When I first preached this passage years ago, I followed the view that Ephesians 1:1-13 is a parenthesis in Paul’s thought, and that he starts a thought in verse 1, and only picks it up in verse 14 (the repeated phrase “For this reason” provides the primary evidence for this). This approach, I believe, contributes somewhat to missing Paul’s entire point.
Paul’s primary point in Ephesians can be summarized in one word: “Peace!” Through Jesus, there is peace with God, peace with one another, and together, all of us are working toward universal peace (which includes bringing the principalities and powers back into their proper place).
So Paul’s point in Ephesians 3 is that he wants the Ephesian Christians to live at peace with each other.
Why? Well, not only because this is the best way to live and because everybody wants peace, but because the world doesn’t know how to attain peace, and if we live at peace with each other, the world will learn how to do so as well. Your life is a sermon to a watching world. By watching us, we show them how to live at peace with each other. (The “watching world” doesn’t just include people, but also the principalities and powers.)
Great! But how do we do this? It is impossible to just “get along” with some people. It begins by knowing the love of Christ for you (3:19). That is the first step toward peace. Only once you know that you are loved can you begin to love. And love is the first (and last … and only) step toward peace.
When we approach Ephesians 3 this way, we see that all of Ephesians 3 follows perfectly and logically from the truths we have seen from Ephesians 2. Ephesians 2:1-13 is not a tangent, a rabbit trail, or an aside from Paul. It is an answer to an objection that Paul knows his readers are thinking.
So far in this letter, Paul has told the Ephesians that we are all heirs of God, and that through Jesus, God has brought peace to the world.
Yet Paul knows exactly what his Ephesians readers are thinking. They are looking around at the world, and at their own situation, and at Paul’s situation, and they are thinking, “We are spiritually rich? We are heirs of God? There is peace through Christ? It certainly doesn’t look like it from our perspective. And it certainly doesn’t look like it from your perspective either, Paul. After all, you are sitting in prison. That sure looks like you an heir of God and that there is peace in the world. NOT!”
So beginning in Ephesians 3:1, Paul seeks to address this issue. He first of all admits that he is a prisoner. But he immediately shows that he is not a prisoner of Rome, but is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He is exactly where Jesus wants him to be. Following Jesus leads to some strange places, and sometimes, Jesus wants his followers in prison.
Paul goes on to say that he is a prisoner “for you Gentiles.” There are two ways of reading this. Remember, of course, that Paul is a Jew, and remember as well that one of the reasons Paul is in prison in the first place is because of the Ephesians. He almost got arrested in Acts 19 when a riot started in Ephesians because of his preaching, but then when Paul went to Jerusalem in Acts 21, he was initially put in prison because the Jewish leaders thought he had brought Trophimus the Ephesians into the Temple where only Jewish men could go (Acts 21:29).
That entire incident of Acts 19–24 is behind everything Paul wrote in Ephesians 2. Paul has written “The dividing wall of separation has come down. There is now peace between Jews and Gentiles. We are all one family in Jesus Christ.” And the Ephesian Christians are saying, “Oh really? Well, when you tried that here, and when you tried that in Jerusalem, it got you arrested and almost killed, and now you are sitting in prison. Are you sure you didn’t get thumped in the head one too many times, Paul?”
So in Ephesians 3:1, Paul says, “Yes, that is right. I am a prisoner. But I right where Jesus wants me to be. I am in prison for Jesus. And I am also in prison because of you.” But this is not a slam on the Ephesians. This is not blaming them. While Paul is saying, “I’m in prison because of you,” he is not blaming them. He is saying, “I’m in prison for your sake, to help you, to show you how this whole thing works.”
And how does it work for Paul? How can Paul say that he is in prison for Jesus Christ and that Jesus has brought peace to the world even though Paul looks around and sees nothing but stone walls, iron chains, and Roman guards? Paul explain how in Ephesians 3:2-13.
