The cellars in Finchale Priory, Durham

The prisoner lifts his eyes (Ephesians 3:1–3)

Reading Time: 9 minutes

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

Are you a victim?

A few years ago, we discovered someone had stolen the number plate from the front of our car. When we called the police, they told us they were running an official campaign focusing on vehicle-related crime, and so they had certain procedures they had to follow. They sent an officer to meet with us in our home. When the officer arrived, he asked us to show him the scene of the crime (the street outside). He sat down at our dining table to interview us about the details of the incident (it didn’t take long). At the end of the interview, with an admirably straight face, he fulfilled his official responsibilities by asking us if we would like to access their program for victim support. Needless to say, we politely declined.

After the officer left, we laughed about the situation, but we also saw its tragic side. It was tragic because we knew real victims who needed that victim support far more than we did. It was also tragic because it reminded us how easy it is for the system to label people as “victims”. Yes, there are victims in our world, and they certainly need support. But a systematic focus on victimhood can get out of hand. It can even get to the point where we’re encouraged to define ourselves as victims. This is a problem even for genuine victims. It’s why victim advocates prefer us to use the term “survivor”—a term that helps a victim not to define himself or herself as a victim, but rather to see himself or herself as someone who has been strong in a terrible situation. The tendency to define ourselves as victims can also cause problems in the wider political sphere. Too often we witness those power plays where the group who can prove that they are the biggest victim is given the greatest power—power that is then used to deny other groups the privilege of calling themselves victims. In cases like this, rather than genuinely supporting victims, we can end up simply playing the victim.

Photo by Francisco Gonzalez on Unsplash

Christians aren’t immune from this problem. We, too, can be tempted to define ourselves as victims. This is especially true when we—or others we know or hear about—are opposed or slandered or unfairly treated or persecuted. Of course, we do need to call out injustices, and to advocate for fair treatment (so it’s right that Christians have been pointing out the injustice of Rugby Australia’s recent sacking of Israel Folau). And we do need to know about and pray for and support our Christian brothers and sisters who are being persecuted (such as those affected by the recent horrific coordinated attacks on churches in Sri Lanka). But as we do this, we can also be tempted to go a step further and start to define ourselves as victims. We can see victimhood as central to our very identity as Christians. We can think of ourselves primarily as the persecuted, the underdogs, the oppressed people who need the powers-that-be to understand our low status. We can even start to play the victim game, spending all of our energies competing with all the other claims to victimhood in our world—and usually being denied the privilege by those who have been playing the victim game longer than we have, and who are frankly much better at it than we are.

How can we avoid defining ourselves as victims, especially when the injustices are real? This is where the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter 3 are so valuable. These words provide us with a pattern, and a reason, to lift our eyes beyond our circumstances—even when those circumstances are hard and terribly unjust. At the start of Ephesians chapter 3, the apostle Paul tells his readers about his own situation:

For this reason, I, Paul, the bound prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you gentiles—assuming that you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the secret was made known to me according to revelation (as I briefly wrote before).

Ephesians 3:1–3
The cellars in Finchale Priory, Durham

Paul the prisoner

Paul writes: “For this reason, I, Paul, the bound prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you gentiles…”. Paul is writing this letter as a prisoner, bound in chains, probably under house arrest in Rome. The reason he is in chains is because he has been preaching the gospel. He has been preaching the message about Jesus Christ: his death and resurrection, which brings salvation and peace. Even more dangerously, he’s been preaching this message especially to “the gentiles”, the nations throughout the world. According to the later chapters of Acts (see e.g. Acts 21:27–36 and following), this is what had landed Paul in prison in Rome. A crowd in Jerusalem had become convinced that Paul’s preaching of Jesus Christ was a danger to Israel’s purity. They accused him (unfairly) of breaching the temple decrees about not bringing gentiles into the inner parts of the temple. They rioted. The Roman authorities were afraid of a disturbance of the peace. To cut a long story short, the mob and the Roman desire for peace won the day. Paul ended up in prison. And by the time he’s writing this letter, he’s probably been there for 4–5 years.

