The Lord's Day Morning
November 27, 2005
“What is the Mystery of Christ?”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians, chapter 3. Paul is about to return to prayer in this passage. We've seen throughout of study of this book how much of the letter of Paul to the Ephesians is filled with prayer: with prayer reports, with prayer requests, with outlines of prayer, with actual prayers that are lifted up in praise to God or in petition for the Lord's people, and as we would say in the South, Paul is about to “commence to prayin’ again!” And you’ll see that in verse 14. He's going to begin praying for the Ephesians, but before he begins praying again for the Ephesians he wants them to understand something, and you’ll see that something in verses 1 and 13.
Paul knows that there are some Ephesian Christians who have been deeply discouraged by the fact that Paul himself is imprisoned and going through trials and tribulations, and so before Paul turns his pastoral focus again to praying for the Ephesians that they would be built up in Christ, he wants them to be assured. He wants them not to lose heart; he wants them to be encouraged by several great truths, and those truths are laid out for you in this passage from verse 1 to verse 13. We’re going to concentrate on the first half, and it essentially gives five encouragements to the Ephesians about Paul's trials, lest they lose heart because of what he was going through.
Now Paul not only tells the Ephesians these things that they might not lose heart in his tribulations, but also that they might not lose heart in their own tribulations, and that makes this a very, very practical passage for us.
I'm going to look at this passage in three movements. As you see Paul work through his arguments, you’ll see the first part in verses 1-3. In those verses Paul is going to describe himself as a prisoner of Christ for the sake of the Gentiles, as a steward of God's grace and as a knower of the mystery of Christ. And all of those things Paul sees as encouragements to the Ephesians in his own trial.
Then in verses 4 and 5, we're going to see what a mystery is from a Christian point of view. In this passage, Paul explains what he means by “a mystery.” It's a term he uses in the New Testament over and over again, but when we hear the word mystery, we tend to think of something different than Paul would have thought of. So he explains it to us here.
And then, thirdly and finally, in verse 6 he is going to specify what he means by “the mystery of Christ.” Why is he so excited about this message in the mystery of Christ that he gets to proclaim? Well, each of these things are matters for encouragement.
Before we read God's word and seek His encouragement, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Our Lord and our God, this is Your word. It is Your word for Your people. You mean it for our profit. You mean it to do us good. You mean to reveal Yourself in the word. You mean to remind us of our sin, and You mean to point us to the Savior and show us the gospel. Because this is Your word, we need Your Spirit to understand it, and more importantly, we need Your Spirit to believe it, to trust in You, to act upon Your word, and to live the Christian life. So by Your Spirit help us to understand, to believe, and to live the truth of Your word. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Hear the word of God.
“For this reason I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles–if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel….”
Amen. Thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Paul is about to pray again with the Ephesians, but he knows that their hearts are troubled. They are troubled because the man who taught them the gospel is under the guard of Roman imperial imprisonment. He is enduring a trial. He is being prevented from carrying on his ministerial work through preaching the gospel to the Jew first and also to the Greek, and he is in danger as he is now in the hands of Caesar. He is a prisoner of the secular powers, and he has endured many tribulations. And Paul is concerned that the Ephesians not be discouraged by his circumstances, and so in order to encourage them, in order to exhort them not to lose heart (as you see him say in verse 13), he first tells them who he is — who God has made him to be, by His grace.
And then he points them to the mystery which Paul has been openly proclaiming in his preaching of the gospel, and he zeroes in on this specific mystery which he calls “the mystery of Christ.” And these things he sees as matters of utmost importance and of the greatest encouragement to these Christians as they are tempted to be discouraged by Paul's tribulations, and perhaps as they will be tempted to be discouraged by their own tribulations.
You see, Paul wants them to glory in what they are and what they have in Jesus Christ, and he wants what they are and what they have in Jesus Christ to color the way that they approach his tribulation and their own; and that makes this a very practical passage for you and me, because Paul wants us to glory in what we are and have in Christ Jesus, and he wants that — what we are and have in Christ Jesus — to color our approach not only to Paul's tribulation, but to our own.
Let's look together, then, at this passage, as Paul lays out his argument.
I. Paul is aware of four realities that change his perspective on his tribulation.
First, in verses 1-3 where Paul is asking this question: ‘Why shouldn't you be discouraged, Ephesian Christians, about what I'm going through, about my trials?’ And he's giving an answer to that question: ‘You shouldn't be discouraged, because I'm a prisoner of Christ, because I'm a prisoner for your sake, because I've been given a gracious stewardship, a glorious job to do by God, and because God has granted that I would know the mystery of Christ.’
In other words, Paul is aware of four realities that change his perspective on his tribulation and ought to comfort the Ephesians as they were concerned for him. Let's look at those four realities together.
First of all, notice he says “For this reason I Paul, the prisoner of Christ….” If you and I were together in Ephesus, my guess is there would be at least one person brave enough to say, ‘You know, the last time I checked, Paul was a prisoner of Caesar. It wasn't Jesus who put him in prison; it was Caesar! He's under house arrest. It's Nero, for crying out loud, to whom he is a prisoner.’
The Apostle Paul knows that, and yet what does he want to emphasize to the Ephesians? ‘I'm the prisoner of Christ. Nobody puts me here unless Jesus wants me here. No man has power to prevent my service to the gospel unless Jesus decides that that's going to happen.’ Isn't that a gloriously comforting truth? He's already pointing to the rule and overrule of our sovereign God in every affair of life.
I love The Heidelberg Catechism's first question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” [And if you don't know The Heidelberg Catechism, go buy a good commentary on The Heidelberg Catechism and read through it on Sunday afternoons through the next year. You can start it in January. It's a gloriously comforting document that outlines a biblical view of Christian faith.] But in answer to that question, after it says that “My only comfort in life and death is that Jesus Christ my Lord has died for me, and I belong to Him, and I am not my own…” it goes on to say “…and not one hair of my head can fall, apart from my heavenly Father.” In other words, the Catechism is reminding its answerer that you are under the watchful, careful, providential oversight of a loving, merciful heavenly Father, who will not allow anything to happen to His children apart from His will.
And the Apostle Paul is reminding the Ephesians, ‘I'm the prisoner of Christ. Don't look at my current circumstances as an interruption in God's plan. Don't look at my present circumstances as a failure in God's care. Oh, no! I'm not the prisoner of Caesar; I'm the prisoner of Christ, and that makes me free.
But he doesn't stop. He goes on to say, ‘I am the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of your Gentiles, and the very reason that I'm here under house arrest is that I've been proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles. It delights my soul that I would have the privilege of being imprisoned because I was preaching the gospel to you Gentiles.’ That should be particularly poignant to us today, because most of us here today are Gentile Christians. We literally wouldn't be here if it were not in God's sovereign plan for the Apostle Paul, this apostle to the Gentiles. This Jewish man whose heart burned with love for Gentiles who were lost, he says, ‘Ephesian Christians, don't be discouraged because I'm in prison. I'm in prison because I was preaching the gospel to you. You wouldn't be there in that church being concerned for me if I hadn't been preaching the gospel to you, and therefore the very fact that you’re gathered and concerned for me today is the result of my preaching to you, and my preaching to you has landed me here, and if I had to choose between being in prison or having you as my brothers and sisters for eternity, I’ll take prison rather that you lose that privilege of eternal fellowship with God and with all the saints.’
But he doesn't stop. He goes on to say, furthermore “…if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you….” Now, that might sound like he's saying to these Ephesian Christians, ‘You might have heard of this gift that God gave me of being a steward of the gospel to preach to the Gentiles.’ That's not what he's saying. He's saying ‘You most certainly have heard it. Since you have heard of my stewardship…’ In other words, God had not only saved Paul, Jesus had not only met him on the road to Damascus and converted him, but God in His mercy, having saved him from his deserving punishment, had made him a messenger of grace to the Gentiles. Of course all those Gentiles had heard about the stewardship of God's grace that Paul had been given! Of course all those Gentiles understood that God had not only saved him, but made him a preacher, and a preacher especially to go to the Gentiles. Those Gentiles wouldn't be there that day if they hadn't heard of that stewardship, and Paul is reminding them again that God had been so good to him to grant that he would have the privilege of sharing the gospel, of preaching the gospel.
