The Mystery of the Gospel

The Vine

Paul did well at encouraging his fellow Christians with reminders of all the spiritual blessings with which God has blessed them in Christ, praying they might be able to understand the greatness of the salvation they obtained in Christ, the head of the church (Ephesians 1:1-23). Paul explained the nature of that salvation, how all had sinned and yet God showed love, grace, and mercy through Jesus to provide a means of salvation so Christians could be full of good works (Ephesians 2:1-10). Paul made it known how this salvation was offered to Gentiles, those of the nations: the hostility which had existed between the people of God and the nations was killed by Jesus on the cross, and He can now make all into one man in one body (Ephesians 2:11-18). Anyone can now be a fellow-citizen of the household of God and become part of the holy temple of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).

On account of these great blessings and salvation, Paul would again pray on behalf of his fellow Christians, but not until he explained the mystery of the Gospel regarding which he had already made many allusions (Ephesians 3:1-13). Paul envisioned his current imprisonment as a benefit for the Christians to whom he wrote, for it is to their glory (Ephesians 3:1, 13); he is imprisoned for his work in proclaiming among the Gentiles the mystery which God revealed to him, something not made known to previous generations of God’s people but now manifested in what God has accomplished in Jesus (Ephesians 3:1-5). It is easy to think of “mystery” in terms of either a “whodunit,” a crime story in which a sleuth uses all the clues to ascertain and indict the criminal, or something vague, unknown, and unknowable, yet Paul came out with a full explanation of this mystery: Gentiles can be fellow heirs, fellow members, and fellow partakers in the body and promises of Christ (Ephesians 3:6). It is not as if this mystery came without any warning or previous information: all of what Jesus accomplished had been prophesied in the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets (Luke 24:44). Yet the hand of God is evident in the story of Jesus, for while all He did was prophesied, people would not of their own invention or volition put the story together the way in which it came to pass in Christ. Thus the mystery of the Gospel was unveiled in the work which God accomplished in Jesus and communicated by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:1-6)!

Paul proclaimed the Gospel among the Gentiles by the commission of God in Christ who saved him despite his unworthiness, having been a persecutor of the church (Ephesians 3:7-8; cf. 1 Timothy 1:12-16). God hid this mystery prepared before the beginning of the world until the time of Christ, and now not only can all men hear and see it, but the manifold wisdom of God as manifest in the church is displayed to all the powers and principalities of heaven (Ephesians 3:9-10). The wisdom of God manifest in the church was the eternal purpose He established in Christ, through whom we now have boldness and access in faith to God (Ephesians 3:11-12). An eternal purpose continues perpetually in at least one direction; therefore, God’s purposes in Christ remain as active today as they did when the Lord Jesus arose and the Apostles walked the earth. Furthermore, Paul established the high level of importance God places on the church: it is no mere accident, “Plan B,” or holding pattern, but the ultimate realization of His wisdom. The church represents many groups of people who otherwise would be at odds with each other but have become one body in Jesus, and that is a powerful testimony to the working of God in Christ to all the powers and principalities which have worked to keep mankind divided. Thanks to Jesus we can have boldness before God in access in faith; we do not deserve any standing before God because of what we have done, but Jesus’ sacrifice cleanses us and allows us to stand before God and make our requests known.

Paul then got around to making the prayer which he planned on making: that God would strengthen the Christians with power through His Spirit in their souls to comprehend the love of Christ which is beyond knowledge, having been filled with Christ and the fullness of God and rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:14-19). Paul praised God as the One able to do beyond what Christians could ask or think according to the power at work within them, seeking that He might be glorified in Christ and the church for eternity (Ephesians 3:20-21). This prayer may seem confusing: how can Christians come to any kind of understanding of something that surpasses knowledge? This is precisely Paul’s point; he wished for Christians to realize the vastness of God’s love for us in Christ and to be continually humbled by and thankful for it. Paul also invited Christians to consider the greatness of that power of God: He is able to do anything beyond our imagination, and does so by the power at work within us, but only if we ask. Do we ask to obtain that power from God to accomplish His purposes? Do we limit what God is able to do through us because of a lack of imagination or willingness to ask for mighty things to be accomplished? Do we truly believe that God is as willing to do such things as we profess confidence in His ability to do so?

Paul thus laid out the mystery of God in Christ: Jesus lived, died, and was raised again in power, and now serves as Lord. All have sinned but can find salvation in Jesus; in Jesus can be found spiritual blessings beyond imagination, and God is at work advancing His purposes in Jesus and the church in full display before the powers and principalities in the heavenly places. May we submit to the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in God and His power to accomplish great things through us to His glory and honor!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Family and Nation of God

The Vine

Paul had spoken powerfully regarding all the spiritual blessings with which God had blessed Christians in Jesus, having been elected and predestined to obtain the hope of salvation and righteousness in Christ, superabundantly receiving grace and mercy in Him (Ephesians 1:1-14). Paul prayed for Christians to gain understanding from God in the heart to know the great hope in which they have been saved and His great power at work in those who believe, since Christ has been established above every authority, especially over His body, the church (Ephesians 1:15-23). Paul would go on to explain the nature of this salvation and how it came about, first to Israel, and then to all who would come to God in Christ.

Paul continued his theological explanations by establishing the need and value of salvation secured in Christ, and man’s purpose before God (Ephesians 2:1-10). Paul did not shrink from laying out the ugly truth about the need for salvation: all were dead in their sins, having walked in the way of the prince of the powers of the air, living according to lust, as children destined for wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). Yet God, rich in mercy and love, made believers alive in Christ and raised us up with Him to sit in the heavenly places in order to continually demonstrate the riches of His grace, for Christians are saved by grace through faith, not because of anything they have done to earn it (Ephesians 2:1-9). And yet Christians are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do the good works which He prepared for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). This whole message works together for a reason, just like in Titus 3:3-8: Christians need continual reminders about their need for salvation and God’s display of grace and mercy in Jesus so that we may be productive in good works. We cannot imagine that we are superior to other people; we have sinned and deserved condemnation like all the rest. But God loved us, would not give us the condemnation we deserve (thus showing mercy), but would give Jesus and salvation, we did not deserve (thus showing grace). We did not, nor could not, earn or merit this salvation, but are called upon to receive it humbly through faith and trust in God in Christ. We can then serve God and encourage our fellow man in good works so as to glorify God.

Paul then specifically focused on God’s welcome of Gentiles and how it came about (Ephesians 2:11-18). He identified Gentiles as the uncircumcision, those separated from the covenant between God and Israel, the nation of Israel, and as without God or hope in the world; such is the state of mankind without God, and it is quite unpleasant (Ephesians 2:11-12). And yet through the blood of Jesus Gentiles who were far away could draw near, for Jesus in His death broke down the wall dividing the Jews from the Gentiles, the Law (Ephesians 2:13-15a); one is given reason to imagine the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple in Jerusalem, an actual, physical wall cordoning off Gentiles from coming any closer to the Presence of God. But it is not as if the Gentiles would become Jews: Jesus has created one new man in Himself, and in this way makes peace, killing the hostility which existed between Jews and Gentiles, preaching peace to those near and those far off (Ephesians 2:15b-17). Both Jewish and Gentile Christians now have access to the Father through Jesus in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). We must appreciate the radical nature of what Paul is suggesting: for 1,500 years, Jewish people identified themselves in contrast to those of the nations. In response, those in the nations tended to look upon the Jewish people as oddities and best, and with contempt and hatred at worst. The only way to eliminate the hostility was to kill it, and Jesus did so on the cross, giving the Jewish people no more right to presumption of election and giving Gentiles equal access to God in the Spirit. Jewish Christians remained ethnically Jewish while Gentile Christians remained their various ethnicities, but the faith and hope they shared in Christ was of far greater value and consequence than their worldly identities; no earthly division ought to separate them. So it remains to this day, and not merely between Jewish people and Gentiles: all people have access to God in the Spirit through Jesus, and there is no worldly division which ought to separate the people of God, for what they share in Jesus is greater than any challenge, difficulty, or division in the world.