But there are two strange aspects to Paul’s mention of his chains. The first strange aspect is that Paul takes a long time in his letter to even mention his chains. Paul was clearly concerned that his readers might have heard of his imprisonment and be discouraged (see verse 13). So why didn’t he mention his chains right at the start of the letter and tell them he was OK? Why wait until now to mention that he’s in prison under the Roman authorities? The second strange aspect is this: as soon as he mentions being in jail, he immediately stops talking about it! He breaks off in mid-sentence, and goes on to talk about his ministry of the gospel, about his preaching of Jesus Christ to the world. Why is this? It seems deliberate. Yes, Paul wants to mention his chains. But he doesn’t want these chains to be the big thing. Instead, Paul wants them to lift their eyes from his situation, to see there’s something far bigger than the fact that he is in chains.

Paul the grace-filled grace-giver

The wider and more wonderful thing that Paul wants to talk about is this: God’s grace. He says: “assuming that you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you”. Paul is looking up, not down. So what fills his heart and his thoughts are not his chains, but God’s grace.

Paul actually talks about two different kinds of grace here, which are related to one another. The first kind of grace is the gift of God to all believers through Jesus Christ. It’s the gift of being saved from our sins, rescued from God’s judgment, and given hope and life through Jesus Christ. This is the grace at the heart of the gospel message; it’s the grace that Paul has already spoken about in Ephesians 2:1–10.

Sun over city

But Paul also mentions another kind of grace (or gift) from God. This is God’s gift to Paul, allowing Paul to share in the ministry of preaching the gospel. This is what Paul means when he talks about “the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you”. Paul has already briefly mentioned this “administration” earlier in his letter (see Ephesians 1:10). It’s about the way God uses people to achieve his plans—particularly his great plan for the ages to sum up all things in his Son Jesus Christ. Paul’s “administration” is to preach the gospel of God’s grace to the gentiles. This is how God is achieving his plans. So Paul is describing his own work as an apostle in terms of the international dimensions of God’s great plans for his universe.

In all this, Paul is reminding his readers of things he’s already said. Paul has already talked about how God has graciously revealed the secret of his plans through Christ (see Ephesians 1:9). He’s also already described the preaching of the gospel from the early Israelite apostolic community to the gentiles (see Ephesians 1:11–14). But here, Paul has a different focus: Paul is drawing attention to his own special role in it all. He talks about how the administration of God’s grace “was given to me for you.” And he talks about how “the secret was made known to me according to revelation”. Why focus on himself in this way? Because Paul’s situation really matters to the people he is writing to. He is their apostle. They would have benefitted from his ministry in particular—either directly from him, or from others associated with him. Paul suspects that most of them have heard about his imprisonment, and is concerned they’ll be discouraged and wonder if it’s all come to nothing. But he has waited until this point to talk about his imprisonment, because he wanted them to lift their eyes to see the bigger picture first. And now that he has shared the big picture with them, he can talk about his imprisonment. Because now they can see his imprisonment in a whole new light.

Photo by Larm Rmah on Unsplash

Paul is certainly suffering, and he’s certainly bound in chains. But Paul doesn’t define himself as a victim. He’s not a victim of Rome. He’s not a victim of mob rule. He’s not a victim of circumstances. He’s in prison because of God’s grace: God’s grace given to him, so that God’s grace can go to others. Paul has the wonderful privilege of being part of God’s great plans for his universe. As we have seen, God’s great plans for the universe are all about the preaching of the gospel to the world. Paul wants his readers to see that even in this situation, God’s great plans through the gospel are being advanced. In fact, these gentile believers are also themselves a part of these great plans. Paul is not a victim. And neither are they.

Living in the light of grace

This is what we need to see when we’re tempted to play the victim game, isn’t it? We need to lift our eyes to God’s grace: God’s powerful, multidimensional grace. We need to remember that we have had our sins forgiven, that we have been raised with Christ, that we are God’s dearly loved children. We need to remember that we have it all—every spiritual blessing in Christ. And we need to remember that we are also involved in God’s great plans for his universe through his Son Jesus Christ. Any chance we have to be involved in seeing that gospel go out to the world—by believing it, by living it, and by speaking it—is a tremendous privilege. Yet it may well involve injustice and suffering—perhaps even suffering like Paul, who himself was of course suffering like Jesus. In that case, we won’t necessarily get an answer to exactly what God is doing in particular in our situation; and it may be very, very hard. That’s why we need to pray for and support our Christian brothers and sisters who are going through hard times. But at the same time, we need to lift our eyes: to see and remember God’s grace, and his great plans through Jesus Christ. This is why we don’t simply become victims.

For reflection

Are there circumstances where you are tempted to think of yourself or your fellow Christians primarily as victims?

How does Paul provide an encouragement or an example in these circumstances?

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, 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.