It is vitally important to have an understanding of the nature of this present age, because that will deliver us from the errors that are taught in some circles. For example, there are those who teach that the present age is simply a continuation of the dealings of God as they were in Old Testament times. That this is not so will be apparent as we study Ephesians chapter 3. The church is a distinct entity, unknown in Old Testament times, and is not to be confused with Israel. Whilst it is true that the nation of Israel has been cast away for a time, it has not been cast away finally, for God intends to recover the nation, so that Christ may rule over it as their Messiah.
A proper understanding of this chapter will deliver us from the notion that God will have dealings with the nation of Israel at the same time as He is calling out the church. The logical outcome of understanding Ephesians 3 is that we realise the Lord Jesus must come for His people at the rapture, (as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58), before the last seven years of Daniel’s 70 weeks begin to run their course. This means that such chapters as Matthew 24 and 25 make no reference to the church, and we should avoid quoting them as if they did.
SURVEY OF EPHESIANS 3:1-13
In this section the apostle sets out the details relative to the mystery that he was responsible for explaining to the believers. This mystery, or hitherto unknown truth, had to do with the relationship between believers who had been Jews, and believers who had been Gentiles.
It was revealed to Daniel in Daniel 9:24-27, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and build Jerusalem unto the reign of the Messiah would be a period of 490 years. This period was divided into three very unequal blocks of time. The first block was of 49 years, and extended down to the prophecy of Malachi, with which the Old Testament closes. The second block, consisting of 434 years, extended until the cutting off of Messiah at Calvary. At this point there remained one 7 year period still to elapse. Unknown to Daniel, it was God’s plan to have another period of time between the death of the Messiah and the final seven years. This is the present age. In Ephesians chapter 3 and Colossians 1:23-29, the apostle explains the mystery about this church age of grace in more detail.
The main subjects covered are as follows:
The steward of the mystery:
Verse 1 Paul’s sufferings.
Verses 7,8 Paul’s humility
Verse 13 Paul’s endurance.
The hiding of the mystery:
Verse 5 It was not known in other ages.
Verse 5 It was not passed on down the generations.
Verse 9 It was hid in God.
Verse 8 Its riches are unsearchable, even by saints of Old Testament.
The revelation of the mystery:
Verse 2 Paul given grace to reveal it.
Verse 3 Revealed to Paul at first.
Verse 4 Written down so that we may understand.
Verse 5 Revealed to other apostles and prophets as well.
The substance of the mystery:
Gentile believers are fellow-heirs with Jewish believers.
Gentile believers are fellow-members of the body of Christ.
Gentile believers are fellow-partakers of God’s promise by the gospel.
The result of the mystery:
Verse 4 Believers are able to understand.
Verse 8 Believers are able to appreciate the rich truth as before they could not.
Verse 10 Angels are able to see the wisdom of God through the church.
Verse 11 God’s eternal purpose is put into effect.
Verse 11 The Lordship of Christ is made known.
Verse 12 Believers may confidently approach God, conscious of their position.
Verse 13 Believers are saved from despair by the glorious truth of the mystery.
SUMMARY OF THE SECTION:
|Verses 1-4||The mystery unveiled to Paul.|
|Verse 5||The mystery unknown by Old Testament saints.|
|Verse 6||The mystery unfolded to New Testament saints.|
|Verses 7-10||The mystery understood by the saints.|
|Verses 10,11||The mystery understood by the angels.|
|Verses 12,13||The mystery underpinning boldness and confidence.|
Verses 1-4 THE MYSTERY UNVEILED TO PAUL
3:1 For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,
By “for this cause” the apostle means “for the sake of this”, and not simply “because”. The cause Paul was promoting was that of the truth of the church, as spoken of in 2:11-22. In Acts 21:28,29 Paul was accused of taking Trophemus, an Ephesian, past the middle wall of partition in the Temple at Jerusalem, and we read that “forthwith the doors were shut”, verse 30. From this point on in the book of the Acts, the apostle is a prisoner. The charge the Jews brought against him was provoked by his statement that the Lord had sent him to the Gentiles, Acts 22:21. Soon after this comes the first mention of the phrase “Paul the prisoner”, Acts 23:18. Rome may have bound Paul with a chain, but really he is a prisoner belonging to Christ Jesus, the man who is risen from the dead and ascended in glory to heaven. Because Christ is risen, the ultimate prison house, the grave, has been destroyed. All lesser imprisonments now become bearable. Paul was prepared to suffer for the sake of the truth; how much are we prepared to suffer for it? Or are we going to compromise in the face of opposition?
3:2 If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:
The sufferings Paul endured as he travelled amongst the Gentiles were only worthwhile, from a human standpoint, if the believers heard with interest the things he had to say and write to them.
