7. The Mystery, Mission, and Ministry of the Church (Ephesians 3:1-13)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (28:57)

St. Paul, catacombs of Praetextatus, Rome (fourth century)
St. Paul, Catacombs of Praetextatus, fresco, fourth century. Larger image.
3:1For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles --

2Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, 3that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. 6This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

7I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. 8Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory. (Ephesians 3:1-13)


Exercise: Paul is explaining in the passage the mystery that has surrounded the Gospel. To begin to understand it:

  1. Circle the keywords "administration," "mystery," and "grace" in the NIV text. Then
  2. Connect the like words with each other with lines.

If you're using the KJV, "administration" is "dispensation" in verse 2 and "fellowship" in verse 9. In the NRSV it is "commission" in verse 2 and "plan" in verse 9.

Have you ever had a secret that you didn't tell anyone? A secret that explains your otherwise incomprehensible actions? Perhaps you have. But our secrets tend to be shameful. The secret we're going to study in this passage is anything but that. It is a wonderful secret plan that God has had since the beginning of time and is now ready to reveal. Are you ready?

Paul the Prisoner (3:1)

"For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles...." (3:1)

Paul refers back ("for this reason") to what he has just said in 2:11-22, that God has broken down the barrier between the Jews and Gentiles, making Gentile Christians one with God's people, full citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Revelation of the Mystery to Paul and the Apostles (3:2-5)

We in the twenty-first century take it for granted that Gentile Christians are full citizens, but for a Jewish Pharisee in the first century, this would have been considered impossible. That this would be the case was indeed a mystery.

"Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation...." (3:2-3a)

The obvious keyword in this passage is "mystery." What does it mean? What did it mean to Paul and the recipients of this letter? We see the Greek word mystērion in 1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 5:32; and 6:19. "Mystery" in Paul's writings is not a puzzle to be solved by detectives studying the clues, such as in a mystery novel. Among the abundant Greco-Roman mystery religions it meant a secret rite or teaching that only the initiated could know. But Paul uses it quite differently, as "the unmanifested or private counsel of God, (God's) secret," which are hidden from human reason and ingenuity, and can only be known by revelation.1 Paul is talking about a secret, hidden for the ages and only now ready to be revealed.

Before we get into the text, let's consider another word that is used twice in our passage, oikonomia. But its translation can disguise the fact that it is the same word:

  NIV KJV NRSV NASB
Verse 2 administration dispensation stewardship commission
Verse 9 administration fellowship plan administration

The basic meaning of oikonomia is "responsibility of management, management of a household, work of an estate manager," then more generally, "direction, office." Paul applies the idea of administration to the office of an apostle, "You have heard about the administration of grace that was given to me for you...." (3:2, NIV) The word meaning begins with the planning, administrative process, but then moves to the plan itself. It can mean, "the state of being arranged, arrangement, order, plan," and in this sense is used in 3:9, "the plan of the mystery hidden for ages...." (NRSV).2

Now let's look at the passage again:

"2Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, 3that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight3 into the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known4 to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets." (3:2-5)

Paul tells us that he has been particularly chosen for this mission of revealing God's hidden secret. He makes it a point that it isn't his idea or his discovery or something he figured out, but that "the mystery was made known to me by revelation5" (3:3), that is, that God revealed it to him.

Revelation to Apostles and Prophets

The means of this revelation is "by the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). The direct recipients of this revelation are God's "holy apostles and prophets" (3:5).

Christianity is not a religion that men figured out or inferred. It comes to us by revelation, that is, God revealed it directly to us through inspired writers of Scripture -- "holy apostles and prophets."

The Gospels are Jesus' words and actions conveyed to us by apostolic teaching -- that is, from the message and with the authority of Christ's appointed apostles.6 The Old Testament is Scripture because it is a revelation of God through his prophets. The New Testament epistles are Scripture because they are the teaching of the apostles, who were given by Christ the specific task of establishing the church. Scripture is a product of the Holy Spirit's revelation through apostles and prophets. Paul wrote to Timothy:

"... From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos7) and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

This quality of being "God-breathed" (NIV), "inspired" (NRSV, NASB), or "given by inspiration" (KJV) is what makes Scripture authoritative for us in all matters of faith and practice. The sacred teachings of the "holy prophets and apostles" should inform our traditions rather than be subject to our traditions. Where our traditions are in conflict with the spirit and teaching of the Word -- as has been the case many times in history -- then our traditions need to change, not the other way around. We are an apostolic church only when we follow the teachings of Christ as given through his appointed apostles without dilution or compromise.

Having said that, Paul's epistles clearly teach us to expect and honor the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11; 13:2; 14:1-33; 1 Thessalonians 5:20; 1 Timothy 4:14; ) and the ministry prophets -- those whose primary spiritual gift is prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:29; Acts 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9-10; Romans 12:6). In Ephesians 4:11 Paul sees the ministry of prophet as a key one in the church. The post-apostolic church also recognized the gift and ministry of prophet.8

As much as we are to honor the gift of prophecy, however, the accredited teaching of Christ and his apostles as given in the New Testament Scriptures is our authority and the standard to which any other revelation or prophecy -- real or supposed -- is to be measured and judged.

