We continue in our two week series through Ephesians 1–3, with guest writer Dr. David Starling.
Your story—from mystery to revelation | Eph. 3:1-13
Our passage today (Eph. 3:1–13) is the last of the three salvation-stories that Paul includes within this central section of the first half of the letter. Each of the stories has a particular focus and is told with a particular purpose. This story, like the two stories of the previous chapter, is built as a once/now contrast. Unlike the others, however, it is a story that begins with a focus not on the Ephesians but on Paul, and on the stories of his sufferings as a prisoner for the gospel that will have reached the Ephesians and might have unsettled or dismayed them. The story that Paul goes on to remind them of is thus a story about the privilege and purpose of being an instrument of God’s revelation; it is a story that helps them make sense of his own sufferings, and reminds them of the part that they also have to play in the revealing of the saving wisdom of God.
Paul’s Suffering (vv. 1, 13)
Paul’s story in 3:2–12 about the gospel as the great mystery of God that has now been revealed to us by his Spirit, and given to us to preach to all the nations is bracketed at the beginning and the end by references to Paul’s sufferings for that gospel.
Verse 1: “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—”. And down in verse 13: “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.”
Strictly speaking, everything in verses 2-13 should really be in brackets, because it’s a huge digression from the main flow of the letter. Paul says: “For this reason…” and he’s about to tell the Ephesians about how he prays for them, and what it is that he prays for. (If you look down to verse 14, you can see where he picks up the sentence again where he left off.)
But before he gets to the prayer, he makes a brief reference to the fact that he is in prison as he prays. He’s about to tell the Christians in Ephesus about how he is there in his cell praying for them; but before he gets to that, he decides to say something about his imprisonment, and about the gospel that he is in prison for. And so before he gets to the prayer, he includes a big digression in verses 2-13 to help the Ephesians understand that his sufferings for the gospel are not something to be discouraged about but rather something to glory in.
Why? (vv. 2-12)
Why is that? In verses 2-12, Paul gives us four reasons:
A privilege (vv. 2, 7, 8)
In the first place, Paul says, he sees his task of preaching the gospel not as some great thing that he does for God, but as a privilege that God has given to him. Have a look again at what Paul writes, and see how many times he says it is by God’s grace, or by God’s gift that he has his job of preaching the gospel.
Verse 2: “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you…”. Verse 7: “ I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.” Verse 8: “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ…”
Paul doesn’t say: “Why me! I don’t deserve such a hard and painful job. God should have given me something easier.” He says: “Why me! I am less than the least of all God’s people, and yet he gave me this amazing privilege.”
A responsibility (vv. 2, 7)
Secondly, verse 2 and verse 7, Paul sees that along with that privilege goes an incredible responsibility. Paul talks in verse 2 about the “administration” of God’s grace that was given to him. And the word he uses is the one that is often translated in the New Testament as about being a “steward”, about being responsible for something.
And then, down in verse 7, Paul says: “I became a servant of this gospel, by the gift of God’s grace.” Paul often talked about himself that way, as being a servant of Christ Jesus, or a servant of the gospel. And if you were a servant or a slave in New Testament times, it didn’t just mean that you did stuff for someone, out of the kindness of your heart. It meant that you belonged to the person that you were a servant of.
So when Paul says here that he became a servant of the gospel, he means that he belongs to that message. The gospel doesn’t belong to him; he belongs to the gospel. And so Paul says elsewhere: “When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.”
When you see things that way, it changes the way that you view the cost and the pain involved in gospel work. It’s not like volunteering to go on a roster. You don’t look at it and ask: “How will it fit around my lifestyle? Will it always feel satisfying?” You’re not really a volunteer at all. You’re a servant of the gospel; you belong to it; you’re just carrying out the responsibility that goes with belonging to Jesus.
A mystery (vv. 3-6, 9)
A privilege; a responsibility; and thirdly, a mystery. Paul writes:3:2-6 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. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 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. 6 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.
When Paul writes here about the “mystery” that was revealed to him, he’s not talking about some sort of dim, shadowy idea that no-one can really understand. He’s talking (v. 3)about a mystery that has been “made known”; a mystery (v. 5) that “has now been revealed.” It’s something that was once hidden, but has now been made clear by God.
And what is that mystery? Verse 6: “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.” It might seem obvious to us: we’re used to most Christians being Gentiles, being non-Jews. But in Paul’s day, it was revolutionary. The great truth that God had revealed to him was that the salvation in the Jewish Messiah was not just for the Jews but for the Gentiles too—for all the nations of the world.
In theory most of us would say that was obvious. But it wasn’t just a theoretical truth for Paul. It was something that took him from city to city around the Roman empire, spreading the news about Jesus – because he believed that the salvation in Jesus was not just for Jews but for all people, to the the ends of the earth.
A purpose (vv. 10-13)
A privilege; a responsibility; a mystery; and fourthly, a purpose. It’s hard to suffer when it seems like there’s no purpose to it; when it seems like it’s all for nothing. But when you see the purpose that it’s all for; when you see the goal that it’s all heading toward, it makes it a little easier to bear the pain.
Paul writes in verses 10-12 about the purpose of God that he reminded himself of as he suffered for it there in the prison cell, writing to the Ephesians.3:10-12 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, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
In the church that gathers together Jews and Gentiles; in the church that perseveres and grows through suffering and persecution; in the church that bows the knee to Jesus as the whole world will one day—in that church, God displays to all the angels and the demons of the universe the complex, incredible wisdom of his plans and purposes in Jesus. And Paul sees the sufferings that he goes through for the gospel in the context of that big picture of the plans and purposes of God. And so he can say in verse 13: “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.”
To think about:
What are the main ways in which you are currently experiencing the cost of being part of God’s mission in the world? How can Paul’s words in this passage help you to reframe those experiences and how you interpret them?