Ephesians 3:1-6 | The Joy of Suffering for Christ
1 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
As we transition from chapter 2 to chapter 3, Paul is moved to prayer because he’s in awe of God’s work in Christ in creating the global church. But as he began praying, he realized he said something that could sound discouraging to his readers. He didn’t want that. So he cut himself off to clarify. Notice the dash at the end of verse 1? With that dash, he began, basically, a mini-sermon on the joy of suffering for the cause of Christ.
Why does he do this? Because God has called the Church to be an outpost of the Kingdom in this world. And in this world of sin and rebellion, it should not surprise us that God’s Church and God’s people encounter suffering. For Paul, that isn’t a discouragement. It’s validation that God is at work in the world because the gospel isn’t a add-on option to life. It’s a life-changing, world-shaking, history-defining truth for life. The gospel is a revolution, and no revolution is easy. For Paul, hardship was something to rejoice in because Jesus is in it. This is the pastoral Paul, proving that joy and suffering go together in the Christian life.
Joy and suffering don’t normally fit. But the Bible shows that in the Christian life, suffering and joy can be friends because Jesus, the Suffering Servant, made them so. When God gets involved, his revealed purpose colors all our suffering, changing the tint from darkness to light. That doesn't mean our hardships are less painful or difficult. But God gives us the grace to endure, revealing along the way the larger purpose behind his work. In our suffering, we see more of Jesus and his purposes than we can on the clearest of days. The Lord is near to the broken-hearted.
Here in Ephesians 3, Paul wants to be very clear: he was not surprised by his suffering; he was surprised by his joy in his suffering. Suffering for Christ isn’t easy, but it’s worth every hardship because Jesus has swept us into the only cause that will last for eternity.
So, today, I want to consider suffering for the cause of Christ in three parts.
First, God gets involved in the hardships of life.
Second, God has a purpose for life’s hardships.
And third, God’s purpose is greater than life’s hardships.
God gets involved in the hardships of life.
The Bible is honest about life. When we live for Christ, we will suffer because we live in a sin-stained world in rebellion against God. But the Bible does more than say, “Life is hard. Suck it up.” It reasons with us on how to respond.
In John 16:33, Jesus said life wouldn't be easy. "In the world, you will have tribulation." All who live for Christ discover that truth. But that’s not all Jesus said. He said, Yes, you will have trouble, "But take heart; I have overcome the world." As we journey with Christ, we should expect two things simultaneously. We should expect trouble. And we should expect Christ’s sustaining victory.
That was Paul’s mindset. Look at verse 1. “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—”
Paul wrote from prison—he had trouble. He began his prayer with this truth. But he cut himself off to engage his readers about it, showing that, “Yes, my life includes hardships, but there’s no reason for discouragement. Jesus is here. He’s the defining truth in my life.”
The book of Acts says Paul was imprisoned in Rome under Caesar. But that isn’t how Paul explains his imprisonment, is it? Look what he says. “I, Paul, a prisoner of”-- of who? of “Christ Jesus." Paul does not consider himself a prisoner of Caesar nor Rome. He considers himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus! He saw things for what they really were. Yes, men had locked him up, but Jesus directed their steps. Jesus was in control of his life. Trough those eyes, Paul’s imprisonment stopped being a hardship and became a ministry. That's what a Redeemer does: he turns hardships into ministry. "In the world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world!"
When we face suffering for the sake of Christ, it’s hard to see with those eyes, isn’t it? Suffering takes the heart out of us—it's disheartening. In suffering, we need more than a pep talk. When suffering comes because of faithfulness to Jesus, here's what you need to know: Jesus will put your heart back. He will sustain you. But more than that—he can give you joy in the suffering because he has overcome the world. You know how this story ultimately ends, and it’s not a tragedy.
If you are his, even if you’re imprisoned by this world, your deepest reality is that you’re a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and in his prison, you’re the freest person in the world. Our present circumstances are not indications of God’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness. God’s faithfulness is present in all our circumstances.
God is not aloof to your suffering. How could he be? He knows what it's like. He's the one person who knows how hard life really is. He never sinned. He never gave in to temptation. He never called it quits. He obeyed to the point of death, even death on a cross. He did it for you because you needed a victory you could not win. He did it for the Church he saved before the foundation of the world. “For the joy set before him, he endured the cross.”
And because he won, when you suffer, you have with you the greatest and most victorious Sufferer the world has ever seen. His suffering was not purposeless. So your suffering can’t be purposeless either, which is our second point.
God has a purpose for life’s hardships.
