The Mystery Revealed:
The Prisoner of the Mystery
Thomas Wheeler, former CEO of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, tells the story about a day when he and his wife were driving along a highway when he noticed their car was low on gas. Wheeler got off at the next exit and found a rundown gas station with just one pump. He asked the attendant to fill the tank and check the oil, then went for a little walk around the station to stretch his legs. As he was returning to the car, he noticed that the attendant and his wife were engaged in an animated conversation. The conversation stopped as he paid the attendant. But as he was getting back into the car, he saw the attendant wave and heard him say, "It was great talking to you." As they drove out of the station, Wheeler asked his wife if she knew the man. She admitted she did. They had gone to high school together and had dated for about a year. "Boy, were you lucky that I came along," bragged Wheeler. "If you had married him, you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a chief executive officer." "My dear," replied his wife, "if I had married him, he’d be the CEO and you’d be the gas station attendant."
It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Not an unusual situation in life. The older we get, the more we realize that things are so often not what they seem. Take the world we live in, for example. Just by looking around, you’d swear that conditions are getting worse all the time. Problems multiply to the point where it seems there are no solutions. It appears that no one is in charge. History appears to be going nowhere and the latest in modern thought, be it scientific or philosophic, is that man is the result of a meaningless evolutionary process that is without meaning or purpose and which will eventually run down to nothing as the resources of the world and the universe are tapped out. Pretty bleak, huh?
Bleak, yes? But correct? No. Not from God’s perspective. We begin a series today on the first 13 verses of Ephesians 3 that are all about a great mystery of God. We’ve entitled the series, “The Mystery Revealed” – which hopefully it will be by the time we get done.
Notice Paul says in verse 3, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. He goes on in verse 9: and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. Jumping to verse 11 he adds, This is according to the eternal purpose that he (God) realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Clearly from God’s perspective, there is an eternal purpose – there is a plan. There is someone in charge; there is meaning; and there is a purpose to it all, and it is all somehow tied up with this mystery. So what is the mystery?
First, we must understand that when Scripture uses the term mystery, it does not refer to an Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes “who done it?” The term mystery as used by Paul simply means truth hidden in the past, but made evident now. As we will see in detail, the mystery is that God, as a direct result of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is, during this age, creating a new entity – a church, a body of Christ that is comprised equally of believers from all walks of life, all ethnic backgrounds, all cultures and tongues – and that very mixed bag of human diversity, which ordinarily looks very rag-tag in its existence, is going to be a key factor in demonstrating God’s manifold wisdom to the universe and bringing about the realization of His plan to remove alienation from universe, sum up all things in Christ and restore the glorious conditions of paradise pre-Satan. There IS a plan.
Now I must confess that it is a mystery to me, even knowing that, how God is going to pull this all together, but the more we understand about His plan, the more we will be urged by faith to believe it and to adopt His perspective as ours as opposed to the pessimistic outlook that the world offers us.
This week we are looking at the Prisoner of the Mystery. In subsequent weeks we will look at the Plan, the Proclamation, the Purpose and the Privilege of the Mystery and in the process, I trust that we will see our own faith in God revitalized and renewed.
Look with me at 3:1 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles. The prisoner of the mystery is, of course, the apostle Paul, and in this verse he begins to introduce a prayer that he has for the Ephesians, but he gets sidetracked. So what he begins in verse 1, he actually come back to in verse 14. You’ll see that he even starts over with the same phrase in verse 14. Everything that intervenes constitutes one long parenthetical discourse aimed at insuring his readers are having the proper perspective of life and of their world. He seems to realize as he begins his introduction by identifying himself as a prisoner, that they might have a tendency to lose heart – that they might despair of his and consequently their circumstances and fail to see God’s perspective of history. He wants to assure them that they have indeed married right – that in Christ they have the right Lord of life, and that however bleak things may look, they will come out right in the end. To get his point, we want to look at Paul’s own place here by seeing his perspective, his pursuit and his passion.
I. Paul’s Perspective
Look at verse 1 again. For this reason, I, Paul, a prison for Christ Jesus. I wonder how many of us, incarcerated in Rome awaiting trial, would have thought to refer to ourselves as prisoners of Christ Jesus. I find in this a fascinating insight into the mind of Paul and a challenge to all of us. He had been a prisoner for some five years by this time, two years in Caesarea and the rest in Rome. He had been arrested on false charges made by Jews from the province of Asia who were visiting in Jerusalem. They had accused him of taking the Gentile Trophimus into forbidden areas of the Temple, though he had not done so. Paul had faced hearings before the Sanhedrin, before the Roman governor Felix, before Felix’s successor, Festus, and even before King Agrippa. Had Paul not appealed to Caesar while defending himself before Festus, Agrippa would have released him, but after the appeal, there was no turning back. From Caesarea the apostle was taken to Rome, where he was allowed to stay in private quarters with a soldier to guard him awaiting a hearing before Nero.
