God’s grace” (3:7). Paul realized that it was only by God’s grace that he could be an apostle, that everything he did was “by the working of his power” (3:7). All of us are called to be ministers or servants on behalf of others, equipped “for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12). Like Paul, none of us deserves God’s grace. And like Paul, we are called to be “good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10), using the gifts God has given us to serve others.

Paul’s courage and tenacity to carry out this mission even in the face of opposition was grounded in Christ, “in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him”(3:12). Christ is still the basis of such confidence, and as you and I continue the proclamation of the mystery of God, we can do our part knowing that through our faith in Him, we need never lose heart.