Paul: Mystery Man
Summertime Sermon Series: Return to Ephesus (Part Nine)
Please read Ephesians 3:1-13.
CONTEXT = FOR THIS REASON refers back to the previous section, which taught us that unity in the church is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Unity is given to us as an act of grace through the Holy Spirit. For our part, we are to maintain that unity by acting in accord with one another and avoiding sins of the tongue and all other sins that cause discord.
It’s a little surprising Paul used the word MYSTERY so frequently in this passage. It was a term that was much-abused by “mystery religions” of his day, cults that prospered around the ancient world, and probably in Ephesus especially. People involved in the mystery religions claimed to know something that nobody else knew. To join the group, you had to be taught their secrets, their mysteries.
When we started this series last summer we learned there were a number of occult groups like this in Ephesus. The people in Ephesus were infamous for their fascination with magic and the occult. I believe Paul used this word deliberately, choosing to confront the false teachers by using a word they misused to deceive people. We have already seen how Paul’s enemies reacted to his brave practice of telling the truth; they incited a riot!
Paul revealed the MYSTERY OF CHRIST to the Gentiles.
1. Paul’s qualifications to reveal the MYSTERY.
He was a PRISONER OF CHRIST JESUS (verse one). Politically and physically, it would be more technically correct to say Paul was a prisoner of Caesar. He wrote this letter in AD 61 or 62, while he was imprisoned in Rome, awaiting an audience with Caesar.
Spiritually speaking, Paul was a “prisoner” of Jesus in the sense that he was dedicated to doing the will of Christ. This expression is meant to remind the reader that Caesar could do his worst, but Paul belonged to Jesus, who ultimately decided Paul’s actions and outcome.
Paul was a PRISONER for the sake of the GENTILES (v. 1). This phrase gives us a “big picture” view of Paul’s incarceration. Even though his imprisonment can be traced back to his situation in Jerusalem and his decision to appeal his case to the emperor, it was for the sake of the Gentile churches that God allowed it to happen. Paul’s unwavering commitment to serve God in the Gentile churches was part of the reason he was imprisoned.
Paul’s qualification to be the “mystery man” was based on God’s grace, not on his own merit. Paul explained this in verses seven and eight. Paul was an apostle and an administrator of the MYSTERY THROUGH GOD’S GRACE GIVEN ME THROUGH THE WORKING OF HIS POWER (v. 7). We are obviously operating under GRACE when we’re doing something we are not personally qualified to do. God gets the glory when His power is most evident. This is the way Paul understood his ministry - God’s strength substituting for his weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, he wrote from God’s perspective, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Think about it. Why should we bumble along in our own strength when our Creator offers HIS?!!
This was Paul’ humbling experience; ALTHOUGH I AM LESS THAN THE LEAST OF ALL GOD’S PEOPLE, THIS GRACE WAS GIVEN ME (v. 8). Though he had achieved so much, Paul had the faith and the good sense to give all the glory to God. An understanding of how GRACE operates precludes all pride. People who have received grace don’t waste time reciting their religious “pedigree.” They thank God instead.
This is NOT Paul trying to impress anyone with false humility. It is a recollection of his past - how he used to persecute the Church - as otherwise making him unfit for service. Apart from GRACE, Paul would not have been so successful in making disciples and planting churches.
All of this was for the Ephesians. For their sake, on their behalf, he received an ADMINISTRATION OF GOD’S GRACE (v. 2). This is how ministry works: God’s grace empowers some of His people to serve Him by serving God’s church. GRACE is always God-centered; it is given, not earned. In fact, the most obvious examples of GRACE are gifts the recipient could not otherwise possess. The ADMINISTRATION to which Paul refers is the work of making God’s offer of salvation by GRACE known to those outside the Church and the maturing of those inside. When you read ADMINISTRATION, think “application:” God wants us to apply His truth to our daily living.
God’s purpose in showing GRACE to Paul was to equip him to be an Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul describes his message with two phrases: TO PREACH TO THE GENTILES THE UNSEARCHABLE RICHES OF CHRIST (v. 8). Though a Jew himself (in fact, a “Jew’s Jew,” see Philippians 3:3-8), Paul’s ministry was to non-Jews; TO THE GENTILES.
The word UNSEARCHABLE refers to the limitless generosity of God. He makes rain fall on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45), a symbol of how salvation is offered to all people, whether we think they deserve it or not
The aim of Paul’s teaching was TO MAKE PLAIN TO EVERYONE THE ADMINISTRATION OF THIS MYSTERY (9). When you think about it, making something UNSEARCHABLE become PLAIN TO EVERYONE is a tall order! Attempting it without relying on God’s power would be ridiculous, illogical.