Through all of this, although arrested on Jewish charges, Paul did not consider himself a prisoner of the Jews. Although imprisoned by Roman authority, he did not consider himself a prisoner of Rome. Although he had appealed to Caesar, he did not consider himself Caesar’s prisoner. He was a minister of Jesus Christ, bought with a price, and given the special mission of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. He was therefore, in his mind, the prisoner of Christ Jesus. Whatever he did and wherever he went were under Christ’s control. Without his Lord’s consent, he was not subject to the plans, power, punishment, or imprisonment of any man or government.
Perspective! Perspective is all–important, is it not? How we view and react to circumstances is more important than the circumstances themselves. If all we can see is our immediate situation, then our circumstances control us. We feel good when our circumstances are good but miserable when they are not. Had Paul been able to see only his circumstances, he would quickly have given up his ministry. Had he thought that his life was ultimately in the hands of his persecutors, his jailers, his guards, or the Roman government, he would long since have given up in despair.
But Paul’s perspective was a divine perspective, and he lived with total trust in God’s purposes. It was not that he himself knew his future or fully understood the divine purposes behind his afflictions, but that he knew his future, his afflictions, and every other aspect of his life were totally in His Lord’s hands. Despite his apostleship and his many revelations from the Lord, Paul lived and worked by faith, not by sight. He knew—not because of what he could see but because of the Lord’s own Word—“that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). That is why as believers we are to “consider it all joy” when we “encounter various trials.” We know that those trials, or testings, produce faith, that faith produces endurance, and that endurance leads to the perfection and completion of our preparation for living a godly life
Paul knew that his circumstances had “turned out for the greater progress of the gospel,” so that his “imprisonment in the cause of Christ [had] become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of [his] imprisonment, [had] far more courage to speak the word of God without fear” (Phil. 1:12–14).
In John Bunyan’s classic novel Pilgrim’s Progress, the hero at one point runs into Mistrust and Timorous fleeing back down the path, having been driven back by lions on the way. Christian, however, continues on because it is the only way he knows to advance. As he comes to a lodge where he hopes to spend the night, he notices that a very narrow passage leads to the place, but more importantly, he spies the two lions. He himself becomes filled with fear and determines to go back lest he face death. But about that time the porter at the lodge, whose name is Watchful, sticks his head out, having been watching and perceiving that Christian has stopped and appears to be contemplating a retreat. “Is your strength and your faith so small,” saysWatchful. “Fear not, the lions are chained. They are placed there for a trial of faith. Keep in the midst of the path and no harm will come to you.”
See, Paul had it right. We must see every single circumstance of life – the good as well as the bad – as trials of faith. Always intended by God for good, either for our own edification or for that of others. We do not always know which, nor do we need to know. Our job is to see Christ. So Paul saw himself as a prisoner of Christ. We need to see ourselves as a businessman for Christ, as a farmer for Christ, as a retiree for Christ, as a bookkeeper for Christ. And we need to see the lost job, the lost income, the fire damaged house, the difficult person, whatever it is, as Christ. It is nothing more than a trial of faith. If you are a Christian, living by faith, you are never the victim of circumstance. The lions are chained.
When the soldiers of Israel saw Goliath, they thought to themselves, “He is so big that we can never kill him.” When David saw Goliath, he thought to himself, “He is so big that I cannot miss him.” When Paul saw anything, he saw Christ. That is a right perspective.
II. Paul’s Pursuit
The second thing we want to look at concerning Paul is his pursuit or his mission. Paul had a strong sense of God’s call on his life, but in that he is not unique. His pursuit, that which he was doing, was all tied up with the way God had gifted him. Notice his language in verse 2: assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you. This is the point at which Paul begins his digression. He starts to pray, realizing as he does so that referring to himself as a prisoner might cause discouragement to some. How would we feel, for example, if at the height of his ministry, Billy Graham had suddenly been thrown into jail? We’d have had concerns, would we not – for his safety as well as for ours? So, realizing this, Paul diverts from his prayer, which he will pick up in verse 14, and spends some time talking about his mission and why there is no need for concern.
