The Two Mysteries – Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones
“‘If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: how that by revelation he 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; that the Gentiles should be follow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel: whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power.’
As we continue our study of this sentence that runs from verse 2 to verse 7 we remind ourselves that we are interested in its statements not simply because they are part of the exposition of this great Epistle, but because they have a very important practical relevance for us. We are living in a world in which many Christian people are suffering acutely because they are Christians. The faith of some of them may be shaken, and our faith may be shaken because of what they are having to endure. Indeed a day may come when we Christians may have to endure similar trials in this land. The Apostle teaches us how to be prepared for such an eventuality. But even apart from that, what can be more profitable than that we should contemplate the greatness of this plan of salvation? It is only as we grasp this that we shall praise God as we ought, and worship Him as we were meant to do.
The Apostle is reminding these Ephesian Christians of the extraodinary way in which God had contrived to bring the gospel to them. He reminds them that he, of all men, had been granted the great privilege of preaching the gospel to them in Ephesus; he, an apostle of equal rank and standing with the other apostles, though he was never with the Lord in the days of His flesh as they had been, and though he had not received his commission from the Lord while He was yet on earth as had the other apostles. But that special revelation had been made to him on the road to Damascus, and so he is an apostle of equal rank with the others, and he glories in it.
We now turn to the question as to the nature of this mystery that had been revealed to him. In this long sentence the Apostle uses the word ‘mystery’ twice, in verses 3 and 4, first, ‘how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery’—then in the Authorized Version there is a statement in brackets. Unfortunately the Revised Version and the Revised Standard Version and others do not use these brackets, and that confuses the issue. The Authorized Version very rightly starts with a parenthesis in brackets (‘as I wrote afore in few words, whereby’—that is to say, ‘when you look back at that’—‘when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ’). Then, after the closing of the brackets, it continues: ‘Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men’. It is clear that the statement within the brackets is very definitely a parenthesis. The main statement is: ‘How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery, 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; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body’. The words in the brackets are a subsidiary statement (‘as I wrote afore in few words …’). Paul is referring there, not to some other supposed Epistle, but to what he has already said in chapters 1 and 2. Today we would express this by the words, ‘As I said above, if you will read it again’. The Apostle reminds them that he has already indicated to them something of his ‘knowledge in the mystery of Christ’.
It is quite clear that the Apostle is using the word mystery about two different things. We have already defined ‘mystery’ as meaning something that the human mind cannot attain unto by its own unaided effort, and which must be revealed by the Holy Spirit. It does not mean something which is misty or uncertain and about which you can never be clear in your minds; but something which without the enlightenment and revelation of the Holy Spirit we can never grasp. He uses this term in two senses. The mystery to which he refers in the parenthesis, in verse 4, is ‘the mystery of Christ’. We may call that the general mystery. But what he is really concerned to elaborate is another mystery, the mystery he describes in verses 5 and 6. This is a mystery 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; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs’. That is the particular mystery.
This clarification is essential, for if we are not aware of the distinction we shall probably be muddled and confused about the entire statement. Once more it is interesting to observe, not only the working of the mind of this great Apostle, but also his spirit. It seems as if there are certain things which the Apostle cannot refrain from doing. Though it plays havoc with his literary style (as we have seen previously), he seems to be quite incapable of controlling himself. So while he is primarily concerned to expound the particular mystery he cannot refrain from saying just a word about the general mystery.
We start therefore with the general mystery, the mystery to which he refers in verse 4 and which he describes as the ‘mystery of Christ’. Here he is referring to what he has already been expounding to these Ephesians. You need be in no uncertainty, he seems to say, as to my knowledge of this message that has been committed to me; I have said enough, I have written enough already for you to be sure of it. The ‘mystery of Christ’ is just another way of referring to the whole message of the gospel, or to the whole truth concerning the Lord Jesus Christ Himself; for He in reality is the gospel. It is all ‘in Him’. In other words, the Apostle is referring to the message committed to him, the message he had already preached by word of mouth to these people. And that message is Christ, the mystery of Christ. No one can read Paul’s writings without seeing that this is always his great theme and consuming passion. Read through the epistles of Paul and note down on paper every reference he makes to Christ, to the Lord Jesus Christ, to Christ Jesus my Lord, and so on. It is quite astounding and amazing. As someone once put it, he was a ‘Christ-intoxicated’ man. It is not surprising that he says, ‘To me to live is Christ’ —Christ the beginning, end, centre, soul, everything! His central message was that everything that God has for man is in Christ, and nowhere else. So we find him writing in his Epistle to the Colossians these words: ‘In whom (Christ) are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (2:3). It is all in Christ; and it is nowhere else. So Paul cannot pass on to deal with the particular mystery without saying a word about this great general mystery.