Paul had formerly spoken of the church as the body of Christ, given to Jesus under His authority (Ephesians 1:22-23); having established the means of salvation for all people, especially the Gentiles (Ephesians 2:1-18), he now affirmed that Gentile Christians were no longer strangers or aliens, but fellow-citizens and members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). Mixing his metaphors, Paul considers that household as built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus as the cornerstone, built up into a holy temple in which the Spirit dwells (Ephesians 2:20-22). Through these powerful metaphors Paul reinforced the instruction he had just provided and explained for those who would hear how the people of God are to view one another and their relationship with God. As citizens of God’s Kingdom they are to uphold their responsibilities to accomplish His purposes (cf. Philippians 1:27); as fellow members of God’s household, they consider each other as brothers and sisters of the heavenly Father, equal in standing before Him, and restored in relationship with Him and each other (cf. John 17:20-23, Romans 8:11-17). Temples are places in which it is believed that a deity himself, or a manifestation of a deity, is present; thus, Christians are to consider themselves as the temple of the Holy Spirit individually and collectively, and are therefore to conduct themselves in holiness so God, who is holy, can maintain His presence in their midst (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 1:13-16). The temple is founded upon the teachings of God in Christ as made known by the apostles and prophets; the cornerstone, providing alignment for everything else, is Jesus Himself (1 Corinthians 3:11). In this way Christians are to be a holy family of people who love and care for one another and seek to do good for all people, always cognizant of their need for salvation and thankful that God has provided it in Christ. May we all participate in God’s household in the Kingdom of Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Every Spiritual Blessing in Christ

The Vine

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

The Apostle Paul felt compelled on many occasions to set forth various doctrinal truths about God in Christ to his fellow Christians to warn against false teaching. The time had come to provide a full, coherent picture of his understanding into the mystery of the Gospel; we find such a portrayal in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

While Paul’s letter to the Ephesians features the same doctrinal positions seen in other letters, it seems very impersonal. Ephesians does not contain the same kind of personal details about Paul or the Christians to whom he wrote as can be found in all of his other correspondence; “in Ephesus” in Ephesians 1:1 is not found in all copies of the manuscripts. For these reasons Ephesians is often considered an “encyclical” letter, intended to be distributed among many local churches. Regardless, it is hard to assume much about the condition of the church in Ephesus on the basis of what is written in Ephesians.

After his standard greeting (Ephesians 1:1-2), Paul began his letter with a broad, sweeping, and majestic sentence glorifying God for all the spiritual blessings with which He blessed us in Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-14). Ephesians 1:3-14 is the longest sentence in the New Testament: while English translations generally wisely break it down into many sentences for clarity, we must remember they all represent the spiritual blessings with which God has blessed the Ephesian Christians, and by extension all Christians, in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

God has chosen Christians in Jesus before the foundation of the world to be holy before Him; God predestined Christians to adoption to the praise of His grace freely bestowed on us in Christ (Ephesians 1:4-6). Paul had no desire to deny human freedom or volition; Augustinian Calvinist notions of God predetermining who would be saved and condemned arbitrarily must be imposed on the text. Paul instead sought to encourage Christians: their standing in Christ is no accident. Jesus’ death, resurrection, and inauguration of His Kingdom were not a hastily concocted “plan B” when everything else failed. Instead, from before the beginning, God had determined to create the universe, redeem mankind through His Son, and provide a way of holiness in Him. Paul would also speak of adoption as sons of God in Romans 8:11-15; a man or woman submits to adoption in order to gain the inheritance of the father, and in this way Christians gain standing in order to inherit the eternal promises God has made in Jesus.

