“To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
(Ephesians 6:18-20, emphasis added)
In a few short days, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is “God with us.” Somehow, we can now behold the glory of God without literally being blown away (Exodus 33:20). Wonder of wonders, God came into this murky world and one of the first things he did was lay in a manger. In that small human form, he embodied the fullness of the grace and truth (John 1:14). Somehow, this child was Lord; somehow this child would bring salvation. His very birth would confound the people of his day; such humble beginnings for the king of the Jews just didn’t make sense.
While the incarnation is certainly mysterious, and the very revelation of God in this way is the uncovering of a mystery prophesied hundreds of years earlier, is this the mystery of which Paul writes in Ephesians? This is a big deal because it is for this that Paul is an “ambassador in chains.” People clearly don’t like what he’s preaching.
So, what is “the mystery of the gospel?”
“For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 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.”
(Ephesians 3:1-4, emphasis added)
Paul also alludes to the mystery a couple chapters earlier, asserting that what was previously unknown has now been made known. By reading this letter, we should be able to “perceive [his] insight into the mystery of Christ.”
So, what is “the mystery of Christ?”
“This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Because most of us are Gentiles by heritage and are two thousand years removed from the cultural conditioning that would have made this verse mind-blowing, we take for granted what a revelation this is: Gentiles are in too! This is big! This is what God had kept hidden for long centuries, and now had revealed it in Christ.
The Beauty of a Mystery Revealed
Let’s break down the following feast of a passage to bite-sized morsels to behold the beauty of this mystery:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The theme here is one of unity; unity with those who are very different, even unity with those who were once hostile:
- Those who were once far off have now been brought near
- Made us one
- Broken down the dividing wall of hostility
- Creating one new man in place of two
- Making peace
- Reconciling us to God in one body…killing hostility
- Preaching peace to those who are far off and those who are near
- No longer strangers + aliens
- You are fellow citizens
- Belonging to one structure with Christ as the cornerstone; built together
As if he were carving one such block to be fitted into this structure, Paul strikes again and again with the hammer of the gospel, revealing that the Gentiles and the Israelites have been brought together as one body in Christ. This is the mystery of the gospel of which Paul wrote and for which he was in chains.
Is it amazing that you’re saved and I’m saved? Yes! Is it amazing that Jesus died for us individually? Yes! And here, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul expounds on a mystery that takes us deeper into that same gospel: we are not alone, but are being gathered together as a single people, reconciled across ancient divisions of hostility so that we might be “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
You have closer kinship with your brothers and sisters in Christ than you do with those in your biological family, your political party, your workplace, your ethnicity, and your sports team fan club, if they do not know Christ. Anyone God calls son or daughter you must call brother or sister. This isn’t your doing; it is all of grace. This grace pulls us together. This grace pulls us, together, into the mysterious beauty of the gospel.
The Call of a Mystery Revealed
We don’t get to separate this mystery from the gospel, taking one and leaving the other. This isn’t a “gospel issue.” When the gospel is proclaimed and believed in the world, this is what happens. This has concrete ramifications for how we approach, say, race relations in Durham. Consider these words from the Committee on Mission to North America in its PCA Pastoral Letter on Racism (2004):
Surely there is no greater or more conclusive argument for the truthfulness and power of the Christian faith than observable oneness among true Christians across the lines of race. This is a oneness that is not natural and it is for this very reason a powerful demonstration of the truth of the Gospel. Such an approach might not seem efficient but it would be effective in attaining the goal of demonstrating a Gospel that unites people across the dividing lines of race.
Neither Jew nor Gentle can ignore that if they are each in Christ, then they are in Christ together. Paul was in chains for this mystery. If Jews and Gentiles can be reconciled because people from both groups are called out of darkness into the same glorious light, then so it is for blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, DACA recipients and native-born, rich and poor, and every other group is or could be situated in worldly opposition to one another.
The second lesson here is that this mystery comes by means of a seemingly foolish and humble vehicle. A baby carries this mystery into the darkness of the world. A choir of angels announces his birth… to a ragtag group of shepherds on a nearby hillside. This baby grows up through childhood like any other Jewish boy. The precarious, humble existence of this mystery is stunning. Crafted in hands that would one day spasm around piercing nails, proclaimed by a mouth that would one day be silent before pompous leaders, carried on feet that would one day be anointed by a sinful woman, the mystery of the gospel threatened the very rhythms and status quo that kept Jew and Gentile apart, and threatens those same rhythms that keep us from one another today.
This paradigm-shifting mystery comes with the birth of a baby. God isn’t going to smash together Jew and Gentile, black and white, Republican and Democrat like a toddler might smash together goldfish crackers. No, God’s solutions appear as a kid in a crib and a criminal on cross. Somehow in that humble beginning and humble end, he creates a most unlikely people for himself.
Through prayer, listening, service, and that same diaper-wrapped, blood-stained humility, may we come to better know and embrace the mystery of the gospel for which Paul was in chains and for which Jesus was born; it will only come through better knowing and embracing (and being embraced by) the gospel itself.
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!