Posts Tagged 'mystery'

Panic Podcast – Ephesians, Part 3

Greetings and welcome to Monday!  Do you like a mystery?  Who doesn’t!  On today’s program, I’d discussing the greatest mystery of all.  This mystery was so deep and so profound, it took a divine revelation to be understood.  It’s in Ephesians 3, so that’s our starting point today.


Ephesians, Part 2

Paiul solves a mystery, too.

Paul solves a mystery, too.

Trying to live the Christian life takes a lot of work.  It isn’t easy.  In fact, sometimes it’s down right hard to know what you should do or even how you should think.  Fortunately for us, the Lord has left His final word on things, the Bible.  And yet, there may be moments when we need wisdom beyond our education or understanding.  For that reason, Paul wrote this to his friends in Ephesus:

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  (Ephesians 1:17  TNIV)

Clearly, God enlightens and empowers His people to, among other things, know Him better and to do His work more effectively.  In the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul had talked about the work of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit in his powerful doxology.  A big theme in those opening verses is the election of God.  God chooses to save sinful man; it’s not the other way around.  Following this heavy doctrinal doxology with its emphasis on God’s eternal plan of redemption, Paul moved on to how all this touches the every day lives of his friends.

Revelation, Ephesians 1:15 – 23 

Nothing happens anywhere to anybody unless somebody somewhere is praying about it.  That’s my simple theology.  I think Paul would agree:

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all his people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.  (Ephesians 1:15, 16  TNIV)

In Paul’s thinking and writing, three things are linked together:  faith, hope, and love.  Even while he wrote tremendous and deep truths about our faith in God, he always linked that heady teaching to hope and love.  God is the giver and initiator of all three.  It’s more than just a passing reference when Paul mentioned that he never “stopped praying” for the Ephesians; he was trying to teach them something very important.  He was encouraging them to keep on living right:  it was the quality of their faith and love that moved him to give thanks to God for them.  It was his way of giving them a spiritual pat on the back.

But also, Paul was teaching them a good habit:  praying for other believers.  Habits are so easy to form, but for most of us, bad habits come so much easier than good ones.  A good habit is to pray all the time for other believers, giving thanks for the positive aspects of their lives, and praying about the other ones that may not be so positive.

It sounds so easy, but this is a difficult thing for modern Christians to do.  Most of us these days are all-too aware of our own needs, often at the expense of the needs for others.  Our prayers are too often very self-centered.  Praying the way Paul did means that you stop worrying about yourself and start actually exercising your duty to God and to other believers.

But, it wasn’t just the state of the Ephesians personally that motivated Paul’s prayers for them.  The phrase, “for this reason,” points back to something he had just written.  The thought of how much God had blessed these believers and Paul himself was the inspiration to pray for them.  The Gospel was bearing the right kind of fruit among these wonderful Gentile believers, and Paul was just tickled about that.

In his prayer, Paul did have some requests on behalf of the Ephesians, and they are significant:

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. (Ephesians 1:15 – 19a  TNIV)

The Ephesians were doing extremely well spiritually, but like the song goes, “everybody needs a little help.”  Look at what Paul was praying for on behalf of his friends:  that they would receive supernatural wisdom and revelation from God; that they might grasp the hope they have in Christ; and that they may understand the power they have as followers of Christ.

All believers need this gift of “spiritual illumination” which comes only from the Holy Spirit.  This kind of wisdom cannot come apart from the Scriptures, but sometimes we need the Spirit of God to help us understand His revealed Word and will.  One Bible scholar expressed it like this:

the sum of knowledge of the Christian believer is the knowledge of God, which always means the knowledge of Him AS God, living and true, and the source of all life and truth – a personal knowledge which involves communion, adoration, and obedience in love.

The kind of knowledge Paul is referencing here is more than “book learning.”  It’s knowledge that comes from personally knowing something about someone resulting from a relationship with them.  It’s not academic and theoretical knowledge; it’s personal.  It is entirely possible to know all the facts and theories concerning God, yet not know Him personally.  Paul prayed that his friends would know God personally and thereby open themselves up to “revelation knowledge.”

