November 26, 2020

The Paradox of Paul

Fridays in Ephesus (5)
The Paradox of Paul

During Eastertide on Fridays, we are reflecting on insights from Timothy Gombis’s recent book, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God.

• • •

Tim Gombis encourages us to note the dramatic contrasts in Ephesians 3:1-13 and to see them as the key to understanding this passage.

Paul, prisoner of Christ Paul, steward of God’s grace
Paul. less than the least Paul, chosen holy apostle
Paul, suffering Paul, manifesting God’s wisdom


These descriptions set forth the “paradox of Paul” that he felt compelled to discuss in this part of his epistle.

Paul draws out the paradox of his life and ministry by emphasizing both sides of the tension; he carries out his privileged and cosmically significant ministry while occupying a position of weakness and shame. Paul becomes a perfect model for how the victory of God in Christ will be performed in our lives.

St. Paul in Prison, Rembrandt

If you read Ephesians 3, you will note that verses 2-13 record a long parenthetical statement by Paul.

Verse 1 begins with the words, “For this reason…” and the apostle apparently intended to express a prayer for the Ephesians (see 3:14).

However, having introduced himself in terms of his calling to minister to the Gentiles, Paul interrupts his prayer before it even begins, takes off on a tangent, and begins explaining more about his work and current situation.

  • 3:1 — For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles —”
  • 3:2-13 — (tangent about Paul’s ministry)
  • 3:14 — “–  For this reason…”

I like the illustration Gombis uses to explain why Paul felt it necessary to go off on this tangent.

Imagine that your pastor is on sabbatical and a church leader stands up on Sunday morning and announces a guest speaker. She begins by rehearsing the credentials of the special guest. “Mr. Smith ministered for twenty years in a church in the Midwest after earning his seminary degree. Following a three-year stint in a maximum security prison, he began an itinerant ministry, and we are delighted to have him here this morning.”

A prisoner in the pulpit! For many churches, particularly in our affluent, family-oriented, moralistic culture, having a disgraced jailbird as the public voice of the congregation on Sunday would be unacceptable, incompatible with the idea of victory and transformation in Christ.

Those who received this letter from Paul may have felt a similar sense of disorientation. The epistle starts off soaring, with sublime statements about Christ’s victorious exaltation. Jesus has conquered the powers that rule this world and keep people in bondage to sin, hostility, and death! Christ’s people have been raised up with him and seated in heavenly places! The Church now participates in God’s eternal triumph and proclaims the Good News of our King throughout the world.

And this triumphant message is being written from a stinking jail cell by a suffering apostle.

Gombis writes, “How can it be that Jesus Christ is victorious Lord, having defeated the powers and authorities, and Paul, the emissary of Jesus, is . . . in prison?” Not only is the contrast in imagery jarring, but remember this also — Paul was ministering in a world that believed one’s life status and situation reflected the favor or disfavor of the gods. If Paul’s God had proven himself triumphant over the dominant powers of the world, why then was this apostle suffering under Rome’s judgment? Could it be that the gods of Rome had proven themselves stronger? If Jesus is Lord, why was Paul Caesar’s prisoner?

Therefore, here in Eph. 3, when Paul begins to pray, identifying himself as Christ’s prisoner, his pen must have paused as the thought came to his mind: “I should reinforce my credibility to these dear people. It is well and fine to talk about ‘blessings in the heavenly places’. But here I am a prisoner, and I’m sure many of them are wondering about that. I claim to be Christ’s apostle, and yet my current circumstances certainly must not look to them like I am an apostle, walking in Christ’s victory! I had better clarify what ‘triumph’ actually looks like.”

So Paul tells us — it looks like a prisoner in a Roman jail, being used by God in all his unworthiness, weakness, and shame, to establish churches among the Gentiles simply through traveling, working with his hands, loving his neighbors and sharing God’s words with them. This simple ministry of gathering God’s people together in Jesus is creating something new that is making God’s wisdom known to all the powers in heavenly places.

Paul’s strategy is to situate his present circumstances squarely within the biblical tradition of God’s power being demonstrated in human weakness. He does this by emphasizing the paradox of his life and ministry—at the same time that he occupies this terribly shameful and utterly weak situation as a prisoner, he fulfills a cosmically crucial commission as the administrator of the grace of God. In so doing, Paul wonderfully performs the same paradox as God’s victory in Christ. Jesus Christ conquered the powers and authorities through his shameful and humiliating death on a Roman cross. Because of God’s upside-down logic, performances of God’s triumph will inevitably involve displays of God’s power through human weakness, loss, shame and humiliation.

When will we ever learn that “success” in the Gospel looks nothing like what the world calls “success”?

Perhaps it’s time to make sure there is a rugged cross mounted prominently wherever and whenever Christians gather.

Or a prison cell.


  1. “When will we ever learn that “success” in the Gospel looks nothing like what the world calls “success”?”

    That’s a tough lesson to learn for modern, Western people.

    We need to constantly hear it, to be brought low…and to be raised high…by Him. Over and over and over and over…

    Thanks, Chaplain Mike.

  2. Fabulous! The last shall be first. Life is enmeshed in the tension of opposites. I’m an utter dimwit – I’m a royal child. I am empty – a river of living water flows from me. I am a perpetual sinner – I have been made perfect. Embracing those polar opposites is the alchemy of Christian living.

  3. Good article on the tension of living in two worlds.

    However, I take issue with the author’s concept of prison in the Roman world — I get the idea that the author readily equates the placement of a person in Roman prison with the placement of a person in 21st century prison. Today we use prisons for punishment. The Romans NEVER used prison for punishment but rather as a mere HOLDING PLACE prior to trial where they would determine the person’s innocence or degree of guilt.

    If found guilty in the Roman court, they were never imprisoned as a form of punishment — all punishment was corporal — beating, scourging and even death . For us today “prison time = guilt.” For the Romans “prison time = charged and awaiting trial.” Re-read the Book of Acts. Was Paul ever found guilty of the charges brought against him? We can only gain true insight into the text if we read it in it’s context — not ours.

    • Good distinction, Mark, but I don’t think it really affects the point of the post. It is Paul in the text (as well as in many other texts) who equates his imprisonment with weakness, shame, and suffering. It may not have been punishment, but no one wanted it in their life or on their resume.