Elon, North Carolina
We have been studying the Book of Ephesians. We are in chapter three and come almost of the middle of the book. It is a book that is divided into two parts. The first part deals with doctrine. The second part deals with duties. The first three chapters are doctrinal. The last three chapters are practical.
Ephesians 3 is a prayer. It is one of the prayers of Paul. Paul does something strange in this chapter. Last week, Paul talked about the union of Jews and Gentiles in one body. He starts to pray for this group in the first verse, but then he stops.
He says, “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—” in Ephesians 3:1 NIV. Then he stops praying. He digresses for thirteen verses and goes back to praying in Ephesians 3:14 when he says, “For this reason I kneel before the Father” (NIV)
I do not know if Paul had ADHD or if he was just absent minded, but he starts to pray. Next week, we will look at Paul’s prayer. Today, I want to look at what he says BEFORE he prays. He gives us a mystery revealed. This mystery has to do with the church. We are going to look at a real biblical mystery.
Ephesians is the great book on the church. Paul says three important things about the church in Ephesians 3:1-13. We are going to look at them. We are also going to look at some practical applications from this passage.
Three Truths about the Church
1. The Church is a Mystery
The word “mystery” is found in the book of Ephesians more than any book in the NT. It occurs six times in this little book (1:9; 3:3, 4, 9; 5:32; 6:19). In fact, Paul uses it four times in the passage we are looking at today. It is a key word in this passage.
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 people 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….and to make plain to everyone the administration of this MYSTERY, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. (Ephesians 3-6, 9 NIV)
What exactly is a mystery? The English word mystery comes from the Greek word μυστηριον but the Greek word does not mean exactly what our English word means. We use the word to mean something that is hard to understand. It is little a riddle or a puzzle. It is hard to understand but not impossible. If you are really smart, you can figure it out. It is like a crime that needs to be solved (a murder mystery). That is not what the Greek word means.
The Greek word does not mean something difficult to understand. It means something IMPOSSIBLE to understand. It refers to something that you cannot figure out on your own. You cannot get it by human reason and logic. You cannot get it by education or years of study. You cannot get it by research.
Paul did not learn about this mystery by doing research for his Ph.D. program in some seminary. A mystery is something that you cannot figure it out on your own, no matter how brilliant you are, no matter how high your IQ is. That is a little different from what the word means today.
A better word is secret. The church was a secret. God has some secrets. Biblical mysteries are sacred secrets. This is not the only one mystery in the Bible. Paul speaks of “the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:1). There are at least seven mysteries in the NT. Let’s look at some of them.
I do not want you to be ignorant of this MYSTERY, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in (Romans 11:25 NIV). This is the mystery of Israel.
Listen, I tell you a MYSTERY: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (I Corinthians 15:51-53 NIV). This is the mystery of the rapture.
For the MYSTERY OF LAWLESSNESS is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. (II Thessalonians 2:7 ESV). This is the mystery of the future lawlessness that will take place when the Antichrist appears on the scene.
Great indeed, we confess, is the MYSTERY OF GODLINESS: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. (I Timothy 3:16 ESV). This is the mystery of Christ, the God man who was incarnate.
5 The name written on her forehead was a MYSTERY: Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth. 6 I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus. (Revelation 17:5-6 NIV). This mystery is Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and abominations in the earth. What was the mystery in Ephesians 3?
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 NIV)
The mystery was the church. Gentiles and Jews are part of ONE BODY in Christ. Gentiles are elevated to an EQUAL STATUS with Jews. in the OT, there was talk about Gentile salvation. That was not a mystery but in the OT, Gentiles were always subordinate to Jews. Now, they are put in a position of full equality. Church should be a place where we see Jews and Gentiles. We should not have Gentile congregation in one place and a Jewish Messianic congregation in another place.
This whole idea was a big secret. Nobody in the OT knew about this. Nobody! Abraham did not know about this. Isaiah and Jeremiah did not know about it. Ezekiel did not know about it. Even the angels did not know about it.
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 NIV)
Many people do not like this statement. Many do not believe it. Covenant theologians do not like this idea. The church must have been in the OT. This must mean that it was not fully known in the OT. They must have had some idea of it.
And to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which FOR AGES PAST was kept HIDDEN in God, who created all things. (Ephesians 3:9 NIV). You say, “I am still not convinced.” Paul says this repeatedly.
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery HIDDEN FOR LONG AGES PAST (Romans 16:25 NIV)
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26 the mystery that has been KEPT HIDDEN FOR AGES AND GENERATIONS, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:24-27 NIV)
2. The Church is a Revelation
Paul said that it “was given to him” and “made known to him BY REVELATION” (Ephesians 3:3). It had to be revealed to him BY THE SPIRIT (Ephesians 3:5). “He answered and said unto them, Because it is GIVEN unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is NOT GIVEN” (Matthew 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10). This revelation about the church was given to Paul and the other NT apostles.
3. The Church is a Sermon
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 (Ephesians 3:10 NIV)
The church doesn’t exist solely for the purpose of saving souls, as MacArthur points out. The church is God’s university for angels. Angels learn something about God from what He is doing through the church. Angels learn about God from us. They are supernatural beings.
They are greater than us and smarter than us but they still learn from us. What do they learn? They learn about God’s wisdom. Angels know about the power of God from creation. They learn about the wisdom and love of God from the church. It took wisdom to take Jew and Gentile, who hated each other and to put them in the same body and removing the hostility between them.
Five Powerful Applications
What does this passage say to us today? What are some applications that we can take from it?
1) There are some real mysteries
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29 NIV). Notice the two categories. There are SECRET THINGS and there are REVEALED THINGS.
There are some real mysteries. We do not know everything. There are mysteries in Scripture and mysteries in our life. God does not tell us everything we would like to know. Some things may have happened in your life and you don’t know why they happened. God has never told us. We want to know everything but God does not tell us everything now.
2) God gives each of us our own ministry.
Paul’s ministry was given to him. Paul “was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace” (Ephesians 3:7 ESV). He did not make himself a minister. God made him one God called him to be an apostle (Ephesians 1:1). He called him to preach. He was called “to PREACH to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8 NIV).
His ministry was directed to Gentiles. When the church began, it was one hundred percent Jewish. Today, it is predominately Gentile and that is because of the influence of Paul. He was the Apostle to the Gentiles and he was a preacher. He was an evangelist. He was a missionary, a church planter.
He went on three missionary journeys. He may have been the greatest missionary of all time. He traveled more than 10,000 miles to various cities without an airplane or car. He was the one who took the gospel to Europe and from Europe it came to America. He started all kinds of churches.
He also wrote Scripture. He more books of the NT than any other apostle. He wrote more books that Matthew. He wrote more books than Mark and more than Luke. Some of the deepest theology of the Bible comes from Paul. What God called Paul to do, He may not call us to do. We may not be called to be an apostle. We may not be called to be a preacher or to start churches. We may not be called to write books of Scripture or any book at all. God may call us to do different things. He is the one who chooses our ministry. We don’t.
Paul was Jewish. He called himself a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Philippians 3:5). He wanted to minister to Jews but God called him to minister to Gentiles. He became the apostle to the Gentiles. He tried to minister to Jews but doors kept slamming in his face, so he turned to the Gentiles.
To be successful, we need to have know what out ministry is. We have to know spiritual gifts are. We have to know our mission in life. We have to know what God has called us to do. We have to do it.
3) Our ministry should be characterized by humility
I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, (Ephesians 3:7-8 NIV)
Paul did not have a huge ego like many ministers today. You would expect him to have a big ego. He was the greatest apostle. He worked harder than all of them. He wrote more Scripture than any other apostle. He was the most educated of all of the apostles.
Most of them were not deep thinkers or intellectuals. They were simple fishermen. Paul was educated. He studied under the top rabbi of his day in Jerusalem. He was the one deep theologian of the Apostles. In Ephesians 3, he gets a revelation about the church that was not revealed to ordinary Christians. You might expect all of these things to make Paul proud but instead he was humble. The name Paul means “small.” His nickname was Shorty.
Paul is amazed that God would ever use anyone like him. Before he became a Christian, he was a murderer. Before he was a Christian, he persecuted the church and he felt terrible about it. Paul said that he was less than the least of all saints (Ephesians 3:8). He only says that in Ephesians. Paul uses a comparative with a superlative. That is logically impossible. It is not even possible to be less than THE LEAST of something. It is like saying “higher than the highest.”
We think that the pastor must be greater than we are. He must be godlier and more spiritual than we are. We think than an anointed leader or preacher or a genuine apostle is much greater than the average Christian is. Well, Paul was an apostle and he said that WE are greater than he is. Paul did not say that he was less than the other apostles.
He said that he was less than ALL the saints, not some of them or most of them. He was less than ALL of them. Paul said that we are greater than he was and we are to do exactly the same thing. We are to treat others better than ourselves. In humility value others above yourselves (Philippians 2:3 NIV). That is what Jesus did. No matter how gifted we are, no matter how much God uses us, we should always regard others as better than ourselves.
4) Serving Christ may lead to suffering
Paul served Christ He did exactly what God called him to do. he did the ministry God designed him to do and look what it got him. He was beaten. He was imprisoned. People tried to kill him. He was falsely accused of a crime. When Paul wrote Ephesians, he was sitting in a Roman prison, probably shackled next to a big smelly guy named Brutus but Paul not complain about how bad it is.
Paul does not criticize God for putting him in prison. He does not whine and moan about his lot in life. He does not ask why bad things happen to good people. He does not even ask for sympathy or pity. In fact, he says, “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory” (Ephesians 3:13 NIV).
Paul was not defined by his circumstances, like many people are today. He just writes books of Scripture from his prison cell. They are called the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon). He does mission work in the prison cell and starts to witness to the guards.
God turned evil into good. Paul says, “And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (Philippians 1:14 NIV).
When Paul was in prison in Rome, he does NOT even call himself a prisoner of Rome. He does NOT call himself a prisoner of Nero. He calls himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ. I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— (Ephesians 3:1 NIV).
5) God does different things at different times
God worked one way in the OT and he is working a completely different way right now. He will be working a completely different way when Jesus comes back to the earth to rule and reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This is shocking to some people. God does not change but his program does.
Many do not like dispensationalism, but Paul uses that word in Ephesians 3. He talks about “the dispensation of the grace of God” (KJV). In Ephesians 1:10, he speaks of “the dispensation of the fullness of time” (KJV). That deals with the eternal state.
God works differently at different times. He works differently today than he did in the OT. He works differently now than he did a hundred or two hundred years ago.
 John MacArthur, Ephesians, p. 96