A Matter of Meaning: Ephesians 3.1-13

The first two chapters of Ephesians have been pretty heavy; Paul has covered a lot of material and used a lot of different images to talk about it. Here at the start of chapter 3, we get a breather, an opportunity to look back at the ground already covered before we continue on. Here is the text:

(3.1) This is why I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — (2) no doubt you have heard of the dispensation of God’s grace given to me for your sake. (3) The Mystery was made known to me in a revelation, as as I wrote briefly earlier. (4) If you read it, you will be able to understand my understanding of the Mystery of Christ, (5), which, in previous generations, was not made known to humanity, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit: (6) for the Gentiles to be co-heirs, co-members of one body, and co-sharers of the promises in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. (7) I have become a servant of this Gospel according to the gift of God’s grace given to me, according to the working of his power — (8) I, the least of all the saints, was given this grace! — to proclaim to the Gentiles the Gospel of the unsearchable wealth of Christ, (9) and to enlighten everyone as to the dispensation of the Mystery hidden from eternity in God, who has created all things, (10) so that now every multifaceted divine wisdom might be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenlies through the Church, (11) in accordance with the eternal plan when God enacted in Christ Jesus our Lord, (12) in whom we may speak freely and have access in what has been done through his faithfulness. (13) I beg, therefore, that you not do wrong on account of my travails on your behalf — they are your glory!

“This” — Paul’s commitment to bringing Gentiles into the community of faith — is why he is being imprisoned. He has dedicated his life to this commitment because it was a mission revealed to him by Christ, which he sees as a gift, not a burden. He describes this ministry in language that hearkens back to the first two chapters: It is nothing less than the Divine Mystery (echoing 1.9), hidden from all eternity until now, an ancient plan (1.3-14), enacted (’as a dispensation’) in Christ (1.10): that the blessings of the people of God — the inheritance (1.11-14), the community (’body’) (2.16), and promises (2.12-14) — are for Gentiles as well as Jews. This means that the principalities and powers (cf. 1.21-22, 2.1-4) are put on notice, as it were: their glory days are over. This is a nice summary of what Paul has covered already in the letter. Because so much of the language is repeated from the first two chapters, there isn’t a lot ‘new’ here that pops out, however there are a few twists that deserve some attention:

  • This is the first time in the letter, the author mentions his captivity; what impact does this knowledge have on our reading of the passage?
  • What does the text means when it says that in Christ ‘we may speak freely’?
  • How ought we interpret the ‘faith of Christ’ in 3.12?

Paul’s Imprisonment

Ephesians is one of the letters that claims to be written by Paul from prison (traditionally believed to be his final imprisonment in Rome with which the book of Acts ends). From the ending of this passage, it is clear that Paul is worried that this is a source of concern and even guilt for his readers: It’s his advocacy on their behalf that has gotten him into trouble (3.1, 13). But Paul frames his imprisonment not as a failure, but as an honour (here, ‘glory’). He does not blame the religious or political authorities for their heavy-handed opposition to his mission, but rather focuses on the wonder of the ministry God has entrusted to him. He doesn’t see his chains as a hindrance to his work, but as yet another way he is able to testify to Christ. As Clinton E. Arnold notes, Paul understands that his imprisonment “serves to magnify the triumph of God because God accomplishes his purposes in weakness.”* And so, “a key function of this passage is to give Paul’s readers a broader, divine perspective on his imprisonment and suffering.”

Because Paul is confident that God is working through him and that God is ultimately faithful, he is able to see his difficult situation in, if not a positive light, at least a meaningful one. Meaning-making is a big part of the human experience — how we frame our circumstances will have a huge impact on how we understand them, and the world around us by extension. In thinking of his circumstances as he does, Paul provides his readers with a wonderful example of faith and the power of how we frame our own circumstances. Thus, we might say that a big part of the importance of this passage for us is psychological rather than strictly theological.

Before wrapping up this short post, a couple quick notes on vocabulary might be helpful:

Access and Freedom to Speak

In the previous section of the letter, Paul wrote about how Christ’s blood granted us prosagoge (‘access’) to God; here in his summary, he adds a second term, parrhesia, which I’ve translated as ‘freedom to speak’, but is often translated as ‘confidence’ or ‘boldness’ in English Bibles. It’s a difficult word to translate into English but thankfully it’s an easy concept to understand nonetheless. Think of any movie or television show set in a hierarchical context; a subordinate will often approach the person in charge (demonstrating their prosagoge, as it happens) and request, “Permission to speak freely, sir?” This permission to speak freely or candidly to a superior is the essence of parrhesia. In classical Greece, it also referred to the citizen’s right to speak at the gathered assembly (which was known as the boule, but also as the ekklesia, which is the word we translate as ‘church’.) So, this particular aspect of Christ’s work on our behalf involves this sense of freedom, permission, and rights and responsibilities. The translations ‘confidence’ or ‘boldness’ are not exactly wrong, but we need to remember that they are to be exercised within a situation in which one is responsible to a group (as in Athens) or to a superior (as in a royal court, or, here, before God). So there is boldness, but with humility and respect.

A Question of Faith

Towards the end of this passage we have yet another instance of an expression that can be read as referring either to ‘faith in Christ’ or to ‘Christ’s faithfulness.’ I’ve already explained (see here and here) that — and why — I’m pretty firmly on the ‘faithfulness’ side of debates in New Testament studies about whether pistis is best thought of as ‘faith’ — which in English (especially among Protestants) tends to be conceived primarily faith as belief in — or as ‘faithfulness’, understood as responsibility and trustworthiness. As a more traditionally Protestant interpretation would understand 3.12, our parrhesia and prosagoge are obtained through “faith in him.” But, as the more recent emerging consensus (which is also the more literal reading, as it happens) understands it, they are obtained “through his faith,” i.e., through his faithfulness to God and God’s plan. Again, for the purposes of Christian life and application, it amounts to the same thing: It is Christ’s faithfulness to God that makes him a worthy recipient of our faith, so, in that sense both are true, again provided we understand that ‘faith’ does not mean simply ‘belief’ or ‘intellectual assent.’


This has been a bit of a hodge-podge of a post, focusing less on the argument, since Paul is largely recapping what he’s already covered, than on how Paul frames the passage, with a couple questions of terminology on the side. It’s the former that I think is the main take-away: Paul is able to understand his experiences through a larger perspective of God’s work, thereby enabling him not to despair at the time passing him by while he is in jail, but to see it instead as another form of his witness.

In this and in all things, Paul keeps his focus on his vocation: to spread the good news that the blessings of God’s people are available to everyone, regardless of ethnic, cultural, and religious background.

This is a great example for us in our own lives, as we deal with setbacks and reversals that at first glance seem to be working against God and God’s purposes in and for our lives. Our vocations will not be Paul’s (as important as his is for our lives of faith), but we can hold them with the same confidence that Paul holds his, even when things are not going according to plan.


* See the full Bibliography for the series for details.

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