I continue to share my teaching notes for this 6 week class at my church.
Tonight we will look at two related mysteries – one in Ephesians 3, and the other in Romans 11 – both related to Jews and Gentiles in the church.
Let’s open to Ephesians 3 where we will find the longest, or about the longest, discussion of mystery in the NT. I’ll read verses 1-13. You’ll hear mystery mentioned more than once.
Verses 5 and verses 9-10 serve as a good review of a definition of mystery. Looking at those verses, what is a mystery?
- A truth “which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.” (verse 5) Notice by the Spirit in verse 5. Remember last week we looked at the role of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2.
- Verse 9 and 10 also emphasizes the hidden but revealed aspect, and the role of the church. In the NIV, I like how it says “to make plain to everyone.” A mystery isn’t something to be kept secret. (Remember the first week we talked briefly about the pagan mystery religions, and their beliefs were kept secret.)
One nice thing in Ephesians 3 is that Paul states so clearly what this mystery is. At times, like last week, Paul’s mention of mystery in 1 Corinthians 2 was surrounded by verses about the paradox of the cross, so it was more like an inference or implication that the mystery was about the cross. But this time it is stated very directly– what is the mystery in verse 6?
- The mystery is not so much that Gentiles could become believers in Jesus the Messiah, but that believing Jews and Gentiles are joined together.
Verse 6 begins “This mystery is that through the gospel…”
So, what is the gospel? How would you define the gospel in a sentence or two?
We could be thinking, why is this a big deal, Jews and Gentiles being joined together in one body, the church? And to better grasp why this is such a big deal, a mystery, we are going to look at Ephesians chapter 2.
Ephesians 2 begins in a very dark way – emphasizing the sinfulness of humanity – we are dead in sin and deserving of wrath. But then verse 4 begins to move into our great salvation found in Christ. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ”
We will pick up at verse 11 and slowly go through verses 11-22.
Someone read verses 11-12.
In verse 12, what words or phrases – there are several – describe the Gentiles?
- (Write on board): uncircumcised, separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship, foreigners to the covenant, without hope
I had the below “Jewish cultural mentality” drawn on the white board, and briefly explained it.
This is like a Jewish view of the world. Note the Gentiles aren’t even in the circle, but are way off to the side. From a Jewish point of view in that time, there are only 2 categories: Jew or Gentile.
The Jews also spoke of themselves as the circumcised, and Gentiles as the uncircumcised. And at times this phrase “the uncircumcised” could be a bit like an ethnic slur. In 1 Samuel 17, which has the incident between David and Goliath, we can see an example of this. Read 1 Samuel 17:26.
Before we are quick to judge, I think we all have ways that we categorize people. Some people are in our circle, and some people are not. Maybe it is based upon social class, education level, ethnicity, or nationality. And likely there is some group we put way out there with the Gentiles. Maybe it is people of a certain political party.
Let’s keep reading in Ephesians 2, and someone read verse 13.
That is an awesome BUT isn’t it! So, how are we brought near?
- Through Christ Jesus, and the blood of Christ.
In the Old Testament, before Jesus came, if a Gentile wanted to be a formal worshiper of YHWH, they had to become a Jewish convert. A male would have to be circumcised, and Jewish laws and customs would have to be observed – such as keeping Sabbath rest, following the dietary code, etc. But Jesus changed everything. A Gentile would not need to convert to Judaism, and instead everyone is brought near through Christ.
To keep moving, verse 14 begins “For he himself is our peace.”
Note is does not say Jesus made peace, but Jesus himself is our peace. Peace is a person. Someone read verses 14-18, and take note of the multiple uses of the word peace as it is read.
What is the peace brought by Christ in these verses?
- The barrier between Jews and Gentiles is destroyed. The two groups are made one. The cross is for everyone, Jew and Gentile. Both are reconciled to God through the cross, and thus they are also reconciled to each other.
What does verse 15 say has been set aside?
- The OT way. In other words, a Gentile does not need to become a Jewish convert or follow the OT law to be a Christian.
And verses 19-22 are a description of the church. I’ll read that.
- This is the mystery that Paul talks about in Ephesians 3. “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.”
The Jews knew that they had a missional aspect to their faith. Isaiah 49:6 says that they’d be “a light for the Gentiles, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” But they never imagined that it would mean that Gentiles didn’t have to convert to Judaism, or that Jews and Gentiles would be together and equal in something new called the church. Remember that an aspect of mystery is that there is a new or unexpected dimension to an OT prophecy or expectation.
Earlier we noted these words I wrote on the board describing Gentiles: separate, excluded, foreigners, etc. Take a moment to glance back over chapter 2, verses 13-22, and lets write up there a new list of words and phrases that describe our position through Christ:
brought near (verse 13), we are together (verses 14-16), we have access (verse 18), fellow citizens and part of the family (verse 19)
Over the years, things have oddly changed, even reversed themselves. For example, instead of Jews looking down on Gentiles, some Christians can despise Jews. You may not be aware, but anti-Semitism is on the rise in the US, in Germany, and other places in the world. That is disturbing. But we don’t have time to get into that, rather I want to briefly focus on another thing.
