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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable
Ephesians 3

 

 

Verse 1

"For this reason" refers to what Paul had said about God"s blessings that are now the possession of both Gentile and Jewish believers. Since God has blessed us so greatly, Paul prayed that his readers would comprehend fully the extent of God"s love for them ( Ephesians 3:14-21).

His reference to himself as Christ"s prisoner for the sake of the Gentiles led him to digress and explain why he was such. When Paul wrote this epistle, he was under house arrest in Rome. This imprisonment had resulted from his service for Christ, specifically his ministry among Gentiles, for which the Jews had mobbed him in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 21:21; Acts 21:18; 2 Timothy 1:11-12). The apostle regarded his imprisonment as God"s will for him then.


Verses 1-13

2. Past ignorance3:1-13

Paul began to pray for his readers again (cf. Ephesians 3:1; Ephesians 3:14), but he interrupted himself to tell them more about the church. What he said in this section gives background information concerning the church as a mystery.


Verse 2

This verse begins another long sentence that runs through Ephesians 3:13 in the Greek text. "If indeed" (NASB) means "Surely" (NIV, cf. Ephesians 4:21). The Ephesians had indeed heard of Paul"s ministry.

"Stewardship" or "administration" (Gr. oikonomia, dispensation, Ephesians 3:9; Ephesians 1:10) here has the idea of the management of someone else"s business (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:17; Colossians 1:25). Paul viewed God as in the process of dispensing His grace throughout history through various administrators. Paul"s responsibility was to carry God"s grace to all people, but particularly to the Gentiles (cf. Ephesians 3:8; Ephesians 2:7).

"God"s principles do not change, but His methods of dealing with mankind do change over the course of history. "Distinguish the ages," wrote St. Augustine, "and the Scriptures harmonize."" [Note: Wiersbe, 2:27.]


Verse 3

Paul"s duty involved receiving revelation not previously given (i.e, the mystery, secret), specifically that Gentiles and Jews were equal partners in the church ( Ephesians 2:16; Ephesians 3:6). Paul had written of this mystery before in this epistle ( Ephesians 1:9-10; Ephesians 2:11-22).

New Testament References to "Mysteries"(things previously unknown but now revealed) [Note: Adapted from The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, p48. See also the excursus in Hoehner, Ephesians , pp428-34.]

Matthew 13:11

The secrets of the kingdom of heaven

Luke 8:10

The secrets (mysteries) of the kingdom of God

Romans 11:25

Israel experiencing a hardening of heart

Romans 16:25-26

The plan of salvation through Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 4:1

New Testament revelation

1 Corinthians 15:51

The Rapture

Ephesians 1:9

God's will

Ephesians 3:2-3

The administration of God"s grace

Ephesians 3:4

Christ

Ephesians 3:9

The church

Ephesians 5:32

Christ and the church

Colossians 1:26

Christ in us, the hope of glory

Colossians 1:27

Christ in us

Colossians 2:2

Christ

Colossians 4:3

Christ

2 Thessalonians 2:7

The secret power of lawlessness already at work

1 Timothy 3:9

The deep truths of the faith

1 Timothy 3:16

Godliness

Revelation 1:20

The seven stars (angels)

Revelation 10:7

The details of the Tribulation

Revelation 17:5

Babylon the great


Verse 4

What Paul had already written about this mystery revealed his understanding of it.


Verse 5

The mystery was unknown before God revealed it to the New Testament apostles and prophets. Prophets may be a more specific description of apostles here (cf. Ephesians 2:20). That means God did not reveal the church in the Old Testament. Specifically what is the mystery in view here?

Traditional dispensationalists, as distinguished from "progressive dispensationalists" and covenant theologians, have understood the mystery to be the church, the body of Christ. [Note: E.g, Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism, pp133-34; Gary W. Derickson, "The New Testament Church as a Mystery," Bibliotheca Sacra166:664 (October-December2009):436-45.] By "traditional dispensationalists" I am referring to normative dispensationalists, which some "progressive dispensationalists" have subdivided into "classical" and "revised" dispensationalists.

