1 For this cause I, Paul, am the prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles, 2 if it is so that you have heard of the administration of that grace of God which was given me toward you; 3 how that by revelation the mystery was made known to me, as I wrote before in few words,
4 by which, when you read, you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; 5 which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; 6 that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of his promise in Christ Jesus through the Good News,7 of which I was made a servant, according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power.8 To me, the very least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make all men see what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things through Jesus Christ; 10 to the intent that now through the assembly the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places, 11 according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord; 12 in whom we have boldness and access in confidence through our faith in him. 13 Therefore I ask that you may not lose heart at my troubles for you, which are your glory.
In this passage, Paul mentions himself. Its been somewhat difficult for me to know how to understand this passage. I could take the obvious, and note that Paul is the apostle to the Gentiles, because God called him, or I could assume that Paul is trying to say a little more. I will speculate freely.
In verse 3, I notice that Paul mentions that the mystery of God’s grace was given to him by revelation. I also notice in verse 4, he mentions what he wrote, and that while reading they can see his understanding. I speculate that Paul is introducing himself, his own conversion and calling as an example of a Christian’s identity in Christ. If you recall, Paul invested a lot of his ministry in the Asiatic church. The people of Ephesus would remember Paul’s ministry and his stories. I imagine it is something like family members and close friends — a few words that are difficult to parse by themselves become clear in context of shared stories and experience.
If we think of a relationship, and our own relationships — sometimes what we say to friends makes little sense to people who overhear. Two childhood friends can exchange their memoirs in just a few phrases that makes sense to no one but themselves. I speculate that this passage might have some of that character. If I am right Paul is offering himself as an example of God’s salvation by grace. If I am wrong, Paul remains an extraordinary example of God’s grace, and his testimony gives a personal example of salvation. Either way — it would be good to overview Paul’s journey that brought him to this point. This journey would be remembered, since Paul went to the trouble of subtly mentioning it to people who knew him well.
Saul the persecutor
We first find Paul mentioned in Acts 7 — 8:1 “Saul was consenting to his death.” The chapters 6 and 7 deal with the choosing of deacons and the death of Stephen. Oddly enough, the reason the deacons were chosen were to be arbiters between the Jewish Christians and the Greek [Jewish convert] Christians and make sure things were done fairly instead of calling the 12 to spend all their time settling arguments. Many of these first Deacons, such as Stephen, had Greek names, Nicolas the Deacon was from Antioch. At this time, Christianity had not yet spread — the Church was still in Jerusalem, and even in the mind of the apostles they are basically a Jewish sect. [If this is in chronological order, Peter has not yet learned that God does not show favoritism].
Stephen proved to be a charismatic leader in the early church and drew the attention of another Jewish sect. They spread rumors about him, and he was tried and executed in Chapter 7. Paul was the cloak-man for the executioners, and he approved of the action. Saul decided that this scene should be repeated as often as possible, for the preservation of the Jewish faith. Saul, you see was a hard-line Pharisee, and he was following the example of his Teachers who conspired for Christ’s execution.
When the Christians were mourning Stephen, “Saul ravaged the assembly, entering into every house, and dragged both men and women off to prison.” The persecution scattered the Jerusalem Church, so that Christians became refugees from Saul’s justice.
We might say that Saul took persecution on the road, as was a messenger to synagogues in Damascus, bringing letters of extradition against Christians. Paul fully intended to drag the Christian refugees out of Syria and back to Jerusalem for trial and execution. Though they ran, he was going to hunt them down. (Acts 9)
3 As he traveled, it happened that he got close to Damascus, and suddenly a light from the sky shone around him. 4 He fell on the earth, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 He said, “Who are you, Lord?”
The Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise up, and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the sound, but seeing no one. 8 Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he saw no one. They led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. 9 He was without sight for three days, and neither ate nor drank.
You notice that Paul at this point had a revelation, not of the details of Theology but to the nature of Jesus. It is difficult to think of Paul mentioning that the mysteries of salvation were revealed to him without the mind coming to this one point in his life. The passage continues:
10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
He said, “Behold, it’s me, Lord.”
