In Ephesians 2:11-3:7, the apostle Paul says this:
“Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh [by] the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and he came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh: for through him we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father. So then ye are no more strangers and [foreigners], but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom [the whole] building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.
For this cause I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus in behalf of you Gentiles,— if so be that ye have heard of the dispensation of that grace of God which was given me to you-ward; how that by revelation was made known unto me the mystery, as I wrote before in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to wit, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power.”
In this passage, Paul is continuing to explain in detail to the Ephesians what is the hope of God’s calling of them, which he prays about for them, according to the end of chapter 1. In the first paragraph, he explains to the Ephesians who they once were in relationship to God and His people, and then who they now are as a part of God’s people. The emphasis is on the state of affairs while the Old, or Mosaic, Covenant for Old Testament Israel was in effect, in contrast to the state of affairs now that Christ has come and abolished that covenant by His death. While Israel was a nation under that covenant, Jews and Gentiles were hostile toward each other, and God had unsatisfied hostility toward them. However, once Christ died, rose again, and established the church to preach the gospel, the hostility between Jew and Gentile among God’s people was done away with, along with God’s hostility toward His people, and Jew and Gentile were made into one new humanity — the church — and made sharers of the same relationship with God.
In the second paragraph, then, Paul begins to say something that he can’t even finish, based on the glorious realities that Gentiles are now part of the people of God, and as such, part of the temple of God, which is growing and being built together to manifest God’s character. Notice what Paul says before he breaks off into a new topic without even completing his thought:
“For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus in behalf of you Gentiles, — if so be that ye have heard of the dispensation of that grace of God which was given me to you-ward ; how that . . .”
First, it’s important to notice what Paul calls himself, since this introduces the topic that he’s about to explain — “the prisoner of Christ Jesus”. Why does he call himself this? Well, first, he was indeed a prisoner; he wrote this letter while he was imprisoned in Rome by the Roman government, awaiting either his hearing before Caesar or his release. But why was he imprisoned? Because he was falsely accused by the Jews of disobeying Jewish law, and he asked for a hearing before Caesar, so he could decide the case. But it is said multiple times in the New Testament that Paul had to go to Rome. Why? So that all the Gentiles in that part of the world would hear the gospel. In fact, Paul was “the apostle to the Gentiles”. Thus, what he’s about to explain is why he’s the apostle to the Gentiles.
But Paul doesn’t stop with saying that he’s a prisoner. He is “the prisoner of Christ Jesus”. What does this mean? That he is literally Christ’s, the Anointed Prophet, High Priest, and King, Jesus’s prisoner. Why does he say this? Because he belonged to Christ Jesus in every aspect of who he was — even as a prisoner. Christ Jesus was the Lord over his imprisonment.
Lastly, Paul says that he’s “the prisoner of Christ Jesus in behalf of you Gentiles”. In other words, he was a prisoner of Rome because he had preached the gospel to Gentiles (non-Jews), and he was imprisoned so that he could preach to more Gentiles. This imprisonment was part of his ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles.
After this introduction, Paul breaks off into a topic that he seems to initially not have intended to discuss, but is related:
“. . . if so be that ye have heard of the dispensation of that grace of God which was given me to you-ward . . .”
What is he saying here? He’s making sure that the Ephesians realize the enormity of the fact that he’s a prisoner for their sake. The words “if so be” could be replaced with “assuming” or “if indeed”. In other words, he’s emphasizing something to the Ephesians that will help them to understand what it means that he’s a prisoner for their sake.
What is that something? The fact that God has dispensed, or administrated, grace to him for the Ephesians. The word translated “dispensation” could also be translated “stewardship”, so Paul isn’t just talking about something given, but something that belongs to God, but was given to Paul to use as God commanded him. What was given to him? Grace.
But what does Paul mean by “grace” in this context? Well, obviously, Paul basically means “undeserved favor”, but he clearly means more than that, since it’s something that he can share with the Ephesians. So, what specifically is this grace? He tells us in Ephesians 3:8:
“Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach unto the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ . . .”
So the grace Paul has in mind in our passage is his preaching, or evangelizing, to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. In other words, the grace that Paul was entrusted with by God was the good news of Christ for Gentiles.
But how did God entrust this grace to Paul? Paul tells us:
“. . . how that by revelation was made known unto me the mystery, as I wrote before in few words . . .”
