Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12
Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season for the church calendar.
By the sixth day in January, the wider society has long moved past the celebrations of Christmas. Employees have returned to work, children have returned to school, and stores are beginning to set out Valentine’s merchandise.
The church, on the other hand, persists a full 12 days after Christmas Day to remember the visit of the wise men to the young Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s gospel (2:1–12). First noted in the fourth century,1 this celebration of the revelation of God to humanity called the faithful to reflect upon the awesome reality of the Incarnation. God became man; in Christ, the two natures were neither confused nor divided. The revelation of this unity prepared the way for another, for the Gentiles to be joined with God’s people Israel.
An Epiphanic Life
It is the revelation of this second mystery that Paul proclaims in Ephesians 3. Actually, this mystery seems to be forefront in his mind from the very beginning of the letter. He hints at it in the first chapter when he declares that his readers have been chosen by God for adoption, a description fitting for those who were not born into the people of God (2:11).
Then, in chapter 2, he describes the mystery explicitly. They, as Gentiles, were formerly separate from God and his people, but now in Christ, the two have been made one (2:12-13). Because of his proclamation of this mystery, Paul is a prisoner (3:1). If we look to Luke’s narrative in Acts, Paul ends up in chains because the Jewish leadership finds great offense at this aspect of his message and actions, namely that he teaches “against the law” and “brings Greeks into the Temple” (Acts 21:28).
Paul, however, seems undaunted by his circumstances. In his view, this is the task to which God has called him, to administer this aspect of God’s grace. His tone conveys a sense of grateful awe that God saw fit to reveal this great mystery to him. For Paul, Epiphany is not just one day, but describes his entire life and calling. He preaches, and subsequently he has been imprisoned for this preaching, because God has revealed this mystery to him. Paul mentions that he wrote about this mystery briefly before. It is not clear if he is referring to his statements in chapters 1 and 2 of this letter or if this refers to another letter to the Ephesians to which we no longer have access.
Even if we are missing another explanation, thankfully, Paul’s description of his understanding of the mystery seems clear from the following verses. The Spirit has now made known what in former times was concealed, namely that the Gentiles are now fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, and fellow participants in the promises.
A compact reference to Paul’s extended discussions in Galatians and Romans, Ephesians 3:6 asserts the reality that in Christ through the gospel, those who were once not God’s people have been grafted in and become children of the promise. Paul now serves this mystery and does so because God’s power energizes him. This task has cost Paul his freedom. Nevertheless, he does not do it begrudgingly, but gratefully.
An Eternal Plan
The rich alternative economy in which grace comes to unexpected recipients is not a new thing according to Paul’s understanding. It might have just recently been revealed to the apostles and prophets, of whom Paul considers himself to be the least important, as he, a former persecutor, was the last (1 Corinthians 15:8), but Paul finds proclamations of God’s gracious mystery in Israel’s Scriptures to make his case.
Even more, he asserts here that the mystery has been hidden with God, who is the creator of all things, suggesting that this mystery has always been God’s plan. This hunch proves correct in the following verse. This mystery in Christ — Lord over all peoples, both Jew and Gentiles — was the eternal plan of God, but only in the last days has God made it evident and begun its fulfillment. When God brings these groups together — Jew and Gentile — the church displays the creative diversity of his wisdom. It is not just Paul, the other apostles, or even the Ephesians who now can see this mystery, but also the authorities and rulers (3:10).
Paul might have in mind those Jewish leaders who instigated his imprisonment, but also the heavenly authorities, the spiritual forces whom ancients believed wielded control over the functions of the visible world. The Ephesians now have boldness and confident access to God, an amazing statement for those who would have had no access to the presence of God as manifest in the Jewish temple. Now that the mystery has been revealed, those who were excluded are now included. As they trust Jesus’ faithful actions, which display the faithfulness of God to his ancient plan, they can participate as full members of the people of God.
The great celebration of the Incarnation, according to Paul, flows into the great celebration of the church. As we exhibit unity — of different races, classes, and genders (as Paul says in Galatians 3:28) — we display the mystery of God who brings all his creation together in the unity of the God-man, the Jewish baby worshipped by the Gentile kings from the East.
1Thomas K. Carroll and Thomas Halton, Liturgical Practices in the Fathers (Message of the Fathers of the Church 21; Wilimington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1988), 172.