Text: Ephesians 3:1-13
The letter to the Ephesians has been called the ‘Switzerland’ of the New Testament. And with good reason, because here we are among the loftiest peaks and most stunning landscapes of Christian faith and experience.
A map of Switzerland might recommend certain towns and landscapes as being ‘worth a detour’. And here, in chapter 3:1-13 we accompany Paul on a short but thrillingly worthwhile detour.
Our passage begins with the words, ‘For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles…’. But at that point Paul interrupts himself and sets off on his detour and doesn’t return to his main path until v14, ‘For this reason I kneel before the Father…’. And only then begins a wonderful prayer.
This detour comes about as Paul remembers why he is in chains, shackled to a Roman guard. It is because he has been given (v8) the privilege of proclaiming to the Gentiles ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ.’
‘The unsearchable riches of Christ.’ They are vast, unfathomable, inexhaustible. But not completely unknowable. From this passage, we can learn at least four things about Christ and his unsearchable riches.
1. In Christ an age-old mystery has been revealed
V4f ‘…the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.’
Paul is not saying that the mystery of Christ was not known at all in previous generations, but that it was not known then as it is known now. In Old Testament times, there were predictions and anticipations and foreshadowings. But now, the mystery of Christ has been fully revealed. It’s there for all to see. It’s an open secret.
You know, even in the days of our Lord’s flesh this mystery concerning him had not yet been fully revealed. Jn 16:12 – “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” Have you ever wondered why, for example, Jesus says so little in the Gospels about the meaning of his own death? Surely the answer is, that they weren’t ready. They weren’t ready to understand the meaning of his death because they weren’t ready to accept the fact of his death. Mt 16:23 – “Never, Lord!” Peter said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jn 16:13 – “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.” Only after Christ’s crucifixion could its full meaning be poured into these events. This, I think, is at least part of the reply that we must give to those who attempt to set the teaching of Paul (who has much to say about the meaning of Christ’s death) against the teaching of Jesus himself.
Anyway, Paul is thrilled to have been entrusted with this mystery that has now been revealed in Christ.
But what dies he say about the content of this mystery?
2. In Christ a new society has been created
V6 – ‘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.’
The mystery, once hidden but now revealed, is that the Gentiles and Jews are fellow heirs (of the same inheritance), fellow members (of the same body), and fellow partakers (in the same promise).
There had been many signs in the Old Testament that God had a plan for all the nations, and not just for the Jewish nation. The Lord had promised long ago to Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. But everyone would have assumed that this would require other nations to be assimilated into the Jewish nation, observing circumcision, Sabbath, food laws, sacrifices and all the rest. No-one could have realised that with the coming of the Messiah and the outpouring the Holy Spirit all this would be swept away, and in its place would be made one new people with Jewish believers and Gentile believers on a completely equal footing.
In Christ (that is to say, in union with Christ) God has created a single new humanity. They are a building, with Christ as the cornerstone: it is a lasting union. They are a body, with Christ as the head: it is a living union. They are a bride, with Christ as the bridegroom: it is a loving union. Paul will begin to spell out the implications of this in the later chapters of this great Epistle.
3. In Christ a gripping drama is being played out
I mentioned that Ephesians is a letter of alpine proportions. But actually it is more than that. This teaching has, in fact, cosmic dimensions. Ephesus was a city in the thrall of magical practices and the occult. ‘But let me tell you,’ says Paul, ‘about real spiritual power.’
Already, in 1:3 Paul has rejoiced that God has blessed us in Christ ‘in the heavenly realms’. Later, in his famous passage on the Christian armour in chapter 6 he will assert that ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ And here, in 3:10, he declares that God’s ‘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.’
What is the church for? Jumble sales? Keeping ancient buildings going? Maintaining certain musical traditions? Social outreach? Evangelism? Worldwide mission? Worship?
The answer that Paul gives here is very striking. The church exists, he says, to make known to the angelic powers the manifold wisdom of God.
I think we may assume that even the good angels – powerful, holy, and intelligent as they must be – are amazed to see what God in his wisdom has achieved in and through his Son Jesus Christ. Life through death, glory through shame, blessing through curse, power through weakness. Who would have thought it?
Think how foolish, how weak, how irrelevant, how hopelessly out of touch, the Christian church is often thought to be today. Consider how many people, professing Christians as well as unbelievers, glibly, ‘we like Jesus, but not the church’. Then reflect on what Paul says here, that it is in the church – chosen by God, redeemed by Christ, sanctified by the Spirit – that there is revealed to the wondering gaze of the angels the multi-coloured, the many-splendoured, the manifold wisdom of God in Christ.
And this is not an after-thought. It is, according to v11 – ‘…according to [God’s] eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
4. In Christ a wonderful privilege is offered, v12
‘In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.’
Friends, there is no question more urgent or more pressing than this: ‘How can guilty sinners find access to a holy God?’
Despairing Job cries out: ‘If only I knew where to find him!’ (Job 23:3)
Sceptical Richard Dawkins surmises: ‘there is almost certainly no God.’
But both despair and scepticism are answered by the invitation of Jesus Christ:- ‘Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.’
Yes, we may approach God with freedom and confidence in Christ and through faith in Christ. And this is wonderfully symbolised in as we come to the Lord’s table this morning. We come offering nothing but our need and our trust, and receiving in return Christ in all his fullness, feeding on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving, enriched by his unsearchable riches.
Let’s receive these riches gladly. I hear that someone in the UK has just won the Euromillions lottery jackpot of £113m. But they haven’t yet come forward to claim it. Their lives are about to change spectacularly, but they’re completely unaware of it.
How different it was for Paul. He was knew that he was a beneficiary of the unsearchable riches of Christ. And he knew what a difference this had made to his life. This religious zealot had been turned into a follower of Jesus Christ, this blasphemer into a saint, this Pharisee into an apostle, this persecutor into a missionary. And all this by the mighty working of God’s sovereign grace in Jesus Christ. No matter who you are or what you have done, you too can be transformed.
Let’s share these riches generously. Someone once said to those who claim to follow Christ, “If one-tenth of what you believe is true, you ought to be ten times as excited as you are.” Certainly, Paul did not keep this to himself. He was thrilled to have been given the privilege of proclaiming these unsearchable riches of Christ, v8. So thrilled, in fact, that to be a prisoner in chains was to him a small price to pay. What, I wonder, would we be willing to give, or to give up, to share these unsearchable riches with others? Did not our Lord himself say, “Freely you have received; freely give.”
But now Paul has reached the end of his diversion. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘I’m ready to pray.’ And so am I. May God out of his glorious riches strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. May we, being rooted and established in love, have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.