"Paul then, is explaining, not limiting the mystery there set forth [by his reference to the equality of Jews and Gentiles]. The concept must stand that this whole age with its program was not revealed in the Old Testament, but constitutes a new program and a new line of revelation in this present age." [Note: J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, p137. See also Charles C. Ryrie, "The Mystery in Ephesians 3 ," Bibliotheca Sacra123:489 (January-March1966):25.]

"At least four defining characteristics of the church are described as a mystery. (1) The body concept of Jewish and Gentile believers united into one body is designated as a mystery in Ephesians 3:1-12. (2) The doctrine of Christ indwelling every believer, the Christ-in-you concept, is called a mystery in Colossians 1:24-27 (cf. Colossians 2:10-19; Colossians 3:4; Colossians 3:11). (3) The church as the Bride of Christ is called a mystery in Ephesians 5:22-32. (4) The Rapture is called a mystery in 1 Corinthians 15:50-58. These four mysteries describe qualities that distinguish the church from Israel." [Note: Fruchtenbaum, pp117-18.]

Amillennialists, covenant premillennialists, and progressive dispensationalists say that the mystery is not the church itself but the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the church. [Note: E.g, Morris, pp87-89 , 93.]

"The mystery referred to in the "dispensation of the mystery" ( Ephesians 3:9) is the relationship of Jews and Gentiles to Christ and to one another. This relationship is the distinguishing characteristic of the church." [Note: Craig A. Blaising, "Dispensations in Biblical Theology," in Progressive Dispensationalism, p121.]

"The mystery of Ephesians 3:6 may thus be summed up as the coequal participation of the Gentiles with Israel in the full messianic salvation that is realized in the crucified and risen Christ and made effective to both through the apostolic proclamation of the gospel. This truth of the unity of Gentiles and Israel in the church, which has already been introduced in connection with the "mystery of his will" ( Ephesians 1:9-14, esp. Ephesians 3:12-13) and elaborated in Ephesians 2:11-22, stands behind all of the teachings of the epistle as the central theme." [Note: Robert L. Saucy, "The Church as the Mystery of God," in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, pp136-37.]

These two groups of interpreters view the church differently. Traditional dispensationalists understand the church to be an intercalation or parenthesis in God"s kingdom program. Some of them refer to the church as the mystery form of the kingdom. They see the church as a hiatus in God"s dealings with Israel on the earth. Consequently the church is a new entity, not simply the continuation of the Old Testament theocracy. [Note: See Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp133-34; idem, Dispensationalism, pp124-25; John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pp232-37; and James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans , p254.]

Amillennialists, covenant premillennialists, and progressive dispensationalists view the nature of the church differently. They believe the church is a progressive stage in the historical unfolding of God"s kingdom program on earth. It is from this progressive unfolding of the dispensations or economies in God"s earthly kingdom program that the term "progressive dispensationalism" comes. [Note: See Craig A. Blaising, "The Extent and Varieties of Dispensationalism," in Progressive Dispensationalism, p49.] They stress the continuity between the past, present, and future rules of God over the earth. Non-dispensationalists typically refer to the church as the "new Israel." This view stresses the discontinuity between Israel and the church in the past and in the future.

Was the mystery revealed in any sense in the Old Testament, or was this revelation something entirely new in Paul"s day? Traditional dispensationalists respond that neither the church as a distinct entity nor the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the church was previously revealed. They appeal to the meaning of "mystery" for support. "Mystery" (Gr. mysterion) in the New Testament refers to ""a truth which was once hidden but now is revealed," "a truth which without special revelation would have been unknown."" [Note: J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul"s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon , p166.] "As" ( Ephesians 3:5) does not mean that God had revealed it previously but now revealed it more fully in Paul"s day, as the context ( Ephesians 3:9; cf. Ephesians 2:16) and Colossians 1:26 make clear. God had not revealed anything about the church in the Old Testament.

