Epiphany of Our Lord

God draws together those who previously were estranged

Matthew 2:10
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 6, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

This passage is the traditional and long-standing scripture reading for Epiphany—the celebration of the epiphany or, literally, the “appearance” of the Lord Jesus. All this, we might argue, we celebrated just a couple of weeks ago during the Christmas season. However, this special celebration of Epiphany is usually associated with the Magi’s encounter with Jesus, having been guided curiously and enigmatically by a star. And this encounter may have relevance for us as we further consider this passage and see the remarkable reach of the good news of Christ. 

God’s extraordinary plan—overcoming the divide

Ephesians 3:1–12 is a magnificent celebration of the extraordinary plan of God, affirming his loving intention that all peoples should be invited and included under the covering of his Fatherly kindness and love.

The writer of this letter—it is not at all clear that it really was Paul—begins this section by declaring, “This is the reason that I … am a prisoner for Christ Jesus.” But why? Why is the writer a prisoner? It all becomes clear just a few words later as he speaks of an understanding that he has of the commission or plan of God’s grace that has been given to him. He describes this commission or plan as a mystery. And a mystery it may well be.

To understand the content of this mystery we can look back to the previous passage in the letter where, in 2:12, the gentiles (literally we should understand this as a reference to every other people group outside of the Israelites) are described as being “without Christ.”

But then, in 2:18, we see that the intended destiny for the gentiles—this amalgam of people groups—is “access in one Spirit to the Father.” This existential disconnect is overcome by way of the creation of a new humanity (verse 15), through reconciliation (verse 16) and the proclamation of peace (verse 17). It is this commission or plan that has been revealed to the writer, and which he has taken up as his calling and vocation.

The gathering of all things in Christ

But again, we see in the mind-bending and spirit-expanding opening passage of the letter, that the writer declares that the purpose of God is to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). And again, “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22–23). What we can see is that God’s wonderful plan—as the one who has “created all things” (3:9)—is the shepherding of all the peoples of the world into his great family. This can be described in short as the gathering up of all things in him.

Heirs, members, sharers—no second-class citizens

Moreover, it becomes clear that God’s intention is not simply that the gentiles should be some form of associate members of his universal family, or peoples patched on to the side as some form of belated apology, The writer declares that the gentiles have become—note, not “will become”; this is a statement of the present reality—heirs, members, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.

In other words, those who were once apart are now in unity, and united as if they had always been that way; there are no second-class citizens here. These three terms—”heirs, members, and sharers”—are emphasizing and re-emphasizing the reality of the new ontology in Christ. The surprising and even shocking news of Epiphany is that God draws together those who previously were estranged from one another.

The heart of the Gospel—a practical call to reconciliation

It is this reality that lies at the heart of the gospel—God bringing together that which is disparate, disconnected, and even adversarial. So where does this leave us?

God’s plan to unite all the peoples of the world in Christ Jesus under his Fatherly covering is brought about through creation, reconciliation, and peace. We can think about situations in our world where there is a disconnect between peoples who, on some grounds, are so close. For example, the conflict between Israelites and Palestinians—two people occupying the same land and yet seemingly light-years apart. Black and white peoples in so many nations—South Africa, the United States, the UK, and elsewhere. The plight of indigenous peoples in Australia and the US. The conflict that was at least officially resolved in 1998 in Northern Ireland. And many other examples come to mind.

Our challenge and encouragement is to be those people who have seen the epiphany of Christ Jesus—as the Magi did—and to have the understanding that Christ’s appearance and his life, death, resurrection, and ascension are the revelation of God’s plan to reconcile all peoples. And yet, to be the messenger of that reconciliation—as the writer to the Ephesian church was—can sometimes be scary and dangerous. To stand out from the crowd and against the tide. To speak and act creatively, a story of reconciliation. 

There often is opposition to this message, which is ultimately why the writer is in prison. But there is also the conviction that the church—this beautiful unity in all its “rich variety” (3:10)—should proudly pronounce to rulers and authorities (3:10) that their days of division, segregation, opposition, and disparaging the other are over. Christ has come, and the political, sociological, material, and financial divisions are not only over but must be tackled by the church to bring about the reality of which the Epiphany testifies.