THE UNVEILING OF GOD'S MYSTERY
Dear Christian friends,
George Will is a famous conservative columnist who, most of the time, writes on American politics. He always shames me, because he has a vocabulary that goes way beyond me. When I read his column, I usually have to read it three times and use a dictionary to understand it. He is also a rabid baseball fan. When he writes about baseball, his vocabulary makes baseball sound more complicated than it is.
When I was at the Seminary centuries ago, I had a similar experience with an assignment that a professor gave us. We were assigned to read an article written from a different point of view than Lutheran. We were to read it with discernment and point out where the writer diverged from the Bible. One of my classmates made a remark I remember and was true for me too. He said, “I hate reading anything that needs a dictionary nearby to understand what it says.” The article was not easy reading from vocabulary point of view.
Some might think that sections of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians might be like that. Years ago a very intelligent man whose life work was in the medical field was reading a section from the book of Ephesians. He had a different take. He said that reading some of the sections of Ephesians proved to him that the Bible was given by God; no mere human could ever write like that. While he was not reading this section of Ephesians that we are addressing this morning, he just as well could have. These words raise our thoughts heavenward and were particularly exhilarating to study this week. He speaks about “The Unveiling of God’s Mystery!”
First, what mystery is he talking about? Let’s look at a bit of background of the letter to the Ephesians. Paul wrote this letter to the church at Ephesus when he was imprisoned in Rome. It was about the year 62 AD or 63 AD. Walking back a little bit, Paul had gone on three famous missionary journeys through what we would know today as Western Asia and southern Europe. Ephesus was always a big target for Paul.
He arrived in Ephesus on the third of his missionary journeys around 54 AD or so. He spent three years in the city. There were a lot of pagan people there. The great temple to the goddess Diana (Roman name) and Artemis (Greek name) brought a lot of people to town. It was one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world. Ephesus was a going place. The temple was the center of activity. It was the Devil’s den. They needed Jesus desperately.
Now back to that mystery. Three times that word is used in these verses. It is used twenty times in the Bible. Paul uses the word the most. It is easy to think that the word mystery means something that will always remain hidden from us. As Paul uses the word, the mystery is like a movie that begs the question whodunit? The movie lasts for two hours. During those two hours the mystery unfolds. That’s what Paul means here two. The mystery does not remain hidden. God unfolds it.
In verse three he says, “The mystery made known to me by revelation.” Paul was used by God to make the mystery known, but the mystery was also revealed to Paul by God’s Spirit. Verse four says, “In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.” The mystery is Christ. It is in identifying him and understanding more about him and his person and his work. After all, there is no one like him. What does the Bible tell us about him? He is God and man in one. He is the eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient God in human form. While he is infinite and eternal and all the other divine characteristics that only God can have, he was also a finite man who had a beginning in the womb or his mother and bowed his head in death. He is God who knows everything, yet man who had to learn and grow physically. He is totally unique. There is no one like him. He was sent to save all who cannot save themselves. He was perfect but died a sinner’s death for all. While buried in the grave, the grave couldn’t and didn’t hold him. He proved he was the Son of God. That’s the mystery and makes my head spin. The mystery is Christ sent to save!
Verse six presents more of the mystery. “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.” This is a passage that needs to be pulled apart and analyzed and diagnosed to see more of the mystery Paul is unveiling.
There are some key words here that help us understand.
• Gospel – it is the good news. The word stands opposite the Law. The Law tells us what God expects and demands from us to be saved. It is all about doing, doing. Doing is not done, at least not by us. We fail miserably. That’s why God gives us the Gospel, the good news. The good news is not what we are expected to do but what has been done on our behalf by Jesus.
• Another key word is Gentile -
“The Gentiles are heirs together with Israel.” The people of Paul’s time were not into political correctness. There were two types of people Jews and Gentiles.
A few years ago it was common to apply for a job and be asked if what your ethnicity. I haven’t filled out a job application for a lot of years. I would imagine that has changed. If applying for a job in Paul’s day, they would not have been timid to ask if you were a Jew or a Gentile.
