Incorporation into Christ: The Mystery in Ephesians

Incorporation into Christ: The Mystery in Ephesians

I was a teenager when I experienced my first revelation as a reader of Paul’s letters. It was as if Ananias had once again stepped off the street called Straight and opened my eyes. What I saw was very simple and (I have since found out) already discovered by many before me: Paul wrote very often about Jew-born and Gentile-born believers and how they become a unified church through the gospel.

“So that’s why he talks so much about things like the Law, faith, circumcision, and election.” I thrilled to the discovery. Rather than theological catalogs, these letters had become animate, historical documents with a message. Romans became much more than a “plan of salvation,” Galatians was about more than how we cannot earn God’s favor by doing works, Ephesians grew into more than an omnibus of ideas about predestination, marriage, and spiritual warfare. Instead, in these letters and more, Paul was revealing that both Jews and Gentiles could become co-heirs of a promised inheritance through faith in Christ.

That was an important revelation. But I have begun to realize that Ananias did not quite get all the scales off in those days. It seems that there is a concept even deeper down in Paul’s theology, of which Jew/Gentile unity is only one manifestation. It is a concept we can call “incorporation into Christ.” In what follows, I will demonstrate how it works in Ephesians.

Jew/Gentile Unity in Ephesians

Ephesians is swarming with Jews and Gentiles. Following my own journey of understanding, we must start with this first revelation before receiving the second.

The pronouns in chapters 1 and 2 offer our first clues. As Paul launches into his beautiful eulogy in 1:3-14—“blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly dimensions in Christ”—most Gentile readers sail along assuming that the “us” means, well, us. But our boat snags on a rock in verse 13: after a long string of “in whom we(s),” Paul writes, “In whom you also, having heard of the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation, in which also you believed, were sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise.” This interplay of we and you signals that this section is less about how God has blessed us all (believers in general) in Christ and more about how God has blessed us (Jews, from Paul’s perspective) and you (Ephesian Gentiles) equally.

Something similar happens in chapter 2. We start off assuming that Paul is speaking to all believers: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked according to the age of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (2:1-2). But we trip up again on verse 3: “Among whom we also all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” So we discover the same you/we distinction—just as you (Ephesian Gentile believers) were dead and walking according to this world, so also were we (Jewish believers).

But Paul’s reason for making the distinction is to break down the distinction. We (Jews and Gentiles) were both walking in corruption, but through the gospel God has blessed us both. This becomes unmistakably clear in the second half of chapter 2:

“Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh . . . were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.” (2:11-16) 

Proceeding on through to the second half of the book, we find Paul applying the principle of Jew/Gentile unity to the Ephesians church. “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1-3). This then is the first concept we must get down: in Ephesians, Paul is trying to bring Jew-born believers and Gentile-born believers together. 

The Mystery in Ephesians

Now we are reading Ephesians with new eyes. But our eyes are not yet new enough. Paul discusses a “mystery” four times in Ephesians.

“He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” (1:9-10)

“if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace which was given to me for you; that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel . . .” (3:2-6)

“because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” (5:30-32)

“and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains” (6:19-20)

Up until recently, I had understood Paul’s mystery here in Ephesians to be the mystery of the inclusion of the Gentiles—the idea that the nations could become members of the people of God and partakers of God’s promises. It was kept partially hidden for many years but came to light through the preaching of the apostles. “Mystery” was essentially Paul’s code word to for the new Jew/Gentile unity that we discussed above.

And in fact, Ephesians 3 seems to bear this view up quite well. There Paul explains that the mystery is “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). If we connect this with Paul’s concern to communicate Jew/Gentile unity throughout the rest of the letter, the case grows stronger. Finally, the mention of the mystery in 6:19 fits right in, taking into consideration Paul’s self-proclaimed apostleship to the Gentiles (cf. Romans 1:5, Galatians 2:7, 2 Timothy 1:11): “to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains” (6:19-20).

But I have since changed my view. You see, this explains two of the occurrences of “mystery” in Ephesians (3:2-6 and 6:19-20), but what about the other two? If we take the mystery to refer to the Gentile inclusion, we have to define it differently in the eulogy of chapter 1 and the marriage section of chapter 5. Is there another definition that could connect all four usages across Ephesians?

