Ironside's Notes on Selected Books
The Revelation of the Mystery (Ephesians 3:1-13)
In Ephesians chapter 3 the apostle unfolded the great secret that had been in the heart of God from eternity. In a very special sense Paul was the chosen one to make known this mystery in all its fullness. On the other hand we need to guard against the idea that no others participated in this knowledge, for in verse Ephesians 3:5 of Ephesians Chapter 3 he declared, “It is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Others, therefore, shared with him in this blessed knowledge, but preeminently he was the apostle used by God to reveal the mystery.
No one else wrote of the body of Christ, among all the New Testament writers. This teaching came first to Paul that he might communicate it to others. But the truth that Jew and Gentile were to be blessed in the same way on the basis of pure grace was made known to the twelve. Our Lord taught this truth. “His own sheep” from the Jewish fold, and “other sheep” of the Gentiles were to form “one flock” under the fostering care of “one Shepherd” (John 10:4; John 10:16). Peter’s vision of the sheet let down from Heaven revealed the same glorious mystery. But the revelation of the one body was the special truth committed to Paul and given to him in seed form at the very time of his conversion, as the words, “Why persecutest thou me?” imply (Acts 9:4). Christ’s question to Paul indicated that to touch a saint on earth was to touch the Head in Heaven. Thus was Paul taught the unity of the body and its union with the glorified Head.
We might say it was because of this very truth that he was in prison at the time he wrote the Ephesian letter. I think this is indicated by the expression “I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles.” You will remember that in his defense on the temple stairs at Jerusalem, he announced that he had been commanded by the Lord to go to the Gentiles. The anger of his Jewish hearers was stirred to the depths, and they cried, “Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live” (Acts 22:22). We, therefore, who are Gentiles have special reason to be grateful to Paul for his faithfulness in proclaiming God’s purpose for us in His divine program. Because of this he suffered persecution, and spent many weary months in prison rather than surrender in the least degree the truth of God committed to him.
In Ephesians chapter 3, as in Colossians, he indicated that his was a double ministry. First, he spoke “of the dispensation of the grace of God” which was given him (Ephesians 3:2). A dispensation is a stewardship. Paul, like every true New Testament preacher, was a steward of the grace of God. Notice how the apostle Peter also wrote: “As every man has received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). Grace, we have already observed, is God’s unmerited favor to those who have deserved the very opposite. It is this grace that is proclaimed in the gospel. And this, of course, is the first part of the mystery. The apostle goes on to show that he was not only a minister of the gospel, but in a special sense a minister of this now revealed secret.
He said that by revelation the mystery was made known to him, and he called it the “mystery of Christ.” It is God’s wonderful secret concerning the glory of His blessed Son. How good it is to know that Christ’s glory and our salvation are eternally linked and can never be separated. Speaking of the mystery he said, “As I wrote afore in few words” (Ephesians 3:3). This, I take it, refers to what he had already said in chapter Ephesians 1:9-13. He will now elaborate that more fully. He had also written before to others concerning this mystery (See Romans 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 2:7, and other Pauline Epistles). I mention this because of the unwarranted position taken by some that the mystery was never revealed until Paul’s imprisonment. On the contrary, he had been proclaiming it from the very beginning, both by voice and pen.
Now what is this mystery that in other ages was hidden from the sons of men? We are told in verse Ephesians 3:6 : “That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” How does this differ from the Old Testament declaration that God would bless the Gentiles through Israel? The great difference is this: According to the Old Testament prophets the day is coming when Israel will be restored to covenant relationship with God and will be brought into a place of special blessing here on the earth. The Gentile nations living at that time will be blessed with and in subjection to them. But the great truth for our age is that God is now calling out a people for Himself to be the body and bride of His Son throughout the ages to come. Through those called-out people He will administer the affairs of a redeemed universe. This group is composed of both Jews and Gentiles who have been born again and united to the Lord Himself by the Spirit, thus becoming one body with Him and each other. It was this great truth that Paul was specially called to minister “according to the gift of the grace of God,” which had been given to him. The Holy Spirit effectively worked in and through him to bring lost sinners of the Gentiles into this wonderful place of privilege and inalienable blessing.
