The Mystery of Christ | Ephesians 3:1-6


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.

Ephesians 3:1-6 ESV

As we now enter the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we have seen Paul describe our blessings in Christ, his prayer for us to further know those blessings, his articulation on how we have been reconciled in Christ both to God and to one another, and the wondrous reality of belonging to Jesus’ church. Chapter three is the final section of Ephesians’ doctrinal first half and of our first series, Kingdom Come.

The key word within our present text is mystery, which Paul has already used once before in this letter. Clarifying and expounding upon the themes of chapter two, the apostle now presents to us what is the long-hidden mystery of Christ.

THE STEWARDSHIP OF GOD’S GRACE // VERSES 1-3

Our text begins with the words for this reason, which obviously connect back to the previous matters discussed in chapter two, namely, the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles into one people of God, the church. However, if you glance at the beginning words of verse 14, you will notice that it also begins with for this reason. In verse 1, Paul clearly intended to give the prayer that we find in verses 14-21, yet as he declared himself to be a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles, he dove instead into a parenthetical discourse over the mystery of Christ. Therefore, we will come back to the phrase for this reason in two weeks.

Paul’s reference to being a prisoner firmly places Ephesians among Paul’s other prison epistles: Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Yet his language here is slightly different from his other references to being imprisoned. For instance, to the Philippians, Paul wrote, “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” (1:12-13). To the Colossians, he said, “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison” (4:3). To Philemon, he called himself “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (v. 1). And even in chapter four of Ephesians, Paul will say that he is “a prisoner for the Lord” (4:1).

Here too Paul ties his imprisonment to Christ, yet he also adds another element, on behalf of you Gentiles. To be imprisoned for Christ makes sense. Jesus is his Lord and Savior, so being chained for the cause of Christ is an honor. It is a chance to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). But why for the sake of Gentiles as well? Remember that Paul was a Jew of such pedigree that he called himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). This Jewest of all Jews now claims to be imprisoned on the Gentiles’ behalf, even though he was actually imprisoned by Gentiles. Why, then, does Paul say this? John Chrysostom strikes at the very heart of the matter: “This is a very emphatic statement. Not only do we not hate you; we are even imprisoned on your account!” So far has Christ removed the hostility between Jew and Gentile from Paul that he is happily in chains on their behalf.

This is the truly uniting work of the gospel. The world seems to promote counterfeits of unity by calling us to be tolerant, respectful, and nice toward one another, which rarely seems to play out. The gospel, however, does not merely call us to tolerate one another; it calls us to love one another, even sacrificially. This is love that the world cannot imitate because it only flows from the One who is love. The same love displayed through God the Son giving His own life in our place is also displayed in Paul the Jew being imprisoned for the message of grace that he proclaimed to the Gentiles. This grace knows no imitation!

In verse 2, the apostle begins his extended parenthetical statement that will last through verse 13. In many ways, this passage is exploring what exactly is his message to the Gentiles that has cost him imprisonment. Note also that while Paul’s statement, assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, seems to indicate an unfamiliarity with the church of Ephesus even though he spent three years preaching there, it does not indicate that Paul is not the true author nor that the Ephesians were not the true recipients, as we have previously noted.

Consider for a moment the stewardship of God’s grace given to Paul for the Gentiles. A steward is rather like a manager today. It is a person with granted authority over what belongs to someone else. Paul calls pastors stewards of Christ’s church, since Jesus is Himself the true Pastor of His people. Likewise, Peter calls us to use the various gifts that God has given to us “to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Thus, all that we have is a gift from God and rightly belongs to Him. We are only stewards.

But what is the stewardship of God’s grace that Paul possessed? He begins to explain in verse 3, saying, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.[1] Here we have the first usage of the word mystery, which he will plainly explain in verse 6. As we already noted from 1:9, a mystery for Paul was something shrouded and unknown; instead, a mystery is a something that was previously unknown that has now been revealed, which is exactly what he says happened. The mystery was revealed to him by divine revelation, and he is now a steward of this mystery, this revelation.

THE REVEALED MYSTERY // VERSES 4-5

Continuing to discuss the mystery of Christ, Paul is confident that his readers will be able to perceive his insight. Of course, since this is Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we need more than just human understanding in order to see this mystery; we need the Spirit to enlighten the eyes of our hearts. We are simply not capable of understanding God’s Word alone. Granted, we certainly can know it cognitively and intellectually, but the Spirit alone can make it come alive before our eyes.

Next, he notes that this mystery 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. Let us make note of three things.

