The Mystery of the Gospel
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 3:1–3:13
1 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which 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. 6 This mystery is that Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. 13 So, I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.
Many people tell me that they do not read the Bible because to them it is veiled with “mystery.” It may surprise you to know that is precisely how God meant for it to be.
In Matthew 13, Jesus told a series of short stories to a large crowd that had gathered near the Sea of Galilee to hear Him teach. These stories are sometimes referred to “the mysteries of the Kingdom.” In responding to His disciples’ question regarding why He employed such a curious method of instruction, He told them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted” (Matthew 13:11, NASV). Whenever our Lord taught in this manner, He did so with two purposes in mind. The first was to reveal truth to those willing to receive it, and the second was to conceal that same truth from those who would not receive it. Thus Jesus could say, as He did many times, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 14:35).
According to Jesus, the reason that the Scriptures remain “mysterious” to so many is that they do not have “ears to hear.” Some of you will recall from our study of Isaiah just a few weeks ago that when the Lord called that prophet, He told him to “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive’” (Isaiah 6:9). What a curious message to give a preacher to proclaim, but one that would render His audience accountable to God and without excuse.
So I need to ask you, do you have “ears to hear” what God has to say to you this morning? I hope so, because what I am about to share with you is a “mystery.” That’s what Paul calls it here in Ephesians 3. But before we look at the content of this “mystery,” we need to take a moment to define what the Bible means when it uses that word.
The Greek term (“μυστηριον”) dates back to seven centuries before Christ and was used with reference to ancient “mystery” religions that practiced “secret” rituals and celebrations and claimed to possess knowledge unknown to those who not among the “initiated.” The biblical writers, beginning with Daniel (cf. chapter 2), adapted the word to describe the otherwise inscrutable ways of God, particularly within the context of prophetic events. But it awaited Paul to explain its New Testament significance in passages like Romans 16(:25-26), Colossians 1(:24-28), and here in Ephesians 3. In brief, the apostle refers to “the mystery” as the wisdom of God hidden from eternity past, but now being made clear. We’ll see how he develops that idea in the passage before us, but for now let me give you a simple definition that I have found to be helpful. It serves a guide whenever we encounter the term in the New Testament...certainly is that true in Paul’s writings. Here it is:
“A mystery is a solemn, sacred secret...once concealed, but now revealed.”
It is an aspect of the plan of God that has also existed, but is now made known to those whom He chooses to reveal it. But we must remember that it is revealed only to those who have “ears to hear.” What’s more, “hearing” implies “doing.” God does not reveal His truth to merely satisfy our curiosity. He gives it so that we may live obediently before Him and responsibly before others. Elsewhere Jesus said that “If any one chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God” (John 7:17, NIV). So, may God each of us “ears to hear” today.
With that background, let’s wade into this passage from Ephesians 3. It may be divided into two parts, which we will call “the mystery” in verses 1 through 6 and “the ministry” in verses 7 through 13. What links these two sections together is the mention of “the gospel” at the end of verse 6 and at the beginning of verse 7. So, let’s look first at...
The mystery of the Gospel (verses 1-6)
Paul begins chapter 3 with the words, “For this reason,” which forces us to think back to where we left off at the end of chapter 2. You may recall that he had written to these Ephesian believers about how their union in Christ had also made them one with each other...despite the racial barriers that until that time had separated them. It is a lesson that the followers of Christ must relearn with every passing generation.
Here, on the basis of that truth, Paul has something he wants to add. But before he does, he interrupts his own flow of thought with a lengthy parenthesis that extends through this entire passage. If you will glance ahead to verse 14, you will observe that he resumes his initial thought by repeating the phrase, “For this reason.” But it is the parenthetical discussion between those two phrases that concerns us this morning.
The apostle refers to himself in verse 1 as “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” At the time that he wrote those words Paul was incarcerated in Rome, awaiting trial before Caesar on trumped-up charges of treason. Although he wore the chains of Caesar, he knew that his circumstances had been ordained by God. He may have been a prisoner of Nero, but he was “a prisoner for Christ.” Therefore, he was certain that his detainment was for a divine purpose, one that was “on behalf of (the) Gentiles” whom he was writing. Paul was had been commissioned to take the Gospel to the nations (cf. Romans 11:13 and Galatians 2:8), and he was confident that somehow his imprisonment served God’s providential plan.
In fact, as verse 2, indicates, Paul viewed his assignment as a “stewardship of God’s grace” entrusted to him. In fact, it was “God’s grace” that would prove to be the source of the message he was being charged to proclaim. The word “stewardship” (“οικονομια”) implies that he has been placed as “manager” or an “administrator” over this aspect of the Lord’s business. Simply put, this Jew who had been dramatically transformed by God’s “grace” was to minister that same “grace” to the Gentiles.
Paul will repeatedly refer to the content of his message as “the mystery.” As we have already noted, a “mystery” is that which has forever been a part of God’s eternal plan but was kept hidden until, in His providence, He chose to reveal it. With that in mind, we need to be clear about something. “The mystery” to which he refers is not that Gentiles can be saved or share in the blessings of God, because we have numerous Old Testament examples where Gentiles came to acknowledge Yahweh as the true and living God. Instead, as we learned from chapter 2, “the mystery” is that—because of the Gospel—believing Gentiles and believing Jews are now brought together by God into one entity known as “the Church.”
If you happened to be living in Paul’s day, you would have been tempted to ask, “But how can this be?” The answer lay in what Paul calls this “mystery” at the end of verse 4. It is “the mystery of Christ”...or perhaps better translated, “a Christ-kind of mystery.” In other words, the unveiling of “the mystery” came about through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. As a result, instead of ethnic alienation and animosity, people from every nation would be represented and united in “one new man” and “one body” with Jesus Christ as its Head. Here Paul is reminding his readers of what he had “written briefly” in chapter 2(:15 and 16). The content of “the mystery” is that there is no longer ethnic or racial separation between the people of God, and neither is there spiritual privilege.
If there was any lingering doubt about that, Paul makes it crystal clear that “the mystery” was not his own innovation. In verse 2 he says that it “was given to” him, and in verse 3 he adds that it came to him “by (way of) revelation.” That probably refers to his experience of having met the risen and ascended Lord on the Damascus Road and being dramatically converted. It was there that Jesus said of him, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15). In a completely unexpected way, the Lord had chose a zealous but misguided Pharisee to take the Gospel to the Gentiles.
The importance of every believer understanding this “mystery” is highlighted in verse 4, where Paul encourages the reading of the Scriptures. “When you read this,” he writes, “you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.” This reflects back to what I said near the beginning of this message: the Bible remains a “veiled secret” to those who do not take the time and the effort to read and study it. The Bible remains a “closed book” to many because...well, because it’s a “closed book”...one that it rarely opened and read, and seldom—if ever—seriously studied. Contextually, when the writer speaks of reading what he had written, he is likely referring to the public reading of the Scriptures that take place whenever and wherever the church gathers. In that day, there would have been no Bibles brought to those services and none in the pew racks. The only copies were the original writings or copies that had been duplicated by hand and passed along to other local bodies.
I cannot help but think that those early Christians would have likely hung on every Word from the Lord that the service leaders would read. That remains the case today where copies of the Scriptures are rare, and where believers hunger and thirst for any Word from the Lord. Despite all the translations and copies that you and I have at our disposal, we seem to be missing that longing today. Those leather bound and perhaps even expensive Bibles that rest on your coffee table throughout the week would be like golden treasures to someone living in a place where it would be illegal to possess one. May God give us “ears (that are eager) to hear” His Word.
The substance of “the mystery” is elaborated upon in verses 5 and 6. The apostle tells us that “It 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.” The little word “as” (“‘ωs”) lends itself to two possible interpretations. It might possibly mean that “the mystery” was not revealed “to the extent” that it is now being revealed. Or it could mean that it had not been revealed “at all.” If we understand “the mystery” to have been “foreshadowed” or “previewed” in Old Testament times, then the first interpretation is preferred. But if the content of “the mystery” is the uniting of Jews and Gentiles into one body, then the second interpretation is the correct one. What this means is that New Testament saints—people just like you and me—have been made privy to an aspect of God’s eternal plan that not even the most revered saints in the Old Testament would have known.
