Ephesians 3 and Hyper-Dispensationalism

07/18/2010 – James White

Ephesians 3 is a key text for hyper-dispensationalists because it marks the beginning of the Dispensation of Grace.[1] Paul unveils the mystery of the church, and this ends the ancient Dispensation of Law and introduces a new structure, a new gospel, and a new basis for doctrine in the church. It also suggests (according to them) the absolute distinctiveness of the Apostle Paul.

It is therefore important that we observe the full context, which is found below. The text is in the NASB, with the Greek word οἰκονομίαν (“dispensation” in KJV) in bold:

1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles-2 if indeed you have heard of thestewardship 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. 4 By referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5which 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; 6 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,7 of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. 8 To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; (Ephesians 3:1-9, NASB, bold mine)

Clearly, the mystery being talked about in verse 2 is unveiled in verse 6: “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” It was a surprise to the New Testament Jews (like Paul) to learn that the good news promised for thousands of years in the Old Testament wasn’t just for Jews; it was for anyone who believes. The promises that were given to Israel don’t just apply to them; they apply to Gentiles as well. The promises of God in the Old Covenants are now applicable for all whom Jesus Christ intercedes. That’s it. That’s the mystery in Ephesians 3.

Of course, this isn’t the only mystery in Paul’s letters. He uses the same word (μυστήριον) in Colossians 1:25-27 where the meaning is generally same, but there is more elaboration; the mystery involves the fact that “Christ is in you, the hope of glory.” Thus, at its heart, the “mystery” is Paul’s way of describing unique features of the New Covenant.

Finck comments:

The Mystery is not found in Old Testament Scriptures, or to be even more precise, Old Testament Scripture or pre-Old Testament Scripture. You will not find the Mystery in Genesis; you won’t find it all the way through the Old Testament; you won’t find it in the Four Gospels. It was a secret. It was not revealed until the Apostle Paul… What does the Mystery include? The Mystery includes this present Dispensation of Grace. You won’t find this dispensation revealed in the Old Testament. It’s not there. The Mystery includes the fact that Jew and Gentile are brought together on equal ground, equal footing in Christ. That is the Mystery. You won’t find that in Old Testament Scriptures.[2]

One can see how Finck automatically assumes that “mystery” = “dispensation of grace.” The reality, however, is that Paul’s mystery is nothing more than one of the numerous and unique features of the New Covenant. So, what about the mystery and the OT? Robert Reymond decisively replies to the dispensationalist:

The Old Testament did testify concerning the future blessings which the Gentiles would share with the Jews (see Gen. 9:26-27; 12:3 [see Gal. 3:8]; 22:18; 26:4; 28;14; Pss. 67; 72:8-11, 17; 87; Isa. 11:10; 49:6; 54:1-3 [see Gal. 4:27]…). What was not so clearly revealed in the Old Testament times was that the Gentiles would be on “a footing of perfect equality” (Hendriksen) with the Jews in Christ’s body, the church…Paul’s statements do not teach the radical conclusions which dispensationalists wish to draw from them, namely, that the Old Testament saints did not know that the Messiah would be rejected and suffer or that a distinction must be drawn between Old Testament Israel “under law” and the New Testament church “under grace,” and that these people are two people of God who are “not to be intermingled or confused, as they are chronologically successive.”[3]


The Mystery Revealed to Paul Only?

Hyper-dispensationalists believe that the “Mystery” was given to and unveiled by the Apostle Paul and him alone. However, this assertion is a bit problematic.

In Ephesians 3, Paul says the “mystery,” (v. 3) “has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets,” (v. 6). All of the New Testament authors understand the mystery because they are “in the Spirit.” This obviously includes Paul, since he says “which was given to me.” However, Paul doesn’t exclude everyone else. He says “prophets,” not “I, Paul, a prophet.” He says “apostles,” not “I, Paul, the only apostle.” Colossians 1:26 bears the same conclusion: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” The mystery Paul is talking about was not revealed to him only, but to other Christians.

The hyper-dispensationalist cannot believe this. To concede on this point would be to forfeit the “absolute distinctiveness of the Apostle Paul” for which Hyper-Dispensationalism was founded. Hence,

We are sometimes asked: “Did not others before Paul speak of grace?” Yes, others before Paul did speak of grace, but before we assume too much from this, let us consider a few basic facts: It is not merely Paul, but the inspired Word which declares that “the dispensation of the grace of God” was committed to him (Eph. 3:2) and that it was his “ministry… received of the Lord Jesus” to make known “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). This claim was made for none of his predecessors, nor did any of them even mention the dispensation or the gospel of the grace of God so far as the record is concerned.[4]

How does the hyper-dispensationalist deal with the plural “prophets and apostles” in Ephesians 3:2 and “saints” in Colossians 1:26? We’re simply not told. It is just assumed that Paul is the one actually revealing the mystery (active), not the one observing it (passive) in seeing the church unfold as Christianity continues to grow in the first century (i.e. “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” Eph. 3:10) and in Christ himself (“This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” 3:11).

In any case, because hyper-dispensationalists believe the Apostle Paul was the first and only person to discover “the mystery,” it is suggested that Paul is introducing an entirely new gospel. This conclusion, along with the other serious errors of Hyper-Dispensationalism, will be dealt with in the next post.

[1] This isn’t necessarily true of all hyper-dispensationalists. Some believe the Dispensation of grace begins at Pentecost, others in Acts 13, and still others in Acts 28:28.

[2] Finck, The Mystery, 23.

[3] Robert Reymond. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 540-41.

[4] Cornelius Stam. “Paul, the Apostle of Grace.” August/September, 2002.