Bible Study Series: Ephesians - The Third Heaven Epistle
Ephesians 3:1-11 - The prisoner and his message
by I Gordon
Welcome! Time for another study, this time looking at the first half of Ephesians chapter 3. Now, to be honest, my first thought after reading the passage was 'hmmm... ok what am I going to talk about?' It seemed initially to be repeating key themes that we've already discussed. Now if you read a passage and the main message isn't clear to you or nothing jumps out, my advice is this - go read it again. So that is what I did. Again. And again. And again. And the 'hmmm' became a 'mmmm' which became an 'ahhh!' As I read two main themes emerged that I want to focus on in this study. They are not the only themes and we'll touch on some other points as we go through verses 1-11, but the overall message is based around the following:
- The prisoner of the Lord (and the persecution of believers)
- The prisoner's sole message (and what got him in trouble and why we shouldn't deviate from it)
So, there you go. Hopefully pretty simple. Well, simple to discuss from a nice safe distance. Not so simple to live in the midst of it. But let's begin... at the beginning.
The Lord's prisoner
Eph 3:1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles -
To recap on some background it is important to remember that Paul wrote this letter while being a prisoner in Rome.1 What got him there? Well, it was preaching the Gospel in the Jewish synagogues and giving his testimony of how Jesus saved him. That, for many in his day, was a big no-no. This is recorded in Acts 21:27-37 and Acts 22. We need to remember that preaching about Jesus, right from the 1st century Church, could often get you into trouble. Christians like myself, who live in the West, have not really known this type of persecution, but many other believers today do. I was recently looking at the countries that visit the Jesusplusnothing website and noted that the highest number come, not surprisingly, from the USA. Also high on the list is the UK, South Africa, Germany, Australia and Canada. But there were other countries high as well which were very pleasing to see. African countries like Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana were high. India was high as was the Philippines. China was even quite high considering the restrictions they have. Some of these countries face daily persecution for being a believer in Jesus Christ.
Take for example China which I've been reading about recently. According to Open Doors, in 2021 China is 17th on their list of the countries where believers face the most persecution.2 Open Doors estimates the numbers of Chinese Christians at nearly 100 million with predictions that by 2030 this could be closer to 300 million. Let that sink in for a moment. 300 million by 2030! Increasing by 200 million in 9 years? That is amazing growth but with it comes with increasing concern, clampdowns and persecution from the Chinese Communist Party. Many Pastors have been imprisoned for not "preaching" what the government requires. Or for meeting when they are not allowed to meet. Crosses in churches have been replaced with national flags and pictures of the Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is a message to make clear who the real 'god' is. Churches have been required to sing songs praising Communism and their leader. I bet those are really popular and catchy hymns with the church members singing with all their might! Not. Children are banned from attending Church in some areas and the Communist Government has passed a law that no one under 18 can be baptised and become a Christian. And if you feel like you are being watched in China, no, you haven't gone all Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory. No need to seek professional help just yet.
By the end of 2021 there is estimated to be 1 billion surveillance camera's around China. No that is not a typo! So no, you aren't just imagining that someone is watching you in China. They are watching you. These cameras are now required in Churches as well. Their advanced facial recognition capabilities, combined with China's credit score system for every resident, means that those not obeying the CCP are quickly identified and punished. The Government is even bringing out their own, modified, "Bible" and placing fines on those that do not have what they say is the "correct" Bible version. As an example of their rewritten corrupted version, when the woman is caught in adultery in John chapter 8, Jesus Himself stones her for her sin! In many areas Pastors are memorizing large portions of scripture because even if imprisoned they can't remove that which is within your heart and mind. If you live outside of China, I bet you are looking forward to when they are the world's foremost power. And remember, China is only 17th on the list of Christian persecution.. Who would you think is in the top 10?3 Who do you expect is at the top?
But in the West we are, on the whole, not used to anything like this. Many countries from the Western world were founded or had a strong basis in Judeo-Christian beliefs. Belief in one God. Belief in the morality expressed in the 10 commandments. Belief in freedom of expression and religion. It served us well and lead to the prosperity that we have had. But the times, as they say, are a'changin. The Western principles of free speech and freedom of religion are in doubt as the narrow Christian message is more and more clashing with the 'anything goes' zeitgeist - the spirit of the age. Today we see the effects of the 'cancel culture'. 'Big Tech', politicians, the media and Hollywood all came after President Trump. They have come and continue to come after conservatives and Christians. Subscriptions are blocked. Channels are closed. Voices are silenced. People and businesses that speak out are 'canceled'. This will only increase. It is part of the 'soft' persecution in the West that is certainly becoming harder. They want to marginalize and 'monsterize' anyone that doesn't go along with their agenda.