What an awesome privilege! But with privilege comes responsibility. Remember, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 14:35). And when we “hear,” we—like Paul—are charged to tell others so that they may “hear” as well. After all, it is only through “hearing ... the word of Christ” that “faith comes” (cf. Romans 10:17).
That is why Paul links the substance of “the mystery” with “the gospel” in verse 6. “The mystery” was the truth revealed to Paul, and “the gospel” was the truth proclaimed by Paul. Specifically the “good news” of “the mystery” is—as this verse declares—there are no ethnic or racial barriers that stand in the way of anyone having a personal relationship with the Lord. Christianity is not a “western religion” or a “white man’s faith.” He is “the God of the nations,” and to Him alone we all—every last one of us!—owe our undivided allegiance.
In order to emphasize this truth, Paul employs three compound terms in verse 6 to demonstrate the universal character of “the gospel.” He writes that in light of “the mystery...Gentiles are (1) fellow-heirs, (2) members of the same body, and (3) partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” “Fellow heirs” means that “every spiritual blessing” (cf. Ephesians 1:3), belonged equally to all believers regardless of their ethnicity. “Members of the same body” means that there are not two equal but separate bodies of believers—one Jewish and the other Gentile—but, together, both belong to the one Body of Christ. And “partakers of the promise” speaks to the promise first made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 that through his seed “all the families of the earth (would) be blessed.”
What we have in these first six verses, then, is a description of “the mystery of the gospel,” namely its source and substance. But in order for that “mystery” to be made known to the nations, a mission would have to be undertaken. So, in verses 7 through 13 Paul proceeds to tell us about...
The ministry of the Gospel (verses 7-13)
He writes, “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given to me by the working of his power.” We observe right away that Paul considered his call to the Gospel ministry to be a “gift of God’s grace,” bestowed upon him through God’s enabling, which he refers to as its “power.” It is imperative for us to realize that no minister fulfills the ministry to which God calls him in his own strength. It is God who supplies the “power.” That is always true. It matters not how large the church, how popular the pastor, or how “successful” in the eyes of the world a ministry may appear to be. If the Lord is not the One generating the “power,” then it is nothing more than “wood, hay, or straw,” and will one day be consumed (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
To drive home this point, Paul refers to himself in verse 8 as “the very least of all the saints.” He actually coins a term here (“ελαχιστοτεροs”) to emphasize the point. It could well be translated “leaster” or “less than least.” Elsewhere in his writings, he speaks of himself in similar self-abasing terms. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and 10 he calls himself “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle,” and in 1 Timothy 1:15 he refers to himself as “the foremost” of sinners. I don’t believe it was because Paul had an “inferiority complex” —after all, he did not hesitate to list his religious pedigree elsewhere (cf. Philippians 3:4-6). But when it came to being called to the Gospel ministry and “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,” he knew that he brought nothing to the table, and he wanted others to know that as well. His ministry was due to the “grace (that) was given” him. By making little of himself, he made much of his God.
When Paul speaks of “the unsearchable riches of Christ,” he uses a word (“ανεξιχνιαστοs”) that is found in only one other place in the New Testament (Romans 11:33). In both places, it refers to the inscrutable and incomprehensible ways of God. Given our limited capacity to grasp eternal truth, the point is that, no matter how long and how hard we try, there is simply no way that we are able to fathom the depths of God. “Infinite” would be a good possible translation.
But even though we’ll never fully comprehend His ways, the Lord is not content to leave us “in the dark.” In His perfect time and way through the preaching of the Gospel, God is pleased “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” What we are told here in verse 9 that the same God who created all things in the beginning will recreate all things in the end. The division between man and his God and between man and his fellow-man is repaired and restored whole by means of the unveiling of “the mystery” of “the gospel.” As this verse suggests, even before Genesis 1, this aspect of His eternal plan was included. What that means is that even though historically, the work of creation predated the work of redemption that would be secured through the death of Jesus Christ, in the mind of God those two acts stood side-by-side. Therefore, in His plan, both occurred simultaneously. No wonder Paul says with amazement that God’s ways are “unsearchable.”