Here are some basic notes on what he says:
Ephesians 3:2. Paul was given a dispensation from God. This is oikonomia, a special set of “house rules.” These are specific guidelines from God by which Paul lives and functions.
Ephesians 3:3-4. What are these house rules? Well, it’s this mystery Paul has already written about. Where? In Ephesians 2. That God has introduced peace to the entire world through Jesus Christ, and Paul is a messenger to the Gentiles about this peace.
Ephesians 3:5. In previous ages, humans have always operated under the “us vs. them” principle, which was a principle of rivalry, violence, and death (cf. 2:1-3). But now we have a new revelation by the Spirit through the prophets and apostles, that all of us are one, and our struggle is not against each other (cf. Eph 6:12).
Ephesians 3:6. Instead of division, strife, and rivalry, we are all one family, fellow heirs of God, recipients of the promises (1:3-14; 2:11-22).
Ephesians 3:7. It is this message that Paul has been proclaiming through his words and works by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 3:8. Paul was sent to proclaim these truths to the Gentiles.
Ephesians 3:9. This fellowship of all people has been God’s plan and goal from the very beginning of creation.
Ephesians 3:10. God is now making this unity visible through the church! And the principalities and powers are taking notice. They are watching and learning. [But they do not like it, because it means they will lose some of their stolen power. Cf. 1:21-22; 6:10-20). This makes a bit more sense when we realize that “principalities and powers” doesn’t refer primarily to angels and demons, but to “the powers that be.” That is, to the rules, power structures, and domination system of this world. The world system is set up in a way that abuses its power, but God wants all powers to be restored to their proper place, and the first seeds of this are found within the church.]
Ephesians 3:11. This restoration of all things is the eternal purpose of God (cf. 3:9).
Ephesians 3:12. Since this is God’s purpose and the goal of Jesus Christ, and is empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can move forward in this purpose with boldness and faith.
Ephesians 3:13. Which explains why Paul is in prison. He is in prison because the powers that be were threatened by him, but ironically, by putting him in prison, Paul now has the opportunity to speak truth to power and present his case before Caesar himself, the ultimate “power” at that time. By Paul’s actions, even the prison guards were learning the truths of the gospel. Paul in prison for the gentiles was not a blow to the gospel, but an opportunity for the gospel to shine in the face of the principalities and powers of this world.
Ephesians 3:14-21. Now, therefore, you go and do the same. How? It begins with knowing you are completely loved by God.
Below is the original sermon manuscript from when I first taught this text many years ago… By reading it, and comparing it with the notes above, you can see how my thinking has changed about Paul’s message in Ephesians 3.
(The following Outline was borrowed from John MacArthur)
- The Purpose of our Spiritual Position (Ephesians 3:1-21)
- Paul’s Parenthesis (Ephesians 3:1-13)
- The Prisoner of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:1-5)
- The Plan of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:6)
- The Preaching of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:7-9)
- The Purpose of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:10-11)
- The Privilege of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:12-13)
Everybody loves a good mystery.
They love mystery novels. When I was little, many people my age were reading The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Bobsy Twins. Of course, those were for children. Today, people are reading books written by Tom Clancy and others.
Even many jobs deal in searching out mysteries. Scientists try to unravel the mysteries of the universe—like how light can be both a wave and a particle. Doctors try to discover the mysteries of the body—like why we have tonsils and how babies die of SIDS. Historians try to uncover the mysteries of history—like what happened to the settlers at Roanoke Island and was there really a city of Atlantis.
Parents, even you try to figure out mysteries at home—although maybe you don’t enjoy doing it—like who broke the lamp, and who left the freezer door open so everything melted, and who left your electric drill out in the rain.
We all love mysteries—we like the suspense and the excitement and we get curious about the answers.
Pastors, Bible teachers and theologians have mysteries too. Actually, all Christians are budding theologians, and at one time or another, in trying to understand the Bible, we all ask one very interesting question. We wonder why God, since he knows everything, why God didn’t make the Bible easier to understand!