The Holy Spirit wants to teach believers today.  One of the reasons why so many Christians are so Biblically illiterate is because they are unwilling to allow the Spirit to teach them.  They’ve become dependent on a preacher or popular Bible teacher.  Good preaching and good Bible teaching are good things, by the way.  But our primary source of spiritual illumination has to be the Spirit of God working through the Scriptures.

All this illumination is supposed to help believers grasp the hope that is theirs in Christ, but also to understand the incredible power that resides within them – the same power that raised Christ from the dead.  This was a common theme in Paul’s writing:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  (Philippians 3:10, 11  TNIV)

The mystery of grace, Ephesians 3:1 – 13

Paul had been praying that his friends might receive supernatural, revelation knowledge of certain aspects of God; His character and the blessings that result in a personal relationship with Him.  In chapter three, Paul writes about the “mystery of God’s grace.”  Paul was given a revelation of His grace, and he’s going to pass along to the Ephesians some of what he learned.

Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, [3] that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly.  (Ephesians 3:2, 3 TNIV)

The word “mystery” catches our attention.  A lot of us enjoy reading mystery novels or watching mystery movies on TV.  But as this word is used in the Bible, it’s not quite the same as M Poirot investigating the scene of a crime and making all kinds of incredible deductions using his “little gray cells” that will lead to unmasking the culprit.  Paul uses “mystery” seven times in Ephesians, and he never uses it in reference to a puzzling circumstance or special secrets that only a handful of people know.

He uses the word referencing something previously unknown that he is now making known.  The mystery here in Ephesians 3 is really no mystery to any of us, but back in Paul’s day, it was a real stunner:  both Jews and Gentiles have the exact same access to God through Jesus Christ.  Jews, even Jewish believers, thought they had the advantage over Gentile converts, and we can imagine how that made Gentile believers feel!

But when God is involved, nothing is ever hidden for long.  He graciously showed Paul a “mystery” not ever revealed before:

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.  (Ephesians 3:4, 5  TNIV)

It’s God’s truth, so He can choose when and to whom He reveals it.

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.  (Ephesians 3:6  TNIV)

The mystery the Holy Spirit revealed to Paul was more than merely the fact that Gentiles would be saved.  That was no mystery; it’s a truth that was revealed back in the Old Testament (see Isaiah 11:10 and Zechariah 2:11, for example).  The mystery, essentially, is that when it comes to salvation, one soul is as needy as the next and all come to God the same way, and both are brought into a new body, which is the Church, and Christ is the Head of that new body.  He’s the one in charge.

This is a significant truth that has far reaching ramifications.  Consider this:  From Adam to Abraham there were only Gentiles on the earth.  That’s the way things were for some 2,000 years.  From Abraham to Christ, there were only Jews and Gentiles on the earth, and that was another 2,000 years (approximately).  But from Christ to the present age, a little over 2,000 years, when God looks at the earth, He sees three groups of people:  Jews, Gentiles, and the Church.  Paul made reference to this new three-fold division of humanity in his letter to the Corinthians:

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God…  (1 Corinthians 10:32  TNIV)

It was important for the Ephesians, Gentile converts, to know this wonderful truth that was once upon a time, a mystery.  God cares for all His people and He has made special provision through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, to teach them what they need to know.


The Mystery of the Church, Ephesians 3:1—12

This chapter is a continuation of a prayer that Paul began back in chapter 1.  Even though he had digressed and seemed to be writing in a “stream of consciousness” mode, he never ended the prayer.  The big idea in Paul’s head was a groundbreaking one for his time:  Jews and Gentiles could worship together the same God.  What an amazing concept in the first century.  Because this is such a glorious truth, Paul will talk about how it was made possible.