God secured redemption for Christians in Jesus according to the riches of His grace; God’s grace abounds for Christians, who have learned of the mystery of God’s will now manifest in Jesus and His Kingdom (Ephesians 1:7-10). Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins represents the ultimate gift God has given mankind (cf. 1 John 4:7-11); God continues to bestow gifts of grace upon His people in Jesus and yearns for Christians to consider His presence and life as the greatest gift of all (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6). We think of “mystery” as something unknown, a problem to be solved; in the New Testament it is an “unveiling,” something manifest only through the revelation of God. Later in Ephesians Paul would elaborate more upon the mystery (cf. Ephesians 3:1-11); here he centered the story on God’s good purpose in Jesus whom He made the sum of all things.

Whereas Christians inherit the blessings of life and salvation in Christ, God obtains Christians as His heritage, having predetermined them as His praise in His glory, and who has given them the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of their inheritance until the final day of redemption (Ephesians 1:11-14). Paul began to make a contrast between “we who had hoped in Christ” and “you” his Ephesian audience, perhaps as between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. We would again be remiss to impose Augustinian Calvinist views on the text; in Ephesians 3:1-11 Paul will explain how God manifested His wisdom and eternal purpose by bringing Jews and Gentiles into one body in Christ in the church. Paul instead stepped back to appreciate the beauty of what God has accomplished in Jesus. God is praised in the redemption of Jewish Christians in Christ who had hoped in the coming Messiah and proved willing to recognize him in Jesus; God is praised in the redemption of Gentile Christians who are welcomed in Jesus. The Holy Spirit was given to Christians both as a seal of their redemption and as a down payment on their salvation; throughout Ephesians Paul will speak of how God worked through His Spirit to build up and strengthen Christians.

Having set forth the spiritual blessings with which God has blessed Christians in Jesus, Paul gave thanks and prayed for the Ephesian Christians in another lengthy sentence (Ephesians 1:15-23). Paul gave thanks for the Ephesian Christians, having heard of their faith in Jesus and love for their fellow Christians whom he calls “saints” (Ephesians 1:15-16). Christians do well to be encouraged by Paul’s example: we should never take the faith of others for granted, but ought to thank God for them.

Paul prayed for God to give the Ephesian Christians a spirit of wisdom and revelation of knowledge to enlighten their hearts to know the hope of God’s calling in Jesus, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the great power of God working on behalf of Christians (Ephesians 1:17-19). Paul did not pray for God to give the Ephesian Christians head knowledge; he already recognized their faith in Christ, and expected them to have intellectual recognition of the truth of these things. Instead Paul prayed for God to give them heart knowledge, confidence in the hope of salvation in the resurrection, the majesty of the glorification of the Kingdom by God on the final day, and the great power which God presently would work for, in, and through them. It has been said that the greatest distance in the universe is between the head and the heart; we Christians intellectually recognize the truths of God in Christ, but have they been imprinted on our hearts so that we trust deeply and are strengthened to overcome any trial by keeping our faith fixed on the glory awaiting us?

God’s power is manifest in Jesus, raised from the dead, ascended to the right hand of God, ruling over everything, made head over all things to the church, the body of Christ, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:20-23). God has great power and He has given it over to Jesus. Jesus’ authority over heaven and earth is the foundation of the Gospel call to obedience to His purposes and empowers the Christian’s resistance against the idolatrous claims of the forces of darkness and the nation-states empowered by them (cf. Daniel 7:13-14, Matthew 28:18, Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-15:4). Yet all of this power has been given to Jesus for the sake of His body, the church, the people who assemble to praise and glorify His name and encourage each other (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16). How many great and powerful things could God do through us if we would only trust extravagantly in Him and pray for Him to accomplish His glorious and majestic purposes in us?

Adoption, redemption, an inheritance, the Holy Spirit, access to God, participation in God’s work in Christ: all these blessings, and many more, Christians receive through Jesus Christ. May God give all of us in Jesus Christ a spirit of knowledge and wisdom to enlighten our hearts so we may know the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe!

Ethan R. Longhenry