God’s Eternal Purpose
By Alfred Bouter
“In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will … To me … grace was given, that I should preach … the unsearchable riches of Christ, to make all see what is the fellowship1 of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ … according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” —Ephesians 1:11, 3:8-11 NKJV
Standing before King Agrippa, the apostle Paul testified that Jesus the Messiah had been crucified and buried, had risen from the dead and had ascended to heaven 40 days later. From the glory of heaven He appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road.2 Almost 30 years after that appearing, led by the Holy Spirit, Paul gave this king an impressive summary of what happened to him personally and how he became a servant of the One whom he had persecuted (Acts 26:8-18).
The topic of God’s “eternal purpose” is very rich and multi-faceted, expounded especially in Ephesians in several long sentences.3 The Holy Spirit has used and is using those Scriptures to enable Christians to grasp amazing things, with many practical lessons. He equips us to respond to these wonderful thoughts in worship and praise, now and throughout eternity.
Saul’s conversion opened the door for the rejected but glorified Messiah to further work in and through the former persecutor, doing so by His Spirit whom He had sent to earth. He showed Saul, known later as Paul, the greatness of God’s eternal purpose and counsel (Acts 26:16). God also gave him a special ministry to make known everywhere the preeminence of the glorified Man, Christ Jesus, the eternal Son of God. Among other things, the apostle was to show how He is inseparably linked with all the believers on earth, members of His Body, the Church. They have free access into God’s sanctuary to “see Jesus … crowned with glory and honor” (Heb. 2:9).
Some Key Terms
The things we are talking about necessitate and imply two things:
- An intimate and personal relationship with the Father and the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit (see Eph. 1:3-14),
- An understanding of how believers are linked with each other and with the glorified Son of Man. This is according to God’s “will,” “counsel,” or “purpose”;4 and His “good pleasure” as linked to the second Man, Jesus. There is no failure in Him whatsoever. By contrast, the first man, Adam, was marked by failure and disobedience.
God’s eternal purpose, literally the “purpose of the ages,” is from before the world’s foundation,5 and therefore it is beyond any possible failure. It is intimately linked with God’s “predestination” (Rom. 8:28-29) as foreordained and realized “in Christ Jesus.” This last expression we find 49 (7×7) times in the New Testament, to be distinguished from the term “in Christ.”
“Mystery” is another keyword in Paul’s ministry, occurring 21 (3×7) times in his letters, with seven others in the rest of the New Testament. In Paul’s writings, “mystery” refers to something that was unknown until the first coming of the Lord Jesus. These mysteries are still unknown to the world, but they have been revealed to God’s people. In God’s time these things will be revealed to others, at least to a certain degree, but unbelievers will have no part in them. Let’s note that there is nothing mystical about these divine mysteries. God’s truth is wholly separated from the realms of popular, mystical beliefs, and it is independent of any human system.
Without God’s salvation, no one can be introduced to the things related to His eternal purpose. Furthermore, He “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Tim. 1:9). All has been “revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (v.10).
God’s purpose is linked to another keyword, “testimony,” because these amazing things are communicated through the gospel and linked with the Lord Jesus (v.8). It is His authority we own, even though He is rejected in the world to which this testimony is given. These things belong to a realm that is “in Christ Jesus” (v.9) – mentioned seven times in 2 Timothy – instead of being “in Adam” or “in Christ.” This last expression includes Adam and Eve after they repented and all true believers until the end of time. They are all linked with “the power of God” (v.8).
A Brief Summary
Let’s summarize the seven points related to God’s eternal purpose, or “own purpose” (v.9):
- God’s “grace,” or “favor,” is from before “the world began” (KJV), or “before the ages began” (ESV). These expressions literally mean “before eternal times,” and they are used only here and in Titus 1:2.
- This grace is “in Christ Jesus.”
- This grace “now6 has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior,” which refers to His coming in flesh (see Jn. 1:14).
- This grace is communicated through the gospel, the message of good news.
- We are saved through the power of God.
- The great Savior-God called us with a holy calling.
- All of this is according to His purpose and grace in Christ Jesus. Not even one tiny part of this is the result of our own works. What a tremendous victory by the Lord of Glory!
The Lord had appeared to Paul and appointed him to be:
- His herald, or “preacher,” to proclaim this new message;
- His “apostle” and ambassador to officially represent Him; and
- His “teacher” to teach and expound these things doctrinally according to God’s thoughts (2 Tim. 1:11 NKJV).
As God’s special envoy, Paul had declared, or made known, “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
God’s Eternal Purpose Revealed
The revelation in the previous paragraph is intimately linked with the person who is its subject and object: our Lord Jesus Christ. It pleased God to reveal Him to Saul when he met Him on the Damascus road. God also revealed His Son in him, which implies an actual and ongoing work of God, when he met the glorified Lord Jesus (see Gal. 1:15-16). Such a work of God is taking place in all believers now, during the period of grace. God’s work continued in Paul as he became a model for all believers through the period of grace. We should note that these things did not start with Adam at the beginning of this world, nor with the giving of the law. They began only after the glorified Christ in heaven – who is the Messiah and the Son of God – revealed Himself to Saul of Tarsus.
At the same time, God continued a work in Saul, which in His providence He had started from his mother’s womb (see Ps. 139). God prepared Saul so His plan that had existed from before the world’s foundation – the eternal purpose – could be revealed to and in him without any racial, social or gender distinctions or barriers (Gal. 3:28). God’s concept was radical and new, as it put the believing Jews on the same level as Gentile believers.7 For this reason, Paul endured much opposition and persecution, and even became a prisoner of Rome – while being a prisoner of Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:1, 4:1).
