Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-13] The ultimate purpose of these verses is to get us excited about the gospel. But Paul focuses on two concerns people might have: (1) that no one has ever proclaimed a message like this in history, and (2) that it got Paul put in prison. Don’t worry about that, Paul says! All of this is God’s very careful laid-out plan.
...to proclaim to the Gentiles the incalculable riches of Christ, and to shed light for all about the administration of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. Ephesians 3:8
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Shocking Twist Reveals on TV!
If you’ve ever invested yourself in a tv show over multiple seasons, you can remember the twists and turns that came out later in the run that revealed/explained something that happened earlier. Here are some famous examples. Alias. A young Jennifer Garner goes to work for a division of the CIA only to find out that THE AGENCY WASN’T THE GOOD GUYS AFTER ALL BUT THE BAD GUYS!
St. Elsewhere. One of the great (if unsatisfying) twists of all time: we get to the end of series only to find out that EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENED WAS IN THE MIND OF AN AUTISTIC BOY! Shriek! (Bob Newhart does the same kind of thing.) Lost. Actually, Lost was a show built on twists and reveals. But the one in which we discovered that a bunch of scenes we had watched about Jack weren’t flashbacks but flashforwards really got people shook. The Good Place. We get to the end of the first season only to discover that THE GOOD PLACE WAS ACTUALLY THE BAD PLACE ALL ALONG! (I don’t know if that was a gasp moment because I don’t watch the show.) Doctor Who. Take your pick. Mine is RIVER SONG IS MELODY AND RORY’S DAUGHTER! Agents of SHIELD. GRANT WARD WAS A HYDRA AGENT ALL ALONG!
If your class members don’t do television, you could go through movies, too. You have plenty to choose from. The Sixth Sense. BRUCE WILLIS’S CHARACTER WAS DEAD THE WHOLE TIME! Blade Runner. HARRISON FORD WAS A REPLICANT THE WHOLE TIME! Fight Club. EDWARD NORTON AND BRAD PITT ARE THE SAME PERSON! Shutter Island. We find out that Leonard DiCaprio’s character WASN’T AN FBI AGENT BUT A PATIENT ON THE ISLAND THE WHOLE TIME! Planet of the Apes. Guess where Charlton Heston landed? HE HAD BEEN ON EARTH THE WHOLE MOVIE! Psycho. Norman Bates wasn’t just the hotel manager but the MURDERER DRESSED UP AS HIS DEAD MOTHER!
My personal favorite: Star Wars. No, I am your father!
Some of those were pointless twists that added nothing to the plot at all. But some of those meant that you would go back and watch it all again with this newfound knowledge, only to see everything in a totally different light. I’m hoping your class would give you examples like that! And here’s the point: God’s amazing twist in salvation history? God had planned on saving the Gentiles all along and bringing them into His family with the Jews. When we read the Old Testament again with that knowledge, it kinda changes everything . . .
This Week's Big Idea: Paul, "Mystery", and Mystery Cults
You might remember that I talked about “mystery cults” as a big deal around Ephesus and one of the common movements that Paul was up against. Every town had its own patron god/goddess, and most every god had a “mystery cult” of worshipers who performed secret rituals and passed around secret knowledge about life and the universe. That was the meaning of the word for “mystery” in the Greek-speaking world: a commitment to secrecy. Paul deliberately chose to use that word but give it a new meaning (really an old meaning—Paul used the meaning of the equivalent Hebrew word in the book of Daniel). A “mystery” is a secret that has been revealed by God. By Hebrew definition, it’s no longer supposed to be kept secret! That’s the key difference, and it’s the key to understanding what Paul is saying.
The New Testament has this word for “mystery” (mysterion) 28 times, 21 of which are Paul’s. Jesus told His disciples that they were now able to understand the mysteries of God (Matt 13:11): namely, the parables. Jesus spoke in parables that were intentionally obscure, and He had to explain them to His disciples. But after Pentecost (when Jesus sent the Spirit to take over that role of explainer), Jesus commanded the disciples to proclaim and explain the parables far and wide. They were once mysterious truths of God; now they are for the whole world to consume.
