The Preaching of the Mystery
of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; (3:7–9)
The gospel is spread by men whom God calls to proclaim it, and it is the gospel of which Paul was made a minister. “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed?” Paul asks in Romans. “And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14). Although they had heard God’s truth, many Israelites did not “heed the glad tidings; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ ” (v. 16)—just as many who hear the gospel do not heed it. But it must be heard before it can be heeded, and Paul’s calling, like the calling of every preacher, was to proclaim God’s good news as a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace. In a similar line of thought in 1 Corinthians, Paul emphasizes this calling of grace: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with Me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
Minister is from diakonos, the basic meaning of which is servant, in particular a servant who waits on tables. It later came to refer to servants in general. By definition, a servant is one who acts on the commands of others, who recognizes and submits to a higher power. His primary responsibility is to do what he is told to do. Paul’s single responsibility was to faithfully be a servant, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to [him] according to the working of His power. “What then is Apollos?” Paul asked the factious Corinthians. “And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one” (1 Cor. 3:5). The Lord is the power behind the servant. To the Colossians the apostle said, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (Col. 1:29).
Paul emphasizes the fact that he did not make himself a minister but that he was made a minister (cf. Col. 1:23, 25). The calling, the message, the work, and the empowering were all God’s. When he was first saved on the Damascus Road, and while he was still blinded from the great light, Paul was given his commission by Jesus. “Arise, and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness” (Acts 26:16). It was not Paul’s education, natural abilities, experience, power, personality, influence, or any other such thing that qualified him to be a minister of Jesus Christ. He was made an apostle, a preacher, and a servant by the will and power of His Lord He felt unworthy of any reward, as if he had sought sacrificially to serve in this way. The choice was not his at all, so he deserved no commendation (1 Cor. 9:16–18). He did not want accolades but prayers, because he was in serious trouble if he failed to fulfill a calling he had not even chosen!
Any person in the ministry of the church whom God has not appointed is a usurper. No matter how seemingly good his intentions, he can do nothing but harm to the work of the Lord and to the Lord’s people. Jeremiah speaks to this matter when he writes the Lord’s word: “I did not send these prophets, but they ran. I did not speak to them, but they prophesied. … I did not send them or command them” (Jer. 23:21, 32). No man should enter the ministry unless he is absolutely certain of the Lord’s calling.
The key for present knowledge of a divine call is given in 1 Timothy 3, where Paul speaks of the pastor or spiritual overseer as a man who “aspires to the office” and who is verified and approved by those who know him as one who is “above reproach” (vv. 3–7). The present call, then, is bound up in a man’s strong desire and affirmation as to a godly life. God calls through desire and church verification.
Then or now, the man who is genuinely called by God is in constant danger of losing his effectiveness by coming to think of himself as more than a servant. When he loses his sense of servanthood, at that same time he loses his spiritual power and usefulness. When he exalts himself and begins to work in his own human power and according to his own plans, he competes with God and forfeits his spiritual power. To lose dependence is to lose everything, because everything that is of any value in our lives, including power for effective service, comes only from the Lord. Among the greatest dangers to the ministry, and to all faithful Christian living, are things that in the world’s eyes are of supreme value—personal ambition, prestige, recognition, honor, reputation, and success. God not only chooses weak and foolish people to save (1 Cor. 1:26–29), but weak and foolish preachers through whom to save them (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:7–10). For those not willing to pay that price, their seeking the position is illegitimate.
Unholiness is also a disqualification, prompting Paul to say, “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27).
Paul’s calling to the ministry of the gospel, like everything else he received from the Lord, was the gift of God’s grace. To me, the very least of all the saints, he goes on to say, this grace was given. Though an apostle and a specially chosen minister of the mysteries of the gospel, Paul considered himself the very least of all the saints. The term very least is a comparative, indicating less than the least. That was not mock humility but his honest assessment of himself. Because he had such an unusually clear comprehension of God’s righteousness, he also had an unusually clear understanding of how far short he himself fell of that righteousness. Paul claimed no second work of grace by which he was perfected in holiness, love, or anything else. To the end of his life he considered himself the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) and was overwhelmed by his sense of unworthiness. That attitude does not limit a man’s service but rather is the key to his usefulness (cf. Gideon in Judges 6:15–16 and Isaiah in Isa. 6:1–9).