Q1. (Ephesians 3:2-5) Why is God's revelation to "his holy apostles and prophets" our authority for faith and practice? What is the danger of minimizing or straying from that revelation? What is the danger of superceding that revelation? What is the danger of denying that God reveals himself to us and to his church today?
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What Is the Mystery? (3:6)

Okay, but what is this mystery Paul is talking about?

"This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." (3:6)

That's it! Gentiles are equally the people of God with God's chosen people, the Jews. That may not be a revelation to you, but it sure was an eye-opener to the early Jewish believers -- and to the Gentile believers, who were sometimes made to feel like second-class citizens around Jewish Christians.

The Gentiles are described in relationship to Israel with three compound words, starting with the preposition sun-, "together with."

  1. "Heirs together" (sugklēronomos), "inheriting together with, co-heir."9 See also Hebrews 11:9; 1 Peter 3:7; and Romans 8:17.
  2. "Members together of one body" (sussōmos), "belonging to the same body,"10 used only here in the New Testament.
  3. "Sharers together" (summetoxos), "having a share with another in some possession or relationship, sharing with,"11 here and in 5:7.

But lest we Gentiles get big-headed, in Romans Paul makes the point in Romans 9-11 that we are not to look with enmity on the Jews, even the unbelieving Jews.

"I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved..." (Romans 10:25-26a).

Anti-semitism is evil -- and dangerous -- since unbelieving Jews "are loved on account of the patriarchs" (Romans 11:28). If we despise and persecute unbelieving Jews who are loved by God, we make ourselves enemies of God's purposes.

Q2. (Ephesians 3:6) Just what is the "mystery" that Paul is talking about? Why was it important to the Gentile Christians in Paul's day?
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The Apostolic Servant of This Gospel (3:7-9)

Now Paul talks about the immense sense of privilege that he feels as the primary conveyor of this mystery:

"7I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. 8Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things." (3:7-9)

Paul, as you know, was not one of the original twelve apostles. Rather, he was an arch enemy of the fledgling church, hunting down Christians so they might be tried and put to death for apostasy to Judaism. It was on just such a "search and destroy" expedition that Christ appeared to Paul and gave him a particular commission to the Gentiles:

"I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." (Acts 26:16b-18; see also 9:15)

That "place among those" is the mystery that God would gradually make known to Paul, that Gentile believers had every bit as much a place among God's saints as did Jewish believers.

Though Jesus personally appointed Paul to be an apostle (1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11; Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; etc.), he is humbled that he would be chosen. Notice how he desribes his ministry:

  • "Servant" is the Greek noun diakanos (from which we get our English word "deacon"), "agent, courier, one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction."12 A servant only has the power of the one whom he serves, not because of anything in himself.
  • "Gift" is the Greek noun dōrea, "gift, bounty, that which is given or transferred freely by one person to another," carrying the idea of "without payment, gratis."13 Ministry is a gift, not something we earn or deserve. It is not an office to lord over others, but a gift to them from God.
  • "Less than the least" is the Greek adjective elachistos, a comparative word, "pertaining to being the lowest in status, least."14 Paul is quite conscious that he had "persecuted of the Church of God" (1 Corinthians 15:9), "a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man" (1 Timothy 1:13). He told Timothy, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- of whom I am the worst" (1 Timothy 1:15). Of anybody, he is the last to deserve such an honor. He never forgot who he had been, but he did not wallow in it, but humbly accepted his task and moved on to God's will for his life.
  • "Preach" is the verb euangelizō, literally, "bring good news, announce good news." Here probably, "proclaim the divine message of salvation, proclaim the gospel, preach."15 Paul is a bringer-of-Good-News whether that news is accepted or not.

Q3. (Ephesians 3:7-9) Why is Paul so careful to be humble about his call and apostleship? How can his example help us remain as humble servants?
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The Unsearchable Riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8)

Meditate for a moment on the phrase "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (verse 8).

"Unsearchable" (NIV, KJV) or "boundless" (NRSV) is the adjective anexichniastos, a compound word from a-, "not" + exichniazō, "to track out," literally, "not to be tracked out." The meaning here is "inscrutable, incomprehensible, fathomless" (also Romans 11:33).16 We can't figure God out with our minds and our logical deduction. That's why sometimes theology can become merely speculation, the farther it gets away from what the Scripture reveals. The Scripture just doesn't tell us everything we wonder about, and we need to be careful not to speak dogmatically where the Scirpture does not clearly teach something.

Christ's revelation is beyond what we can understand, but it is also rich. "Riches" is the noun ploutos, with the basic meaning, "abundance of many earthly goods, wealth." Applied to Christ it means "a wealth, abundance."17 On Christ's riches see also 3:16; 1:7; 2:7; Romans 11:33; Philippians 4:19; Colossians 1:17; 2:2-3. If we have no concept of Christ's riches, we don't desire them or him. But Paul had caught a glimpse of a different kind of riches than worldly wealth, was captured by it, and bids us come to explore Christ's riches for ourselves.

