The Ephesian believers lived during a pivotal period in the history of the church. It was that time, soon after Christ’s ascension into heaven, when God chose to reveal to His church what had been hid in Him since the beginning of time (Eph. 3:9). That which God was now revealing to the early New Testament church had “in other ages” remained a mystery to the sons of men (v. 5). Now the saints in Ephesus are privileged to receive the labors of a man to whom this mystery had been revealed: the great apostle Paul. Paul writes in Ephesians 3:3-5, “. . . by revelation he [God] made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Christ had revealed this hidden knowledge to Paul in the wilderness of Arabia (Gal. 1:17). It was then that Paul came to “visions and revelations of the Lord” (II Cor. 12:1). He was “caught up to the third heaven” (v. 2); “caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (v. 4). There Paul learned the mystery! There it was opened to him! Now Paul reveals that mystery of the church to the saints in Ephesus as well as everywhere he preached!
What is this mystery, this knowledge that had been hid in God from the beginning of the world? “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). The mystery that is now being revealed by the holy apostles and prophets, and especially Paul the missionary to the Gentiles, is the blessed truth that the church of Christ is international, worldwide. The gospel of salvation was no longer to be limited to the Jewish people, but would now spread throughout the earth and encompass the various nations and peoples of the world. The result would be that Christ would gather His church from all peoples, nations, and languages of the earth.
This mystery may not seem so special to us anymore today. After all, it has been revealed to the church for a couple of thousand years already. This blessed mystery may not even spark a little interest in us anymore, much to our shame. But can you imagine being one of those first Gentile believers incorporated into a church that for hundreds of years had excluded the Gentile nations? Paul bluntly told these Ephesian believers that in times past they were without Christ and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). Now Paul explains to these saints, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Can you imagine the excitement of the Ephesian believers when they heard Paul expound to them the unsearchable riches in Christ? God is now including them in His church! They are partakers of salvation, reconciled unto God in one body by the cross!
It is true that the other apostles also were given the mission mandate to preach the gospel to all the world, but the apostle Paul was used by Christ in a special way to fulfill that mandate. By means of Paul, what God had intended for His church since the beginning of time began to be fulfilled. It is significant that Paul, in Ephesians 3:9, speaks of this mystery of a universal church as being hid in God. This refers to the eternal purpose of God in Christ or, in other words, to God’s divine counsel for all things. In eternity, in His plan for all things, God chose unto Himself a church in Christ. God did not elect His church piecemeal. He did not elect the children of Abraham as His church and then in His decrees decide later to choose the Gentiles too, in order to add them to that church. God chose His church in Christ as a whole, as a body of people. We who are subject to time tend to view God’s counsel that way, that is, in the order in which we see events occurring. What we see from a human point of view is that, after Christ ascended into heaven, God chose to add to His Old Testament church people from the various nations of the earth.
But, if that were the case, the universality of the church would be an “after-thought” in God’s counsel. We must remember of God what Isaiah declares in Isaiah 46:9-10: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” In His plan for all things God chose unto Himself a body of people in Christ to be His church. That entire church is one living whole, with Christ as its head. When Paul writes, therefore, that the mystery of a universal church was hid in God, he means that, though the saints in the Old Testament could not comprehend the mystery, nevertheless the universal church of all ages was in the counsel of God from all eternity. In God’s counsel, before time began, the saints of the New Testament were elected and known by God together with the Old Testament saints. But that reality God hid in Himself for ages before finally revealing it through the apostles.
This means that the great missionary mandate Christ gave His church before His ascension is not some special project the church becomes involved in if it so chooses. When Christ said to His disciples in Acts 1:8, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth,” it was not merely a statement of fact. The mystery had now been revealed unto Christ’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. Their task, and in them the task of the church, is to make known unto all men the unsearchable riches of Christ. What Paul and the apostles began, the church as institute is called to carry on today. Why? In order to accomplish the mystery now revealed, that the nations of this world should be fellow-heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel.
It is of importance to understand what Paul means by the term he uses to describe this New Testament transition into an international church. He speaks of this as a mystery. All those who have read a good mystery book know what a mystery is. Someone commits a murder, for example. But who committed that murder remains a mystery. There are pieces of evidence that perhaps point to a particular person, but how the evidence fits together cannot be determined. Though it is all there, the crime remains a mystery. Who committed the murder remains unknown.
Until—until that one piece of evidence is found that links all the evidence together. Then the whole crime is revealed and the murderer is convicted.
It no longer remains a mystery.
The same is true regarding the grafting in of the nations into the church of the Old Dispensation. It remained a mystery to the saints in the Old Testament. It was not that the evidence of this worldwide church could not be found in the Old Testament. It was there. The entire body of the church of Christ was a reality in God’s counsel before the beginning of time. For that reason, God actually spoke frequently of that reality through the mouths of the prophets in the Old Testament. Old Testament Scripture is replete with references to the gathering in of the nations into the church. Old Testament historical accounts foretell it, the psalmists sing of it, the prophets explain it. We hope to consider some of these passages in future articles.
Yet, the Old Testament church could not put the evidence together fully in order to understand the reality of which they spoke. The idea of an international church was not yet comprehended by the sons of men. Peter explains in I Peter 1:10-12:
Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow. Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into.
The evidence was there. God spoke of the glorious reality of a universal church in what we would consider to be very plain language in the Old Testament. But the minds of the saints of old were blinded. Paul explains in II Corinthians 3:12-17 that a veil remained untaken away in the reading of the Old Testament. That veil was removed in Christ through the Spirit. The Spirit alone gives light to our understanding. This is why that which was hidden in the Old Testament is now revealed in the New. The Spirit of understanding was poured out on the church. What was for ages a mystery to the church is no longer a mystery today. The mystery is solved! Or better, it is a mystery revealed!
One who ignores this mystery when developing the doctrine of the church and covenant ignores a significant aspect of Scripture. The epic beginnings of the universal church were only beginnings. The command of Christ to His church, “go ye and teach all nations,” did not cease with the apostle Paul and his missionary journeys. The need to preach the gospel is not limited to the generations of believers, however necessary that might be. The mystery has been revealed to the church today: Christ gathers His people from the nations! The church must therefore preach the gospel to all peoples in order to call them to faith and repentance. We may not ignore the truth that with every new generation God prunes His church of those branches that bring forth no fruit. In their place God grafts into His church new believers with their families. The mystery is revealed! We may not ignore it! Now the church labors with all diligence to see the mystery accomplished. Hear the song of the redeemed in Revelation 5:9: “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.”
“For this cause,” Paul writes in Ephesians 3:14, 15, “I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named!” May the church bow with Paul and preach the unsearchable riches of Christ to the nations!