A dispensation is the handling of household affairs as a trusted steward. The word as used here does not denote a period of time, but rather, the administration of divine things during a particular period of time. So as the dispenser or administer of the benefits God had for His people in terms of instruction in His ways, Paul so served that what God had for them was duly passed on to them. So the grace or favour of God in this instance consisted of doctrine, and Paul was the one chosen to pass on that doctrine. God’s grace also enabled Paul to teach the truths of this passage- they could only be known as God in grace revealed them to him, and were not the result of the research he had done.
3:3,4 How that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)
In chapter 2 the apostle had likened the church to a temple, which was a habitation of God through the Spirit, 2:21,22. Now in those times there was, in connection with the heathen temples, (and Ephesus was famed for its temple to Diana), a body of doctrine that was known as the mysteries of the god. Revelation 2:24 calls these the deep things of Satan, things that were revealed, not to the common worshippers, but only to a favoured few. The mysteries were mysterious only to those not initiated into them. But to those who were thus initiated, they were fully revealed. These doctrines were imparted by a specially selected interpreter of the gods, called a hierophant. When they had been instructed into the secrets of their god, the initiates would be allowed in to his immediate presence as those who were “perfected”.
Now the Spirit of God lifts these concepts from their pagan setting, and sanctifies them to their proper use. Paul was the interpreter, and the saints, once instructed, would have perfect knowledge in those things imparted to the apostle.
Note that he received these things by revelation, for he could not study the Old Testament scriptures and discover them, for they were not found there. As far as saints of old time were concerned, these truths were hidden; now that the apostle has exercised his stewardship, they are made known to church saints.
Ananias told Paul that “The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know His will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of His mouth. For thou shalt be a witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard”, Acts 22:14,15.
The few words he speaks of would include the following:
1. The words of chapter 2, where he shows that the cross of Christ is the basis whereby Jew and Gentile may be brought together into unity. This gives details about being “fellow-heirs”.
2. The words of Galatians 3 where Gentiles are brought into blessing as heirs. This gives details about being “partakers of His promise through the gospel”.
3. The words of 1 Corinthians 12 where Gentiles are shown to be part of the body of Christ, the church. See on verse 6. He is enabled to give a coherent explanation for the fact that Jew and Gentile are united in one body. This gives details about being “fellow-members of the same body”.
Verse 5 THE MYSTERY UNKNOWN BY OLD TESTAMENT SAINTS
3:5 Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;
The word for ages originally meant a begetting, being derived from the word to become. The meaning was transferred from the people to the time in which they lived, inasmuch as a period of time is often described in terms of what happened to the people during it. Paul is emphasising the heavenly origin of these mysteries, and that they are unique to this particular age.
The phrase “sons of men” reminds us that the truths in question were not handed down from father to son in Old Testament times.
The apostle makes it clear in Galatians 1:15-24 that he had visited Jerusalem on two occasions, and had deliberately avoided contact with most of the apostles. Fourteen years later, however, he went up “by revelation”. Now this may simply mean that he went to Jerusalem because Christ revealed to him that this was His will. Or it could mean that he went up according to, or in connection with, the revelation that he had been given about the mystery, which it was now the time to pass on to his fellow apostles. This he did when he “communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles”, Galatians 2:1,2. If this is correct, then it shows how the holy apostles and prophets had the truth of the mystery revealed to them.
It also shows that Paul’s conception of the gospel was of far greater scope that we may sometimes think, for it included insight into God’s ways with men. This also disposes of the notion that the apostle Peter did not understand the church. When he writes that Paul taught things “hard to be understood”, 2 Peter 3:16. it does not necessarily mean he found them hard to understand. It was “the unlearned and unstable” who did this.
The order, “apostles and prophets” is significant, for it prevents us thinking that the prophets were those of Old Testament times. These prophets were those that the church was built upon, as to its doctrine, 2:20. They were holy men, set apart to God’s interests, and not in the least inferior to the Old Testament “holy men of God” that Peter speaks about, 2 Peter 1:21. Now that these hitherto unknown truths have been revealed, and also written down, we have no need for apostles and prophets.
Note the following:
- The faith, or body of truth, has been once for all delivered to the saints, Jude 3 margin, so that they may earnestly contend for it.
- The Lord Jesus promised the apostles in the upper room that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth, John 16:13, and this promise has been fulfilled.
- The apostle Paul was the one who “fulfilled the word of God”, Colossians 1:25. That is, the doctrines he instructed the saints in was the climax, the fully filling up, of the body of truth we need to know whilst we are down here. “That which is perfect” has come, 1 Corinthians 13:10.
- When believfers in Christ get to heaven, fresh truths will be revealed, for we shall then fully know as we are fully known by God now, 1 Corinthians 13:12; but we do not need that knowledge yet, even if we could understand it.
