Monday, April 2, 2012

The Mystery of Christ

I suspect that most people like a good mystery, be it a book, a movie, or some anticipated surprise in life.  At least we like them so long as the mystery is solved by the end of the book, movie or in a short period of time.  There are a number of things that make for a good mystery including: a story line that misdirects the reader/viewer; an occasional clue to keep the audience guessing and engaged, although the clues could be misleading; and at least a partial insight into the mystery by the end.

In Ephesians 3:1-13, Paul refers, for the second time in this letter, to a mystery that God has now made known to us.  In Ephesians 1:9-10 he did not tell us what it was, only that it had now been revealed.  But in this passage Paul goes a step further and briefly tells us what that revealed mystery is.

But before we unveil the mystery it is only proper to get the context, to know what the rest of the story has been about.  So try and forget everything you know about the Bible and begin to read it from the beginning.  You will find that parts of it are interesting, parts of it are downright boring, some part seem pretty straight forward, and other parts are very confusing.  But by the time you have finished the Old Testament you may think you have started to figure out what God is doing.  But you would be wrong (remember you have forgotten what happens in the New Testament).

What you may have determined is that God has, seemingly at random, picked out an individual and some portion of his descendants and has elevated them to a position of privilege.  So long as they follow the rules he has given to them all will be well and ultimately they will rule the world.  Assuming of course they ever get their act together.  As for everyone else, oh well!

You should also have noticed that there is a class of priests.  The role of the priest is to act as an intermediary between the people and God.  The priests are involved in bringing the sacrifices of the people to God as well as speaking to the people for God.  While there are notable exceptions, most people in the Old Testament have no direct access to God.

As you read on into the Gospels you may not find a lot that will change your assumptions, other than a modification of the expectations; God doesn't seem as harsh and there is more emphasis on the internal life rather than external.  But it is still a Jewish thing and only the occasional outsider seems to be included.

It is when you get into Acts that the picture you earlier built starts to come apart.  Remember those outcasts from the Old Testament.  Suddenly they are playing a big part in what God is doing.  It is no longer God's chosen few standing against the rest of the world.  Now, all who believe are a part of God's plan.

And then we get to Ephesians and discover what God's intent has been all along; the mystery that has kept us guessing for 44 plus books, covering a couple thousand years of history, is now unveiled.  The unveiled mystery is that "through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus".  God has invited all people, Gentiles as well as Jews, to join together as the body of Christ, looking forward to a future together in Christ.  Ancestry doesn't matter.  Culture doesn't matter.  Legalistic zeal doesn't matter.  What does matter is God's grace and our faith response to his grace.  This was a very radical idea and unanticipated by any of the Old Testament Jews.

But that had been God's plan all along: "which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets".  Peter, in 1 Peter 1:10-12, also tells us that the clues had been there long ago, but the prophets who provided the clues to the world, try as they might, could not understand where they were pointing.  And apparently not even the angels above could grasp what God was doing with his creation. Amazing!

Paul seems to reference the same thing concerning the angels in verse 10 saying "His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord."  In the gospel of Christ, the wisdom of God is made known to those in the heavenly realms.  They seem to have been in the dark concerning God's purpose in creation and what it was leading to.  But now, somehow, through the church (not as an organization but as the body of believers), the wisdom of God is demonstrated to those in the heavenly realm.

But just who are these in the heavenly realm that God's wisdom was hidden from, these rulers and authorities?  In Ephesians 6:12, at the beginning of the passage concerning the armor of God, Paul says, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." In this passage at least, the rulers and authorities, along with the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil, are adversaries that we are struggling against.  They are spiritual beings that are in conflict with God's purpose in his creation.  We are at war with them.  Paul tells us little about them other than they are our enemies, and that God equips us to be able to successfully do battle against them.

While I do not claim to fully understand this verse, I do find it interesting that the church is a demonstration of God's wisdom to his enemies.  That God is able to produce a people who are of one heart and mind out of the squabbling and contentious people that we are by nature, and encouraged to be by the rulers and authorities, is proof to them of their doom and that God is victorious.  It is somewhat reminiscent of God's discussion with Satan concerning Job.

And the mystery is not only that the barrier that separated Jews from Gentiles has been eliminated.  But also that the need for a priestly intermediary has been removed.  All believers now also serve as priests and each have direct access to the throne of God.

As I read through this passage I cannot help but note the sense of wonder and unworthiness that Paul feels, having been chosen to share this revealed mystery with the Gentiles.  He has been entrusted with what to him is an exciting and earth shattering message to deliver to people who were thought to be outside of God's concern: God loves you!

2000 years later, we, as Christians, often take this unveiled mystery for granted.  Yet I'm not sure that even yet we fully appreciate what it really means.  After all, if we really understood that God is calling everyone, not just folks like ourselves, would we not be much less selective in who we reach out to with the gospel?  Would we not embrace all members of the body of Christ as brothers and sisters?  Would we not be spending more time in God's presence?

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