The same link is found in the Apostle’s First Epistle to Timothy, which is very particularly a practical and pastoral Epistle in which he instructs Timothy about ordaining presbyters and deacons, and similar matters. The third chapter is one of the most practical passages in all his writings; but here again he is carried away by his controlling theme. He is concerned that Timothy should know how to behave himself in ‘the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth’. Then suddenly, ‘And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory’ (3:16). ‘Great is the mystery of godliness!’
Paul cannot refrain from making this statement because the coming of Christ into the world is the most thrilling, the most exciting, the greatest and most glorious thing that has ever happened in history. The mystery is the amazing way in which God has sent salvation to men; it is the way in which He has done it; it is all that has happened in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. What a mystery! Who would ever have had a glimpse of it, who would ever have known it, were it not for the illumination, the revelation that the Holy Ghost alone can give.
Let us look at it again. A Babe is born in Bethlehem and put in a manger. That must have happened frequently. A babe born! Thousands of babies are born daily. But the Babe of Bethlehem is the greatest mystery the world has ever known because that child, that babe is the eternal Son of God. The mystery is that of ‘two natures in one person!’ He is God, He is man. He is truly God, without any limitation. He is also truly man. Those two natures are in Him, and yet He is not two persons, He is one Person. ‘I do not understand that’, says someone. Of course you don’t, you are not meant to do so! If you think that your mind is big enough to grasp and to span such a concept you had better think again. This is ‘the mystery of godliness’. This man, the Apostle Paul, who probably had a deeper insight into it than anyone who has ever lived, simply stands back and says, ‘Great is the mystery of godliness’. It has been revealed to him, so he knows that there are the two natures in the one person. He knows now who that is; not by any mental process of his own, but, as he tells us, by the revelation which came through the Holy Spirit. Indeed the Son Himself had said to him, when on the road to Damascus he asked, ‘Who art thou, Lord?’, ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest’. That is the mystery of Christ! This is God’s way of salvation. God is the Almighty, the eternal and everlasting God, to whom ‘the nations are but as the small dust of the balance’, vanity, less than and lighter than vanity. It is He who made everything out of nothing and said ‘Let there be light, and there was light’. So we would have thought that, when He desired to save man and to save the world, He would again have uttered some great word which would cause the whole universe to shake and quake. We would have expected some dramatic exhibition of power by which God would save men and would destroy evil. But God did not act in that manner. His way of salvation is found in this mystery of Christ, in a helpless babe. Nothing can be weaker or more helpless; nothing smaller, nothing more defenceless. That is God’s way!
Then consider everything that happened to Him and in Him. Try to contemplate the whole process of the Incarnation. Consider how He divested Himself of the insignia of His eternal glory in order to be born a babe. Then go on to think of His humiliation and of all that He endured and suffered; then the death, the burial, the resurrection and ascension. That is God’s way of salvation! That is God’s way of dealing with the human predicament, the human problem! That is God’s way of reconciling men unto Himself and of ultimately producing order and glory out of the chaos of things as they are now! That is the mystery to which Paul is referring! That is the mystery, the insight which he had been given into the mystery of Christ!
Let me now ask a question: Is the ‘mystery of Christ’ the most absorbing interest in your life? Is the ‘mystery of Christ’ to you the most thrilling thing in the world? Is this at the centre of your life, the thing that is uppermost in your heart, the core of your meditation? In the Scriptures Christ is there always in that central position. The greatest of our hymns look at Him and contemplate Him and, with Paul, express amazement at the mystery. The mystery of Christ! It meant nothing to the Jews or the Gentiles. It is the last thing that Saul of Tarsus ever thought of, or ever even imagined. But it is fact, it is gospel. It is what Christ Himself had made known to Paul on the road to Damascus and had commissioned him to preach to the Jews and the Gentiles, telling them that in Him alone is remission of sins to be obtained, and eternal life, and the hope of everlasting glory.