Surprisingly, it is the mystery in chapter 5 that provides a breakthrough. Paul has launched into a discussion of Christian marriage, highlighting the different roles that a husband and wife play out in the relationship. The husband is to love his wife, the wife is to submit to her husband. But the important thing here is where this relational pattern comes from. Paul explains that the relationship of the Messiah and his church is the model for the marriage relationship. Or perhaps we might say better that marriage is an earthly pattern that both points to and takes its cues from the deeper relationship of Christ and his church.

This brings us up to the key part. Paul writes:

So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. (5:28-30)

Husbands, Paul urges, ought to love their wives with the careful concern, and even intense protection, that they demonstrate for their own bodies. The reason for this is that their wives in fact are their own bodies, one flesh with them. It is precisely because of this one-flesh union that he can say, “He who loves his own wife loves himself.” And, of course, “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.”

And this is perhaps mystery and instruction enough, but Paul is meditating on a mystery yet more profound when he adds, “as Christ does the church, for we are members of His body.” It turns out, then, that the one-flesh relationship of husband and wife is just a shadow in comparison with the one-flesh relationship of Jesus and his people. Jesus cherishes his church, as husbands ought to cherish their wives, because his church is himself, one body with him.

At this point, Paul quotes from Genesis 2: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (5:31). On the surface we might think that he is quoting this in reference to the husband/wife relationship, and he certainly is at one level. But his next statement betrays that he understands this quote and the marriage union to be typological of something greater: “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (5:32).

The Greek here (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω εἰς Χριστὸν και εἰς τὴν ἐκκληίαν) has been variously interpreted, but I take it to mean, “When I say that this verse speaks of a great mystery, I am speaking about the mystery of Christ and the church.” Reading this way, the mystery here is that Christ and his church become one body, one flesh.[1]


Taking this concept, therefore, and reading it back into the rest of Ephesians, we begin to make a discovery: The one-body relationship of Jews and Gentiles depends on the one-body relationship of Christ and his church. The two groups become members of one another only because they both simultaneously become members of Christ.

Let’s imagine a pitcher of lemonade and two packets of sugar, one white and the other brown. The lemonade represents Christ and the two sugar packets are Jews and Gentiles. Currently, the two packets are two separate entities. If, however, we dissolve the packets into the lemonade, they become one. But note how they become one—only by virtue of their both being dissolved into something else.

So when Paul says that the mystery is “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” we see it with doubly-renewed eyes. Yes, an important aspect of the mystery (and Paul’s emphasis here) is that believing Gentiles become one body (σύσσωμα) with believing Jews. But this only happens because of a deeper reality: being “in Christ Jesus,” that is, one body with him.

The word incorporation portrays it well. Stemming from the Latin “in” + “corpus,” it conveys the idea of assimilation into a body. Thus, the church is incorporated into Christ and, by virtue of this, each previously separate person or group is incorporated into the others.

Let’s now see the texts we already looked at in chapters 1 and 2 in new light. We’ve already noticed how the pronouns in 1:3-14 demonstrate how God has blessed believing Jews and believing Gentiles equally. Now we are in a position to pick up the “in Christ” language that makes that equal blessing possible. Paul starts by saying, “who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly dimension in Christ.” In other words, it is because of their being connected to Christ, one-flesh with him, that they receive these blessings. He then continues this idea, using “in him” 5 times. Then finally, when he turns to discuss the inclusion of the Ephesian Gentiles in the promised inheritance, he has the same emphasis: “in him, you also.” So then, the real point is not just “we were [blessed in various ways]” and “you were [blessed in the same ways]”, but “in Christ we both were.”

This happens in chapter 2 as well. After describing the former manner of life of both the Jews and the Gentiles (“you were dead,” “among whom we also all once walked”), Paul moves to union with Christ. “Even though we were dead in our trespasses, he made us alive together in Christ . . . and raised us up together and seated us together in the heavenly dimensions in Christ Jesus” (2:5-6). There is a three-way union here. By being connected to Christ, in his resurrection, they are “made alive,” “raised,” and “seated.” This is the union of Christ and his church. But this union with Christ not only makes them alive, it makes them alive “together”; it creates another union between Jews and Gentiles. That’s why Paul uses the words “made alive together” (συνεζωοποίησεν), “raised together” (συνήγειρεν), and “seated together” (συνεκάθισεν).

