Sunday, June 4, 2017

God’s Plan for the Fullness of Times – Ephesians 1:8-10




As we come to this point in Paul’s doxology here in chapter 1, we need to stop and take stock of where we are.  The apostle began expounding the spiritual blessings in verse 4 by beginning with God’s eternal purpose “before the foundation of the world.”  Now we come in verse 10 to “the dispensation of the fullness of times,” which, as we shall see, points to God’s purpose for the end of history as we know it in the establishment of Christ’s kingdom over all.  John Stott reminds us in his exposition of these verses that we all need to share Paul’s vision.  Though he was chained to a Roman soldier under house arrest in Rome as he penned these verses, yet “though his wrist was chained and his body was confined, his heart and mind inhabited eternity.  He peered back ‘before the foundation of the world’ (verse 4) and on to ‘the fullness of time’ (verse 10), and grasped hold of what ‘we have’ now (verse 7) and ought to ‘be’ now (verse 4) in the light of those two eternities.  As for us, how blinkered is our vision in comparison with his, how small is our mind, how narrow are our horizons!  Easily and naturally we slip into a preoccupation with our own petty little affairs.  But we need to see time in light of eternity, and our present privileges and obligations in the light of our past election and future perfection.  Then, if we shared the apostle’s perspective, we should also share his praise.”[1] 

We often focus on our problems in the here and now.  As we have noted before, one the oft-repeated objections to Christianity is that it is so focused on the next world, to the neglect of the present.  Sadly, there have been Christians who have almost completely neglected the present for the future.  But I think that we are plagued with the opposite problem today.  This is true even in the religious world.  It seems to me that a lot of people are only interested in religion for the benefits it brings to them now.  Like the people who came to Jesus in John 6, they are laboring for the food that perishes (Jn. 6:27), even if they are seeking it from Jesus.  Of course, food is necessary.  These people were probably really hungry.  It was a legitimate need.  But if you seek Jesus for material needs, even if they are legitimate, merely for the purpose of using Christ to serve yourself, then you should not be surprised if you end up walking away from Christ in the end (Jn. 6:66).  You will be disappointed because Christ did not come to subsidize our idolatrous love of this world, but rather to give us everlasting life in him.

If we not share the perspective of the apostle Paul, we are just going to use Jesus to make our lives more tolerable and comfortable in this world.  We will be serving him from mercenary motives, not from real love and devotion.  This does not mean that to be a genuine follower of Christ, you must forget about this world altogether.  It does not mean that you abandon the responsibilities you have in your family, job, or church.  There is a way to be a “worldly Christian.”  Not in the sense of being worldly in being like the world, but being worldly in being in the world and not of it. 

How do we do this?  How do we live to the fullest in this world while remaining faithful to Christ?  (By “living to the fullest” I don’t mean having your best life now.  After all, the apostle is handcuffed to a Roman soldier as he writes these verses, hardly an enviable position!  Rather, I mean living a life that is even now characterized by the joy and peace and satisfaction and fruitfulness that can only come through fellowship with God through Christ.)  I think the answer lies at least partly in sharing the apostle’s viewpoint that he lays before us in these verses.  With him, we need to focus on God’s plan for the fullness of time.  To share the apostle’s perspective, however, we need to tap into the “wisdom and prudence” (8) that enables us to see the “mystery” (9) of God’s plan.  Only then will we be able to see what God is doing “in the dispensation of the fulness of times” (10) and live our lives accordingly.  In other words, we not only need to see what God has revealed to us but also how he has revealed these things to us.  In our message, we will start with the “what” (verse 10) and then go back to the “how” (verses 8-9).

To understand what God has revealed to us, there are a couple of words we need to carefully define.  The first is the word “dispensation.”  The Greek word behind this can either refer to the office of an administrator or to the work of an administrator.  Because a steward or administrator is meant to carry out the plans of the one whose property they administer, the word came also to refer to a plan or a strategy.[2]  Here it refers to the carrying out or administering God’s plan or purpose for the fulness of times.