The unfathomable riches of Christ include all His truths and all His blessings, all that He is and has. The purpose of every preacher is to declare those riches, to tell believers how rich they are in Christ. That is why it is so important for Christians to understand the greatness of their position in the Lord. The obedient, productive, and happy Christian life cannot be lived apart from understanding that glorious position. Before we can do what the Lord wants us to do for Him, we must understand what He already has done for us. We have riches beyond measure in the One of whom it was said, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3) and in the One in whom we have “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3).
Among the unfathomable riches with which Christ has blessed us are “His kindness and forbearance and patience” (Rom. 2:4), His “wisdom and knowledge” (11:33), His mercy and great love (Eph. 2:4), “His glory” (3:16), His supplying us with “all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17), His assurance (Col. 2:2), His word (3:16), and even our being reproached for His sake (Heb. 11:26). Little wonder that Paul triumphantly reminds us that “in Him you have been made complete” (Col. 2:10).
Simply knowing about the riches of Christ is not enough, however. When we fall into sin and disobedience we forfeit the present blessing of those riches, just as did the fleshly, disobedient Corinthian believers. “You are already filled,” Paul told them sarcastically. “You have already become rich, you have become kings without us; and I would indeed that you had become kings so that we also might reign with you” (1 Cor. 4:8). Like the Laodiceans, they thought they were rich and in need of nothing, not realizing that they were really “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
Paul’s ministry was also to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things. Administration is from the same Greek word (oikonomia) as “stewardship” in verse 2. Paul is saying, in effect, “I am not only called in the vertical area to preach the unfathomable riches of Christ, but in the horizontal area to teach about the administration, the stewardship or dispensation, of the mystery of the church age.” The first area deals with our relationship to God and the second with our daily living and our ministry to each other as fellow believers.
Paul’s mission was to bring to light, or reveal, the full expression of the operation of this great truth of Gentile and Jews being one, a truth hidden for so long in the mind of God the Creator.
The Meaning and End of History
I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 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, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 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, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings for you, which are your glory.
Not many people are as forthright in their evaluation of history as Henry Ford, the inventor and industrialist, but there is a feeling in many secular minds that Ford may have been right. In 1919 during his libel suit against the Chicago Tribune, Ford said, “History is bunk.” On another occasion, when he was asked about history’s meaning, Ford said, “History is the succession of one damned thing after another.”2
Secular Views of History
Many resist Henry Ford’s view, of course, because to live in a world without meaning is to live a life without meaning. One who resisted it strongly was Karl Marx. He had no room for God; he was an atheist. But he took Hegel’s historical dialectic, coupled it to Feuerbach’s materialism, and produced his own vision of a history that had purpose and was going somewhere. Feuerbach had taught, with a German pun, that “der Mench ist was er isst” (“man is what he eats”), that material factors are everything. Marx accepted this, but added that material forces would produce a class struggle, revolution, and eventually a classless society.
Until relatively recent times most people living in Western societies held a similar, though not necessarily atheistic, view. It was known as a belief in progress. I have always associated that belief with those popular cinematic newsreels produced by the Time/Life company before, during, and for a time after World War II. They were called The March of Time. There was stirring “martial” music, the voice of an assured announcer, and a sequence of scenes from around the world that sometimes left the viewer dazzled with all that seemed to be happening in this fast-paced, modern age.
What a vision! How inevitable the perfection of all things seemed! Yet it is increasingly difficult to maintain this optimism in the face of two world wars, numerous lesser wars, and epidemics of senseless death and violence that sweep over our planet with increasing frequency.
The two most distinguished modern historians, Germany’s Oswald Spengler and England’s Arnold Toynbee, both concluded that the overall pattern of history was a recurring cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death—the same pattern the Greeks discerned thousands of years earlier. Spengler and Toynbee do not analyze national and historical movements in the same way. They are not equally pessimistic. But fundamental to their approaches is the shared conviction that nothing is permanent, that all is relative, and that even the best civilizations are destined to pass away. Spengler wrote this conviction into the title of his work, calling it The Decline of the West.
The Turning Point
What is history about? Historians study kings, queens, presidents, generals, inventors, nations, wars, battles, peace treaties, and geography—as they struggle to bring meaning to a chaos of events. But in writing to the Ephesians the apostle Paul, who was himself no mean historian, turns to the church as the focal point of world history. This is the point upon which God’s purpose is focused, he says. “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, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10–11).
