Chapter 3:1-13: The Mystery of the Church.
For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles…(v. 1). Most commentators believe that Paul wishes to speak about his situation as a Roman prisoner. He feared that his imprisonment might cause some to depreciate his teaching, and he did not want the Ephesians asking, “If God has done all Paul says He’s done, why is Paul in prison?” Paul addresses this in verse 13ff. But it appears verses 2‑12 are a digression; an explanation of Paul’s special knowledge.1
The dispensation of the grace of God (v. 2) is a reference to God’s imparting new revelatory knowledge about the Church to His apostle. As the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul was entrusted with the dispensing of this knowledge to the Gentiles. The grace of God here, as in all Scripture, is not an impassive thing. Rather, it refers to God gifting Paul (though grace mustn’t be viewed as a substance) so that he in turn would be a gift to the churches.
How that by revelation He made known to me the mystery…(v. 3). The mystery being the revelation about the Church found…in a few words, in the preceding chapters. By reading those chapters, the church at Ephesus would understand Paul’s…knowledge in the mystery of Christ (v. 4). What is this mystery? It is the truth that the saints were predestined in Christ to be holy, spiritually‑minded children of God, who corporately, in one body (Jew and Gentile) would grow “into a holy temple in the Lord.”
The revelation of the mystery of Christ (i.e. believers being in Christ) is specifically said to be unknown in other ages…(cf. Col. 1:26), and now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit (v. 5). This means that Old Testament saints had no conception of the Church as the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10‑12).2 Although some progressive dispensationalists teach that the mystery here is more along the line of something formerly unrealized I do not think the Old Testament gives one any encouragements in that direction. Matthew’s Gospel is the only one of the four to mention the Church explicitly (e.g. Matt. 16:18) and he clearly views it as something that Christ will build after His ascension. It is one of the new things with which the Evangelist is concerned in his Gospel. Hoehner makes our point for us: “This mystery was not known before the NT era. Only after the death of Christ was it revealed to the holy apostles and prophets by means of the Holy Spirit.” (H. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 444).
The prophets in this verse are New Testament believers with a prophetic gift, and are not to be confused with Old Testament prophets who held the prophetic office. Verse 6 highlights the content of the mystery as it pertained to the Ephesian church. It was, that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the Gospel.
It is a great privilege to be commissioned by God to preach … the unsearchable riches of Christ (v. 8). This is why a preacher must be a good steward of the mysteries of the Gospel (1 Cor. 4:1). It was an even greater privilege to be made a minister of the apostolic office, so that God enabled one…to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery (cf. 2:14‑19)3 which from the beginning of the world has been hidden in God… (v. 9). It might seem a contradiction in terms to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ if they cannot be fully known. But just because something is fathomless, does not mean that some of its depths cannot be comprehended. The more we seek to understand what Christ is to us, the greater He becomes to us. Yet there is always an strong element of incomprehensibility in every biblical doctrine. We must never lose sight of the fact that God is incomprehensible to us unless and to the degree in which He makes Himself known to us.
The apostle Paul again speaks of…the gift of the grace of God which was given unto him. The last clause of verse 7…by the effectual working of His power shows the truth of what has been already said about grace being active, not passive.
The Church, which is being ‘built together for a habitation of God through the Spirit” (cf. 2:22) is a demonstration of the wisdom of God to all created beings—both good and evil. In this new humanity in Christ, angels and devils view…the manifold wisdom of God (v. 10)…which God purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord (v. 11) in eternity past. They find it bewildering that …we have boldness and access with confidence…into the very throne-room of the Most Holy (cf. Heb. 4:16). The Book of Hebrews reminds us in chapter 9:7, that “the high priest alone once every year,” could enter into the holy of holies, but then, “not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people.” Now, in Christ, the Christian—on the basis of his adoption into God’s family (cf. Eph. 1:5)—is bidden to come continually to the throne of grace in prayer. God wants us to come into His Presence!
