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The Administration of God’s Grace

February 5th, 2019

For this reason, I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles…Surely you have heard about the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:1-6 BSB)

The passage begins not with a lament but with a praise. The words translated “for this reason,” which is the meaning here, are toutou charin which literally would say “for this pleasure.” It was a common enough idiom and not the only time Paul used it – Eph. 3:14 for example: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father” – but still we cannot help but see a twinkle in his eye as he wrote these words. He considered it a privilege to be a prisoner for Christ, and to be one on account of the Gentiles.

We are taken back in these words to the reason he was arrested in the first place. It was due to the fact that he had been falsely accused of bringing a Gentile onto the temple grounds reserved only for the Jew (Acts 21:28-29), thereby profaning the temple. The context of Acts 21:17-36 helps explain that these were false accusations. He had not brought a Gentile on to the temple grounds, rather he had merely been seen with one earlier in the city. And he had not told Jews to forsake the Law of Moses – he himself was still practicing the legal outward religious observance of Jews. The entire issue centered on accepting the Gentiles on any level as being anything but ungodly. 

In the midst of the confusion, and due to the hardened prejudice toward Gentiles by some of the Jews, and of the militant attitude they had about the entire matter, more than forty men joined in an assassination plot against Paul (Acts 23:13). And his sister’s son found out about it and told him. It was because of this plot of assassination that Paul appealed to Caesar and, though he was protected from assassination by a Roman guard, he was a prisoner for roughly two years while waiting to be granted a hearing with Caesar. 

So Paul could say with the utmost genuineness that it was his ministry among the Gentiles, his teaching that they along with believing Jews, were “fellow citizens” and “members of God’s household” (Eph. 2:20), that had resulted in him being a prisoner for Christ. 

The “administration of God’s grace” or “stewardship of God’s grace” (Eph 3:2) that Paul had received had been given to him by direct revelation. He called it a “mystery” or musterion and this did not mean something hard to figure out, but something that was entirely hidden, unknown and unknowable, until God chose to reveal it. The gist of this mystery was: “that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6). 

This is common knowledge to Christians today, so why was it hidden from others for centuries?

The Holiness of Israel

The first thing to understand is how God set apart Israel as a nation to be holy and to be His. We read: “For I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26). The separateness of Israel from the nations – along with the blessings and promises directed toward Israel – were a strong character of the Old Testament. 

He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and rules to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his rules. (Psalm 147:19-20)

The nations around Israel were notoriously evil, practicing child-sacrifice and temple prostitution, for examples, as regular matters of their paganism and idolatry. 

God chose them out of the nations and chose to give His moral code to them through Moses. He made specific promises to them, to bless them above all nations, IF they would keep His law and worship only Him. God said:

If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. Your threshing shall last to the time of the grape harvest, and the grape harvest shall last to the time for sowing. And you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land securely. I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. And I will remove harmful beasts from the land, and the sword shall not go through your land. You shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand, and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. I will turn to you and make you fruitful and multiply you and will confirm my covenant with you. You shall eat old store long kept, and you shall clear out the old to make way for the new. I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. (Leviticus 26:3-13)  

A Light to the Gentiles

Yet God’s purpose was not that the nation of Israel should ignore the nations around them, but that they should be a light unto them. “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). God was declared not just the God of Israel but of the whole world: “God reigns over the nations” (Psalm 47:8). 

That there were some believing Gentiles was not hidden, for we find them in the Old Testament, people like Rahab (Josh. 2:11), the King of Nineveh (Jonah 3:6-9), Naaman (2 Kings 5:15), Ruth (Ruth 1:16), and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 4:1-3). But these were always considered second class citizens by Israel, and not heirs according to the all promises God had made.  A woman could convert to Judaism and marry an Israelite, such as Ruth did, and thereby join Israel. A man would have to be circumcised (Exodus 12:48) and profess his faith, and then he would be considered as an Israelite. 

But the truth that was revealed to Paul was that an uncircumcised Christ-believing Gentile would be on the same footing as a circumcised Christ-believing Jew. That the Messiah, who Israel tended to think of as only their savior, and mostly in terms of political and economic salvation, should be the Savior of the Gentiles also was unknown. 

The Beauty of the Gospel

So the Gospel of Jesus Christ was preached in its full glory through Paul and others in the New Testament period. Jewish Christian evangelists went out into the world and proclaimed the truth:

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:22-24 ESV) 

When a notoriously sinful Gentile became a Christian, he was fully forgiven of his sins, he received the sealing of the Spirit, he was adopted as a child of God, he was a member of the body of Christ, he was promised a place in heaven (John 14:1-3), and he was just as much an heir to eternity as the most religious Christian Jew. 

Jesus told a parable that illustrated this truth:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,  and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’  So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.  And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’  And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’  And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.  Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’  But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt. 20:1-16)

Application:

Though we have been speaking of Jews and Gentiles, there is a lot of application for Christians in general with this point. Some of us were raised in the church and feel pretty good about ourselves. We have not been notoriously sinful, or so we think. Others of us have crossed the line between right and wrong often, and have a bad reputation. But wherever you and I have come from ultimately does not matter, for God can forgive anyone who sincerely repents and trusts in Christ.  

We should be careful not to consider ourselves “first class Christians” and others as second or third class or something less. We are all saved by grace and the same blood of Christ was spilled for us each. His Spirit is at work in each of us. We should respect each other as re-creations of God – new creatures through the redemption of Christ – and work to encourage one another.

And… there is a temptation to think that those who have been longer in a certain church ought to have more say about the decisions in the church. That also is wrong. The only thing that gives any one the ability to make decisions in church is that they know the mind of Christ. And the mind of Christ is learned not by longevity in one single church, but by walking with him in fellowship and studying His Word. 

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)

Ephesians