“Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!”
With these words the apostle Paul, while imprisoned in Rome, pronounced blindness upon the nation of Israel for the final time. From his prison house in Rome, Paul then began, in a number of letters he wrote, to reveal a special message God had given to him, which Paul referred to as “the mystery of Christ.” These letters, or epistles, that he wrote, are commonly referred to as the prison epistles and include the New Testament books of Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I and II Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. While Paul’s early epistles, written during the Acts period, contained references to the truths of the mystery (Rom. 16:25-26; I Cor. 2:6- 8; I Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:26-29; I Thess. 4:13-18; etc.), it is in Paul’s prison epistles that we find the full revelation of the mystery—God’s plan and purpose for us as believers today during this present dispensation of grace.
The Mystery — A New Revelation
This special message that was committed unto Paul is described in detail in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 3 of this letter, Paul describes how and why it was revealed to him by God.
“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles — if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets.” (Eph. 3:1-5)
The truth given to Paul concerns a new dispensation, called the dispensation of the GRACE of God. God has dealt with mankind in various ways throughout history. Throughout most of the Old Testament Scriptures, God dealt specifically with the nation of Israel. The Gentiles (or “nations”) had no part in God’s program during that time (Eph. 2:11-12). From Exodus, chapter 20, up to the death of Christ on the cross, Israel lived under the dispensation of law. Today, God is dealing with mankind on the basis of His grace, and we are not under the law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14).
The message for this new dispensation was committed to a new apostle, Paul. Paul says this dispensation was “given to me for you” (Eph. 3:2). It was not made known to “the twelve” (Gal. 2:6-10), whose ministry was primarily directed to the Jews, but was instead committed to a new apostle, Paul, who was especially the apostle to the Gentiles (II Tim. 1:11; Eph. 3:1).
Paul goes on to say that the truth concerning this dispensation of grace was made known to him by direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:3; Gal. 1:11-12). Until that time, this truth was a “mystery,” a secret, kept hidden in the mind of God (Eph. 3:9) until He chose to make it known to and through the apostle Paul. This mystery was “not made known” to men of other ages (Eph. 3:5; Col. 1:26), but was kept hidden. This does not mean that the truth was simply hidden in Scripture, and that no one understood it yet. Paul declares that the mystery concerned the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). The word “unsearchable” literally means “untrackable or untraceable; not leaving any footprints that can be traced or tracked out.” We find no mention of this truth in the Old Testament Scriptures, in the earthly teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, or in the ministry of the twelve during the Acts period. It was certainly in the mind of God, even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), and was in accordance with “the eternal purpose of God” (Eph. 3:11). Being the very Son of God, the Lord Jesus certainly knew this truth, but He did not reveal it while here on earth. He chose to wait and reveal it to Paul from heaven at His own appointed time.
The Church — A New Creation
The basic truth of the mystery is that today, during the dispensation of grace, God is no longer making a separation or distinction between Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles, in time past, had been far off from God.
“Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands—that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Eph. 2:11-12)
During this current age of grace, the Gentiles have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13). Through the cross, God made it possible for the middle wall of separation that existed between Jew and Gentile to be broken down (Eph. 2:14). When Christ died on the cross, He abolished the “law of commandments contained in ordinances;” the law which had instructed the Jews to keep themselves separate from the Gentiles. Christ’s death made it possible for God to create, in Himself, a new body of believers, from the two (i.e. Jew and Gentile) — the church, the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:24).
The creation of this new body, the church, was accomplished “through” the cross, but this does not mean that it occurred at the time of the cross. When we read the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul written during this period, we see God was still making a distinction between Jews and Gentiles (cf. Rom. 1:16; I Cor. 9:19-23). Remember, that the truth of the formation of this body was not made known until it was revealed to Paul.
Returning to Ephesians, chapter 3, verse 6, we find that the truth of the mystery was
“… that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:6)
This verse does not refer to the Gentiles being blessed along with Israel or just sharing in Israel’s promised blessings (i.e. land, nation, kingdom, etc.). The church, the body of Christ, is an entirely new creation, with a new makeup, a new calling, a new position, a new hope, and a new relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e. He is our Head). The Gentiles are on a totally equal footing with Israel; joint heirs in a joint body and joint partakers of God’s promises to His church in Christ. In God’s eyes, there is no Jew or Gentile in the church (Col. 3:11). Every person today is treated as an individual. Every person, whether Jew or Gentile, must be saved in the same way, “by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9).
In God’s eyes today, there is only one church, and that is the church, the body of Christ (Eph. 4:4). The church is not a man-made organization or denomination that you join, but a living organism (which is why it is called “a body”) which you become a part of when you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior. The moment you trust in Christ, God adds you to His church through the baptism of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:12-13). God sets you in His church, as it pleases Him (I Cor. 12:18). Once you are part of His church, no man can remove you, for you are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise until the day of redemption (Eph. 1:13-14). What a glorious and secure position God has given us “in Christ!”
The Head — A New Relation
When God raised Jesus Christ from the dead and “seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, … He put all things under His feet … and gave Him to be Head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:20-23). Today, with Israel temporarily set aside, God is calling out a body of believers which He refers to as His church. Every person, whether Jew or Gentile, who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior is added to God’s church through the baptism of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:12-13,18). He is our Savior, but He also has a new relationship with believers today as our Head (Eph. 5:23).
Jesus Christ is the Head of His church. This is our special relationship with Him today, yet we see many Christians trying to relate to Him as their King. This seems to be the emphasis in so much of popular Christian music and literature. There is no question that the Lord Jesus Christ is “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16), and we should acknowledge Him as such. We must “rightly divide the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15) and see that we have a different relationship with Jesus Christ than Israel had in the past and will have in the future. The truth concerning Israel’s relationship with the Lord Jesus was the subject of prophecy (Old Testament Scriptures, Jesus’ teachings, and the ministry of the twelve apostles). The truth concerning the church the body of Christ, and Christ’s relationship to His church as Head, was a mystery, hidden in God until He revealed this truth through the apostle Paul (Eph. 3:1-5; Col. 1:18-28).
About the same time the apostle Paul wrote the epistle to the Ephesians, he also wrote a letter to the saints at Colosse, in which he answered two particular forms of false teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. The first of these false teachings was Gnosticism, which denies the superiority and deity of Jesus Christ. This sinister philosophy relegates the Lord Jesus Christ to a position on the same level as angelic beings. The second false teaching was Legalism, which denies the sufficiency of Jesus Christ as Savior and Head of His church, and relies upon a system of legal ordinances and good works for man’s salvation.
Paul answered the Gnostics by declaring the superior person and position of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell.” (Col. 1:15-19)
Jesus Christ is the “firstborn” over all creation. This does not mean that He was the first created being, but that He has a superior or preeminent position over all creation. Jesus Christ was not created. He existed (“was”) in the beginning with God (John 1:1-2). He is the Creator of all things, both on earth and in heaven, including all the spiritual and angelic beings in the heavens. All things were created through Him and for Him, and in Him all created things consist (i.e. continue to exist or hold together).
Jesus Christ is also the “firstborn” from the dead (I Cor. 15:20-23). He has been raised, ascended, and seated at the right hand of the Father, and been made Head over all things to the church, which is His body (Eph. 1:19-23).
The Gnostics taught that a succession of angelic beings existed between God and man that provided a means of access and communion. They used the Greek word “pleroma,” which is translated “fullness” in Colossians 1:19 and 2:9, to describe this angelic hierarchy. In their view, Jesus Christ was simply a part of this angelic hierarchy or “pleroma,” but Paul declared that there was no angelic hierarchy, but that “all the fullness (pleroma)” dwells in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19).
Paul answered the legalists by declaring the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for every area of our lives.
“Beware lest anyone cheat (spoil) you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Col. 2:8-12)
The legalists taught that circumcision and keeping the Mosaic law was required for salvation (cf. Acts 15:5). Paul responded by declaring that we are “complete in Him (Christ), who is the Head of all principality and power.” In Him, we are circumcised, but with a circumcision “made without hands.” Hence, this must be a spiritual circumcision. We were buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through faith in “the working of God,” therefore the baptism is spiritual as well. The written ordinances of the law have been taken out of the way, having been nailed to the cross of Christ. The requirements of the law, which include food, drink, feasts, and Sabbaths, were only a shadow of things to come. The substance, or the spiritual reality of these things, is Jesus Christ.
We must acknowledge and hold fast to the glorious truth that Jesus Christ is our Head.
“Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.” (Col. 2:18-19)