Right? Have you ever wondered that? Have you ever set out to read through the Bible—as I know some of you are doing this year—or have you ever set out to study through a certain book of the Bible or a certain passage—and after struggling with it a bit, you throw up your hands in frustration and give up?
I know you have. I have talked with several of you who have expressed this exact emotion to me. Why didn’t God make it clearer?
We’ve all felt this way at times. If you have not, either you are much more gifted than any other Christian in the world, or you have not seriously studied the Bible. I’ll let you decided which it is.
It has been a mystery for me why God made some of the Bible so difficult to understand. This has mystified me for years, and not until recently have I uncovered the answer to why God didn’t make Scripture clearer.
You say, “What is it? What is it?” Well, I’ll tell you, but I don’t want to spoil the answer about—I want to leave it a mystery—and just like all good mysteries, you have to wait until the end to hear the solution.
The reason I’ve begun talking about mysteries today, is because Paul spends the first 13 verses of Ephesians 3 talking about one of the mysteries that has been revealed to him. There was a mystery in the Old Testament which no one understood, but which was revealed by God to Paul, and he is not explaining it to us. That is what he spends 13 verses doing.
Today, we only have time to look at the first 6 verses of Ephesians 3. These verses introduce us to a mystery.
Paul is a wonderful writer and thinker, but sometimes he gets off on a tangent which throws everything off. Ephesians 3:2-13 are one of these tangents—these rabbit trails that Paul does so often.
Let me show you. Verse 1 begins a prayer for the believers to understand the purpose of their position in Christ, but then Paul decides to talk about something else for a while. He doesn’t get back to his prayer until verse 14—where he repeats the phrase “For this reason.”
So the real purpose of our spiritual position will not be explained until Ephesians 3:14-21. Ephesians 3:2-13 are Paul’s Parenthesis; his tangent; his rabbit trail.
Let’s see how he gets onto this parenthesis by looking at Ephesians 3:1.
The Prisoner of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:1-5)
Ephesians 3:1. For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles
In Ephesians 3:1, Paul calls himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles. That is what gets him sidetracked. He decides to elaborate on why he is a prisoner of Jesus Christ for the Gentiles.
The reason, as we will soon see, is because of the mystery that was revealed to him. So, in the outline, Ephesians 3:1-5 are about Paul as the Prisoner of the Mystery.
Let’s talk about Paul being a prisoner first—as we see in Ephesians 3:1. This was not a figure of speech. We sometimes say, “I am tied to my job” or “I am a prisoner at home.” Some men, I hope none of you today, but some men refer to their wives as a “ball and chain” implying that they are chained to their wife and can’t do anything fun.
These are all figures of speech. Paul is not using a figure of speech here. He literally is a prisoner. You remember that he was arrested in Jerusalem under false charges. He was almost put to death, but was delivered and was put in prison instead. So he really was a prisoner.
But although he is a prisoner, he literally is a prisoner of Caesar; of emperor Nero in Rome. At the time of writing, he had been in a Roman prison for about 3 years, and in Caesaria before that for 2 years. So while he literally is a prisoner, he is a prisoner of Caesar.
But here, he says he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Why does he say it this way? This is typical of Paul and is typical of all saints in Scripture. When bad things happen, they focus on the good that can come from it. Paul could have complained and argued and become bitter about his unjust arrest and the false accusations being made against him. Instead, he realized that he was right where God wanted him, and rather than being a prisoner of Caesar, he was a prisoner for Christ.
Because of this, we know from Scripture that he led many of the guards and many of Caesar’s own household to personal faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, even 2000 years later, we can be thankful he was in prison, because it is from prison that Paul wrote most of his letters that we now have in our Bibles. Paul did not let a bad situation get him down, he used the bad situation to glorify God.
Next in Ephesians 3:1, Paul says that he is a prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles. Paul is saying that the reason he is prison is because of the Gentiles.
