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How can we know God’s will? How can we know his will for our lives, and his will for our world?
Sometimes people say that God works out his will in history; so to discover God’s will, we should look at where history is heading. For example, we might see that particular kinds of people who were previously oppressed are now gaining social and political powers they never had before. We might conclude that this tells us something important about God’s will for our world. And so we might seek to remove or reinterpret parts of the Bible that suggest otherwise; or at least dismiss them as part of an older, outdated idea from previous generations that needs to be moved on from. After all, if history reveals God’s will to us, then the worst thing we can do is to be on the wrong side of history! Who are we to stand in the way of divinely ordained progress?
Does this idea sound familiar to you? If you know a little about modern history, you might recognise here the views of the “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen), a movement within the German Protestant Church in the 1930s and early 1940s. This movement believed that God’s will was being manifested in the rise of the previously downtrodden German people. Nationalistic socialism was gaining ground at a rapid rate; the German Christians saw where history was heading, and they got on board with progress. They believed that the nation, its race and its religion should be purified from older religious (namely Jewish) influences, for the sake of the progress of the German race. After all, they didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. The German Christians were approved of and rewarded by the Nazi powers. But thankfully, not all Christians in Germany were part of this movement. The German Christians were opposed, at great cost and sacrifice, by those such as the Bekennende Kirche (“Confessing Church”). And in the end, we can see that the German Christians were very much on the wrong side of history.
Trying to discern God’s will by looking at the course of history is full of problems. Not only can it lead to great suffering even in the name of so-called liberation and progress (as in Nazi Germany); it’s also hopelessly naïve. It’s historically naïve, because we can’t really know where history is heading. It’s also theologically naïve, because God is far greater than we are. If we want to have any hope of knowing God’s will for our lives and our world, we’re foolish to think we’ll be able to work it out for ourselves. In fact, the only way we can know it is if God decides to tell us. This is why the Bible talks about revelation. Revelation is when God graciously tells us something about himself or his will for us, something that would otherwise be unknowable. This is what Paul is talking about here in Ephesians 3:4–6 when he says: “As you read about these things, you can understand my insight into the secret of Christ”:
As you read about these things, you can understand my insight into the secret of Christ. In other generations, this secret was not made known to humanity as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. The secret is this: that the gentiles are heirs together, and members of the body together, and sharers of the promise together—in Christ Jesus, through the gospel.Ephesians 3:4–6
A “secret” (or “mystery” in the older terminology) means something we can’t guess by ourselves. It’s something that remains hidden unless God tells us about it. Paul’s point here is that there is something important about God’s will for the world and for us. It’s something human beings could not discover by themselves. But now, says Paul, God has revealed the secret. It’s out in the open. And it matters—for Paul, and for us.
The secret hidden
The secret has to do with how people relate to God. More specifically, it has to do with how gentiles (non-Israelites) relate to God. “In other generations,” says Paul, “this secret was not made known to humanity”. In other words, this secret is something that God didn’t reveal to people who lived before Jesus. He didn’t even reveal this secret in the Old Testament. Now, God did reveal many important things in the Old Testament: he revealed his righteous character, his holiness, his faithfulness and the need to trust and serve him, among many other foundational things. God also revealed that he had a plan to bring about blessing for all the nations through the particular nation of Israel. He said to Abraham: “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). This was all clear in the Old Testament. What was not clear, however, was what this blessing would look like, and how it would happen.
There were some hints. The prophet Isaiah describes a future where many nations will be flocking to Jerusalem to hear God’s word and see the light of God (Isaiah 2:2–3, 60:1–3). But Isaiah’s vision is a little vague on the details. It’s also quite nationalistic in flavour: in Isaiah 60–61, the nations are described like vassal states being ruled over by a superpower-like Israel and bringing tribute to build up the temple in Jerusalem. Is this the way the gentiles will be blessed: through the political state of Israel (as some today actually think)? If not, then how? By the time Jesus came on the scene, the answer to this question was still hidden from God’s people.