1.  A positive perspective, verses 1, 14

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—(verse 1)

For this reason I kneel before the Father… (verse 14)

“For this reason” is repeated in verse 14 and begs the question:  For what reason?  For some reason Paul is compelled to “kneel before the Father.”  The immediate connection seems to be 2:22—

And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Paul is driven to his knees in prayer as he contemplates the staggering truth that Gentiles and Jews “are being built together to become” the place where the Holy Spirit dwells.  Everything in between verses 1 and 14 is yet another Pauline digression triggered when he recalled from where he wrote this letter (from a Roman prison) and why he was there (for preaching the Gospel).  Robertson wrote—

He hears as it were the clink of his chain and remembers where he is and why he is there.

Yet, as is clear from the words he uses and the tone of his writing, Paul does not regard himself as a victim either of Jewish hatred or Roman law.  Paul is “the prisoner of Christ Jesus,” and he is not ashamed of that fact; he is in prison because of his association with Jesus Christ and because he never stopped preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles.  Being in prison was viewed by Paul as a mark of his apostleship.

While verses 2 to 13 are a digression, it is a very valuable digression for in it Paul enlarges and elaborates on the central theme of this letter—God’s purpose was and continues to be the unification of all things in Christ (1:9, 10).

2.  The revelation of a mystery, verses 2—6

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, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which 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. 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.

This group of verses elaborates on all that was involved in his ministry as a preacher to the Gentiles.  It’s a personal paragraph written by Paul to help primarily his Gentile friends understand what it meant to him to be an apostle of Jesus Christ.  Paul refers to his ministry as “an administration of God’s grace.”  The Greek oikonomia, “administration” (TNIV) or “dispensation” (KJV), is a word that usually denotes a task to be done or stewardship of task.  Although here it seems to have a reference, not to a job to be done but how that job was to be done. Paul did what God had called him to do through God’s grace; along with the commission to take the Gospel of Christ to the Gentiles, Paul was given an abundance of grace to accomplish that commission.  Hodge comments—

Paul esteemed the office of a messenger of Christ as a manifestation of the undeserved kindness of God towards him, and he always speaks of it with gratitude and humility.

The great Apostle recognized that he operated, not in his own strength, but in God’s.

Furthermore, not only did Paul receive grace, but he was also given some kind of “mystery” by “revelation.”  Just as the other apostles possessed knowledge of God’s gracious purpose that was not founded on second-hand information and hearsay, so Paul’s message did not originate in his own mind or somebody else’s.    Paul had been instructed directly by God.

What had been given to Paul by divine revelation was called “a mystery.”  What did he mean by that?  In modern parlance, a “mystery” is a “who-done-it.”  In the NT, and particularly as Paul used the word, a “mystery” is something that had not been revealed previously revealed.  In this case, Paul is referring to the Body of Christ—the Church—which was not revealed in the OT and was hidden from the eyes of the prophets.  He wrote essentially the same thing to the Colossians—

I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. (Colossians 1:25, 26)

The “mystery” is not salvation, as some teach.  Salvation has never been a secret; it had been given to the Gentiles since the days of Abraham—

“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  (Genesis 12:3)

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept.  I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”  (Isaiah 49:6)

And of course, much of Romans 1 is taken up with the notion that the truth of God is revealed in the world around us.  So, clearly the way to be saved has never been hidden from anybody.  The “mystery,” the thing that had been hidden even from the holy men of the OT, was that Gentiles could be knit together with Jews in one body (one group).

Verse 4 is often overlooked, lost in the deep theology of the “revealed mystery.”  The essence of verse 4 speaks volumes about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in all believers, Jews or Gentiles.  As this letter was read in the Ephesian church and other churches, those who heard it would be able to perceive Paul’s insight into the divine mystery.  Of this, he was confident.  This echoes our Lord’s words about the Holy Spirit—

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  (John 16:13)

3.  The ministry of the mystery, verses 7—10

In this paragraph, Paul claimed no superiority in knowing and understanding the great “mystery” of the Church.  He was merely a “servant,” diakonos; Paul assumed the title of “minister,” meaning he was just another worker or helper in the great enterprise of preaching the Gospel.  God’s grace had transformed Paul; he had been changed by grace, and that same grace enabled him to preach to the Gentiles.