Some of you are thinking, “Pastor Jeremy, What does that mean? How is Paul a prisoner because of the Gentiles?” Well, if that’s your question, then you’re in luck. That is what Paul goes off on a tangent about. In fact, he spends the next 12 verses explaining how he became a prisoner for the Gentiles.
Ephesians 3:2. if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you,
Take the words, If indeed you have heard first. Another way of translating these would be, “Surely you have heard,” or “I know you have heard. “ Paul had lived with them for almost three years, and remember, it was because a Gentile member from the Ephesian church was traveling with Paul that he was arrested in the first place. So of course they had heard. Paul is simply reminding them about his calling.
The word dispensation is a word we don’t use very much anymore. We saw it previously though in 1:10. The Greek word is oikonomia. Oiko means house, and nomia means law, so oikonomia means “law of the house.” It is the rules by which a house or business is governed. Synonyms could be “management, stewardship, or an orderly arrangement.”
In Ephesians 3:2, Paul says that a dispensation was given to him, and so we could say, as some of your translations do, that he was given a stewardship—he was made a steward or a manager over a certain task or responsibility.
What was this task? Well, the verse says that he was a steward of the grace of God which was given to me for you. Paul was sent by God to declare salvation to the Gentiles. We know from the rest of Scripture that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. He was the person God chose to take the good news of salvation to all those who were not Jews.
If you are here today, and you are not a Jew, then you are a Gentile, and since you are Gentile, Paul is writing to you. Though he lived and wrote almost 2000 years ago, Paul’s message is still for you and still applies to you. This was Paul’s task—his dispensation—what he was made a steward of, and which, he diligently carried out. Paul understood that when God placed him here, He was given a purpose; a task to carry out. When he discovered what that task was, he performed it as completely as he knew how.
He was given a task by God, and he faithfully carried it out. He talks more about it in Ephesians 3:3-4.
Ephesians 3:3-4. how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ),
Here is the first mention of them mystery God revealed to Paul!
A mystery in Scripture is not exactly like a mystery in a novel or a mystery movie. A Biblical mystery is a truth that was always present within the pages of Scripture, but was just hidden. We could call them “sacred secrets.” They are truths known by God, and most likely mentioned in Scripture, but they are nevertheless hidden from our understanding. God will reveal them in His time, when He wants us to learn them.
Many people today talk about receiving special revelations from God and understanding hidden mysteries. I talked with a man who thought he had a revelation. He was doing some construction, and in the process had left some board lying on his lawn for a week. When the construction was done, he went to clean up the boards, and he noticed that the grass underneath them had turned white. It looked dead.
But as he let the sun touch the grass over the next few days, the grass grew back healthy and green. He realized that this is like some Christians. We have things in our lives which impede our growth. If we remove them, we will continue to grow. This was his “revelation.”
But that is not a revelation. A revelation is divine truth not previously known. He didn’t have a revelation—he had a good illustration for a truth already known—a picture for a truth everybody knows.
Paul did received a revelation. He was studying the Old Testament (revelation always comes from Scripture), and God revealed to him a mystery. What was this mystery that God revealed to Him?
In Ephesians 3:3-4, Paul mentions that he already wrote to them about this mystery. Where did he do that? He did it in two places already, in Ephesians 1:9-10 and Ephesians 2:11-22. He continues to explain that this mystery was not previously known.
Ephesians 3:5. which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets:
In other words, this mystery was hidden in times past, but is now clearly seen. In theological terms, this is called progressive revelation. Progressive revelation is when God takes something he has previously said, and elaborates on it. He makes it clearer. He sheds more light on it. He reveals more.
Paul is saying in Ephesians 3:5, “It has always been there within the pages of Scripture, but somehow, we did not see it until recently, when God revealed it by the Holy Spirit to His apostles and prophets.” Paul says here in Ephesians 3:4-5 that this is the mystery was shown to him. It was hidden in Scripture, but now it has been revealed.
