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Bible Commentaries

Hamilton Smith's Writings

Ephesians 3

Verses 1-21

4

God's Way in Making Known His Purpose

( Ephesians 3 )

We have seen that Ephesians 1 presents the counsels of God as to the church, while Ephesians 2 presents the work of God in and with believers to fulfil His counsels. Ephesians 3 presents the administration of the truth of the church, or the way that God has taken to make known the truth to the Gentiles through the instrumentality of the apostle Paul.

Comparing Eph_3:1 with Eph_4:1 , it will be clearly seen that Ephesians 3 is parenthetical. Ephesians 2 presents the doctrine and Ephesians 4 the practice consistent with the doctrine. Between the doctrine and the practice we have this important digression in which the Holy Spirit presents the special administration, or service, committed to the apostle. In the second verse this service is referred to as “the dispensation of the grace of God”, and in verse 9 as “the fellowship of the mystery”. In both verses the word is the same in the original language. The best translation is “administration”, an administration being a particular service. This service was to proclaim the Gospel and make known the truth among the saints. In the course of this parenthesis we have the presentation of further great truths in connection with the church.

(1) The effect of ministering the truth of the church

(Vv. 1, 2). The apostle tells us that the immediate effect of ministering the truth of the church was to bring the one who proclaimed it into reproach with the religious world. This great truth aroused the special hostility of the Jew, inasmuch as it not only viewed Jew and Gentile in the same position before God - dead in trespasses and sins - but it in no wise exalted the Jew to a place of blessing above the Gentile. Moreover, as the truth of the church set aside the whole Jewish system, with its appeal to the natural man by means of an outward worship in temples made with hands, it raised the opposition of those who upheld that system. As then, so now, the maintenance of the truth of the church as revealed to, and ministered by, the apostle Paul will involve reproach and opposition from those who seek to maintain an outward religious profession, or an ecclesiastical system after the Jewish pattern.

It was, then, the carrying out of this special service, which proclaimed the Gospel of the grace of God to the Gentiles, that raised the malice of the prejudiced Jew and brought the apostle into prison. In the estimation of the Jew, a man who could talk of going to the Gentiles was not fit to live ( Act_22:21 ; Act_22:22 ). Paul, however, did not view himself as a prisoner of men for any wrong-doing, but as a prisoner of Jesus Christ because of his service of love in making known the truth to the Gentiles.

(2) The truth of the church made known by revelation

(Vv. 3, 4). In order that we may receive the great truth of the church on divine authority, the apostle is careful to explain that he acquired his knowledge of “the mystery” of the church, not through communications from men, but by direct revelation from God, even as he says, “By revelation He made known unto me the mystery.” This meets a difficulty that may rise in connection with the truth of the mystery. When Paul preached the Gospel in the Jewish synagogues he invariably appealed to the Scriptures (see Act_13:27 ; Act_13:29 ; Act_13:32 ; Act_13:35 ; Act_13:47 ; Act_17:2 , etc.), and the Jews of Ber'9ca are expressly commended inasmuch as they searched the Scriptures to see if the word preached by Paul was in accord with them. But directly the apostle ministered the truth of the church, he could no longer appeal to the Old Testament for confirmation. It would be useless for his hearers to search the Scriptures to see if these things were so. The unbelief of the Jews made it difficult for them to accept many truths that were in their Scriptures, even as Nicodemus failed to grasp the truth of the new birth, but to accept something that was not there, and which set aside the whole Jewish system that was there and had existed with the sanction of God for centuries, was to the Jew, as such, an insuperable difficulty.

Many Christians can hardly appreciate this difficulty, inasmuch as the truth of the church is largely obscured in their minds, or even totally lost. Viewing the church as the aggregate of believers through all time, they have no difficulty in finding what they believe to be the church in the Old Testament. That this has been the thought of godly men is amply proved by the headings that have been given to many Old Testament chapters in the Authorised Version. Accept, however, the truth of the church as unfolded in the Epistle to the Ephesians, and at once we are faced with this difficulty which can only be met by the fact that the truth of the church is an entirely fresh revelation.