As he speaks about his preaching and his ministry in other letters, Paul consistently downplayed any strengths or gifts he brought to proclaiming the Gospel. His ambition was to make the truth PLAIN. Anyone who preaches while depending on technique, charisma, intelligence, or any other human power is preaching something other than Christ.
2. What Paul revealed about the MYSTERY.
The content and true understanding of the MYSTERY had been MADE KNOWN to Paul by REVELATION, the personal witness of Jesus Christ (v. 3). I believe Paul is referring here to his conversion experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and what he learned subsequent to that.
It was a MYSTRY because had not been MADE KNOWN TO MEN IN OTHER [previous] GENERATIONS (v. 5). Here Paul seems to divide human history into two epochs: “BC” (Before Christ) and “AD” (After His Death and Resurrection). (Of course, these are not the abbreviations we use.)
In the BC time, God’s plan to save humanity from sin had been hinted at, revealed in part, but not fully explained. All through that part of history, God had promised salvation and was working to bring it to pass, but had not revealed it fully to all people.
Repeating this truth in a slightly different way, Paul wrote in verse nine, IN AGES PAST WAS KEPT HIDDEN IN GOD, WHO CREATED ALL THINGS. KEPT HIDDEN = the Bible is a “Progressive Revelation;” as time passed, God revealed more about Himself and about His plan for humanity. As we read from Genesis through to Revelation, we progress in our understanding of what God was saying. We understand the Old Testament as we read it in light of what God revealed in the New Testament. Both parts of the Bible are inextricably linked. Because the fullness of God’s revelation did not enter into human history until the person of Jesus Christ, what appeared before was partial and predictive. It was not the whole story but the foundation for what was to come.
Paul reminds us that God CREATED ALL THINGS to reinforce this point: God is in charge. All of history is moving in the direction He wills. God is working all circumstances to the end He has planned.
He was given insight into THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST (v. 4). Paul is not setting himself up as anything special, a holder of secrets. He is not a priest in a “mystery religion.” Instead, he set mystery religions on their head by doing the opposite; he shared the insights he’s been given with the widest possible audience, making God’s plan known to everyone. For example, read 1:17, where Paul prayed for all people to know God better.
God’s MYSTERY had been REVEALED BY THE SPIRIT TO GOD’S HOLY APOSTLES AND PROPHETS (v. 5). Paul lived in the “AD” time of divine history. In Jesus, the fullness of God’s plan for salvation had been revealed and accomplished. The major revelation came in the person of Jesus, but God also announced it through the HOLY APOSTLES AND PROPHETS, the people tasked with leading the Church.
According to God’s plan, the Church is to be His means of revealing His MANIFOLD WISDOM TO THE RULERS AND AUTHORITIES IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS (v. 10). Often we’re guilty of thinking too small. We fuss over details and ignore the fact that our shared ministry is part of God’s plan to save the world. Case in point: Paul’s mention of RULERS AND AUTHORITIES IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS means that our ministries have eternal consequences. Spiritual forces beyond our control are affected by whether we are doing our jobs or not. Think about that: no pressure!
If we weren’t living by GRACE, if we were instead asked to do this on our own strength, such a notion would be intimidating. However, as we have repeatedly noted, God gives us GRACE to do these things. This means there is no room for intimidation or distraction by petty, worldly things.
To further establish the centrality of Jesus in the revelation of the MYSTERY, Pal revealed in verse eleven that God completed His ETERNAL PURPOSE IN CHRIST JESUS OUR LORD. The word ACCOMPLISHED means “realized, achieved.” The passage makes it clear that God made His plan before creation, completed His plan in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and will one day bring it to a complete close when Jesus comes again.
Take a deep breath and let that sink in: you and I are partners with each other and with Jesus Christ. All of creation is in its last days. Everything we do has eternal significance. The powers of heaven and hell are waiting with bated breath. What we say and do MATTERS!
Here we come to it at last. What we’ve all been waiting to find out. What is the MYSTERY? The MYSTERY is the formation of a single people of God. Clinton E. Arnold wrote, “God’s people will now be identified by their togetherness in a multiethnic loving group endowed by the Spirit of God rather than circumcision, ritual purity, and bloody sacrifices.” The distinction of Jew and Gentile is void.