Verse 8 presents a clever play on words that goes unnoticed in English—

Although 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

“Less than the least” is one word in the Greek and translates roughly as “leaster” or “more least.”  There seems to be a play on words, alluding to his name, Paulos, which literally means “little.”  Paul certainly did not have an inflated view of himself; he was a genuinely humble man who recognized whatever good he accomplished was due to Christ operating in him.

The “riches of Christ” are described by Christ as “unsearchable,” meaning literally “trackless” and “inexplorable.”  The truth of Jesus Christ and His work are described as “riches” not because of their scarcity, but because of their preciousness.  The Gospel is precious, and now the Gentiles are hearing this glorious truth that the Messiah of the Jews is their Savior also.  Thanks to the revelation of this great “mystery,” Gentiles are now able to enjoy the riches of Christ’s endless compassion, His boundless mercy, His patient forgiveness, His cleansing sanctification, and of course, His guidance.

A natural result of Paul’s evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles is that other people, ie., bystanders, would hear the Gospel and believe and become part of the Church.  This was part of God’s eternal plan; note carefully the wording of verse 9—

and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.

Even though the “mystery” was new to Paul, and newer to the Gentiles, it is as old as eternity for the idea of the Church was “hidden in God.”

3.  The function of the Church, verses 10—12

His 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, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 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.

According to Paul, this divine “mystery,” the Church, does not exist for itself.  Indeed, the Church exists for one overriding purpose:  for God and for His glory.  The idea behind this paragraph is that when the angels above look down and witness the works and the wisdom of God manifested in the Church, their knowledge of God, whom they were created to worship, is increased and they rejoice and worship Him all the more.  Peter expressed a very similar thought in his letter—

It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.  (1 Peter 1:12)

One commentator eloquently put it this way—

The Church becomes a mirror through which the bright ones of heaven see the glory of God.  And in order to show them this glory, God committed His Gospel to Paul.

The prophets (to a limited extent) and apostles had received the truth regarding God’s plans and have communicated it to the Church through the preaching of the Word.  The Church in turn takes this eternal truth to the world.  As the Church fulfills its purpose, which was determined by God in eternity past, which is making known the wisdom of God, then Paul’s ministry is validated.

As we ponder what Paul has written, we are tempted to think like Job’s friend, Zophar—

Can you fathom the mysteries of God?  Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?   They are higher than the heavens—what can you do?  They are deeper than the depths of the grave —what can you know?   Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.  (Job 11:7—9)

We, as sinful people, may indeed (and often in fact!) consider ourselves witless and no wiser than a donkey’s colt, when we try to understand and appreciate God’s wisdom in redeeming the world.  Even Paul felt this way—

“Frankly, I stand amazed at the unfathomable complexity of God’s wisdom and God’s knowledge.  How could man ever understand his reasons for action, or explain His methods of working?”  (Romans 11:33, JBP)

God’s plans are as perfect as He is holy, yet at the same time they are employed respecting sinful man’s capacities and the basic needs of his soul.  While we, as members of the Church, may not fully grasp every theological and doctrinal jot and tittle of God’s intricate plan for man, we are capable of witnessing Him working in and through the Church to the extent that our needs, both individually and corporately, are met.  As God works in us and through us, the result will be, and indeed, must be, the redemption of souls.

Final thoughts

It is almost frightening to think about God’s eternal purposes.  To write about them and teach them is downright terrifying!  The one great truth (among many) in Ephesians 3 I hope you come to appreciate is how God views the Church.  From our perspective, it’s a mess.  We have whole denominations obsessed with all manner of worldliness and sin.  We have godless ministers lining their pockets as they fleece the faithful.  But God, the One who created the Church and brought it into being, sees something entirely different.  He sees His Son’s Body!  And as we learned last time, the Church is seated with Christ in the heavenlies!  Given our exalted position, each of us as members of His Church need to take stock of how we are living.  Are we living in obvious obedience to the Word of God?  Are we as a Church manifesting the wisdom of God in our works?  Not many of us are theologians, but we have all experienced the miracle of redemption through faith in Christ.  And if we have, we owe to those who haven’t, an explanation of what has changed in our lives.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

Understanding God’s Eternal Purposes, 3

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