What does God intend the church to be and do? That question matters more than all the goals and KPIs we set for ourselves.
So how does this sound?
Ephesians 3 10 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. (NIV)
Say, what? Does the church exist so God can show off to rulers and spiritual beings?
With the wrong assumptions, this picture is a dark puzzle. But it makes brilliant sense when illuminated by the story about God’s kingship (the kingdom of God), revealed in his Messiah.
Here’s how some people try to make sense of this verse. They assume angels and demons were ignorant of God’s plans. It was a “mystery” to them, as it was to us. So, the spiritual powers only found out what God was up to when they heard it from the church (on the assumption that through the church means through preaching). What preaching are we referring to? Here the interpretation splits: it could mean announcing the good news (Ben Witherington), or denouncing the bad rulers (Walter Wink).
But the verse does not say the church makes the reveal; God does. Secondly, this interpretation focuses on merely one task of the church (preaching) rather than on the very existence of the church in God’s world. Thirdly, this interpretation doesn’t connect well with the story Paul is developing in Ephesians.
In Chapter 2, we saw how the nations transgressed their boundaries to crush God’s nation, so the whole of humanity was dead under sin instead of living under God. The unknown (mystery) was what God would do with the transgressing nations when he restored his people.
God’s solution was to send his anointed to bring peace to these warring groups, by including the nations under his kingship. The Messiah reunified humanity in his own being, becoming the place where the heavenly sovereign lives among his earthly subjects — the temple where everyone has access to God through Christ Jesus, the cornerstone of God’s entire restoration project (2:11-22).
That is the significance of the church. It is the new humanity — raised out of oppression under death, into peace in the Messiah. It is the reunified community of peace in King Jesus’ reign, the restored human community — no longer rebelling, but embodying God’s presence.
The church is this earthly community of diverse humans, unified in God’s Anointed, living under his kingship. It is the present expression of the kingdom of God — incomplete, but already present. By establishing the church in the Messiah, God has sent a message to the powers that the attempted coup against God’s reign on earth is over. The very existence of the church as reunified humanity in the Messiah says: the coup has failed!
That is the significance of the church. With all her diversity, the church represents the multifaceted wisdom of God because her existence reveals how the heavenly sovereign solved multiple problems at once. Not only did God rescue his nation from the transgressing nations; he brought the nations back into his reign also.
The existence of the church therefore sends a message to the human rulers and also to the spiritual powers that drive them to divide and devastate the earth. The focus isn’t on the church’s preaching, but on the message God has sent by establishing the church.
So what is God’s intention for the church? To be the reunited human community, living life in allegiance to God’s anointed ruler. It’s primarily about being, rather than preaching. There’s very little in the rest of Ephesians about preaching; the whole thing is about being what God intends the church to be.
So, church, let’s not put too much emphasis on putting on a good show in Sundays. Let’s encourage each other to wrestle with the things that divide us, so we can live as one corporate entity — the embodiment of King Jesus and his restorative reign for the benefit of all people on earth (Ephesians 4). Let’s treat each other the way the Messiah treated us, literally as his life-partner: the bride participating in his life, the queen sharing in his reign (Ephesians 5). Let’s not treat human rulers as enemies, but merely as slaves of spiritual powers — as we face them with nothing but the armour God wore at his crucifixion (Ephesians 6).
So here’s the expanded logic of Ephesians 3:10, in its context:
God’s multifaceted wisdom has now been shown to both the earthly rulers and to the spiritual authorities they were serving. The mystery of what God would do with the nations when he rescued his nation is finally resolved. Like the wise ruler he is, God solved multiple problems at once in the Messiah. He saved both his oppressed nation and the oppressing nations who were themselves oppressed by the powers of evil. He ended the hostilities, making peace in the Messiah, drawing everyone together into a universal citizenship under the governance of his anointed, forming us all into a temple where the heavenly sovereign is welcome to live among and govern humanity.
That, my friends, is the significance of the church: the community where God’s reign is already present and revealed to the powers that claim authority in his earthly realm.
What others are saying:
Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1990), 186–187:
The writer does not spell out exactly how the Church makes known God’s purpose to the powers. Conzelmann (104) claims that it is through the Church’s preaching, and this same assumption misleads Wink (Naming the Powers, 89–96), who connects 3:10 with 3:8 and argues that the reference is to the preaching to the angels of the Gentile nations, which has to accompany the proclamation of the good news to the Gentiles. But the text does not mention preaching, and Wink’s discussion ignores the function of the earlier reference to Paul’s preaching the good news to the Gentiles and its relation to the thought of 3:6 that Gentiles have become joint members of the body. …
The writer’s thought is, therefore, best understood as being that by her very existence as a new humanity, in which the major division of the first century world has been overcome, the Church reveals God’s secret in action and heralds to the hostile heavenly powers the overcoming of cosmic divisions with their defeat (cf. also Minear, “The Vocation to Invisible Powers,” 94–101). … The mystery is disclosed in the Church and through her is being made known to these very powers that their malign régime, particularly over that part of humanity, the Gentile world, thought to be especially under their sway, has come to an end.
Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Epistle to the Ephesians: A Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 140:
In 3:10 this connection becomes clearer in the light of the divine economy of salvation: Through the Church, through her becoming manifest, through her outward form which includes the one-time Gentiles (v. 6) the Wisdom of God which planned their subjugation will be revealed to the powers and forces.
Frank Thielman, Ephesians, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 216:
In light of the way Paul speaks of “the rulers and authorities” elsewhere in the letter, there can, in any case, be little doubt that Paul considered these figures to be thoroughly evil spiritual beings who exercised power over the unbelieving world (2:1–2; 6:12). The church is unified across ethnic lines and is a newly created human being. By its very existence as a unified body, then, the church makes known to the evil spiritual rulers and authorities the vastness of God’s creative wisdom: he not only created the universe with its endless variety, but in a wholly surprising way he has also begun to restore the crowning achievement of his creation—humanity—to its original unity.