And notice, he goes on to say ‘…and that by revelation there was made know to me the mystery….” In other words, by God's revelation He had explained to Paul, He had revealed to Paul, He had shown to Paul the mystery of Jesus Christ, and Paul had had the great privilege of proclaiming something that even Isaiah didn't proclaim, that even Jeremiah didn't proclaim, that even Ezekiel didn't proclaim, that even Moses didn't proclaim. Paul would be given a message to proclaim that even the greatest of the Old Testament prophets up to the time of John the Baptist had not had the privilege of proclaiming, and for all those reasons Paul's response to them is ‘You’re discouraged by my trials and my imprisonment? You've got to be kidding! I am a prisoner of Christ! Nothing happens to me that Christ is not in charge of. You’re discouraged by my trials and imprisonment? You've got to be kidding! I'm here because I love you. You’re discouraged by my trials and imprisonment? I have been given a gift of grace to be able to tell this message. To be in prison for it is an honor. You’re discouraged and upset about my trials? You've got to be kidding! I've been shown the mystery of God's purposes in this world in His people.’
The Apostle Paul is aware of these four realities. They change his perspective on his own tribulations, and he expects the Ephesians’ perspectives on his tribulations to be changed as they realize those things as well.
Do you realize that Paul is glorying in who he is and what he has in Jesus Christ? And that changes, that colors his approach to suffering and trial and tribulation in life? It's meant to change the way we view trials and tribulations, too. The Apostle Paul is on fire for God.
I used to think that Paul's boldness and zeal was because he had had a face to face encounter with Jesus Christ and because he had been carried up into the third heaven. And I excused myself — “Lord, I'd be that bold if I had met Jesus face to face. Lord, I'd be that bold if I'd been carried up into third heaven. Lord, I'd be that confident; Lord, I'd be….” and I can make all the excuses in the world, but you know, the real secret to Paul's boldness for the gospel and his confidence in life was not those miraculous face to face encounters with Jesus and being taken up into third heaven. It was because of what he says there in verse 3, that by revelation he had been made known the mystery. In other words, God's truth had taken hold of his heart and he understood the glory of God's salvation by grace through faith in Christ and what that means for all His people. And that truth had taken hold of his heart. It colored everything that he did in his life, the whole of his life.
II. Paul explains what a Christian mystery is.
Secondly, if you look at verses 4 and 5, he's going to explain to us what a mystery from a biblical (or Christian) point of view is. A mystery at its most basic level in the New Testament is something that was once concealed and has now been revealed, and Paul is going to explain what a Christian mystery is, here in verses 4 and 5. And I want you to notice three parts of this mystery.
First of all, the mystery is an open secret. In the days of Jesus and Paul and the ministers of the gospel in the years thereafter, in the first and second centuries in the Mediterranean world, there were what were called “mystery religions,” and in those mystery religions there were certain secrets that only certain people knew, sort of like how Masonic Orders work: you work your way up the chain, and you’re told more secrets along the way. That is not what a Christian mystery is! A Christian mystery is an open truth.
In other words, the Apostle Paul doesn't hold anything back when he talks to everybody. He tells them all the truth that he knows. And so a Christian mystery is not something which is designed for only a few in a holy huddle to know. That is not the kind of mystery that the Apostle Paul is talking about. Every Christian knows every truth taught in God's word — or ought to — and that truth is not held back and only given to certain secret people who have reached a certain level of spirituality.
When we hear mystery we think, “Agatha Christie,” or my daughter thinks “Nancy Drew.” That's not what Paul is talking about. A mystery is an open secret. It's something that is publicly proclaimed. It's not a secret that is held back only for a few initiates, it's publicly proclaimed; so the first thing about a mystery is it is an open secret — it's publicly proclaimed.
The second thing is this: In the New Testament, a mystery is something that can only be known by divine revelation. It can only be known because God Himself has revealed it, and Paul says that in this very passage. Notice what he says: The mystery of Christ [verse 5] has now been revealed to us, “…to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit.” In other words, the Apostle Paul is reminding you that a mystery is something that has to be revealed by divine revelation. You’d never figure it out on your own. You wouldn't know it unless God has revealed it in His word.
But thirdly, notice that a mystery is something that was once concealed but is now revealed. It is something that was once hidden. In the days of the Old Testament it wasn't fully and clearly understood, but it is now openly and clearly displayed and proclaimed in the preaching of the apostles and the prophets, and the pastor/teachers in the day of the new covenant. Since Pentecost, since the sending of the Holy Spirit, since the ascension of Jesus Christ it is now publicly known and proclaimed.