I trust that we are now not quite as surprised as we may have been as to why Paul introduced the brackets and threw in his parenthesis, ignoring style. I have often felt that much of the explanation of the tragic state of the modern church lies in the fact that we no longer have parentheses! We are too perfect, our literary form is much too fine; the essay may be beautiful, but they are lifeless and achieve nothing. We are too much self-controlled; and it is because we have not seen ‘the mystery of Christ’. Thank God for the brackets and the parentheses which remind us of ‘the mystery of Christ’!
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We must now turn to the particular mystery. The particular mystery to which the Apostle began to refer in verse 3 he now takes up again in verse 5: ‘how that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery, 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; that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel’. This refers to the particular matter of the relation of the Jew and the Gentile in the Christian Church. The Apostle tells us elsewhere that he glories in the fact that he is in particular ‘the apostle to the Gentiles’, and he glories in that office. He refers to it at this point because he is writing to Ephesian Christians who had been Gentiles and pagans, and his object, as I have said, is to enable them to realize the marvel and the wonder of their salvation.
But we have our own reason for paying careful attention to this particular statement. I say quite frankly that I would prefer not to have to deal with this subject, but the business of preaching is not only to exhort and to comfort, but also to instruct; and it is only as we grasp the doctrines with our minds that we can truly live the Christian life and enjoy it as we are meant to do. I am aware that there are those who use certain ‘Bibles’ in which are contained ‘notes’ which lay much stress on this particular statement, and out of it construct a whole outlook and scheme of teaching. I am referring to the teaching which is commonly known by the name of Dispensationalism, and I know that there is always a danger, when you find notes in a Bible, of believing, unconsciously that the notes are as inspired as the text. We tend to swallow it all and to take it as authentic. We are driven therefore to glance at this statement from that particular standpoint.
The Dispensational teaching asserts that all the promises which you find in the Old Testament were made to the Jews and apply only to the Jews; that is to say, they do not apply to the Church; it is asserted that the Christian Church is something which has ‘come in’ —such is their term —as a kind of ‘parenthesis’. Dispensationalists maintain that when the Lord Jesus Christ came into this world He came to offer the kingdom of heaven to the Jews, and it was only because the Jews refused it that the idea of the Church was introduced. If the Jews had accepted the kingdom, they say, there would never have been a Christian Church at all. But, the Jews having rejected the kingdom, the Church has come in as a new dispensation, as a kind of parenthesis. The Church will come to an end, and then once more there will be a restoration of the Jews as a nation and Christ will set up His kingdom among them. They draw a sharp line of division between the Church and the kingdom. They say that the Jews are still a separate and a special people, and that the Old Testament prophecies only apply to them.
The relevance of this to our position today is that those who believe the Dispensationalists’ teaching are very busy preaching sermons and delivering addresses about Egypt and about what is happening in Palestine and in the Near East. Some even claim that they can foretell exactly what is going to happen, and when. They find it all, they say, in the Scriptures. For this reason they make great use of the particular statement we are now examining. They emphasize that the Apostle says, ‘how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery, which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men’, and there they stop. Then they proceed to argue that these words make it perfectly clear that the ‘mystery’ pertaining to the Church was not known under the old dispensation; indeed, until it was revealed to the Apostle Paul. Some, indeed, even venture to say that the Old Testament nowhere teaches that Gentiles would be saved.
There is only one answer to give to such teaching. If its exponents would read the Old Testament without prejudice they would find many references to the matter in dispute between us. The promise was made to Abraham, as Paul reminds us in the third chapter of Galatians: ‘In the shall all nations be blessed’ (3:8). In Isaiah there are reference to ‘the isles’ and the ‘Gentiles’ and so on. That is the simple answer. But there are other answers and these are most important by way of reply to those who say that the Church as such was not known under the old dispensation. Here is a quotation from the Notes of a well-known ‘Bible’: ‘The Church corporately is not in the vision of the Old Testament prophets’, and then, in brackets to prove that contention, ‘(Ephesians 3:1–6)’. Ephesians 3:1–6, according to that statement, indicates that the Church corporately is not in the vision of the Old Testament prophet. That quotation is found in the introduction to the prophetic books of the Old Testament in those particular Notes. I perhaps might add, in order to make my statement complete, that there is a system of Ultra-Dispensationalism associated with the name of Dr Bullinger which goes so far as to say that it is only in the Epistles that we really have the New Testament Gospel which applies to us. Dr Bullinger taught that the gospels have nothing to do with us, that they were for the Jews only; it is here in Ephesians chapter 3 that we have the message for this age for Jews and Gentiles in the Church.