So, Paul says that God entrusted His grace for the Gentiles to Paul by revealing it to him. But here, Paul calls this grace “the mystery”, which means a secret that can only be known if God reveals it to someone. In this context, it refers specifically to the fact that all people groups are being gathered into one, both Jews and Gentiles, in Christ. But where did Paul write about this before “in few words”?
In the first paragraph that we read, as well as Ephesians 1:9-10:
“. . . making known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him[self] unto a dispensation of the fulness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth . . .”
In fact, Paul tells the Ephesians that if they’ll “consider it again”, they’ll understand how he knows the mystery:
“. . . whereby [by which], when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding [of] the mystery of Christ . . .”
The Greek that’s translated “when ye read” could also be understood as implying “when you consider it again”, since it’s highly probable that not all the Ephesians were literate. However, Paul’s point is that if they’ll bring to mind what he’s just told them about the mystery being revealed to him, and about what the mystery itself is, they’ll understand why he has insight into it — God supernaturally revealed it to him.
But why was this message a mystery that had to be supernaturally revealed to Paul? Because it
“. . . in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his [God’s] holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit . . .”
So, the reason that the fact that both Jews and Gentiles are both part of the people of God was a mystery was that it wasn’t revealed by God until Paul’s generation. And to whom did God reveal the mystery? To His holy, or set apart, apostles and prophets.
What does Paul mean by apostles and prophets? By “apostles”, Paul means those who had physically seen the Lord Jesus Christ after He was raised from the dead, who were spiritually mature, and who were sent around the world with the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ to establish His church by preaching His Word. The word that’s translated “apostle” literally means “sent one”. But specifically who were these apostles? Eleven of the twelve disciples, plus a man named Matthias, and Paul. These were the official apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, who were given direct revelation from Him to preach to people.
So, what does Paul mean by “prophets”? Well, Paul must mean New Testament prophets, since he says that the mystery wasn’t revealed until his generation, after the beginning of the church. But who were they? Like the apostles, they received direct revelation from God, and preached it to churches, but unlike the apostles, they weren’t “sent ones”, nor was it required that they had seen the risen Lord Jesus Christ. They functioned as the first main New Testament non-missionary preachers.
And Paul says that the mystery was made known to the apostles and prophets “in the Spirit”. The word “in” could be better translated “by”, since Paul is saying that God the Holy Spirit is the Person who revealed the mystery of Christ to the apostles and prophets.
So what is the mystery to which Paul refers? First:
“. . . that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body . . .”
What body is Paul referring to? The same body he refers to in Ephesians 2:14-16:
“. . . he [Christ] is our peace, who made both [Jews and Gentiles] one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross . . .”
Clearly, the body that Paul is talking about is the church. So, Paul says that the Gentile Christians are fellow-members of the body of Christ, along with Jewish Christians.
But what does he mean that Gentiles are “fellow-heirs”? Well, since they’re fellow heirs in relation to the Jews, the emphasis is on their participation in the covenants of the promise, specifically the covenant made with Abraham. In Galatians 3:29, this is what Paul says about all Christians, whether Jew or Gentile:
“And if ye are Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.”
So what did God promise Abraham and all his descendants that they would inherit? Paul tells us in Romans 4:13:
“. . . not through the law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed that he should be heir of the world . . .”
What does it mean that Abraham should be “heir of the world”? That he would inherit the earth, and all who belong to Christ will inherit the world with him, for “the meek shall inherit the earth”. Along with this inheritance comes eternal life with God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. That is what it means that the Gentiles are fellow heirs with the Jews — that by virtue of being adopted as God’s sons as those in union with Christ, they are heirs of eternal life and the new earth.
But not only are Gentile Christians fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the body, they are “fellow-partakers of the promise”. What is this promise? In Ephesians 1:13, it is the Holy Spirit — “the Holy Spirit of promise”. In Ephesians 1:14, it is the believer’s inheritance, since the Holy Spirit is “an earnest of our inheritance”. And that inheritance is said to be “the redemption of God’s own possession” in the same verse. In Ephesians 2:12, the promise is the promise of Christ, since the Old Testament covenants were “the covenants of the promise”. In brief, the promise that Paul is referring to is the promise of eternal life.