The key issue of the first century church was about the blending of Jews and Gentiles together in the church. We can see this unfold in the book of Acts, and decisions were made about the Gentiles coming into the church. What Jewish customs, if any, would Gentile believers in Jesus need to adhere to? That was decided in AD 49 or 50, read all about it in Acts 15 at the council in Jerusalem.
– But back then, the initial concern was: Can a Gentile be a Christian? Initially, Christianity was considered more like a sect of Judaism. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. So you’d come to Christ through Judaism.
–While today some can think: Can a Jew become Christian? Should we even evangelize Jews? Some think not. That is offensive. Jesus is not for Jews.
So things have reversed themselves in 2,000 years.
What are your thoughts?
- Jews and Gentiles alike both still need Jesus. Whether your background is Jewish or Gentile, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
This leads us into the next mystery. Remember how Matthew 13 was about the unexpected inter-advent age. The Jews expected that when their Messiah arrived, he would bring justice all at once – the kingdom would completely come in its fullness all at once. And that’s not what happened. Rather the kingdom was inaugurated; it began, and broke into the earthly sphere. And we live in the “already but not yet” – a time of wheat and tares – as we live between the first and second coming of Jesus.
This mystery in Romans is about the “order of salvation” during this inter-advent age. What do I mean by order of salvation? The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) present Jesus as first pursuing Jews or ethnic Israelites, followed by Gentiles. It is the same in Acts. Initially, in Acts it is about Jews coming to faith in Jesus as their Messiah. Romans begins with Jews first, then Gentile.
Someone read Romans 1:16.
But Romans 11 reverses this order, meaning that Gentiles become the prominent focus of God’s salvation. And Romans 11:25 is the mystery. And we see this change take place in the book of Acts.
Before we look at Romans in more detail, we’ll read Acts 13:46. – Just to give this context, as Paul traveled as a missionary, he would go to the synagogues first, before speaking to Gentiles. But when people starting believing in Jesus and crowds gathered, this upset the devout Jews. And now read Acts 13:46.
That’s an indicting statement!
Essentially from this point onward, only a minority of Jews would believe, and the majority coming to faith would be Gentiles.
Romans 9, 10, and 11 can be labeled as about Israel’s past, present, and future. One Bible I have labels
Romans 9 as: Israel’s Rejection of Christ,
Romans 10 as: Israel needs the Gospel, and
Romans 11 as: Israel’s Rejection not total.
The first section of Romans 11 says that while some Jews believed, for the majority of Jews their hearts were hardened and their eyes were blinded to the fact that Jesus was their Messiah. But then verses 11-12 bring some hope. Someone read Romans 11:11-12.
Do we understand the point of these 2 verses? Can you paraphrase or summarize it for us?
- There is still hope for the Jews. Their rejection of Christ brought about something good – salvation coming to us, the Gentiles. And eventually the salvation of Gentiles will make the Jews want to believe in Christ. Paul uses the word jealous.
I liked The Message (paraphrase by Eugene Peterson) for verses 11-12:
The next question is, “Are they down for the count? Are they out of this for good?” And the answer is a clear-cut No. Ironically when they walked out, they left the door open and the outsiders walked in. But the next thing you know, the Jews were starting to wonder if perhaps they had walked out on a good thing. Now, if their leaving triggered this worldwide coming of non-Jewish outsiders to God’s kingdom, just imagine the effect of their coming back! What a homecoming!
We don’t have time to look at verses 13-24, but Paul uses an example of an Olive Tree. The Jewish branches were cut off because of their unbelief, and we as believing Gentiles were grafted in. This is great for us; we became a part of God’s tree! But Paul also emphasizes that the Jews can be grafted in again. He makes that clear. Verse 23 says “God is able to graft them in again.”
So, in the inter-advent age, or the church age, it essentially becomes Gentile first, then Jews. And this is the mystery of Romans 11: 25. Someone read 11:25.
In the inter-advent age God has temporarily set aside Israel in order to show grace to Gentiles. We are awaiting something that has not happened yet. It says “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.”
The full number of Gentiles in God’s plan for this world has not been reached yet, because we have not seen a mass conversion of Jews coming to Christ. This gets into “end time” issues that are beyond what we have time to focus on…
[But I think a key point is that God is not finished with Israel, and there is a future for the Jews. They are not down for the count. There are those who think that the church has “replaced” Israel entirely, that all the promises made to Israel in the OT were spiritually fulfilled in the church. So it is only about the church now. But I disagree, especially in light of Romans 11. It is true that Gentiles in the church are heirs together with Israel, sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus – but I still think there is a distinction in some ways between Israel and the church, and God still has a plan and future for Israel.]