“The Mystery Made Known”
March 6, 2016
Will we make known the tremendous truth that has been made known to us?
I. The Mystery Made Known to Paul (Ephesians 3:1-6)
A. God’s instrument
B. in God’s timing
C. receives God’s revelation
II. The Mystery Preached by Paul (Ephesians 3:7-13)
A. God’s instrument
B. in God’s timing
C. shares God’s revelation
Before 1900 fever was the great killer of the tropics. Whether with the Army, as in the Spanish American war, or with a construction project, as in the building of the Panama Canal, the majority of deaths would not come from enemy soldiers or construction accidents but from yellow fever and malaria. In the original French attempt to build the canal, 20 of every 100 European workers died in their first year. Another 60 were weakened or disabled by the diseases.
But between the French attempt in the 1880's and the actual building of the Canal in the early 1900's something changed. What had been a mystery was now made clear: the truth about the mosquito. In the Spanish American War, like all tropical wars to that time, the death toll was far higher from disease than from enemy action. Thirteen times higher. It was assumed the diseases were transmitted by bad air or contact with the sick. But in the midst of the outbreak in Havana, Cuba, Army Doctor Walter Reed showed that yellow fever was incubated in the Aedes Egypti mosquito. This was a new thing, not un-thought-of but unproved, unknown to most before these classic experiments. It was a mystery solved - something once hidden now revealed. The truth hadn’t changed, but people’s understanding of it began to.
One Army doctor, William C. Gorgas, though compassionate, was unconvinced. He told Walter Reed to prove the theory by eliminating the Aedes mosquito from Havana, by eliminating its breeding grounds. This meant drainage, covering standing water, screens, and fumigation. The Havana campaign began in February 1901. The year before there had been 1400 cases of yellow fever. In 1901 there were 37. In 1902 there were none. For the first time in history a tropical city had been rid of the disease. The truth was there all along, but not until the mystery of the mosquito was revealed did it make a difference.
That’s the point. The Apostle Paul has been telling us in Ephesians that God has wonderfully redeemed people, that this salvation is by grace, and that God’s plan is to bring together both Jews and Gentiles into one new man, a new nation, a new family, a temple for God’s presence. Much of this great, life-changing truth was unknown before the time of Christ, and once revealed it needed to be accepted and shared before it could make a difference.
In chapter 3 of Ephesians Paul tells of his own role in the revelation of this truth, Paul felt that it was a gift from God to share revealed truth. My goal as we study this passage is for us, you and me, to feel the same about our role in the transmission of this truth: that it is a gift from God to share revealed truth.
The passage, Ephesians 3:1-13, has two main parts. In verses 1-6 Paul tells us how the mystery has been made known: as God’s instrument, in God’s timing he received God’s revelation. Then in 7-13 he tells us how the mystery has been preached: as God’s instrument, in God’s timing he shares God’s revelation.
Like Dr. Gorgas in Havana, Paul rejoiced to be an instrument making an incredible difference in many lives. We begin with Ephesians 3:1-6: For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— 2assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Because of the wonderful things he has written about God’s unifying redemption, Paul wants to pray for the Ephesians, as he did at the end of chapter 1. But he doesn’t, yet. Instead, starting in verse 2 he goes on a long side track, in which he celebrates in amazement God’s use of him as the messenger of these truths. He doesn’t resume prayer until verse 14, repeating the phrase ‘for this reason.’
Paul calls himself “a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.” Humanly speaking he was not Christ’s prisoner, but Caesar’s. He had appealed to the Emperor, and so had been sent to Rome for trial. But Paul was convinced his whole life, including imprisonment was under God’s sovereign hand. Whether in prison or not, he was a willing captive and bond-slave of Jesus Christ.
He is in fact a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles. What led to his arrest was fanatical Jewish opposition to his mission to the Gentiles. His friend Luke was with him at the time and explains that what prompted the Jews to move against Paul was his reputation “for teaching men everywhere against the people, and the law and the temple.” And in a real sense, he did. We just heard him say in Ephesians 2 that Jesus was creating a new people, building a new temple. Paul is willing to go to prison to defend the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan.
Paul knew that God had given him a key role in the revelation of truth, a stewardship of this truth. The Greek word was used of a slave who managed a household, the steward. We might translate it responsibility. “This is the responsibility God has graciously given me, to share the mystery that was revealed to me.” Paul never feels he has somehow earned the right to ministry. He recognizes it is only by God’s grace. It’s a revelation, something God gave him that he didn’t know when he was a persecutor of the church.
Just as Walter Reed and William Gorgas had insight into yellow fever because they had the missing information about the mosquito, so Paul has insight into this mystery because God has given the missing information about the Gentiles.
