Monday, February 17, 2014

Ephesians 3:1-13 – A Mystery

Our Life Group lesson this week was on Ephesians 3:1-13, our sixth lesson on this marvelous epistle of Paul. The apostle is about to pray for the Ephesians, in his letter, but first he goes on a digression. He begins, "For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—". Then, if we skip to verse 14 we read, "For this reason I kneel before the Father...[vs. 16] I pray that...." Everything between verse 1 and verse 14 is digression.

Why this digression? Why everything in these verses? I said in class today that I have to know the why of things—knowing what isn't good enough. I built my lesson around the mystery (vs. 3, 4, 6, and 9) that the Gentiles would be saved through Christ, and Jew and Gentile be brought into one fellowship. Why did God choose to do things that way and leave his ultimate plan a mystery for so long? As opposed to, millennia earlier introducing the system that ended up with salvation through Christ?

But something I didn't take note of or mention in class is that this passage is directed to the Gentiles. Paul begins the letter by addressing it "To God's holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus." In chapter 2, verse 11-23, Paul seems to be speaking to both Jews [circumcised; near by] and Gentiles [uncircumcised; far away]. But now he says, "I, Paul...for the sake of you Gentiles...." Is he now saying there are only Gentile Christians in the Ephesus church? Or is just changing focus to address those of the church who are Gentiles?

Paul has just described himself as "the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles".  Except, that's not really what he's saying. He's actually saying that for the sake of the Gentiles he's "a prisoner of Christ Jesus." A subtle difference, perhaps, but a difference. Is what Paul's about to say for the Gentiles' sake, or is he a prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles? The notes in the NIV Study Bible don't cover this, so I reached back to two older commentaries I have: Adam Clarke and Matthew Henry.

Clarke states it is the latter: Paul is a prisoner because he preached Christ to the Gentiles and insisted they could be Christians without first becoming Jews, thus raising the ire of Jewish leaders. Those leaders grabbed him in Jerusalem and he was prisoner there, in Caesarea, and in Rome. Clarke glosses over that Paul says he was "the prisoner of Christ Jesus," not prisoner of the Jews or Romans, nor did he say he was in prison or in chains. Matthew Henry attributes the phrase "for this reason" as pointing back to Chapter 2, wherein Paul said God had made Jew and Gentile one, refers to why Paul is a prisoner (rather than why Paul is about to say what he says beginning in verse 14). At least Henry spends time on the fact that he is Christ Jesus' prisoner. But I didn't find much help in Henry on the question of what "for the sake of" means.

Could this verse actually mean something slightly different? I'm working only in English here, since I don't know Greek. When we say something like "I'm doing this for your sake," I see two possible meanings, one causal, one a result. It could mean I'm doing this because of something you did [e.g. I'm drive to the hospital for your sake, because while jumping around in the basement you fell and broke your arm]. Or it could mean I'm doing this for your benefit [e.g. I'm making you do your homework, child, for your sake, not mine—because you will learn and grow as a result]. It is in this latter sense, I believe, that Paul means "for the sake of you Gentiles." So my conclusions concerning verse 1 are:
  • "For this reason" refers of course to what went before in the letter, that Jew and Gentile are brought together in Christ; and it's prefacing what Paul is about to say.
  • "the prisoner of Christ Jesus" is Paul's recognitions that no matter who restricts him he is really a will prisoner of God in Jesus.
  • "for the sake of you Gentiles" most likely refers to his imprisonment being for the Gentiles' benefit, not something caused by them or his preaching to them.
What now shall we say about the lesson? Having spent so much time and space on the first verse, I have no more of either to tell you of administration (vs. 2, 9) being koinonia, or going in depth into the mystery (vs. 3, 4, 6, 9), or the marching orders for the church (vs. 10), or deal again with the heavenly realms (vs. 10) and who the rulers mentioned are, or how this ties together with 1:3, 1:20, 2:6, and 6:12.

How rich is this book! I could almost devote my entire blog to it.