The secret revealed
But, Paul says, the secret that was previously hidden “has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit”. God, by his Spirit, has let the secret out. God has shared the secret with the “holy apostles and prophets”. The apostles, along with the prophets, were the foundational figures in the early Israelite believing community (see Ephesians 2:20). They were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, and they preached and taught about him. In fact, the early believing community in Israel was built on their preaching and teaching. But as we read through the book of Acts, we see that even the apostles like Peter needed to be told something more—something that was fundamental to the gospel message going out to the world. God had to reveal to them that when it came to access and acceptance with God, the gentiles were on equal footing with the Israelites (see, for example, Acts 10:1–11:18). God’s plan to bless the world, in other words, was not going to happen through gentiles being subservient to Israel, or through gentiles joining Israel. It was going to happen through the gospel of Jesus Christ being preached to and believed by the gentiles.
So, says Paul, the secret has now been revealed. The secret is this: “the gentiles are heirs together, and members of the body together, and sharers of the promise together”. In other words, gentiles who believe in Christ have the same wonderful, privileged access to God as the Israelite believers. We come to God together. Paul uses three words that bring together several things that he has already said in Ephesians.
Firstly, we are “heirs together”. Paul has already mentioned the idea of “inheritance” in chapter 1 (verses 14, 18). It’s about the amazing future hope we look forward to. It’s about living in a new heavens and a new earth. It’s about joy and fulfilment and life and peace and security. This, according to Isaiah, is the ultimate inheritance for all those in Israel who trust God (see e.g., Isaiah 65:17–25). And the now-open secret is that gentile believers share in this inheritance as much as Jewish believers: we look forward to it and long for it together.
Secondly, we are “members of the body together”. Paul has already mentioned this in chapter 2 (verse 16). Through his death on the cross, Christ has reconciled us to God and created a whole new humanity. Gentile believers don’t join this body like vassals or servants—we are equally members of the body along with Israelite believers. We were sinners under God’s judgment together, and we have been forgiven and brought to God together. This message is for people of all nations, no matter their background or nationality.
Thirdly, we are “sharers of the promise together”. Paul has already spoken about this in Ephesians 1:13–14. God has given us his Holy Spirit, who is our security for the future. He makes us God’s “property”, which guarantees that God loves us and cares for us and will redeem us in the end. This is true for all who believe in Jesus—whether from Israel or the nations.
In Christ, through the gospel
There is a second important element to this open secret. It involves how God has brought his blessing to us. These blessings are all “in Christ Jesus, through the gospel.” This means that God is achieving his plans for the world by the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He’s not doing it through some kind of political process, or through military force, or through moral persuasion. Rather, he’s doing it through the preaching of the gospel.
Through the gospel, people are coming to share in all those spiritual blessings that are found “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3–14). These blessings include being chosen, forgiven, adopted, and being given knowledge and hope. Through the gospel, we come to share in them together. As Jesus’ death and resurrection is preached, then together we see our sin, together we are devastated by the truth of God’s judgment, together we are brought to our knees, and then together we are lifted up higher than we can ever imagine—seated with Christ in heaven, together. The gospel is the great equaliser. It brings us down together, and it lifts us up together. The gospel gives us the same hope, and the gospel means we look forward to the same promises of eternal life.
The open secret
This, then, is the open secret that tells us what God’s will for us and for our world is. It’s a secret, because we can’t work it out for ourselves. But it’s now an open secret, because God has revealed it to us. God’s plan was always to bless the world through the nation of Israel. And he has fulfilled his plan. The way he has fulfilled it is something we could never work out by ourselves. He has brought about the blessing of the world in Christ Jesus, through the preaching of the gospel. And all those who hear and believe in this gospel have an equal future hope, an equal status, and an equal share in God’s Holy Spirit.
So God’s will for our world is not something we can read off history. The German Christian movement saw God’s will at work in the rise of German Nationalistic Socialism, and they were wrong. We can be tempted to do the same today—and if we tried to do it, we would be equally wrong. Should we look at political events in the Middle East and discern God’s will at work? No. Should we look at seismic shifts in social attitudes towards sexuality in Western countries and see God’s will at work? No. God’s will for our world is revealed in the gospel of Christ Jesus: the gospel that brings us together to God. Our task is to hear this gospel, to believe this gospel, to rejoice in this gospel, to marvel at the depths of God’s love shown in the gospel, and to speak this gospel to others.
Are you ever tempted to try to read God’s will off the events of human history or the events of your life?
What aspects of God’s open secret are most precious to you?
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
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.