THOUGHTS FROM EPHESIANS

49 THE MYSTERY OF THE GOSPEL [1]

A meditation on Ephesians 6:19 

In Ephesians 6:19 Paul asked his readers to pray for him – that he would ‘fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel’ for which he was in chains.  

Two questions confront us here:

What is this 'mystery' which Paul identifies as 'the gospel', 'the good news'?

And, why should preaching 'good news' result in arrest and imprisonment?

The ‘mystery’ is the eternal purpose of God which he put into effect in and through Jesus Christ – that people from all nations, not just Israel, would together, in Christ, be the one people of God, without difference or distinction. Paul teaches this definition of the ‘mystery’ specifically in Ephesians 1:9-10 and 3:4-11, and grounds his teaching on it in Ephesians 2:11-21. 

This equality and unity of all who believe in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, is an essential part of the ‘good news’. Paul emphasized this in his letters:  

In Romans he wrote ‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ [3:22-24]. He goes on to say: ‘Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded’ [3:27].

Similarly, in Galatians he stressed: 'You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." [3:26-28]

In Philippians 3:1-11 he taught that all those religious credentials which he, a Jew, had previously believed gave him superiority over the Gentiles and guaranteed favour with God, he now understands are less than worthless.

In Colossians he again stresses: ‘Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all’ [3:11]

It is this meaning of the ‘mystery’ of the gospel, this elimination of the distinction between Jew and Gentile, that resulted in Paul’s arrest and imprisonment. Right through the Acts of the Apostles this tension confronts us: is the good news for Jews only, or for Gentiles also, without distinction? Do Gentiles have to become Jews to inherit the promises of the gospel? Or are they included in the people of God purely on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ?  

We find in Acts several definitive crisis points in the resolution of this tense question: 

In Acts 8:14-17 the mixed-race Samaritans are clearly confirmed by God as included in the people of God.

In Acts 9:15 [see also 26:15-18] Paul is commissioned by God to take the good news to the Gentiles.

In Acts 10, Peter is directed by God to preach to the Gentile, Cornelius; Cornelius and his household are clearly confirmed by God as included in the people of God.

In Acts 11:1-18, after criticism from the Jewish Christians regarding the inclusion of the Gentiles, these objections are removed and the Gentile believers acknowledged.

In Acts 15 the first church council in Jerusalem affirmed the inclusion of the Gentiles, with no requirements for adherence to Jewish ritual.

Not only did the message of an incarnate God and a crucified Messiah offend the Jews [John 10:31; 1 Corinthians 1:23], but also this fact: that Gentiles, as well as Jews, are equal beneficiaries of that incarnation and that crucifixion.  

This mystery, this good news of Jesus Christ, is a message with built-in offence. To those who receive it, it is the message of life and acceptance; but for those who reject it, those who cannot accept that it is an unconditional gift, it robs them of all significance, exposing their human or national merit and pride as worthless. Robbed of their significance by this good news, they react with anger towards those who preach it.   

For this reason Paul asked his readers to pray. He knew the offence of the gospel. He knew the hard reactions of those offended by it. He knew his own fears and timidity. But he also knew that only this mystery, this good news, could bring life and peace to those who would receive it.

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2006, 2011