The Church — God’s Mystery

Introduction:  (Verse 1) Paul’s Imprisonment is a direct result of his calling to the Gentiles: “A prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles.” Paul’s going to the Gentiles with the message of the Messiah and including them in the framework of the promises to Israel and the covenant with Abraham so offended the Jews that they sought to have him killed, which led to his imprisonment (Acts 21:27 to the end of Acts). His appearing before the Jewish council after a riot in Jerusalem (Acts 21:30) led to their plot to kill him (Acts 23:12). This led to his appearance and presented a testimony to the gospel before Felix, Festus, Agrippa, and was taken to Rome.


I. Paul was given a stewardship of divine revelation (Verses 2-6).

A. The stewardship of God’s grace was given to Paul for the Gentiles (Verse 2). Because Paul had been active in this ministry of preaching to the Gentiles for decades, he assumed that the churches who would receive this letter knew of his particular calling to the Gentiles. Paul summarized the apostolic recognition of this call in Galatians 2:7- 9, “On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” Paul consistently used the concepts of stewardship, grace, and revelation in narrating his responsibility of taking the gospel to the Gentiles (See also Galatians 1:8-10).

B. This stewardship came first in the form of divine revelation (Verses 3-5)

  1. He states plainly that the “mystery” was made known to him by revelation. Revelation is an action of God in disclosing the truth of his purpose to men. According to Hebrews 1:1, he has done it in many ways and in various times through many persons—“God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” “In these last days,” so the writer of Hebrews continued, “He has spoken to us by a Son.” Jesus embodied the fullness of the godhead in his own person and as John wrote, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). In his person and in his words, therefore, Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father and, thus, of the character and purpose of the triune God (John 5:19-20, 30; 7:14-18).
  2. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would give a more complete revelation after the Son’s ascension into heaven. This still would be a revelation that came from the Son because he himself would send the Spirit for this purpose (John 14:25, 26; 16:12-15). The apostles, therefore, had the promise from Christ that the full implications of Christ’s life, death,, burial, resurrection, and ascension would be disclosed to them by the Holy Spirit. Paul makes this claim for himself in 1 Corinthians 2:10-13 and in Galatians 1:8-10 as well as in verses 3 and 5 in our text: “How the mystery was made known to me by revelation . . . As it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
  3. Paul was under authority as a bond-servant of Jesus Christ and as a steward of the mysteries of God. A steward takes charge of a property that has been given him by another, and uses it faithfully in accordance with its own value and nature (1 Corinthians 4:1, 2). Paul said this was a stewardship of God’s grace “given to me for you.” His task, therefore, was to make the gospel plain in the fullness of divine revelation to the Gentiles. He prayed for this in his letter to the Colossians: “At the same time pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Colossians 4:3, 4).
  4. In 1 Corinthians, Paul called himself a “wise master-builder” (3:10) here he refers to “my insight into the mystery of Christ.” On both occasions this personal reference is given as an extension of the grace of God given to him. God uses human personality, human skill, and human intelligence in communicating his truth and in extending its powerful influence into the world. Even though Paul and Apollos are not “anything,” but only servants, their usefulness as stewards and as communicators of truth, whether by revelation or by exposition is related to their gifts of intellect, energy, and skill of argumentation. Peter recognized how in Paul’s case, “the wisdom given to him” involved some things that are hard to understand, but nevertheless are classed as inspired Scripture (2 Peter 3:15, 16).
  5. Paul recognized that revelation consisted not only of his spoken words when he preached the gospel, but of his written words when he wrote to the churches. He wrote, “When you read this you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.” His words to them in writing in some cases confirmed or supplemented what they already had heard him preach and in others constituted the only access to his apostolic message and authority.
  6. The revelation was the culmination of God’s disclosure. Other generations had received prophecies and material that gave them sufficient truth to grasp God’s redemptive mercy by faith. The fullness of how this would be accomplished was delayed until the incarnation and the apostolic generation (See 1 Peter 1:10-12). Paul had full confidence that “it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Verse 5). The speaking of the prophets in the churches of the apostolic era was the divine disclosure of New Covenant truth to the churches in the absence of an apostle or an apostolic letter of instruction (1 Corinthians 14:24, 25; 29-33; 37, 38) The prophets, however, were under the authority of the apostles (37, 38) and at the close of the apostolic era, the revelation of the mystery of Christ was complete and revelatory gifts ceased. Scripture now contains the fullness of revelation and the work of the Spirit is in opening our hearts to receive it, illuminating our minds to understand it, strengthening our wills to obey it.

C. The content of this mystery concerns the place of the Gentiles in God’s plan (Verse 6). In chapter 2:11-22, Paul had explained how the work of Christ had removed all the barriers of the ceremonial law so that all people everywhere were put on the same footing as sinners in Adam, sinners by their own transgressions, and in need of a means by which their just susceptibility to divine wrath could be satisfied. God’s work through the centuries with the sons of Israel had prepared for the coming of the Christ through a people designated for that purpose; now that he is come and has made “one new man in place of the two” he has reconciled them both in one body to God. Now those who were without hope, without God in the world, having only the condemning power of general revelation, but not the redeeming truths of special revelation, have been brought near. The great mystery by which God redeemed his elect from all the nations, both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, is the revelation given to Paul, the apostles, and the prophets of the church. “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Verse 6). That this was eternally conceived in the mind of God in the covenant of redemption as the clearest and most full revelation of his attributes and the most satisfying, ongoing, ever-unfolding manifestation of his excellencies to rational beings– all is included in the revelation given to Paul and the other apostles.



