A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 3:1-13 Conclusion.
The major lesson taught by this first half of Ephesians 3 is the biblical centrality of the church. Some people construct a Christianity which consists entirely of a personal relationship to Jesus Christ and has virtually nothing to do with the church. Others make a grudging concession to the need for church membership, but add that they have given up the ecclesiastical institution as hopeless. Now it is understandable, even inevitable, that we are critical of many of the church’s inherited structures and traditions. Every church in every place at every time is in need of reform and renewal. But we need to beware lest we despise the church of God, and are blind to his work in history. We may safely say that God has not abandoned his church, however displeased with it he may be. He is still building and refining it. And if God has not abandoned it, how can we? It has a central place in his plan. What then does this passage teach about the biblical centrality of the church?
a). The church is central to history.
Verse 11, as we saw, alludes to *the eternal purpose* of God. It is also called his ‘plan’ or ‘the plan of the mystery’ (verse 9). What we are told is that this plan or purpose of God, which was conceived in eternity, kept ‘hidden for ages’ (verse 9) and ‘not made known to the sons of men in other generations’ (verse 5), he has now *realized in Christ Jesus our Lord*, first through his historical work of salvation and then through its subsequent proclamation in the world. What is this eternal purpose which is now being worked out in history, this divine plan which thus belongs to both history and eternity? It concerns the church, the creating of a new and reconciled humanity in union with Jesus Christ. This is the ‘mystery’, hidden for ages but now revealed.
Is this our view of history? We have all studied history at school and may have found it (as I did) abominably dull. Perhaps we had to memorize lists of dates or of the kings and queens who ruled our country. But what is the point of history? Was Henry Ford right in 1919, during his libel suit with the Chicago Tribune, he said, ‘History is bunk’? Is history just the random succession of events, each effect having its cause and each cause its effect, yet the whole betraying no overall pattern but appearing rather as the meaningless development of the human story? Was Marx right in his dialectical understanding of the historical process? Or has history some other clue?
Christians affirm in contrast to all other views, that history is ‘his story’, God’s story. For God is at work, moving from a plan conceived in eternity, through a historical outworking and disclosure, to a climax within history, and then on beyond it to another eternity of the future. The Bible has this linear understanding of time. And it tells us that the centre of God’s eternal-historical plan is Jesus Christ, together with his redeemed and reconciled people. In order to grasp this, it may be helpful to contrast the perspective of secular historians with that of the Bible.
Secular history concentrates its attention on kings, queens and presidents, on politicians and generals, in fact on ‘VIPs’. The Bible concentrates rather on a group it calls ‘the saints’, often little people, insignificant people, unimportant people, who are however at the same time God’s people – and for that reason are both ‘unknown (to the world) and yet well-known (to God).
Secular history concentrates on wars, battles and peace-treaties, followed by yet more wars, battles and peace-treaties. The Bible concentrates rather on the war between good and evil, on the decisive victory won by Jesus Christ over the powers of darkness, on the peace-treaty ratified by his blood, and on the sovereign proclamation of an amnesty for all rebels who will repent and believe.
Again, secular history concentrates on the changing map of the world, as one nation defeats another and annexes its territory, and on the rise and fall of empires. The Bible concentrates rather on a multi-national community called ‘the church’, which has no territorial frontiers, which claims nothing less than the whole world for Christ, and whose empire will never come to an end.