The “so that” at the beginning of verse 10 introduces a purpose clause. We just saw the power of the ministry in verses 7 through 9, but here we are given its purpose. What reason could God possibly have for keeping hidden for so long this “mystery,” only now to reveal it through the preaching of “the gospel”? The answer is found in verse 10:
“So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
What an extraordinary statement...one that just may shoot right past us unless we pause to consider what the writer is saying here. For only the second time in Ephesians, he mentions “the church.” We first saw it in chapter 1, verses 22 and 23, where it was referred to as the “body” of Christ over which He was its “head.” Paul will have much more to say about it as we proceed through this letter, but its significance in this passage lies in the fact that it is linked with “the mystery.”
Now think with me for just a moment. If “the mystery” spoken of throughout this passage is that both Jewish and Gentile believers are brought together through “the gospel” as the “one people of God,” then that people is here identified as “the church.” Can we not, therefore, conclude that “the mystery” is “the church”? And if that is the case, as I believe it is, then Paul is telling us something amazing.
Look again at verse 10, where we are told that the unveiling of “the mystery” was for the purpose of demonstrating “through the church the manifold wisdom of God.” Paul employs a rare word (“πολυποικιλοs”) in attempting to describe God’s “manifold wisdom.” It was a term that was used in ancient literature of an intricately-embroidered or multi-colored work of art. To the Lord, His Church is a beautiful and diverse tapestry that He holds up and displays before “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
We have encountered “the heavenly places” twice already in this epistle (Ephesians 1:3 and 20). As we have observed, it refers to the spiritual realm which remains invisible to us now. But just because we cannot see into that realm at the present time, it does not mean that we are unseen to those who reside there. In fact, as verse 10 suggests, the purpose for God’s giving birth to “the church” was “so that...God’s manifold wisdom might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Just who are these “rulers and authorities”? The general consensus is that they are angelic beings, both good and evil. Now, here is astounding part. Somehow, the Lord is using the collective gathering of His redeemed people—gatherings like ours this morning...right now—to instruct these inhabitants of the spiritual realm something about His “manifold wisdom” that they otherwise would not be able to see. It may not be a stretch of the imagination to think of them standing outside this sanctuary even now with their noses pressed against the windows trying to see, learn, and understand why God would have allowed His Son to give up His life on behalf of sinners like you and me. Though we cannot see them, they can see us. And as they witness us gathered in worship to Him—singing, praying, hearing and responding to His Word—they marvel at this display of God’s wisdom. So, as counterintuitive as it may seem, our Lord is educating angels through “the church.”
Verse 11 confirms this to be so, as Paul adds, “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in (or by means of) Christ Jesus our Lord.” How was the ministry of “the mystery”—i.e., “the gospel”—set into motion? It was through the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. How is that ministry declared? It is through “the church.” In the words of the song we sang a few moments ago, this is “such a marvelous mystery!”
And because of Jesus’ one-time, all-sufficient work, verse 12 declares that you and I now “have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” This is where it gets very practical. You may recall from chapter 2, verse 18 that Paul mentioned that both Jewish and Gentile believers had “access in one Spirit to the Father.” I have little doubt in believing that the “access” to which he refers both there and here is the believers’ approach to God in prayer. That term (“προσαγωγη”) relates properly to “an audience granted with someone of high position.” The mention of “boldness” (“παρρησια”) further suggests that our “approach” to God is to be with “openness” and “assurance.” There is no need to hold anything back when we come to Him. And what’s more, because “the mystery” has at long last been revealed to God’s people, we are able to enter into His presence “with confidence” (“πεποιθεσιs”), meaning with a mind that is “firmly settled” and “fully persuaded” that God is eager to welcome us into His presence.
John Newton captures this blessed thought so well in one of his lesser-known hymns:
“Thou art coming to a King, Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such, None can ever ask too much.”
