In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ…that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel. (Ephesians 3:4,6, NIV)
It is never easier to lose sight of the wood for the trees than in reading a letter like the Apostle Paul’s to the Ephesians. We are gripped by individual lines, simply because they are such good news: for instance, It is by grace you have been saved (2 :8). But in so doing, we can lose sight of the purpose of the whole letter. What is this?
Paul’s delight is that in the pagan city of Ephesus there is a congregation of people he calls saints – “holy people” (1:1). That itself is wonderful, but what is revolutionary is that many of these people are from a Gentile background. For this term “holy people” had, before Christ, only ever been used of Jewish people, with whom the living God had a covenant relationship. But now, he writes to his Gentile readers, you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ (2:13). In Christ, Jew and Gentile are included on equal terms.
This Gentile inclusion was at the heart of Paul’s missionary work. The book of Acts tracks his travels preaching Christ to Jew AND Gentile. It was a ministry which came at a terrible price to the Apostle, for some Jewish religious elements were outraged that Gentiles be treated as God’s own people (for an example of how they felt, read Acts 21). This was the likely cause of his imprisonment at the time of writing.
But to Paul, the suffering is worth it! In the letter he delights in the church God has built: It is no less than a dwelling in which God lives (2:21), God’s household (2:19) and the very body of Christ (2:16). It has been born by nothing less than the resurrection power of God (2:1-10), the God whose love is wide, long, high and deep enough to reach even Gentiles (3:18). It displays God’s power even to the devil and his hosts (3:10).
Paul’s concern is that these fledgling churches, these living displays of God’s power, must not be lost or damaged. The Gentiles must be assured that they are fully included, not second-class (1:3-14). On the other hand, they must not consider themselves superior, forgetting that they have been brought in to what had never previously been theirs (2:11-22). The church must not fracture; for this, there must be both godly attitudes (4:1-6) and the Bible teaching that builds up (4:7-16). Gentiles are in, but they must not import sinful Gentile lifestyles (4:17-5:20). Everyone must be vigilant about the devil and his on-going attempts to destroy the church (6:10-20).
Paul’s concern should be ours, for our church. We, too – like every living local church – are a display of God’s love, grace and saving power, taking sinful people and saving us, and binding us together in unity across all kinds of divides. We, too, need to recognise what an amazing thing God is doing in our midst. And – precisely because we are an exhibit of God’s grace, and a target worth attacking – we too need the great strengthening that this letter gives us. We continue our series this Sunday morning.