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Ephesians 3:1-12 Biblical Commentary
In chapter 2, Paul talked about the Gentile Christians in Ephesus. They had been “dead in transgressions and sins,” (2:1), but God in his mercy “made (them) alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:5-6). The salvation accorded these Gentiles, then, was “the gift of God, not of works” (2:8-9).
In times past, there had been a deep division between Jew and Gentile—between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Gentiles had been “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12).
But Jesus broke down the dividing wall that separated Jews and Gentiles. He made the two one, “making peace” (2:15). The result was that these Gentiles were “no longer strangers and foreigners, but… fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (2:19).
EPHESIANS 3:1-4. ON BEHALF OF YOU GENTILES
1For this cause (Greek: toutou charin) I, Paul, am the prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles, 2if it is so that you have heard of the administration (oikonomia) of that grace of God which was given me toward you; 3how that by revelation the mystery was made known to me, as I wrote before in few words, 4by which, when you read, you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ;
“For this cause (toutou charin) I, Paul, am the prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles” (v. 1). The words toutou charin mean, “because of this” or “for this cause” or “for this reason” or “wherefore.” They tie this chapter to what Paul said in chapter 2 about Gentile Christians. Because God brought Gentiles into the kingdom, Paul became a prisoner on their behalf.
That requires some explanation. After Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9; 22:1-16), Christ appointed Paul as his “chosen vessel to bear (his) name before the nations” (ethnos—nations or Gentiles) (Acts 9:15). God “called (Paul) through his grace, to reveal his Son in (him), that (he) might preach (Christ) among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16). Paul became “a servant of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, serving as a priest the Good News of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be made acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16).
In other words, God assigned Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and that became the mission that consumed the rest of Paul’s life.
“if it is so that you have heard of the administration (oikonomia—administration or stewardship) of that grace of God which was given me toward you” (v. 2). Apparently, a number of the Gentiles in the Ephesian church know Paul only by reputation rather than having known him personally.
The Greek word oikonomia (administration or stewardship) combines two words, oikos (house) and nomos (parcel out—law). It meant the manager of a household. Paul uses oikonomia here to mean the management or stewardship of God’s grace. God gave Paul the responsibility for conveying grace to the Gentiles. Paul has been faithful to his calling, which is how these Gentiles happen to know about Christ. It is because of Paul’s stewardship that they have been recipients of God’s grace.
“how that by revelation (apokalypsis) the mystery (mysterion) was made known to me, as I wrote before in few words” (v. 3). The sort of mystery (mysterion) that Paul is talking about here is something sacred that can be known only by revelation. We cannot ferret out an understanding of the mystery by use of reason or intuition. We can understand only when/if God chooses to open the door to our understanding. We can understand only if God makes known what otherwise would remain hidden.
The word revelation (apokalypsis) is interesting. An apokalypsis is a revelation or a disclosing or an unveiling—plus the ability to interpret or to understand what is seen. Apokalypsis is sometimes used for the turning on of a light, as in Luke 2:32, which speaks of “a light for revelation (apokalypsis) to the nations” (ethnos—nations or Gentiles).
That verse from Luke is on-point here, because the word that is translated nations is ethnos, which also means Gentiles. The mystery that God revealed to Paul was that God has given Gentiles equal access to the kingdom of God. They no longer must submit to Jewish law (such as circumcision) to be eligible for God’s grace. They are no longer second-class citizens.
“by which, when you read” (v. 4a). This probably refers to a public reading in the church of Paul’s letter. Any copying of his letter would have to be done by hand, and would be slow and expensive. Most people couldn’t read anyway. Widespread Bible reading would have to await the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century.
“you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ” (v. 4b). Paul didn’t come to his understanding of the mystery of Christ by his own initiative. In his letter to the Galatian church, he says:
“For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ…. It was the good pleasure of God…to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:12, 15-16).
EPHESIANS 3:5-6. FELLOW HEIRS AND FELLOW MEMBERS
5which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy (Greek: hagios) apostles and prophets in the Spirit; 6that the Gentiles are fellow heirs (Greek: synkleronoma), and fellow members (sussomos) of the body, and fellow partakers (symmetochos) of his promise in Christ Jesus through the Good News,
“which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (v. 5). That which had not been known in earlier generations was that Christ would bring Gentiles into God’s family (see v. 6).