Therefore, he begins verse 2 by saying, “assuming you have heard”. He is reminding them of some things they already know, but that are pertinent to addressing their concerns for him. And right off the bat, he mentions how God has gifted him for a particular task. Notice again he says assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you. Paul reminds them that his present condition is a result of his carrying out a “stewardship” – a responsibility, a management or dispensation, of God’s grace. The word “grace” as used here literally means something that is elsewhere called in Scripture a spiritual gift. We see this in Romans 12: 6) Having gifts that differ according to the grace (there’s our word) given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; And then he goes on to list other spiritual gifts.
Paul comes back to this same theme in verse 7 of this same chapter of Ephesians 3: 7) Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. Notice again, he’s doing his work – sharing the gospel that God has given to him – in recognition that he is thereby utilizing the gift that God has given him and discharging his responsibility to be a faithful steward of that gift.
You say, “Good for Paul. Glad he was using that giftedness God have him and getting the gospel out.” But, folks, not so fast. For you see, just as Paul was utilizing the very special ability that God had given him to minister, so every one of us has been given a special ability to minister. Paul’s gift was unique in some ways that we will see, but he was not unique in having such a gift. So do we all. This truth was hinted at in Romans 12:6 where we read, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace (there’s our word) given to us, let us use them.” Different people, different gifts, but we all have them. Paul comes back to this theme in Ephesians 4:7. Look at that just one page over: 7) But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. You see, now he’s gotten very specific. We all have a “grace”, a gift of God to equip us for ministry in His church. Yet one more time, he says in I Corinthians 12: 7 7) To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. It’s a different word, but in the context of I Corinthians12, it is clearly the same concept.
Now, and this is an important point, notice that Paul says in I Corinithians that that gifts are for the common good. They are not and never were intended for individual edification, but for the good of the body as a whole. Notice verse 2 of our text where Paul says that he was being a steward of God’s grace that was given to me for you. The implications of this are many and we will delve into them sometime, but for this morning, let’s just understand that this means – we need each other! It’s not just a nicety that we get along. It’s not just to sharpen our person skills that we are enjoined to love each other. The truth is, we need each other. This is what I Corinthians 12 is all about. Paul goes so far as to say in I Cor. 12:22 22) On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. We’ve all heard the old saying that a chain is only as weak as its weakest link, and that is for sure true of the Church, the body of Christ. So we must encourage each other, constantly reminding others that they are needed and remind all of us what a privilege it is to be gifted by Almighty God for service. How good is that?
We’ll talk in more detail about these gifts when we get to chapter 4, but for now let us understand that we are remiss in our privilege as a believer if we are not plugged into the Lord’s work at some point. Forget what the gift is, look for ways to serve and it will become evident.
Paul saw himself as the steward, the overseer, the manager, the one responsible for this gift. And you will remember that he says elsewhere in I Cor 4:1-2: This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. 2) Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. Paul was doing everything he could to faithfully utilize his giftedness. Can we say with Paul, I’m being a faithful steward of the ability to minister that God has given me?
The story is told of an eleventh-century German king, King Henry III,who, having grown tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch, applied to a monastery to be accepted for a life of contemplation. The religious superior of the monastery, Prior Richard, is reported to have said, “Your Majesty, do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard because you have been a king.” Henry replied, “I understand. The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.” “Then I will tell you what to do,” said Prior Richard. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has placed you.” When King Henry III died, a statement was written: “The King learned to rule by being obedient.” Similarly, God has equipped each of us for ministry of some kind. Whether it be as an encourager, teacher, worship-leader, giver, greeter, hospitality-giver, helper, administrator, counselor, or pastor, all are equally important equally needed and equally deserving of our most careful attention to develop and utilize.
III. Paul’s Passion
So, Paul had a perspective which was divine; he had a pursuit, to work out the gift he had been given. Now, finally, we want to see that he had a passion. And his passion was to deliver the message. No surprise there. His gift of apostleship involved the receipt and consequent delivery of a very special message and Paul had developed an unmatched passion for that task.