Amillennialists, covenant premillennialists, and progressive dispensationalists say yes and no. The church was revealed in the Old Testament, not by that name but as a future stage in the earthly kingdom of God. Nevertheless the equality of Gentiles and Jews in one body ( Ephesians 2:15-16) was new revelation.

". . . it [the mystery] was new and unknown in a relative sense only, being in its essentials an important theme of prophecy from the time of Abraham ..." [Note: Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p97. See W. Harold Mare, "Paul"s Mystery in Ephesians 3 ," Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society8:2 (Spring1965):83.]

". . . a "mystery" need not even have been unknown or unappreciated previously, except perhaps relatively so ..." [Note: J. Barton Payne, The Imminent Appearing of Christ, p126. See J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 2:448-49.]

"A mystery may be hidden in the sense that its truth has not yet been realized." [Note: Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, p150. See his ch6 , "The Church and the Revelation of the Mysteries," for a fuller explanation of the progressive dispensational interpretation of the mysteries.]

The correct interpretation depends on a proper identification of the mystery and an accurate understanding of the nature of the church.

The question of whether or not the Davidic (messianic) kingdom has already begun relates to the answer. Traditional dispensationalists say that it has not since the Davidic kingdom is an earthly kingdom and therefore Christ will only begin to reign over it when He returns to earth. Amillennialists, covenant premillennialists, and progressive dispensationalists say that the messianic kingdom has begun since Christ is now enthroned in heaven.

These groups, however, interpret the nature of the messianic kingdom differently. Some amillennialists say the messianic kingdom is Christ"s heavenly rule. Others say that it will be His earthly rule in the new heavens and earth. Covenant premillennialists and progressive dispensationalists say that the messianic kingdom is a two-stage rule. Christ now rules from heaven through the church, and in the future He will return and reign on earth. Thus there is an "already" aspect, and there is also a "not yet" aspect to the messianic kingdom.

If the Davidic kingdom is an exclusively earthly reign of Messiah, then it seems that the church is not just a segment of this kingdom. Messiah would need to be present to reign over this kingdom. Unquestionably He exercises universal sovereignty presently, but this seems to be different from His reign as David"s heir over David"s earthly kingdom. The church enters into many blessings because of Christ"s death, resurrection, and ascension, not because He rules as the Davidic king from heaven now. Some of these blessings are identical to what believers will enjoy when Christ returns to reign on the earth. This should not lead us to conclude, however, that the church is the first stage of Christ"s messianic kingdom.

I believe that the mystery in view here is the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the church ( Ephesians 3:6). [Note: Cf. Hoehner, Ephesians , pp432 , 501.] But this is only one mystery concerning the church that the New Testament reveals. Taken together all these mysteries present the church as a distinct entity in God"s plan and not just one aspect of the messianic kingdom. Neither the church nor the present equal relationship of Jews and Gentiles was revealed in the Old Testament, though Gentile blessing was. God had revealed His purpose to bless Gentiles along with Jews from Genesis 12:3 onward (cf. Isaiah 2:1-4; Isaiah 61:5-6).

Note that Paul said God revealed the mystery to His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. He did not just reveal the church to Paul. Ultradispensationalists claim that the church could not have begun before Paul appeared on the scene since he was the apostle through whom revelation concerning this mystery came. [Note: Cornelius R. Stam, Acts Dispensationally Considered, 2:17-19. For a brief discussion of ultradispensationalism, see Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp192-205; or idem, Dispensationalism, pp197-207.]


Verse 6

This is the content of the mystery (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22). First, Gentiles and Jews are fellow heirs of God"s riches that He presently bestows on believers (cf. Ephesians 2:19; Ephesians 1:13-14; Galatians 3:29; Galatians 4:7). Second, they are fellow members of the body of Christ, which is the church ( Colossians 1:18). Third, they are fellow partakers of the promise concerning Christ in the gospel (i.e, that whoever trusts in Him has everlasting life; John 3:16; et al.). The mystery is not that Gentiles would enjoy salvation and enter into blessing along with Israel. God revealed that in the Old Testament ( Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 42:6; et al.). It is that God has joined Jews and Gentiles as equals in one new body, which is the church (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). [Note: See Martin, p1308.]

