Monday, October 16, 2017

God's Secret Plan: File #1

I enjoy reading mystery stories, stories about secret plots and plans. You're reading through them and all kind of things are happening, but nothing really seems to make sense--it's like you have all these pieces and they don't seem to fit together. And then in the last chapter you find out secrets that you didn't know before--that the person you thought was the murderer was really a detective and the person you thought was the detective is actually the murderer and everyone else was someone else entirely in disguise--and suddenly everything else makes sense. All those things that you noticed in the earlier chapters but couldn't understand--now, all at once, they seem plain and comprehensible. Once the hidden secrets are revealed, everything else falls into place. It's like trying to solve a puzzle without the box and with several pieces missing. You may be able to get a lot of it together, but it simply won't make sense until you get all the pieces.

This world is much like a mystery story or a puzzle. There are parts of it that make sense, there are piece of it that we can fit together. But as a whole, it is hard to make head or tail of it. We can't really understand this world and our place in it, until we know the secret--the secret plan which is going on in the background which provides the explanation for what's going on. And it is against this backdrop that we can read these words in Ephesians 3:8-9: “To me – less than the least of all the saints – this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ and to enlighten everyone about God’s secret plan – a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things.” (NET Bible, First Edition)

God has a secret plan, a plan He has been working out since the beginning of time and even from whatever you call the time before the beginning of time. There are many things about God and His work which we don't know and, very likely, will never know. But this secret plan of God's is different. It is like the mystery in a detective story, in that, when the right times comes, the secret will be revealed and then everything will make sense. And, according to Paul, the right time has come. The KJV refers to it as the “fellowship of the mystery.” Whately thinks this is a reference to the mystery religions which were common in Greek culture. They were like cults or secret societies with secret teachings and rituals which could only be known by those who had been initiated into the society. (Barnes' NT Commentary, Ephesians 3:9) There have been many such societies throughout time who try to keep things secret--but invariably someone ends up spilling the beans, revealing the secret to the world. God also has a secret, but now He Himself is spilling the beans, revealing His secret to the world--revealing His secret plan for the world, for His people. This is the main theme of the book of Ephesians.

Ephesians was one of several letters written while Paul was imprisoned, most likely in Rome. At the end of Acts we find Paul in Rome, imprisoned but with a good deal of freedom and this seems to be when he wrote several of his letters, including Ephesians and Colossians which seem to have been written around the same time, most likely around AD 60. Both seem to have been delivered by a man name Tychicus, who was most likely a resident of Ephesus.

Many of Paul's letters either explicitly or implicitly refer to an occasion for their writing. For instance, both Colossians and Galatians were written to combat false teachers in the church and 1 Corinthians was written because, well, there were a LOT of different problems in the church at Corinth. Ephesians does not have that. Ephesians is also more general and less personal than most of Paul's other letters and contains no personal greetings, despite the fact that Paul had spent several years in Ephesus. In a certain sense, this does not seem to be a letter in the traditional sense at all. Rather, Paul seems to have taken this opportunity to write a treaties or article, outlining the general shape of God's secret plan for His people. Very possibly, though he wrote it for Ephesus, he purposely left a general tone so that it could be copied and sent to other churches and be of use to them. We know from Colossians 4:16 that this was common in the early church--for apostolic letters to be copied and read in different churches. If this were Paul's main purpose, it would explain the lack of personal greetings and references. It also might explain why some ancient manuscripts lack the word Ephesus in the first verse, though they retain the title Ephesians. So, then, this is Paul's treaties, his explanation or revelation of God's secret plan which he had been commissioned to reveal to the world. Because of the general nature of the epistle, it has a particular important for us today--for though this was written specifically to the church at Ephesus, it is also for other churches and ultimately for all churches for in it Paul reveals God's secret plan for the church.

We will get into a more detailed analysis of the letter later, but let's start by pointing out a few main themes. Some writers point to Ephesians 1:9-10 as the key verse of the book: “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: that in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.

The main thing to understand about Ephesians--and about the New Testament in general--is that it is all about Jesus. The coming of Jesus Christ is the mystery of God, though it had been hinted out throughout the Old Testament but it has finally been revealed now. The final book of the New Testament is called The Revelation of Jesus Christ, but really that title could be given to the entire New Testament. The gospels reveal the life of Christ, Acts reveals how the church testified to the life of Christ, and the epistles show how the life of Christ impacts us. Nothing in the New Testament, and especially, nothing in Ephesians can be understood except in reference to Christ. If you go to Paul's closing section of Ephesians you'll see that Paul can't even talk about simple things like the relations of a husband and wife or a child and parent without connecting it to Jesus. And I don't think Paul was merely dragging two concepts together for the sake of making a point--it seems that he believed that nothing in this world could be understood apart from Jesus.

Some people have pointed out that the epistle seems to be built around three key words, three verbs, three things that we do--but all of which are related to and connected to Christ. (Kostenberger, Kellum, Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 589)

In Ephesians 2:6 we are pictured SITTING with Christ, like honored guests at a banquet or seated rulers in a court--we have the privilege in Christ of sitting in heavenly places, in the presence of God. The first three or four chapters of Ephesians detail the many blessings we enjoy, because we are seated in heavenly places.

Ephesians 5:8 speaks of us WALKING as children of light. We are to walk with Christ, walk as children of light, walk worthy our calling in Christ. This is the thrust of the last three chapters of Ephesians. Granted we have received all these blessings in Christ and are seated as members of his family, his kingdom--how should we then live?

The final challenge of Ephesians is found in 6:10 and following, a challenge to STAND for Christ. In light of the blessings we have been given in Christ and the walk we have been called to walk with Christ, we must be prepared to stand and be strong, to have an unflinching loyalty to Christ.

But the bottom line is that all these things have meaning only in relationship to Christ. Paul doesn't call us to walk a righteous life just for its own sake. Paul doesn't call us to take a stand just because taking a stand is a good thing. There are many people in the world who recognize the importance of living a moral life. There are many people who would recognize and condemn some of the sins Paul warns against in this epistle. And that's good in so far as it goes. Paul would have recognized all that while as a Pharisee. But now, as a Christian, Paul sees all this directly in relationship to Christ. Because we are seated with Christ, we must walk with Christ and stand for Christ.

And it is important to note the word “WE.” It is we are who are seated with Christ. I said the one central idea of Ephesians is Jesus Christ, but the other central idea is the Church. God's secret plan is mainly about Jesus but it is also mainly about the Church.  Paul has much to say about unity in the church (the problem of disunity within the church seems to have been just as great in the early church as it is today)--there is unity in the church precisely because we are all seated together with Christ, sharing in the blessings He has purchased for us--and therefore, we must all walk together with Christ in a manner worthy of our calling and together take a stand for Christ. But this unity is not merely a forced unity, many people coming together for a common cause--that can be found among men, even among wicked men. This is an organic unity rooted in Christ, because Christ is the head of His body, which is the church.