This is what Paul meant by the phrase THROUGH THE GOSPEL THE GENTILES ARE…HEIRS, MEMBERS, and SHARERS with Israel, all in verse six. When at one time God set apart a nation for Himself, now He has set apart a people, called out from all the nations of the Earth.
- HEIRS TOGETHER WITH ISRAEL = In 1:14 Paul stated the Gentiles were, along with the Jews, inheritors of the Holy Spirit. He used this word picture again in 5:5. It is a thread running through the letter. Nationality no longer determines a person’s membership in God’s family. Now it is faith in Christ that make one an heir.
- MEMBERS OF ONE BODY = Paul made up an entirely new Greek word (susoma) to say “with one body.” Paul frequently described the Church as the Body of Christ in this letter (1:23; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30). In Corinthians, he used this figure of speech to emphasize how different parts (people of different nations) form one body (the Church).
- SHARERS TOGETHER IN THE PROMISE IN CHRIST JESUS = What Paul had in mind was the Holy Spirit, whom he referred to as “the Holy Spirit of promise” in 1:17. In John 14 Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to His followers as the chief sign of salvation and the most important means of following Jesus’ teachings. In Galatians 3:7, 26-29, Paul wrote how believing Gentiles are part of the fulfillment o/t promises God made to Abraham.
An important benefit of this revelation is the confidence we can have in prayer and in trials. (This is our KEY VERSE on this Religious Liberty Sunday.) In verse twelve the inspired apostle wrote, THROUGH FAITH IN HIM WE MAY APPROACH GOD WITH FREEDOM AND CONFIDENCE. The greatest expression of FREEDOM is the ability to pray to God. Prayer is the practice that brings all this GRACE to bear on our daily lives. Without prayer, none of these Kingdom of God things get accomplished. With prayer, the resources of heaven are put at our disposal!
The word CONFIDENCE in the Greek pictures a citizen rising at a meeting to speak his mind to an issue. Or think of a friendly relationship you have where you can speak candidly without fear of being rejected. Having that FREEDOM means we treasure it and would never abuse it. We have that feeling out of gratitude, not fear that it might be taken away.
Notice this verse says twice IN HIM, making clear the source of this FREEDOM and CONFIDENCE is Jesus Christ. In the Progressive Revelation of the Bible, this is closeness to God that previous generations did NOT enjoy. We are very privileged God put us in this time and place!
The Ephesians did not need to be DISCOURAGED BECAUSE OF Paul’s SUFFERINGS FOR YOU, WHICH were for their GLORY (13). Paul presented all this theology in its grand scope and concluded by making it completely personal in verse. This is to be our practice every time we sermonize and study the Bible. Learning factoids is fruitless if we do not take it personally. We must apply (administrate, as above) the truth.
In this case, Paul does not want his Ephesian friends to feel badly about his imprisonment. Instead, he wants them to be consoled, knowing that his SUFFERINGS serve two important purposes in the plan of God.
First, it serves the purpose of enabling Paul to write this letter. If he had not been imprisoned, he would not have had the time to devote to it. In this way, God used Paul’s SUFFERINGS to benefit the believers in Ephesus. By the way, at the time of this writing, Paul had been imprisoned 3 or 4 years! Discouragement would have been a real possibility for those who cared for Paul and looked on.
Second, his SUFFERINGS brought about GLORY. Remember GLORY is the presence of God somehow manifest in human experience. Sometimes His presence was manifest in brilliant light, sometimes in dark clouds. But in every circumstance, the GLORY of God blessed His people, drawing them into deeper fellowship with Him.
Interestingly, Jews of Paul’s day believed that the plan of God required a certain amount of suffering be experienced before God’s plan would come into consummation. He may have been thinking of this when he wrote that his SUFFERING was “for” the Ephesians. This belief is implied in Colossians 1:24; Romans 8:17-18; 2 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Timothy 2:10).
Paul revealed the MYSTERY OF CHRIST to the Gentiles.
This passage gives us a perspective on Paul’s ministry as an Apostle to the Gentiles. It is his perspective. His imprisonment provided opportunity to reflect on all God had done during His ministry, understanding the source and measuring its impact.
Because of GRACE, the MYSTERY has been solved. Because we have FREEDOM and the CONFIDENCE that a loving relationship bestows, we can pray with authority. Because God is in control, we do not have to be DISCOURAGED. Just the opposite; we should be encouraged beyond doubt and fear to have an adventurous and joyous experience of faith in our daily living. Who needs Sherlock Holmes? We have Mystery Man Paul explaining the will and work of God in providing us with salvation.
Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament - Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold