I love a good mystery in any shape or form. Whether a classic novel, film, show, or game, mysteries are great at honing the skills of observation and deduction. My wife and I even recently participated in a murder mystery dinner party. While we didn’t successfully solve the crime, it was fun to dress up, act a part, and look for clues along the way. That’s part of the reason why I love the Bible as well. There’s a certain suspense and thrill in seeing how the Bible fits together and comes to its fulfillment in Christ. In fact, Paul even uses the language of mystery to describe God’s revelation in Christ. Let’s take a deep dive into Ephesians 3 where Paul describes this mystery with some help from R. Kent Hughes and the Preaching the Word Commentary.

Unpacking the Secrets and Mysteries of Christ (Ephesians 3:1-13)

What is Paul getting at in his use of the word mystery?  This word conjures in our English-speaking minds names like Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers or P. D. James and their sleuths Inspector Pierrot or Lord Peter Wimsey or Inspector Dagleish. These are accurate associations in English, but are misleading in regard to what is meant by Paul. In the New Testament, the Greek word musterion means something which is beyond natural knowledge, but has been opened to us by divine revelation through the Holy Spirit. Paul’s words in Colossians 1:26 give us the idea: “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.” It is something previously undreamed of which is now disclosed to believers — an open secret.

Here in Ephesians the mystery was hinted at in 2:10 where Paul says, “For we are God’s workmanship” — his masterwork, new spiritual creations “brought near through the blood of Christ” (v. 13). The mystery was further opened in verse 15 where we are told that the nearness (reconciliation) happened through the creation “in himself [of] one new man out of the two” — a new humanity — a third race of humans — the Church.

This mystery, this now-open secret, dominates Paul’s thoughts as he begins chapter 3. In verse 1 he begins to pray: “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles . . .” But then he stops because he is still caught up with thoughts of the mystery. So he digresses on the mystery in verses 2-13, and then begins to pray again in verse 14: “For this reason I kneel before the Father . . .” Paul has trouble leaving the marvelous subject of the mystery, but this is the compulsion of a grateful heart.

A Digression on the Mystery of Christ

In verses 2-6 Paul digresses on how the revelation of the mystery came to him, ending the digression with a beautiful capsulation in verse 6 as he employs three parallel terms to describe the dynamic effect of the mystery in the Ephesians’ lives. “This mystery,” he says, “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.” The open secret, which was not understood in times past, is that Jews and Gentiles are 1) “heirs together,” 2) “members together,” and 3) “sharers together” — fellow partakers.

This mystery came about from their new double union with Christ and with each other. The closer they were to God, the closer they were to each other. No Jew or Gentile had ever conceived of such a mystery in his wildest dreams! And for Paul this remained an abiding wonder and joy throughout his life.

In view of this miraculous togetherness, there is no room at all in the Church of Jesus Christ for separation. There is no room for people who say they believe what Paul says about the mystery, but do not practice it or who rationalize that this mystic togetherness is future and is not to be applied today. In addition, I have read of and have been personally told by missionaries about so-called “believers” in South America who have no interest in reaching primitive Indians. These “Christians” even go so far as to say they doubt if the Indians have souls, or if they do, the missionaries can do the work. Those who fall so short of God’s sympathies and design had better take a good look at themselves to see where they are in regard to God!

The Ministry of the Mystery (vv. 7-13)

Small Paul

Having held the mystery of the Church high for all to see, Paul goes on in verses 7 and 8 to exult in the ministry of the mystery: “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me . . .” Again Paul bends the language. He takes the Greek word for “least” or “smallest” and adds an ending which is impossible linguistically, so that he comes out with the word “leaster.” Some think he was playing off his Latin name Paulus, which meant “little” or “small,” so that the idea is, “I am little by name, little in stature, and morally and spiritually littler than the least of all Christians.” I am Small Paul.

Was he sincere? Of course! We need to remember that he had been a rabid enemy of the Christians. But even more, as the premier theologian of the Church he had a profound understanding of his own sin. To Timothy he said, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). To the Corinthians he wrote, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9). He knew what he was, but he also understood God’s grace. Paul simply could not get over the immense privilege he had of ministering for God.

The Unsearchable Riches of Christ

To whom, and to what end, did Paul focus his message? The text reveals three directions. First, it was Christ to the Gentiles — “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (v. 8b).

The great Toscanini once gave a concert for which the audience was wildly enthusiastic. There were several encores, and still the audience cheered. Finally there was a lull in the din, and Toscanini turned his back to the audience and said so the orchestra could hear, “I am nothing; you are nothing; but Beethoven, he is everything!”

Theologically that is where Paul was in his preaching of Christ — Christ was everything. “[B]ut we preach Christ crucified,” he told the Corinthians, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25). Specifically he preached “the unsearchable riches of Christ” — literally, “the riches that cannot be tracked.” The idea is difficult to put into one word, though the translators have attempted with words like inexplorable riches, or untraceable, unfathomable, inexhaustible, illimitable, inscrutable, incalculable, and infinite. What are the unsearchable riches? They are saving riches, sanctifying riches, relational riches, practical riches, and eternal riches.

What are the implications of this? Primarily, that Christ always enriches life. How mistaken the young man was who rejected the gospel saying, “Don’t preach Christ to me. I’ve got enough problems already.” Christ never subtracts from life; he always enriches it with untrackable riches. A corresponding implication for us is that we have a responsibility to share these riches with others.

The Mystery Revealed

So the first focus of Paul’s preaching was to preach Christ to the Gentiles. His next focus was to inform the world of the Church — “to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things” (v. 9). Paul was to enlighten all humanity regarding the miracle of Jews and Gentiles becoming a new humanity, a third race.

Several years ago Johanne Lukasse of the Belgian Evangelical Mission came to the realization that evangelism in Belgium was getting nowhere. The nation’s long history of traditional Catholicism and the aggression of the cults had left the land seemingly impervious to the gospel. Driven to the Scripture, he came up with a new plan. First, he gathered together a heterogeneous group of believers: Belgian, Dutch, Americans — whoever would come. Second, he had them rent a house and live together for seven months. As is natural, frictions developed among these diverse people. This in turn sent them to prayer and, happily, to victory and love. Following this, they began to see amazing fruit. Outsiders called them “the people who love each other,” for they were living out the words and promises of Jesus in John 13:34, 35.

It is as we live out the mystery of the third race that we will win the world for Christ. It is to brothers and sisters that the world is drawn. We must realize that dynamic evangelism will take place as we preach and live out two things: Christ and the Church. Paul calls us to the power of the two in concert.

Revealing God’s Wisdom to the Angels

The third purpose for Paul’s opening the mystery comes as a surprise: to inform the angels: “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 (vv. 10-12). Here it will help us to imagine a cosmic drama. The theatre is history. The stage is the world. The actors are the Church. The writer is God, who directs and produces the drama. And the audience? Cosmic beings — “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” The history of the Christian Church is “the graduate school for angels.”

The inescapable conclusion is that the angels watch us because we are part of the mystery! This is not the only Scripture which teaches this. We have a far bigger and more observant viewing audience than any of us realize!

And as they watch the Church, God reveals his “manifold wisdom” (literally, many-colored wisdom, a rare poetical adjective used in the Septuagint to describe Joseph’s coat of many colors — Genesis 37:3, 23, 32). The many-colored fellowship of the Church, the variegated third race of Jews and Gentiles — multicultural and multiracial — shows the many-shaded wisdom of God. Through studying the Church the angelic host observes the reconciling work of Christ, which is the model for the reconciling of the universe when everything on Heaven and earth will be brought together in him (cf. 1:9, 10; Colossians 1:17-22).

All of this demands a view of the Church so high that it challenges belief. The Church, a product of God’s reconciling work, will in fact be an agent in the ultimate cosmic reconciliation! This mystery keeps the angels watching.

Applying the Mystery

Our text calls us to recognize and revere the immense centrality of the Church. John Stott has suggested that this includes three grand facts. First, the Church is central to history. The open secret is that the Church, the new humanity, a multiracial, multinational third race, will rule in the universe along with Christ and the angels, and that amidst the swirling tides of Marxism, revived militant Islam, and virulent materialism only the Church will survive history.

Second, the Church is central to the gospel. Ephesians teaches that the complete gospel involves both the preaching of Christ and the mystery of the Church. Christ died and rose from the dead not only to save us, but to create a single new humanity. That means that the local manifestation of the Church, the church we attend, is very important. It is the third race watched by the world and by angels. When it preaches Christ and lives as the Church, souls are ineluctably drawn to Christ the Head.

Third, the Church is central to Christian living. The text ends with Paul alluding to his suffering: “I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory” (v. 13). Paul was willing to pay any price to see the Church go forward. As an apostle, he saw his sufferings as the Church’s glory.

Maintaining the Ministry of the Mystery in the Church

The bottom line is, the Church is not an option for believers, nor is supporting it an option. I am not saying you have to go to church to be a Christian, but you also do not have to go home to be married. However, if you do not frequent your home, your relationship will be in jeopardy. Attendance and participation in your local church is not an option. Paul’s gospel was Christ and the Church.

As we all know, the Church on earth is imperfect. Nevertheless, we must commit ourselves to the local manifestation of the universal Church. We must commit ourselves to regular worship and should worship with all we have. As the third race, we must commit ourselves to our church’s fellowship as well. If we only attend worship, we are robbing the church and ourselves and Christ. We must be involved in a small group or a Bible school class where we interact and minister to others. Also, since Christ and his Church has the only answer for the world, we must be involved in sharing both. Evangelism is not an option. We must reach out to those who are not like us. When we do, we will be living out one of the supreme glories of the Church.

I love Thy kingdom, Lord,

The house of Thine abode,

The Church our blest Redeemer saved

With His own precious blood.

For her my tears shall fall;

For her my prayers ascend;

To her my cares and toils be giv’n,

Till toils and cares shall end.

The mystery demands ministry. Amen!

Continue Reading with the Preaching the Word Commentary

The Preaching the Word Commentary is edited by former College Church pastor R. Kent Hughes and published by Crossway. Other contributing pastors include Philip Ryken, Ray Ortlund, John Woodhouse, Jim Hamilton, and more. This is an excellent expositional commentary that is perfect for using for devotional or sermon preparation purposes. Follow this link to read a short interview about this series with R. Kent Hughes or visit our store today to learn more!

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