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Ephesians 3:1-12

The Greek word epiphaneia from which the English word (and concept of) epiphany derives means appearance or appearing. Perhaps a more theologically astute way of describing Christ’s appearing is to call it God’s revelation of Christ. No single biblical text nor any single writer or preacher can capture all that is meant and all that was revealed in God’s revelation of Christ to the world. Ephesians 3:1-2, the epistle lesson for Epiphany, does not reveal all, but it points us in helpful directions as we seek both to understand and to live into the meaning of Christ’s appearing.

The key idea of Ephesians 3:1-12 is the revelation of God through Christ to the Gentiles. This is likely the reason the passage was chosen for the epistle lesson for Epiphany. The gospel lesson is Matthew 2: 1-12 which is the story of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. Though never stated in Matthew 2, the magi were clearly Gentiles and this gospel lesson was chosen to teach the revelation of Christ to those Gentiles.

The passage begins with the words, “This is the reason” or “For this reason.” The reason that Paul is about to address the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles is found at the end of Ephesians 2, where he describes the church. The church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets;” the “cornerstone” of the church is “Christ Jesus himself.” The “whole structure” of the church “is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” In the church individual believers are being “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” In the church the “two” (Jew and Gentile) have been made into one new humanity. It is because of this vision of the church that God has commissioned Paul into the apostolic ministry of which we know only a part.

For the sake of the church Paul has been made a prisoner. While being a prisoner sounds bad in our context, it was surely much worse in Paul’s time. Prisons did not supply meals, bedding, or clothing for prisoners. Someone outside the prison, presumably a believer, would have had to bring food and a blanket to Paul who would have to “fight off” other prisoners who would be trying to steal these basic necessities. Given harshness of these circumstances it is amazing that in Ephesians 3:13 Paul prays that his readers “may not lose heart over [his] sufferings for [them].” In other words, Paul, the prisoner, is comforting his friends outside who are distressed about his suffering inside the prison. Something extraordinary is necessary to account for this.

Two significant words point us to this extraordinary thing that transformed Paul the prisoner into Paul the comforter. The first word is “mystery,” which appears in verses 3, 4, 5, and 9 of this passage. English dictionaries define a “mystery” as something kept secret or either unknown or unexplained. In a counter-intuitive move the New Testament almost always uses the word “mystery” to mean a secret that is no longer a secret, no longer unknown or unexplained. Thus Paul speaks in verse 3 of “how the mystery was made known to [him] by revelation.” The mystery is no longer a mystery because it has been made known.

Paul acknowledges in verse 5 that “in former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind.” But “now it has been revealed . . . by the Spirit.” The unlocking of the secret is so complete that Paul not only knows it, but openly shares it with all in verse 6. The mystery is that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” To paraphrase, the secret about God’s chosen and favorite people is now no longer a secret. God’s chosen and favorite people are not just us who think we are God chosen and favorite people, but God’s chosen and favorite people include every person, every people, every language, every race, and every nation.

What is surprising is that this “secret” that was plainly explained in verse 6 largely remains a mystery in the church today. The language of verse 6 was Gentiles. God’s chosen and favorite people were not just the Jews, but also included the Gentiles, all non-Jews. But though this mystery was made known in Ephesians, a mostly Gentile church today concludes that God’s chosen and favorite people are the people of our denomination, or our political party, or our race, or our nation, or any of a dozen other ways we divide humanity into “us” and “them.”

The birth of Christ was supposed to have changed all that. The Epiphany celebrates the appearing or the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles,