At alternate times while I was preparing for my visit to Illinois I turned again to your letter of December 21st. Here I should like to deal mainly with your remarks about the "mystery" in Ephesians. If it were possible for us to readjust or harmonize such differences as we may have on that particular subject, it seems this might help greatly to facilitate a mutual understanding of other subjects as well, including some you have mentioned in your letter.
I note you say "Paul does not say the mystery was made known to him first." For this you cite Acts 1:8, Matt. 28:18-20, parallel references to Mark and Luke, also Peter's visit to Cornelius. All this suggests to me that you must be thinking of the "mystery" in Ephesians as consisting of revelations The Twelve had received before the call of Paul (the former Saul) as though his knowledge of the "mystery" had been obtained from The Twelve. I realise this may not have been your intention but if I assume this as a basis for comparison of our thinking, I can better relate my own understanding of the "mystery" in Ephesians; the source from which it was revealed, then how and through who it was further revealed to others. Before I proceed to observe how this differs from prior revelations, I hasten to add this is not to suggest it cancels out or disagrees with anything elsewhere revealed in Scripture when each part is applied to the time and the people whereunto it rightly belongs.
Thus after Paul had first mentioned the "mystery" in Ephesians 3:3 but before he defined it in verse six, I observe—as I infer you do also—that there were things as stated "which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets." I suggest this must be distinguished from (and not mistaken for) the "mystery" Paul had first mentioned in verse three, which he afterward defined in verse six, and whereof he says in verse nine that the fellowship of this mystery had been hid in God "from the beginning of the world." (I realise that you, like many others may prefer the King James Version which I am quoting here.) Even there you will note that a part of verse three and all of verse four has been enclosed within parentheses, and I submit there is a valid reason for this. By means of those words which the translators have rightly set apart from Paul's main declaration, he was reminding his readers first of a different mystery called "the mystery of Christ" whereof he says "I wrote afore in few words," and he adds that in other ages this separate mystery ("the mystery of Christ") was not made known to the sons of men as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets." Here it would be inaccurate to quote Paul as if he had said that "the mystery of Christ" was not previously revealed at all. For reasons I intend to supply here later, that mystery had been PARTIALLY revealed even in other ages but Paul says "not as it is NOW (my emphasis) revealed to His holy apostles and prophets." No doubt you will observe this is much different from a mystery "which from the beginning of the world had been hid in God" and therefore not revealed at all in other preceding ages. Here I may say that the Rotherham Version reads more precisely and in accord with the original Greek text by saying "which had been hidden away from the ages in God," but at least in this instance, if you prefer, it is not necessary to depart from the King James text in order to support the same intention.
We are concerned here now with the distinction between the mystery which "from the beginning of the world" had been "hid in God" (therefore hid in God alone) as compared with "the mystery of Christ" whereof Paul says he "wrote afore in few words," a mystery which by that time had been revealed also to "His holy apostles and prophets" (in the plural) so to their knowledge it was no longer restricted to the limited degree by which it was partially made known to the sons of men even in previous ages. Thus we are concerned here also to observe where Paul may have written about that "mystery of Christ"! and, as he said "afore in few words." Did he refer here to something he had written which possibly did not become a part of Scripture? That we could neither affirm nor rule out. Did Paul allude instead to one or more passages in his pre-prison epistles where he had referred to "mysteries before"! as, for example, I Cor. 2:7. That may well be but there are those who for good reason prefer to believe that Paul here referred to a previous passage in the same epistle (Eph. 1:9-10) where he had mentioned "a dispensation of the fulness of times" when God win "gather together in on> an things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth."
