Studying the Bible is one of the greatest gifts God has given His people, and within that, Paul’s letter to the church in and around the city of Ephesus is one of my favourite letters for how it has so often spoken to me. ‘Studies in Ephesians’ is my attempt to share, in written form, those lessons and promises that God has revealed to me in my studies through this magnificent book.
“He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him for the administration of the days of fulfilment—to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.” — Ephesians 1:9-10
One of my favourite pieces of music is ‘Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity’, the fourth movement in Gustav Holst’s magnificent orchestral suite, The Planets (OP. 32). All my life it has struck a resonant chord in me. As the fourth part of seven, it represents a continuation of Holst’s overall suite. The whole piece, which runs around the 55-minute mark, starts big with ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’, before falling back into a more melodic tone for ‘Venus’ and ‘Mercury’. With ‘Jupiter’, however, it reaches a crescendo, reaching a magnificent peak around 3 minutes in, with one of the most recognisable pieces of music you’ll ever come across.
As we have already mentioned, verses 3 to 14 of the first chapter of Ephesians is one long sentence. Various commentators have called it everything from a hymn to a doxology or eulogy: it is a single, escalating, theological treatise in praise to God the Father.
According to Peter T. O’Brien, the verses we study today are the “high point of the eulogy.”
Much the same as that soaring moment in ‘Jupiter’ when the string section take us into the English countryside, verses 9 and 10 bring us into the heart not only of Paul’s intentions for his letter to the Ephesians, but also into the heart of God’s ultimate purpose.
In verses 7 and 8 we saw that God not only redeemed us and forgave us our sins, but he also showered us with wisdom and understanding. Most commentators believe that Paul links “wisdom and understanding” to both sides – specifically, we are blessed with wisdom and understanding and that God has made “known to us the mystery of His will” (Ephesians 1:9) through that wisdom and understanding. O’Brien says that “God intended that we should understand his saving purposes”, therefore, He “lavished his grace upon us ‘in all wisdom and insight’ by making known to us the mystery of his will,’”. John Stott agrees, saying “God has done more than ‘choose’ us in Christ in a past eternity and give us ‘sonship’ now as a present possession, with all its attendant joys and duties. He has also made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will for the future.”
The word ‘mystery’ had multiple meanings to Paul’s original readers – including direct links to what we now call mystery religions – religions which we legitimately know next-to-nothing about today. Paul was not referring to this type of mystery, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains: “The term ‘mystery’ as used in the New Testament does not mean a kind of mystic secret which is only revealed to a few initiates and which is deliberately kept from and guarded from everyone else, as was characteristic of the ‘mystery religions’ so common in Paul’s day.” Nor was it, as Lloyd-Jones continues, “something that is incomprehensible to the human mind, but rather something that is undiscoverable by the unaided human mind.” Again:
“So ‘mystery’ does not mean something inherently and essentially incomprehensible to the human mind, but rather something which is a secret beyond the reach of the natural human mind but which God has revealed and unfolded to those who believe.”
We see this idea explained several times throughout the New Testament. Jesus, answering His disciples as to why He taught in parables, explained: “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.” (Matthew 13:11) The meaning of the parables was a gift from God to those who would believe. In the closing lines of his letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts his readers: “Now to Him who has power to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation about Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept silent for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic Scriptures, according to the command of the eternal God to advance the obedience of faith among all nations.” (Romans 16:25-26) In other words, not only was this mystery revealed by God to all His believers for the advancement of the Kingdom, but this had been his plan all along – which is why the Old Testament Scriptures could now be seen to testify to Christ’s coming, for those same events had been orchestrated with Christ in mind. This same mystery is the wisdom spoken among the mature – “we speak God’s hidden wisdom in a mystery, a wisdom God predestined before the ages for our glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:7)
God “made known to us the mystery of His will” in accordance with a plan He had confirmed before the age of time began. This making known was “according to His good pleasure” just as our adoption “through Jesus Christ for Himself” was “according to His favour and will” (Ephesians 1:5). “God delights in revealing this mystery to his people (“to us”), highlighting the personal dimension of this revelation.” Rejecting the idea that when Paul says “to us” he is not referring to some Jewish segment of Christian believers in Paul’s time, O’Brien says that, “The recipients of this disclosure are the Christian community, who are thus able to praise God for his great kindness lavished on them. They are not some group of initiates but those who have received the word of God”. Harold W. Hoehner agrees: “The pronoun … “us”, indicates that God has made known his mystery not just to Paul or a few select believers but to all believers.”