Note how meekly the apostle spoke of himself, even in connection with this great ministry committed to him, which was enough to have turned any ordinary man’s head. He said, “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given.” He did not boast of the abundance of the revelation made known to him, but accepted it as a divine trust that he was to minister for the glory of God and the blessing of others. What a different spirit often motivates some today, who, getting a little smattering of truth, are carried away by their fancied superior intelligence. They exhibit the most shocking pride and conceit because of the imagined inferiority of other believers who have not yet attained to their knowledge of the truth! Surely every new divine truth given to us should only humble us the more as we realize that we have nothing that we have not received. Apart from divine grace, we would still be in our natural darkness and ignorance. Paul took a very humble position as he went about preaching among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. To those who were in the greatest spiritual poverty he eloquently proclaimed the availability of inexpressible wealth. Paul wanted all men to enjoy the blessings and reality of the fellowship of this mystery. Men form their secret societies and delight to meet in hidden places to enjoy together mysteries that others cannot share. The Christian is through grace already a member of the society of the redeemed, a fellowship divinely formed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And as a member of that society he can enjoy with fellow believers the marvelous secret that God has now made known.
From the beginning of the world this mystery was hidden in God “who created all things by Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:9). Observe, it was not simply hidden in the Bible, as though the Old Testament contained this message and we only needed to ferret it out. But it was hidden in God, and could not have been understood by man until it was made known by divine revelation. When the Lord Jesus Christ was rejected by Israel, and the Holy Spirit descended to bear witness to the perfection of Christ’s finished work, it pleased God to make known this mystery. Even angels, whether good or bad, had no knowledge of it until it was given to God’s saints on earth. This, I understand, is the meaning of the remarkable statement of verse Ephesians 3:10, “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known [through] the church, the manifold wisdom of God.” That is, the unseen hosts of glorious beings in Heaven, as well as the vast armies of fallen spirits dominated by Satan, are learning the many-sided wisdom of God. As they observe what God is doing here on earth in His church they are learning, “the purpose [of the ages] which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” One of our poets has written: “Through the ages / One unceasing purpose runs.”
The humble student of the Word of God can see unfolded in the New Testament the great purpose that God had in mind. He created the universe and man and counseled with Himself to take out of that world from the children of Adam a vast company who would be united to His blessed Son throughout eternity. All will work out for the glory of Christ Jesus, our Lord.
In Him we now have immediate access with fullest confidence into the presence of God (Ephesians 3:12). We are so intimately linked up with Him, so truly one with Him, that we can approach the throne of grace without dread or fear, knowing that all we ask in His name or by His authority, the Father delights to do.
No wonder the apostle could glory in suffering because of this great truth. He would not have the saints become discouraged because of His trials, but rather he would have them remember that whatever tribulation he was passing through was on their behalf and for their glory (Ephesians 3:13).
The extent to which we accept these precious truths for ourselves, will determine our practical sanctification. The Christian who truly understands his unity with Christ, and therefore with all who are in Christ, cannot be sectarian in heart or practice, but must embrace all believers in his fellowship and interest.
To profess to believe the truth of the one body is one thing. To be governed by this belief is quite another. So intimate is the link that binds all believers to each other and to our glorified Head in Heaven that everything I say or do as a Christian has an effect for good or ill on all my fellow members, just as every part of the human body affects every other part. This amazing truth should make us very careful in our walk and our attitude toward one another.
Paul’s Second Prayer for the Saints (Ephesians 3:14-21)
In the first chapter of this precious Epistle we have Paul’s prayer for knowledge, and in the third, his prayer for love. After reading the first prayer we naturally find ourselves looking out over the great sphere of God’s eternal purpose, trying to take in the scope of His wonderful pre-arranged divine plan. But, as we read the second prayer and meditate on it, we find ourselves looking up in adoring gratitude, with our hearts going out in love to the One who first loved us.
We read in verse Ephesians 3:14, “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “For this cause”-For what cause? What motivated Paul to pray for these people? It was his deep interest in the people of God. He desired that they should fully experience their privileges in Christ and understand the great mystery of which he had spoken.
The expression, “I bow my knees,” is a very beautiful one and suggests intensity of feeling. Have you ever noticed that if you are just quietly engaged in prayer or meditation, you may sit, perhaps as I often do, in a comfortable big chair with your open Bible before you, and as one thought or another comes, you close your eyes and lift your heart to God in prayer? Or when you come together with God’s people, you love to stand in holy silence before God, joining with someone who is leading in prayer. But when you are intensely in earnest, when something has fairly gripped you that stirs you to deepest supplication, you find yourself almost irresistibly forced to your knees.
“I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We noticed that the first prayer is addressed to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, for God is the source of all knowledge. But this second prayer, which has to do more with family relationship, is addressed to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Divine titles are used most discriminate^ in the Word of God; never in the careless way that we so often use them. We might not think it made any difference whether one said, “I address myself to the God of our Lord Jesus,” or, “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus,” but it made a great deal of difference to the apostle. It indicated the different thoughts that were in his mind. When I think of God, I think of the maker of all things, the planner of all things who fitted the ages together. But I think of the Father as the One from whose bosom the eternal Son came into this world, becoming man for our salvation. Before He left this world Jesus said to Mary, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). There you have the two thoughts: God, the source of all counsels; the Father, the source of all family affections-the very center of family relationship.
“The Father… Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” “The whole family” is undoubtedly a correct rendering here, and yet “every family” would be just as correct. “The whole family,” however, conveys the most precious thought. This phrase means that all saints in earth and Heaven constitute one great family of born-again ones, of whom God is the father. But I am thinking too of the great hosts of angels never redeemed by the blood of Christ because they have never fallen; even those who fell found no Savior. The angels also acknowledge the fatherhood of God, but they are servants, waiting on the family. Then there is the family of the Old Testament saints. There was the antediluvian family, the patriarchal family, the Israelites, those who were truly of Israel. All these were families through the past dispensations. Today there is the church of this age of grace, and in the future there will be the glorious kingdom family. There are dispensational distinctions, but all receive life from the same blessed Person, and all together adore and worship Him. Notice that the whole family is located in Heaven and on earth. Those who are dead to us are alive to God above.
As we try to understand this prayer I want you to think of seven words that I believe will help us to grasp its scope. First, there is our endowment. “That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory.” You may come to God in prayer for anything, and realize that since you have such a marvelous endowment from which to draw, you do not need to fear to present your petitions to God. You cannot ask too much. We are reminded of the man who came to a king asking for something, and the king gave to him out of his abundant treasure until the man said, “Your majesty, that is too much! That is too much!” The king smiled and said, “It may seem too much for you to take, but it is not too much for me to give.” And so our blessed God gives out of His abundance.
He is “able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” He does not say, as we sometimes suppose, “Able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think,” for we might be like little children asking for the moon. But Paul said that God does for us, “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” When we come to Him in the name of Jesus, bringing our petitions, there is more in that great endowment fund than we can ever exhaust.
“According to the riches of his glory.” “According to,” not “out of the riches of His glory.” We have noticed the difference between these two expressions when commenting on a similar passage found in Ephesians 1:7, so we need not repeat the illustration used then. But it means much to the soul when one truly sees this distinction.
Next Paul prayed that the Ephesians “be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.” This speaks of our enduement or empowerment. Do you sometimes feel your limitations, your weakness, your lack of purpose, your powerlessness when it comes to living for God and witnessing for Him? Do you feel as though you might as well give up for the little you accomplish? Do you say, “If I only had more strength, how different it might be”? Listen! The excellency of the power is of God, not of us, and the Holy Spirit who dwells within us is ready to work in and through us to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So the prayer is that we may be “strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.” Some people have an idea that a Christian is a walking storage battery. You hear people pray, “O God, give me more power, fill me with power.” The idea they have is that the old battery is pretty well run down. “Put another one in, Lord,” is what they seem to say. No, you are not a storage battery; you are in connection with the great eternal dynamo, and the Holy Spirit works in and through you to the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ as you yield yourself to Him. He Himself is the source of all power, and that power is to be used by the people of God.
“That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” The next word is enthronement. It is Christ sitting on the throne of our hearts dominating, controlling us for the glory of God, His blessed pierced hands guiding and directing everything. It is not Christ received as an occasional visitor, not Christ recognized merely as a guest, but Christ abiding within as our living, loving Lord: Christ dwelling in the heart by faith. You remember the saying, “If Christ is not Lord of all, He is not Lord at all.” He does not want second place. He must be first if your life is going to be that which it should.
“That ye, being rooted and grounded in love.” This phrase suggests our establishment. Rooted and grounded are two very different terms. When I was a boy, the schoolteacher used to tell me that I must not mix my metaphors. For instance, I should not start with the figure of a ship and change to that of a railroad in the same sentence. But the Holy Ghost is wonderfully independent in His use of metaphors. He speaks of being rooted like a tree, and grounded like a building that is raised on a great foundation. Rooted and grounded in what? In love. What is love? It is the great rock foundation on which we build, for God is love. He who is rooted in love is rooted in God, and therefore, “the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (Psalms 92:12). The believer is like the trees, for they draw their nourishment from the living God Himself. Great Christian character will be established when one is founded on this Rock, building on God Himself, “rooted and grounded in love”!