The Church Is to Make It Known (3:10-11)

Now Paul comes to the Church's place in all this:

"His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold18 wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord." (3:10-11)

The church is the agent of making known God's wisdom.19 But our audience in declaring the Gospel is not only humans who are lost. But it is  also the evil spiritual powers20 that have usurped God's authority here on earth. Just why it is important that we proclaim the Good News in their hearing, we don't really know. But Paul is clearly saying that the Church's proclamation of the Gospel is not merely local and temporal, but cosmic in its importance. 

Approaching God through Faith (3:12-13)

Paul has been assuring the Gentile Christians of their full status and full citizenship in the Kingdom of God. On the basis of that status, he encourages them to draw near to God:

"In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory." (3:12-13)

Verse 12 contains three Greek words which describe the freedom and wonder of our relationship with the Almighty God through faith:

  1. "Access" (prosagōgē), means "a way of approach, access to someone,"21 which we discussed in 2:18. We "commoners" have access to come before the King of the Universe with our petitions and our hearts of praise. Remarkable!
  2. "Boldness" (parrēsia) refers to "a state of boldness and confidence, courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness, especially in the presence of persons of high rank."22 We are not to be timid before God.
  3. "Confidence" (pepoithēsis) describes "a state of certainty about something to the extent of placing reliance on, trust, confidence."23 We can be confident of his favor and love. He delights in us. Like a father who enjoys his children, your Heavenly Father delights in you and longs to spend more time with you.

The writer of Hebrews expresses this glorious access to God:

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Q4. What does Ephesians 3:12 teach us about the manner of approaching God? What happens if we try to pray without these qualities?
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Disciple Lessons from Ephesians, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
All the lessons are now available as an e-book or printed book for your convenience.

Paul the persecutor was surprised by the grace of God. Gentile Christians are surpirsed to find that it's been God's plan all along to include them as full citizens in the Kingdom of God. And you and I are are surprised -- again and again -- by the mercy and love of God. Perhaps the words that express our emotions best are "delight" and "joy" in God. But the most surprising thing of all is to realize that our delight and joy in God are a mirror of his love and joy in us, expressed by one of his holy prophets thousands of years ago:

"The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty;
he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy;
he will rest in his love,
he will joy over thee with singing." (Zephaniah 3:17, KJV)

Thank you, Lord, for your love.

Prayer

Yes, Lord, we give you thanks for your amazing grace and the incredible access we have to you through Jesus and your Spirit. Give us the wisdom to enjoy You so much in this life that we are longing for the next. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence." (Ephesians 3:12)

References

Common abbreviations and references. http://www.jesuswalk.com/ephesians/refs.htm

  1. Mystērion, BDAG 661-662.
  2. Oikonomia, BDAG 697-698.
  3. "Insight" (NIV), "knowledge" (KJV), and "understanding" (NRSV) is the Greek noun sunesis, "the faculty of comprehension, intelligence, acuteness, shrewdness" (BDAG 970).
  4. "Made known" in verses 5 and 10 is the verb gnorizō, "to cause information to become known, make known, reveal" (BDAG 203).
  5. "Revelation" is the noun apokalupsis, "making fully known, revelation, disclosure" (BDAG 112).
  6. Mark's Gospel is based on Peter's preaching, according to Irenaeus (c. 175 AD). Luke based his Gospel largely on the same record that Mark used, supplemented by reports from other eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). Matthew and John have long been held to been recorded by these apostles themselves.
  7. Theopneustos is a compound word from theos, God + pneō, to blow, breathe. The word means "inspired by God, God-breathed" (BDAG 449-450; E. Schweizer, pneuma, ktl., TDNT 6:389-455).
  8. Didache 10.7; 11:3, 7-12. For more on the gift of prophecy, see my articles on "Understanding the Gift of Prophecy" (www.joyfulheart.com/scholar).
  9. Sugklēronomos, BDAG 952.
  10. Sussōmos, BDAG 978.
  11. Summetoxos, BDAG 958.
  12. Diakanos, BDAG 230-231.
  13. Dōrea, BDAG 266.
  14. Elachistos, BDAG 314.
  15. Euangelizō, BDAG 402.
  16. Anexichniasto, BDAG 77.
  17. Ploutos, BDAG 832.
  18. "Manifold" (NIV, KJV) is polupoikilos, "pertaining to being diversified, (very) many-sided."[BDAG 847] It has the idea of "many-faceted." NRSV translates it as the wisdom of God "in its rich variety."
  19. Paul uses the preposition dia, a marker of instrumentality or circumstance whereby something is accomplished or effected, "by, via, through" (BDAG 224). 
  20. These "rulers and authorities" (NIV, NRSV; "principalities and powers," KJV) are apparently spiritual enemies of God in spiritual realms, perhaps classes of fallen angels. See also 1:21; Romans 8:38; Colossians 1:16; 1 Peter 3:22.
  21. Prosagōgē, BDAG 876.
  22. Parrēsia, BDAG 781.
  23. Pepoithēsis, BDAG 796.

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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