But how are the Gentiles partakers of the promise? First, “in Christ Jesus”. What does this mean? It means that the only reason that the Gentile Christians are partakers of the promise of eternal life is that they share all that is true of the Supreme Prophet, High Priest, and King Jesus in His humanness. That is, because He is a partaker of eternal life in His humanness, the Gentiles who are in Him are as well.
Secondly, Gentile Christians are partakers of the promise “through the gospel”. This means that believing the gospel is the only means by which Gentiles are made partakers of the promise of eternal life, as well as fellow heirs and fellow members of the church with Jews. Why do I say this? Paul implies that faith in the gospel is the means by which the Holy Spirit, who is part of the promise of eternal life, seals believers in Ephesians 1:13:
“. . . having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise . . .”
But what is the gospel that Paul refers to? The same gospel that he preached to the Corinthians:
“. . . that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also.” – 1 Corinthians 15:3b-8
Having explained what the mystery is that has been revealed to him, Paul ends this section by giving us an explanation of why he’s a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of Gentiles:
“. . . whereof [of the gospel] I was made a minister . . .”
What does he mean by this? The word “minister” is translated from a Greek word that simply means “servant”, so he’s saying that he was made a servant of, or server of, the gospel. In other words, what he serves to people is the gospel, and that is how he serves both the Lord Jesus Christ and people.
And how was he made a minister of the gospel? First, “according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me”. As we have already seen, the grace that Paul was given was the grace of preaching to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, but here Paul adds that this grace was a free gift. And, of course, it was God’s grace that made Paul a minister of the gospel, and an apostle, since he says in 1 Corinthians 15 “by the grace of God I am what I am”.
Second, the gift of God’s grace that was given to Paul to make him a minister of the gospel was given to him “according to the working of his [God’s] power”. The word “working” is translated from a Greek word that means “effecting”, while the word translated “power” refers to that which does the effecting. In other words, Paul is saying that God gave him the gift of His grace of preaching Christ to the Gentiles by effecting Paul’s salvation and appointment to ministry by His power. That is, God didn’t just give Paul the gift of His grace, but He gave it in such a way that He made Paul a minister of the gospel, and gave him the power to be one.
If you’re a believer in the gospel, how does this passage apply to you?
- Like Paul, you belong to Christ Jesus in every aspect of your life. In fact, everything about you belongs to Christ Jesus. Therefore, you ought to represent Him in all that you are, and seek to please Him in every facet of your life.
- Paul was willing to be imprisoned for the salvation of Gentiles. We ought to be willing to suffer anything if it will give us an opportunity to share the gospel.
- Like Paul, we all have been entrusted by God with the gospel. Thus, we ought to be good stewards of it by loving it, living in light of it, and sharing it with others.
- Paul says to the Ephesians that they can understand his insight into the mystery of Christ only if they “consider it again”. Hence, he’s implying that they should consider what he’s just said again. He’s here showing the value of reading or listening to Scripture more than once, just as Peter did in 2 Peter, where he wrote to “remind” his audience of things that he had already told them. Understanding and getting insight into Scripture usually takes more than once consideration of it — it requires meditation.
- You are an heir of eternal life on the new earth with the Lord Jesus Christ.
- You are a member of Christ’s body, which was reconciled to God through the cross.
- You are a partaker of the promise of eternal life and the Holy Spirit because you are in Christ Jesus.
- You were made a partaker of the promise of eternal life through the good news coming to you in the power of the Spirit and with full conviction.
- You were made a servant when you were saved, whether it be of the gospel or other things.
- Your servanthood is a gift of God’s grace that was given to you according to the working of His power. You’re a servant of Christ now.
If you don’t believe the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and His resurrection, then you aren’t a prisoner of Christ Jesus, but of your crimes of disobedience against God. Because of your sin, you are separate from Christ, alienated from God, and without hope and without God. However, God sent His divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to punish Him by making Him suffer and die a bloody death, to raise Him from the dead, and to make Him the Lord of the universe. He’s commanding you to change your mind, to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and His resurrection as the only grounds of His forgiveness of your sins because He has determined in the near future to send Jesus to judge all His enemies, and cast them into hell to be punished for eternity. If you fail to obey Him, you will suffer for your sins against Him forever. He promises if you will change your mind and trust in His Son, His death, and resurrection, then He will forgive all your sins and give you eternal life. Please be reconciled to God through faith in His Son.