"That Gentiles were to be saved was no mystery ( Romans 9:24-33; Romans 10:19-21). The mystery "hidden in God" was the divine purpose to make of Jew and Gentile a wholly new thing-"the Church, which is his [Christ"s] body," formed by the baptism with the Holy Spirit ( 1 Corinthians 12:12-13) and in which the earthly distinction of Jew and Gentile disappears ( Ephesians 2:14-15; Colossians 3:10-11). The revelation of this "mystery" of the Church was foretold but not explained by Christ ( Matthew 16:18). The details concerning the doctrine, position, walk, and destiny of the Church were committed to Paul and his fellow "apostles and prophets by the Spirit" ( Ephesians 3:5)." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p1275.]


Verse 7

God graciously gave Paul the opportunity to serve Him by proclaiming the gospel aided by God"s supernatural enablement. "Minister" (Gr. diakonos, deacon) emphasizes service, not servitude (cf. Gr. doulos, slave).


Verse 8

Paul considered himself the least worthy (lit. the "leaster") of all the saints ( Ephesians 1:1) to have received such a privilege. This unusual expression is "a comparative of the superlative." [Note: Martin, p1308.] Rather than thinking God owed him something, Paul regarded God"s entrusting him with the gospel as pure grace, unmerited favor (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:11).

"Perhaps he was deliberately playing on the meaning of his name. For his Roman surname "Paulus" is Latin for "little" or "small", and tradition says he was a little man. "I am little," he may be saying, "little by name, little in stature, and morally and spiritually littler than the littlest of all Christians."" [Note: Stott, p119.]

The unfathomable riches of Christ are what Paul preached and what he expounded in this epistle particularly (cf. Romans 11:33).


Verse 9

The second part of Paul"s ministry, besides preaching to the Gentiles, was explaining the mystery of the church to everyone. Even though God had not revealed the church earlier, it was in His plan from the beginning ( 1 Corinthians 2:7; Romans 16:25-26).


Verse 10

Paul ministered in these two ways so the manifold wisdom of God might appear clearly to the angelic hosts (cf. Ephesians 1:21; Ephesians 6:12). "Manifold" (Gr. polypoikilos) means variegated or made up of different kinds. Individual redemption is not in view here but the church composed of people of different types, namely, Jews and Gentiles is.

"The church as a multi-racial, multi-cultural community is like a beautiful tapestry. Its members come from a wide range of colourful backgrounds. No other human community resembles it. Its diversity and harmony are unique." [Note: Ibid, p123.]

God"s manifold wisdom is reflected in the church"s variegated construction. The angels marvel at God"s wisdom as they observe Jews and Gentiles united in one body.

". . . the church is to be an audio-visual display of God"s reconciling work. In this primary way she testifies to God"s grace and wisdom. So Paul encouraged living life in Christ in such a way that reconciliation is the dominant feature of church life." [Note: Bock, "A Theology . . .," p315.]


Verse 11

This plan was part of God"s eternal purpose ( Ephesians 1:11). God brought this part of His plan to fruition through our Lord"s earthly ministry. Specifically, the Jews" rejection of their Messiah resulted in the postponement (from the human viewpoint) of the messianic (Davidic) kingdom and the beginning of the church.

"God"s program today is not "the headship of Israel" ( Deuteronomy 28:1-13), but the headship of Christ over His church." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:29.]


Verse 12

Jesus Christ"s past work has an abiding present effect for believers today. Because of His work we now enjoy the rights of address and access to God. We can address God and approach Him confidently because our Savior"s work has brought us to God (cf. Hebrews 3:6; Hebrews 4:16; Hebrews 10:19; Hebrews 10:35; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 5:2).

"Forgiven sinners do not come to God hesitantly, wondering about their likely reception. They rest not on their own achievement but on what Christ has done for them, and for that reason they come full of confidence." [Note: Morris, p97.]


