Exegetical Notes, #6
By Louie Marsh
Chapter three is the final section of the first half of Ephesians. Paul has been laying out all that God has done for us in Christ. He continues and wraps this up in chapter three by doing two things. First he shows us how it has impacted his life, and then he prays one of the greatest prayers in all of Scripture for his readers.
Remember – Paul may not have known we’d be reading this, but that prayer is for us as much as it was for the original readers in Ephesus. But we won’t get the prayer till next week – so hang on and let’s get started.
In verses 1-6 Paul recaps what he just told us about the Mystery that God had revealed to him in Christ Jesus. But he puts a personal twist to it, showing us how it has impacted him personally.
I believe this is important because Paul knew, as all great communicators do – Jesus being the best example in history, that people remember and respond to stories. True stories most of all, but stories draw you in and make the truth relatable in ways that mere eloquence does not.
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles– Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 3:1-6 (NIV)
In my sermon I’m skipping all of this passage except for verses one, two and seven. The reason I did that is because the content is so repetitive from last week. I think one sermon made the point sufficiently, however in these notes I’ll go through each verse and see what they say.
Paul starts out with getting the readers attention by pointing out that he’s a prisoner. Paul was probably in Rome when he wrote this. He had appealed to Caesar in Acts 25:10-12, and Festus sent him to Rome for a trial there. Paul had that right as a Roman citizen, and he took full advantage of it.
Now, sitting in a cell in Rome with a guard chained to him 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, his very life on the line, a captive of the Roman Empire. But that’s now what he says is it?
He says he’s “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” How interesting. Paul looks beyond his circumstances to what he sees lying behind them. From the human perspective Paul’s words are foolishness! He’s a captive of Rome and his only way out is through the Roman legal system.
But Paul cares nothing for that! He’s the Lord’s man, doing the Lord’s will, for the Lord’s purposes! He gave his life to Christ a long time ago, and has been a prisoner of the Lord ever since. Sitting in a cell changes nothing in that regard.
Beyond that Paul says the reason he’s captive isn’t because of Festus, or the plot against him or anything remotely like that. He says he’s a prisoner “for the sake of you Gentiles.” Amazing isn’t it?
Paul sees truly, he knows this is the real reason he’s been subjected to such fanatical opposition from some Jewish believers (often called Judeizers) They see him as a direct threat to them. Paul points out his leadership in this regard by writing in the Greek, “The prisoner of the Christ Jesus…”
He’s the point man in preaching this mystery to the Gentiles. In that sense he’s THE man and he’s THE prisoner!
A lot has been said and written in the last decade or so about the power of having a vision or dream from God and then working to fulfill it. Most of the great churches in the world have been created out of a vision or dream that God has given their leaders. Rick Warren, to use one example among many, had a dream, and though Saddleback’s success, hundreds of churches are now trying to be Purpose Driven, and further through his Purpose Driven 40 Days Campaigns and the Purpose Driven Life best seller.
Who started all this? Paul did! That’s what he’s talking about when he says that God chose him to give the revelation too about the Gentiles and the Jews becoming one. He was given the vision, and then largely through his ministry it became a reality. Without the work of Paul, the church wouldn’t have penetrated the Roman culture as quickly and as deeply as it did.
So if you want to study the power of vision, and how God works through a ministry to fulfill the vision He gives, you can no better than to look at Paul himself!
People often wonder about Paul’s words here. After all the opening of salvation to the Gentiles is predicted in many places in the Old Testament. But as John Stott points out, what wasn’t predicted was the replacing of the Jewish nation as God’s People, with the new international and landless community known as the church. This new revelation was given to Paul and he took to the ends of the Empire and beyond through his disciples.
It’s in this context of serving God by following the vision He gives us that Paul says in verses 2 and 7 that he serves God through His Grace and His power! I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Ephesians 3:7 (NIV)
You aren’t just saved by Grace, you also serve by Grace! We are chosen to serve and receive the gifts to serve and are given His Spirit to empower us to serve, all by Grace! What a wonderful realization this is! I don’t have to scramble, and strain and struggle to find God’s place for me in His Kingdom – instead I know that God has a place for me, it’s part of His plan for my life.
As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it. 1 Corinthians 12:18 (MSG)
I need to be proactive in finding the place He has for me that’s for sure. But its waiting for me to find and fulfill when and if I step out in faith!