But Christians who live in the Western world, like myself, need to remember that historically speaking, the freedom that we have had as Christians is unparalleled. Historically speaking, living in a free Christian based society is NOT the norm. I grew up in the 70's and 80's. Ok, the 80's had some bad hair and odd shoulder pads and leg warmers, but I look back fondly on those days. They seem like very simple and straightforward days. Right was right and wrong was wrong and the vast majority had a clear sense differentiating the two. But persecution is here and is increasing in the West. Let me give you a quote from the late Chuck Missler (which is over 10 years old now - but he could see what was coming) which is especially relevant:
'You can expect increasing laws to be enforced to try to encumber you as a biblical believer. The freedom of expression that we had in America, Canada and in Australia is starting to be curtailed. There are certain things you cannot talk about in public anymore. The thought control is beginning. The biblical believer will be the minority guy. The attack will include, if not lead by, the denominations. The substitutionary death of Jesus for our sins is a topic that is not comfortable from many pulpits. How many pulpits can you hear that from? A vanishing number in America. People who hold to those 'old fashioned' ideas will be continually marginalized. You have to understand how you persecute a group. First you identify that group. Then you marginalize that group. Then you vilify that group. Then you pass laws against what that group does. Finally, you simply enforce those laws. When the Gestapo broke down doors in the middle of the night and took away the head of the household they were not breaking the law - they were enforcing the law. The biblical believer has been promised persecution by our King. And it is coming. And most Christians aren't ready for that, but they need to be.'
So how are we to think of all this? You will note from Ephesians 3:1 that Paul called Himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He didn't say that he was a prisoner of Rome or of Caesar or the Roman Empire. No... he was a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He could see that the Lord was in it, allowing it, and ultimately using it for good. It is not without reason that the Chinese Church, as an example, is increasing so much. As Paul wrote to the Philippian church:
Php 1:12-14 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. (13) As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. (14) Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
So you see that this imprisonment was actually used by the Lord for both the evangelism of unbelievers and the strengthening of believers. In math's, if you multiply two negatives together you get a positive. But God can combine two, three, four negatives, however many you like, and still bring a positive out of them. He does it all the time! So while we should understand that the times are changing, we are to keep our eyes on the Lord and not let fear take over. So let's look at the focus of our prisoner in Ephesians 3.
The focus of the prisoner
Eph 3:2-5 Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, (3) that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. (4) In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, (5) which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets.
Now, if you were writing a letter after being unjustly imprisoned, what would you focus on? If I was imprisoned and was writing a letter, well, you'd probably hear all about it. Bed's too hard. Food is yuck. It could well be a sorry tale of what things are like. You'd probably be given a list of things that I would like you to bring in including a set of skeleton keys and maybe a large shovel! But not Paul. He actually only mentions his imprisonment in passing because it is not his focus... Jesus is!
There is no smell of prison in Ephesians, for Paul is not bound in spirit. He is there as the prisoner of Rome, but this he will not admit, and claims to be the prisoner of Jesus Christ. What is the secret of such victorious other-worldliness? Paul's spirit is with Christ in the heavenlies, though his body languishes in prison.
So what is on his mind?
- Firstly, he is amazed by the grace that has been shown to him - though in prison there is no sense of bitterness or 'woe is me' in his situation. He is thankful4 and positive, still amazed that God would use someone like him.
- Secondly, he is amazed by a mystery that had been hidden for a long long time... but has been revealed to him - the mystery of Christ!
This mystery of Jesus is the reason that he was in prison but he wasn't going to change... the message of this mystery was too important! That was Paul's focus. That was his heart. The mystery had been revealed to him many years earlier as described in his letter to the Galatians:
Gal 1:11-16 I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. (12) I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (13) For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. (14) I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (15) But... God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased (16) to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles...'
For Paul, who received the Gospel directly from the Lord Himself, the hidden message was not about religion. It was not about striving to keep God's laws. He had tried all that. This message was about a person. The message was and is Jesus Himself. He is the only One that makes it all 'tick'. The world desperately tries to fix it's problems without Him and gets confused when the problems only increase! We try to focus on racism, but without Jesus, and the racial tension is only inflamed. Speaking back in the 1970's Ray Stedman says (and think about the problems we have now verses then!)
None of us can help but be aware that this is an extremely troubled time in which we are living. We do not know how to solve the problems which are overwhelming us... Many writers, thoughtful, perceptive men, are sitting down and trying to analyze where we have gone wrong, and why cannot we understand what to do. Some propose one solution and some another; some are partially right, and some are almost totally wrong. But the reason they cannot grasp the answer is that they have never dealt with the heart of the problem, the great secret to all things. The key mystery is Christ, says the apostle...