Verse 13

In this verse the apostle returned to the thought with which he began this section ( Ephesians 3:1). God had entrusted Paul with the mystery of the church and had given him a ministry of evangelizing the Gentiles. Therefore his Ephesian readers should not view his present imprisonment as a tragedy but simply as part of his ministry. His ministry was for them and for their glory, so they should view his tribulations as part of God"s good will for him and for them (cf. Philippians 1:7).

"The mystery of Ephesians 3is the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ. This equality and this body were not revealed in the Old Testament. They were made known only after the coming of Christ by the Spirit to the apostles and prophets including Paul but not excluding others." [Note: Ryrie, "The Mystery . . .," p31. This article contains an excellent explanation of the mystery from the dispensational viewpoint as well as refutation of the amillennial, covenant premillennial, and ultradispensational views.]

Saucy, a "progressive dispensationalist," interpreted the mystery in a slightly different way.

"Our examination of the mystery in Ephesians 3leads us to a mediating position between traditional dispensational and nondispensational views [i.e, the progressive dispensational view]. The unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ is taking place in the church in partial fulfillment of Old Testament promises. Messianic days have dawned, albeit in a way not clearly anticipated in the prophecies. Rather than one grand age of fulfillment under the messianic reign, the prophetic fulfillment has been divided into two ages related to the two comings of Christ. In this first age of fulfillment, the spiritual messianic salvation is already present in the gospel. This gospel is broadly spoken of as the mystery, or the mystery of Christ, or the mystery of the gospel. The specific spiritual unity of all peoples entailed in this gospel is the content of the mystery of Ephesians 3." [Note: Saucy, "The Church . . .," p151.]

Whereas the Old Testament predicted the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers, it did not reveal their complete equality in Christ. On this point all dispensationalists and covenant theologians agree.


Verse 14

"For this reason" goes back to Ephesians 3:1, from which Paul departed in Ephesians 3:2-13 to give more information about the mystery. Bowing the knees and kneeling in prayer were postures that reflected an attitude of submission to God. Kneeling was not the most common posture for prayer in Paul"s culture. Usually people stood when they prayed (cf. Mark 11:25; Luke 18:11; Luke 18:13). Praying on one"s knees signified especially fervent praying (cf. Luke 22:41; Acts 7:40; Acts 7:60; Acts 20:36; Acts 21:5). [Note: Foulkes, p101; Morris, pp100-101.] "Before" suggests intimate face-to-face contact with the heavenly Father (cf. Matthew 6:9).


Verses 14-19

3. Future comprehension3:14-19

Paul had explained that Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ ( Ephesians 2:15). Therefore he prayed that they might experience the unity that was theirs spiritually in their relations with one another. He turned from exposition to intercession (cf. ch1; John 13-17). Ephesians 3:14-19 are also one sentence in the Greek text.

"In the first prayer [ Ephesians 1:15-23], the emphasis is on enlightenment; but in this prayer, the emphasis is on enablement. It is not so much a matter of knowing as being-laying our hands on what God has for us and by faith making it a vital part of our lives." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:30-31.]

"Whereas the first prayer centers in knowledge, this prayer has its focal point in love." [Note: Martin, p1309.]


Verse 15

Paul made a word play from the word "father" ( Ephesians 3:14, Gr. patera). A father is the head of the typical family (Gr. patria). God is not only the Father of the family in which Gentile and Jewish believers are one (i.e, the church), but He is the prototypical father. He is the ultimate Father over every other family that has a father. Every human family exists as a family with a father because of God"s relationships as a Father.


Verse 16

In this prayer Paul requested one thing: that God would strengthen his readers in the inner man. He asked that God would provide this power (Gr. dynamis) according to his vast resources (cf. Ephesians 1:18). The power comes to us through the indwelling Holy Spirit (cf. Philippians 1:19) who strengthens our inner Prayer of Manasseh , namely, our innermost being (i.e, not just our muscles but our entire person).