We need to see how God and Christ centered Paul is, and how our life and service needs to be the same. When he looks at his life and service Paul isn’t nearly as concerned with other things as he is with the fact that it’s through the Grace of God given only in Jesus Christ that he’s been called to serve and that service is a gift of Grace that is accomplished by the Holy Spirit – a gift of that very same Grace!
If that doesn’t lift you up and make you thankful – there’s something wrong with you somewhere!
Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, Ephesians 3:8 (NIV)
In this one amazing verse Paul shows us that because he understands and experiences God’s Grace, he has a proper view not only of himself, but of Christ as well.
Paul calls himself “the least of all God’s people” in the NIV. In Young renders it, “to me–the less than the least of all the saints…”(YLT)
Here’s what John Stott says in his commentary, The Message of Ephesians, page 119. “It is a very striking expression. He takes the superlative (elachistos, ‘least’ or ‘smallest’) and does what is impossible linguistically but possible theologically; he turns it into a comparative (‘leaster’ or ‘less than the least’). Perhaps he was deliberately playing on the meaning of his name. For his Roman surname ‘Paulus’ is Latin for ‘little’ or ‘small,’ and tradition says he was a little man.”
Yes, Paul sees himself truly, a recipient of God’s undeserved Grace. Not just when he got saved either. Many Christians seem to have the idea that I get saved by Grace and then I handle the rest by myself. Judging from the state of the western church today I’d say all this self effort isn’t working to well!
Instead of that, let’s be like Paul and stop saying, “I’m a good person,” all the time. I hear that a lot. And here’s the Bible truth about that –
NO, YOU ARE NOT A GOOD PERSON, AND NEITHER AM I OR ANYONE ELSE! If we were so good Christ would not have come and died and given us the Grace we need to be saved and to serve Him! Let’s just admit that without Christ we’re pretty bad, accept the human condition, rejoice that we can be born again, and move on!
But some say it seems that Paul is being contradictory here when you compare this verse to other things he said. Let ‘s look at them.
Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 1 Corinthians 4:16 (NIV)
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst. 1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV)
How does it make sense that in one breath Paul can say he’s the worst sinner, and in the next tell us we ought to imitate his example?
The simple answer is that this is the tension that all true believers live in. It’s the struggle between the old and new natures that Paul talks about in Galatians and other places. So you can be fully aware of your innate sinfulness, and yet not be paralyzed by guilt. How? Because your sins are forgive in Christ and you have a new nature growing within you!
So I am both! And yes, saying that is humble! If you don’t believe me look at how Jesus talked about Himself. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:29 (NLT)
Jesus could call Himself humble – would you do that? I wouldn’t – at least not seriously. But that’s the way the Lord wants us to be. Fully aware of our sinful nature, but rejoicing in God’s Work in our lives, and confident in His Spirit’s power to carry us through.
That’s the proper view of ourselves, but what about Christ?
…this grace was given me to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, Ephesians 3:8ab (NIV)
This is the proper view of Christ, but I wonder how many of us honestly experience this in our lives? Oh we’d agree with it to be sure, but do we actually believe it and sense it and experience it in our lives?
The word unsearchable is only used here and in Romans where Paul says, O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! Romans 11:33 (ASV)
The word unsearchable literally means “not to be tracked out.”
Paul saw Christ as containing endless amounts of spiritual riches. Indeed His resources are endless and eternal and constantly wonderful! We should to, but instead we often live in spiritual poverty because we do not see Christ the way we ought too.
Now that we’ve seen how we ought to view Christ and ourselves, Paul next shows us what the church really is. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. Ephesians 3:10-11 (NIV)
Notice that God’s eternal plan is centered around and in the church. It’s the church that is ground zero of God’s work in the world, and it is there that we ought to see what God is doing and wants to do in the world and among God’s people.
Who are these rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms? When we get to chapter 6 we’ll talk more about this. For now suffice it to say that we don’t really know all that much about them. Beware of those who take these titles and build then into very elaborate explanations of the demonic culture and power structure. Many do this, and all of them are creating their little charts and PowerPoint presentation on speculation and very little else!
This is not the way to interpret the Bible!
It’s enough for us to know that there is a spiritual dimension to all of life that we are usually completely unaware of. All of our lives is on display to the universe and all the creatures it contains. We live as example of God’s plan, power, purpose and Grace.
This is even truer of our ministries and our service to God. You may not think you are making a difference, you may think your service is unknown and not very important really. But you are wrong!
Living in a small town, and Pastoring a small town church, I am very well aware of this type of thinking, both in the lives of those I work with, and in myself as well.