"When Einstein discovered his theory of relativity, very few people grasped it or understood it. But when people began to operate on its basis, even though they didn't fully understand it, they began to change the world. Our whole modern era was brought about by the discovery of a secret which was hidden in nature until the time when Einstein stumbled upon a few hints of it. And there is much yet to be learned, even in this realm. But how much more are there great riches in store for us who will give some time and thought and effort to grasping this great secret which Paul sets forth before us here -- the ultimate secret behind all things: the mystery of Christ.
That is so true. So let's look closer at this message the prisoner of the Lord gave.
The message of the prisoner - the unsearchable riches of Christ
Eph 3:6-8 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. (7) I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. (8) Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
You will note that Paul's message is not a gospel of Jesus plus something. It wasn't a social gospel. It wasn't a woke justice gospel. It wasn't a racial gospel. It wasn't a legal gospel. It wasn't a feel good gospel. It wasn't a name it and claim it gospel. He preached Jesus. And specifically he preached the unsearchable riches of Christ. You need nothing more and dare not settle for anything less. It isn't Jesus plus good works or Jesus plus psychology. it isn't Jesus plus the New Age or other religions. Or Jesus plus anything. It is Jesus plus nothing. That's is the gospel. It didn't matter if you were Jew or Gentile to Paul... it didn't matter if you were black, white, male or female... the message was the same. Everyone who comes shares the same promises in Christ, in one body, if they believe. There was a lot of pressure on Paul to change the Gospel and preach one that was more acceptable to those listening. He didn't do that. There is a lot of pressure on Churches and Pastors (and all believers sharing) to change the message to make it more what people want to hear. We dare not do that! There is only one gospel and it doesn't change. Let me say it again - his message is Jesus!
And I love how he says that grace has been given him to preach about 'the unsearchable riches of Christ'. Part of these 'unsearchable riches of Christ' are seen in various 'mysteries' that are revealed in the word and all center in Jesus:
- The mystery of Godliness - God became a man in the person of Jesus! - 1Ti 3:16 Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.
- The mystery of all knowledge and wisdom being in Christ - Col 2:2-3 My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, (3) in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
- The mystery of the body of Christ - All believers, both Jews and Gentiles, are placed as equals in Him - Eph 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.
- The mystery of the indwelling - Jesus would indwell believers! - Col 1:27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
- The mystery of the bride of Christ - The Church, the 'called out' ones, would be a bride for the Lord - Eph 5:31-32 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. (32) This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church.
- The mystery of the translation and transformation - We shall be changed into Jesus' likeness when He returns - 1Co 15:51-52 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, (52) in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
- The mystery of the restoring all things under Christ - Eph 1:9-10 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, (10) to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
These are just some of the things that make up 'the unsearchable riches of Christ'. Each is incredibly rich for the believer who ponders such things! So all believers are spiritually rich! But we may continue to live like paupers if we don't see it. It reminds me of the illustration of a certain Mr Yates during the times of the depression:
During the Great Depression, a man named Mr. Yates owned a huge piece of land in Texas where he raised sheep. Financial problems had brought him to the brink of bankruptcy. Then an oil company, believing there might be oil on his land, asked for permission to drill.
With nothing to lose, Mr. Yates agreed. Soon, at a shallow depth, the workmen struck the largest oil deposit found at that time on the North American continent. Overnight, Mr. Yates became a billionaire. The amazing thing, though, is that the untapped riches were there all along. He just didn't know it!
I'm sure you see the connection with the believer in Christ! Yet despite our riches we can think and live like those with nothing. But as the great Scottish Bible expositor Alexander MacLaren once wrote:
‘We may have as much of God as we will. Christ puts the key of the treasure-chamber into our hand, and bids us take all that we want. If a man is admitted into the bullion vault of a bank and told to help himself, and comes out with one cent, whose fault is it that he is poor?”
