Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12
Epiphany falls on the twelfth day after Christmas, January 6 each year on most western churches’ calendars. It’s a day set apart to mark the arrival of the magi from the east: when Jesus was acknowledged as “king of the Jews” by those who were not, themselves, Jewish. The English word “epiphany” comes from a Greek word that means, “to appear” or “to become manifest.”
Throughout history, many Christians have celebrated epiphany as the time when Jesus’ divinity was made known. But in the biblical story in Matthew 2, and in the Ephesians reading for this day, a different sort of revelation is in view. This is the point when the Gentiles see the salvation of Israel’s God. This is the celebration of a gospel story that will burst beyond every ethnic, racial, and linguistic boundary.
The great mystery, revealed on Epiphany, is that Jesus comes to make Israel’s God the God of all. This happens not through the nations being conquered or forced into servitude, but by welcoming them into the family of God. Thereby they come to honor and worship Jesus, the Jewish messiah.
If epiphany is about an “appearance,” then what, exactly, becomes manifest? In Ephesians 3 Paul refers to it as “the mystery.” It lies at the heart his own special commissioning and calling from God. Here it is: “the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
There are two ways that we can go wrong when dealing with a passage like this. First, because it uses such exalted language to talk about God—God’s purpose, God’s accomplishment, the cosmic manifestation of what was previously hidden—because of all this, it is easy for us to miss that the primary thrust is sociological.
God is creating a new society. God is doing so in Christ. And it includes Gentiles.
When we miss this, we end up talking about other mysteries: perhaps the divinity of Jesus, perhaps divine providence that awaited this moment from eternity past, perhaps the heavenly orbit to which the good news ascends. This costs us. We minimize the sociological nature of God’s great mystery at the expense of our unity here on earth, at the expense of fully participating in the gifts of the body of Christ.
The other way we can go wrong is by exalting our own inclusion in Christ at the expense of others. Too often, Christians have ignored the manifold warnings of Paul and looked down on the Jews among whose number both Jesus and Paul counted themselves. Church history is littered with the bodies and souls of people whose lives were destroyed by those who claimed truer knowledge of God than those whom they opposed. But the mystery revealed at epiphany is the surprising breadth of God’s embrace. The people who were strangers, aliens—sinners by definition (Galatians 2:15)!—are numbered among the daughters and sons of God.
Maybe we’ve missed it so often because it’s not obvious. Look through the passage and you’ll see that the great mystery, the inclusion of the Gentiles, is not something that you could just read off the page of the Old Testament scriptures. Paul got it “by a revelation” (Ephesians 3:3). The prophets and apostles of the early church were taught this “by the Spirit” (verse 5). The idea that “outsiders” are actually an integral part of the community is so inconceivable to us, it can only be seen if the Spirit opens our eyes.
Paul is speaking of including Gentiles alongside Jews. For many of us it would take just such a Spiritual shake-up to willingly, and equally, include within our churches people from another political party. Or perhaps another racial or ethnic group. God causes us to share a body with a broader swath of humanity than we would choose for ourselves.
Riches for the Cosmos
Revelation is not only made to the people of the church. Revelation is made through the church as well. “Through the church” God’s wisdom is made known (Ephesians 3:10). The diverse composition of the community, defying earthly commitments and long-standing religious identities, stands as a signpost, declaring the work of God. A church of Jews and Gentiles, Romans and Barbarians, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, all united as one people—this shows the cosmic powers a greater power still.
Modern societies don’t tend to think of angelic or demonic figures standing behind our leaders. But we are often aware that there are forces larger than individuals and their actions. There are systems of power that often oppress those without it. There are cultures that hold sway over us even when we’re not aware. What would it say to such powers as these if God’s church was a place where powerless and powerful alike were joined in a community of equals?
What if we were able to step outside the competition for money, status, influence, or power, and create a place where “the boundless riches of Christ” (verse 8) convinced us that there is enough? That, in the goodness of God, we will not be left out if we don’t hoard or exclude?
This is Paul’s vision for the church. This is what is supposed to be the open secret. The gospel is not just about giving us a new relationship with God. It is not just about God revealing a deeper understanding of who God is, or who Jesus is as God incarnate. The gospel is also about giving us a new community. A surprising community. One that defies the “birds of a feather flock together” sociology that otherwise binds us to people who share our social location.
If we have eyes to see it, maybe this community itself is the riches God has on offer. If we have the willingness to accept it, this community will be the greatest witness for the gospel that we could ever imagine—an epiphany, indeed.