Epiphany of Our Lord

“Mystery” is the term that runs throughout this passage from Ephesians. It fits the day in the liturgical year because an “epiphany” is a manifestation of something. And in this case what is revealed has been a mystery.

January 6, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

“Mystery” is the term that runs throughout this passage from Ephesians. It fits the day in the liturgical year because an “epiphany” is a manifestation of something. And in this case what is revealed has been a mystery.

The term “mystery” appears several times in just a few verses, helping to catch the attention of readers. After all, many of us find it hard to resist a good mystery. Paul says that a mystery has been made known to him (3:3). And it is a mystery about Jesus (3:4). No one has really understood this mystery before. It has been hidden through the ages (3:9). So those who listen in will come to know the mystery. Thus far the passage has all the makings of a new version of a bestselling novel. We might even give it a title like “The Jesus Code.” Apparently God also knows that we like a good mystery.

Traditional mysteries often follow a set form. The classic mysteries are set in a manor house in Scotland with a small cast of characters: an elderly widow, a servant with peculiar habits, and a distant relative who has inexplicably shown up for a visit after many years. The usual event is a tragic death, which turns out to be a murder. As the detective investigates the case, he often finds that there is intrigue going on over who is to receive a sizable inheritance. The clues in the case are assembled. The police are confused and follow the wrong track. But eventually the master detective solves the case and shows how the pieces of the story fit together. In the final pages, the mystery is solved. The meaning is made known to the readers. The story is over.

The mystery that Paul speaks will depart from the standard patterns of a mystery story in at least three ways: first, the heart of the story is not something tragic, like theft and murder, but something magnificent, namely a gift. To be sure, this is an inheritance case. Paul is speaking about the Gentiles coming into the inheritance of salvation. But in a typical mystery story, one of the heirs to an estate usually plots to seize the whole inheritance. The idea is to exclude others from the gift, so that one heir can have it all.

In Ephesians, however, the mystery revolves around God giving the inheritance away too freely. What is so mysterious is that God has written a whole new group of heirs into his will. This does not shortchange those who were heirs before, because there are “boundless riches” in Christ (3:8). There is plenty to go around. So the mystery in this case is the mystery of grace. Second, Paul does not work with a small cast of characters but speaks in cosmic terms about what God is doing. This is a story that has to do with the vast group known as the Gentiles. The scale of the story does not fit into the classic manor house. It takes up the whole world. To be sure, the Gentiles are an unlikely group for God to be including in the inheritance. Traditionally, Gentiles were those who worshiped other gods. They were not the devotees of the God of Israel.

The key to the inheritance is that through Christ, God has called the Gentiles to faith in a new way. It is through faith in Christ (3:12) that the Gentiles are brought into relationship with God and given an inheritance in his grace. The mystery that was revealed to Paul was that God was not content to let the Gentiles be separated from him. Instead, God has acted to bring them into a new relationship with him. And Christ was the way God did that. Note that the inheritance theme was sounded early in Ephesians (Eph 1:14, 18). The letter recognizes that sin separates all people from God. Therefore all people-Jews and Gentiles-have the same need of grace. No one has an inborn right to be an heir of God’s grace. People become heirs by the mercy of God. Moreover, all people are called to the same faith. To be a child of God is to relate to God in faith. And faith has a future. The mercy and gift of the Spirit that people have already received is an assurance of this. People are God’s children now, in faith. And faith has a future through the promise of resurrection.

Third, this means that the revelation of the mystery is not the end of the story. It creates a new beginning of a story. The usual pattern is that once the mystery is revealed, we can close the book. The case is solved. The suspense is over. But for Paul, the revelation of the mystery is just the beginning. If God has extended the promise of an inheritance to the Gentiles, this opens up a vast new chapter. Paul is in the business of making the news of what God has done public (3:7-10).

Public interest in real-life mysteries-like the mysteries in the detective novels-usually continues as long as the solution remains unknown. Once a case has been solved, it has a place in the newspaper for a few days, then, the story fades as other issues dominate the front page. For Paul, the pattern is the opposite. The disclosure of the mystery of grace remains the heart of his story. It is the news that has its proper place at the forefront of his work. He is not bashful about saying so. To know what God has done in Christ is to have the “boldness and confidence” that come from such faith (3:12).