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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in Ephesians." To view all parts, click the link below.
Paul says in Ephesians 3:1,
1 For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—
Having established that God is building a spiritual temple and that it is composed of living stones without regard to one’s genealogy, it was “for this reason” that Paul preached the gospel to the Ephesians. He continues in Ephesians 3:2, 3,
2 If indeed you have heard of the stewardship [oikonomia] of God’s grace which was given to me for you; 3 that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief.
This verse is the basis of Dispensationalism, which is the KJV rendering of oikonomia. The word has to do with dispensing grace to the Gentiles. The Dispensationalists called this the Age of Grace and contrasted this Age to the previous Age of Law. However, Paul was not attempting to contrast Law and Grace in this way. This was not an age where Jews were set aside for a season to make room for Gentiles—as if to say that only Jews could be saved before the cross, and Gentiles could be saved only after the cross.
Far from it. I have already shown how both Solomon and Isaiah well understood that salvation was available to foreigners. And what shall we say about Moses’ Midianite wife (Exodus 3:1), “Ruth the Moabitess” (Ruth 2:2), who was included in the genealogy of Jesus Himself, or Naaman the Syrian ((2 Kings 5:1, 17)?
Salvation to the Gentiles
The way of salvation was always open to all nations. The only advantage Israel enjoyed was the fact that God had given them the revelation of Himself in the law. Paul says in Romans 3:1, 2,
1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? 2 Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God.
God had not treated any other nation in this manner. Yet this did not mean that only Jews or Israelites could be saved. In fact, they were given “the oracles of God,” not to hoard for themselves as an exclusive right, but to share the revelation of God with the rest of the world. They were supposed to be messengers, or “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
So we read God’s promise to Abraham, saying in Genesis 12:2, 3,
2 And I will make you a great nation [goy]… 3l and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
If goy truly means “Gentile,” as it is so often translated, then Abraham was among the first Gentiles, called to bless the other Gentiles! Furthermore, to be a son of Abraham would then be to claim to be of Gentile heritage. But we know that the Hebrew word goy and its Greek equivalent, ethnos, both mean “nation. The word is generic, and one must look at the context to see which nation is being referenced.
I may add as well that Abraham was neither an Israelite nor a Jew. The first Israelite was Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. The first Jew was his son, Judah, because Jew is simply a shortened form of Judah.
Abraham was a Hebrew (Genesis 14:13). The word means an immigrant, one who crosses over. Abraham immigrated from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan. We too are Hebrews, because we have immigrated from the Old Covenant and its manner of worship to the New Covenant and its manner of worship. That is the message in the book of Hebrews—and why it is not The Book of Israelites or The Book of Jews.
Hence, Dispensationalism is a way of dividing up the ages in a way that can be misleading. Paul’s oikonomia is not about restricting stewardship of the gospel to foreigners prior to the cross. Neither is it about replacing Law with Grace the moment Christ died on the cross. Just as the salvation of the nations was the primary purpose of the Abrahamic calling both before and after the cross, so also has both Law and Grace been applicable from the beginning to the end.
Grace was built into the Law of Jubilee, the Laws of Redemption, the Laws of Restitution, etc. And Grace itself was never lawless, for “are we to continue in sin that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1). It is the non-believers who are lawless (Romans 6:19), along with many believers who, contrary to Jesus’ own words, think that the law was put away (Matthew 5:19).
I find it much more accurate and useful to divide time by the pattern of the feast days: the Passover Age (from Moses to Christ), the Pentecost Age (from Acts 2 to the present), the Tabernacles Age (during the Sabbath Millennium). In each Age, the Holy Spirit manifests in an increasingly potent manner, and this applies to all people, regardless of genealogy.
Paul then defines specifically what he means by “the mystery of Christ” in Ephesians 2:4-6,
4 By referring to this, when you read, you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; 6 to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Paul’s revelation did not come by listening to other men teach—not even the other apostles. Paul gave us the source of his revelation in Galatians 1:11, 12, 17,
11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man, 12 for I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ… 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away to Arabia and returned once more to Damascus.