First, this mystery was not revealed to previous generations. Towering giants of the faith in the Old Testament went their entire lives without ever knowing the full story of which they were but a part. Abraham was the man of faith. He was bound in covenant to God, and his offspring would one day bring blessings to all nations. Yet that promise was not fully revealed until thousands of years after his death. Likewise, with Moses. He knew that another great prophet was still to come after him, but all he had was a mere glimpse. David knew that his son would be given an eternal throne, but that Son only came after the kingdom of Israel was no more. All of their lives pointed toward Jesus, but the full revelation was not given to them here on earth. Beginning with the apostles, we are now given the distinct privilege of knowing God’s plan, of holding within our hands the blueprint behind all of human history. We should never take for granted the tremendous grace of possessing God’s full and complete Word.

Second, Paul is not claiming to have received this revelation alone. The gnostic gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, were easily rejected by the early Christians in part because they were rogue revelations. Following the gnostic heresy, the authors of these books claimed to possess the secret message that Jesus taught to only one of His disciples. Yet as Paul is doing here, the apostles expected their message to be validated by one another. In fact, we have four Gospels for that very reason. Against all false writings about Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John stood as a fourfold testament to the real ministry and teachings of Jesus. Therefore, Paul is quick to affirm that he was not the only person to receive this revelation. In fact, to the Galatians, he provides his testimony for how he became an apostle:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.

Galatians 1:11-24

Notice that Paul was given the message of the gospel by Jesus, not from the other apostles. Yet his message still aligned with that of the other apostles. Contrary to some modern theories, Paul did not attempt to radically remake Christianity after his own liking. Instead, like the other apostles, he beheld the beauty of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and he poured out the rest of his life “as a drink offering” for the sake of exalting the name of Jesus (Philippians 2:17).

Third, the revelation came by the Spirit. As Peter wrote, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Although the apostles and prophets were aptly called holy because they were reserved exclusively for purpose of making the mystery of Christ known, the gospel was not their invention. The apostles did not formulate this elaborate story to achieve power or wealth; instead, proclaiming the gospel cost them everything, including their lives. Indeed, the plan of God’s will was made known to them by the Spirit, and they could do nothing but speak of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:20).

MEMBERS OF THE SAME BODY // VERSE 6

At last, Paul tells us blatantly what the mystery of Christ that has been revealed to him is: 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. The great mystery is that the Gentiles are equal recipients of the gospel in Christ. Again, this may seem unimpressive to us today, but we must consider the context.

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel alone was God’s people, His holy nation and kingdom of priests, yet the Psalms particularly proclaimed the hope that all nations would one day worship the LORD as the true God. Psalm 2 speaks God the Father giving Jesus the Son the nations as His heritage (v. 8). Psalm 22:28 declares that “kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.” Psalm 46:10 instructs us to “be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” Psalm 47:8 states, “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.” Psalm 67:2 calls for God’s way to “be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.” Psalm 72:11 also prays, “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!”

When we remember that Gentiles and nations are the same word in Hebrew, we see that the inclusion of all peoples has always been His plan. Yet very few Gentiles (let alone entire kingdoms!) were brought into the fold of God’s people in the Old Testament, and by Jesus’ day, few in Israel were hoping for a global worship of the LORD. Instead, many only awaited their vindication upon the Day of the LORD when all nations would submit to God as King. In many ways, they awaited their time in the spotlight as the reigning global empire. While that return certainly will happen (see Revelation 19), Jesus came to build a very different kind of kingdom, one not of this world.

Jesus came to rescue and save His people, both Jew and Gentile. He came to die in their place and to forgive their sins. Then with the outpouring of His Spirit, He began to undo the effects of Babel, drawing all people to Himself (John 12:32). In Him, the kingdom of God is no longer a physical nation upon the earth; rather, it is a nation within all nations, a people within all peoples. It is salvation to both Jew and Gentile, uniting them together as one holy church.

Therefore, in Christ and through His gospel, all who believe are able to be fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise. We are fellow heirs to our inheritance of which the Holy Spirit is our guarantee. We are members of the same body, united together as the earthly body of Christ, with Jesus Himself being our head. We are partakers of the promise, beneficiaries of the full stream of covenantal blessings throughout time. Although as Gentiles we are not physically descended from Abraham, we are his offspring through faith, entering into the true Israel.

Although we are not apostles, we too have received the commission to make disciples of all nations. Through us, God is now calling upon all people to repent and believe the gospel. He is making His grace known to them through us. Therefore, like Paul, we too are stewards of God’s grace. We have become partakers of the covenants of promise, and now we too invite every family of the earth to receive the blessing of God through Abraham’s Offspring. Pray, therefore, for grace to boldly “proclaim the mystery of the gospel,” which is how we ought to speak (6:19-20).


[1] This claim to have written briefly over this revelation of the mystery is most likely referencing what he wrote in chapter two.

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