(V. 5). This great truth, which Paul received by revelation, he speaks of as “the mystery”, and again in verse 4 as “the mystery of the Christ”. In using the term “mystery” the apostle does not wish to convey the thought of anything mysterious - a purely human use of the word. In Scripture a mystery is something which has hitherto been kept secret, that could not be otherwise known than by revelation, and when revealed can only be apprehended by faith. The apostle proceeds to explain that this mystery was not made known to the sons of men in the Old Testament days, but now is made known by revelation unto Christ's “holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit”. The prophets referred to in this verse are clearly not Old Testament prophets, but rather those referred to in Eph_2:20 . In both cases the order is “apostles and prophets”, not “prophets and apostles”, as might be expected had the reference been to prophets of the Old Testament. Moreover, the apostle is speaking of what is “now” revealed, in contrast with what was formerly revealed.

(3) The truth of the church thus revealed

(V. 6). Having shown that the truth of the church was made known by revelation, the apostle, in a brief passage, sums up the truth of the church, and explains why it is referred to as “the mystery”. Clearly the mystery is not the Gospel, which was not hidden in other ages, for the Old Testament is full of allusions to the coming Saviour, however little these allusions were understood.

What, then, is the mystery? We are plainly told, in verse 6, that this new revelation is that the Gentiles “should be joint heirs, and a joint body, and joint partakers of His promise in Christ Jesus by the glad tidings.” The Gentiles are made joint heirs with the Jews, not only in Christ's earthly kingdom, but in the inheritance that includes both things in heaven and things on earth. And more, the Gentile believers are formed with Jewish believers into a joint body of which Christ is the Head in heaven. Moreover, they jointly partake of God's promises in Christ Jesus. The Gentile is not raised to the Jewish level on earth, nor is the Jew brought down to the Gentile level, both are taken off their old standing and raised to an immeasurably higher plane, united to one another on entirely new ground, even heavenly ground in Christ. All this is brought to pass by the Gospel which addresses both on one common level of guilt and utter ruin. The three great facts referred to in this verse have already come before us in Ephesians 1 . The promise in Christ includes all the blessings unfolded in the first seven verses of that chapter, the inheritance is opened out before us in verses 8 to 21, and the truth of the “one body” in verses 22 and 23.

(4) The truth revealed to and ministered by Paul

(V. 7). Not only was the mystery revealed to Paul; he was also made the minister of the truth. The mystery was also revealed to the other apostles (verse 5) but to him was committed the special service of ministering this truth to the saints. Hence, only in the Epistles of Paul do we find any unfolding of the mystery. The grace of God had given this ministry to the apostle; the power of God enabled him to exercise the gift of grace. God's gifts can only be used in God's power.

(V. 8). Moreover, the apostle tells us the effect that this great truth had upon himself. In the presence of the greatness of God's grace he sees that he is the chief of sinners ( 1Ti_1:15 ): in the presence of the immense vista of blessing unfolded by the mystery he feels that he is less than the least of all saints. The greater the glories that are opened to our vision, the smaller we become in our own eyes. The man who had the largest apprehension of this great mystery, in all its vast extent, was the man who owned that he was less than the least of all saints.

In order to fulfil his ministry, the apostle not only proclaimed the irretrievable ruin of man, but the unsearchable riches of Christ, riches beyond all human computation, carrying blessings that have no limit.

(5) The end in view in the ministry of the truth

(Vv. 9-11). The preaching of the Gospel was in view of the second part of Paul's service - to enlighten all with the knowledge of the mystery, to show all men how the counsel of God from eternity to eternity is brought about in time by the formation of the assembly on earth, and thus to bring to light that which has hitherto been hidden in God from the foundation of the world.

Further, not only would God have all men enlightened as to the formation of the assembly on earth, but it is His intent that now all the heavenly beings should learn in the church His manifold wisdom. These heavenly beings had seen the creation come fresh from the hand of God, and, as they beheld His wisdom in creation, they shouted for joy. Now in the formation of the church they see “the all-various wisdom of God”. Creation was the most perfect expression of creatorial wisdom, but in the formation of the church God's wisdom is displayed in every form. Before the church could be formed, God's glory had to be vindicated, man's need met, sin put away, death abolished, and the power of Satan annulled. The barrier between Jew and Gentile had to be removed, heaven be opened, Christ be seated as Man in the glory, the Holy Spirit come to earth, and the Gospel be preached. All this and more is involved in the formation of the church. These various ends could only be attained by the all-various wisdom of God, wisdom displayed, not only in one direction, but in every direction. Nor has the failure of the church in its responsibilities altered the fact that in the church the angels learn the wisdom of God. On the contrary, it only makes more manifest the marvellous wisdom that, rising above all man's failure, overcoming every obstacle, at last brings the church to glory “according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

(6) The practical effect of ministering the truth

(Vv. 12, 13). The apostle turns aside from the unfolding of the mystery to give a brief word as to its practical effect. These wonders are not unrolled before our vision simply to be admired, admirable indeed as they are. The mystery is also exceedingly practical when rightly apprehended and acted upon. To act in the light of the truth will make us at home in God's world, but will put us outside man's world. As the blind man of John 9 , when cast out by the religious world, finds himself in the presence of the Son of God, so the apostle, while in man's prison on earth, has access to the Father's presence in heaven.