Let’s look beginning in verse 3: 3) how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4) When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ. We’ll go into more detail about the content of this mystery that had been made known to Paul next week, but today, I want us to see the passion that Paul had for this message of the gospel that had been entrusted to him. The word “mystery” that Paul uses here does not mean the “whodunit” kind of mystery that we are used to in Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes stories. The word as used here means a truth previously hidden but now revealed. In Greek the word mysterion (from which we get our word) refers to something known only to the initiated. It is not that the thing itself is unknown. It is known—but only to those to whom it is revealed. The word is used in this way of ancient mystery religions—the mysteries of Mithra, Isis and Osiris, Dionysius, and Eleusis. People in general did not know what went on in these religious cults, but the “mysteries” were revealed to the initiates. When the apostle used the word, it was with similar meaning. He used it to describe something that was unknown before the coming of Christ but is now revealed fully and intended for everyone. Now made known. Paul often uses this term often as a description of New Testament truth, which in general centers around the creation of a whole new entity, the Church, based on the good news of the death and resurrection of the historical Jesus on our behalf.
He reminds them that the mystery, the message, was made known to him by revelation and he had written briefly about it to them. This is almost surely a reference back to what he has already talked about in 1:9-10 and in chapter 2, verses 11-22. He goes on to say that they can perceive his “insight” into this message. The word insight means the joining or union of two things – like two rivers. The picture is that of reality flowing down one stream and a person’s understanding down another. They have to get joined together to make sense, for insight to occur.
It is clear that Paul knew and taught the OT Scriptures for he tells the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 that he taught them the “whole counsel of God.” But that was always coupled in Paul with additional revelation that he had been given – information that could have been known in no other way than by the revelation of God. Paul is not absolutely unique in this sense, for even he acknowledges that there were other apostles and prophets who were foundational to the church as we saw in 2:20 and will see again in verse 3:5. But among that privileged group, Paul certainly stands out.
Outside of the Lord Jesus Himself, Paul is by far the dominant figure in the New Testament. He wrote at least thirteen of its 27 books. He is also the dominant human instrument of the Spirit in the book of Acts. And more than any other apostle he delineated the mysteries of the gospel, the truths hidden even to the most faithful believers of former ages but made known to the church of Jesus Christ.
Paul had a passion for his work that is so often missing today. Dr. Clyde Cook was a good friend who was president of Biola University for many years. He used to tell of being at SeaWorld one time when he and his wife, Anna Belle, saw a row of ducks coming toward them maneuvering on roller skates. Skates were actually attached to their webbed feet and they were waddling along after a fashion, flapping their clipped wings. After watching them for a bit, Clyde said to Anna Belle, “You know, it looks like they can do it, but I don’t think their heart is in it.”
No one would have ever looked at Paul and made that comment. Listen to II Cor 11:23-30: “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
I don’t think anyone could say that Paul was not passionate about his gift -- but I wonder about us. How often do we perform out a sense of duty? How often do we hear complaints and moans, sighs or almost worst, jokes about the tediousness of it all? How often do we feel like we are twisting people’s arms when asking them to be involved in the work of Jesus Christ Himself. You know, I’m no better than anyone else and I’ve done my share of complaining, but I must tell you I think it grieves the heart of our Lord to see such attitudes, whether in myself or others.
Would we complain if we were asked by President Obama to represent him on some life-saving mission? Would we not be honored? So how is it possible that we are hesitant to accept the privileged call of Almighty God’s gifting in our life? What do we prefer to do, waste our lives in the trivialities of our godless, secularized society so that we can report to God one day on how many hours of television we watched or how much money we made or how much time we spent on a self-pleasing hobby that did nothing for anyone else and kept us from serving Him, or how much time and effort we spent on entertaining ourselves? Are we willing to report that our involvement in His church was one of sitting and watching and even perhaps guarding some pet fiefdom but never really having serious involvement in the lives of people – no sense of compassion for the lost – no true uplifting ministry from the heart of encouragement and prayer and help? Is that our goal? [pause] Understand, I’m not against television and hobbies and entertainment kept in perspective, but if it’s our passion, we’ve misplaced our priorities, Beloved. And it’s easy to do in this very glitzy, visual, colorful, tempting world in which we live.
A great current-day theologian, D. A. Carson says this: “We may go through meeting after meeting and all of it is reassuringly familiar, but we do not come out saying, in effect, “Surely we have met with the living God!” We start attending meetings because it is a habit, or because it is the right thing to do, or because we know that the means of grace are important, but not out of a heart-hunger to be with God’s people and to be fed from God’s Word. Sermons are filled with mere clichés. There is little intensity in confession, little joy in absolution, little delight in the gospel, little urgency in evangelism, little sense of privilege and gratitude in witness, little passion for the truth, little compassion for others, little humility in our evaluations, little love in our dealings with others.”
As we come to the Lord’s Table today, will you join me in renewing your own resolve to live with divine perspective, and to minister with passion the gift or gifts that God has given you? Will you renew with me your passion for the lost in our community?