The other use of “mystery” is in Revelation (1:20, 10:7, 17:5). The difficult signs and symbols are called a mystery in the sense that without God’s help, we can’t understand what the symbols in the book mean. (Spoiler: we still have trouble understanding that mystery!) Ultimately, though, the true “mystery” is simply God’s plan for history, ending with the destruction of evil and death. That has always been God’s plan, and now all people can know what’s coming. There are still plenty of mysteries with respect to the “how”, but there is no mystery as to how it all ends.
Paul used “mystery” the most (again, to combat the use of the word in his churches’ communities). In 2 Thess 2:7, the “mystery” is that one day the antichrist will openly declare his rebellion against God. In 1 Cor 2, the “mystery” is that God would choose to declare His power over death and evil by an instrument of death and evil, the cross. In 1 Cor 15, the “mystery” is that we will somehow live forever in our bodies. In Rom 11, the “mystery” is that God would allow the Jews to be hardened so that He could bring the Gentiles into His family. In 1 Tim 3, the “mystery” is the gospel itself.
Because Paul probably wrote Colossians and Ephesians close to each other, we can read them together. (Use your concordance to find “mystery” in the two books.) Paul put a lot of emphasis on his right and authority to declare a “mystery”, his appointment by God. This was important because people would otherwise dismiss his crazy ideas as heresy. And what was that message, the great “mystery” that was the church: a group of people from every ethnicity and region, worshiping and serving God together all over the world.
The main thing we’re supposed to think about with respect to these “mysteries” is this: how does what the New Testament say about these mysteries differ from what the Jews thought in the Old Testament? What is the impact of that change for us today? Why might God have chosen to keep those truths a “secret” as long as He did, and what does that mean for us? (See the next focus.) Most importantly, though, we need to realize that Paul wasn’t trying to create a new “mystery cult”.
Our Context in Ephesians
Think about everything Paul has said: salvation is by grace through faith; salvation is for all people—Jews and Gentiles; by His death, Jesus brought all Christians together into one “living temple” in which they serve God everywhere in the world. Those are some earthshattering truths, and from the perspective of a Jew, they would say that Paul is making this up. There’s no way he has the right to be making these claims! So, in these verses, Paul acknowledges and addresses that reaction: “yes, what I’m telling you was a mystery until this point, but now that Jesus has come, God wants this mystery to be revealed to the whole world”. Like last week, this passage doesn’t include easy-to-spot life applications; it’s more about our approach to life in general. But if we can see that we have been given stewardship over God’s grace just as Paul did, I’m sure we can find some important changes to make in our lives.
Part 1: The Mystery (Ephesians 3:1-6)
For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—you have heard, haven’t you, about the administration of God’s grace that he gave to me for you? The mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have briefly written above. By reading this you are able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ. This was not made known to people in other generations as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: The Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
I think I talk plenty about “mystery” elsewhere in this handout! To this point, the letter to Ephesus has been very choppy, filled with asides and digressions. Back in 1:15, Paul introduced a prayer he was offering on the church’s behalf with “For this reason”. He prayed that the church would understand the riches of His inheritance and His mighty power. That sent Paul into an aside about how God’s mighty power is in Christ, and now the church is His fulness in the world. That sent Paul into an aside about how God’s power had saved them from what they had been—by His grace alone. That sent Paul into an aside how God’s salvation meant that they were now in the same family/body as the Jews. Now, in 3:1, Paul tries to get back into that prayer again with “For this reason”, but he doesn’t even make it through a whole sentence until he digresses again into personal reflection, being overwhelmed that he would have the right or privilege at all of offering this prayer and this message on their behalf. (Incidentally, Paul completes this sentence in verse 14, which we won’t talk about until next week.)