That, however, has now been revealed to Christ’s “holy (hagios) apostles and prophets in the Spirit.”The Greek word hagios means holy or set apart for God. The tabernacle and temple were holy, because they were set apart as the dwelling places of God. Sacrificial animals were holy, because they were set apart for a Godly purpose. God has set these apostles and prophets apart for Godly work—bringing Gentiles into God’s family—God’s household.
Some scholars have suggested that the word holy modifies only apostles and not prophets. In other words, it is “holy apostles” and “prophets” (not “holy prophets”). That idea gains support elsewhere when Paul prioritizes various callings: “First apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various kinds of languages” (1 Corinthians 12:28).
It is “the Spirit” who has revealed the mystery to the apostles and prophets—who have, in turn, make known to the church what the Spirit has revealed to them.
“that the Gentiles are fellow heirs” (synkleronoma) (v. 6a). Synkleronoma combines two Greek words—syn (with) and kleronomos (an heir). The Gentiles are joint-heirs with the Jews. Gentiles haven’t displaced Jews, but have been invited to sit at God’s table and to share on an equal basis.
An heir is a person who has the legal right to an inheritance. Jewish law regulated inheritances, giving two shares to the firstborn son and one share each to the other sons (Deuteronomy 21:17).
God’s first family was the nation of Israel (Romans 9:4-5). God said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Exodus 4:22). Paul says that we have become “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17)—the result of God adopting us into his family (John 1:12-13; Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 3:16; 4:4-6; Ephesians 1:5; Revelation 21:7).
“and fellow members of the body” (sussomos) (v. 6b). Sussomos combines syn (with) and soma (body)—one body. “And fellow members of the body” translates this one Greek word.
In this context, the word body refers to the church, the body of which Christ is the head. Elsewhere, Paul says:
• “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5).
• “For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
and fellow partakers (symmetochos) of his promise in Christ Jesus through the Good News” (v. 6c). Symmetochos combines syn (with) and metochos (partaker).
The image that comes to my mind is that of people sitting together at a table—food served family style from large bowls—each person taking what he/she needs.
Note that all three of these words, synkleronoma (fellow heirs), sussomos (fellow members), and symmetochos (fellow partakers) start with the word syn (with). Syn suggests a close bond, and that is certainly implied in each of the three syn words.
Also note the way the original recipients of this letter would have heard this verse:
You are synkleronoma (fellow heirs).
You are sussomos (fellow members).
You are symmetochos (fellow partakers).
There is a graceful, poetic note to these similar-sounding words that is difficult to convey in a translation.
“of his promise.” In chapter 2, Paul reminded these Gentiles that they had been “strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” But then he went on the say:
“But now in Christ Jesus
you who once were far off are made near in the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace, who made both one,
and broke down the middle wall of partition” (2:12-14).
In other words, the Gentiles, who had been ineligible to receive the promise, had by the grace of Christ become eligible.
EPHESIANS 3:7-9. GRACE TO PREACH TO THE GENTILES
7of which I was made a servant (Greek: diakanos), according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power. 8To me, the very least of all saints (hagios), was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9and to make all men see what is the administration (oikonomia) of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things through Jesus Christ;
“of which I was made a servant” (diakanos) (v. 7a). Diakonos (servant) is the Greek word from which we get our word “deacon.” The way that diakonos is used in the New Testament makes it clear that the diaconate is a humble position. Jesus said, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (diakonos) (Matthew 20:26; see also Matthew 23:11). Paul uses the word frequently to show that he is merely a servant of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:5, 9; 2 Corinthians 6:4; Ephesians 1:23; 6:21; Colossians 1:23, 25). He also calls Christ a diakonos (servant) (Romans 15:8)—and even a doulos—a slave (Philippians 2:7)—an even more humble status than diakonos).
“according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power” (v. 7b). Paul’s (Saul’s) call to ministry was totally unexpected (Acts 9). Saul was “breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord,” when he saw a bright light in the sky and a heard Jesus’ voice calling, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Blinded by the light, he was led into Damascus, where Christ called Ananias to care for Saul. Ananias protested that Saul was persecuting Christians, but Jesus said, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15; see also Acts 26:16).