The words…by the faith of Him (v. 12) indicate not Christ’s faith, but our faith in Christ (cf. Rom. 3:22). By this, “he intimates, that everything which faith ought to contemplate is exhibited to us in Christ.” (Calvin, 257)
Now that he has explained his knowledge, Paul can return to the subject of his present afflictions. The last thing he wants the Ephesians to do is to give up because of his tribulations (v. 13). Paul’s imprisonment in Rome came as a result of him fulfilling his commission to dispense the mystery of the Gospel to the Gentiles. Therefore, this successful stewardship brought the riches of Christ to Ephesus, and, he can say from his prison cell, Christ is our glory (cf. Gal. 6:14).
Chapter 3:14-21. Another Prayer: for strength and understanding.
For this cause…(v. 14)4 Paul begins an ascending prayer to God on behalf of his hearers. He does this by emphasizing the family relationship of every believer…in heaven and earth (v. 15). The prayer begins in verse 16. That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory (cf. 1:17) to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man (v. 16). The Spirit’s power within us is able to keep us persevering in the face of afflictions (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16, 17). To yield to God’s Spirit is to give glory to God’s Spirit. To bar His gracious influence upon our lives – even when He takes us into valleys and times of difficulty, is to defy God, showing a spirit of independence which is at cross purposes to His wise purpose.
Christ is to be welcomed by believers to preside over them. He should…dwell in [our] hearts by faith, as the center of our lives. Only if Christ is welcome in the heart is a Christian capable of being rooted and grounded in love (v. 17). If love does not undergird our thoughts and motives, our spiritual perception will be impaired. Paul wants every Christian to be…able to comprehend with all saints (the whole family of God) what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height (v. 18) the dimensions of the stupendous riches within the grace of God in Christ.5 Paul wants the Ephesians to know the unknowable, he wants them…to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge (cf. Phil. 4:7 and also, Job 11:7‑9). The love of Christ is the starting point of every blessing the Christian will ever have. To know all mysteries and yet be without love makes a man nothing (cf. 1 Cor. 13:2). It is love which grasps these truths, and turns them into praises! It is love which sets doctrine ablaze! No wonder then that love is essential if the ending of Paul’s prayer…that you might be filled with all the fulness of God (v. 19) is to be realized in the Church.
Paul ends his prayer with a doxology.6 A doxology is an expression in words ascribing glory to God. Now to Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly (Note the use of two superlatives because Paul is speaking about God.) above all that we ask (in prayer) or think (but don’t dare to pray), according to the power that works in us (cf. 1:19‑3:7, 16).
To Him be glory (v. 21). The objective of the saints is to strive together to bring glory to the Father in their profession as Christians (Christ‑followers). This is the meaning of the words glory in the Church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages. Those like the Ephesians, who have lived before us, and have gone on to their reward, we, the believers of the present, and those who may came after us, have one great duty: we are, “… bought with a price: therefore (we are told) glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:20). This is the purpose of the Church…world without end (v. 21), and we may concur with Paul in the hearty Amen with which he brings his prayer, and this chapter, to a close.
1 This tells us that Paul would not ‘edit’ his letters. Besides, divine inspiration would preclude this.
2 Thus, this becomes a central passage in the interpretative wrangle between Covenant Post and Amillennialists, and Dispensationalists. This writer is a confirmed Dispensationalist. For a fine treatment of these verses see C. C. Ryrie, “The Mystery in Ephesians 3” in R. B. Zuck, ed., Vital Biblical Issues, 180-186.
3 “The publication of the Gospel is called a fellowship, because it is the will of God that His purpose, which had formerly been hidden, shall now be shared by men.” (J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XXI, 254)
4 We take this to refer to verses 2-12, and not just to verse 13.
5 Most modern interpreters, along with the newer Bible versions, take these dimensions as referring just to “the love of Christ.” See, for example, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, 218-19. At the risk of straining a gnat, we believe Paul is praying, not only that they comprehend Christ’s love, but that their hearts might be excited by Paul’s doctrine of redemption, so that they understand Christ’s love more profoundly.