Let’s face it, I’m never going to be on the cover of Christianity Today, I’m never going to preach to thousands of people in a huge church building each week. In fact I’ll be very blessed if I manage to get this church up into the several hundred level before my ministry ends!
But that doesn’t mean what I’m doing, and what all the other people who work so hard to serve God in this church are doing, isn’t important. In fact I believe that all of our work and ministries are vital to God’s plan.
Since we are in a spiritual battle (more on this in chapter 6) let’s liken it to a war. We are in a war against terror now, and our country has fought many wars in the past. My father served in the Marines in World War Two and Korea. In the early part of WW2 he served in the 4th U.S. Marine Raider battalion. The Raiders gained headlines during their short life, but most people have no idea of the many battles they fought in the jungles of New Georgia and other places.
Yet those battles were vital to the war effort. Almost no one knows the stories of the men who served on the supply ships that carried all the bullets and beans and other things men like my Dad needed to fight and win the war. Their service is unknown and couldn’t get much less glamorous – never the less we couldn’t have won the war with out them!
So no matter what your ministry is – remember we’ll lose if you don’t do it as well as you can in God’s Grace and Power. Cleaning the buildings and changing diapers and all those other low profile ministries are not exciting but they are vital to the growth of any church!
Your ministry matters and it’s all centered in the church! The church is the center of all of God’s work in the world – or at least it’s supposed to be! Let’s keep that in mind and help our churches to be more open to new outreaches, so we’ll have fewer para-church ministries, and more healthy churches reaching out with all the power of Christ to the world around them!
To this point we’ve seen our need to new all of life from a heavenly perspective; this will give us a proper view of Christ, ourselves and the church. Wow – that’s quite a lot isn’t it? But as usual in Ephesians Paul isn’t finished yet!
Seeing all of that then the next step is necessary, logical and oh so welcome! Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come fearlessly into God’s presence, assured of his glad welcome. Ephesians 3:12 (NLT)
See how the work of Christ changes every part of our life if we let it? Here’s it’s because of Him, and only because of Him, that we can boldly go boldly in the presence of God through prayer.
I don’t think you can read this verse without thinking of another one that carries the same joyous message. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16 (NIV)
Oh how blessed we are to have a wonderful Savior like Christ! As believers we can always come before Him with boldness! Even when we’ve sinned we still come to Him to receive the forgiveness and new direction we want and need.
Note the expression “assured of his glad welcome.” In the NIV it reads “approach God with freedom and confidence.” It adds up to being fully at home with our Heavenly Father and completely open to Him about all aspects of our lives.
The good and the bad, the things that make us proud and the things that make us ashamed, all can be shared with our God and Father! That’s what Christ has done for us – all of this comes to us as an incredible gift of Grace!
Our final verse today brings us into contact with how all this works out in the real world. As I said before Paul is beginning to shift gears, and so shows us how all these incredible blessings that are ours in Christ work out as we enter the world around us.
I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory. Ephesians 3:13 (NIV)
I summed this up in the sermon outline like this – NEVER FORGET: Service = Sacrifice.
Why shouldn’t we get discouraged when life is unfair, as it almost always is? Because we live in a fallen world, how else should it be? The Bible makes it clear that our world is full of sin, run by the devil and hostile to God and His Gospel in every possible way.
So why be surprised by suffering? Like Christ we are called to suffer! It’s part of God’s plan, not because He likes to make His children suffer, but because it’s the only way salvation can be brought to the world.
God brings good out of suffering – as can seen in Jesus and throughout both testaments. Paul suffered to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. This vision he had of one new man in Christ was resisted bitterly by those who either didn’t understand it or simply refused to accept it.
He suffered and bled and ultimately died so that God’s call on his life could be accomplished.
The same principle is true for all of us – if you want a ministry that will really impact and change people’s lives, you had better be prepared to suffer and to sacrifice much. If you won’t make the sacrifices necessary – you won’t get the impact you want.
I tell people this all the time, more lately as it’s becoming more clear to me. Ministry involves sacrifice, and can’t be done with sacrifice!
The story I chose to illustrate this is taken from David’s life, and is found in 1 Chronicles 21:11-24. Read and meditate on it, it will show you how God centered David was, and how that works into suffering and the ministry.
The essence of David’s story is that he threw himself upon God’s mercy instead of man’s, and by doing that, and by being not just willing but eager to sacrifice to God and to pay for those sacrifices, is a wonderful example for all of us today!