The Christian Post published an article online on Friday, September 13, 2013, written by Dan Delzell, entitled, "Do You Understand the Mystery of Christ?"
In part, the article stated:
"Ah, the mystery of Christ. That is exactly what God revealed to Saul, who went on to become the apostle Paul. …What happens to the person who repents of his sin and believes this good news? 'Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.'" (John 1:12) That is the mystery of the new birth. And that is the mystery of Christ" (emphasis mine).
The problem is, that is not the mystery of Christ as discussed in this article, I'll explain to you why. In order to do so, however, it is first necessary to share a brief word about the local church to which Paul was writing, the church at Ephesus.
The fact is the local church at Ephesus was made up of both Jewish and Gentile converts, and thus was multi-ethnic (Acts 19:8–17; 20:21). Indeed, biblical evidence does not support the notion of a homogeneous church at Ephesus. With this in mind, the theme of Paul's letter to the Ephesians can be stated as follows: the unity of the church for the sake of the Gospel.1
Following his comments concerning an individual believer's unity with the Father through faith in Jesus Christ (chapter 1), and concerning the unity of Jews and Gentiles - the two groups now "one new man and body" - (chapter 2), Paul intends next to pray for the Ephesians (Ephesians 3:1, 14–19). However, in Ephesians 3:2–13, he momentarily interrupts himself to remind the congregation of his apostolic mission. Here, then, is a parenthetical statement in which he defines his calling and declares that "by revelation there was made known to me the mystery . . . of Christ" (Ephesians 3:3–4 NASB). Here, too, he mentions a previous letter to the church in which he had also addressed his "insight into the mystery of Christ" (Ephesians 3:4 NASB). According to Paul, understanding of this mystery had not been granted to past generations but had only "now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 3:5).
A common error (as in the article cited above) is to assume that the mystery Paul is speaking of is the mystery of the Gospel - the good news message of Christ's life, death, resurrection, and atonement for sin, by which, through faith, men and women might be saved (Ephesians 2:8). Yet this is not the case. For in Ephesians 3:6, Paul makes it clear that the mystery of Christ is something altogether different:
"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" (Ephesians 3:6 NASB).
The New International Version translates the verse this way:
"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."
This verse represents the very apex of the book from which all else that is written derives its context and meaning. In fact, it represents the very substance of Paul's life and ministry. Here Paul is describing himself not simply as a minister of the Gospel but also a minister of the mystery of Christ.
Notice, too, that he calls himself a minister of this gospel (Ephesians 3:7), that is, of the good news concerning unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in the church. Such understanding is further supported by his words near the end of the letter, at which time he asks the Ephesians to "pray also for me . . . so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains" (Eph. 6:19–20, emphasis mine).
Therefore, as Paul writes this letter from prison, he states that he is in chains not simply for proclaiming the Gospel but also for proclaiming the mystery of Christ (Col. 4:2–4), the mystery of my gospel (Romans 16:25); namely, "that the Gentiles are fellow heirs (together with the Jews) . . . and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel" (Ephesians 3:6 NASB). In other words, Paul is in prison not for generally preaching salvation, but for specifically preaching Gentile inclusion in an otherwise all ethnically Jewish kingdom of God and local church.
Such understanding of Paul's unique role in the proclamation of the mystery of Christ can be also observed in his letter to the Romans. His final words again make clear what is most prominent in his mind concerning the mystery of Christ:
"Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him - to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen" (Romans 16:25–27, NIV, emphasis mine).
To present the word of God yet fail to teach the mystery of Christ is, in Paul's mind, to fail to teach the local church God's word "in its fullness." Stated another way, Gentile inclusion is inextricably linked to the gospel of Paul; and not simply where eternal life is concerned, but also where the local church on earth is concerned. In fact, over and over throughout the book of Romans (written to another multi-ethnic church) Paul pairs these two concerns. For him they are two sides of the same coin, as is readily observed in Romans 1:16; 3:21, 22, 29-30; 10:9, 11-13; Romans 15:15, 16; and Romans 16:25, 26.
In Colossians 1:24–27, also, Paul develops the concept of his unique calling as the one chosen to both proclaim and explain the mystery of Christ. According to this passage, he is the servant of Christ and of his body, commissioned "to present the word of God to you in its fullness the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints" (Colossians 1:25–26, NIV).
It is for such reasons that Paul goes on in Ephesians 3:7-to explain that he was called not only to proclaim the mystery of Christ among the Gentiles but also "to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery . . . in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church" (emphasis
mine). In other words, Paul had not only been granted insight into the mystery of Christ but also insight into how (and why, Ephesians 4:4-6) the mystery is to be lived out practically by diverse believers waking as one in the local church. And this he does from Ephesians 4:1 through Ephesians 6:20.
By now it should be clear that failure to understand the central theme of Paul's life and ministry results in an impoverished understanding of the passage in question, the mystery of Christ and, as well, the very nature of the local church. And since Paul's passion is for the mystery of Christ to be understood and lived out in the context of the local church it should be our passion, as well.
Any attempt to render Paul's teaching concerning the mystery of Christ as solely redemptive in nature or, as it pertains to the local church, in a purely homogenous light, is to stray no small distance from his self-described calling, ministry, and passion. Indeed it is to stand in direct opposition to Paul's clear teaching regarding the local church. Paul expects the local church to be a place in which diverse believers walk, work, and worship God together as one in order to present a credible witness of His love for all people. In fact, it's the very message of salvation alone through faith in Jesus Christ, the Gospel, itself, that even makes such a church possible … on earth as it is in heaven.