20 October 2012Ephesians 3:1-13
"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." (vv. 8-9)
Put into the 'mouth' of Paul this passage is a defence of his ministry, presumably against those who interpreted his imprisonment (verse 1) and other sufferings (verse 13) as evidence of the inauthenticity of his apostleship (verse 2) or of the falsity of his claims about the power of Christ (verse 11). It seems that some of the Gentile (non Jewish) Christians were losing heart (v13) in the face of Paul's sufferings and were tempted to revert to their former fatalism in the face of the heartless "rules and authorities in the heavenly places" (v. 10) who were seen as largely indifferent to human affairs.
The passage raises a perennial problem for Christians about how to hold together a belief in the plan and purposes of God, and the reality of evil and suffering in the world. One way to approach this problem is to interpret verse 9 as meaning that everything that happens is within God's plan. Although this promotes trust in God, it can also give the impression of a God who is indifferent to the suffering of human beings as God ploughs on towards higher things - a picture which is both morally abhorrent and at odds with the picture of God we have in Jesus of Nazareth and in much of the Old Testament.
In this passage, however, the plan of God is not a cover for all that happens. Rather verse 9 refers to the plan of God to redeem all things and peoples through Jesus Christ (verse 6). It is clear that suffering still happens, though it is given meaning (and even might reveal glory), as the Apostles, like Paul, offer their suffering alongside Christ's, that others may know his "boundless riches" (v. 8).
The word for suffering ('thlipsis' in verse 13) used here is the same as that used of Paul's trials being a 'completion' of Christ's sufferings (Colossians 1:24). Here, not only Paul, but the whole Church is being called to resist being dragged into a grey world of lifeless fatalism. Instead we are invited into the vibrant (literally, 'multi-coloured' verse 10) wisdom of God in order that we and others might live life to the full.
- Has anything ever caused you to 'lose heart' and be dragged into a lifeless grey fatalism? What was it?
- What helps you to stay in touch with the vision of God's wisdom for the world as a multi-coloured and life-filled arena, despite its suffering?
- How do you hold together a notion of God's plan, and some of the terrible things that happen in the world?
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