Ephesians invites us…to view salvation in terms of union rather than exchange. It is our one-flesh relationship with the Messiah that pulls us out of our sinfulness and deadness and lifts us to fresh life, both positionally and transformatively, in his death and resurrection.
I was a teenager when I experienced my first revelation as a reader of Paul’s letters. It was as if Ananias had once again stepped off the street called Straight and opened my eyes. What I saw was very simple and (I have since found out) already discovered by many before me: Paul wrote very often about Jew-born and Gentile-born believers and how they become a unified church through the gospel.
“So that’s why he talks so much about things like the Law, faith, circumcision, and election.” I thrilled to the discovery. Rather than theological catalogs, these letters had become animate, historical documents with a message. Romans became much more than a “plan of salvation,” Galatians was about more than how we cannot earn God’s favor by doing works, Ephesians grew into more than an omnibus of ideas about predestination, marriage, and spiritual warfare. Instead, in these letters and more, Paul was revealing that both Jews and Gentiles could become co-heirs of a promised inheritance through faith in Christ.
That was an important revelation. But I have begun to realize that Ananias did not quite get all the scales off in those days. It seems that there is a concept even deeper down in Paul’s theology, of which Jew/Gentile unity is only one manifestation. It is a concept we can call “incorporation into Christ.” In what follows, I will demonstrate how it works in Ephesians.
Jew/Gentile Unity in Ephesians
Ephesians is swarming with Jews and Gentiles. Following my own journey of understanding, we must start with this first revelation before receiving the second.
The pronouns in chapters 1 and 2 offer our first clues. As Paul launches into his beautiful eulogy in 1:3-14—“blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly dimensions in Christ”—most Gentile readers sail along assuming that the “us” means, well, us. But our boat snags on a rock in verse 13: after a long string of “in whom we(s),” Paul writes, “In whom you also, having heard of the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation, in which also you believed, were sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise.” This interplay of we and you signals that this section is less about how God has blessed us all (believers in general) in Christ and more about how God has blessed us (Jews, from Paul’s perspective) and you (Ephesian Gentiles) equally.
Something similar happens in chapter 2. We start off assuming that Paul is speaking to all believers: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked according to the age of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (2:1-2). But we trip up again on verse 3: “Among whom we also all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” So we discover the same you/we distinction—just as you (Ephesian Gentile believers) were dead and walking according to this world, so also were we (Jewish believers).
But Paul’s reason for making the distinction is to break down the distinction. We (Jews and Gentiles) were both walking in corruption, but through the gospel God has blessed us both. This becomes unmistakably clear in the second half of chapter 2:
“Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh . . . were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” (2:11-16)
Proceeding on through to the second half of the book, we find Paul applying the principle of Jew/Gentile unity to the Ephesians church. “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1-3). This then is the first concept we must get down: in Ephesians, Paul is trying to bring Jew-born believers and Gentile-born believers together.
The Mystery in Ephesians
Now we are reading Ephesians with new eyes. But our eyes are not yet new enough. Paul discusses a “mystery” four times in Ephesians.
“He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” (1:9-10)
“if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel . . .” (3:2-6)
“because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” (5:30-32)
“and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains” (6:19-20)
Up until recently, I had understood Paul’s mystery here in Ephesians to be the mystery of the inclusion of the Gentiles—the idea that the nations could become members of the people of God and partakers of God’s promises. It was kept partially hidden for many years but came to light through the preaching of the apostles. “Mystery” was essentially Paul’s code word to for the new Jew/Gentile unity that we discussed above.
And in fact, Ephesians 3 seems to bear this view up quite well. There Paul explains that the mystery is “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). If we connect this with Paul’s concern to communicate Jew/Gentile unity throughout the rest of the letter, the case grows stronger. Finally, the mention of the mystery in 6:19 fits right in, taking into consideration Paul’s self-proclaimed apostleship to the Gentiles (cf. Romans 1:5, Galatians 2:7, 2 Timothy 1:11): “to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains” (6:19-20).