The mystery is given in God’s timing. Verse 5, “which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets.” No one in prior centuries fully appreciated this truth. It was hidden, though generous hints were given in the prophets. But now, in God’s timing, it is revealed. Paul says in Galatians “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law.” In Romans he says “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”
This mystery was also revealed at the right time, God’s time, to Paul and to God’s holy apostles and prophets. The apostles here are probably the disciples of Jesus, plus Paul, who was chosen later. The prophets are the Old Testament prophets who laid the foundation for this truth. And while the object of the revelation was the conversion of the Gentiles, it also led to the completion of the Scriptures. The mysteries we need to know are now unveiled in God’s Word. There may be other mysteries revealed during the millennium or in eternity, but all that we need is found in the New or Old Testaments.
What is the mystery now revealed? The aspect Paul is focused on is in verse 6: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This is what Jesus told Paul on the Damascus road: “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those which I will reveal to you, 17delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you 18to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Paul caught the vision Gentiles turning to the light, to God, to forgiveness. This Gospel message of salvation is for people of every nation.
Paul uses three Greek words to describe the inclusion of the Gentiles. All three words start with the prefix ‘sun’ which means with or together in Greek. We are heirs together. With all believers we will receive the blessings of heaven and eternity from our loving Father. We are members together of one body. The word Paul uses here didn’t exist until he made it up, indicating that each believer is a vital part of the body of Christ. Finally, we are sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus, promises of the Old Testament that told of salvation by the sacrifice of the Messiah, and promises of the New Testament of his return, our resurrection, and eternal life.
All these promises are shared by all who have trusted Christ. This is the mystery that Paul has received, as God’s instrument in God’s timing. But he hasn’t received it simply to hang on to it, he has received it to share. Ephesians 3:7-13 Of this gospel I was made a servant according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. 13So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.
Paul repeats the sequence: God’s instrument, God’s timing, God’s revelation. But this pass is even more profound. He says “I became a servant of this Gospel.” In verse 1 he was a prisoner for Jesus Christ. Here he is a servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, through the gift of God’s grace. So also with us: ministry is not our strength or our ability, it is a working of God’s power. Paul uses two words from his description of God’s power at work in the resurrection. That same power is at work appointing Paul to share the Gospel with the Gentiles.
That same power is still at work in us when we share. Any ministry, individually or as a church is a gift of God’s grace, result of his power. The purity conference we had a few weeks ago, for example, was the result of God’s grace and power communicated into the lives of a few responsive people who were willing to communicate it to others. Not a result of human power, but human weakness and God’s grace. Look at Paul: At times Paul seems to be proud or boastful but here he says in apparent sincerity that “I am the least of all God’s people.” He literally says “I am the leaster or the leastest of all God’s people.”
Paul had been a persecutor, a blasphemer of Jesus. “Yet God has given me this grace: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.’ “Unsearchable” means “not to be tracked down.” Translators compete trying to find an English equivalent. These riches are ‘inexplorable,’ ‘untraceable,’ ‘incalculable.’ Like the earth, too vast to explore, the sea, too deep to fathom. The word reminds me of swimming at church camp as a kid. The glacier lake at Johnsonburg was over 100 feet deep. In the swimming area, on a raft, was a miniature trampoline. You jumped down onto it and got launched high up and then deep into the lake. I can’t tell you how many times I swam as deep as I could, down to where the water was dark, cold and mysterious. But I could never find the bottom. It was unsearchable. Such are the riches of Christ.
Unsearchable especially is the grace of God, which gives us the privilege of sharing the message. Paul says in Corinthians: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” The power of the Gospel is God’s power and the power to share it does not spring from us, but from God’s power in us.
We are earthen vessels, used as his instruments, in his timing, for his honor. Paul emphasizes the timing again in verse 9: “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known.” For ages past it was hidden, but now revealed to and through us. This is God’s timing. He had this mystery of Christ, this mystery of the Gospel for the Gentiles firmly in his plan, yet he waited until the right time to reveal it.
Notice, verse 10, that this truth is made known through the church. I’ve been struck by the fact that even as a church, as churches, we have this treasure in jars of clay, cracked and broken, so that the light of Christ shines through. Truth is revealed by the very existence of the church in which Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, all races, all nations, all languages become new, and one. If you wanted to make known the existence of, say, a cure to a disease, you could write thousands of words, expound the theory, even take pictures or video. But nothing would be as effective as the testimony of a group of people cured from the disease. In the same way, it is not hearing about the body of Christ that is really effective, it is seeing the Body of Christ, and recognizing what God has done that will make a difference.