But what is this mystery? Verse 10 says that in “the days of fulfilment” God will “bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.”
Understandably, this is not the easiest passage to read – a fact backed up by the wide ranging and wildly varying degree of opinions found to explain it. Some have been able to conjure a Universalistic teaching from these words – a teaching that is so contrary to all the rest of Scripture that it can only be called heresy. Other opinions are less objectionable: O’Brien says that “It is … inappropriate to claim that the content of the mystery in Ephesians is defined solely in terms of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles and their union with Jews on an equal footing in Christ”. To be fair, as O’Brien himself notes, the Gentiles’ newly acquired “right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12) is an aspect of the mystery, but is not the whole mystery itself. Conversely, “There are not a number of ‘mysteries’ with limited applications, but one supreme ‘mystery’ with a number of applications.” One of these ‘applications’ was the Gentiles equal footing with Jews in God’s Kingdom – something we see Paul deal with further in subsequent chapters, specifically in the second half of chapter 2 and the opening half of chapter 3.
But what, then, is the larger mystery? How does our equal footing with God’s original chosen people fit into God’s larger purpose?
Verse 10 says that God’s purpose is “to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.” This is to happen in “the fullness of time”.
The problem that arises for understanding this section is found in several tricky words and concepts – though, of course, in the Greek itself, this is mostly narrowed down to two words that are either rare, or have multiple or confused meanings.
When we look in the HCSB, the phrases “for the administration of” (οἰκονομίαν) and “bring everything together” (ἀνακεφαλαιόω) have both led many commentators and translators alike on a wild bantha hunt. William W. Klein explains that οἰκονομίαν is a word which “occurs nine times in the NT in three essential senses … responsibility of management, as in a household or task … an arrangement or plan … and a program of instruction.” Whereas, for ἀνακεφαλαιόω, O’Brien says that “The increasing consensus among modern scholars is that the unusual verb used here derives from a word meaning the ‘main point’, ‘sum’, or ‘summary’ … rather than ‘head’,” – head being an oft-used translation until recently – “and that its basic meaning is ‘to bring something to a main point’, or ‘to sum’.”
Therefore, God has placed something under Jesus’ stewardship, which will also at some point be summed up under Him.
The “something” is a little easier to understand, though it too has come under close scrutiny. Given the intended audience, however, several points can be drawn out. Some have attempted to use this passage to push a Universalism agenda, in which all things on earth refer to both Christians and non-Christians – that at some point in the future, God will simply forgive everyone. As mentioned, however, this goes against all that the Bible teaches, and can be quickly dismissed. Rather, the things “on earth” refers to two things: first, humans, and earthly creation itself. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, states that “we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labour pains until now” waiting for the time when it “will also be set free from the bondage of corruption” (Romans 8:21-22). On that day, according to the Apostle Peter, when “the Day of the Lord” arrives, “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, the elements will burn and be dissolved, and the earth and the works on it will be disclosed.” (2 Peter 3:10) On that day, creation will once again be subject to Jesus, through whom it was created in the first place: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created.” (John 1:1-3)
Humans will also once again be brought under Jesus – though you might ask who are we currently under.
Paul explains in the next chapter of Ephesians that we were all dead in our trespasses and sins because we “walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient.” (Ephesians 2:1-2) That same “spirit now working in the disobedient” is explicitly named in chapter 6: “Put on the full armour of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:11-12, emphasis mine) This is Satan, and Jesus Himself describes him as Earth’s ruler several times in John’s gospel:
Jesus responded, “This voice came, not for Me, but for you. Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out. As for Me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to Myself.” — John 12:30-32
“I will not talk with you much longer, because the ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over Me. On the contrary, I am going away so that the world may know that I love the Father. Just as the Father commanded Me, so I do.” — John 14:30-31
More blatantly, in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:4)
Not all are under Satan, however. At the end of chapter 1 of Ephesians, Paul explains that God has put everything under Jesus’ feet “and appointed Him as head over everything for the Church, which is His body” (Ephesians 1:22-23). But at some point in the future, all things on Earth will be brought under Christ, just as the Church is now already under His authority. But, as James Montgomery Boice suggests, this will not be to everyone’s liking. Explaining what Paul intended, he writes:
“It is the teaching rather that all things will be subjected to Christ—some willingly as those who have been redeemed by Jesus joyfully exult in his rule, some unwilling as evil is nevertheless restrained and all are forced to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of all.”
The key word is “subjected”, for simply because something is brought together under Christ, does not mean that everything will be in Christ, or will even want to be – the Bible speaks plainly of this. This summing up of all things under Christ is given further clarity when we discover that the HCSB’s “for the administration of the days of fulfilment” has as its base meaning, “for implementing in the fullness of times”. In Galatians, the same “fullness of times” was the designated time for Jesus Christ to be born into the world (Galatians 4:4). In Ephesians, we are looking at a more apocalyptic meaning – something that suggests that day when Jesus comes again. However, there is also a present meaning to the passage, which awakens the now/not-yet theology of our life in Jesus: Jesus has come, died for our sins, and redeemed and forgiven us – that is something that has already happened, and been worked out in our lives. It has happened now. He is currently Lord over our lives. However, there is a future time when our earthly bodies will be cast away, and we will no longer have to fight with our sinful lives, for they will also be thrown away. That has not-yet happened. At that time, Jesus will be Lord over everything. Klyne Snodgrass sums up the difficulties of these words (of which he focused on the two major Greek words) thus:
“The whole universe is to be brought together in Christ. He is the focal point that gives all creation coherence. One day every knee will bow … and God’s creation will be unified around Christ. Both troublesome words, then, focus on Christ as Lord of all.”
In addition to all things on earth, Paul notes that all things in heaven also will be brought under Jesus’ authority. Simply, and quickly, this includes not only the created cosmos, but the angels as well – for they are as much a part of God’s creation as we are, though they live in heaven and we on earth. However, following the same now/not-yet mentality, the Ephesian readers would have seen that Jesus had been granted authority over the heavens – which to them, would have also included the spiritual and demonic and magical world in which they were forced to coexist alongside. In other words, in the same way that non-Christians will be forcibly brought under Christ’s authority, so too will Satan and his minions – those who have fought God in the heavens and on earth.
Finally, one last important word choice is required to fully understand this passage. Some commentators and as many Bible translations have unfortunately forgotten or missed a key phrasing in verse 10. For God is not bringing together all things in the Messiah for the first time, but is doing so again. So for the more common translations which say all things will be ‘united’ under Christ, the correct word choice would actually be ‘reunited’.
This is a vital key to understanding the whole of Ephesians – and especially this opening eulogy. Already we have seen that we were chosen “before the foundation of the world” (1:4). In verse 9, Paul continues this thought, explaining that the mystery of God’s will was “planned” in Christ and will now be summed up in Him as well. This is right and true, for as we saw in the opening verses of John’s gospel, it was only through the Word, Jesus Christ, that God created – and that they were both together “in the beginning”. This plan was before time, and as we have seen, was God’s plan for us all along.
God’s plan all along has been to sum up fallen creation once more into the arms of the One through whom it was made in the first place. O’Brien says that this “key motif” of the mystery is unfolded throughout all of Ephesians, and “refers to the all-inclusive purpose of God which has as its ultimate goal the uniting of all things in heaven and earth in Christ.” Maybe, though, unsurprising as it may be, Martyn Lloyd-Jones sums it up most beautifully:
“The perfect harmony that will be restored will be harmony in man and between men. Harmony on the earth and in the brute creation! Harmony in haven, and all under this blessed Lord Jesus Christ who will be the head of all! Everything will again be united in him. And wonder of wonders, marvellous beyond compare, when all this happens it will never be undone again. All will be re-united in him to all eternity. That is the message; that is God’s plan. That is the mystery which has been revealed unto us.”
 Ephesians, Peter T. O’Brien, p. 111
 ibid, p. 108
 Ephesians, John Stott, p. 41, BST
 God’s Ultimate Purpose, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, p. 188
 ibid, p. 190 (emphasis mine)
 ibid, p. 191
 Ephesians, William W. Klein, p. 51 (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
 O’Brien, p. 110
 Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, Harold W. Hoehner, p. 214
 O’Brien, p. 110
 Klein, p. 52
 O’Brien, p. 111
 Ephesians, James Montgomery Boice, p. 25
 O’Brien, p. 113
 Ephesians, Klyne Snodgrass, p. 53 (The NIV Application Commentary Series)
 O’Brien, p. 110
 Lloyd-Jones, p. 206-7