The Apostle Paul’s letter to the saints in the great city of Ephesus paints a picture of God’s design for creation from the beginning to its end, placing the Church in the center of the frame. A careful reading of the letter reveals that the Church has a pivotal place in human and divine history. For the apostle, a great mystery had been revealed in history in the person and work of Jesus Christ—a mystery revealed by the Holy Spirit to the apostles, the prophets, and now to him by revelation according to Ephesians 3:3.
Paul uses this phrase, “the mystery of the gospel,” several times in the letter, as it seems to express something very important for him. He reminds the Ephesian saints of his insight into the mystery of Christ, continuing to explain exactly what it is: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs with Israel, members together of one body, sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6). Here is God’s great secret—this is what God has in mind for the whole creation! His secret design is to bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head—Christ (Ephesians 1:10).
Under God’s great cosmos plan, all creation is to be brought together, converging into a magnificent creative harmony! All that is evil and destructive is to be banished forever. A divided humanity is to be reunited, and a broken creation is to be healed and reordered under Christ, its head. This view of God’s great mystery plan stated in Ephesians ranges far and wide over time and eternity.
How does this great mystery plan of God come into reality and not be just a pipe dream, inspiring but ultimately an empty vision? In chapter three, the apostle gives us the answer: it will be realized and actualized through the Church! The great wisdom of God will be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose, which He is accomplishing in Jesus Christ our Lord (Ephesians 3:10–11). God, the divine artist, wants to hold an exhibition of such beauty and power and wisdom that anyone who looks on, whether they come from earth or heaven, will be overcome with wonder and awe.
God’s great mystery and plan goes far beyond any human wisdom or imagination: His purpose was to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which He put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:15–20).
God’s great mystery is now revealed for all eternity: God has a new plan for the whole of creation in Jesus Christ! Jew and Gentile, broken, divided, sinful humanity will be brought together as one body and one family in Jesus Christ and God will be the father of all who are united to Christ by faith. In Him, the eternal Lamb of God, both Jew and Gentile will have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation with God. Gentiles, who once were distant strangers to God’s covenant people, and the Jews, have now been brought to God through the cross and the cleansing blood of the eternal Lamb!
Through that spotless Lamb and his sin-cleansing blood, the rulers of this world’s oppressive systems are defeated. The Apostle Paul concludes triumphantly: He stripped the rulers! He made a public spectacle of them; God, in Christ, celebrated His triumph over the prince of this world: “having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us, and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14–15).
N. T. Wright, in his excellent book, The Crown and the Fire, summarizes God’s action on our behalf: “The cross is not a defeat, but a victory. It is the dramatic reassertion of the fact that God’s love is sovereign, that the rulers of the world do not have the last word, that the Kingdom of God has defeated the kingdom of Satan, that the kingdoms of the world have now become, in principle, the Kingdom of God, and of His Messiah: and He shall reign for ever and ever. The nations rage and fume, and plot against God and against His anointed. But the One who dwells in heaven laughs them to scorn and replies: “Yet I have set my King upon my holy hill.” But the holy hill in question is not now Zion, the temple mount, the joy of the whole earth. It is the ugly little hill about a mile further west, just outside the wall of the old city. That is where the King of the Jews is enthroned, His brow still smarting with the crown of thorns, His cross the sign of God’s victory over the world” (p. 32).
For hundreds of years the law marked off God’s people, Israel, from the rest of the nations, but now that has been abolished, thus it is no longer the distinguishing mark of the people of God. No longer are God’s people recognizable as those who are circumcised, keep certain food laws, and ritual purity. Instead, they are those who believe in Jesus Christ the Messiah, in whom God’s kingdom has come (Ephesians 2:11–14).
Indeed, the long-awaited Messiah has arrived, was crucified, buried, and resurrected from the dead, and is alive forevermore! In Him, a new Kingdom has come to challenge the human kingdoms of the world. A new age has now broken into human history. Now is the time for Jew and Gentile to be drawn together under the Lordship of Christ, just as the Old Testament has said should one day happen.
