Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Mystery of God's Will

The turn of the millennium 21 years ago did not bring an end to history after all, and pundits have been analyzing the past year to find a “defining moment” (and likely there are many to be found given all that we have collectively experienced the past 12 months). But as we will see, the Apostle Paul gives us a better hope, for he glories in Christ as the meaning and Lord of history. War, famine, earthquakes, genocide, abortion are not just the convulsions of a ravished planet rushing toward doom. They are contained and overcome in God’s master plan to bring good out of evil and eternal life out of death.

Paul says that God has made known to us “the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Him, unto a dispensation of the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ …” (Ephesians 1:9–10). The old language of that literal translation is obscure, but the newer paraphrases have less force. Dispensation means “administration” and describes God’s ordering of the eras of history. The “fullness of the times” means the coming of the promised time to which all the times lead. Paul rejoices that God will sum up everything in Christ; more than that, he rejoices that God’s plan is already operational. The time of fulfillment has begun; God’s eternal purpose has been accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:11). Christ is Himself the Mystery of God (Colossians 2:2). He is already on the throne. God has exalted Him to the “heavenly realms” and will “sum up” everything in Him, for He is already head over all things (Ephesians 1:19–23).

Paul’s amazement at the mystery of God’s plan grows out of his knowledge of the Old Testament. As a devout Pharisee, Saul (Paul) knew the Scriptures and worshiped the God of Israel, the one true and living God, who created heaven and earth, and who directs everything according to His will. Saul knew that God has His own plan, that He had chosen Israel in His “good pleasure” (râtsôn). The psalmist prayed, “Remember me, O LORD, with the favor (râtsôn) You have toward Your people” (Psalm 106:4 NKJV; Deuteronomy 33:16). Later, as an apostle, Paul affirmed God’s sovereign choice: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13; Malachi 1:2–3). He had learned from the Old Testament, too, that not all who are descended from Israel are the Israel of God’s choosing (Hosea 1:9–10; Romans 11:4–5).

Saul also knew that God had chosen Abraham so that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:2–3). He knew Isaiah’s promise of blessing to the Gentiles through God’s servant (Isaiah 49:6). Yet Saul did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah through whom such blessings would come. Indeed, he was sure that he could not be the Blessed One, for Jesus died hanging on a tree, under the curse of the law (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13b).

But the Lord who had chosen Israel chose Saul, blinded him with His glory, and called him to be His apostle to the Gentiles. Taught by the Holy Spirit, Paul’s eyes were opened to the Scriptures. He saw that Jesus went to the cross not in spite of the fact that He was the Messiah but because He was the Messiah, and bore the curse for us (Galatians 3:13a). He paid the price of sin: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins …” (Ephesians 1:7).

In total shock, Paul realized that what he had thought impossible—that the Messiah should die as a disgraced criminal—was God’s plan all along. Abraham had been able to spare Isaac on Moriah, the mount of sacrifice, but God did not spare His own Son. He gave Him up for us all (Genesis 22; Romans 8:32).

In God’s wisdom, His plan shows what we can never comprehend: the wonder of His free grace. Paul saw that this was what God had been showing through all the eras traced in Scripture.

The blessing that God had promised to the nations through Abraham is the blessing of His own presence in the Spirit, and that blessing is given through Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:14). The Scriptures condemn Gentiles and Jews alike: not one is righteous (Romans 3:9–18).

The Law in which Israel boasted condemns Israel’s sin. It was given to lead them to the only one who could keep the Law, fulfill the calling of the circumcised, inherit the promises of God, and give the Spirit to the nations (Romans 10:4; 15:8–9).

The failure of Israel under the old covenant showed that the Lord must come Himself to make a new covenant (Isaiah 40:10–11; 59:16–60:3; Jeremiah 32:38–40; Malachi 3:1). Jesus, born in the line of David, is the Messiah, but more than that, He is “God over all, forever praised” (Romans 1:3–4; 9:5).

Paul saw that he had been blind to the promises; a veil had been on his face when the Scripture was read (2 Corinthians 3:15). Now the veil was gone, and Paul, the least of the saints, was made God’s servant in the “fullness of times” to be a light to the Gentiles (Acts 13:47; Isaiah 49:6), proclaiming the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:1–6; Isaiah 60:1–3).