The point of this verse is that Paul’s call was a Godly initiative, and Paul served by the grace given by God and by the Godly power imparted to him. He had a vital ministry, but he couldn’t claim that it was by dint of his intellect or wisdom or religious fervor or anything else that he could have brought to the table. It was all by the grace of God.
Paul was faithful to his call. Later, reporting on his call, he said, “By the grace of God I am what I am. His grace which was bestowed on me was not futile, but I worked more than all of them; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
“To me, the very least (elachistoteros) of all saints (hagios), was this grace given” (v. 8a). See the comments above on verse 5 for the meaning of hagios (saints).
• Paul could easily claim to be the most important apostle, because in the book of Acts he displaces Peter at the mid-point of the book. Peter was most prominent through chapter 12, but almost disappears after that. Acts 13-27 are largely accounts of Paul’s ministry.
• Paul could also claim to have suffered more than anyone else in his service to Christ (1 Corinthians 4:11-12; 2 Corinthians 11:16; 2 Timothy 2:9; 3:10)—and to have accomplished more.
• Paul wrote nearly half of the New Testament.
But instead of claiming superiority, Paul says that he is the elachistoteros (less than the least, far less)—an unusual word that emphasizes Paul’s inferior status. He doesn’t claim to be the very least among the apostles (a select group), but among the saints (all believers).
Church leaders of all stripes can bless the church by adopting this “least, very least” attitude. The higher up the church ladder, the more important the dose of humility! Pastors of churches—especially pastors of large churches—will bless their congregations by being honestly humble. Bishops and other denominational officials need to work even harder not to get the “big head.” The same is true of seminary professors—and others who have a wide impact, such as popular authors or musicians.
The same is true for the leadership of local churches. Marginal people often seek church offices to gain the kind of prominence that they have been denied elsewhere. Their self-serving leadership can be devastating.
“to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (v. 8b). Paul outlined the nature of these “unspeakable riches” in the introduction to this letter. Christ “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing”—to include becoming “holy and without blemish”—and being adopted as God’s children—and receiving “the glory of his grace” and forgiveness of sins—and being privy to “the mystery of his will”—and gaining an inheritance and the Good News of salvation (1:3-14).
The fruits of the Spirit come to mind: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Wouldn’t we consider the person who possesses those fruits to be blessed with “the unsearchable riches of Christ”!
Paul is aware of these riches—these blessings—and has been faithful to his calling to “preach to the Gentiles,” letting them know “the unspeakable riches of Christ” that are available to them as believers.
“and to make all men see what is the administration (oikonomia) of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God” (v. 9a). For the meaning of oikonomia, see the comments on verse 2 above.
Paul has been tasked, not only to preach (directed to the ears), but also to “make all men see” (directed to the eyes). Of course, Paul is speaking metaphorically here, using word-pictures to help us understand.
Just think of the ways that the church uses the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste) to proclaim Christ. The following is just a short list:
• SIGHT: Banners, stained glass windows, architecture, etc.
• SOUND: Music, public reading of scriptures, preaching, etc.
• SMELL: Incense.
• TOUCH: Handling holy objects as well as hand-holding and hugs.
• TASTE: The Lord’s Supper—and coffee-hours and pot-luck dinners.
The point of this verse is that “the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God” is no longer a mystery, because Christ has made God’s will known.
“who created all things through Jesus Christ” (v. 9b). Jesus Christ is no Johnny-come-lately. While he became visible to us when he was born, he was present with the Father from the beginning—from before the beginning. He participated in the creation. John says:
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him.
Without him was not anything made
that has been made” (John 1:1-3).
EPHESIANS 3:10-12. ACCORDING TO THE ETERNAL PURPOSE
10to the intent that now through the assembly (Greek: ekklesia) the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places, 11according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord; 12in whom we have boldness and access in confidence through our faith in him.
“to the intent that now through the assembly (ekklesia—church) the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities (arche—rulers) and the powers (exousiais—authorities) in the heavenly places” (epouranios) (v. 10). Paul tends to write long sentences that require the reader to stay alert and remember what Paul has been saying—and how the present verse connects to that which went before.
Paul has been talking about his call “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (v. 8)—and to help people see what God had hidden for so long (v. 9).
“to the intent that.” These words signal that Paul is getting ready to state the purpose of his apostolic ministry.
“now through the assembly” (ekklesia—church). Don’t miss the word “now.” Until Christ’s death and resurrection, God’s plan was a mystery—hidden (v. 9). But now God has revealed what had been hidden—and has called Paul “to preach to the Gentiles” (v. 8), so that “through the ekklesia” (the church), God’s wisdom might be revealed.
“the manifold (polypoikilos) wisdom (sophia) of God.” The word polypoikilos means very many—or highly diverse—or multifaceted.
Just think for a moment about the wide reach of God’s wisdom. God knows the universe from the tiny particles that make up an atom to the huge galaxies that extend almost beyond our imagining.
God knows us—knows us as our creator—knows our ins and outs and our ups and downs. The Psalmist says, “My frame wasn’t hidden from you, when I was made in secret, woven together in the depths of the earth.” He goes on to say, “How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is their sum! If I would count them, they are more in number than the sand” (Psalm 139:15, 17-18).
God made a great deal of wisdom available to Israel through the law and prophets. Proverbs 10-22 in particular contains a multitude of short, pithy wisdom sayings.
In his teachings, Jesus added to our wisdom (see Matthew chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25). Paul and the other New Testament writers further expanded our wisdom.
But God’s ultimate expression of wisdom was the gift of his Son to die on a cross—and to break the bonds of death through his resurrection. This appeared as “a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
If you are tempted to wonder whether the wisdom of God is really wise, consider how different our world would be if everyone would adopt “love God and neighbor” as their guiding principle (Mark 12:30-31).
Or consider how different it would be if everyone sought to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit—”love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). What we see instead is a world that embraces the fruits of the flesh——”adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). The result has misery beyond measure.
“to the principalities (arche—rulers) and the powers (exousiais—authorities) in the heavenly places.” This combination of principalities (arche) and powers (exousiais)—often translated rulers and authorities—is usually used in a negative way in the New Testament.
• Jesus told his disciples not to worry when brought before the rulers and authorities “for the Holy Spirit will teach you…what you must say” (Luke12:11-12).
• Paul said, “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
• Christ, “having stripped the principalities and the powers, …made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:15).
• But Paul counseled Titus to “be in subjection to rulers and to authorities” (Titus 3:1). That, however, was a gesture to civil authority, which is needed to avoid chaos. Paul did not intend it as an endorsement of rulers and authorities.
When Paul speaks here of “the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places,” he means the angelic host, both good and bad. Angels are God’s messengers (Hebrews 1:14; Revelation 1:1). They are part of the created order—not the creator (Colossians 1:16). They are subject to judgment for wrongdoing (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6). Paul says that humans will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). Angels deserve respect (1 Corinthians 11:10; 1 Timothy 5:21; Hebrews 2:7, 9)—but Christ is far superior to angels (Hebrews 1:4-6, 13; 1 Peter 3:22).
“according to the eternal (aion) purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 11). What God planned from the time before time existed—his eternal purpose—has come into fruition through Jesus Christ—his cross, resurrection, and ascension.
“in whom we have boldness (parresia) and access in confidence through our faith in him” (v. 12). Paul has already stated that, through Jesus, we have access to the Father (2:18). Now he adds that we can go to the Father with boldness (parresia) and confidence (pepoithesis).
In the tabernacle and temple, the inner sanctum was the Holy of Holies, where God’s seat was perched atop the Ark of the Covenant. In other words, the Holy of Holies was the dwelling place of God. Ordinary mortals were not allowed access to the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest was permitted entrance, and he only once a year on the Day of Atonement.
But when Jesus died on the cross, “the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom” (Mark 15:38)—signifying that Jesus’ death has ripped open the barrier between God and humans—breaking down the dividing wall (Ephesians 2:14)—granting free access.
The Greek word parresia (boldness) has to do with freedom to speak openly and frankly. In our prayers, we have no reason to fear that we might say the wrong thing—or express ourselves badly—or violate some sort of heavenly norm. God has granted us freedom, not only to come into his throne room, but also to speak freely.
The word pepoithesis (confidence) tells us that we can trust God—can be confident that God will treat us as beloved children, even when we are guilty of doing what God would not approve.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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