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Ephesians 3:1-12

The Church: An Epiphany

In church tradition, Epiphany celebrates the coming of the magi to the young child, Jesus. More pointedly, Epiphany celebrates God’s revelation in an unexpected way to unexpected people: Gentiles! How appropriate that the epistle reading is from Ephesians.

Peter O’Brien identifies the central message of the letter to the Ephesians as “cosmic reconciliation and unity in Christ”[1] and 3:1-12 is a key supporting passage for this message. In chapter 1, Paul identified the “mystery” of God’s will as set forth in Christ: “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). Chapter 2 focuses on the reconciliation and unity effected on earth: the creation of “one new humanity in place of two” (2:16) which was effected “in his [Christ’s] flesh” (v. 13). While continuing the theme of reconciliation and unity, chapter 3 shifts to Paul’s role in “the administration of God’s grace” (3:2, NIV) to the Gentiles.

In 3:2, the Greek word oikonomia is translated “administration” (NIV), “commission” (NRSV), “responsibility to distribute” (CEB), and “stewardship” (NASB). Each translation offers a helpful perspective of the word, yet none shows clearly the connection to the immediately preceding passage. In Paul’s day, the primary meaning of this term was “management of a household.” In 2:19, Paul assured the Gentile believers that they are now “members of the household of God.” Here, he reminds them that “God has given him the responsibility of administering the part of his plan for the universe that involves the inclusion of the Gentiles within his household.”[2] Yet even as Paul recognizes his role in administering or serving as a steward of this grace, he also recognizes that his very role is a “gift of God’s grace” (3:7).

This graced administration is closely tied to the mystery which Paul knows only by way of divine revelation (3:3). The mystery was identified in 1:9-10 as God’s great plan for cosmic reconciliation in Christ but now the focus is on a specific and vital aspect: the reconciliation and unity of seemingly irreconcilable and alienated Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s role focused on making known among the Gentiles their total access to God on the same basis as the Jews: through the gospel of Jesus Christ. For those who had been barred from entry to the Temple in Jerusalem, this would have been quite an amazing turn of events!

Even more astounding is that “Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). This verse indicates a reality extending beyond God’s promise to Abraham that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Earlier prophets had understood that much. However, an even deeper mystery, previously hidden (see v. 9), has now been revealed to Paul and other apostles and prophets “by the Spirit” (v. 5). In Christ, the Gentiles are not simply blessed, they are full heirs to the promises of God, with all the available rights, privileges and responsibilities appertaining thereto! Gentiles are now part of the same body as Jews, the new humanity created through Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension (see 1:20; 2:16). Furthermore, the “promise” in which they now share is that of the Holy Spirit (1:13; 2:18), who is available to and active in the lives of all, without distinction, who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Paul understands this much of the mystery and his role in administering it. However, he still acknowledges the infinite riches of Christ (v. 8) which run deeper and farther than he can comprehend. The more he knows, the greater his awe, and the more he recognizes is still to be known of the “breadth and length and height and depth” (3:18) of Christ and this great grace that has been poured out on all people. Yet the commission given him is to bring to light this mystery, God’s amazing plan of cosmic reconciliation (v. 9). The “God who created all things” has now created a new humanity – the church – where reconciliation and unity are to display “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” (v. 10).

We might say that Paul had an epiphany which re-set the course of his life. Now the church, this new humanity, is to be an epiphany to the cosmos: “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (v. 10). The church is to be a revelation of the power of God not only to create but to recreate a sin-marred humanity. Furthermore, the church is to serve as a pattern and reminder of God’s power and willingness to redeem and reconcile all things.

God raised Christ to “heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” both now and for eternity (1:20-22). The church, “which is his body” (1:23), is “a holy temple…a dwelling place for God” (2:21-22). And now the church is the primary visible means of displaying God’s grand plan for the cosmos!

What is impossible from a human perspective – indeed, what “rulers and authorities” often mitigate against – is possible in Christ and Christ alone! The impossibility of a unified and richly diverse humanity is possible in Christ and the church – locally and globally – must display and demonstrate this diverse unity, this unified diversity.

If the church is to model unified diversity, the attitude cannot be one of “come and be like us”; Acts 15 dispels that notion. Some in the early church found this verdict difficult to accept, as evidenced by some Jewish Christians who persisted in trying to convert Gentiles to some form of “Jewish Christianity” rather than simply accepting that all persons are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (for examples, Galatians). Most of us today are no less susceptible to trying to convert others to “our way” of being Christian in the world.

Consider the following questions from the perspective of your own context:

  1. If the church is meant to be the pattern of God’s work of reconciling all things in and through Christ, how effectively is this being conveyed?

  2. If the church is meant to be God’s primary means of making known God’s richly diverse wisdom to the cosmos, what is the message being conveyed? [1] Peter T. O’Brien, Th