II. Paul was given a stewardship of preaching (Verses 7-13).

A. Again he refers to this stewardship as a gift of God’s grace.

  1. Paul looked upon his position as a minister as having come to him by the gracious power of God. God’s converting power had arrested him in the midst of his persecuting career, taught him the gospel, given him boldness, and made his presentation of Jesus and the Christ unanswerable (Acts 9:19-22).
  2. This was according to the “gift of God’s grace” in the sense that his appointment was a clear demonstration of grace (1 Timothy 1:15, 16), and in the sense that its content was an exposition of grace from eternity past to eternity future (Ephesians 1:6).

B. The magnitude of grace is seen in the one to whom it was committed (8a). As Paul called himself the “foremost” of sinners, so here he referred to himself as the “least of all the saints.” In both of these, his purpose is to magnify the grace of God and encourage every Christian of the effectuality and absolute sufficiency of grace. Though in ourselves we are nothing and are sinners, God may nevertheless glorify his name and set forth his purpose in accordance with his gifts of grace to us.

C. In accord with the revelation given, Paul was to preach (8b).

  1. One of the interesting phenomena of this text is that Paul’s preaching was identified perfectly with revelation. He preached what was revealed to him and his preaching constituted revelation. As a model of preaching, this means that our preaching should be absolutely founded on the text of divine revelation. We may give a disciplined verse-by-verse exposition and to the degree of faithfulness and accuracy we speak the words of God. Also, we may synthesize common themes throughout Scripture and set forth an expansive statement on a variety of subjects: the doctrine of the Trinity, the Person of Christ, the atonement, the doctrine of creation from beginning to consummation, the final assignments of divine judgment to heaven or hell. In this too we may know that, according to our faithfulness, accuracy, and fullness of treatment we speak words consistent with divine revelation.
  2. We should also recognize that God intended that his gospel be communicated primarily through the ministry of preaching. Paul called his preaching “the word of the cross,” and he referred to “the folly of what we preach,” identifying it as “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18-24).
  3. He identified the content as the “unsearchable riches of Christ.” This will come up again soon as he joins the doctrine of Christ with the eternal purpose of God. In 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul called the doctrine of the incarnation and its effects as “the mystery of godliness.” That the Son of God assumed into his eternal person a full human nature and worked redemption for sinners is indeed a mystery that will never be exhausted in it beauty, wisdom and intrinsic glory for eternity. These riches embedded in the person of Christ and in his redemptive work truly are unsearchable.

D. His preaching brings to light the eternal plan of God. Paul is clear and insistent that preaching should “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” Paul’s idea here is that this constitutes the very reason for creation. For a mind-expanding treatment of this idea one should read “The End for which God Created the World” by Jonathan Edwards.

  1. Paul has begun this letter with a statement of the eternal purpose of God and now he argues that in the church’s preaching this eternal purpose should be explored through every facet of revelation that God has given us. When one is afraid to preach election, predestination, exhaustive foreknowledge, particular and pervasive providence, and an eternal covenant of redemption, he misses a prominent, in fact a ruling, theme of divine revelation.
  2. Here Paul writes of the “manifold wisdom of God” as a dominant aspect of the revealed truth to be made known through preaching. One must forsake neither the simplicity of biblical propositions in their straightforward meaning and application (“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!”) nor the great depths of wisdom and purpose that lie behind all the particular texts of Scripture, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). We should be willing to discuss and proclaim the electing purpose of God in the framework of his absolute sovereignty and his perfect justice and sovereign mercy and in the end say with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! . . . For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33, 36).
  3. “Through the church,” refers to the very existence as the people of God consisting of both Jew and Gentile, a new covenant people of redemption. Also, the phrase points to the message that the church proclaims on the basis of revelation. By both of these realities, other rational beings of the created order gain an expanded understanding of God’s wisdom, his purpose, and all aspects of his character that can find expression only in relation to created beings. Peter referred to this in the tantalizing phrase, “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12).


E. All of this eternal plan consummates in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Verses 11, 12).

  1. Paul calls the outworking of these relationships, “the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” None of this has happened at random or by divine adjustments along the way, but all of it was, and is, the unfolding of God’s eternal purpose. In1:11 Paul stated, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” It is true that the secret things belong to God (Deuteronomy 29:29); according to the same passage, “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children.” Every part of God’s eternal purpose that has been revealed must constitute an element of the preaching and teaching ministry of the church.
  2. All that God—the triune God—has decreed in his wisdom, a purpose resident within him from eternity, from creation to final consummation depends on the work of Christ—“realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul told Timothy that God has “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher an apostle and teacher” (2 Timothy1:9-11).
  3. (Verse 12) – Because the eternal purpose of God has been and continues to be executed in the work of Christ, we come to God in full confidence and, according to Paul, with boldness. Charles Wesley wrote and we frequently sing, “Bold I approach the eternal throne and claim the prize through Christ, my own.” Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, “He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with Him freely give us all things.” Peter wrote, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and virtue . . . in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:3, 8b). He has done all for reconciliation with God and now by “faith in him” his merits are ours.



III. The perfect providence of God is seen again in both suffering and glory (Verse 13). The pattern in this world seems to be that glory arises from suffering. When the prophets spoke of Christ they looked at his sufferings and the glories that would follow (1 Peter 1:11). The writer of Hebrews looked at the Son’s perfection through the “things that he suffered” that qualified him to be the author of eternal salvation for all that obey him (Hebrews 5:8, 9). Christ was obedient to death, even the death of the cross; wherefore God has highly exalted him (Philippians 2:8, 9). Paul, therefore does not disdain suffering; nor should the Gentile churches be discouraged that their apostle is imprisoned as a result of his labors on their account, for his sufferings are their glory.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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