Verse 17

The result of this request is that Christ may be "at home" in the personality of the believer. He indwells every Christian ( 1 Corinthians 12:13) but is at home in the lives of those believers who let Him be first in their attitudes and activities ( John 15:14). As the believer keeps trusting and obeying, Jesus Christ can continue to occupy this place in his or her life. Paul was praying that his readers would enjoy intimate fellowship with their Lord (cf. 1 John 1:1-4).

The believer may grasp Christ"s love because God has rooted the Christian as a plant and grounded him or her as a building in love. Jesus Christ"s lordship over the life produces the love in view here.

There is another reference to the Trinity in Ephesians 3:14-17 : Father ( Ephesians 3:14), Spirit ( Ephesians 3:16), and Son ( Ephesians 3:17; cf. Ephesians 1:13-14; cf. Ephesians 1:17; Ephesians 2:18; Ephesians 2:22).


Verse 18

When believers accept Jesus Christ"s revelation of the mystery of the church, they are able to comprehend that God"s love is broad enough to embrace both Jews and Gentiles in the church. They can appreciate that it is long enough to reach the far off (Gentiles) as well as the near (Jews) and to stretch from eternity to eternity. They can see that it is high enough to raise both Jews and Gentiles into the heavenly places. They can understand that it is deep enough to rescue both kinds of people from sin"s degradation and from Satan"s grip. [Note: See Barclay, p155 , for a slightly different interpretation of the meaning of these dimensions.]


Verse 19

Paul desired that his readers would apprehend the love of Christ fully. Yet he acknowledged that full comprehension of that love is impossible because it is greater than mortals can conceive.

"The four words seem intended to indicate, not so much the thoroughness of the comprehension as the vastness of the thing to be comprehended." [Note: Abbott, p99.]

"No matter how much we know of the love of Christ, there is always more to know." [Note: Morris, p107.]

The ultimate goal of Paul"s request was that his readers might be so full of the knowledge of Christ"s love and appreciation for God that they might allow Christ to control them fully ( Ephesians 4:13).

"These four requests are more like four parts to a telescope. One request leads into the next one, and so on." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:31.]

"I like to think of the apostle"s petition as a staircase by which he climbs higher and higher in his aspiration for his readers. His prayer-staircase has four steps, whose key words are "strength", "love", "knowledge" and "fullness"." [Note: Stott, p134.]

"There are really five petitions in this greatest of all Paul"s prayers (one already in Ephesians 1:16-23), two by the infinitives after hina doi ["that he would grant you," Ephesians 3:16] (krataiothenai ["to be strengthened," Ephesians 3:16], katoikesai ["that Christ may dwell," Ephesians 3:17]), two infinitives after hina exischusete ["that you ... may be able," Ephesians 3:17-18] (katalabesthai ["to comprehend," Ephesians 3:18], gnonai ["to know," Ephesians 3:19]), and the last clause hina plerothete ["that you may be filled up," Ephesians 3:19]. Nowhere does Paul sound such depths of spiritual emotion or rise to such heights of spiritual passion as here." [Note: Robertson, 4:532.]


Verse 20-21

C. Doxology3:20-21

"The doxology is plainly the climax of the first half of Ephesians; it may be regarded as the climax of the whole letter, which rises to a spiritual peak at this point and then concentrates on practical outworkings." [Note: Wood, pp52-53.]

". . . doctrine leads to doxology as well as to duty." [Note: Stott, p45.]

The basis for Paul"s confidence that God is able to do far beyond what he had prayed for or could even imagine was God"s bringing Jews and Gentiles together in one body. With God"s provision of love, both groups could function harmoniously together in the church. Glory would come to God in the church for uniting these two previously irreconcilable groups and for enabling them to love and work together as fellow members of the same body. This praise will continue forever (lit. to all the courses of the age of the ages). [Note: Martin, p1309.]

This is one of the clearest passages in the New Testament that sets forth the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father (cf. John 17:24; 1 Corinthians 15:24; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Philippians 2:9-11). [Note: See John V. Dahms, "The Subordination of the Song of Solomon ," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society37:3 (September1994):351-64.]

 


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Ephesians 3:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/ephesians-3.html. 2012.


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Thursday, November 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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