The mystery of Christ

"When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph. 3:4-6).

John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel"(Eph. 3:4-6).*

The cell in Caesar's prison provided the apostle Paul ample time and opportunity for spiritual and theological reflection. Away from the pressures of evangelism and the mission frontier, the apostle was now forced to consider quietly the tumultuous life he had led hitherto. The personal counted very little with the old warrior, for he had written this off as nothing (Phil. 3:7, 8) because of the surpassing commitments and claims involved in his discipleship to Jesus. As Paul reflected upon all that was involved in that discipleship, from the discovery on the Damascus road through the establishment of churches all over Asia, the Holy Spirit inspired him to write some of the most magnificent Epistles of the New Testament, one of which is Ephesians.

In this letter, Paul contemplates in wonder upon the nature of the church, "consisting of Jews and Gentiles, Asiatics and Europeans, slaves and free men all symbols of a disrupted world that was to be restored to unity in Christ."1 The apostle notes the destruction of "the dividing wall of hostility" (Eph. 2:14) by the Man of the cross. That historic truth overwhelms him with indescribable feelings of ecstasy and joy that he considers it as nothing less than the work of the entire Godhead. Indeed in the extraordinary conclusion of chapter 2, Paul calls to witness the names of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as the architects of the marvelous unity that should characterize the Christian church, made up of people of every hue.

For his part, Paul calls that unity a "mystery," and he uses this word several times (Eph. 1:9; 3:3,4,9) to under line the divine nature of it.

What is this mystery? What are the contents of this mystery? What does the mystery mean today?

Meaning of the mystery

The Greek word musterion in classical usage referred to " 'anything hidden or secret,' and it was used ... to refer to the sacred rites of the Greek mystery religions in which only the initiated shared." 2 However, in New Testament usage the word "signifies a secret which is being, or even has been, revealed, which is also divine in scope, and needs to be made known by God to men through His Spirit." 3 To Paul, both the content and the purpose of this mystery are incomprehensible to the human mind without divine revelation and assistance. Even to the apostle, it was made known only through "revelation," obviously a reference to his calling on the Damascus road and his training by the Spirit afterward (see Gal. 1:11, 12). Paul sought "to show that it was through a special manifestation of divine power that he had been led to see and grasp the great truths of the gospel. It was through instruction received from God Him self that Paul was led to warn and admonish ... in so solemn and positive a manner. He wrote, not in hesitancy and doubt, but with the assurance of settled conviction and absolute knowledge." 4

Another characteristic of this mystery is that generations who had lived before the coming of Christ were not fully aware of it. God has chosen to reveal it fully in the person of Christ, and Paul was a recipient of this revelation. Note Barclay's comment: "Into [Paul's] life had come the revelation of the great secret of God. That secret was that the love and mercy and grace of God were meant not for the Jews alone but for all mankind. ... In the ancient world the barriers were complete. No one had ever dreamed that God's privileges were for all people. It was Paul who made that discovery." 5

The contents of the mystery

What are the contents of this mystery? The apostle leaves no doubt about them in Ephesians 3:6: "This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (NIV).

Paul outlines three great contents of this mystery. First, Gentiles become fellow heirs with Jews. Second, both become members of the same body. Third, both become partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

To the apostle, then, the mystery is God's redemptive activity through Jesus that made the one body of Christ possible. The unity between Jew and Gen tile is part of this mystery, and the apostle spends all his spiritual and theological acumen to define its structure (Eph. 2:11-22). Note Paul's argument:

Without Christ—Gentiles were:

  • "alienated from the commonwealth of Israel" (verse 12),
  • "strangers to the covenants of promise" (verse 12),
  • "having no hope" (verse 12),
  • "without God in the world" (verse 12);
  • "far off" (verse 13).

In Christ—Gentiles are:

  • "brought near in the blood of Christ" (verse 13),
  • "no longer strangers and sojourners" (verse 19),
  • "fellow citizens with the saints" (verse 19),
  • "members of the household of God" (verse 19),
  • "built... into a holy temple in the Lord" (verses 20, 21).

In Christ—both Jews and Gentiles alike experience:

  • peace: "has broken down the dividing wall of hostility" (verse 14),
  • unity: He "has made us both one" (verse 14),
  • a new man: He creates in Himself "one new man in place of the two" (verse 15),
  • reconciliation: He reconciles us "both to God in one body through the cross" (verse 16),
  • access: "we both have access in one Spirit to the Father" (verse 18).

Having laid out the structure of the unity between Gentile and Jew so carefully, Paul makes sure that his readers understood his primary bur den: that this unity is not a result of human factors, but of divine intervention in human history in the Person of the cross. Peace and reconciliation between the broken pieces of humanity are not possible without God conceiving it, God revealing it through the reconciling "blood of Christ" (verse 13), and God executing it as His gracious act. In fact, to the apostle's mind, the cessation of hostilities between Gentile and Jew, the breaking of the barrier between them, and their unity are nothing short of a divine miracle: the miracle of the cross (see verse 16). No human power or potentate could conceive or bring about the creation of the new person, the one person, the person in Christ Jesus. Only God can.

The meaning of the mystery today

What does this mystery mean to day? The same as it did in the apostle' s time. First, it should make us aware of the oneness of the human person. The Pauline mathematics of Ephesians 2 and 3 declares 1 + 1 = 1. Now, that is beyond any human mathematics or logic. But the mystery of the gospel is neither mathematical nor logical. The mystery expects the impossible. The mystery empowers the creation of the new humanity, in Jesus, that must accept the indivisibility of the human person.

Second, the mystery should make us aware that while differences may exist between persons, genders, cultures, races, and nations, those differences must not be allowed to diminish the worth and dignity of any human person. The cross teaches us that. Ephesians bears out that the house hold of God has no dividing walls. Bigotry racial, cultural, or of any other kind is fundamentally anti- Christian, and hence is an unacceptable conduct for one who claims to live by the gospel.

Third, the power of the mystery should so permeate our own inner lives that it will become a personal discovery so that all our relationships are governed by its dynamic. Paul's words must become our own: "Of this gospel I was made a minister" (Eph. 3:7).

* Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

1. The SDA Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), vol. 6, p. 995.

2. The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, 111.: Tyndale House Pubs., 1980), vol. 2, p. 1041.

3. Ibid.

4. Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 386.

5. William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 122, 123.

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John M. Fowler, Ed.D., is an associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and a contributing editor of Ministry.

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