It is significant that Ephesians 3, outlining the administration of the mystery for which Paul had become a prisoner and including Paul’s prayer and worship linked with it (vv.2-21), is a parenthesis. That means it is something which the writer inserted between the rest of the teaching. It does not indicate something of lesser importance as we sometimes do by adding certain details, but it emphasizes the unfathomable greatness of this mystery revealed to Paul. This is in addition to Ephesians 1, which presents God’s counsels as to the Church, and chapter 2, which explains how God brought this counsel to fruition, or realization.
Paul always let the Scriptures speak when presenting to his audience that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, as seen in Acts 17:2-3. He is the One who revealed Himself to Saul and would continue to do so (22:14, 26:16). The eternal purpose represents something new – not yet revealed in the Old Testament. However, the new element that was revealed and is contained in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, did not contradict earlier Scriptures. Sadly, they are still rejected by unbelieving Jews, for they do not acknowledge their validity.
The new revelation was not against or opposed to the Old Testament; the new simply overrode it. Paul had shared this revelation with the apostles in Jerusalem, who recognized that it came from God and then expressed their fellowship with Paul (see Gal. 1:18, 2:7-10). Thus, the 12 apostles confirmed that Paul’s ministry was given by the same Lord. Later, Paul recapped what was new with three words, that the believers from among the Jews are joined together with those from among the Gentiles: joint-heirs, joint-body and joint-sharers of the promise in Christ Jesus, communicated through the gospel (Eph. 3:6).
The King James Version reads “in Christ,” which puts what is new on the same level with what the believing Adam, Abraham or other Old Testament believers possessed, since all promises are “in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:20). However, the expression “in Christ Jesus” emphasizes what is entirely new, as linked with Christ in the glory. This new position – elsewhere summarized as “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27)8 – implies that the believers are associated with the glorified Jesus as:
- His fellow-heirs;
- Belonging to the same body, of which Christ is the Head; and
- Being partakers of the same9 promise, namely of eternal life (Ti. 1:2, consider 1 Jn. 2:25) and of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13).
The promise of the Messiah, as coming, belongs to Israel. It will be fulfilled when they will turn to Him as a nation (Mt. 23:39), whereas Gentiles have no part in this promise (Eph. 2:12). The new dimension and promise we are talking about, which was unknown until then, fits our theme of the eternal purpose quite well. God had prepared Paul as a special instrument to receive this new revelation – to proclaim, to teach, and to defend it – according to His all-various wisdom.
The eternal purpose revealed to and administered by Paul caused him to be cast out, hated and persecuted. But this could not prevent him from truly enjoying this “new truth” and responding to it in worship and adoration (Eph. 3:14-21). In his prayer to the Father,10 Paul expressed seven requests in view of this special ministry he had received as linked to the revelation of God’s eternal purpose. His prayer implies an example and a challenge for us today to actually enter into these things.
We only indicate some points for further study, meditation and worship, as our main topic, the eternal purpose, links several rich concepts together. We have been blessed with all spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3) and predestined for the adoption as sons (v.4), so God can share with us – His sons, heirs and coheirs with Christ – what is precious to Him. We possess these treasures and make them our own through faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit, in a spirit of prayer, thanksgiving, praise and worship (see 1:15-20, 3:14-21). Thereby we have fellowship with the Father and the Son. Also, with each other as co-heirs, we may lift up to the Father the Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Then it is that God takes possession of His inheritance, namely in us, for His own delight and pleasure. This is indicated by these words: “the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (1:18). We should distinguish this from our own taking possession of our heavenly blessings (v.3) and from the future inheritance we will enjoy when we reign with Christ (v.4). Notice that the divine “energy” that operated in raising Christ from among the dead and exalting Him above the highest heavens is the energy, power, strength and might that worked in us for salvation. It works in us already to give us our position in Christ and practically by lifting us up to Christ and associating us with Him in heaven. Through this we may bring Him what is due even before He will enter with us into His reign in public display.
1. Literally “economy,” which is sometimes translated as “administration” or “dispensation.”
2. This may have occurred about two years later, possibly 32 or 33 AD.
3. Ephesians 1:3-14,15-23, 2:1-7, 3:1-7,8-13,14-19, 4:1-7,11-16, 6:14-20.
4. The Greek word prothesis means “what is set before,” and it occurs seven times in Paul’s writings (Rom. 8:28, 9:11; Eph. 1:11, 3:11; 2 Tim. 1:9, 3:10; Heb. 9:2).
5. ”Before the foundation of the world” occurs three times, related to the Father’s love of His Son (Jn. 17), to God’s counsel to choose us (Eph. 1:4) and to the Lamb’s sacrifice foreknown from before the world’s foundation (1 Pet. 1:19-20).
6. “Now” is a little word found often in Paul’s writings to indicate the present period of grace, in contrast to Judaism.
7. In fact, before a holy and righteous God, all human beings are equal, for all are sinners (Rom. 3:10-23).
8. This is not a contradiction, but it shows the other side of the same truth, that we are in Christ (a theme of Ephesians) and Christ is in us (as discussed in Colossians).
9. The Greek text reads co-heirs, co-body and co-partakers; or joint heirs, joint body and joint partakers (JND). 10. To be distinguished from Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:15-22, addressed to the Father of Glory, who is the triune God linked to the glorified Man, Christ Jesus.