January 7, 2019

Epiphany - Ephesians 3:1-12

The Mystery of God’s Grace
1. Shrouded in sin
2. Revealed to all in Jesus

Ephesians 3:1-12 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles-- 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 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. 6 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. 7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (ESV)

The mystery genre is one of the most popular and enduring types of literature. We all have our favorite mystery books, or series. What makes it so popular? I found a website (bookish.com) that listed some of the must-haves in a great mystery. Some of the items on that list include:

·       A gripping first chapter
·       A human hero
·       A page-turning pace
·       A lot of clues
·       A spectacular twist
·       An elegantly simple solution
·       A story you want to read again      

You might add something else to that list, but I think most of us would agree that those components are what make mysteries so great. Today, we get a text from God’s Word that has the theme of mystery as well. What makes a good mystery in God’s eyes? How does He use the word, or the genre in His book? Well, you could actually take each of those qualities we listed and see it in the Bible too. A gripping first chapter. A human hero, and even more, that same human is also divine. A page-turning pace – maybe not so much to those of us who have read the Bible multiple times but it is an action-packed book. Lots of clues or what the Bible calls prophecies. Definitely a spectacular twist where Satan thought he had defeated God, only to be conquered by the open tomb. An elegantly simple solution – God saves us by the merits of His Son, no effort or works required on our part. And, finally, the Bible is certainly a story worth reading again and again.

Sounds like God’s Word might actually be a good mystery novel. Maybe in some details, but we know it’s also much more. For one thing, the Bible also contains many other genres of literature. Also, the Bible is not a novel, nor is it fiction. In many areas it might more accurately be called a history book. And yet, we see the clear theme of mystery here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The same idea pops up here and there throughout the Bible, but by no means is it a dominant theme across the book. These verses today are the most concentrated section in the Bible that speaks of God’s mystery. While we see some striking similarities between a good mystery novel and the Bible, there’s much more to the mystery that Paul speaks about. God’s mystery is not about page-turning suspense, or surprising twists – though both thoughts could apply. God’s mystery is ultimately about His grace. A mystery that remains elusive in sin, but one that becomes open and known by Christ Jesus.

The reason God describes that blessed gift in terms of a mystery is because He’s speaking about it from a human perspective. In fact, at the root of this mystery are some very human issues.

First, we see our sins. The grace of Christ is a mystery to us because we are sinful. That seems a bit out of place, because isn’t grace, especially the grace of our Savior, meant for underserving sinners? Even Jesus said that those who thought they were righteous on their own didn’t need grace. Grace is specifically given to the unworthy. How is it, then, that grace is such a mystery to those who need it and to those for whom it is meant?

Such is the effect of our sin. Paul writes to the Corinthians about this fact, and what it means in terms of a mystery. 1 Corinthians 2:7-10 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him." 10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 

God’s grace in Christ is a mystery to sinners because sin blinds us from understanding it and from reaching God on our own. It’s certainly not that grace isn’t intended for sinners. It very much is. The truth of the matter is that without God’s power, we cannot even perceive that grace in Christ exists. That’s where the Holy Spirit’s work comes in and why it is vital to our Christian lives. The Spirit reveals, namely shows us the meaning of the mystery, so that we can understand and believe in Christ’s grace for us.

The second human issue we see that makes grace a mystery is a specific effect of sin on our lives – a dangerous desire to hoard this gift of God from others. The sinful attitudes of some Jewish believers in the Church led them to discredit the work of Christ for Gentiles. There was either a denial that Jesus was Savior for the Gentiles or there were added requirements that Gentiles had to keep in order to be part of the church – requirements based in Old Testament ceremonial laws. Paul knew these restrictions well, having grown up as a Pharisee. But Paul also knew the Gentile population well as one who has born as a Roman citizen and as the chief messenger of God’s grace to the Gentiles. Paul’s message was clear – the grace of Christ must no longer be a mystery to the Gentiles. Salvation has been revealed for them, just as for the Jews, with no strings attached. He says in verse 6: 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.

This is really the message of Epiphany – that salvation is for all people. Of course, it wasn’t only at Epiphany, or through Paul, that God first made this clear. Even the Old Testament prophets declared that God’s grace would be for the Gentiles. In fact, the very first promise of a Savior given to Adam and Eve included all their descendants. The problem was that certain Christians wanted to restrict God’s grace for their own selfish motives – sometimes deliberately, sometimes in ignorance.

For Paul, this mystery of the Gentiles was deeply connected to the mystery of Christ in the gospel. In fact, they are two sides to the same coin if you will. The revelation from God that the Gentiles were co-heirs of salvation was simply a narrower picture of salvation in Christ for the entire world. And it was the same inward sinful heart that threatened both promises and that caused them to be shrouded in mystery from the start.

Four times in our text Paul uses the word “mystery” and each use goes back and forth between referring to the gospel of Christ and the truth that Gentiles would be saved. To have one is to have the other, just as to restrict one is to restrict the other. This is what made the nationalistic factions within the early Church such a dangerous issue. It struck right to the heart of the gospel. If Christ was not the Savior of all nations, how could anyone have confidence that He was their Savior – whether Jew or Gentile? If Jesus was only for the Jews then God lied about promising to save all people.  

Instead, though, Paul could boast that his mission was “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Now that Christ has come and completed the work of salvation, there is no need for the mystery to endure. The story of salvation is complete. All people have an equal view of God’s grace in Christ through the Scriptures. No more should anyone be shrouded in ignorance or unbelief. Paul stressed the importance of this so much that he spoke of being a witness to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” That’s how powerful the grace of Christ is when open for all to see. Even the hosts of heaven marvel and rejoice over it and see it for the precious gift that it is.

Some might call this a great story – and it is. The story of Jesus has twists and turns. There were moments that were shrouded in mystery. There were stunning proclamations and acts performed by God. And no one could have suggested that God Himself would come as a human and lay down His life for a rebellious people – talk about a twist! And yet, Jesus did all that and even more.

But, there’s much more to this mystery than a stirring plot and a surprise at the end. More than a mystery, it’s a story of God’s love – and that’s a simple thing to understand. That’s the entire point of Epiphany – revealing the simplicity of God’s love in Christ. The Church father Augustine once said, “The Bible is shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim.” Within these grand works of our Savior, which in reality no mortal mind can fully comprehend, is the simplicity of grace – the love of God our Father in His Son, revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Word. It doesn’t get any simpler, or more powerful, than that, and that’s what God wants all people to know.   

At another time Jesus spoke of mystery when He said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants (Matthew 11:25).” That’s really what makes a good mystery from God. It’s not about all the literary bells and whistles that fascinates the human ear. It’s not about the daring twists and turns that swirl our emotions. It’s simply about His love for sinners. The mystery that has been revealed is all about what God has done. For some, who are wiser or more learned in their own eyes, that may not seem to be good enough, or worth the time and effort to listen. But, for a sinful child of God who needs grace, there is no greater treasure, and no more endearing message. This is our Epiphany word – that God has revealed His grace in Jesus to all people! Amen.

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