11 The Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah for one named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, 12 and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in, and laying his hands on him, that he might receive his sight.”
13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my name before the nations and kings, and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”
Struggle for acceptance
God revealed himself not only to Paul, but to a Christian who could instruct Paul in Christianity. Ananias was not only a help to Paul but also someone who could introduce him to the Christians. Note that Ananias was arguing with God, “but God, he’s the guy who wants to drag us back to our deaths.” In Damascus, as Paul became a part of the Christian community, the Jews that he came to support became angry and started planning his death — and Paul had to run back to Jerusalem.
In Jerusalem they could not accept that the persecutor’s conversion was real — they were afraid of him. Barnabas fought for him, but acceptance was difficult. Oddly enough, Paul’s difficulty in Jerusalem was not in offending the Pharisees he betrayed, but the Greeks. Anyways, again he had to flee for his life, and he returned home to Tarsus.
Apostle to the Gentiles
While Paul was in Tarsus, Peter and the apostles still considered the Way Jesus taught to be a Jewish sect. In Acts 10, we see Peter’s vision showing that the Gospel was to the Gentiles as well as the Jew. First a Roman Soldier was Baptized, then in Chapter 11, Peter was called to defend this acceptance of Gentiles. Antioch became not only the first place with the name Christian, but also the first Gentile Christian community. Barnabas was sent to be a leader in Antioch – and Barnabas went to Tarsus, took Paul with him as a helper. His work in Antioch continued [with of course a furlough in Jerusalem], until he was commissioned as having a special mission to the Gentiles in Acts 13. One could easily infer that this work was known to Ananias, as God said Saul would bear His name before the Nations (Gentiles) and Kings. Paul went to travel the world — preach everywhere, and write letters which were circulated through the whole church.
How does this fit in with Context?
Identity in Christ
Ephesians starts talking about the identity in Christ — from the Christian’s identity as saints to the change in status from death in sins to life. Paul is, a rather extraordinary example. Paul be blinded by the full Light of Truth, he had to hear Christ’s voice. Nothing less than a miracle could pull him away from his path.
As far as works goes, Paul not only was lacked the power to do good of his own, but made himself Christ’s enemy. He was so odious to Christ’s disciples that it took visions and miracles for people to accept him. Paul is an example of Christ’s miraculous power brining salvation.
Status of the Gentiles
Again, Paul’s story is tied to the faith going out to the Gentiles. Ephesians 2:12 tells the situation of the Church when Paul was persecuting, and the Church was scattered into the nations: “you were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Though Christians went into the nations, they had no thought of inviting Gentiles into salvation. This continued until Peter, (the apostles by extension) had a revelation that Christianity was not about being a better Jew. It took them some debate to know what to do with this revelation, but they know that in God’s eyes, Gentiles were made clean.
We see in this passage a concrete example of God’s epic grace. He changed the hearts of individuals, and people. An ignored population becomes a special concern. We see that God changes Paul completely, gives him a new identity, and… prepares good work (the apostle to the gentiles) in advance for him to do. We see that this good work is about removing the dividing wall between people and people, and bringing the message of salvation to all who will here, be they slaves or kings. Paul became the defender of this mission — even when Peter forgot that “God does not distinguish between persons”. The first two chapters are a generic description of a Christian and a Christian community. Paul is a specific that fits the model.
In our lives, we need to recognize that God’s grace is always miraculous. Jesus once said that none come to him unless they are drawn by the Father. The saying: “There but for the grace of God go I” is serious, if we are Christians, it is because we believe it to by true. Seeing the great work of Paul, and how much there was for Christ to forgive, we see there is hope for us. Even Christ’s greatest enemy can be turned into a great missionary. Last of all, we must recognize these truths for our neighbor — the gospel is God’s grace, not God’s punishment. Even those ignored, feared, and rejected by men have a place in God’s plan. His grace is sufficient for all humankind.