What is the answer to this teaching? Surely the doctrine concerning the Church was clearly taught by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ Himself. Consider what transpired at Caesarea Philippi when the Lord said to Peter, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church’. The famous Notes have to admit that He did so speak but they say that He did not elaborate it. But the fact is that He did say it: so this truth concerning the Church is not only revealed to Paul, it had been revealed before. Our Lord Himself taught it. Furthermore Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost said, ‘Repent, and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to as many as are afar off’. That clearly is a reference to the Gentiles. In the same way Peter and John obviously understood this principle when they recognized that the Samaritans, who were not Jews, had also received the benefits of salvation, and so laid their hands upon them that they might receive the Holy Ghost. Again Peter in the dramatic event that took place before he went to the house of Cornelius was brought to see the same truth. It took a vision from heaven to make Peter see it. As a Jew he could not understand this. In spite of the fact that he was a saved man and had passed through the experience of Pentecost the idea that the Gentiles should become joint-heirs with Jews was, in his view, impossible. But having seen the vision and witnessed the falling of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household, he saw this truth once and for ever, and so admitted the Gentiles into the Church. He was attacked for doing so and defended himself as we are told in chapters 11 and 15 of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. So it is clear that before Paul had become the apostle to the Gentiles this truth had already been preached.
But in fact this truth is found in the Old Testament. There are clear passages, such as Ezekiel 36 and elsewhere, which show this picture of the Church. And as Paul argues in the third chapter of Galatians, in the promise to Abraham it is clearly implicit. How important it is that we should realize the danger of starting with a theory and imposing it upon the Scriptures! What the Apostle actually says is, ‘Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men’—then comes not a full stop but a comma—‘as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’. The Apostle is not saying that it had never been revealed before. What he is saying is that it was not revealed before ‘as’, ‘to the extent that’, it is now revealed. It was there in embryo; it is now in full bloom and development. It was there in shadow as a suggestion; it is now fully revealed. The expression is, ‘As it is now revealed …’ How extraordinary are the subtleties of the human mind, even when it is Christian, and when it has received the Holy Spirit! It is not a matter of dishonesty. I am but indicating that our human minds are fallible, and that therefore we have to be careful as we study the Scripture lest we elaborate a whole system of teaching upon one text or the misunderstanding of a text.
The mystery that has now been made plain and clear is not simply the fact that the Gentiles are to be saved, but that Gentile and Jew are to be together in the Christian Church—in close relationship one to the other. Paul is not saying that the Gentiles are now to be allowed to become Jewish proselytes. That is what the Jews already believed; indeed they had practised proselytism. Many a Gentile had come to see the truth of God in the Old Testament Scriptures, and the Jews instructed him, and circumcised him, and so he became a Jewish proselyte. The Gentile was allowed to come in, but only as a proselyte; he was still not a complete Jew. But the mystery which had been made plain to Paul and the other apostles was that the Gentile had now come in, not as an addition, not as a proselyte, but into the new thing, the Church, in exactly the same way as the Jew had come in. He is asserting that the Church is now the Kingdom, that what the Jewish nation was in the Old Testament the Church is now; and that there is no longer that old distinction. In other words he is saying that our Lord’s recorded prophecy in Matthew 21:43 has been fulfilled: ‘Therefore say I unto you (the Jews), The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof’. The Apostle Peter repeats this in his own way by applying to the Church, consisting of Jew and Gentile, the very words that God used through Moses about the nation of Israel in Exodus 19, ‘Ye are a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people’. The Church is the present form of the Kingdom.
The Apostle’s point is that the old distinction between the Jew and the Gentile is abolished once and for ever. He has already shown that in the second chapter, stating that ‘the middle wall of partition’ has gone, that Christ has demolished it, and has made ‘one new man, so making peace’. The old distinction has gone. The particular manner in which the Apostle states it is most interesting. He expresses it by using the word ‘fellow’ three times (3–6). Unfortunately the Authorized version misses this and says ‘fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise’. But Paul actually said, ‘fellow-heirs, fellow-members of the body, fellow-partakers of the promise’.