Why is Paul in prison? Because God has a purpose for Paul’s life. Look at the end of verse 1: Paul is in prison “On behalf of you Gentiles.”
Think of a mother who just endured a hard labor. She holds the baby in her arms. She's out of breath, bleeding, emotional. She's exhausted, hungry, thirsty. Nearly every earthly need is before her, and now another person needs all she has. You look at her face, and she’s smiling through the pain. It's all been worth it. The pain is already forgotten. She's endured all this on behalf of the child. There is nothing but gladness in her heart. That's Paul's tone. He's a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of the Gentiles. Like a mother after labor, he’s beaming. Could life get any better? Discouraged, dear reader?! No way! Not with this life!
How did Paul get here? When Jesus called him, he said, “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Saul the Jew abandoned his life of Judaism for the life of a Gentile missionary and took his Greek name, Paul. He was bound to a people not his own so Jesus would make them his own through the gospel. Paul laid aside all the privilege the Jewish world could offer and became like the unprivileged that he might save some. That’s what dying to self and following Christ looks like—a willingness to sacrifice privilege for the sake of others. And he didn’t regret it for a second.
Paul showed by example what he preached in chapter 2. Unity in the church comes when suffering on behalf of one another becomes not just a risk we’re willing to take, but the life-giving privilege that only Jesus can offer.
It all centered around a mystery that Jesus revealed to Paul. Look at verses 2-5. “2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
God revealed a mystery to Paul. When we hear the word mystery, we think of something we must find out for ourselves. But the New Testament means something once hidden that has now been revealed. It’s an open secret. Paul explains the mystery in verse 6. “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” God was joining the Gentiles with the Jews to create one family.
We’ve looked at this unity of the body already, so Paul isn’t really breaking new ground. Instead, he’s reminding his readers it’s his job from Jesus to proclaim this mystery—to share the open secret—and that’s why he’s in prison. The Jewish world did not like that message. Paul sympathized with them. He was once one of the unbelievers. But Jesus showed him the truth—the mystery—and sent him to proclaim it and implore others to enter God’s kingdom through the preaching of the gospel. The Jewish response was to have Paul arrested on trumped up charges and locked away.
Notice Paul says it’s a new revelation. When Paul says in verse 5 that the mystery has been revealed now as it wasn’t previously, he doesn't mean the Old Testament didn't have a category for worldwide redemption. He means the way in which that redemption would come was not expected. The gospel says salvation comes apart from our works by the grace of Christ. God forgave us by the blood of Christ's cross and raised us to new life in his resurrection. We are saved by grace through faith, as we saw in Ephesians 2:8-10. Everyone thought the way the Gentiles would come in would be by essentially becoming Jews. What they could never have imagined was God making a way into his covenant where there was previously no way. But that’s exactly what God did in Jesus Christ. He broke down the dividing wall and brought the Gentiles and Jews together in himself. His righteousness is imputed to believers by faith and they are proclaimed clean, as if they always obeyed the law. There is now one trans-ethnic, trans-national people called the Church that will go on forever, and all people inside the Church will worship the one true God together for eternity.
Through the gospel, Jesus joins us so thoroughly to one another that Paul uses three terms to describe this mystery in verse 6. “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The Greek text points to unity better than our English translations can. Paul uses the term “fellow” three times. So literally, he says the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, and fellow partakers of the promise. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. It is not that the Gentiles are attached loosely to God’s people now. They are attached as joints are to a body. They are the same in their worship and experience of the One True God.
Paul gave his life to that truth, and he suffered for it. But that’s okay with Paul because God had a purpose, and that purpose was greater than the hardships, which is our third point.
God’s purpose is greater than life’s hardships.
God did something so massive and unexpected, and even offensive, in the world that the world’s only solution was to lock Paul up. Paul said, “Fine, world. Beat me, flog me, stone me, chain me up, but no matter how firmly you bind me, ‘The word of God is not bound!’” (2 Timothy 2:9)
True grace gives us the backbone to stand up for God’s purpose in the world. We become willing to suffer for the cause of Christ because Christ is the purpose of all human history. He’s the only thing ultimately worth living for. Spreading his gospel of freedom is worth all the bondage of this world.
Paul suffered for the Gentiles. But he wasn’t sad about it. He tells the Corinthians, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15). He was God’s gift to them. You too are a gift to someone to show there is a God above who loves and saves and sustains and heals and brings his children home to a world without sin and pain. God is calling us to suffer on behalf of them.
