Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12
At Epiphany, the church celebrates the wonder of God becoming manifest in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived on earth among us.
This gift of God-in-the-flesh came to both Jews and Gentiles, as the lectionary texts for Epiphany from Isaiah 60 and Matthew 2 suggest. Written after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Ephesians 3:1-12 boldly proclaims that God’s gift of Christ is still to be manifest to the world: no longer in the physical person of Jesus Christ, but in the church—Christ’s own body—through the unity of its diverse members.
The author of Ephesians, who identifies himself in the letter as Paul, addresses Gentile believers in this passage (verse 1). He repeatedly refers to a mystery (verses 3, 4, 5, 9) that had been concealed for ages, but that has now been revealed to God’s prophets and apostles, including him (verses 3, 5). What is this “mystery of Christ” (verse 4)?
Within this passage, verse 6 gives the answer: “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Ephesians 2:11-22 provides the context for this statement, explaining how Gentiles were previously strangers to the people of Israel and God’s covenantal promises to them, so that they were also alienated from God (verse 12). But the sacrificial gift of Christ’s own life reconciled both Jews and Gentiles to God and consequently, to each other. In Christ, there is a new humanity in which all are one body, a place where God actually dwells (verses 15-16, 22).
Ephesians 1:7-10 also speaks of a mystery (verse 9), but here it refers to God’s overarching plan to unify all reality in Christ. The mystery of Jews and Gentiles being reconciled in Christ can be seen as part of this broader mystery.
Paul’s insistence that the mystery of reconciliation has been revealed to him by the Spirit is not merely to affirm his status as an apostle (verses 3, 5). More significantly, it indicates that God’s redemptive, reconciling work in Christ is not the product of human ingenuity and cannot be grasped by human insight alone. God is doing something new in the death and resurrection of Christ that allows all people to enter equally into God’s promises. This is the gospel, or good news, of which Paul is a servant by God’s grace (verses 2, 6-8).
Indeed, the very divine grace that reconciles people both to God and each other is the same grace that empowers Paul for his apostolic ministry (verses 2, 7). Life in Christ is a divine gift, from start to finish. People can receive it, but cannot lay claim to it on their own merit.
The assertion that this mystery was unknown to previous generations (verses 5, 9) raises the question of whether or not the Old Testament prophets, whose words Christians interpret as pointing to Christ, had any understanding of the mystery. Some interpreters assert that the “as” (os) that begins the second part of Ephesians 3:5 signals a comparison, meaning that the mystery was not made known to previous generations to the full extent that it has now been revealed. Others think that Paul is in fact claiming that earlier prophets did not envision God uniting Jews and Gentiles in Christ in the way that Ephesians describes, even though doing so was part of God’s eternal purpose (verse 11). In either view, Ephesians 3:1-12 is clear that the decisive revelation of this mystery is occurring now (verses 5, 10).
This revelation is not just to be made known to a few like Paul who have a special role in bringing it to fruition; rather, the mystery of God’s reconciling work in Christ is also to be manifest in the church. Paul’s calling and gifting is not just to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (verses 7-8), but also to make known (verse 9, photisai) God’s actualization of the mystery of reconciliation.
This is to be seen in the church in such a way that displays God’s wisdom (verses 9-10). So, by uniting in the church people of different backgrounds who, according to the author, were previously hostile toward each other, God’s manifold wisdom is made known on a cosmic scale (verse 10). The church, therefore, is to be a living witness to the power of the gospel to reconcile people both to God and each other.
One insight this passage yields that can be useful for preaching is that God’s purposes for the church and the world include that which is humanly unimaginable or impossible. The text challenges our often-limited view of what God is able to do or of how God might be at work in our lives and communities (see also verses 20-21).
The passage also encourages reflection on the extent to which the church embraces the radical inclusiveness created by the gospel.
Do our local congregations mostly consist of people who are otherwise part of the same social circles or do they seek to create fellowship among people who typically do not share daily life together?
Can we see ourselves as one body with Christians who have different political leanings or theological views than us?
While the passage indicates that it is ultimately God who unites diverse groups of people through Christ, Christians are to actively pursue the distinctive life in community that flows from the gospel (for example, Ephesians 4).