The next important word that needs to be clarified is the one that stands behind the phrase “gather together in one.”  Paul uses the same word in Romans 13:10, when he says that the whole law is summed up in the command to love one another.  The idea here is to unite various things under one head.[3] 

Thus, we could paraphrase Paul’s meaning in verse 10: “God purposed that in carrying out his plan for the fulness of times, he would unite all things in heaven and earth under the headship of Christ.”  This is the content of God’s purpose in verse 9, and unpacks the what is meant by “the mystery of his will” (9).  Since the Fall, this world has been infected by sin and rebellion.  According to the apostle in Romans 8, this rebellion does not only affect humankind, it also affects the physical creation.  Thus, because of sin, the universe is discordant and at cross-purposes with God’s original intention for his creation as a place that reflects his glory in being “very good.”  Sinful men and women have especially walked away from God’s purpose for them.  Far from being united to God in friendship, we are separated from God in hostility.  We could liken this fallen world is an orchestra whose members refuse to follow the leadership of the Grand Composer.  We are out of tune with God’s good purpose for us, out of harmony with God’s word and each other.

What the apostle is saying, then, is that God has purposed to remedy this situation in Christ.  It is through Christ that the discordant elements of this universe will be once again united in perfect harmony under the headship of Christ.  Paul was saying something very similar to the Romans when he wrote, “For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:9).  Except here, the breadth of Paul’s vision has widened.  Here, he not only included humanity as that which will be united under Christ’s headship, but also “all things in heaven, and which are on earth.”  This is Paul’s way of saying that his sovereignty includes everything.  There is nothing in the universe that will not one day acknowledge his Lordship.  And so, God’s broken creation will one day be fully restored in Christ.

Now some have wrongly concluded from this that Paul was a universalist.  Their argument is that if everyone and everything in heaven and earth will be united under the headship of Christ, then doesn’t that mean everyone will be saved?  Isn’t that implied in being united under our Lord’s headship?  The answer is no.  After all, the apostle will later argue that God’s wrath is coming upon the children of disobedience (5:6).  The apostles argue that one day everyone will bow the knees to Jesus as Lord and will acknowledge his rule over them.  Like rebels that have been vanquished they will be made to submit.  But this is not the same thing as being saved.  Active rebellion will one day be completely vanquished.  But that does not mean that they will start loving God or that they will enjoy eternal life in the presence of God. 

Nevertheless, we should not miss the scope of our Lord’s sovereignty.   He is Lord over all, and as such, he is going to unite everything in perfect harmony under his rule.  This is why the Scriptures don’t teach that the heavens and earth are going to be replaced, but redeemed (Rom. 8:19-26).  You don’t redeem that which is destroyed.  This earth is not going to be destroyed but purged and cleansed.  New heavens and new earth don’t mean new in the sense of completely different.  There will be continuity.  They are new in the sense of being renewed.

This is important for the following reason.  God is not done with this world in which we live.  The idea that this creation is something inherently evil and that the way to become holy is to put as much space between you and the world as possible is not an idea inherited from Scripture but rather one that has found its way into our thinking from the pagans.  Unfortunately, this idea began to create problems for the church from the very beginning.  Paul had to address it in the church at Ephesus during his lifetime.  He wrote to Timothy, that there were those who were “forbidding to marry, and to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.  For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:3-5).  What is a “creature of God”?  Everything.  There is nothing that falls outside this category.  As such, they are good and not to be refused.

Those who give the impression that to be holy you must have as little to do with this world as possible is falling into the theological error about which Paul was writing.  This world is not to be refused.  Why?  Because it belongs to God.  Because in Christ he is going to redeem it.  In Christ, he is going to make it good again. 

When God created man, he gave him dominion over the creation (Gen. 1:28).  He made us stewards over the physical world that he had created.  This mandate was not removed at the Fall; that did not change.  What changed is that the world that mankind administered for God became cursed (Gen. 3:17-19).  But sin did not make the world evil, it made it hard.  And this hardness we see all around us: we see it in natural disasters; we see it in the cruelty of men against men.  It is hard to live in this world.  It is hard to live in a world that is groaning under sin and it is hard to live in a world inhabited by sinful and selfish men and women.

But here again, the perspective of Paul can help.  Knowing that Christ is Lord over creation and that he is going to redeem it will keep us from over-spiritualizing the mission of the church.  But even if we recognize the mandate to be good stewards over God’s creation, the hardness of this fallen world can still make us want to withdraw from it and give up on it.  I read a story not too long ago of a pastor who labored for many years in a very poor neighborhood with all its endemic problems.  Over the years, many young men who aspired to the pastorate came and went in this neighborhood.  But this man persisted.  When he was asked why he persevered and these other guys didn’t, he responded that he kept reminding himself that our Lord told us that the poor will always be with us (Mt. 26:11).  This helped him remain realistic whereas the others had simply been idealistic.  We need to recognize that no matter how faithful we are, we should not be surprised that the world around us remains hard.  It will because God has not promised to unite all things under Christ until “the fulness of times.”  This is obviously a reference to the end of history as we know it.  It is a reference to the Coming of our Lord in his glory when he will establish his kingdom in its fulness.  Until then, we are laboring in a fallen world.

But we should not give up on it.  It is still the Lord’s.  Moreover, the fact that Christ is Lord over all means that he is very interested in the way we are exercising our stewardship over his world in the here and now.  The implication is that we don’t just glorify God when we sing his praises in church; we don’t just honor him when we share the gospel with others.  We can also glorify him in our jobs and in our hobbies; we can praise him in the arts and in the sciences, in the mundane as well as in the exciting aspects of our lives.  “Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

However, it means that the Christian ought to sanctify everything into which he or she comes into contact because of this perspective.  We do not seek to excel as stewards of God’s good earth as an end in itself; still less in order to get glory and recognition from men.  Rather, we ought to so in order to advance the kingdom of God in this world and to bring others to see how everything in this world points to the glory of Christ.  This world is still broke, and for us to pursue life in this world apart from joining Christ in his redemptive mission is ultimately to contribute to the world’s brokenness instead of to its healing.  Rather, our prayer ought to be the prayer of the psalmist: “God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving health among all nations” (Ps. 67:1-2).

This also means that God will bless us and strengthen us as we use this world for his glory and the advance of his kingdom.  The promise of grace is not just future; it is present.  As we noted last time, the apostle says that we now have redemption in Christ (7).  He doesn’t just wait to bestow grace upon his child; he lavishes it upon us now (8).

We’ve looked at the what; this brings us to the how.  How do we come to possess this perspective?  For most people do not share it; even those who are aware of it through the Bible.  What makes the difference?

To answer this question, we need to go back to verses 8-9.  Verse 8 begins with the words, “Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence”.  The word “wherein” points back to “grace” in verse 7.  What God has abounded toward us, or lavished upon us, is grace.  And this grace is manifested in the fact that God has given to us “all wisdom and prudence.”  Though some evidently argue that the wisdom and insight here refer to God’s wisdom and insight, it seems clear to me that they are meant to refer to wisdom and insight that God gives to us.  After all, in the very next verse, the apostle continues by saying that God has made known to us the mystery of his will.  How has he made this known to us?  By giving us wisdom and prudence.  This argument is strengthened by comparing this verse with the parallel passage in Colossians, where Paul says that his desire for them is that “ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (1:9).  There, it is clear that the “wisdom and spiritual understanding” are given to the Colossians to help them understand the will of God for them.  In the same way, Paul is telling the Ephesian believers that they have been graciously given wisdom and prudence so that they might know and understand the mystery of God’s will.