Paul’s prayer for them sends him into more amazed thought about his own story and path. When he says “prisoner”, he means this literally (he’s writing from prison) and figuratively (he has not choice but to declare this gospel, no matter how much trouble it causes him). Paul shared his testimony many times; we read several versions of it in the book of Acts in the trials that eventually put him in his present imprisonment. In his testimony, he makes it very clear that Jesus personally appeared to him and commissioned him with the gospel to the Gentiles. That commission was confirmed with the apostles in Jerusalem. It was very important for Paul to establish that he was not speaking on his own authority or of his own thoughts—he was speaking what was given to him. He couldn’t make this stuff up! God entrusted him with the message, and now he was executing his commission. The word for “administration” is in other translations called “stewardship” (see above focus). God directly revealed this great mystery (the mystery was that God intended Jews and Gentiles to be a part of the same church by the same salvation) to Paul, and now Paul was just sharing it with them. Why was Paul sharing this? In hopes that they would “understand his insight”. This was no mystery religion like the cult of Artemis in which everyone was sworn to secrecy; God wanted all people to hear and understand all of His truths, most important that salvation is available to all people in Jesus Christ. If there are new people in the church at Ephesus (it has been a few years) reading/hearing this letter, he wants to make sure that they understand where he’s coming from. Verse 4 puts a slight twist on “mystery”: the mystery is not “of” Christ as if “from” or “about”; the mystery “is” Christ! Jesus ties together all of God’s plans in such a way that we can finally see what God was doing. Jesus explains the nature of God (Trinity), the way of salvation (grace and faith), and the future of humanity (one people). The reason the “people in other generations” didn’t get all of this is they didn’t yet have Jesus the Man to explain and contextualize everything. We get hints that some of the Old Testament prophets had a pale idea of what God was doing, but it couldn’t make real sense until they saw and experienced Jesus. Now, empowered by the Spirit of God, the apostles (“prophets” here refers to the office, as in Eph 2:20) were executing the Great commission and building churches all over the world to continue that mission after their death. The great consequence of the gospel? We’ve talked about it a lot already: the Gentiles are just as much in God’s family as the Jews: “co-heirs” (of all the covenant blessings and more, see 1:18); “the same body” (not “separate but equal” but one); “partners” (they were supposed to work together). I did not grow up during the Civil Rights movement, but I understand that a lot of the language (and backlash) was similar to what Paul was encouraging the Gentiles to keep striving toward. Using the word “promise” was careful—God had made a promise to them, and nothing could break God’s promise. Not imprisonment, not harassment, not even death. They could and should stay strong and proclaim that same gospel to others around them.
Aside: Why Did God Wait until Here to Reveal This Mystery?
“For while we were still helpless, at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). That begs the question: what made ~30 AD “just the right time”? Why not long before? Why not today? This is pure speculation—only God can understand the complexity of history—but there are some factors we can consider. (1) Jesus was the once-for-all fulfillment of the Jewish sacrificial system, which means He needed to come while there was still a temple (meaning pre-70 AD). (2) God chose to start the church when travel was safer for His peace-proclaiming apostles, and the Pax Romana was the safest world-wide era to that point (so, post-30 BC). That conveniently narrows the time of Jesus down to one century! But more conceptually, why not sooner? It seems that God was letting the Jews (and their neighbors) learn the depth of their sin and their need for a Savior. God sent prophet after prophet to confront the Jews with their sin, and after centuries they finally acknowledged their failure. But their response (i.e. Pharisees) was to cling harder to the law (like Paul), thinking that their obedience would save them. God let that delusion continue long enough for a Jew like Paul to be able to use the evidence to construct the case against the Jews in such a way that they could not ignore. In other words, God let enough time pass for the Jews to “learn their lesson” and be willing to accept divine help. (That fact that many did not simply proved His point.) (See the back page for more about “Progressive Revelation”). Why not later? Why not send Jesus today? While we can certainly blame Christian churches for much strife in the last 1200 years, I really don’t want to think of societal development without the redeeming presence of the gospel. Essentially, we simply have to trust that God sent Jesus to the earth at “just the right time”; when He came doesn’t change the task He left us today.
