For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. (Ephesians 3:1-13)
To the Saints Who Are In [Ephesus]
Everything that Paul has said up to this point in his letter has served to encourage and strengthen the Gentile believers in Ephesus. It may be more accurate for me to say, the Gentile believers in Ephesus and beyond. Chances are, Paul intended for this letter to reach churches all over Asia Minor.
Interestingly enough, the earliest manuscripts of the Bible omit “Ephesus” from Ephesians 1:1 (Paul’s greeting to the church). But without the word “Ephesus,” the sentence doesn’t quite make sense. So how do we explain its absence in the earlier manuscripts?
Most likely, Paul meant for this letter to be a circular letter. He mentions Tychicus at the end. Tychicus probably first carried it to Ephesus before moving throughout Asia Minor. In the original letter, Paul probably wrote, “To the saints who are in [fill in the blank]” (Eph 1:1). He intentionally left it blank so that Tychicus could insert the name of whatever church he was visiting at the time.
Colossae was another church in Asia Minor to whom Paul also wrote a letter. At the end of his letter to the Colossians, notice what he says: “When this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16). What letter from Laodicea? Laodicea was another church in Asia Minor, but we don’t have a letter addressed to them.
Or do we? It’s certainly possible that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the letter from Laodicea. Moving counterclockwise from Ephesus, the next stop would be Colossae followed by Laodicea. If the Ephesian letter was moving clockwise, then it would arrive in Laodicea from Colossae, making it the letter from Laodicea.
That’s a probable theory anyhow. My point is, Paul was likely writing to Gentile believers all over Asia Minor. His words were not specific to the circumstances in Ephesus. He is teaching universal truths for all Gentile believers.
For This Reason—
As Paul moves into Ephesians 3, he thinks that he’s finished discussing God’s unity of the Jews and Gentiles in the church. He thinks that he has said all that needs to be said in Ephesians 2. But then he interrupts himself with a few more thoughts.
Notice the incomplete sentence in the first verse: “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—” em dash (Eph 3:1). What does the em dash tell us? It represents an interruption. The sentence isn’t complete because Paul stops short to tell us something else.
What was he going to say? For this reason—what? Glance down at verse 14: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father” (Eph 1:14). He was starting to pray for the Gentiles. In Ephesian 3:14-21, he prays for their strength, faith, maturity, and knowledge. He wants everything they’ve learned about their salvation and God’s inclusion of them in the church to lead to spiritual strength and maturity.
It occurs to him, however, that he has more to say about the salvation of the Gentiles. Before launching into his prayer, he stops himself to address further what he calls “the mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:4). We could place the entire passage, verses 2-13, within parenthesis.
Of course, that’s not to say that this passage is anything less than important. The early days of the church represent a pivotal moment in redemptive history. There is no longer any distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Look at verse 6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6).
Perhaps we should pay even closer attention to this passage since Paul knew that it was important enough to interrupt his prayer to say it. Repetition never hurts.
A Prisoner of Christ Jesus
Paul begins by relating his personal experience. He says:
Assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ. (Ephesians 3:2-4)
We simply can’t underestimate the value of Paul’s ministry in the early days of the church. He wrote thirteen of twenty-seven books in the New Testament. He was directly or indirectly instrumental in planting many of the churches. He is the dominant evangelistic figure throughout the book of Acts. More than any other apostle he articulated the mysteries of the gospel and Christ’s kingdom.
Where would the church be today without God’s work through the apostle Paul? It’s hard to imagine.
But Paul isn’t boasting here. He’s not bragging about what God has revealed to him. In fact, he calls himself, “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:1). That’s the humble testimony of a man who cares more about God’s people than himself. Though a few envious pastors faulted him for landing in jail, he was a prisoner only because he was faithful to do what God called him to do.
He had been a prisoner for more than four years. His trials all began when a few Jews falsely accused him of taking a Gentile into forbidden parts of the temple. It wasn’t true, but the Sanhedrin backed the claim. Given the political climate in Israel, the Roman authorities felt compelled to arrest Paul and detain him indefinitely. Eventually, he was taken to Rome where a soldier guarded him within private quarters.
Notice, however, Paul doesn’t consider himself a prisoner of the Jews or even the Romans. Rather, he was a prisoner of Christ. What does that mean? His Lord bought him with a price. Jesus paid for him. He was subject to Christ’s will. Furthermore, he recognized God’s sovereignty whose plan apparently included his imprisonment.
It’s easy to accept God’s will when everything is going smoothly. But God doesn’t necessarily call us into stress-free lives without struggles and hardships. In fact, he uses trials to refine and sanctify us. He uses them to discipline us.
Earlier this week, I discovered an old hymn written by none other than John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace.” I had never heard it before. Maybe it was my mood at the time, but the lyrics overwhelmed me. How often have you prayed for something and it seemed that God gave you the exact opposite?
Listen to these words:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and ev’ry grace,
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek more earnestly His face.
‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer,
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request
And, by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
Yea, more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Humbled my heart and laid me low.
“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried;
“Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?”
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.” (“I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow” by John Newton)
The prisoner of Christ doesn’t wallow in self-pity. He tries his best to see things with a divine perspective. Like Horatio Spafford, he says, “Whatever my lot, God has taught me to say, It is well with my soul.” He trusts in the sovereign plan of God. He believes Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Paul was a prisoner of Christ. Concerning his unfortunate circumstances, he told the Philippians:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14)
Don’t run from your trials. Don’t ignore them. Try to see them as God sees them. What’s he doing? What’s his purpose? What is he trying to tell you? How do your struggles help you? How might they advance the gospel?
The Stewardship of God’s Grace
Paul may have been a prisoner for Christ, but he was also an apostle. He asserts his authority and credibility here. He assumes that his readers already know that God gave him the all-important task of ministering to the Gentiles. He says, “The stewardship of God’s grace … was given to me for you” (Eph 3:2).
By stewardship, he means that he is a responsible party. A steward is someone who is entrusted to manage a household, business, people, or things.
Paul didn’t choose to become an apostle. He told Timothy, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1Ti 1:12-13). That is why he says here that he is a steward of God’s grace.
He tells the Corinthians that his ministry was the result of God’s will and compulsion. He says:
For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. (1 Corinthians 9:16-17)
You may not be an apostle or even a preacher, but God has certainly called you into his service. He gives every believer spiritual gifts, talents, wisdom, and opportunities to be his witnesses and to do good works. Peter tells us:
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 4:10-11)
Don’t waste your gifts, and don’t waste opportunities because you’re uncertain about your gifts.
I don’t know whether I have any gifts. Of course, you do. You’re a member of the body of Christ. I don’t know what gifts I have. You don’t need to know. We are all “empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1Co 12:11). God will give you what you need when he knows you need it.
The fact is, you may not have one specific gift. Throughout your life, God could give you a limitless combination of gifts. The question is not, what gifts do you have? The question is, are you taking advantage of every opportunity to serve God, share the gospel, and help one another? As Charles Spurgeon said, “If there be degrees in glory, they will not be distributed according to our talents, but according to our faithfulness in using them.”
As for Paul, both his gifts and opportunities were somewhat unique. Of course, he lived in a unique time in history. As I said before, it was a pivotal moment when God’s grace was extending beyond the borders of Israel. Paul, in particular, was on the front lines. Though he revealed many of God’s mysteries to the church, there was one that stands out above the rest.
The Mystery of Christ
We’re all familiar with Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus. We read about it in Acts 9, but it’s not until Acts 26 that we get the full story. As Paul is speaking to King Agrippa, he tells Agrippa what happened, and he says:
“I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
“And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
“And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'” (Acts 26:12-18)
Paul’s calling was unusual. When Jesus first sent his apostles to preach, he told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:5-6). Paul, on the other hand, was not to go to Israel. He was not to preach the gospel to the Jews. He was to open the eyes of the Gentiles. He was to turn the Gentiles from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God.
Notice what he says here:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:4-6)
Why does he refer to the inclusion of the Gentiles a mystery? It’s because their inclusion was a part of God’s plan which was veiled for many generations. Paul says, “The mystery of Christ … was not made known to the sons of men in other generations.” It was prophesied. In the beginning, God told Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Ge 12:3).
Even so, no one understood the full meaning of those prophecies. Old Testament saints could not comprehend the future church. They could not conceive of a united body formed with both Jews and Gentiles. How could people from every nation, culture, race, and background possibly come together in harmony? It’s unthinkable.
If you’re still sure how such a thing could be possible, then I encourage you to read Ephesians 1-2 again. It’s possible because God makes it happen. It’s possible because God sovereignly chose his people for salvation. It’s possible because God changes us from the inside out. It’s possible because we are joined together not by superficial commonalities, but by Jesus Christ and his power.
The Gentiles Are Fellow Heirs
It’s difficult for us to grasp just how revolutionary this truth was to people in the first century. We’ve talked about the tremendous divide between the Jews and Gentiles, so I won’t rehash it. But I will offer a metaphor that might help us.
Let me read a brief story from Luke 17, then I’ll explain:
On the way to Jerusalem [Jesus] was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan.
Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19)
How many times do we read of Jesus healing lepers? What’s the significance of leprosy in the Bible? When Jesus gives sight to a blind man, we readily understand the implication. But what about leprosy?
Leprosy is a dreadful, disgusting disease. People in the ancient world also believed it to be highly contagious and seemingly incurable, so lepers were banished to isolation. They could have no contact with anyone including their families. If a leper appeared to be healed, he was required to go to the priests for examination and a lengthy purification process.
The spiritual significance of leprosy is that it represents sin. We see that implied by the story which I’ve just read. Jesus supernaturally cleanses these men of a disease that left them alienated and dying. In the end, he tells the Samaritan leper, “Your faith has made you well.” Sinners are justified by—what?—faith.
More to the point, no self-respecting Jew would go anywhere near a leper. Jewish tradition required that lepers shout to anyone approaching them: “I’m a leper! I’m unclean! Keep your distance.” Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t avoid them. He seems to intentionally find them. He heals them. He removes that filthy thing which separated them from the rest of society. He restores them.
To the first-century Jew, the idea of including Gentiles into one body with the Jews was the spiritual equivalent of inviting lepers into the fold. Gentiles were to remain separate and alienated. There could be no equality. There could be no harmony. They were tainted by their disobedience to the law and their ungodly worship of false idols. They were spiritual lepers.
Even so, Paul says, “The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6). How can that be? It is because Christ has the power to cleanse lepers. Never mind the past. Gentiles are justified by the Lord and the same faith as the Jews. Every believer is bound together by Christ and his gospel.
According To the Gift of God’s Grace
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things. (Ephesians 3:7-9)
Paul reiterates himself to stress—what? It would seem that he wants to make it abundantly clear that God gave him a special position in the church with special revelation only because it was God’s sovereign purpose to do so. In other words, Paul was nothing special apart from the grace of God.
It wasn’t Paul’s education, natural abilities, experiences, personality, influence, or anything else that qualified him to be a minister of Christ. He did not deserve personal commendation. He did not want accolades. Why? God chose him. God called him. God made him a minister. God worked through him. God used him despite him.
It would concern me if a man considered entering the ministry because he felt himself to be a gifted speaker. In most cases, men have to be dragged into the ministry. Truly qualified men don’t usually feel qualified. Think of Moses who spent two chapters in Exodus arguing with God over whether he was the right man for the job. In a manner of speaking, I had a very similar argument with the burning bush years ago.
Of course, even a God-ordained minister can lose his sense of dependence upon God’s grace. He may come to rely on his own abilities and talents. He may become motivated by prestige, reputation, success, or personal ambition. It’s a dangerous place to find ourselves.
Perhaps that is why God so often afflicts his ministers. He gives them physical, mental, or spiritual burdens to humble them, to remind them of their need for God’s strength and grace. Paul called it, “a thorn … in the flesh … to keep me from becoming conceited” (2Co 12:7). Ministers simply can’t be effective in the service of Christ without humility.
We Have Boldness
Paul’s role as a foundational piece of the church was to “preach … the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery” (Eph 3:8-9). He says:
So that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10-11)
Do you want to see the wisdom of God on display? Look at the New Testament church. Look how God has brought together people who otherwise have no reason to be together. He has changed the individuals. He has united them in love and peace. It’s so extraordinary that God turns to the angels, the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” and says, “Look at the church. See my wisdom. They represent my eternal purpose in Christ.”
What then is the primary function of the church? In short, we are here to glorify God. The church is not an end in itself but a means to an end. The real end is God’s glory. Everything God has done from before the foundation of the world until now has been to express his glory.
So what is our takeaway from this passage? “In whom,” Paul says, “we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory” (Eph 3:12-13).
Through faith, we have direct and personal access to those “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8). Go back and read Ephesians 1 again. Do you realize who you are? Do you realize what you have in Christ? You’re not a Gentile. You’re not a Jew. You’re a child of God. “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). As such, everything that belongs to Christ belongs to you.
In the end, Paul reminds us that we don’t have a good reason to lose heart. I know that’s easier said than done, but think about the man who is saying this to us. This request doesn’t come from a megachurch pastor who lives comfortably off of the royalties of his bestselling books. No, the man who wrote these words was left for dead. He was beaten and imprisoned for his faith.
You and I are probably too comfortable for our own good. I’m not suggesting that we look for trouble or seek martyrdom, but let’s be honest with ourselves. I’m not sure that I can begin to understand what Christians have suffered in the past or in other parts of the world. The worst persecution I’ve ever faced has been a few scathing emails. The worst of my suffering has been an occasional migraine.
Let me give you something to think about. It’s not a matter of whether you suffer in this life; more importantly, it’s how to respond to suffering. Not only can trials refine you and increase your faith, but a godly response to them can be a benefit to others. Paul’s suffering strengthened believers. It caused the conversion of others. His example of boldness in the face of adversity changed them. Your boldness can do the same.