The apocalyptic framework of Ephesians 3

Same apocalyptic problem (mystery); unexpectedly awesome answer (reveal)

After Babylon invaded Jerusalem and terminated the Davidic kingship, Israel was ruled by other nations. Floating adrift among the nations, they clung to their ancient stories of how God had delivered them from Pharaoh’s tyranny, committing himself to be the sovereign of their nation (covenant), giving them his wise law (Torah), and living among them to lead them (tabernacle).

But generations of Jacob’s descendants remained under foreign domination, rising and dying like the grass of the field. As nations fought and conquered each other, as empires rose and fell, Israel remained the meat in their sandwich.

They wondered how God would resolve this injustice. When would the day of the Lord arrive? How would the sovereign Lord overpower the evil that oppressed them and destroy the power of the nations?

The Similitudes of Enoch provides insight into how some first-century Jews imagined it would work out when God revealed his answer to this mystery:

1 Enoch 62 2 The word of his mouth will do the sinners in; and all the oppressors shall be eliminated from before his face. 3 On the day of judgment, all the kings, the governors, the high officials, and the landlords shall see and recognize him — how he sits on the throne of his glory, and righteousness is judged before him …

Then pain shall come upon them as on a woman in travail with birth pangs — when she is giving birth (the child) enters the mouth of the womb and she suffers from childbearing. One half portion of them shall glance at the other half; they shall be terrified and dejected; and pain shall seize them when they see that Son of Man sitting on the throne of his glory. (These) kings, governors, and all the landlords shall (try to) bless, glorify, extol him who rules over everything, him who has been concealed.

7 For the Son of Man was concealed from the beginning, and the Most High One preserved him in the presence of his power; then he revealed him to the holy and the elect ones. 8 The congregation of the holy ones shall be planted, and all the elect ones shall stand before him. 9 On that day, all the kings, the governors, the high officials, and those who rule the earth shall fall down before him on their faces, and worship and raise their hopes in that Son of Man; they shall beg and plead for mercy at his feet. 10 But the Lord of the Spirits himself will cause them to be frantic, so that they shall rush and depart from his presence. Their faces shall be filled with shame, and their countenances shall be crowned with darkness. 11 So he will deliver them to the angels for punishments in order that vengeance shall be executed on them — oppressors of his children and his elect ones. …

13 The righteous and elect ones shall be saved on that day; and from thenceforth they shall never see the faces of the sinners and the oppressors.

1 Enoch reflects the hope expressed in Daniel 7, the hope that one day Israel’s God would give the kingship to one like a Son of Man. The Enoch community imagined this would mean judgement for the rulers who oppressed them.

Note the apocalyptic language of concealed / revealed. Enoch says the identity of God’s appointed ruler (the Son of Man) had been concealed from the world’s rulers, so God could reveal him at the right time. This mystery-to-be-revealed is the essence of apocalyptic — a word that literally means the reveal, the revelation.

But when God finally did reveal his Messiah, things were vastly different to what the Enoch community imagined. They imagined the revelation of God’s appointed ruler would mean the destruction of those who currently rule, so God’s people never again “see the faces of their oppressors.”

Ephesians 3 depicts a very different reveal. Instead of warring against and destroying the nations for their transgressions, God’s anointed Messiah incorporated the nations into his rule! They expected God to pour bowls of caustic wrath on the nations, but God revealed astounding benevolence by incorporating them in the Messiah’s reign!

That’s what grace is: the unexpected regal benevolence of the heavenly sovereign for the people of his earthly realm, the unimaginably generous character of our heavenly king towards his own nation and the nations who had resisted his reign.

That’s the reveal Ephesians gives. Before the Messiah was revealed, God’s world was divided: one nation under his kingship; other nations out for their own power. Driven by dark forces beyond themselves, the nations around Israel overstepped their boundaries, took Israel’s land, and terminated the Davidic kingship. In doing so, they brought everyone (Israel included) under the reign of sin and death (Ephesians 2:1-3). But the heavenly sovereign’s extreme benevolence (grace) saved the nations and Israel from this death, by raising his anointed from death to the throne (2:4-9). As a result, everything changed. The old animosities are over, as the Messiah forms a whole new unified humanity in himself. The nations receive citizenship in the people of God (2:10-18). In the Messiah, all earth-dwellers together (Israel and the nations) are being formed into the house where God is present and reigning (2:19-22).

When God finally did reveal how he would solve the problem of the nations, it turned out that Enoch and the apocalypists had seriously underestimated divine benevolence. The reveal — in the person of the Messiah — gave the most unexpected answer to the mystery.

Here it is:

Ephesians 3 (interpretative translation)
2 Surely you heard about the commission of God’s benevolence given to me to benefit you who come from other nations, 3 the reveal he made known to me as the answer to the mystery of what God would do with the nations. …

6 Through the Good News of the Messiah’s kingship, the nations are co-inheritors, co-joined corporately, co-beneficiaries of the promise God fulfilled in Messiah Jesus, through the Good News of his restored kingship.

7 As a gift of God’s benevolence, I became his public servant, empowered to function with the power of his government. 8 To me — someone of the least significance among all God’s holy subjects — was given this magnanimous appointment: to announce to the nations the good news of the Messiah’s unfathomable generosity, 9 to bring to light the management of the mystery concealed in previous ages, concealed in the character of the God who created it all.

Gospel. Grace. Salvation. Familiar words jump to life as the good news of Jesus restoring God’s kingship to earth (the gospel of the kingdom), the astounding benevolence of our divine sovereign’s character (grace), and the rescue of Jacob’s descendants in combination with the nations that previously oppressed them in the reign of sin and death, into life under restored divine kingship of God’s whole world (salvation).

Does this gospel enthuse you? What a reveal to the mystery of the ages!


For comparison

Ephesians 3 (NIV)
2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation …

6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.


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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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