The Church of Jesus Christ is the vehicle through which God’s great secret and plan is to be revealed and worked out amid broken and sinful humanity as the living Lord calls us to repentance and reconciliation. It is the place where everything that wants to be brought together under the headship and lordship of Jesus Christ. A broken and divided creation is finally reconciled to itself and to God in the body of Christ. But even more than this, for the Apostle Paul, the Church also becomes a dwelling place for God on earth: “For in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).
The Temple in Jerusalem was the dwelling place of God in Jewish thought. The great Temple built by Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and was rebuilt by Herod before the birth of Jesus. Pagan gentiles were familiar with gods dwelling in the temples of their own cult. But now, Paul has a completely new perspective—God has now set up residence in the Church of Jesus Christ! For some, this was an outrageous claim to suggest that if you wanted to find God in Ephesus, you would need to find the small, socially mixed group of people who worshipped Jesus Christ. This concept of church was anything but a grand institution with cathedrals, bishops, and friends in high places! Nevertheless, these small gatherings of Christians were for Paul, “a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.” Here, God is the householder, and all kinds of different people live in His house: converted Jews, slaves, Gentile craftsmen, women merchants, and noisy children. He owns, shares, and dwells in His own house, among His people, the “saints”—those who believe in Christ as Lord and who seek to follow Him in obedient living. For in the New Testament, all Christians are saints, once they are in the church and in Christ. They remain saints until the end unless they fall away. These faithful followers of Christ are the “holy ones”—those who are set apart by their faith in Christ, “those sanctified in Christ Jesus.”
The Church is, therefore, both the foretaste of the coming reconciled world and the dwelling place of God on earth. The calling of Gentiles to be a part of the family of God expresses God’s varied, manifold wisdom. This community must be open to all people because it is a foretaste of the reconciliation of all things in Christ and the end of the ages. This community is to welcome not only the rich, socially acceptable Jewish convert, but Gentiles—slaves, women, young and old. This new creation of God would come together with God’s divided creation and display His manifold wisdom. Church is a place where that “coming Kingdom” can be tasted and experienced, a foretaste of the future, as prejudice, racism, sexism, and any other barriers of division come to an end in Jesus Christ. It is a new creation in which all the human and racial divisions are healed under the blood of the cross! Oh, what tremendous implications this has in regard to race relations. For “in Christ,” there is a whole new orientation of life: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All of this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17–18).
The first task of the church then is to be the new creation in the midst of the old creation. It not merely proclaims the availability of redemption but demonstrates in its life what that redemption is. By its life it heralds the new reality in Christ, the new age which has broken in and which is the new hope of the world. It responds to God’s great act of reconciliation, redemption, and salvation in Christ, and becomes the arena in which the Holy Spirit works. Thereby its life is increasingly transformed after the image of its Lord in whom all things are reconciled.
Thus, out of the ancient division of humanity into Jew and Gentile, God is now creating “a new humanity” who will live in a new Kingdom under the rule of God as we seek to follow Jesus Christ our Lord and seek continually to declare His glory and praises and mighty works forever and ever! Let us thank God for His great mystery that is now revealed in Christ for all eternity.
May His call to follow Him be heard by His people, knowing we are to follow Him in the knowledge that the creation has been renewed, is being renewed, and one day will be renewed, until we sing together the song of the redeemed of the Lamb, the song of new creation and new celebration: “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all therein, saying, ‘to Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” (Revelation 5:13).
“Our calling is to say ‘Amen’ to that song, that vision, that hope; and to say it with word and with flesh so that God the Father may be glorified, that God the Son may be satisfied, that God the Holy Spirit may be poured out upon us and upon the whole world” (N.T. Wright, The Crown and the Fire, p. 72).
May His name be praised and blessed forever and ever as we celebrate God’s great mystery of healing, redemption, and reconciliation in Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.