The Gentiles, he says, are to be fellow-heirs with the Jews, which means that all the promise God had made to the Jewish people in the Old Testament are now open to the Gentiles. The Jew is an equal sharer with the Gentile, and the Gentile with the Jew. There is no difference. They are both fellow-heirs, they have the same place, as it were, in God’s will; they are to receive the same benefits. This refers to the new covenant that God had promised. He had said that He was going to make a new covenant, not like the one that He had made when He brought them out of Egypt. It is, ‘Your sins and your iniquities will I remember no more’, ‘I will be to you a God, and you shall be to me a people’. But this is no longer for the Jews only, but for Gentiles also; it is for you and for me. We are in God’s will, we are heirs together with the Jews, the old nation, the ancient people of God, in this amazing promise of the benefits of the new covenant.
The second term is ‘Fellow-members of the body’. We might have thought that ‘fellow-heirs’ tells us everything, and that nothing can go beyond it. This addition can be best explained perhaps by an illustration. Think of a man who has an only son, but also a family servant who has been with him perhaps for forty years and whom he has come to regard almost as a son. So when he makes his will he says that all his property is to be divided between his son and his faithful servant. A servant can be made a fellow-heir with a son, but he is still a servant. But it does not make him a member of the family; it does not mean he has the same blood in him; it does not mean that he has changed the essential relationship. So the Apostle adds to ‘fellow-heirs’ ‘fellow-members of the body’. This is what demolishes all attempts to perpetuate a distinction between the Jew and the Gentile. It is not, says Paul, that the Gentiles are simply added on somewhat loosely; they are compacted together as joints in the same body, and no one joint is more ‘in the body’ than any other joint. We are jointed together, impacted as joints together in this one body. There is no distinction any longer; there is no superiority and no inferiority. The system of dispensationalism maintains that there is, that there is a ‘heavenly people’ and an ‘earthly people’, and that the Jews will be brought back and be given a very special place again at some future time. Such teaching is a denial of what we are told here, that all that is finished for ever, that there is one body, and that Jew and Gentile are equally joints impacted together in the one body.
The Apostle goes even a step further, and says that we are ‘fellow-partakers together of the promise’. In the Light of other Scriptures this means two things. In Galatians 3:14 we read: ‘That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith’. This is also called ‘the promise of the Father’, and that runs as a golden thread through the Old Testament. It is what happened on the Day of Pentecost which Peter explained thus: ‘This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel’. The Promise of the Father is the shedding forth of the Spirit, and all the results that flow from it. You are fellow-partakers of the promise, says Paul to the Ephesians, you have received the fulness of the Spirit exactly as the Jew has done. But I believe that the words have a further meaning. Another great promise was the promise of the resurrection and of the glorious kingdom of the Son of God. Paul states this very clearly in Acts 26, verses 6–8, while making his defence before King Agrippa and Festus. ‘And now’, he says, ‘I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, hope to come. For which hope’s sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews. Why should it be thought a thing, incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?’ The promise is that a Messiah would come who would even conquer death and the grave and bring life and immortality to light. It is the promise of resurrection, the final resurrection, and the coming of the glorious Kingdom, ‘the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness’. That was something which the Jew prized above everything else. He had to suffer much in his life in this world, but he looked beyond it all, as we are told in Hebrews 11—he looked for the fulfilment of that great promise, the resurrection and the life of glory. That promise was at first confined to the Jew; the Gentile was without hope, without God in the world, as Paul has already said in chapter 2, verse 12; but now he says that Gentiles are fellow-partakers of God’s promise in Christ by the gospel’.
To us it means that we can look forward to the resurrection of the body, to a glorified body. We can look forward to dwelling on a new earth under new heavens, wherein dwelleth righteousness; fellow-partakers of the promise, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’.
Those are the two mysteries which the Apostle tells us he has been given to preach; the general mystery, the mystery of Christ, and the particular mystery that God’s purpose is now manifest and in operation in the Church; and that the Church is the final form of this purpose until it is completed. Jew and Gentile are in Christ together, are sharing God’s blessings now, and shall share the benefits of the everlasting and eternal glory. They shall wonder and be amazed to all eternity at the grace of God that ever made it possible, that ever brought us in, and that made us and the Jews together fellow-heirs, fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of such a blessed hope.”
Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1972). The Unsearchable Riches of Christ: An Exposition of Ephesians 3 (pp. 39–51). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.