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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, to the “other.” The making known of this secret that God has chosen and favored everyone must be brought to our attention again and again. The most recent presidential election cycle in the United States of America makes clear that the church needs this revelation once again. Visit this site The church can never be “us” against “them.” It can only be “us” that includes “them.” This epiphany is still needed.

The other key word in this passage is more difficult to nail down because of the wide variety of ways in which it is translated, both from translation to translation and within any single translation. The word appears twice in our passage, in verse 2 and in verse 9. The NRSV translates this word as “commission” in verse 2 and as “plan” in verse 9. Greek dictionaries commonly provide “management,” “administration,” or “stewardship” as the translation for this word. The key idea of this word is the work of organization and leadership done not by an owner, but by someone specifically chosen for that task of organizing the resources to accomplish the owner’s purposes.

In verse 2 Paul states that this task of managing the resources of God’s grace had been given (by God) to him. Verses 3-6 go on to declare that God’s purpose Paul was charged with accomplishing was a united church in which both Jew and Gentile are God’s chosen and favorite people. The church did not belong to Paul, the mystery of a united church in which the two were made one did not belong to Paul. The resources of grace for carrying out this vision did not belong to Paul. What did belong to Paul was the responsibility of organizing all the resources God had made available and leading the church to accomplish God’s purpose(s). Thus Paul’s calling was to be the steward, the administrator, the manager of all these resources including the persons in and not yet in the church to accomplish God’s mission.

In verses 8-10 Paul states that the resource of God’s grace had been given to him so he could bring to light the management or administration of the previously hidden mystery. The apostle would do this in such a way that “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety” would “be made known” to all the powers that operate in the world. Thus the church was to be a resource that the apostle organized and managed to reveal the rich variety of God’s wisdom to all the world.

This means that the epiphany of God to the Gentiles that all people are God’s chosen and favorite people is not a revelation to be kept hidden or possessed by the church. Rather that epiphany is to be revealed to all the world. The revelation (or epiphany) given by God to the church is not for the church, but for the world. The church’s task to transform this wisdom of God from a mystery known only to those inside the church to an open secret, known and recognized by all. Epiphany is both grace and calling; gospel and vocation.

This mystery and its management is the extraordinary reality that transformed Paul from a mere prisoner to an apostle organizing, administering, and leading the church from a jail cell.