Paul at last ends his lengthy parenthesis in verse 13 with a personal request, but one of a sort that the readers would not likely have anticipated. Reflecting back to verse 1, where he reminded them of his present state of confinement, we might have expected him to conclude this section by asking them to pray for him. But he doesn’t. Instead, his thoughts were not of himself but of them. Listen to how he puts it: “I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.”
Paul’s concern was not that he would faint or grow weary over what he was enduring, but that others would remain strong in their faith as they learned of his afflictions and tribulations. He wanted to make certain that they would not grow discouraged. Uppermost in his mind was not his own well-being, but theirs. After all, as he tells us here, the “suffering” he was enduring was for their sakes and for their benefit. In fact, if you remember back in verse 1, before entering into his discourse about “the mystery,” he had told them the very same thing. He was “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” on their behalf.
Therefore, rather than asking them to pray for him, his first thought was to pray for them. That speaks volumes to the character of a man whose life had been radically transformed through the ministry of “the gospel.” And, if we are honest with ourselves, that example probably exposes a deficiency in many of our lives. If we have any doubt that Paul prayed for them, all we need to do is to consider the rest of this chapter...which we will do next week.
But for now, even as we prepare to approach the Lord’s Table together, I want for us to pause and think about what “the mystery” means to us today. What is it that the Lord wants us to take from this passage? Don’t let the fact that this is a parenthesis suggest to you that it is somehow less-important, because it isn’t. Were we to summarize the content of “the mystery” as briefly as possible, we could do so in two words: “the Church.”
This past week, Omar and I attended a “church revitalization conference” with two hundred and fifty other pastors from across the country. My biggest “takeaway” from that event was the reminder of just how much God loves the Church. There are times when you and I need to have our vision expanded when we think about the Church at large, as well as our local church. So, in the spirit of this chapter, permit me to pull together some thoughts for us to reflect upon as we prepare our hearts to eat the bread and drink the cup together,
First, God’s love for His Church is so deep that it cost the life of His Son to purchase it. That is why we stress the New Testament’s teaching on not treating with impunity the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Please hear me, if you are not a Christian and you choose to eat the bread and drink the cup in a few minutes, then you will do so in an unworthy manner. In fact, the Bible says that you will be eating and drinking judgment upon yourself (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:29). But if you are a follower of Jesus—meaning that you have embraced the Gospel you have heard preached today—and if you have confirmed that belief through public baptism, then you are invited—in fact, you are encouraged—to come and to eat and drink.
Second, although our local church gathers together today to worship the Lord, listen to His Word, and practice the ordinances, we have also been charged to be a light to the nations and to future generations. God is making a people for Himself that not only includes those from every nation, tribe, and language (cf. Revelation 7:9), but from every generation. That “ mystery” has been revealed to us “here and now,” but it must be disclosed by us to those who do not yet know and sent by us to those who are not yet born. The Lord desires for this local body to outlive all of us, so that generations yet to come will tell of “His excellent greatness.” In order for that to happen, then we must be intentional in our worship of and service to Him. We will be held accountable for what we know to be true.
Third, we need to see our local church as one of many “outposts for the Kingdom of Heaven.” When we pray that God blesses His Church, we are asking Him to bless every local church where the Gospel is being preached and lived out without compromise. God’s Church is bigger than any one local assembly or any single fellowship of assemblies. Therefore, we need to ask Him to raise up even more! If you are not a participating member of a local church, one who keeps covenant with his or her fellow-members, then you are living on the outskirts of God’s plan.
Fourth, the ultimate goal of history and the purpose of “the mystery” is the universal display of God’s wisdom. As this passage has told us, that goal is accomplished through the Church, made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the preaching of that Gospel. It has been said that “Christians are those who reflect on the Kingdom of God while living in the city of men.” There are times when we have a difficult time seeing with clarity that which is afar because we are too consumed by those things that are near. The Lord’s Supper offers us an opportunity to lift our heads and reflect upon the fact that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).
The church is a “mystery,” but the Lord never intended that it remain one. In fact, as we gather at the Table this morning we do so in order to “proclaim (His) death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).