Other mysteries in Scripture that have been revealed are the fact that Christ has two comings. He came once as a servant; He is coming again as a king and a judge. People in OT times did not know this. The Trinity was a mystery. OT saints did not know about the trinity. The fact that Jesus came as a lowly carpenter, and came as Savior of the whole world is another mystery. The Jews in the OT thought He would come as a king and only for the Jews.
But none of these are the mystery that was revealed to Paul. The mystery that was revealed to Paul is explained in Ephesians 3:6.
The Plan of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:6)
Ephesians 3:6. that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel,
This is what the mystery was. To us, it seems pretty clear. We say, “That’s not much of a mystery.” But for the average Jew in Paul’s day, this was an amazing and controversial idea (Acts 10-15; Galatians). The mystery which was revealed to Paul was that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise!
Previously, only the Jews were heirs. Only the Jews had promises and covenants from God. Only the Jews were allowed near to God. Only the Jews had forgiveness of sins from God.
But now they are being allowed in. Now they are being grafted into the body. Now they can partake—or share—in the promise of God! This is the mystery. It seems clear to us, but that is because it has been revealed to us.
Jews who lived prior to Paul did not see this clearly. “No one knew the full meaning of God’s promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3) until Paul wrote, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations shall be blessed in you’” (Gal 3:8).
“No one knew the full meaning of Isaiah’s prediction, “I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6), until it was explained by Paul to mean the offering of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Messiah) to the Gentiles as well as the Jews (Acts 13:46-47).”
We say “How could they not understand this?” The answer is that for OT Jews, it was still future! It is like our view of the future. The future—even though certain things are known from Scripture, is still a mystery to us. Paul says in 1 Cor. 13:12, concerning the future, that now we see in a mirror dimly.
It is like after you get out of a shower, and the mirror is covered with steam. You can barely see yourself. That is what the future is like. We can see a hazy outline in Scripture, but it will not become clear to us until we see it happen. When it does, we will wonder how we ever missed it.
That’s how it was for the Jew prior to Paul. They saw bits and pieces of how the Gentile fit into God’s plan, but God revealed it clearly to Paul, and he in turn taught it to others.
The plan of the mystery in verse 6 was to include the Gentiles as heirs, into the body and promises that previously belonged only to Jews. How does this happen? He says here in verse 6 that it was through the gospel that the Gentiles were included.
The gospel is the means or the instrument by which the Gentiles would be grafted in. The mystery was not that they could be saved, rather it was that through the gospel, Gentile believers would become one new man with the Jewish believers. Jesus Christ came as the Savior of the entire world, but only those who believe in Him alone will be saved.
And if you have believed, then you are part of this mystery that Paul is so excited about. You have been included in the promises, and become fellow heirs. It is a wonderful place to be.
We’ve talked about mysteries this morning—the mystery revealed to Paul. Does it ever bother you that God even has mysteries? That God has “sacred secrets?” Does it ever bother you that God doesn’t reveal everything all at once? Does it ever frustrate you that God didn’t make the Scripture’s clearer—more plain—more easily understood? It does me.
You know, He could have, being the sovereign God that He is, he could have laid it out a lot more simply. Why is there this need for mysteries and withholding information, and only giving us light for one step at a time? Why did God choose to do thing this way? It’s terribly frustrating, isn’t it? Terribly confusing.
The answer, I believe, can be found (as always) in looking to Christ. Christ said over and over that if you know Him then you know the Father also. In other words, Christ does things the same way God the Father does things.
What was Christ’s main teaching method? That’s right—parables—stories.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why Jesus told parables? Jesus told parables for one main reason. The reason shocked me when I first heard it.
I often hear preachers and pastors say, “Jesus used parables, why don’t we?” They teach that Jesus used parables because people love stories, and because it makes the point more memorable.
Armed with that logic, these pastors come week after week to the pulpits in our churches across the land with nothing but a bunch of humorous stories, witty anecdotes, thoughtful quotes, colorful analogies and funny jokes. Sometimes there is a Scripture reference or two thrown in for good measure.