No doubt Paul went to Mount Sinai in Arabia (Galatians 4:25), not the traditional site in the Sinai Peninsula, but to Jabal al-lawz in Arabia, where one can see, even today, the split rock at the top of the blackened mount, the evidence of a huge flow of water out of the base of the split rock, and the cave in which Moses and Elijah sat when receiving their revelation. Paul went to Arabia to receive revelation about the two covenants (Galatians 4:24), the relationship between law and grace, and the Abrahamic calling of revelation stewardship (oikonomia) that was to be dispensed to all nations.
Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians focuses upon the latter revelation of oikonomia.
Paul defines this “mystery,” or secret, saying in Ephesians 3:6 “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This truth had been practically unknown, or perhaps misunderstood, even though the word of God had plainly stated it as early as the call of Abraham in Genesis 12:3.
It is amazing how men cannot understand the plain word of God unless the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to the revelation of the word! It is as if God spoke to the deaf and gave His written word to the blind. The revelation was given, but no one had the ability to see or hear it. Paul says this mystery “was not made known to the sons of men” in past generations. This cannot possibly be an absolute statement, because it was indeed revealed to a few, including Abraham, Solomon, and Isaiah.
In fact, Paul was really expounding upon the meaning of “all things” being in subjection to Christ (Ephesians 1:22). By including the Gentiles, Paul was renouncing the common Jewish belief that Gentiles were excluded from the promise of God, that the promise was given only to “our fathers” and not to humanity as a whole.
Perhaps only Isaiah received the greatest unfolding of the Abrahamic revelation (Isaiah 56:6-8). Even he, however, admitted in Isaiah 56:10,
10 His [God’s] watchmen are blind, all of them know nothing. All of them are mute dogs unable to bark, dreamers lying down, who love to slumber.
Hence, in spite of the tremendous revelation in verse 8, telling us that the God who gathers the dispersed of Israel will also gather others to worship Him in His house of prayer, the watchmen were too blind to understand the mystery that was being revealed. It was not until the Apostle Paul arrived on the scene that this secret was forced into the open where all could see it clearly. No other man before Paul had ever expounded on this revelation in any detail or with such “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Because of Paul’s efforts, this secret took hold in the early church and among the apostles, even though Peter himself wavered, not wanting to offend the Jews by eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11, 12). Peter knew better, for he too had received the revelation in the matter of Cornelius. Peter later testified to his fellow Jews in Acts 10:28,
28 And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful [man’s traditions, not God’s law] it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”
Peter’s revelation, however, needed support from Paul, for he wavered when later faced with the dividing wall. Peter was called to share the gospel to the Jews, while Paul was called to share the gospel with the Gentiles. Hence, Peter needed Paul’s admonishment, because in this matter, Paul’s calling was greater than Peter’s.
Paul speaks of his calling and his gospel in Ephesians 3:7-10, which says,
7 of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. 8 To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”] the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; 10 so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.
In verse 9 Paul says that he was called “to bring to light… the mystery which for ages has been hidden.” The revelation was there, revealed in the word of God, but it needed to be brought to light. That is, it needed to become generally known and understood in the Pentecost Age, whereas the light had been dim at best in the Passover Age.
The church, which for so many centuries tended to be built upon Peter, rather than upon Christ, has tended to follow in Peter’s footsteps. The church has often denied Christ, even as Peter did. And a large portion of the church has again helped to rebuild the dividing wall, separating Jews from Gentiles, calling Jews chosen on the basis of their fleshly genealogy, elevating them as rulers in the Age of Tabernacles that is to come. Peter’s wavering in this matter set a spiritual pattern for the church that looks to Peter as its “rock.”
For this reason, we who have understood the mystery of Christ in Paul’s revelation must again bring to light that which the church has largely hidden in the Pentecost Age. Without the revelation of this mystery, we could never fulfill our calling in the ministry of the Open Door that lies before us today.
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Studies in Ephesians." To view all parts, click the link below.