The message goes out of this world
Eph 3:9-11 ...And to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. (10) His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, (11) according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This message, once hidden in God, has now been revealed and gone out throughout the whole world. It is a message for the whole world but also those in another realm. I've written abut verses 10 and 11 a bit in other studies because they really stood out to me recently. I love how God is using the Church to make his manifold wisdom known even to the rulers and authorities in the Heavenly realms. This is speaking of the angelic realm - both the good and bad thereof! Each redeemed sinner that God changes and makes use of is a living witness to the angelic realm. They are a witness of His grace to save. They are a witness of His power to transform. They are a witness of His eternal plan. They are a witness of His wisdom and ability to bring life out of death and blessing out of hardship. And they are a witness, especially to the fallen angels, that humanity can believe and follow God even though they have never seen Him. All of God's plan which was eternal and certainly pre-dated Satan's rebellion and the fall of man, is one layering of God's wisdom upon another. Paul speaks of the 'manifold' wisdom of God. The Greek word used for 'manifold' is 'polypoikilos' and was used of 'the beauty of an embroidered pattern or the variety of colors in flowers'. God's wisdom is layered with such beauty. I really like what William MacDonald writes about this passage. I've quoted this before in the Genesis and Revelation series, but, well, I really like it, so here goes again : )
One of God's present purposes in connection with the mystery is to reveal His manifold wisdom to the angelic hosts of heaven. Paul again uses the metaphor of a school. God is the Teacher. The universe is the classroom. Angelic dignitaries are the students. The lesson is on “The multi-faceted wisdom of God.” The church is the object lesson. From heaven the angels are compelled to admire His unsearchable judgments and marvel at His ways past finding out. They see how God has triumphed over sin to His own glory. They see how He has sent heaven's Best for earth's worst. They see how He has redeemed His enemies at enormous cost, conquered them by love, and prepared them as a Bride for His Son. They see how He has blessed them with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies. And they see that through the work of the Lord Jesus on the cross, more glory has come to God and more blessing has come to believing Jews and Gentiles than if sin had never been allowed to enter. God has been vindicated; Christ has been exalted; Satan has been defeated; and the church has been enthroned in Christ to share His glory.
So what have we seen? Firstly, we've seen that the message Paul proclaimed about Jesus landed him in prison. That is how it began and that is how it has continued, in most parts, throughout the church age. It is important to see that things are heading that way in the West in these last days. It is already that way for many believers in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world. But remember - God will use this as a blessing in disguise.
As an example, John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress knew all about persecution in his day and wrote his masterpiece from prison. He was arrested for preaching, when not allowed by the authorities, and spent the next 12 years of his life in jail. Based on his own experiences, he included a section on Christian's and Faithful's experience in 'Vanity Fair'. Not long after their arrival in that city, they were both put on trial for not going along with the ways of that place. The judge’s name, he writes, was Lord Hate-Good and the jury had such 'good honest citizens' like 'Mr. Blind-man, Mr. No-good, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. Hothead, Mr. High-mind, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar.' Needless to say that the trial didn't go well. But again, Bunyan wrote these things based on his experience and the historical experience of the church.
So what did Paul do? What did John Bunyan do? Did they change the message? No. The gospel is the gospel. In our presentation of it we are to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. But, as we have seen, we are not to change it, water it down, apologize for it, or merge in the latest 'woke' offerings of the world. It is the mystery message, now revealed, of the unsearchable riches of Christ. It is a message about HIM. You can't improve on it because you can't improve on Him. The message has been saving and changing lives for 2000 years and doesn't need a makeover or do-up. It is a message the convicts the sinner, gives hope to the hopeless, and even amazes the angelic host.
It is the message that the prisoner Paul cared more about than he did his own life. And every believer will be eternally grateful that they heard and believed this message!
For some background, John MacArthur Writes: "Four of Paul's letters are grouped as the prison epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Each of them includes clear internal references to the writer's prison surroundings (Eph_3:1; Eph_4:1; Eph_6:20; Php_1:7, Php_1:13-14, Php_1:17; Col_4:3, Col_4:10, Col_4:18; Phm_1:1, Phm_1:9-10, Phm_1:13, Phm_1:23). The similarities between the details of Paul's imprisonment given in Acts and in the prison epistles support the traditional position that the letters were written from Rome. Among these details are: (1) Paul was guarded by soldiers (Act_28:16; Php_1:13-14); (2) Paul was permitted to receive visitors (Act_28:30; Php_4:18); and (3) Paul had the opportunity to preach the gospel (Act_28:31; Eph_6:18-20; Php_1:12-14; Col_4:2-4)." ↩
At the time of writing, according to Open Doors, the top 10 countries that persecute Christian believers are:
1. North Korea 2. Afghanistan 3. Somalia 4. Libya 5. Pakistan 6. Eritrea 7. Yemen 8. Iran 9. Nigeria 10. India ↩
There was a Scottish minister called Alexander Whyte, who was able to look at the bleakest situation and yet find something to be thankful for. On a dark Sunday morning when the weather was freezing, wet, and stormy, one of his deacons whispered, “I am sure the preacher won’t be able to thank God for anything on a day like this. It’s absolutely horrible outside!” The pastor began the service by praying, “We thank Thee, O God, that the weather is not always like this.” I like that! Find something to be thankful for! ↩