It is my conviction that this is not preaching—though it may be very interesting to listen to, this is not preaching, it is entertainment. God has not called Pastors to entertain, but to preach the Word.
So preaching as some pastors do, though done with good intentions because it is similar to the way Christ taught, has gone wrong because the starting premise was incorrect. They want to imitate Christ’s methods, but they never stopped to ask why Christ used the methods that he did.
They believe that Jesus told parables to make his point clearer. But do you want to know why Jesus told parables? He told us why. Do you know why? Maybe you can guess why.
Have you ever tried to read and seriously understand Christ’s parables? I, for the most part, unless Christ explains exactly what he means by his parable (which he does sometimes), I am often completely and utterly confused by what he is saying.
Take Luke 16:1-13 for example. A rich man had a money manager who was wasteful, so just before the rich man fired his money manager, the manager went out and cut in half the debt that everyone owed to the rich man. When the rich man found out about this dishonesty, he was not angry, as any of us would have been, he was impressed, and praised the dishonest manager.
Jesus kind of explains what he means there, but this parable—like many others, has always baffled me. What does Christ mean? It takes lots of study and prayerful research to understand what Christ is talking about.
So why did Jesus tell parables? Are you ready for this? The answer is that He told parables to confuse people! He told parables to confuse people! Don’t take my words for it, He said it himself!
In Matthew 13:10-15, He has just finished telling a parable, and his disciples had no clue what he was talking about, and so they come to him—out of frustration I’m sure—and say, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” In other words, they’re saying, “We don’t understand you either. Would you knock it off?” (cf. Matt 15:15; Mark 4:34; 7:17; Luke 12:41; John 16:29).
Jesus answers them and says, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them…This is why I speak in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving…”
Along with the parables, this passage in Matthew has always bothered me. Why would Jesus use parables if they intentionally left people in the dark? It is only recently that I have discovered one possible answer. The answer for why Jesus told parables if he knew they only confused people is the same answer to why God has mysteries in Scripture, it is the same answer to why God didn’t make the Bible clearer.
The answer is that God wants us to seek him. He gives us just enough knowledge, and just enough clues that it will spark our curiosity, to leave some suspense, some mystery. Those who want to learn more, will dig deeper, will press on, will investigate more. Just like a private investigator trying to solve a mystery, God wants us to chase after Him. If we do, Matthew 7:7 says that those who ask will receive, those who seek will find, and those who knock, the door will be opened.
God has mysteries, and Jesus told parables, so that those who wanted to learn more would step out in faith, one step at a time, and seek to learn more. But those who didn’t want to learn more would be left in the dark, without knowledge, without a relationship, without the joy that comes from discovering truth.
God and Christ are master teachers. The best teachers are those who use suspense and curiosity—mystery—to get the student to learn on their own. The worst teachers are those who just lay out the information and say “take it or leave it.” No one learns that way. You learn best when you discover it for yourself.
So the question now is, “What kind of student are you?” One that gives up because God speaks in parables and mysteries? One that throws up his hands in frustrations because God didn’t make it clearer? One that throws a tantrum because he didn’t get a copy of the test with all the answers before he had to take it?
Or will you be one that presses on and digs to find the deeper things of God. Yes, it takes work. Yes, it’s hard. But then, very often, the most precious jewels are only found deep down.
So what are you going to do? God uses mysteries and parables to see how you will respond. Only as you dig, and seek, and knock, and search, will he reveal to you the answers. And once you begin, you will feel the excitement of the discovery, and you won’t be able to stop. You will become the Indiana Jones of the Bible—seeking clues, dodging attacks from the enemy, asking questions…discovering mysteries.
God has placed them in His Word. Paul found one and is sharing it with us. He continues to explain what he found in verses 7-13.
Footnotes for the Study on Ephesians 3:1-6
 MacArthur, chapter 8, plan.