In those days the sons of Abraham, the nation of Israel, the Jews, had special God given task to deliver to the world. They were the people from whom Christ would come. Abraham was their spiritual father. He was told that in his offspring “all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” God gave them a special land to live in. He made a covenant with them; he gave them special rules and regulations. No other nation could say that. They were indeed special to the Lord and separate from all others.
“But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son.” That Son came from the Jewish nation, but he was never intended to be for the Jewish nation exclusively. As Paul says, in this letter, Jesus came to show the “the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel.”
So often we hear the complaint that rules are set up to fit all people at all time. One of the complaints about the Common Core curriculum is that all kids have to take the same test when kids are of different intelligence levels; they learn differently from each other and all kinds of other things. One rule should not fit all. One of the mysteries about Christ is just that – Jesus the Savior does fit all needs. All sin. All need Jesus. All sin of all sinners was paid completely by Jesus. All Jews need Jesus. All Gentiles need Jesus. Jesus came for Jew and Gentile alike. Paul says in verse six, “Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”
He says it three ways. First of all we are heirs together. Through Christ we share equally and by faith have a room reserved for us in the Father’s house. What a blessing for people who have no real right to it other than through a gift of grace.
Secondly, by faith in Jesus, no matter what our ethnicity, we are “members of the body of Christ.” Jesus is the head. We are the body parts that function depending on the gifts that God gives to us. We are by faith members of the Church, the communion of saints, possessing the forgiveness of all of our sins. He accepts our praise for that equally.
Thirdly, “we are sharers in the promise through Christ.” All believers in Jesus, whether flowing with Jewish blood or Gentile blood share these promises. Children fight over toys and all kinds of things. Adults are no different. It might be the last mozzarella stick or piece of pizza, a bigger share in the inheritance, and pool of money or job position. The only thing I can think of that people don’t fight over is that last stick of broccoli.
No need to fight over the grace of God and the blessings of Jesus. There is plenty to go around. It is more than we can take in and more than we deserve. But that doesn’t make any difference, God gives it to us anyway. No one is excluded. The only way that people are excluded is if in their foolishness the push God’s grace away through unbelief. That’s the mystery of God’s grace in Christ unveiled.
God has a distribution system. God allows people like you and me to share it. He uses us as his mouthpieces. He used Paul like that. He preached to a whole lot of people, but God also used Paul in a very special way. “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.”
There were certain people who were used by God in a very special way to record the very Word that God wanted humanity to hear. Paul says specifically “it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” The Holy Spirit revealed these things to these chosen men and they spoke it and wrote. It is right here in the good book that ought to be studied a whole lot more by us all. It contains, as Paul says, the “manifold wisdom” of God. I like that word “manifold.” It means many-sided. God’s love comes to us from all kinds of angles and shows his live in so many ways - in creation, in preserving us, in Christ’s work of redemption and reconciliation and in the Holy Spirit’s work of calling us to faith and holding on to us through his Word and the promises of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Paul says that the mystery of God’s grace in Christ “was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” I don’t know about you, but I am glad I live now and not in the days of the Old Testament. They had the promises of God’s grace in Jesus in bits and pieces. There were a lot, in fact over 300 pieces of prophecy, but we get to see it done. We get to see how Christ came and gave proof that he was the object of all the prophecy. They looked forward; we look back. We get to see the whole mystery complete. There is only one chapter to go. Jesus is coming back. When? That’s the mystery, but that too will one day be unveiled.
I saw a story about a sixteen year old junior at one of the well-known private schools in town. He took the ACT test and got a perfect score. The reporter said of every 73,000 high school students only about eleven get a perfect 2400. Remember this: not even 1one 73,000 or even one in seven billion people would understand the mystery of God’s grace without the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God as God’s grace in Christ is unveiled. No one would understand Christ. No one would know why he had to die. No one would know the meaning of the resurrection. No one would know that Jesus Christ is the only and certain way to heaven.
God took care of those matters too. He chose writers like Paul who needed to understand the mystery of God’s grace in Christ. He chose them to write them down. He gave these promises to a world to study and by the Spirit’s power has unveiled them to the world, a world that includes us. That’s a good reason to be thankful for Epiphany.