3:1-13 The mystery of the church
Paul has already explained how Jews and Gentiles have been reconciled in the one body of each church (2:15-16). Not only would people of different races and languages be made one in these churches, but social differences would also be reconciled. "As many of you as were baptized into the Messiah have clothed yourselves with the Messiah. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in the Messiah Jesus" (Galatians 3:27-28). The very practical outworking of this is explained later in this epistle 5:21-6:9).
God's astonishing plan for universal reconciliation was not known in the Old Testament. It was hinted at in Jesus' teaching to his disciples. "Many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 8:11). The temple in Jerusalem was meant to be a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17 based on Isaiah 56:7). And Jesus said that the function of the temple as a house of prayer would be given to "other tenants" (Matthew 21:41, 43). This was implicit, but not explained in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19).
The plan for churches of the Holy Spirit among all nations, and open to all nations and classes, was a musterion (secret, mystery). The term is used four times in this section (3:3, 3:4-5, 9, in each case relating to the Gentiles coming in to the church, as in Romans 16:25-26, Colossians 1:26-27, 2:2). A mystery is something that puzzles us, and is incomprehensible till it is explained to us. But Paul uses the term for a plan of God that was hinted at but impossible to guess till it was made known by God's revelation.
Paul claims that the mystery of what God planned for the church was made known to him personally (3:3). He may be suggesting that it was revealed to him first, then to the apostles and prophets in the churches (3:5). The content of the mystery was that "the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ through the gospel" (Ephesians 3:6). Obviously this development was not easy for Jews to accept (see Acts 10:13-15, 10:34, 11:2). Some thought the Gentile converts must be circumcised and brought under Old Testament rules (Acts 15:5). Happily the Council of Jerusalem was able to reject this (Acts 15:19-29). The apostles did ask the Gentile converts to avoid upsetting their Jewish brothers and sisters with meat that had been sacrificed to idols, prostitution, meat that had not been drained of blood, and the drinking of blood which was strictly forbidden in Jewish law (Leviticus 7:26-27). This compromise made it possible for Jews and people of other nations to eat at the same table.
But the reconciliation and eating together of those who were previously estranged did not just have implications on earth among people in our world. These events would impact the angelic powers in heaven. "That through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (3:10, see 1 Peter 3:22). Even the angels were astonished at what was happening (1 Peter 1:12)..
3:1-2 As suggested in our Introduction to the Epistle, Paul is a prisoner in Ephesus. This was a result of his mission to plant churches of the Spirit including both Jews and Gentiles. Some of his readers had not met Paul personally (see Colossians 2:1 written at the same time), but he assumes they had heard of his apostolic work.
3:3-4 The mystery (see the beginning of this section), which was never guessed in Old Testament times was that people of all nations are to "become fellow heirs, members of the same body" (3:6). Paul says the meaning of the mystery (as described in 2:16, which he asks them to read) was revealed to him by revelation right from the time of his conversion (see Acts 26:17-18).
3:5 This previously unknown mystery was now understood and being made known among the churches by apostles (see note on 1:1) and prophets (4:11, see 1 Corinthians 12:6, 14:3).
3:6 To describe the nature of the church into which Gentiles are incorporated together with Jews Paul used the image of a body (4:16, as in Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27). By its life force our own body has an internal organization. Each part has its own specialization (the bones know their shape, the eye has its own function). The whole body is held together in organic oneness, but when life ends the body disintegrates. Similarly, a church is an organically constituted body, and apart from the Spirit (2:18, 1 Corinthians 12:13) a church would be lifeless.
3:7-9 Paul views himself as a servant of the good news (the Word, as in Luke 1:2). He views this calling as a gracious gift (see note on grace in 1:2). And the purpose of his servant ministry is to make the mystery (3:3, 4-5) of the church known to the world. Though God is the Creator-Artist of our world (Genesis 1), the special function of the church was only revealed in New Testament times.