In any case, by the time when Paul wrote Ephesians he did not declare that "the mystery of Christ" (as such) was something only he himself knew; it had been revealed also to God's "holy apostles and prophets" (in the plural). They too had foreseen new heavens and a new earth under a future reign of Christ in what Paul called "a dispensation of the fulness of times." Peter for one had written thereof (II Pet. 3:13). In other preceding ages, however, Paul shows that this "mystery of Christ" had not been revealed to the same extent as he said it was "now" revealed to God's "holy apostles and prophets," Still as far as the earth alone was concerned, it had been identified with a promised "seed of the woman," a seed of Abraham, a king and priest like unto Melchisedec, a deliverer like unto Moses, and a royal son of David. Among other prophecies it appears in Psalm, 2:6-12, Pea. 72:8 (a dominion "from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth"), also in Isa. 32:1 and numerous other Old Testament passages. Israel all along had awaited an earthly Messiah but had not foreseen the need for a Redeemer, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah's prophecy whom they unknowingly had foreshadowed in their passover lamb and their many sacrifices of bulls and goats. The truth that our Lord had come first NOT to reign but to suffer and die was something even The Twelve did not first understand (Luke 18:32-34); not until after the Cross. It was then but not before that Peter could testify about "the resurrection of Jesus Christ; Who is gone into heaven and is on the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him." (I Pet. 3: 22). By that time "the mystery of Christ which "in other ages" had been identified only with the earth was now perceived as relating also to the heavens for a future "dispensation of the fulness of times." This "mystery of Christ," however, is not to be mistaken for or confused with the other mystery first mentioned in Ephesians 3:3, then tersely defined in verse six, and afterward declared in verse nine to have been "hid in God from the beginning of the world."
Now with reference to that greater mystery which until then had remained wholly unrevealed as distinguished from "the mystery of Christ" partly known even in preceding ages, Paul distinctly says that "by revelation He (God) made known unto me the "mystery" and from the beginning of the world until then when Paul received it, that mystery had been "hid in God" and thus not revealed previously to anyone else. Other Scripture also verifies that some things had been revealed before only to Paul which he had been forbidden to tell others about. I assume you are familiar with what he wrote in II Cor. 12th chapter, how there had been a time fourteen years before when Paul had been caught away to the third heaven, into paradise, and there he "heard unspeakable words" which were not lawful for him to utter. The revelations were so many and so transcendent, while the natural human tendency to make them known was so compelling, that Paul had to be restrained by some physical infirmity which he called "a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me." Here I do not insist this was necessarily the time when he received the "mystery" which had been hid in God from the beginning of the world, though it may have been. We are not told the time when Paul did receive it, so I mention this only as one instance when he received revelations he could not freely and at once reveal to someone else.
You will recall further that when he as Saul of Tarsus was met by our Lord on the Damascus road, he was told there would be more revelations in the future committed to him privately: "I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee, delivering thee from. the People (Israel) and from the Gentiles unto whom now I send thee" (Acts 26:16-17). Afterward Paul confirms this also in Galatians saying, first conferred not with flesh and blood; neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter" (Gal. 1:16-18). This further substantiates what Paul had said in verses 11 and 12: "I certify you brethren that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man, for I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ."
Still Saul (who became Paul) was not sent at once to the Gentiles. After he had returned to Jerusalem following his dramatic experience on the Damascus road, his temporary retreat in Arabia and his subsequent return to Jerusalem, there came a time when the brethren for his personal safety brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus, his native city (Acts 9:30). After that the next we read of Saul was when Barnabas had arrived at Syrian Antioch to find that many Grecians (or Hellenists) had believed in our Lord Jesus Christ, whereupon we are told that Barnabas went to Tarsus and brought Saul back with him to Antioch where they and others met together for about a year (Acts 11:25-26). Then those at Antioch were commanded by the Holy Spirit: "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereto I have called them," so they were sent forth first into Seleucia, then to Cyprus, then to Perga in Pamphylia, then to Antioch in Pisidia; afterward to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in Lycaonia; all before they returned briefly to Antiooh in Syria.
In Luke's account of The Acts we are reminded that Paul as a rule went first into the synagogues wherever he found any such so that he could preach first to the Jews. It was not until he had been rejected by these that he would turn to the Gentiles. Later as he wrote to the Romans he was careful to say that he brought his evangel "to the Jew first and also to the Greek." Paul's ministry from the first was primarily (though perhaps we should not say largely) to the Jews, but by the time he revealed the mystery in Ephesians from the prison at Rome his ministry had become predominantly Gentile; "Paul the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles" (Eph. 3:1).