We might imagine (God forbid!) that Canada and Mexico go to war. Then one day, after much negotiation, it is decided that both countries will be assimilated into the United States. This of course creates peace between the two groups. They were once two, but now have become one and the fighting stops. But if, in recounting this in the history textbooks for generations to come, we were to mention only the unity between Canada and Mexico we would only be drawing half the picture. This unity was only achieved because both became one country with the United States.

What a mystery this is! For Paul it was at the same time nearly incomprehensible to the natural mind and so profound as to change the world. God is creating a new human race by incorporating a remnant of the old humanity (of all ethnicities) into Christ, such that he is the head and they are the rest of his body. This union brings about reconciliation and restoration because “in him” they get to partake in the blessings of his death, resurrection, and life. And it brings about unity because “in him” the members of the new human race become one with each other. In these ways, the deep riches of God’s wisdom come to light in the gospel.

What about 1:9-10?

But we haven’t yet discussed 1:9-10. This occurrence of “mystery” appears within one of the most complex sentences of Paul’s letters.

“. . . having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” (1:9-10)

The phrase, “the summing up of all things in Christ,” is difficult to relate to the rest of the sentence. It is unclear whether it is in apposition to “the mystery of His will” or to “an administration suitable to the fullness of the times.” With the first option, Paul would be adding new information to our concept of the mystery. The mystery would not simply be the union of Christ and his body, but the summing up of all things in him (in some mysterious way). With the second option, Paul would be speaking of a future administration of the cosmos, in which everything ends up oriented around Christ. One part of that administration would be the mysterious union of Christ and his body, something which God had revealed to them in connection with the cosmic “kind intention” which he had purposed in Christ. Regardless, this does not seem to be disruptive to our recognizing Paul’s primary emphasis in Ephesians—the union of Christ and his body.

Incorporation into Christ for today

Paul’s vision of incorporation into Christ speaks to us in at least two ways. First, it reorients our understanding of salvation. There are many angles from which the New Testament encourages us to understand God’s rescue of humanity through Jesus. One that has been underlined in modern evangelicalism is the “great exchange,” where believers have Christ’s death for sins and righteousness applied to their account so that they are positionally right before God. They have their ledger replaced by that of Christ, so to speak. While we may gain this understanding from a number of other texts, Ephesians invites us to shift away from it for a moment to view salvation in terms of union rather than exchange. It is our one-flesh relationship with the Messiah that pulls us out of our sinfulness and deadness and lifts us to fresh life, both positionally and transformatively, in his death and resurrection. Jesus enters the world as a man, but exits it as the head of the body of a new man, a new human race, each member of which is now inextricably connected to him and his experiences. This is the mystery of the gospel in Ephesians. We are in him and are transformed.

Second, this view of the mystery promotes unity among believers. Unity is Paul’s burden in Ephesians, especially unity between Jewish-born and Gentile-born believers. In the past, I would draw the line of application to today by analogy. Even though most of us do not face tensions between Jews and Gentiles in our churches, we can still see a principle that different kinds of people in our churches ought to be unified. I see now, however, that we are written into Ephesians by more than just analogy. When we understand Paul’s deeper argument for unity between members of the church (namely, the one-body union between the church and Christ), we realize that all the differing groups or persons who have been joined to Christ have also been joined to one another. We are one with Christ and therefore one with each other; not only Jewish and Gentile believers, but all who are in Christ. It is a high calling and Paul pleads with us to walk worthily of it (4:1) because, as he says, there is only “one body” (4:4). Perhaps we need to hear the call again in our day, not only in our local churches, but in our cities, and in the world. May we as the church local and universal not falter in our fellowship.

Paul was awed by the mystery. It was the great new light that had dawned in his heart and that was breaking into the world through the ministry of the apostles. It swelled his spirit with praise and impelled him to go to the nations. May God enlighten our hearts with this revelation as well, to the praise of his glorious grace.


[1]In what sense is the mystery mysterious? Is it simply the fact that it was hidden and then revealed? Or is it mysterious in the sense that it is difficult to grasp without supernatural revelation? At this point, I accept Caragounis’s thesis, based on his examination of the word in Greek literature and in the NT context, that the mystery is something “mysterious,” profound or difficult to comprehend, rather than a secret that is simply hidden and then revealed. See Caragounis, Chrys C. The Ephesian Mysterion: Meaning and Content (Coneictanea Biblica, New Testament Series 8: CWK Gleerup, 1977).

Copyright Bryan Elliff 12/1/2016; revised 4/28/2021