- We should not expect fresh revelations of doctrine today. Those who declare they have a fresh word from the Lord, however acquired, should be asked what it is. If it turns out to be in the Scriptures anyway, their claim is pointless. If it is something outside of Scripture, then they fall foul of the curse pronounced on those who add to the word of God, Revelation 22:18.
Verse 6 THE MYSTERY UNFOLDED TO NEW TESTAMENT SAINTS
3:6 That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel:
We come now to the substance of the mystery. At first sight it might seem to be insignificant, until we realise how far-reaching and different these truths are. It is contained in three phrases: “fellow-heirs”; “of the same body”; and “partakers of His promise”. Each of the three expressions has the idea of togetherness about it. So in effect the Gentiles are said to be fellow-heirs, fellow-members of the same body, and fellow-partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel.
The apostle Paul had begun the epistle by describing the wealth God has given us in Christ. Using words and phrases such as “sonship”, (adoption of children), “redemption”, “obtained an inheritance”, “earnest of our inheritance”, “redemption of the purchased possession”, he is clearly contrasting the believer’s spiritual inheritance in heavenly places with Israel’s earthly inheritance in Canaan. Whereas their blessings depended on obedience to the law, as Moses made clear to them in Deuteronomy 28, ours are secured in Christ, by grace, verse 3. The nation of Israel was chosen because of the fathers, Deuteronomy 7:8, whereas believers of this age are chosen “in Him”, verse 4. Israel were accepted if they kept the law, whereas believers are accepted “in the Beloved”, verse 6. Israel were redeemed nationally by the Passover lamb, whereas we have redemption “through His blood”, verse 7. Israel’s continuance in the inheritance depended on their obedience to God, and their success in driving out the enemy, whereas we are sure of the inheritance, for the Spirit within is earnest or pledge of it.
So those who formerly were Gentiles, now they have believed, come into the inheritance because they are heirs of God just as much as believers who formerly were Jews. Their relationship with these Jewish believers is not a one-sided one. The believing Gentiles have equal share with the one-time Jews, since they are all joint heirs with Christ, Romans 8:17, and He does not discriminate between them.
FELLOW-MEMBERS OF THE SAME BODY
The apostle Paul is the only one to use the figure of a human body and its head to illustrate the relation between Christ and the church. Now that He is risen from the dead and ascended, Christ has become head of the body, the church, Colossians 1:18. Every true believer of this present age is linked to the Head in heaven, for “he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit”, 1 Corinthians 6:17, and “He that established us with you in Christ, (or, as it may be rendered, ‘firmly joined us to Christ’), and hath anointed us, is God”, 2 Corinthians 1:21.
FELLOW-PARTAKERS OF HIS PROMISE IN CHRIST BY THE GOSPEL
In 2:12 we learn that the Gentiles had no claim on the covenants that God made with Israel. These covenants were:
1. The Abrahamic covenant, Genesis 12:1-3), which promised them the land of Canaan.
2. The Mosaic covenant, Deuteronomy 6:3, which promised blessings if they obeyed His law.
3. The Palestinian covenant, Deuteronomy 29 and 30, with its promise of restoration to the land if they rebelled but then repented.
4. The Davidic covenant, 2 Samuel 7:12-17, which promised a king to reign over them.
And all this lack of blessing was because they were “without Christ”, that is, apart from, or cut off from any relationship with Israel’s Messiah. It is through the Christian gospel that they have arrived at their present happy position of having a share in the spiritual and heavenly blessings Christ secures and guarantees. They do not come into blessing by being a convert to Judaism, but by conversion to Christ.
Verses 7-10 THE MYSTERY UNDERSTOOD BY THE SAINTS
3:7 Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of His power.
It was the apostle Paul who was entrusted with the ministry of unfolding these truths to the other apostles, (when he went up to Jerusalem, if the view expressed in the notes on verse 5 about Galatians 2:1,2 is correct), and to the saints. He could not do so in his own strength, or by his own ability; he could not, for instance, rely on his expertise as a trained rabbi, for these truths were unknown to the rabbis. To discharge his stewardship in a spiritual manner he needed, not the skill of men, but the help of God in the form of grace. The effectual working of Divine power is needed, because Satan is opposed to the progress of Divine truth. The power of God which He put forth to raise Christ from the dead, Ephesians 1:19,20, is put forth again, to thwart the Devil’s hindering tactics.
3:8 Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;
The apostle is almost overwhelmed by the responsibility laid upon him. When it was a question of him being a sinner, he said he was chief, 1 Timothy 1:15, but now that he has been made an apostle by the glorified Christ, he is deeply humbled. So much so that he invents a word to describe his status- “leaster”. No doubt the thing which humbled him in this context is the exceptional character of the truth he was commissioned to make known. The rich truth about Christ, and in particular, His relationship with His people at the present time.
This truth was unsearchable, a word which literally means untraceable, untrackable. Paul was enabled to announce truths that it is impossible to either discover or understand with the unaided human mind, and which, moreover, were untraceable by Old Testament saints. Only the believer of this age, energised by the Spirit of God, can enter into the deep things of God, see 1 Corinthians 2:9-16.
3:9 And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:
Not only do we need to have the truth revealed to us, we need to be enlightened as to how to handle the truth once we have got it. For it is to be worked out in fellowship with other believers, as is seen in the three-fold use of the word “fellow” in verse 6.
The mystery has been hid in God. It was not hidden in God’s word, but in His heart, ready to be disclosed at the moment of His choosing. That moment was when His Son had returned to heaven, His work on earth completely finished. Confusion will result if we try to read the church into the Old Testament. We must not confuse the church with Israel. It is interesting to notice that it is Matthew’s gospel, the gospel of the King, which alone records the prophecy of Christ about the church. Interesting also, that after this has been done in chapter 16, the next chapter records the transfiguration of Christ, which confirmed to Peter that the Old Testament prophecies about the kingdom were still valid, 2 Peter 1:16-19. The kingdom is not cancelled, nor has the church replaced it.
Through Jesus Christ all things had been created, including the ages of time, (for time is part of God’s creation). As the Architect of the Ages, He chooses to tell His secret to His people at this time.
Verses 10,11 THE MYSTERY UNDERSTOOD BY THE ANGELS
3:10 To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,
The angels had desired to look into the things that the prophets wrote concerning the sufferings and glory of the Messiah, 1 Peter 1:10-12. Now they are able to plainly see the results of His sufferings. The wisdom of God is His complete insight into the true nature of things. In the present context, it has to do with His ways in this age.
The angels had witnessed the way that Eve had by-passed the authority of Adam, and accepted the authority of Satan. The church is that company which accepts the authority of Christ, and expresses it in obedience to His will. The angels take great interest in those who, despite the fact that Christ left the earth 2000 years ago, having been given insight by God into the true nature of things through Christ who is the wisdom of God, express that wisdom in obedience and love. For instance, the covered head and long hair of the sisters is an object lesson to the angels, for they thereby see Christian women acting contrary to the first woman, who failed to submit to Divine order with disastrous results. We should never underestimate the value of this testimony by the sisters, for they maintain this testimony “because of the angels”, 1 Corinthians 11:10.
3:11 According to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord:
Not only is the mystery hid in God, and hid from ages and generations, but it has been His purpose eternally to bless Gentiles this way. It is not an emergency plan devised after Israel refused its Messiah and crucified Him. Rather, that rejection of Christ as their Messiah was foreknown, and part of the plan. They still bear the full burden of guilt for slaying Him, but He was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” in the ultimate sense.
Verses 12,13 THE MYSTERY UNDERPINNING BOLDNESS AND CONFIDENCE
3:12 In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Him.
Those who were initiated into the mysteries were allowed to approach into the immediate presence of the heathen idol, behind which lurked an evil spirit. The believer’s privilege is far purer and greater, even that of approaching the true God with boldness, and with confidence. Boldness is literally the “absence of fear in speaking”, and would refer to the fact that, instructed in apostolic doctrine, the believer is able to speak to God with intelligence. He also has confidence too, for the truth unfolded by the apostles serve to strengthen the believer’s faith, and assure him of the dignity of the privilege that is his. Heathen idol-worshippers were driven by fear and ignorance- how different is the attitude of the believer!
3:13 Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory.
Having set forth the truth about the mystery in the previous verses, the apostle is now in a position to appeal to them to be encouraged in the Christian pathway. They should not allow the fact that the apostle went through tribulations and distress as he went about ministering, to make them think that what he taught was not of God. Far from being a sign of God’s disapproval, the trials of the apostle were occasioned in the main by Jewish opponents, who were angry at his emphasis on Gentiles coming into blessing. This blessing was a glorious thing, for it linked them to Christ in glory. Far from being downcast, therefore, because of the apostle’s sufferings, they should see in them a sign present and coming glories were assured.
In the parallel passage to this, Colossians 1:23-29, the apostle rejoices in his sufferings for them. He knew from the outset that he would have to suffer for the sake of Christ, being told it a few days after his conversion, Acts 9:16. He knew also that the full complement of those sufferings had not been reached, for there was “that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ”. This does not mean, of course that there was shortfall in the sufferings of Christ. The shortfall was with Paul. He rejoiced also in the riches of the glory of the mystery, verse 27. And so should we rejoice, as we contemplate the glorious things God has done, and will yet do.