“That ye…May be able to comprehend with all saints.” This speaks of our enlightenment. Individually, you will never be able to completely understand God’s purposes in grace. But you comprehend a little, and another Christian a little, and I a little, and with all the saints together we begin to get some idea of God’s wonderful purpose of grace. Therefore, we need one another; we need fellowship; we need to be helpers of each other’s faith. The feeblest, weakest member of the body of Christ is necessary, for God may give understanding to some weak brother that some strong active Christian may never get at all. Paul prayed that we be enabled “to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height.” Of what? Some say love. But previously in the chapter he had been speaking about God’s wonderful purpose of the ages, God’s great plan. Paul was praying that by the Spirit you may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the vast system of grace that God is working out through the ages of time, and which will be consummated in the ages to come.
In school I was told that no solid could have more than three dimensions-length, breadth, and thickness. But we have here length, breadth, depth, and height-four dimensions. Could you draw a picture of this? Could you draw an illustration of length, breadth, depth, and height? How would you do it? Some of the old Greek philosophers used to reason about a possible fourth dimension, and with them it was a kind of weird spiritual dimension. That is not such a bad idea. When Napoleon’s soldiers opened the prison of the Inquisition, in an underground dungeon they found the skeleton of a prisoner. The flesh and clothing had long since gone, but the remnants of an ankle bone with a chain attached to it were still there. On the wall they saw cut into the rock with a sharp piece of metal a cross. Above the cross in Spanish was the word for height, and below it the word for depth, and on one arm the word for length, and on the other the word for breadth. As that poor prisoner of so long ago was starving to death, his soul was contemplating the wonder of God’s purpose of grace, and to Him the figure of the cross summed it all up-the length, the breadth, the depth, the height!
Next Paul prayed that we may “know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.” Surely this is our enlargement. We glory as we comprehend the knowledge of the love of Christ. But what a strange expression is Paul’s petition! He prayed that we may know the unknowable: “The love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.” See that darling little baby in the mother’s arms, looking up and cooing and responding to the mother’s smile? You or I might say, “May I hold the baby?” and hold out our hands, and he would look at us and cling the more tightly to the mother. If we insist on taking him, he might utter a piercing cry that would say, “I do not know you; I do not know whether you love babies or not, but I know my mother’s love and can trust her.” And yet, what does the baby really know of the love of a mother? What does he understand about the reasons behind a mother’s love? But he enjoys it nevertheless. And so the youngest saint in Christ knows the love of the Savior, and the most mature saint is seeking to know in greater fullness that love that passeth knowledge.
Oh, the love of Christ is boundless,
Broad and long and deep and high!
Every doubt and fear is groundless,
Now the Word of faith is nigh.
Jesus Christ for our salvation,
Came and shed His precious blood;
Clear we stand from condemnation,
In the risen Son of God.
Then notice the last point in Paul’s prayer, “That ye might be filled [unto] all the fulness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). This is our enrichment. The King James version, “Filled with all the fulness of God,” is not totally accurate for you could not hold all the fullness of God. Solomon said, “Behold the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee” (1 Kings 8:27). Yet we read that He dwells in the heart of him that is humble and contrite. Walking by the seaside one time, someone touched on the real meaning of this word. He picked up one of the beautiful seashells and put it down in the sand where the water had ebbed for a moment or two. Then as they watched, the sea came rolling in and the shell was filled, and he said, “See! Filled unto all the fullness of the ocean.” So you and I as we live in fellowship with God may be filled unto His fullness. We are in Him and He is in us, and thus Paul’s prayer is answered.
And now notice the closing wonderful benediction of Paul’s prayer: “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” Does it say “Now unto him that is able to do above all we ask”? No, that is not enough. Is it, “Able to do abundantly above all that we ask”? That is not enough. Is it, “Able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask?” No, still that does not reach the limit. “Unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.” You need not fear to come to God about anything.
Are you troubled about present circumstances? Have you availed yourself of the abundant resources of God? If your heart is right with God and you come to Him and make effective use of the power He has for you, you can be sure of a wonderful answer. “According to the power that worketh in us”-this is the divine energy that works through poor feeble creatures such as we are. “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.” He is the One in whom God will find His pleasure throughout all eternity.
Monday, March 27th, 2017
the Fourth Week of Lent
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