Part 2: The Proclamation (Ephesians 3:7-9)
I was made a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. This grace was given to me—the least of all the saints—to proclaim to the Gentiles the incalculable riches of Christ, and to shed light for all about the administration of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.
Unless you’ve grown up around a group that experienced systematic racism or prejudice, you might think that Paul was beating a dead horse by now. But under those circumstances, you keep repeating the message until everyone has gotten it and change has finally started (and then you keep repeating it). He’s definitely repeating what he just said, but he’s making it a little more personal. The word for “servant” is not “slave” but “deacon”. God intervened in Paul’s life to turn Paul into a servant on the gospel, the good news that salvation is found in Jesus Christ. By implication, God expected Paul to continue to work in His power, not Paul’s. The word that Paul uses to describe himself literally means “more least”; it’s a made-up word. The proper way for Christians to think of themselves is with abject humility (“think of what you were before Christ—a sinner bound for hell”). Well, Paul sees that and puts himself at the bottom of that barrel. Why would God entrust him, a nobody, with the most important message in history? He doesn’t know why, but he knows that it’s true.
And what it his mission? To explain to the Gentiles that they can be saved in Jesus, and to explain to everyone else how this fits into God’s eternal plan for humanity. The word here for “proclaim” is the same root as “gospel”, so Paul’s job is literally to spread the good news about Jesus. But that news is also “incalculable”, so there’s no way to adequately describe how good the news is. Today, we use the phrase “shed light on” for “explaining” something to someone. Paul, of course, does a lot of explaining of the gospel, but this word is more elementary than that. It really just means “to announce”, as in the Jesus came to be a light in the darkness. Previously, God had emphasized His relationship with the Jews, but now, God is spreading this message openly to everyone He created.
What Is a Steward?
In Ephesians 3:2, about half of the common translations say “the stewardship of God’s grace” rather than the “administration of God’s grace”. So let me take a moment to jump on a soapbox. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a statement like “We need to be good stewards of our money”. That statement is completely nonsensical. What is a steward? By definition, a steward is someone who is taking care of/managing someone else’s stuff. You can’t “steward” your own stuff! It’s yours! Plus, it lessens the whole meaning of being a “good steward”. Let’s say your job is to manage money. Is the greater responsibility in managing your own money or managing someone else’s? Let’s say you fix cars. Is it the bigger deal to fix your own or to fix someone else’s? If someone else is going to entrust you with the responsibility of taking care of their stuff, that’s a big deal! So, when we talk about the proper use of money, time, talents, “stewardship” is the right word. But the phrase “steward of our money” is completely wrong. Rather, we need to shift our thinking to “We need to be good stewards of the money God has entrusted us with”. Do you see the difference between those two statements? Do you think your class would understand that difference? In our passage this week, in which Paul talks about being a “steward” of God’s grace, that’s an easy one—it’s God’s grace. But this term is used throughout the New Testament of believers (ex. Luke 12 and 16, 1 Cor 4, 1 Pet 4) with a very clear meaning: believers need to think of themselves as God’s “house managers” in this world. Everything we have comes from God; He is simply allowing us to be in charge of it for a time. So, be a good steward, but realize that you are stewarding God’s stuff, not your own.
Part 3: The Purpose (Ephesians 3:10-13)
This is so that God’s multi-faceted wisdom may now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavens. This is according to his eternal purpose accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him we have boldness and confident access through faith in him. So then I ask you not to be discouraged over my afflictions on your behalf, for they are your glory.