Turning now to the mystery "which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God," Paul defined it as consisting of three new and unprecedented developments. The Gentiles, he said, had now become:
1) "Fellowheirs" (Of some previously unrevealed inheritance).
2) Now they were said to be members of the same body which necessarily means that until then they had not been recognised as equal with others together with whom they now constitute "THE SAME BODY;" It and...
3) These Gentiles were now joint partakers of a certain promise which Paul in Galatians had said was given to Abraham 430 years before the law afterward received through Moses. In Romans also we are told that this certain promise was made to Abraham BEFORE he received the sign of circumcision in his flesh which became the badge of a covenant limited to the circumcised nation of Israel, so at the time Abraham received the promise he was in effect still a Gentile.
Now unless each of these three stated revelations in Ephesians was something entirely new, they could not be said to constitute a "mystery hid in God from the beginning of the world" as Paul defines that mystery; so in order to understand it, we need first to observe wherein each of the three revelations was really new and previously unknown.
The first revelation of the mystery is that the Gentiles had become "fellowheirs" of a celestial realm, a previously unrevealed inheritance which Paul in chapter one, verse three, had designated as "heavenly places in Christ." For this we already have "the earnest of our inheritance"—"that holy spirit of promise"—"until the redemption of the purchased possession" (Eph. 1:13-14). The blessings we now enjoy in spirit as well as the inheritance we are yet to receive and possess are therefore exclusively "spiritual blessings," distinguished as such from blessings promised to Israel which will be earthly as well as spiritual. We rightly esteem our own blessings as superior to theirs and we need to distinguish each from the other. Though Israel's spiritual blessings will be of heavenly origin, they consist of promises to be realised here on earth and on a new earth yet to appear under new heavens as Peter too reminds us (II Pet. 3:13). Our own blessings which we can enjoy here in spirit only are to be realised in the heavens among the celestials, and there we as former Gentiles who have no promised earthly blessings are "fellowheirs" which means that we are jointly and equally blessed with former Jews who had believed Paul's evangel at the time he wrote Ephesians. In spirit we possess those blessings now.
Here I have intentionally said "former Jews" and I wish to emphasize FORMER, because any among them who did receive Paul's evangel had necessarily disavowed their identity with the covenant nation and its promised earthly blessings, even as Paul said of himself: "Yea, doubtless I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them as dung, that I may win Christ and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." Thus Paul could rightly say, as he did say also, that "I through the law am dead to the law that I might live unto God." This is all in accord with his unique evangel whereby former Jews and former Gentiles had become "a new creation in Christ" wherein there is "neither Jew nor Greek."
Thus the first of the three revelations in the mystery which until then had been totally hid in God was the joint and equal inheritance of a heavenly destiny in heavenly realm whereof the beneficiaries become exhibits of God's grace "in the ages to come" as we are told in Ephesians 2:7.
The second of the three revelations in the mystery may be briefly though less adequately defined here by saying that these former Jews and former Gentiles are now in spirit constituted as a celestial and corporate body over whom Christ in person presides as their Head (Eph. 1:22-23), a revelation which appears nowhere apart from Paul's epistles.
The third part of the mystery consists in the further revelation that these former Jews and former Gentiles, called from two different ethnic sources, are together and individually joint enjoyers of the promise here previously identified. The promise itself was not a mystery or something previously unknown but the revelation that it would be equally enjoyed by Gentiles as well as former Jews, this was distinctly new.
By contrast with this present transcendent revelation, all other blessings for the Gentiles, either in the past or in the future, are subject to a distinct recognition of their subordinate relation to Israel as covenant nation of a royal priesthood under a differently designated headship of our Lord whereby He is recognised as the preeminent King end Priest after the order of Melchisedec. That is a different subject for separate consideration if or when it may have your further attention.
Until then and always I would like to join with you in one of Paul's Ephesian prayers: "That Christ may dwell in your (in OUR) hearts by faith that ye (that WE) may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge; that ye (that WE) might be filled with all the fulness of God." Grace be unto you and Peace.
Melvin E. Johnson (Treasures of Truth, Instalment Eighteen, August-September 1975)