Christ Jesus, the One through whom all these eternal purposes will be fulfilled, is the One by whom we have access to the Father with confidence. If this great truth gives us boldness and makes us at home in the Father's presence, in the world it will lead to tribulation. This Paul found, but he says, “Faint not at my tribulations.” To accept the truth of the mystery - to walk in the light of it - will at once put us outside the religious world. Act upon this truth, and at once we shall meet with opposition from the Christian profession. It will be, as it was with Paul, a continual conflict, and especially with all that judaizes.

Opposition there must be, for these great truths entirely undermine the worldly constitution of every man-made religious system. Is the truth of the mystery, with the knowledge of which Paul sought to enlighten all men, proclaimed from the pulpits of Christendom, holiness conventions, or even from evangelical platforms? Is the truth of the mystery, involving the total ruin of man, the utter rejection of Christ by the world, the session of Christ in the glory, the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth, the separation of the believer from the world, and the calling of the saints to heaven - is this great truth proclaimed, or acted upon, in the national churches and religious denominations of Christendom? Alas! it has no place in their creeds, their prayers or their teaching. Nay, more, and worse, it is denied by their very constitution, their teaching and their practice.

(7) The prayer that these truths may be made good in the believer

(Vv. 14-21). The great truths unfolded in these chapters very naturally lead to the second prayer of the apostle. In the second chapter of the Epistle the apostle has unfolded the great truth that believers, from amongst Jews and Gentiles, have been builded together to form the dwelling place of God. In the third chapter the apostle has presented the truth of the mystery, showing that believers, also taken from Jews and Gentiles, are brought on to entirely new ground to form a joint-body in Christ. We then learn that this mystery has been disclosed to the intent that the manifold wisdom of God should now be displayed, according to the eternal purpose which God purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord ( Eph_3:10 ; Eph_3:11 ).

Having this great end in view, the apostle turns to the Father in prayer, that the saints may be in a right spiritual condition to enter into the fulness of God. To bring about this spiritual condition in the saints we see, in the course of the prayer, that every divine Person is engaged in connection with the saints. The Father is the source of all blessing, the Spirit strengthens us that the Christ may dwell in us to fill us with the fulness of God, so that God may be glorified by being displayed in the saints now, and throughout all ages.

(V. 14). As the prayer has in view the eternal purpose which has been “purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord”, it is addressed to “the Father” who is the source of these eternal counsels. For the same reason there is no mention of death or resurrection in the prayer. The eternal counsels were all settled before death came in, and the complete fulfilment of these counsels, to which the prayer looks on, will be in a scene where death can never enter.

(V. 15). This new scene of glory being in view, we are told that in this coming world of blessing every family in heaven and earth will be named of the Father. In the first creation all the animals were passed before Adam, who gave them names that set forth the distinguishing characteristics to be displayed in each family. So in connection with the eternal counsels for the new creation, every family in heaven and earth - angelic beings, the church in heaven, and the saints on earth - will be named of the Father, and thus each family has its distinguishing character according to the eternal counsels of the Father.

The prayer is therefore in view of all that will be brought to light in eternal ages, according to the counsels of God before the foundation of the world - a scene of which the Father is the source of all, the Son the centre of all, and every family in heaven and earth displays some special glory of the Father.

(V. 16). The first request is that the Father would grant us according to the riches of His glory to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man. The apostle does not say “according to the riches of His grace”, as in Eph_1:7 , but “according to the riches of His glory”, because the prayer is not connected with meeting our need, but rather with the fulfilment of the counsels of the Father's heart.