3:10 One function of the church in each city is to demonstrate the creative wisdom of God by the rich variety of peoples and classes that it includes. This is news, not only for people on earth, but also to the angelic beings in heaven (Romans 8:38, 1 Peter 3:22). Evidently angels do not know the future (Matthew 24:36), and there are "things into which angels long to look!" (1 Peter 1:12).
3:11-12 God's eternal purpose was to reconcile all nations in the church, and this was made possible by the Son through his death, resurrection, and giving the Spirit to his church (see note on 1:7a). The cross therefore gives us great boldness and confidence to draw near to God with our concerns (this was already experienced in the Psalms, but now it is understood more clearly).
3:13 Paul's readers were concerned about the terrible suffering Paul endured to bring them the good news (see Acts 20:19-24, 2 Corinthians 11:23-28), and now Paul was in prison, and in imminent danger of death (2 Timothy 4:16-17, according to the dating explained in the Introduction). But Paul is more concerned for their faith than his own sufferings, and he assures them that the confidence they have through Jesus' death and resurrection is also his. And any praise that might be his was for their glory.
3:14-21 Prayer for the power of the Spirit
Paul knew that the plan for table fellowship in one church between different races and social classes would be very difficult to work out in practice. For Jews the easy going fun-loving habits of the Greeks were very upsetting. Greeks loved lewd theater performances, and they ran naked in the Olympic games. For food they enjoyed snails, squids, eels, octopus, lizards, and pork (all abominations to Jews based on Leviticus 11:1-31). The Greeks found the Jews much too serious and very prudish, keeping dozens of rules, and avoiding all the good foods of the Mediterranean.
So Paul prays that both parties will be empowered by the Spirit to be rooted and grounded in the love of God (3:17). He also longs for them to grasp the amazing vastness of God's plan (3:18). All nations would eventually bring the best of their own culture to enrich the glory of heaven (Revelation 21:22-26) but accepting each other now was very difficult.
3:14-15 Jews usually stood to pray with their hands raised to heaven. But Paul knew that Solomon at the height of his power knelt to pray (1 Kings 8:54), and Daniel used to kneel in prayer three times a day (Daniel 6:10), as did Ezra (Ezra 9:5). Paul felt every knee must bow to his ascended Lord (Philippians 2:9-10), which is perhaps why he knelt to pray with the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:36) and with the Christians on the beach near Tyre (Acts 21:5). Here he kneels to pray to God as Father. And he adds the interesting fact that human fatherhood among people all over the world derives from (is meant to be modeled on) the divine Fatherhood.
3:16 As suggested at the beginning of this section, Paul is conscious of the tremendous struggle that was needed to establish and maintain the oneness of Jews and Greeks and people of other nations in the new churches of the Spirit. So he prays for strengthening in their "inner being with power through his Spirit" (see 1 Corinthians 2:4). This is the same power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead (1:20, Romans 8:11).
3:17 The Messiah dwells in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who creates God's kind of love in our heart. Jesus used the illustration of himself as the Vine abiding (dwelling) in the branches by the sap (the Holy Spirit) to produce the fruit of his love (John 15:1-10, Galatians 5:22).
3:18 By our own wisdom we do not have "the power to comprehend" the vastness (broad, long, high, deep) of the love of God. "No one comprehends what is truly God's except the Spirit of God" (1 Corinthians 2:11-13).
3:19 Paul has mentioned the fulness of the Son as expressed through the church as his body in each place (1:22-23). There is also the fulness created by the love of God (3:19). Later he will explain that the whole fulness of God is expressed and made known in the Messiah Son of God (4:13, as in Colossians 1:19. 2:9).
3:20-21 This is the fifth reference to "power"in this Epistle (1:19-20, 3:7, 16, 18), and in each case it refers to the power of the Holy Spirit. From ten different points of view this is explained in Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Romans 1:4, 16, 2:29, 5:5, 8:1-5, 9-11, 14-16, 26-27, 14:17, 15:13, 19, see Romans Commentary). No wonder that Paul thought this power was far greater than anyone could have imagined. Again we have a Trinitarian reference to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit working in the church (as in 1:3, 13-14, 19-20, 3:14-17).