Paul says that through the church the manifold wisdom of God will be made known. That word manifold means ‘many sided’ or even ‘many colored’ It is the word used by Greek translators when they described Joseph’s coat of many colors. What is being revealed here is not just one narrow aspect of God’s wisdom, but its whole bright array, seen in his subtle and wonderful dealings with the people he created. Notice too that the mystery is not only revealed to men, Jews and Gentiles, but it is specifically made known to rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm. Both good creatures and evil, angels and demons see realities about us and the church that are hidden from human observers. Stott says “Neither angels nor demons know all that will happen, as God does. Indeed, Peter tells us that the angels did not fully understand either the Old Testament prophets or the New Testament apostles regarding the good news of salvation in Christ, for these are ‘things into which angels long to look.’”
In the same way we can infer from this verse that God had not revealed even to angels the mystery of his plan for the church, but intended rather to make it known through the church itself. The church is a drama acted out on the stage of physical creation for the edification and enlightenment of all creatures.
And perhaps the most astounding thing they see is the redeemed approaching God with freedom and confidence, verse 12, through faith. Sinful people cannot do this. Those who have disobeyed and rebelled cannot approach a holy God at all. As we saw in chapter 2, before faith in Christ, we are by nature objects of wrath. In last week’s verses Paul described the Gentiles as ‘without God’ But he also said that those who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. In verse 18 he said that through Christ both Jews and Gentiles have access to the Father though the Spirit. That word ‘access’ is the same root as the word ‘freedom’ in this verse. Finally, in verse 22, he said we are being built together into a holy temple, where God lives by His Spirit. Over and over we are finding that God’s final purpose, is to allow us to be with him.
And the only way for that to work is by our cleansing from sin through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. He substituted himself for us, and through Him we have been declared righteous, cleared of our rebellion and cleansed from our sin. How? Not by any kind of good works, but simply by trusting him. Paul says it is through him and through faith in him - belief - simple trust that in Jesus we can have confidence to approach God, freedom to approach God. This is the good news that Paul was given grace to preach, the mystery shared with all that he could reach. The good news we celebrate in communion.
Paul was God’s instrument in God’s timing to receive and proclaim God’s revealed truth. But what about you and me? I believe God has given us this gift as well, truth revealed and meant for sharing. What was mysterious before Paul is not hidden any longer. We have in God’s Word the record for all time of God’s wonderful plan. Do we see it as God’s grace to us that we get to share this?
We have lots of opportunities in normal life, and at many levels, to delight in sharing God’s revealed truth. In family life parents get to share God’s good news, and God’s wonderful person with their children. Children can also share these things with each other, with peers. We have opportunity to bring the light of God to our workplace, to our social circles, to our social media, to our hobbies, sports and neighborhoods, to the needy and hurting. Some of these things require no effort except to let your heart for God be on your tongue. Other things require careful and ongoing commitment. But we won’t do it unless we see ourselves as Paul saw himself, as a sinner saved by the unsearchable riches of God’s grace and overflowing with that grace toward others.
The best known example, maybe, is John Newton, who turned to Jesus from a life as a slave trader and wrote “Amazing Grace.” One of my favorite lines is when Newton says “Though my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”
There are so many opportunities to overflow with God’s revealed truth. Like Paul, we can rejoice that God has allowed us, to share the grace we’ve received. Think of it this way: if you discovered a cure for a deadly disease, you would want people to experience the cure, to spread the word. But we live in a world where Jesus is the cure to a death most people don’t even know they have.
Dr. William C. Gorgas knew the truth about mosquitos, yellow fever and malaria. When he was assigned as chief medical officer for the American attempt to build the canal, he knew he could make a difference. But he was appalled when he got to Panama and found nothing was being done. Rates of malaria and yellow fever were skyrocketing in both the towns and work sites.
Gorgas knew that a key to controlling the mosquito population lay in controlling standing water. But few in Panama wanted to hear that truth. In the hospitals, fine, large hospitals built by the French, taken over by the Americans, it was common practice to set the legs of the beds into plates of water, to keep ants away from the beds, but the horrible effect of breeding mosquitos right there at the feet of yellow fever or malaria patients. Gorgas found that the canal officials building the canal, both those in Panama and the commissioners back in the United States, had little interest in his so-called theory of mosquitos. He fought a losing battle to share this effective treatment for more than a year.
But he never gave up. As deaths mounted, and panic spread, he was finally given a green light to put his full program into practice. The chief engineer put his whole department at Gorgas’s disposal, though he didn’t believe the mosquito theory. All the things that had been done in Havana were repeated. By the end of the first year, Gorgas and several of his staff gathered in the dissecting room to perform an autopsy. Gorgas told them to take a good look at this man, for he was the last yellow fever cadaver they would see. The disease was eliminated from the Panamanian Isthmus. A life changing understanding of the truth. Gorgas had it. You have it as well. My prayer is that you will see it as a gift of God’s grace that you have that truth and that you can share it.