Often young children like to pretend that they are heroes of some kind. They may imagine that they are a comic book hero like Superman or Wonder Woman. Perhaps they hear about some mythical character or look up to some sports champion and adopt words and actions to help them identify with this person they admire.
We don’t get very many years behind us when we learn that we’re not likely to have a huge impact on the world. Oh, we’ll affect our circle of family and friends. We’ll bring them shame or satisfaction. We might even make their lives a little better in some way. While this is true for most of us, down through history some individuals have touched millions, maybe even billions, of lives on this planet.
Consider a British doctor named Joseph Lister. He introduced the use of antiseptics into surgery in 1867. Until that time, surgical instruments and doctor’s hands were washed in ordinary soap and water, if at all. He had the idea that using antiseptics like carbolic acid to clean things up before an operation would save lives. Three years after establishing this as a general procedure in the hospitals where he had influence, he claimed that the death rate from surgery had dropped from over 40% to under 15%. Many people have benefited from his discovery and not just in operating rooms. You can buy antiseptic soap for your home now.
Around the turn of the 19th century in France, scientist Marie Curie was working with radioactive elements. She made discoveries that led her to work on projects which set the stage for the development of x-rays for medical diagnosis. Every year, millions of people around the world have x-rays done to determine problems with their bones and teeth.
Less than a hundred years ago, in 1928, a Scottish biologist and pharmacologist, Alexander Fleming, discovered penicillin. Ironically, he made this discovery by accident when he noticed that fungus would not grow around a particular kind of mould. But sensing that this had significance he began working with this fungus and eventually isolated the active ingredient in penicillin. As soon as it was introduced, people who had infections that surely would have killed them, were restored to health.
We could find lots of other examples as well. Think of the people who made the inventions necessary to give us radios, computers, cell phones and so many other things which can be found in even quite isolated parts of our world today. These discoveries have changed many lives, even your own. Looking back, we see that the apostle Paul made a discovery which also has affected billions of lives on earth. To be fair, it wasn’t so much that Paul made a discovery as that God gave him a revelation. Let’s look at the opening verses of Ephesians chapter 3.
Ephesians 3:1 “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for 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.
Until God gave Paul His revelation concerning what is called in this passage “the mystery of Christ” no one would have ever guessed or imagined it. The “mystery” was that both Jews and Gentiles would approach God the same way and become one new entity which we know as “the church.” People in some parts of the world have daily reminders of the deep divides between ethnic or religious groups. But others of us, and I’m in this category, have been blessed with little exposure to the kind of hatred produced by ethnic differences.
Historically the Jews and the Romans indulged in strong mutual feelings of distrust and disdain. Each was committed to exploiting the other to demonstrate their own superiority. 1st Century Jews didn’t even want to defile their lips with direct references to Rome, so they would call it “the wicked kingdom” or “Edom.” I was curious about that reference so I looked up Obadiah 1:2 to 4 where we read: “‘Behold, I will make you small among the nations; You shall be greatly despised. The pride of your heart has deceived you, You who dwell in the clefts of the rock, Whose habitation is high; You who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?” Though you ascend as high as the eagle, And though you set your nest among the stars, From there I will bring you down,’ says the LORD.” Those words were originally directed at Edom and they certainly summed up the Jewish estimation of Rome as a powerful arrogant nation and their desire to see God humble it.
On the other hand the Romans generally considered the Jews to be a hostile, unfriendly, prickly people, quick to take offence. Rome was used to having to inflict its government, justice and culture on the peoples it conquered. This was especially true of the Jews who, seeing themselves as God’s people on earth, weren’t about to cave in to what they saw as a godless hoard of marauders. Romans on assignment in Judea got little respect and a lot of active opposition.
Into this unhappy mix of cultures came Paul. He was both a Roman citizen and a devout Jew. If anyone knew the law it was Paul. A first-class Pharisee, he had studied with the best teachers of his day. He knew the Torah exceedingly well and he was committed to the traditions of his faith. Evidence of this can be seen in the positive response of the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem when Paul approached them with his plan to stamp out Christianity. You can read about this in Acts, chapter 9.
At the same time, Paul was familiar with Roman law and he knew his rights. We see evidence of this when he and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi. You may remember that they were flogged and chained in the most secure part of the prison without a trial. After the exciting happenings recorded in Acts 16 we read, beginning in verse 36, that the jailer told Paul and Silas: “‘The magistrates have sent to let you go. Now therefore depart, and go in peace.’ 37 But Paul said to them, ‘They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out.’ 38 And the officers told these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans. 39 Then they came and pleaded with them and brought them out, and asked them to depart from the city.”
So Paul, this Jewish Roman, or Roman Jew, depending on how you want to express it, was the one God chose to announce how He had bridged the gap and brought Jew and Gentile together through the death of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul was commissioned by God to proclaim the same gospel to both Jew and Gentile. As we look at the accounts of his travels recorded in the book of Acts, we see that he responded wholeheartedly to this commission and preached the gospel of Jesus to all people everywhere. Now, we might legitimately wonder what Paul thought would happen when he did that. What difference would the “mystery of Christ” make in the lives of his contemporaries. We might also wonder what difference it might make in our own context. Paul was convinced that the preaching of the gospel would result in the establishment of a new social entity called “the church.” It would be made up of Jews and gentiles, men and women, slaves and free, ignorant and educated, rich and poor, young and old. The church would be the one institution on earth where all people would come together without regard for any of the things that we humans use to divide ourselves into categories.
We know what Paul’s expectations were. How well does your church reflect those? Is it clear to people both inside and outside of the church that Jesus’ death on the cross was to get rid of our sin and bring us to the God who has made us all one? God’s love for us expressed in the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus should affect the way we relate to each other. Perhaps the most obvious place to see that is in the church, but what about in your family. If all, or even most, of your family members are believers in the Lord Jesus, can people see a difference. Do Christian parents treat their children differently from non-Christians? Do Christian children respond to their parents differently from non-Christians? Do Christian spouses treat each other differently from non-Christian couples?
What about the broader Christian community? How well does your church get along with churches of other denominations. If you’re all believers; if you’ve all had your sin forgiven on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross; if you’ve all come into God’s family the same way, we should treat each other accordingly – even if we’re not all exactly the same and do things the same way.
Here’s a little personal challenge for you. Think about this: What divisions tend to separate you from others – even other Christians – especially other Christians? Take a few minutes today and ask God to show you how you may be violating the “mystery of Christ.” It’s possible that, even as a Christian, you’re working against God’s plan for His church. After you’ve repented of drawing lines of separation between yourself and others, be alert throughout the day to notice the people God uses to identify your spirit of superiority – the attitude that to really be a cherished child of God others should be a little more like you – then thank God for what He has shown you today through our study.