Skip to content

The message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

What is God’s ‘mission’?

In the opening section of Ephesians, Paul talks a lot about God’s purposes for the world. God’s ultimate purpose is to sum up everything in Christ (Ephesians 1:10). God is moving everything in heaven and earth towards that end. But how? What is the means to the end? In other words, what is the mission? And what does that mean for our own mission as Christians and as churches?

There are many answers people give to this question. Here are three:

One answer is that God achieves his purposes primarily through transformation. God changes the lives of Christians for the better. People in the world see the goodness of Christians, and they see that Christianity works. They are attracted to that goodness, and so they are transformed and come under Christ’s lordship too. So: if this is the primary way God achieves his purposes for the world, then we should focus our energy on things like social justice and apologetics, i.e. on changing the world and showing the world how good and true Christianity is.

Another answer is that God achieves his purposes through unity. As believers throughout the world put their differences aside and unite under common movements and institutions, we will be strong and able to win the world for Christ. So: if this is the primary way God achieves his purposes for the world, then we should focus our energy on things like politics and conferences, i.e. on actively uniting believers through organised movements.

Another answer is that God achieves his purposes through church planting and growth. As believers meet together in church, they are inspired to worship, and they are equipped for service. Outsiders are attracted to our excellent churches. They join us, and so they too come under Christ’s lordship. Then more church communities are planted by visionary leaders in new areas. So: if this is the primary way God achieves his purposes for the world, then we should focus our energy on things like strategy and excellence, i.e. on getting our systems and leadership structures running well.

Mission. Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

All of these things are important and worthwhile. None of them can simply be ignored. And all of them resonate with things that Paul says in Ephesians. Christ does indeed want us to be transformed and to shine as light in the world (Ephesians 5:3–14). Christ has indeed achieved a unity which crosses borders (Ephesians 2:11–22). Christ does indeed grow his church through each individual member of the church doing their work well, and properly, in harmony with others, including leaders (Ephesians 4:13–16).

But the question I’m asking about all of these things is this: is it the core thing? Is transformation, or unity, or church planting and growth, actually at the very heart of God’s mission?

Let’s come back to the beginning of Ephesians. Here at the start of his letter, before Paul mentions anything to do with social transformation or unity or church growth, Paul talks about something even more fundamental that God is doing—something that undergirds everything else. In fact, Paul spells out precisely how God is achieving his purposes in the world. He says, first of all, that God is achieving his purposes for the world through evangelism. Evangelism means the preaching of the gospel, by people who know the gospel, to people who don’t know the gospel.

This is what verses 11–14 of Ephesians chapter 1 are all about. In fact, these few short verses read like a highly condensed summary of the book of Acts. The very words that Paul uses here, as well as the order he puts them in, follow the description of the gospel going out from Israel to the nations in Acts. They summarise how the gospel message of Jesus Christ rang out from the first Israelite believers to the nations (or ‘gentiles’) around them. Here in verse 13, Paul reminds his gentile readers that they, too, have been caught up in God’s great plans for his universe through Christ. He reminds them that this is how God is achieving his purposes: through the gospel being preached, heard, and believed. That is how they, too, have come to be sealed with God’s Holy Spirit:

In Christ, you too—having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and also having believed in him—were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.

Ephesians 1:13–14

Let’s look a little more closely at Paul’s description of the gospel going out to the nations.

Hearing the gospel

Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash

Notice, firstly, that the gospel is something that is “heard”. The gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just a philosophy describing how to live a good life, or a call to unite under a banner, or an invitation to join a community. The gospel is a message about a person. And the first thing you need to do with a message is to hear it.  Paul says that this is precisely what his readers have done. Somebody had preached the message to them, and they had ‘heard’ it.

This is very much like the description in Acts. After Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his Israelite disciples, he ascended to heaven and poured out his Spirit on them. In this way, he showed them that God’s great Old Testament promises to Israel were being fulfilled. But it didn’t stop there. Through his Spirit, Jesus made sure the gospel message  was preached to many ‘gentiles’ (non-Israelites) further afield: from Jerusalem, to the surrounding areas, and even to the far-flung regions of the Roman Empire and beyond. It was preached, and it was heard.

The gospel: truth and salvation

What is this preached gospel message all about? Paul describes it as “the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation”.

The gospel is not just a general vibe that can be filled with our own ideas or bent to suit our own purposes. It is a message with specific content. It is the “word of truth”: it tells us certain things that are true about God and ourselves and the world. That’s why later in Ephesians, Paul compares the truth of the gospel to the lies of false teaching (see Ephesians 4:13–24). The gospel, by its very nature, excludes certain ideas. That’s why truth can never be put to one side, or put in second place after other things like transformation or unity or church planting and growth.

What is the core of the gospel? Paul does not call it “the gospel of our goodness”, or “the gospel of our unity”, or the “gospel of our community”, or the “gospel of our excellence”. He calls it “the gospel of [our] salvation”. Salvation is about being rescued. What are we rescued from? A little later in Ephesians, Paul spells this out: we have been rescued from God’s judgment for our sin (Ephesians 2:1–10). This has happened entirely by God’s grace, and not at all by our own efforts. We have been forgiven because of Jesus’ death on the cross (remember Ephesians 1:7), we have been raised with him, and we look forward to the time when God will sum up all things in Christ. This is the core of the gospel message: salvation. It’s about lost sinners, under God’s judgment, being rescued and restored and brought to life.


Because the gospel is a message about a person, and because it involves certain key truths, and because it tells us about being saved/rescued, it demands a response. Paul reminds his readers what their response to the gospel had been: they had “believed” it. They had come to believe in the person of Jesus Christ, to believe certain true things about him, and to believe and trust Jesus for salvation.