Paul’s view of the historical significance of the church could not be more in conflict with prevailing secular opinions. John Stott expresses it like this: “Secular history concentrates its attention on kings, queens, and presidents, on politicians and generals, in fact on ‘VIPs.’ The Bible concentrates rather on a group it calls ‘the saints,’ often little people, insignificant people, unimportant people, who are however at the same time God’s people—and for that reason are both ‘unknown (to the world) and yet well-known to God.’
“Secular history concentrates on wars, battles and peace-treaties, followed by yet more wars, battles and peace-treaties. The Bible concentrates rather on the war between good and evil, on the decisive victory won by Jesus Christ over the powers of darkness, on the peace-treaty ratified by his blood, and on the sovereign proclamation of an amnesty for all rebels who will repent and believe.
“Again, secular history concentrates on the changing map of the world, as one nation defeats another and annexes its territory, and on the rise and fall of empires. The Bible concentrates rather on a multi-national community called ‘the church,’ which has no territorial frontiers, which claims nothing less than the whole world for Christ, and whose empire will never come to an end.”
This is the great reality Paul holds before our gaze as he makes known “the administration of [the] mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God” but is now revealed (v. 9).
What is God Doing?
It is not only we, the members of the church, who are directed to look at this mystery. “The rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” are also said to be looking at the church as the place where God’s manifold wisdom is made known (v. 10). What is that “manifold wisdom” these heavenly authorities are to see? What is the purpose of God made known in the worldwide community of God’s people? The passage suggests three things.
- The bringing together of otherwise divided individuals in Christ. This point has already been made in the verses that concluded the second chapter of Ephesians and began the third, and it is undoubtedly the chief thing Paul is thinking about. He is writing to Gentiles, who before the coming of Christ and the founding of his church were cut off from Israel’s spiritual blessings and were despised by the covenant people, and he is telling them that the period of alienation is now over and that the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down. Gentiles are now one with Jews within the fellowship of Christ’s church.
But there is more in this uniting of people described in the middle portion of the chapter. Earlier Paul had focused on the historical change that took place as the result of Christ’s death, in which Jews and Gentiles were brought together. Here he is looking to the distant past and forward to the distant future and is suggesting, I believe, a far greater harmonization.
I say this because of Paul’s reference to God as the creator of all things (v. 9). The mere mention of creation makes us think back to those pristine days of earth’s history in which the originally perfect world was marred by man’s sin. Before the Fall, the harmony between the first man and first woman was analogous to the harmony within the Godhead. It was a unity of mind, purpose, goals, and will. After sin entered, that unity was broken. The man and woman hid, thereby attempting to escape God’s presence. It was a dramatization of their rupture with God. But immediately after this, when God called them forth to meet him and answer questions concerning their conduct, they began to excuse themselves and blame others, thereby disclosing their corresponding alienation on the human level. God asked Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen. 3:11).
Adam replied, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (v. 12). In these words Adam blamed both the woman (“she gave me some fruit”) and God (“the woman you gave me”), and thus displayed that wretched self-righteousness which is a persistent and devastating fact of human history.
In the church God is bringing these otherwise alienated and mutually accusing entities together on a basis that excludes any real cause for alienation. The church is a community of sinners redeemed by Christ and forgiven by God. If salvation were of works, as we might like and even the watching angels might have supposed it would be, the alienation would not have been removed. One person would still feel superior to another, and boasting of moral or spiritual merit would fracture the church and eventually sully heaven. But salvation is not achieved by works. God has achieved it and made it available to us by grace alone. Thus boasting is excluded, and men and women of all races and nations meet as forgiven sinners within the church’s fellowship.
This is something the angels might well look upon and marvel at. It is an achievement in which even we may see the goal of human history.
- The displaying of Christ by Christian people in the world. Up to now I have been talking about the church as the focus of world history, the point where its meaning can be found. But it is equally right to speak of Jesus Christ as the focal point which, of course, is precisely what Paul does. Ephesians 3:9–10 uses the word “mystery” of the church. But an earlier reference is to “the mystery of Christ” (v. 4), and the remaining references are to the “gospel” which is centered in him and has for its object the salvation of the church which is his body.
It is this idea, the idea of the church as Christ’s body, which holds the two foci of Paul’s thought together. For in Paul’s view, the church is the focal point of history only because it is the focal point of Christ’s work.