In the prayer of chapter 1 the request is that we may know the power of God toward us; here it is that we may have the power in us to strengthen us in the inner man. The outer man is the visible, natural man by which we are in touch with the things of the world. The inner man is the unseen and spiritual man, formed by the work of the Spirit in us, and by which we are in touch with unseen and eternal things. Just as the outer man needs to be strengthened by material things of this life, so the inner man needs to be strengthened by the Spirit to enter into the spiritual blessings of the new world of God's counsels.

(V. 17). The second request is that the Christ may dwell in our hearts by faith. The first request leads to the second, for only as we are strengthened by the Spirit will Christ dwell in our hearts by faith. The effect of the Spirit, who has come from the Father, working in our souls, will be to fill us with the Father's thoughts of Christ - to think with the Father about the Son.

The request is not that we may be strengthened with might to perform some miracle, or to undertake some arduous work, but that a spiritual condition may be wrought in our souls by Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith. The power of the world around us, of the flesh within us, and the devil against us, is so great, that, if Christ is to have His true place in our hearts it will only be as we are strengthened by the Spirit in the inner man.

Moreover, the prayer is that the Christ may “dwell” in our hearts. We are not to treat Him as a visitor to be entertained on some special occasion, but as One who has an abiding place in our hearts. This can only be by faith, for faith looks out to Christ, and as He is before us as an object He will have a dwelling-place in our hearts. The One who is the centre of all God's counsels will thus become the centre of our thoughts. As one has said, “The supreme object to God becomes the supreme object to us.” What a witness for God we each should be if our lives were governed by one engrossing object, and that object Christ! Too often we are like Martha of old, distracted with “much serving”, and “careful and troubled about many things”. “One thing” only is “needful”, to have Christ as the sole Object of our lives, then service and all else will follow without distraction. May we, like Mary, choose this “good part”.

The result of Christ dwelling in the heart is to root and ground us in love. If Christ, the One in whom, and through whom, all the love of the Father has been made known, is dwelling in our hearts, He will surely fill the heart with a knowledge and enjoyment of divine love.

(V. 18). Christ dwelling in the heart prepares the way for the third great request, that we may be “fully able to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height.” God teaches us through our affections, so that the way to this apprehension is not only by faith, but by “being rooted and grounded in love”. Through the work of the Spirit, Christ dwells in our hearts by faith; dwelling there by faith He fills our hearts with love, and love prepares us to apprehend. Further, this love leads us to embrace “all saints”, for the more we enjoy the love of Christ, the more our hearts will go out to all who are loved by Christ.

Then the apostle desires that we may apprehend “the breadth, and length, and depth, and height”. This would appear to be the whole range of God's “eternal purpose”, already referred to in verse 11. This eternal purpose in its breadth embraces “all saints”, in its length stretches into the age of ages, in its depth reached down to us in all our need, and in its height brings us into a scene of glory.

(V. 19). All this scene of blessedness is secured for us by the love of Christ - the One who “loved the church, and gave Himself for it.” Hence the fourth request is that we may “know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.” It is a love that can be known and enjoyed, and yet it passes knowing. If we cannot measure the height of glory from which Christ came, or fathom the depth of sorrow into which He has been, still less can we measure the love that has wrought for us, that takes in the vast host of the redeemed, small and great, that is caring for us in our passage through time, and that is coming for us to bring us into the home of love to be there with Him, and like Him, for the gratification of His heart of love. Such love can be known, and yet will forever remain a love that passes knowing.

The fifth request is that we may be filled with all the fulness of God. The fulness of God is all that God is as revealed and made known in Christ. The Son has fully declared the Father in His love and holiness, in His grace and truth; and the apostle desires that we should receive, in full measure, of the divine fulness that it may be displayed in the saints.

(V. 20). The sixth request is that all the apostle has been praying for the saints may be wrought in them by the power of God. God is, indeed, able to do exceeding abundantly “for us”, as is often said. Here, however, where the leading thought throughout the prayer is the spiritual condition of the saints, it is neither what God can do for us or with us that is in view, but rather His ability and willingness to work “in us” in answer to these requests, and to do this “above all that we ask or think”.

(V. 21). The seventh and last desire is that there may be glory in the church unto God by Christ Jesus throughout all ages. Every request in the prayer leads up to this wonderful thought that through all the ages the saints should set forth the fulness of God, and thus be for His glory. The whole prayer clearly shows that it is God's desire that what will be true of the saints throughout the eternal ages should mark them in their passage through time - that all that God is should shine forth in His people.

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Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on Ephesians 3". "Hamilton Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/ephesians-3.html. 1832.