Ephesians Study, Part 21: The Mystery of the Body of Christ


The last time we were together, 3 weeks ago, we started Chapter 3 of Ephesians.   You may remember that Paul opened with the beginning of a thought in verse 1, but interrupted himself to drive off on a side road which will extend from verse 2 through verse 14.

This diversion in Paul’s thoughts, we described as a gap, or a parenthesis, even a parenthesis in time.  Although we might have thought this very unique, we made the point that there are many such gaps in the Bible, at least 24.   We looked at a couple of the more striking and noteworthy.

Often, if not usually, these gaps are dispensational, meaning that they are periods when God changes his manner of interaction with man -- dispensations like the Jewish dispensation, and then the Church dispensation. Paul’s diversion is into the Church dispensation, and what the Church really is.

Today's Lesson:

So now we start into Paul’s parenthesis, his digression from the original thought.

To support this idea of a change in dispensations, here is the same verse as translated in the King James:

Here we have that very controversial word interpreted as dispensation in some translations.  The Greek word is oikonomia, from which we get the word "economy".  It comes from two Greek words, oikos which means "house", and nomos which means "law". If you put them together you have "the law of the house". It is a word that means stewardship or management or economy. Therefore in this use, it refers to the stewardship of God's grace.

God's principles don't change, but his methods of dealing with mankind do.  St. Augustine made the point:

That is, understand the period of time and what is going on, and the Scripture will make sense. The rules that Adam had, and the rules that Noah had, and the rules that Moses had were different.  But it is interesting that God's grace did not change.

God's Grace is multi-faceted:

God's grace emerges in several ways here. 

  1. First of all, as to the one chosen.  Paul’s undeserved favor to be chosen for such a high calling is one of these showings of God's grace.  That is clearly one of the aspects that Paul had in mind here -- the fact that God would call him; the fact that Paul, an enemy of the Church, would be given this unspeakable gift as to be chosen by Jesus, to be selected as the one with the privilege of bringing the message of his grace.
  2. Another aspect of grace to look at is the content of Paul's message, which is about God's free and unmerited kindness.
  3. And another way to look at grace here is as to the recipients of the message.

Whether it was a messenger of the message [Paul] or the recipient [the Gentiles]; none were worthy of receiving such a gift. So all of those thoughts might have been in the mind of Paul as he talked about the stewardship of the grace of God.

Paul adds that it was given to him toward the Gentiles, that comes from the “toward you”. So he could be referring to the grace toward Paul, the message he is giving or to the grace toward the recipient, the Gentiles.

Mystery defined:

The word mystery as used here is translated from the Greek word musterion.  It is not like the word mystery as you and I know it.  It is really a sacred secret, heretofore unknown, humanly unknowable but that is now being divinely revealed.  That is, it was a mystery up until now.

There are eleven major mysteries, at least, defined in the Scripture, maybe more.   The mystery here is something that up until now was a secret that is now being divinely revealed.   When he says "I wrote to you in a few words before", he could have been referring to several things, not the least of which is in Chapter 1, several times.  And in Chapter 2 from versus 11 through 22 he dealt with this mystery.   So the "few words earlier" could have meant, “as I mentioned earlier in this letter.” That may be what he is talking about.

He also may have discussed the idea with them in other letters or when he was with them.  There is no way for us to know for sure.

So let’s see where we are.

And on to verse 5:

Notice that he says, “which in other generations was not made known.”  In other words Paul is saying that what he's now talking about was not revealed in previous generations, which is another way of saying that it is not in the Old Testament.

This is a problem which leads to other problems.  Most people will make one of two errors regarding this whole idea.

The Church began in Acts Chapter 2, and it wasn't uniquely Pauline.  In fact, verse 5 is one thing to keep in mind.   On the one hand it says "in other generations it was not made known to man"; that it is not in the Old Testament.  But in the same verse he says that it was made known not just to Paul, but also to the Holy Apostles and Prophets by the Spirit.   So Paul says this was also made known to his co-workers.   So don't try to ascribe this just to Paul.  Of course ascribing it to the New Testament period is scriptural.

The Mystery in Other New Testament Scriptures:

Now let’s take a look at a couple of verses to reinforce that this is a New Testament idea.   Let's take a look at Romans 16, to reinforce that this was a mystery which had been hidden.  This is not an issue that appears just in Ephesians.   Near the end of the book of Romans, in 16:25, Paul says,

So he makes allusion to this mystery here again.   This has been a secret for a long time.

You'll find a similar reference if you go to Colossians Chapter 1 verse 26.   He says:

He’s still talking about the same mystery.

You may also recall that Jesus himself in Matthew Chapter 13 recounted this in the seven Kingdom parables.   Matthew 13 is a very interesting study as I discussed a few weeks ago.   One of things to you'll notice in verse 35 is that the content of those parables were things hidden from the foundation of the world, again highlighting the fact that whatever those parables are dealing with, it is not revealed in the Old Testament.

Now let's get into this a little bit; about what the mystery is.   People say the mystery is that the Gentiles could be saved.  Deeper study will reveal that it is not that simple.  The fact that both Jews and Gentiles could be saved was always known to the twelve Disciples.  We see that in John 10; we see it announced in Acts 10 by Peter’s sheet; and Paul, as we have discussed, was being held prisoner for this very reason, preaching that salvation was available to the Gentiles.

The Old Testament says in many places, especially throughout Isaiah, that through Israel the Gentiles would be blessed.   When Israel is restored to its covenant relationship, the Gentiles will be brought to a place of blessing through Israel, and that is found throughout the Old Testament.

Not Just Salvation:

So don't be so superficial as to assume that the mystery that Paul is speaking about is just the fact that the Gentiles can now be saved.   That is an aspect of the mystery, but it is far more than that.   The mystery that Paul is going to talk about here is the mystery that is called the Church.   We will not be able to cover all of this now, but as I mentioned before, many New Testament scholars believe that not one Christian in 100 has any idea what the Church really is.

When people talk about the Church, some think about a building.   You and I would think about groups of believers.   But we don't appreciate what may be more appropriately called the Mystery of the body of Christ.   It is a unique calling and unique privileges that the Church is heir to.

We often fall into the trap of assuming that the blessings we are heir to as members of the Church and members of his body have been available to all believers through all time.   The benefits to Moses, David, Noah, you name it, were all different from each other.   The benefits that we have are staggering.

One of Paul's dilemmas is how to get this across to us.   Paul is not a novice to the Scriptures.

He knew the Scriptures.   And yet he is blown away as he discovers the mystery of the Church.   And that is:

That's wild when you stop and think about it.   That's what Paul is going to lay on us as we go on here.

Fellow heirs with whom?   With the Jews.    Look at that verse carefully. The Gentiles should be fellow heirs and fellow partakers of the promise, in whom?   In Jesus.

Paul had already mentioned this concept in the 10th verse of Chapter 1, and in 11th and 22nd verses of Chapter 2.   But now he  is going to try to explain the tremendous impact of this mystery or secret now being revealed.   To be fellow heirs, that is fellow members all in one body.   There is no distance or disadvantage now.

You have to understand what a Gentile had to do, prior to this, to be saved.   He had to become a Jew.   In the Old Testament, the way you were saved was to become a Jew, to become a proselyte -- a Gentile who has adopted Judaism.   You were allowed only into the court of the Gentiles, no further.

There is no distance now.  We are fellow partakers of the promise.  The promise is the promise of a Messiah.  But the promise is also the promised Holy Spirit.  And again here is another place that most of us suffer from a lack of real in-depth comprehension of what he means by the Holy Spirit and its dynamic, available to us moment by moment day by day.   If we only understood and truly appreciated the powerful tool that is in our heart and ready for action.

This concept of a Church where Jew and Gentile are equal is not mentioned in the Old Testament.   Many Kingdom passages in the Old Testament deal with Gentiles, but that is in a different mode; that's as a derivative of Judaism, but we’re talking about something else here.

The Old Testament did predict the calling of the Gentiles in Isaiah 11, 42, 49, 55, and 60, Zechariah 2 and Malachi 1, but not as fellow members of the Body.   That is an idea that is absent in the Old Testament.   The Kingdom passages that Israel will be blessed as head of the nations and that Gentiles will be blessed through Israel; that's in Isaiah 60, 61 and Zechariah 8.   But in all of those, the idea is that Gentiles are blessed, but only through the Jews.

Now it is a totally new arrangement.   It is interesting to understand that

Makes you wonder doesn’t it?


Next week:

...we will follow Paul in this divergence into the Church dispensation, starting with Ephesians 3:7.