The Church and the Eternal Purpose of God
By Jeff Waldron
Paul loads the spring in the first half of his letter to the Ephesians: Our Father knows us and chose us before the foundation of the world; we have access to an inheritance beyond comprehension obtained and kept by the Son for us; our dead-as-a-doornail souls were quickened by the Spirit’s irresistible grace; we have access to our Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. And perhaps most significant is that all of this is in accordance with God’s “eternal purpose” which he is accomplishing through the church.
In Ephesians 3:7-12, Paul describes how he was given the grace to preach the gospel and “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:9-12.)
God has an eternal purpose. A purpose that transcends time and existed before time was a thing.
This eternal purpose includes making his manifold wisdom (i.e., the gospel) known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
The means of making the gospel known to these rulers and authorities is the church.
Reflection 1: The Church as the Means
We often have an incomplete view of the church and it is much to our detriment. We seem to incorrectly apply what Jesus declared of the Sabbath to the church--we think that the church was made for man (see Mark 2:27). That the church was made for us is not false, indeed being members of the body of Christ (i.e., the church) benefits us in countless ways that I will not recount here, and those are very important. However, the sentiment is incomplete and immature. The church has eternal significance far beyond whether we are subjectively satisfied. If it is indeed, as Paul says, God’s means for making his manifold wisdom known, our view of the church and our role in it should not start from a self-centered vantage point, but the gospel and God’s eternal purpose should first inform our view of the church. We should not approach the church as consumers needing to be fed, but as co-laboring to glorify our Father and bringing about his eternal purpose.
Reflection 2: Making God’s Manifold Wisdom Known
What is God’s manifold wisdom? Simply stated, it is the gospel, the realities that Paul sets forth in the first three chapters of his letter. The gospel is the mystery hidden for ages in God which has been realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. While in one sense simple, the gospel is an unsearchable, multi-faceted diamond with a glorious depth that we can never exhaust. Paul gives us a taste of this in the first three chapters of Ephesians.
Who is the primary target? We are rightly concerned with how we Christians are seen by other humans and whether we are bringing honor to Jesus in those interactions. If we claim the name of Christ but live in a manner contrary to the way his disciples ought to live, it indeed weakens our witness, detracts from God’s glory, and may result in people discounting Jesus because of our hypocrisy. However, in describing God’s eternal purpose and the role of the church, Paul does not mention other people--the eternal purpose is making the gospel known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. Woe to us if we act like Christians only when people are watching! Hypocrisy in us reveals our hearts, which is infinitely more important than how we are perceived. Moreover, we are being constantly observed by the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms! Are we, as individuals and in the church, making the gospel realities known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms?
How do we make the gospel known to these rulers and authorities? Imagine a stadium packed with these heavenly beings, observing our every action, thought, and response. How will we succeed in making God’s manifold wisdom known? To be sure, it is not whether we respond and behave perfectly, because we will not. No, they are not watching us in the same way the world is watching us--they are not waiting for us to falter, to act hypocritically.
What has these heavenly beings on the edge of their seats is whether, when we falter, will we fall upon the gospel? When we fail, will we rest in our blood-bought status with our Father, knowing all our guilt and shame has been nailed to the cross? Will we set aside pretense and striving and instead grab hold of our true identity as a son or daughter, loved by our Father through the work of our brother, the Son? Will we, as a church body, spur one another in these gospel-truths, loving one another, being one as the Father and the Son are one, worshipping God and serving one another, not for what we get, but because we are ransomed, known, and eternally loved? Will we breathe in and breathe out the gospel, and will we do so as a church body? In this, we will be serving our God’s eternal purpose of making the wondrous mystery of his gospel known--it is finished, he has done it, we are redeemed and in the arms of love everlasting, and nothing can separate us from him.
And with this knowledge and unified mission, we as a church are ready to respond as Paul trips the spring he has loaded in the first three chapters with a single “therefore” to kick off chapter four, and then launches us into what should be our joyful response to those glorious gospel truths and how we as a church body ought to live (Ephesians 4 through 6). Let us pursue our role in this eternal purpose with vigor and joy!