Sunday School Lesson for April 7, 2002
The Grace of God (3:1-3)
This verse begins another section of intercessory prayer engaged in by the imprisoned apostle on behalf of his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ. The prayer itself is interrupted by a section dealing with an explanation of the gracious workings of God on behalf of those outside the boundaries of ethnic Israel—what Paul will refer to as “the mystery” (3:4). Paul’s intercession is not taken up again until verse 14 where the actual contents of the prayer are revealed.
Here in this opening verse we learn that Paul was placed in a Roman prison specifically because of his ministry to the non-Jewish population—“for the sake of you Gentiles.” For the historical record of the cause of this imprisonment see Acts 21:17-36.
As stated above, Paul’s prayer of intercession gives way to a lengthy treatment of God’s purposes in saving the Gentiles, what he refers to as “the administration of God’s grace” (v.2). Paul had been divinely commissioned to preach the gospel specifically to the Gentile world of his day. He speaks of this unique task as an “administration,” or stewardship, that had become his special calling initially upon his stunning encounter with the resurrected Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:15).
In verse 3 Paul speaks of “the mystery made known to me by revelation”—an allusion to something he had previously dealt with—“as I have already written briefly.” This might actually be a reference to his explanation of God’s saving purposes presented previously in this very epistle (1:9-10 or 2:14-16), or it might indicate Paul had supplied them with another document that we have no record of today (Bruce, 312).
This divine “mystery,” which will be explicitly revealed later in this passage, had come to Paul by way of direct “revelation” from God. Note Galatians 1:12-16 where Paul speaks of how this special message was made known to him. Unlike the pagan “mysteries” that were common in the first century world which were reserved only for certain “enlightened” people, this “mystery” was destined for wide publication and disclosure. That it came by way of “revelation” and not human invention established its eternally binding authority and perfect truthfulness.
The Mystery of Christ (3:4-6)
The “mystery” of which Paul speaks is better understood as “the mystery of Christ” (v.4). It is a body of special truth that is contained or summed up in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. Paul has elsewhere spoken of Christ in this way. For instance he describes Christ as “the mystery of God” in Colossians 2:2. There we see that “in him the unseen God is fully revealed” as the Savior and Lord of all men, not just of the Jews alone (Bruce, 313). The apostle highlights two specific features of this “mystery”:
In this verse, Paul provides us with a precise definition of the “mystery of Christ.” He declares that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel.” F. F. Bruce concludes that what “has been revealed is the plan of God that human beings without distinction—Gentiles as well as Jews—should on the common ground of faith be his sons and daughters in Christ” (315). Therefore, the “mystery” has to do with the divinely established unity of all believers, regardless of class, race, or any other factor.
The focal point and foundation for this unity is the “gospel,” or the “promise in Christ Jesus.” Through the preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace through faith—the same message as was proclaimed in the Old Testament by means of the covenant promises—both Jews and Gentiles are made “members” of “one body,” the church of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the “mystery” is, according to John Stott, “the complete union of Jews and Gentiles with each other through the union of both with Christ” (117). F. F. Bruce provides a helpful summary of Paul’s main thesis:
What was the new revelation, the mystery hitherto concealed? It was this: that God’s blessing of the Gentiles would involve the obliteration of the old line of demarcation which separated them from Jews and the incorporation of Gentile believers together with Jewish believers, without any discrimination, in the new, comprehensive community of God’s chosen people (314).
This essential unity between members of the body of Christ is stated powerfully in Paul’s epistle to the Galatian believers;
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The gospel Paul was commissioned to preach was a message that removed all barriers and distinctions between men and women. All who are in Christ by grace through faith are the very sons and daughters of God.
The Work of Paul (3:7-9)
Paul now speaks of the role he has been commissioned to play in the dissemination of the “this gospel.” By means of “the gift of God’s grace” Paul became a “servant” of the mystery of Christ. This term translated “servant” was Paul’s favorite self-designation and revealed the spirit of humility that pervaded his life. As he went about the known world he proclaimed the gospel of reconciliation as emboldened by “the working of his [God’s] power.”
Paul’s authentic humility is now directly manifested by his confession that, as far as he is concerned, he is “the least of all God’s people,” or more literally, “the least of the least.” This expression of genuine humility, in the face of God’s infinite grace, was prompted by Paul’s past opposition to Christ and His church before his dramatic conversion (see 1 Cor. 15:9). Amazingly, the one who was once so violently opposed to the gospel is now determined to “preach,” or announce, the “unsearchable riches of Christ” to the “Gentiles.” In addition, by proclaiming the gospel of reconciliation to the Gentile world, all men would have demonstrable evidence that the “mystery” has its source in God, “who created all things.” Stott comments that the God who so marvelously created the universe
has now begun a new creation and will one day finish it. Indeed, the “mystery” includes the great promise that finally God will unite all things in and under Christ. So in verse 9 Paul brings creation and redemption together in his mind. The God who created all things in the beginning will recreate all things in the end (122).
The Task of the Church (3:10-13)
First, the members of Christ’s church are to remember that the world is watching them. The new united community of faith, brought into being by the grace and power of God, exists for a very specific purpose. God intends that the body of Christ, the church purchased by His blood, should be the vehicle through which His “manifold wisdom” is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” That is, the cosmic powers of the universe are to learn about the glory, power, and wisdom of God by observing the creation of the church and her ministry on earth. In other words, the unity of many peoples in the gospel serves as the “graduate school” for angelic beings and all “created intelligences” in the universe (Stott, 124; Bruce, 321). According to 1 Peter 1:12, the angels in heaven have a special interest in the movement of redemptive history on earth—what Paul refers to as the accomplishment of God’s “eternal purpose . . . in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v.11). By observing the how God has carried out His eternal plan to redeem those whom He has loved and chosen in eternity past (cf. 1:4ff), the angelic hosts are brought into a deeper understanding of the glory and majesty of the God whom they serve.
Secondly, the members of Christ’s church are to remember the privileges they have in their Lord. As believers conduct their lives in this world, fully dedicated to the task of serving the God who has so graciously saved them, they are to remember the “freedom and confidence” with which they may “approach” their heavenly Father. Christ’s blood-bought bride has been invited into the very throne room of God where she will always find an overabundance of grace and mercy. Yet, we must keep in mind that this freedom of access is ours only “through faith” in Christ. This same theme is expressed beautifully in the book of Hebrews:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-- yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-- and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Thirdly, the members of Christ’s church are to remember that present day suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s plan. The “sufferings” of their beloved pastor, and those which they themselves have known, are not to lead to discouragement. Rather, they are to ever rejoice in the providence of God, drawing encouragement from the fact that all sufferings will eventually give way to an incomprehensible blessing—the “glory” of God:
2 Corinthians 4:17
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
One: In light of Paul’s statements in 3:1-6 how would you answer the following questions? Provide scriptural support for your answers.
Two: What are we to make of the modern-day emphasis upon the individualistic nature of salvation? That is, Christians often speak of accepting Christ as their “personal Savior.” What are the potential pitfalls of such a one-sided emphasis? How might this lead to a distorted view of the church?
Three: In 3:13 pay careful attention to these words—“my sufferings for you.” What does this phrase reveal about . . .