Paul describes himself in 3:1 as “Paul the Prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Traditionally wrote Ephesians while he was under house arrest in Rome. While house arrest was not exactly the same as being cast in the deepest dungeon in Rome, he was restricted from doing the kind of ministry he would have liked. In addition, Paul’s appeal to Caesar may in fact go very badly and he could be executed.
The reader of Ephesians may have had some questions about Paul’s argument to this point. If Jesus has in fact destroyed the authority of the principalities and powers, why is Paul in prison? How could a “triumphant gospel” be reconciled with Paul’s current shame of house arrest? If the power of Satan has indeed been broken, how could Paul, as God’s apostle to the Gentiles, find himself treated in this shameful way?
Paul’s answer is to simply point out that despite the fact that he is Rome’s prisoner, the gospel itself is not in prison. He is in exactly the place where God wants him to be. In fact, as Timothy Gombis points out in his Drama of Ephesians, God often uses the weak to accomplish his plan so as to highlight the fact that it is God’s victory, not ours (111-2). Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians that God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. If the gospel spreads throughout the Roman Empire, it will be by the power of God, not the power of Paul the Prisoner.
There are a number of words in this section which describe Paul’s Gospel in apocalyptic terms. The fact that his gospel is a “mystery” which must be revealed may very well be allusions to apocalyptic literature like Daniel. There are several examples in that book of visions which need to be “unveiled” for the reader. It is as if God is fulling a curtain back to in order to reveal what is going on behind the scenes. In apocalyptic literature, the one who is reading the book cannot make sense of the vision until an interpreter makes the meaning of the vision clear.
Paul is describing himself as the one who is revealing the plan of God for the present age. Specifically, God is creating a new person, a “body of Christ” which is made up of both Jew and Gentile without distinction. There is no racial, class, or gender distinctions in this new body, nor does anyone have an advantage if they are Jewish, male, or free. Even if a person is a Roman citizen with wealth and prestige, there is no advantage in the body of Christ.
Like the great apocalyptic texts of the Hebrew Bible, Ephesians 3:1-13 declares that God has a plan to redeem the world. That plan was made in eternity past and God will most certainly bring that plan to completion. Something as minor as the Roman Empire cannot possibly hope to hinder the Gospel! I think that this is the sort of message which American Christians need to hear, since no modern “empire” can hope to hinder the gospel.