Prisoner, Promise, Preaching, Prayer, Eph. 3. 1-21
John Heading, Aberystwyth
In the previous three papers, we have considered the description of the mystery, 1. 1-14, the power of the mystery, 1. 15 to 2. 10, and lastly the basis of the mystery, 2. 11-22. In chapter 3, we now have the revelation of the mystery, followed at the end by Paul's second prayer in the Epistle.
Six times Paul emphasizes his heartfelt messages by calling himself "I Paul": relating to his personality, 2 Cor. 10. 1; as profiting in Christ, Gal. 5. 2; as a prisoner, Eph. 3. 1; as a preacher, Col. 1. 23; in persistence, 1 Thess. 2. 18; as a payer of debts, Philem. 19.
In our verse 1, the Spirit of inspiration uses Paul to write in the same way as his mind was working. It is an unfinished sentence, the subject being taken up again in Chapter 4. The apostle started writing the sentence, and then he realized that he should explain to the Ephesians how he came to know of the mystery. He could not alter what he had written (as we can today with white paint, with a self-erasing typewriter, or with a word-processor), so the rest of chapter 3 appears as an unmarked parenthesis.
Not all his readers would have heard of the administration given to Paul, whereby God had revealed the mystery to him so that he could pass it on to others. When in Ephesus, he had presented to them all the counsel of God, but newer converts would not necessarily have heard this, neither would other assemblies around Ephesus in Asia which Paul had never visited. It was "the grace of God" that had chosen and equipped Paul to accomplish this task. This is not what we call "saving grace", as 2. 8, but the special grace of gift, for he was but a channel, "unto me ... is this grace given", v. 8. In this connection, the word "grace" occurs three times in 1 Corinthians 15. 10; Paul laboured as an apostle because of this grace.
It was "by revelation" that God made known the mystery to Paul, Eph. 3. 3. This divine work from heaven distinguishes it from all the ideas and doctrines of men. The truth was uncovered to Paul's conscious knowledge in a miraculous way. It was the same with regard to the gospel; he was not taught it by any human process, but "by the revelation of Jesus Christ", Gal. 1. 12. The mystery to which Paul refers is, of course, that of the "same body", Eph. 3. 6, as described in chapters 1 and 2 (these chapters being what he had written "afore in few words"). It was necessary for the Ephesians to understand the origin of the apostolic knowledge, otherwise some would attempt to refute or reject it. Why do we believe Paul's teaching? Because in all cases the origin is the same: the Lord's Supper was "received of the Lord", 1 Cor. 11. 23; the gospel was that which he had received, 15. 3; Gal. 1. 12; the knowledge of the rapture had been received "by the word of the Lord", 1 Thess. 4. 15. In other words, believers must be far removed from modern trends whereby some say, "Oh, that is just Paul".
In verse 5, Paul draws a sharp distinction between what was made known to "the sons of men" "in other ages", and what was "revealed" in N.T. times to some special men. "In other ages" means here "in other generations", while we suggest that "the sons of men" refer to the O.T. prophets through whom God had spoken to His people. We may see the subject of the church in the types of the tabernacle and temple, but the typical interpretation together with any explicit reference to the church "was kept secret since the world began", Rom. 16. 25, although this mystery was a subject of heaven's occupation "before the world", 1 Cor. 2. 7.
Rather, the revelation was to God's "holy apostles and prophets"; namely, Paul was not alone in receiving the revelation, though others did not record it in writing. This combination "apostles and prophets" is found elsewhere, 1 Cor. 12. 29; Eph. 2. 20; 4. 11. By "apostles" are meant the twelve and Paul, although others who had been sent into missionary work were also sometimes called by this name in a non-technical sense, Acts 14. 4, 14. By "prophets" are meant men who taught what they had received from others or from the written Word of God. As "holy", these men had been set apart to receive and to hold faithfully this special truth.
In verse 6, Paul repeats the substance of the mystery. As in 2. 5-6 where he uses the prefix "together with" three times, so here; it is used three times in the words "joint-heirs, joint-body, joint-partakers", words that convey the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers. Men entered into the truth of the mystery "by the gospel"; the gospel itself was not part of the mystery, since the gospel was an O.T. promise made to the Gentiles, Gal. 3. 8.
