Epiphany • Ephesians 3:1–12 • January 6, 2013
By Francis C. Rossow
Comments on the Text
Lulled either by the familiarity of our text or by its complex sentence structure, we may not at first be aware of the surprise—even the shock—it contains. Verse 6 drops a bomb: “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus!” (emphasis and exclamation point added). (Actually, verse 6 constitutes an aftershock, for Paul had already made the explosive announcement in verses 11–13 of the previous chapter.)
For Gentile readers of Paul’s letter this announcement was indeed a pleasant surprise. Living in a society in which they had long been despised and rejected, called (according to Ephesians 2:11) “uncircumcised”—a term of contempt as much as it was a physical description—the Gentiles are suddenly told, “You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Eph 2:19). Talk about good news!
Although the passage of centuries may have diminished the surprise, we today (being Gentiles) are still the beneficiaries of this good news. The fact that I have written this homiletical help and the fact that you are reading it at this moment are the outcomes of God’s exciting revelation in verse 6 of our text.
For many of Paul’s Jewish readers his announcement must have come as a shock (a shock that through the Holy Spirit’s gospel-guidance eventually became for them a pleasant surprise). They had been trained to avoid Gentile contact. Even St. Peter had to learn this lesson from God. When he arrived at the house of a Gentile named Cornelius, Peter admitted, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28).
Some of us too, perhaps, experienced a similar shock the first time we saw persons of a different race, nationality, culture, or class join our congregation. But enlightened by the Holy Spirit’s gospel-persuasion we too have had our shock transformed into a joyful surprise, the kind of joy that heaven experiences “over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:7).
Given the good news of this text, that God’s promise of salvation through Jesus is for all people, regardless of race, nationality, culture, or class, it is obviously a mission text appropriate to Epiphany, the Gentile Christmas. Since the eternal salvation God supplied through Jesus is intended for all people, it is incumbent upon you and me to help spread that message to all people. That is the thrust of Ephesians 3:1–12.
But our text does more than demonstrate God’s grace for all people. It also shows God’s grace toward one person, Paul himself. “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (v. 8). Nothing false about Paul’s modesty. He is still painfully aware that he was once an enemy of Christianity, a persecutor of the church. To that sort of person God has given not only the gift of salvation through Christ but also the bonus gift of being a special missionary to the Gentiles. This is grace indeed—and Paul is thankful for it. Christ is the Savior for all sinners—and Christ is the Savior for the chief of sinners, as Paul once called himself (1 Tm 1:15).
In addition to the emphases on God’s grace in Christ and on missions in our text, there are numerous other less-accented (but still definitely accented) truths in our text worthy of the preacher’s attention. Today’s reading is a veritable collection of important Christian doctrines, illustrative of “the unsearchable riches of Christ” mentioned in verse 8. An admittedly incomplete list follows:
- The holy ministry: its privileges and its responsibilities (vv. 2, 5, 7, 8, and 9).
- The church as the body of Christ (v. 6) and its function (v. 10).
- The gospel, its content (v. 6) and its power (v. 7).
- The eternity of God’s plan of salvation (vv. 9 and 11).
- The knowledge of God’s plan of salvation possible only through God’s revelation (vv. 3, 5, and 9), and not through human effort.
- The role of faith in accessing God (v. 12).
- That desire of the angels to know more about God’s plan for human salvation (mentioned in 1 Peter 1:12) fulfilled in verse 10.
- Even a reference to God as creator (v. 9).
The Good News of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ
I. For all people, including Gentiles, etc.
A. The shock of this message, then and now.
B. The pleasant surprise of this message, then and now.
II. For specific individuals too.
A. God’s gift of salvation to Paul (and to you and me).
B. God’s gift of ministry to Paul (and to you and me).
If the preacher opts to deal with some or more of the many doctrines this text contains, a possible sermon topic might be “The Unsearchable Riches of Christ” (v. 8), a topic developed by an integrated discussion of some of the doctrines listed above emphasizing Christ himself as the foremost of those “unseachable riches.”