Growing in Understanding the Mystery
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 3:1a (Holman) For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus. . .
Paul was a prisoner. His resume had a few hiccups in it. This was not even his only imprisonment. Paul often ran afoul of the authorities, yet here we are, gathered on a Sunday, each of us holding copies of his writings in our hand, and poring over his words. We love Paul, and honor him as one of the greatest men who ever lived. Fortunately, God has never judged anyone by their ratings in popularity polls.
In our text, Paul was not saying he was suffering due to the cause of Jesus. He was for sure in prison due to his ministry, but this was not the thought being conveyed in “the prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Paul, depicting himself as belonging solely to Jesus, saw his suffering as part of the lot assigned him by Christ.
Pondering his plight, he wondered, “Why am I here?” In his solitude, he found only one answer. Paul was in jail because Jesus had ordered it, and wanted him there.
Romans viewed Paul as a prisoner of Rome and Caesar; Paul saw himself a prisoner of Heaven and God. Paul felt he was totally “the prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
The Apostle, by seeing himself as Christ’s property, knew he could never be a victim of circumstances. Paul realized he was, without Christ’s consent, subject to no one or nothing. He measured every deed, relationship, and circumstance, in this light.
Paul was chained to a soldier, but knew who his real Captor was. He knew who held the keys to the cuffs chafing his wrists, and who locked the door of his cell.
The end of his imprisonment, be it release or death, will be determined by a nail-pierced King. Properly understanding this truth gave Paul inner calm. Had he merely viewed himself “the prisoner,” he would have found ample reason to sulk.
Fusing “the prisoner” with “of Christ Jesus” lifted everything higher, and put suffering in a light that burned out all self-pity. Troubles become an honor when we can couple them with Jesus’ name. Our outlook affects everything. How do we view our lot in life? Is it a hardship, or do we see in our troubles God’s hand? Has our humbly accepting them “as from a Father’s hand” reached Heaven as lovely worship?
When first hit with a hardship, we stagger a bit briefly, but must eventually gain our footing and march forward. Let nothing overwhelm us, or make us bitter. Even in the worst circumstances, we must rise to expressing joy. We must imitate Paul’s understanding of the Christian life by lifting our view of trials to lofty heights.
Eph. 3:1b-3 . . .on behalf of you Gentiles—You have heard, haven’t you, about the administration of God’s grace that He gave to me for you? The mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have briefly written above.
Paul was abused because he stood up for us Gentiles. Paul endured persecution because he would make no racial or ethnic distinctions. Paul mentioned this over and over again. He obviously loved it, and always hardly believed it.
He was amazed at himself. The fact he cared about Gentiles was to him incredible. He who had been a fanatic Pharisee was zealously proselyting Gentiles.
Paul could see only one explanation for himself–God. Only God could have orchestrated this amazing paradox, this marvelous irony, this shocking turnaround.
God took the A#1 blue-ribbon champion Pharisee and made him Apostle to the heathen. God truly has a flair for the dramatic. His ways are astounding, baffling.
May we beneficiaries of Paul’s message of inclusion never be excluders. A blight on an otherwise noble ministry can be the limited breadth of one’s Christianity. If a congregation sells itself entirely to one socioeconomic level, one race, one ethnic group, one party or denomination, to the exclusion of others, they choke the Gospel.
Paul was careful to say his message was not a personal discovery he could brag about; it was a gift from God, a “revelation.” The word refers to an uncovering, a laying bare, a disclosure. Christian truth is not a product of human knowledge.
Our message is not ordinary truth. It comes from God. People urgently need the “revelation” believers have. Varro, a first century B.C. Roman writer, collected responses to the question, “What is the true object of human life?” Regarding what was deemed the ultimate good, he compiled 320 different answers. We need divine “revelation”! Without it we run pell-mell in all directions, frantic to find a cause and life’s meaning. We need God’s “revelation” to tell us how to live and what to live for.
The “revelation” unveiled a “mystery”. We think of a “mystery” as an enigma, something hard to figure out, but in the New Testament, “mystery” refers to a truth God kept concealed and secret at one time, but eventually revealed and made known.
Once revealed, a “mystery” is not hard to understand. The “mystery” revealed to Paul was, Gentiles were to be admitted into the kingdom on the same terms with Jews. The “mystery” centered in God’s promised Messiah. God’s hidden purpose regarding Messiah was revealed. Jesus came not for Israel only, but also for Gentiles.
Eph. 2:4-5 By reading this you are able to understand my insight about the mystery of the Messiah. This was not made known to people in other generations as it is now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.
Paul wanted us to understand what he knew. We can stand beside him, analyze his words, and understand his insights “by reading.” Paul assumed what he wrote would be read in order to be understood. This is still a most basic assumption of Christian living. What has been written in Holy Writ is to be read, pondered, and comprehended. God wants us to learn and know the truths He revealed to Paul. He wants us to be knowledgeable, to think on our own, to have our own understanding.
God seeks people who will be students of His Word, who will pore over Scripture, as the Bereans did. Paul, bitterly treated in Thessalonica, slipped by night into Berea. The people there “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed” (Acts 17:11-12a). Oh for more Bereans, for saints who love the Word and scrutinize its substance.
On a personal note, reading the Bible cover to cover each year is the single most helpful discipline in my life. Reading the Bible helps. Take time to do it daily.
Deem yourself entirely dependent on the Bible. Its every word is counsel from God. We have no saving, definitive word from God apart from what Scripture says.
We too often take the Bible for granted. For instance, some people wish they could hear God’s audible voice, forgetting that Scripture is as authoritative as a voice from Heaven. Some think they would live better lives if God spoke out loud to them, but Israel heard God speak audibly, and right away sinned. Some say visions and dreams would be more effective than Holy Writ; not true. Read! We need no more than what is written. We may want the key to success to be God doing something spectacular or extraordinary, but to hear God, we hear Him “by reading” the Bible.
Eph. 3:6-7 The Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and partners of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I was made a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of His power.
In other words, God deserved all the credit for everything Paul accomplished. All his life, from the Damascus Road to Nero’s dungeon, could be explained only on the basis of a power source beyond himself. He was changed from murderer to minister, from Pharisee to preacher to Gentiles, from arrogance to awe, from fame to abuse–the power that changed him at first continued without ceasing or depletion.
The church-planting, missions, and evangelism assigned to Paul required more than human strength. We are called to the same task, and it still requires miracle-power. “To lose dependence is to lose everything” (MacArthur), for we cannot labor effectively in our own strength. Absolute, uninterrupted dependence on God is our only safeguard. Our greatest danger is not falling from a Spirit-filled life directly into open sin. The worst peril is quietly slipping from doing good things in the Spirit to doing good things in the flesh. The latter position is the dropping off point into sin. Remain ever mindful of our need for the Spirit’s power.