What’s our motivation? It’s that, like Paul, God has revealed the mystery of the gospel to us. Paul’s ongoing motivation wasn’t that face to face encounter he had with Jesus. It was the ongoing relationship he had with him through the Spirit. It was understanding the implications of the mystery of Christ. Well, God has given us that same revelation. We know the secret to the universe. We have Jesus. Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:1-6 are our biography now. We are prisoners of Christ Jesus on behalf of others! And this mystery is ours to share.
We live in an age of God-minimization. Christianity is too often explained as what sociologist Christian Smith calls "moralistic therapeutic deism,” where God is basically a cosmic therapist or divine butler, ready to help when needed. But we know he's far greater than that. He’s the lover of our souls. He doesn’t just help us through life with tips and life-hacks, he heals all that’s wrong with us deep inside. He’s there in the big and small things, calling us to himself for himself and his purposes. We are made in his image, and we have no right to create him in ours. The gospel is not merely a call to morality; it’s a call to a person, to Jesus Christ our Lord. He came to serve but he is not a butler. He’s the Lord God Almighty who is in the heavens and does whatever he pleases. And his pleasure is to get involved with the real you for his real purposes of glory.
God is greater and more glorious than who many of our neighbors and co-workers believe. I'm not saying we're better than anyone. We're not! Paul didn't believe he was. He says in verse 8 he's the very least of the saints. Our attitude is not that we are better, but that Jesus is better than every other possible alternative. Life with Christ is the very best life possible. Who do you know who needs to hear that? Who needs to experience the life-giving wonder of the gospel in the church?
God is calling us to lay down our lives for them: to lay aside every preference, every prejudice, every comfort, every vain pursuit, every selfish ambition. He's asking us to gladly and boldly do all we can to make room for more and more people in his kingdom. He may ask us to move. He may ask us to rearrange our schedule. He may ask us to give more than we think we're able. He may call some of us out into the world, and some of us home with our children. But if the gospel is true, if anyone can be saved by God in Christ, why would we ever hold that message back? Why would we put up any walls to keep anyone out?
All we must do right now to get involved in God’s plan for the world is just say yes to him because “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” He’s not asking us to figure this out. He’s telling us to follow. There is not one man or woman in the history of the world who said yes to Christ and lived to regret it. When we say yes to Christ, we are saying yes to joy no matter what happens. By grace, you and I are swept up in God's eternal plan for the world!
Before we leave this passage, we need to see what will keep us going when it feels like we can’t. It's summed up in those final six words of verse 6. "In Christ Jesus through the gospel."
When Paul says, “in Christ” he’s talking about what theologians call “union with Christ.” Union with Christ is the major theme in all Paul’s writing. Union with Christ means that who Christ is we are. It means we are one with him like our body is one with our head, like you are one with your spouse, like the vine is one with the branch. It means we are surrounded by him, drawn up into him, supported by him, placed deep inside him, shielded by his strength, upheld by his grace, rescued by his mercy, included by his love, protected by his sovereignty, ensphered by his holiness, bound up in his life, cleansed by his blood, forgiven by his death, saved by his cross, raised by his Spirit, made right by his righteousness, kept by his intercession, rescued by his mighty hand, preserved until the end. There’s not one second he forgets us, not one minute we’re alone, not one hour he leaves us, not one day he doesn’t come home, not one week he doesn’t carry us, not one month he doesn’t provide for us, not one year he doesn’t shepherd us, not one decade he doesn’t bring us closer. Our union with Christ means we are irrevocably, unendingly, unceasingly, to the uttermost his, and he is ours. And when we follow him and suffer for him, he is suffering with us, and we know the glory his suffering produces.
“In Christ Jesus through the gospel.” What is the gospel? It's the good news that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The gospel is that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s that “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It’s that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” It’s the vision John saw in Revelation of the one who is worthy: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” It’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew and the Greek.
Paul says in Romans 10, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” The gospel is the news the world needs to hear, and we’re the heralds God called and commissioned. So let’s go. The world is waiting, and Jesus is ready to make himself more real to you than ever before. It’ll include hardships. Okay. But it’ll also include Jesus.
The greatest fear of suffering is that we would ultimately lose what we value most, and we would lose all hope and joy. But because of our union with Christ, God has given the one thing we need most and can never lose. Suffering cannot rip is from God because on the cross Christ bound us to him. The greatest joy we can experience is out ahead of us, no matter what we face now.
It is more blessed to give than to receive. Giving intensifies joy. And in a brilliant twist—in a mysterious revelation—God says, “that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” In Jesus, suffering and joy have become friends because Joy himself joined us in suffering. And now Joy has called us to a great purpose beyond ourselves, giving that we might be blessed.
"For this reason," says Paul. You have a reason too because of Christ. Walk in it and be gladly spent for others’ souls.