The Mystery of Ephesians

Note: These are just some thought as I have been studying the book of Ephesians. I may decide to release part a part two to follow up.

The term μυστήριον (musterion – mystery) occurs six times in the letter to the Ephesians. In new testament literature it refers to the kingdom of God (Mark 4:11), the resurrection / rapture (I Corinthians 15:51) and the incarnation (I Timothy 3:16). Both Colossians and Ephesians use the term in relationship to the Church and particularly to the act which brings the church into existence: reconciliation. This post seeks to examine the content of the μυστήριον in Ephesians and how it relates practically to a believers life ((Author’s Note: I will finish this in a part two)).

The basic meaning of the word μυστήριον describes Greco-Roman secret rites or teachings especially in the religious realm. There was a certain reluctance to divulge these secretes in historic times ((BDAG, 661.)). Some commentators suggest the term was borrowed from these ancient mysteries and given a Christian twist. While heathen mysteries were guarded closely and never revealed, the mystery of Christ is freely divulged to all people ((T.K. Abbott. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians and Colossians., 15)) . Others note, however, that there is no need to assume that Paul had “the heathen mysteries in his mind when he used the word.” ((Ibid.)) It is therefore necessary to examine Paul’s usage in Ephesians to determine the meaning in this aspect.

The first use of the word in 1:9 is that the mystery concerns God’s will and what the Father has planned to accomplish. This plan was conceived before the creation of the world (1:4) and contains His plan to bring all things into their proper place. Fulfillment of this plan ultimately takes place in the fullness of time ((Harold Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. (Grand Rapids :Baker Academic, 2002), 219. Literally the phrase is plural (“the fullness of the times”). As Hoeher notes, the only other time that this plural phrase is used is in Luke 21:24 where it refers to the fullness of the times of the gentiles when Messiah would rule the earth. Paul presents in 1:11 what this Messianic rule will look like.)) .

The second use in 3:3 and 3:4 describes this mystery as one that can only be made known by direct revelation of God. God revealed this mystery to Paul, the human agent. Paul wrote about the mystery previously in a few words ((Ernest Best. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians. (Scotland : T & T Clark Edinburgh, 1998), 302. An alternate view is common relating to the meaning. These view the meaning here Paul (or whoever the author might have been) had previously written another letter to the Ephesians, possibly Galatians or Colossians. A major difficulty about this view is that Paul could not have been sure that the Ephesians had already received these letters. Also, the context and the meaning of the word does not force one to look outside the current correspondence.)) about the admission of the gentiles into the new body called the church (1:9; 2:11). The genitive τοῦ χριστοῦ if taken objectively would indicate that the mystery is about Christ ((Hoehner, 437.)) . Abbott notes that others have taken it as an appositive or an identification of this mystery with reference to Colossians 1:27 ((Abbott, 80.)).  However, there is a major difference between them: Ephesians is “the mystery of Christ” while Colossians is “the mystery is Christ in you.” It seems proper to understand that the mystery is about what God is doing through Christ and has now been made known to believers through Paul.

The content of the mystery in Ephesians is that the Father has united two groups of people into one. The will or plan of God has already been mentioned in 1:10: to unite all things in Him. Chapter two describes the what this uniting entails. Prior to the believers salvation, their former lifestyle was thoroughly flesh oriented (2:1-3). However, God provided the opportunity for salvation by faith (2:4-10). Paul points out that two groups exist. The distinction between these two groups is that one was near and one was a far off (2:11,12) ((Those who are near and far are separated by the “middle wall of partition”. Christ abolished this wall in his flesh. The identification of this wall is the Mosaic law with its commandments and ordinances. Those who were given the Mosaic law are those who are “near” and those who are outside of the nation of Israel (gentiles) are those who are “far”)). The resulting third group of people who have brought near are identified as “living stones” who are forming a temple as a dwelling place of God (2:19,21).

The final two references to this mystery are practical applications flowing from the understanding of God’s plan. The latter part of chapter 5 deals with the responsibilities of the husband / wife relationship to properly reflect the relationship of Christ and His church. The point of the marriage relationship to the mystery of which Paul speaks is that the two people (husband and wife) become one new person in marriage. Verse 33 is the summation of the responsibilities: the husband must love his wife as Christ loved his church and the wife is to submit to the husband and the church is to be under the authority of Christ.

Paul’s final request is that the believers would pray that God would give him opportunity to declare the mystery which has already been discussed (6:19).