What is the result of this salvation? That Gentiles can approach God boldly and confidently in Jesus Christ. This is an important explanation; remember that to this point, it was said that only the Jewish High Priest could approach God once a year and that after a very elaborate ceremony involving the death of innocent animals. But now, in Jesus, all of that is done. Everyone who has trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior has this access to God. Paul’s words are overturning centuries of Jewish practice. There are several possible reasons why he mentions “heavenly authorities” here. First, it’s a simple declaration. God (the Trinity) had devised this plan for salvation before the foundation of the world, and not even the angels knew it. Now, even the angels are amazed at how bold and wonderful God’s plan of salvation is. Second, this is a shot at the false gods of the mystery cults. When Paul earlier mentioned “powers” and “authorities” (1:21), I think it was a reference to the gods like Artemis that the people worshiped. To be “in the heavens” doesn’t have to mean “angels”. Paul can be speaking loosely of what the people falsely believed before. Remember that the mystery religions believed that their gods revealed to them some powerful truth that changed their outlook on everything. Well, those gods look at the true truth in Jesus Christ and are astounded. Third, this is actually about the church. Remember that Jesus didn’t come to save angels; salvation in Christ is only available to people. Angels look in awe at what we have in Jesus. The church—this messy combination of people long-at-odds with one another—now proclaims to the heavens this wonderful mystery that is salvation. Whichever of those is most true, the result is the same. Either angels are in awe of our message, or demons/false gods shudder at it. And even though this is a new revelation, it has always been God’s plan.
What is that eternal plan? Look up Acts 2:23, Acts 20:27, Eph 1:10-11, and 1 Tim 1:4, It has always been God’s plan that Jesus would come to the earth, take on humanity, and die for our sins. And then, those who look to Jesus in faith would have their sins forgiven. Before people existed, before the first sin was committed, God knew what would happen—He knew what a mess we would make of everything. But rather than cancel His creation, God still created us and Jesus agreed to die for us. That is how much God loves us. It is inexplicable. It makes no sense. It is the ultimate mystery. And that is the message Paul declared to the church at Ephesus, that they passed down from generations until it reached us, and that we now have to share with our world. Does it make sense why Paul would be both excited and repetitive about this?
The purpose of this lesson is very simple. It’s to get us just as excited about our salvation as Paul is. Once we capture that, we are to channel it into opportunities to share this great news with people that we know. Don’t start by comparing yourself with Paul. That’s just going to depress you. Rather, just look into yourself. How passionate are you about the gospel? How well do you understand it? How well do you think you could explain it to someone else?
The final verse gives us a hint as to why Paul starting talking about himself. Perhaps the church had heard about his imprisonment and were either (a) embarrassed or (b) concerned. Either would be reasonable. But we shouldn’t worry about Paul. He’s right where God wants him, not hindered at all. What excuses are we giving God?
Aside: Progressive Revelation and "Mystery"
Regardless of the proper meaning of the word for “mystery”, the simple fact is that God revealed something “new” in Jesus Christ. From the perspective of the “mystery religions”, this would mean that God was keeping secrets from humanity, and that God let Paul in on this secret plan in order to tell everyone else. Does that sound fishy? Blessedly, that’s not at all what God was doing. Rather than God “keeping secrets”, we say that God was “revealing what we can understand”. Think about math. We don’t start grade schoolers with trigonometry or calculus; we start them on the basics. Over many years, they develop the framework to be able to understand more advanced concepts. Third grade math teachers aren’t keeping secrets (or telling lies), they’re just not telling everything. A great doctrine to explain this with is Trinity. The Jews were surrounded by peoples who believed in multiple gods (just like today), so God emphasized to them that there is only One True God (which is true). And then, God introduced the idea of a Messiah, someone who would save them from their oppressors. Then, when Jesus came as that Messiah, God revealed that Jesus was also God, and the primary “oppressor” Jesus came to save them from was their own sin. Then, after Jesus ascended, we received the Holy Spirit. To make a long story short, the ancient Jews simply weren’t ready for a doctrine of Trinity, so God took a long time preparing the world for that bombshell. Likewise with our “mystery” in our passage—salvation for all people. God started with one man, then his family, then his descendants—all to establish His personality and desire for a relationship with people. Then, after Jesus, God reveals that He never intended to have an exclusive relationship with the Jews, but that they were to be His messengers to all the world.