Again, the book of Acts helps to fill this out more for us. Acts has many stories about people who believed the gospel at certain key stages in the gospel going out from Israel to the nations. In Acts 10, the apostle Peter was called to come and speak to a gentile centurion, Cornelius. Peter did come and speak the gospel about Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose from the dead. Peter concluded by saying:

And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he [Jesus] is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Acts 10:42–43 ESV

This is the primary aim of evangelism. We don’t just want people to approve or to belong; we want them to believe. We are not just trying to convince people that Christianity is good, or unite them under a common cause, or bring them to church, or include them in a community. We may need to do all these things at various points, but this is not the primary aim. The aim is that people believe in Jesus Christ and so receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

Sealing with the Spirit

Having heard and believed the gospel, Paul tells his readers they were “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”. What is he talking about? Again the book of Acts helps us here. It records that when Jesus poured out his Holy Spirit on those first Israelite disciples, there were visible signs that God used to show that he was fulfilling his Old Testament promises. In particular, the first disciples spoke miraculously in other languages. Then, at certain key stages of the gospel going out to the world, the same thing happened to other people too. Remember the story we just saw about Peter preaching to Cornelius in Acts 10? Here’s what happened next:

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised [i.e. Israelites] who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles [i.e. non-Israelites].

Acts 10:44–45 ESV

What was happening here? God was showing that he was giving his gift of salvation and life to gentile people as well as Jewish people (see Acts 11:17–18). The Spirit was God’s seal’— or God’s ‘brand’, demonstrating that these gentile believers belonged to God as much as the Jewish believers did. This is what Paul is referring to here in Ephesians: he’s not saying that every individual believer will always have spectacular signs happen to them as soon as they believe. Nor is he saying that the Spirit is just waiting around for us to believe before he can come into our hearts. That’s not the point. The point is that as the gospel comes to us, and we hear and respond by believing it, God gives his Spirit to us—which means we belong to him, we are secure in him, and our future relationship with God is guaranteed too (verse 14 goes into more detail about this).

You too!

Original location of Martin Luther’s pulpit, Stadtkirche, Wittenberg, Germany. Luther saw the proclamation of the gospel as central to God’s purposes.

So how is God achieving his purposes in the world? Through evangelism! That is, through the preaching of the gospel, by people who know the gospel, to people who don’t know the gospel. We have heard it. And many, many people around the world have believed and been sealed with God’s Holy Spirit. The gospel being preached in the world, and heard by people in this world, is an absolutely core element in God’s great plan for his universe. It is the activity of the risen Lord, victorious in the heavens, bringing people to know and love and trust him.

So the mission is the message. Evangelism—the preaching of the gospel message about Jesus Christ—is the way God is achieving his purposes in the world. We could say that it is evangelism that undergirds everything else. Social transformation starts with people believing, hearing and living the gospel (see Ephesians 4:1). The unity of the Spirit begins with people who hold firm to the truth of the gospel—“one hope, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (see Ephesians 4:4). Church growth begins with believers speaking the truth of the gospel in the context of loving relationships (see Ephesians 4:15–16). I’ll be talking about these things in future posts in this series. But for now, the point is this: All these things flow from the preaching of the gospel. They aren’t the most fundamental things. It is the preaching of the gospel that is at the core of the mission.

How could you personally be part of this mission? The main way is by hearing and believing the gospel message about Jesus Christ! And then, by working out how to live it, speak it, and help and support others to live and speak it. This will happen in many different ways. Not everyone is going to be a missionary or an up-front leader or a bold super-evangelist. We will all speak the gospel in different ways, to different people, in fellowship with others who are playing different parts to us.[1] But no matter what our individual roles are, we need to keep remembering that the preaching and hearing of the gospel is the core thing. This is how God is achieving his purposes in the world.

You may be someone who is involved in Christian ministry, or making decisions about Christian ministry. How does your own life and decision-making reflect the fact that evangelism is at the core of God’s mission? It’s so easy to have all our energy consumed by efforts to change the world, or promote the goodness of Christianity, or achieve unity, or get everything at church organised, isn’t it? Of course, these things matter, and often we must put effort into these things so that the gospel can be heard in the first place. It really helps when people give us a hearing, and when Christians are united, and when church works well. But the problem is that these things can easily become the big thing—the thing that captures all of our attention. There’s all sorts of reasons why this might happen. We’ll often get positive feedback when we’re working on social justice or apologetics or unity or church growth, but we’re less likely to get the same level of positive feedback when we’re working on evangelism. Yet evangelism is still at the core, despite the fact that it might not rate highly in the opinion polls.

So you might need to seriously ask how to make the preaching of the gospel more central in your life and decisions. This might mean making decisions about your life and ministry that will prove to be messy and unpopular. Remember where Paul is writing this from—he’s in chains for preaching the gospel! The authorities are against him, and many of his own people are against him. How’s that for negative feedback! Yet Paul knows that God is achieving his great plan to sum up all things in Christ, and that this is happening through the preaching of the gospel. In the end, it’s worth it. Because the message is the mission.

For reflection

Are you convinced that evangelism is at the core of God’s plan for the universe?

What worthwhile thing is most likely to distract you or your church from evangelism? Is there anything you need to do to stop this distraction from happening?

[1] I’ve written more about this in my book Gospel Speech: A Fresh Look at the Relationship between Every Christian and Evangelism (Matthias Media, 2015).

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.

Published inEphesiansLift Your Eyes

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?
  • Bible and the horizon. Photo by Aaron Burden on UnsplashRejoicing in the blessing of others (Ephesians 1:11–12)
    Although the Bible is always relevant to us, not every sentence is directly about us. When we realise this, we can rejoice in God’s blessings even more.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor