The Mystery of the Gospel
In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:5-6 NRSV).
Ephesians 3 opens with a brief description of Paul’s commission as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul begins by calling himself a “prisoner for Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:1). Whenever Paul uses an expression like this, there are clear double meanings. Paul regularly finds himself bound in chains because of his faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 16:24). Yet, even when he is free, he is bound to the calling he received from the Lord (Acts 9:15-16). Paul goes on in Ephesians 3 to elaborate on the nature of this calling or “commission” (Eph 3:2). At some point in Paul’s life, possibly on the road to Damascus or in the days immediately after (Acts 9:1-9), a mystery was revealed to Paul. This mystery, as he goes on to elaborate, is that “Gentiles have become fellow heirs” in the promises of God (Eph 3:6).
Before explaining the mystery, Paul makes an intriguing clarification: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind” (Eph 3:5). To a certain extent, Paul’s remark makes sense in light of his cultural context. During the Second Temple period, an elitist attitude toward God’s covenant promises clearly developed within the Jewish people. This is why Jesus offers the Pharisees a scathing rebuke of their mindset by saying, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them” (Mt 23:13). In the first century, the cultural commands of the Mosaic law regarding topics like food and dress drove a deep wedge between the Jewish people and the Gentiles living amongst them. When Peter first arrives in the home of the Roman soldier, Cornelius, he says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). This comment reveals the deep divide engrained between Jews and Gentiles in biblical times; a divide that God works to bridge through the church and the good news of Jesus Christ.
Hints of the Mystery
Although God’s inclusion of the Gentiles appears to be a “mystery” from a first century cultural perspective, hints of the mystery were revealed throughout the history of the people of Israel. Going back to God’s initial covenant with Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelite people, God promises to bless Abraham and make a great nation from him (Gen 12:2). Through this nation of people, God makes a further promise, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Herein lies the heart of the mystery: God chooses one family on earth as a means to bless all the families of earth. In this promise there is a paradox that is often overlooked. God’s exclusive call of Abraham is an inclusive call of all peoples.
Following the story of Abraham’s descendants down through history, one can see how God uses one nation to draw people from all nations into God’s covenant people. When the Hebrew people are redeemed from slavery in Egypt, the book of Exodus reports that “a mixed crowd also went up with them” (Ex 12:38). This is an obscure and unclear reference, but it has been interpreted by some to suggest that other ethnic groups joined with the Israelites in their Exodus from Egypt. If this is true, the people assembled at the base of Mount Sinai are an eclectic combination of Abraham’s descendants and people from other African and Middle Eastern people groups. This may help explain the inclusive nature of many of the Mosaic Laws. For example, the commandment about resting on the Sabbath day includes these instructions: “You shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” (Ex 20:10). God’s Sabbath rest extends beyond the people of Israel to slaves, foreigners, and even animals. Not only are all people to be included in God’s blessing, but even the creation itself is included in the promises of God (Rom 8:19-21).
After the people leave the mountain and head for the Promised Land, God begins the slow process of grafting more and more nations into the family tree of Abraham. When Joshua and the Israelite army conquer Jericho, they spare a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab because of her role in helping the Israelite spies. From that day forth, the scriptures say that Rahab’s “family has lived in Israel ever since” (Josh 6:25).
Later in the story, another foreign woman finds her way into the people of Israel. Because of a famine, some Israelites move to Moab and marry Moabite women. The book of Genesis attributes the origins of the Moabite people to Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters (Gen 19:36-37). During the Exodus journey, the people of Moab become enemies of the Israelites when they send Balaam to curse the Israelites (Num 22:1-6) and later Moabite women use their sexuality to lure Israelite men away from the true worship of YHWH alone (Num 25:1-2). This highlights the scandal of a Moabite woman like Ruth being included in the people of Israel when she marries Boaz and becomes the mother of Obed, who “became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:17). Not only did a Moabite woman come into the family of Abraham, but she became the matriarch of Israel’s most famous family, the lineage of King David.
The Revealing of the Mystery
While the Hebrew Bible shows clear hints of the inclusion of the Gentiles, the ministry of Jesus and the early church fully reveal the mystery of the gospel. In Mark 7, a Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin approaches Jesus to ask for spiritual deliverance for her daughter. Jesus responds with one of the edgiest lines in scripture, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7:27). On the surface, this appears to be a direct insult of the woman’s humanity. Yet, in this provocative response, Jesus tests the woman’s faith. He acknowledges the fact that his God-given mission is to first go to the people of Israel. However, this raises a question. Even after Jesus goes to the people of Israel, is there anything left for the Gentiles? Is God’s blessing only for the Jews? Or is God’s goodness so abundant as to “spill over” even to the Gentiles? The woman responds in faith and boldness, saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk 7:28). This is her way of affirming that the super-abundance of God has enough “crumbs” even for people like her, who appear to be far from the family of God. Jesus praises her for her response, and her daughter is immediately made well.
As the mission of the Christian church goes forward in the subsequent decades, the clarity of the mystery comes into even greater focus. One of the first converts to the faith is an Ethiopian eunuch, who appears on the surface to be doubly alienated from God due to his foreign status and physical deformity (Dt 23:1). Yet, the eunuch comes to believe that Jesus is the Messiah spoken of by the prophets, and he is immediately baptized and included into God’s covenant people (Acts 8:34-38).
When Peter receives a vision from God in Acts 10 declaring all foods to be clean, God makes a definitive statement about the inclusion of the Gentiles. This new declaration removes the one barrier that keeps Peter from entering the home of Cornelius. The good news of the gospel can now spread freely throughout the world to all people. When the first missionary journey of Paul begins in Acts 13, the fullness of the mystery becomes a reality.
The mystery of the gospel continues to have important ramification for Christians today. The elitist and exclusive attitude of first century Judaism offers a word of caution to churches that understand the body of Christ in strict and exclusive terms. The mission of God always goes forth to draw all people into the family of God (1 Tim 2:4). The eternal plan of God, as revealed in the scriptures, is always to include those who respond to God in faith. Furthermore, the inclusive ministries of the apostles serve as a template for ministry today. Christians should never predetermine that certain groups of people are completely outside the scope of God’s salvation. If one lesson is clear from scripture, it is that God has a way of drawing unexpected people to himself. When it comes to spreading the good news of Jesus, we should never discriminate with our eyes. For we never know who might respond to the gracious invitation of God.