This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. (NRSV)
There is a lot we don’t understand about God, about God’s will, why God has set things up the way they are. Paul talks a lot about mystery. Paul sees that God’s nature is beyond our natural knowledge. Mystery, in Paul’s letters, is about what God has not yet revealed. We can only know about God what God has revealed to us through direct and indirect ways. Indirect revelation is how we recognize God’s grandeur through nature. One only has to stand on the shore and watch the waves crash relentlessly, or stand on the banks of a great river like the Mississippi and consider the awesome power that moves silently and unendingly along, or peek over the edge of a magnificent canyon or consider the enormous mass of the mountains. Need I go on? Because I can. There is the awesome beauty and danger of the erupting volcano, the innumerable stars visible in the night sky and the recognition that there are more that we cannot see. Then there is God’s great love of diversity. We can see that God is a master of unity in diversity. Consider the number of kinds trees, grasses, birds, beasts, everything in vast varieties. And yet, each one has its niche in the ecosystem. Each one is important for the whole. This is the indirect revelation of God. We know about God by seeing the natural world God made.
The direct revelation is when God comes to God’s people in a dream or vision, or when God speaks to a prophet or preacher with a message to give. The words of scripture are a mix of direct and indirect revelation. The life of Jesus was also a mix of direct and indirect revelation. Jesus’s preaching, feeding the multitudes and healing the sick and wounded were direct revelation. Jesus’s parables were indirect revelation. One is not better than the other. Both are necessary.
Paul is basically saying that God only reveals a little at a time, and for some unknown reason, God has chosen to reveal a portion of God’s eternal truth though him, Paul. The revelation he received from God allowed him to see God and the world God made in a whole new light. Before, Paul was a Jew’s Jew. He was very protective of the old ways. After the revelation, Paul recognized God had always meant for the Gentiles to be part of the people of God, that God had always been about claiming all people as God’s people. By this revelation, Paul knew he had to tell this good news to the whole Gentile world.
It wasn’t NEW good news Paul was telling, but ‘This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that [God] has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,’ (Ephesians 3:11, NRSV) This is good news God has intended from the beginning. As Rob Bell often says, “God’s story has an arc to it. It is going somewhere.” In the beginning God revealed God’s self through creation, and then, a little bit at a time, more and more of God’s truth came out. The people had settled into living patterns of families and tribes and made sense of the world in a certain way. They understood about the cycles of moon and sun, wind and weather, and stories were told of gods that helped them make sense of it all and make it all a bit more manageable. But God had other things to reveal, and gradually, over time, God has revealed more until the fulfillment of the revelation in Jesus. We can look back at some of the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and see that maybe the people had a limited view of God. Because they hadn’t received the revelation we have since received through others over time, they couldn’t possibly have gotten all of God’s truth just right. They got a lot of it, but certainly not all of it. That’s what allows us to look at the scriptures and say, “They understood it this way, but we are free to see it in a new light.” The light of Christ shines all the way through, beginning to end, but we see it better, more clearly from our vantage point in history.
This doesn’t mean God isn’t still revealing God’s truth. God is still speaking, as some are quick to say. Jesus is the direct revelation of the eternal Christ. Even after 2000 years, we are still unpacking what that means for us. We are still learning, like Paul, that everyone we used to think were outsiders are really God’s beloved just like us. We are still learning, so we have to assume that in another thousand years, people will look back at what we know about God and realize that we were just poor sinners like the people in Jesus’s day who don’t know what we don’t know about God. They will puzzle over some of the things written in our day and wonder how we could have seen it that way. Some people will be scandalized by how we are the Church today. And yet, some will know, along with us and those who went before us, God is going somewhere, and we are all struggling to keep up. So for today, pay attention to where God is, what God is doing, and where God is calling you into new understanding of all truth, and then trust what you know, even if you might get a new revelation tomorrow.
Blessings to you,
PS. I know many scholars don’t believe Paul wrote Ephesians, but since this paragraph especially is written as if Paul wrote it, I am writing about it as if Paul wrote it. In the long run, it doesn’t matter much who wrote it… Paul or one of Paul’s proteges writing in his name conveying what Paul taught him… it all works together to reveal God’s truth to us.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.