Now, you know, for instance, that in I Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul says, “Behold, I tell you a mystery. You will not all sleep, but you will all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” What's Paul talking about? He's talking about the great resurrection of the people of God, and he's talking about our bodies and our souls being reunited in resurrection glory. Now, you know that the Old Testament hints at that reality, but it does not teach that reality with the clarity which we find it in the proclamation of the apostles and prophets. They clearly and unambiguously trumpet the truth of the final resurrection. You get hints here and there of that truth in the Old Testament, but it is clearly displayed in the New. So also Paul is saying ‘I'm going to tell you a mystery’ in this passage.
III. Paul highlights three aspects of the Mystery of Christ.
Now what is that mystery?
Well, we’ll have to look at verse 6 to see that. What is the mystery? Again, he's spoken about this in chapter 2. The mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members, fellow recipients of God's grace. They are fellow heirs of the kingdom. They are fellow members of the body. They are recipients of God's promises. That's the mystery that Paul is talking about. He's going to highlight three aspects of this mystery.
The Gentiles, he says first of all, are fellow heirs. They inherit what was promised to God's people from the time of Abraham. They are fellow members. That is, they are just as much a part of the body as members of Israel who trusted in the one true God who are the descendants of Abraham. They are fellow members. And they are fellow recipients or fellow partakers of the promises, the promises that God gave to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and to the children of Israel. Those promises belong to the Gentile believers in Jesus Christ. That is the mystery of Christ.
But you say 'Now, wait a minute. That was revealed in the Old Testament. I mean, after all, God said to Abraham that He was going to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth.’ You’re right. ‘And, through Isaiah God expresses the longing of the prophets that the earth would be covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea; and the prophets and the psalmists long for the day when even the Gentiles will come to Jerusalem to Mount Zion to worship the one true and living God.’ Yes, all true. But…the spiritual, faithful, believing Jew at the time of Jesus Christ, when he thought of those great prophetic passages and promises in the Old Testament, pictured this: yes, one day all of those pagan Gentiles that come to a saving knowledge of God are going to become good Jews. They’re going to obey the ceremonial law; they’re going to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem; they’re going to be a part of the nation-state of Israel; they’re going to keep the food laws; they’re going to keep the clothing laws; they’re going to offer sacrifices. The nation of Israel is no longer going to be overrun by Babylonians and Egyptians and Romans: it's going to be set up and reign forever and ever and ever, and David will reign on his throne.
And here is the Apostle Paul coming to say ‘I declare now an open secret: it is not going to be that way. But the Gentiles, by faith in Jesus Christ, are going to be joint heirs, joint members, joint recipients of the promises of God to Abraham. The ceremonial law will be no more. Israel will be no more, but this trans-ethnic, trans-national people — the church — will go on forever. And believing Jew and Gentile together will worship the one true God, because the One who has fulfilled the ceremonial law has not only reconciled them to God, but reconciled them to one another.’ And the Apostle Paul says ‘I delight at being able to preach that message,’ even though that message got him in trouble more than anything else he ever preached.
You know, when Paul preached that Jesus was the Messiah, he really rarely got much opposition; but when he started preaching that Jesus was Messiah and that therefore Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to fellowship with the one true and living God, then all sorts of dust started getting kicked up! And isn't it interesting that Paul says ‘I delight to be able to preach this message: that in Christ and in the gospel Gentiles have everything that was promised to God's people of old. They have the inheritance, they’re members of the family, they have the promises.’
And my friends, that's so important, because everything and the only thing that any minister of the gospel has to offer to you is received in and only in Jesus Christ, and through and only through the gospel. And any time a minister tells you that you can have purpose and satisfaction and fulfillment and meaning in this life apart from Christ and apart from the gospel, you can be sure that that person is not a Christian minister. Because the only thing that Paul has to offer, he has to offer in Christ and in the gospel. But my friends, that's the only thing he needs to offer, because that's the only thing you need, because in Christ and in the gospel what we have and what we are is more than enough. And what we have and what we are, if we’ll just realize it, will change, will color the way we approach our tribulations, to God's praise. Let's pray.
Our Lord, give us the burning desire that Paul had to see Jesus reigning where e’er the sun its successive journeys runs; give us the burning desire of Paul to see the Gentiles enjoy the glorious pleasure of the company of the saints; give us the desire of Paul to see the Muslim world and the Hindu world and the Buddhist world and the pagan world all worshiping the crucified, dead, buried, risen and ascended Savior, Jesus Christ, trusting in Him through the gospel. And O God, by Your Spirit grant that we ourselves would trust in Christ through the gospel and know all these promises, and that it would change the way we view the trials of this life. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.