At the beginning of his influential and much discussed book Christ and Time, Oscar Cullmann of the University of Basel called attention to the fact that in the Western world we do not reckon time in a continuous forward-moving series that begins at a fixed initial point, but from a center from which time is reckoned both forward and backward. The Jewish calendar begins from what it regards as the date of the creation of the world and moves on from that point. But we begin with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—fixed within the space of a few years—and then number in two directions: forward, in an increasing succession of years which we identify as a.d. (anno Domini “in the year of [our] Lord”), and backward, in a regression of years which we identify as b.c. (“before Christ”).
A secular historian might judge that the coming of Jesus was pivotal because of Jesus’ obvious influence on later history. But the Christian conviction, symbolized by the division of time, goes beyond this. As Cullmann says, “The modern historian may when pressed find a historically confirmed meaning in the fact that the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth is regarded as a decisive turning point of history. But the theological affirmation which lies at the basis of the Christian chronology goes far beyond the confirmation that Christianity brought with it weighty historical changes. It asserts rather that from this mid-point all history is to be understood and judged.”
Christianity affirms that apart from Christ there is no way of determining what history as a whole is all about, nor can we legitimately weigh historical events so that one may be pronounced better or more significant than another. With Christ both these essentials for a true historical outlook are provided.
Moreover, it is in the church alone that this can be seen. When we are talking about Christ we are not talking about some vague historical idea or some abstract principle for measuring the meaning of life. We are talking about a person who lives in us and can be known to others as we model him before a watching world. It is not a dead Jesus whom Christians serve, but a living one. Where can people see him except in the church, which gives, as it were, hands and feet, nerves and sinews to his life?
- Proof of the principle that suffering for truth and righteousness is the way to glory and the secret of true happiness. I add this point because the way of Jesus is the way of suffering—he said, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. … If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:19–20)—and because Paul quite naturally alludes to his own sufferings at the close of this section.
Is the meaning of history some promise of Jesus to make you blissfully happy and solve all your problems, to make you materially prosperous, successful, esteemed, and healthy? Hardly! Here in a nutshell is what I think the purpose of history is, as demonstrated in the lives of those who have been saved from sin by Jesus.
When Satan rebelled against God and carried the host of fallen angels, now demons, with him into eternal ruin, God could have crushed the rebellion and annihilated Satan and his hosts forever. That would have been just and reasonable. It might even have been merciful; for if God had gone on to create Adam and Eve, as he had no doubt determined to do beforehand, Satan would not have been there to tempt them, the pair would not have fallen, and sin and death would not have passed upon the race.
But this would not have shown God’s “manifold wisdom.” It would have shown his power and perhaps even his mercy. But it would not have shown that God’s way, the way of truth and righteousness, is the only really good way and the only sure path to happiness.
So instead of annihilating Satan, God took an entirely different path: “I have already determined to create a race called man, and I know in advance, because I know all things, that Satan will seduce him from my righteousness and plunge him into misery. Satan will think he has won. But while Satan is doing that—turning the human race against me and setting individual human beings against one another and even against themselves—I will begin to create a new people who will glory in doing what is right, even when it is not popular, and who will delight in pleasing me, even when they suffer for it. Satan will say, ‘Your people serve you only because you protect them, only because you provide for them materially.’ But here and there in a great variety of ways I will allow them to be greatly abused and persecuted, and I will show by their reactions that not only will they continue to praise me in their suffering, and thus bring glory to my name, but that they will even be happier in their sufferings than Satan’s people will be with their maximum share of human prestige and possessions.”
So God let history unfold like a great drama upon a cosmic stage. The angels are the audience. We are the actors. Satan is there to do everything he can to resist and thwart God’s purposes. This drama unfolds across the centuries as Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and all the other dramatis personae of Christian history, both the great persons and the minor persons, are brought on stage to play the part God has assigned them and speak words that come from hearts that love him. Adam proved that God’s way is the best way, and he repented of his sin and trusted in the coming of Jesus. So did Eve and Noah and all the others. All these endured as seeing by faith him who is invisible, and they looked beyond the distresses of this life for their reward.
Now you and I are the players in this drama. Satan is attacking, and the angels are straining forward to look on. Are they seeing the “manifold wisdom” of God in you as you go through your part and speak your lines? They must see it, for it can be seen in you alone. It is there—where you work and play and think and speak—that the meaning and end of history is found.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 93–95). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1988). Ephesians: an expositional commentary (pp. 101–106). Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library.