Paul was made a "minister" of the gospel, namely, a "deacon" to teach this truth; this shows that the work of a deacon goes far beyond what is oftentimes associated with the word. It embraces the highest spiritual service, far above mere administration to which it is sometimes solely relegated. Divine grace provides this gift (as in 4. 11-12), and it was given "by the working of his power" (no word in the Greek text corresponds to "effectual", as also in 4. 16). This shows that Paul's ability and calling did not derive from any education received in the theological schools at the feet of Gamaliel. Only because of this divine calling could he preach "the unsearchable riches of Christ". This must go beyond the fundamental truths of salvation, into the realms of the mystery, since this was indeed treasure in heaven, which could not be given unto dogs nor cast before swine, Matt. 7. 6. No philosopher nor scientist can ever discover the truth of this mystery, while anti-racists who may claim to have found it have found a fragile and natural doctrine quite unlike that in the N.T.
Possessing these glorious heights of truth, the apostle minimized himself as "less than the least of all saints". John the Baptist minimized himself with respect to Christ, Matt. 3. 11; John 3. 30. Elsewhere, Paul minimized himself with the respect to the other apostles, 1 Cor. 15. 9, but here in our verse he minimizes himself with respect to "all saints". He knew that he had been the chief of sinners, but now had been put "into the ministry", 1 Tim. 1. 12-15. He had "persecuted the church of God", but now he laboured more abundantly than the other apostles, 1 Cor. 15. 9-10. Aaron had sunk into idolatry by making the golden calf, but had then been raised by grace to the high-priesthood in Israel. Diotrephes loved to have the preeminence, but other believers like Secundus, Tertius and Quartus (second, third, and fourth by interpretation) by their names knew their lower places, and hence, like Paul, could be far more effective.
Paul would work so as to make "all men see", namely, to enlighten the saints with this holy knowledge. Unbelievers may reject and scoff at the gospel since their hearts are darkened, but believers not only love the gospel but go further to enjoy the heights of God's purpose in Christ. For Paul brought a heavenly doctrine, since it had been hidden from ages, until revealed to the apostle. Yet God had "created all things by Jesus Christ"; the message had been hidden since the creation, though at the creation He knew that the time would ultimately come when the mystery would be fulfilled and made known to a select grouping of men.
But also "the principalities and powers" would know (as we have commented upon in 1. 21). These knew that Jew and Gentile were at variance during O.T. times; that Jew and Gentile were united at the cross to kill the Son of God, Acts 4. 27; that they will be united again in the prophetic future, Psa. 2. 1-2; that they are alike in sin, Rom. 3. 9; and that they are alike in the matter of salvation, 3. 29-30. But now only through the formation and service of the church can these powers see "the manifold wisdom of God", not in the manifold divergencies of Christendom, but in the church as the body of Christ, far removed from the vast inventions of men that have characterized the religious scene for centuries. For the eternal purpose of God remained unaltered throughout the ages in which the mystery was hidden, and it remains unchanged now that the mystery has been revealed, in spite of the innovations of men.
Thus in unity there is "boldness and access", v.12. Paul actually refers to "boldness of speech" (as in 6. 19-20). The apostle would do this in prayer, in declaring the mystery, and in proclaiming all the counsel of God. The apostle had liberty in these matters, though today in many prayers and presentations of truth these matters are often sadly lacking. For prayer, there was access "by the faith of him", in 2. 18 this access was by one Spirit to the Father. The words "synagogue" and "access" are similar; the first is formed from the words "leading together", while the second is formed from the words "leading towards". The first refers to a physical Jewish building and congregation, while the second refers to a spiritual approach to the Father, characteristic of the one new body in Christ.
Paul's Second Prayer, 3. 13-21.
The Ephesians may well feel discouraged as they contrasted the apostle's spiritual joy regarding his knowledge of the mystery with his physical state of imprisonment in Rome. Rather, his tribulations were for them and their glory, for these circumstances enabled him to write in detail about the mystery, so that the Ephesians could enter more fully into the glorious reality of the subject of the body of Christ. Thus the privileges of boldness and access, v. 12, would now be grasped. The reference to bowing the knees may be both metaphorical and physically reverential. Those who kneeled included Solomon, 2 Chron. 6. 13; Ezra, Ezra 9. 5; Daniel, Dan. 6. 10; worshippers generally, Psa. 95. 6; Stephen, Acts 7. 60; Peter, 9. 40; Paul and others, 20. 36; 21. 5. The Lord Jesus both kneeled and fell upon His face, Matt. 26. 39; Luke 22. 41; but David sat before the Lord, 1 Chron. 17. 16. Note that the access was to "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ": see also Eph. 1. 3, 17.
In verse 15, "every family" (not "the whole family") has been named by the Father. In the O.T., the family of Israel owned God as Father in a providential, caring and providing sense. Thus, "thou art our father", Isa. 64. 8; "I am a father to Israel", Jer. 31. 9. But the particular family forming the body of Christ was unique, being a heavenly family and not an earthly one. As such, Paul's prayer would be unique, referring to the members of the body of Christ. Hence Paul is concerned with "the inner man". The spiritual appreciation of the truth of the mystery is attainable by the Spirit; it is independent of any outward circumstances such as imprisonment, or any persecution that the Ephesians may suffer through having abandoned Diana worship and the purchase of shrines, Acts 19. 23-29. For the "outward man" perishes, 2 Cor. 4. 16; and "the flesh profiteth nothing", John 6. 63.
By praying firstly "that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith", Paul does not imply that Christ may not be there, since we have the divine promise of His presence in John 14. 20, 23; 17. 23. Rather, Paul must be referring to the Ephesians' appreciation of the great truth of His presence, for this can be dulled by any unsanctiiied occupation with the things of the world. (Thus in verses such as 1 Samuel 3. 1 and Psalm 80. 1, the glory of God was certainly present, but there was no discernment of any open vision, because of many worldly associations.)
Secondly, to be "rooted and grounded in love" uses a metaphor implying two kinds of soil perfectly balanced. Soil provides nourishment for a growing tree, and also holds the roots firm and stable. Rocky soil may yield strength but little food; marshy soil may yield food but little strength. But divine love provides balanced nourishment and strength for growth, preventing the winds of doctrine bowling one over, 4. 14. Again in Colossians 2. 6-7, we are rooted and built up in Christ, while even in the O.T. there is the thought of taking root downwards and bearing fruit upwards, 2 Kings 19. 30.
Verse 18 depicts the third point in Paul's prayer. Visualize standing in the middle of a field, asking, How many directions with differing properties are there? We interpret these as referring to the understanding of the mystery and its implications, (i) Breadth: that is sideways, embracing Jewish and Gentile believers alike, (ii) Length: forwards and backwards, suggesting a practical walk in keeping with the standards associated with the mystery, as in chapters 4-6. (iii) Depth: suggesting service in relation to the death of Christ, 5. 2, 25. (iv) Height: suggesting service in relation to the ascension of Christ, as in 4. 8-16.
The fourth point relates to "the love of Christ" that surpasses all, yet can be appreciated through the power of God operative through prayer. The subject of divine love is very full in Scripture, and is often associated with giving: God loved the world (he gave His Son), John 3.16; the Son of God loved Paul (He gave Himself for Paul), Gal. 2. 20; The Lord loved His own (the Father had given all things), John 13. 1-3; Christ loved His church (He gave Himself for it), Eph. 5. 25; the Father loved the Son (He gave the Spirit not by measure), John 3. 35.
Saints who enjoy these blessed conditions implied in this prayer are then "rilled with all the fulness of God". This fulness is seen as a goal that we approach. Elsewhere, "of his fulness have we all received", John 1. 16; "filled with the knowledge of his will", Col. 1. 9.
Finally, we have an expression of Paul's certainty that his prayers will be fulfilled. God can do things that are beyond our asking; we can ask great things, but the answer will be even greater, for there is power that works in us allowing answers to be worked out, the power being "might by his Spirit", v. 16.
Note the three "unto him" passages in the NT. (i) "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood", Rev. 1. 5-6; this is past. (ii) "Unto him that is able to do...", Eph. 3. 20-21; this is present, (iii) "Unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless", Jude 24-25; this is future. All these three passages make a statement about His person, work and ability, and all end with a doxology. See also Romans 16. 26-27.
Finally, Paul states that this doxology will be "in the church by Christ Jesus". The work of Christ and the relationship that has been developed with Himself will form the basis of this glory ascribed to God. This commences now, and extends "to all generations of the ages", lit. This embraces the millennium as the "fulness of times", 1. 10, and extends to the ages that are coming, 2.7, namely, eternity. Such is the influence and the privilege of the church!