As Lloyd-Jones has pointed out, the best exposition of this verse is 1 Corinthians 1 and 2.  There Paul argues that the wisdom of this world is not sufficient to give insight into the reality and relevance of the gospel.  It takes more than a grand intellect to perceive the glory of God in the gospel; it takes the grace of God opening our eyes to see it.  Paul says that he and the other apostles do not speak the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 2:6), but the “wisdom of God in a mystery” (7).  He goes on to say that the only way to see this wisdom is to have God reveal it to you: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit” (10); “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him neither can he known them because they are spiritually discerned” (14).  The gospel is a great leveler.  It is not intelligence that is required to be able to see the glory of Christ; what is needed is the work of God in the heart and mind granting wisdom and insight.  This is why we can preach the gospel with as much confidence in a third world country as we can among the most sophisticated and urbane.  The problem to be overcome in each case is the same: it is spiritual blindness, not a low IQ.  And it is the same God who bestows it in each case, who is ever present to open the blind eyes and soften the hard hearts.

This does not mean, of course, that the gospel is irrational.  It just means that what prevents men and women from universally receiving the gospel is not a lack of reason but a heart that is opposed to God.  The wisdom and insight that the apostle is talking about, is not therefore merely the bestowing an intellectual perception into the truth of the gospel, but that wisdom that sees the beauty of the gospel, that tastes and sees that the Lord is good.  Unless this is given, we would all remain in darkness.  Or, as the apostle puts it in 2 Cor. 4:3-6, “if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.  For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  This is why the ability to see and understand the gospel is a gift of grace.  It is grace lavished upon us that gives us wisdom and insight.  If you are a Christian, it is not because you are cleverer than the next person; it is because God in his grace has given you the eyes to see and the heart to believe.

This brings us to the meaning of “mystery” in verse 9.  The wisdom and prudence that are given in verse 8 are given specifically to help us to know “the mystery of his [God’s] will.”  We have already noticed that this mystery refers to God’s plan to unite all things in heaven and earth under the redemptive Lordship of Christ.  Why does Paul it a mystery?

First of all, “mystery” does not refer to something that is unintelligible.  This word is no cover for those who want to evacuate Christianity of all its doctrinal content, who want to reduce the intellectual content of Christian doctrine to a bare minimum. 

Second, this is not a reference to the mystery religions that were common in Paul’s day.  These religions claimed to have “secret knowledge” that only its inner circle was privy to.  Even when you obtained access to this knowledge, you were not allowed to share it with others.  Unfortunately, there are still religions and secret societies that operate like this.  The Christian religion is nothing like this.  This is not a mystery that is kept secret, but one which is made known, not just to a few but to every follower of Christ.

Rather, in the NT, “mystery” is a reference to a truth or reality that is unattainable through human inquiry and must be revealed by God.  This is the way our Lord used the word in the parables in Matthew 13: “it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given” (11).  It is the way the apostle uses it in 3:3, 5: “by revelation [God] made known unto me the mystery . . . which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  So here, the mystery of God’s purpose is something that he has to reveal to us in order for us to know it.  This is the same thing as saying that the gospel is special revelation.  You don’t look up into the heavens to discern God’s eternal purpose in Christ.  He has to reveal it to us.

What is the bottom line here?  It means that we are utterly and completely dependent upon God for the knowledge of the gospel and plan of God.  We are utterly and completely dependent upon God for the eyes and heart to receive the gospel and see the truth and importance of it to our lives.  And that means that we ought to join with the apostle in praising God for the wisdom and understanding given to us by his grace.  And it means that as we share the gospel with others we need to be praying that God would accompany the truth we share with his Spirit to soften hearts and open eyes.

We ought to be living every day in the knowledge that every part of this world belongs to Christ.  He is Lord over all.  As Abraham Kuyper famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”  And we can thank and praise God that there is coming a day when all who belong to Christ will participate with him in his victory over all. 



[1] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Ephesians (BST), p. 44-45.
[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker, 2002), p. 217.
[3] Ibid., p. 221.

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