A surprise birthday party? A campaign shrouded in mystery until the launch? The joy of good secrets is in the reveal.
But we struggle when we don’t know. We fill the vacuum with stories or fears of what might happen. Even theologians fear the worst when we don’t know. Like what will happen to people who never heard about Jesus? Maybe we need to trust God instead of letting our imagination run amok.
One of the unknowns in Old Testament times was what God would do with the nations that had given Israel such a torrid time. There were some who hoped for the best, that the nations might ultimately recognize Israel’s God (e.g. The Letter of Aristeas). But most imagined that God would have to judge and destroy the nations in order to restore Israel:
The overwhelming attestation of, references to, and portrayals of Gentiles in Jewish apocalyptic literature is that of their ultimate judgment and final destruction.
— Michael P. Theophilos, “The Portrayal of Gentiles in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature,” in Attitudes to Gentiles in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 91.
When God finally sent the Messiah, Jesus did not do what they expected. Instead of leading a war to free Israel and destroy the nations, he was crucified at the hands of the nations. That was not the outcome they wanted, so you can understand Saul of Tarsus angrily resisting Jesus’ supporters.
Until … until Paul encountered the resurrected Messiah. In that very first encounter, Jesus revealed that he never planned to obliterate the nations. Jesus intended to include the nations under his reign, so he commissioned Paul as his ambassador to the nations to tell them so:
Acts 9 15 This man [Paul] is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles [nations] and their kings and to the people of Israel.
What a revolutionary revelation! Jesus had not destroyed the nations, because they belonged under his kingship? With their kings? And the people of Israel?
Before this encounter, the question of what God would do with the nations was as much a mystery to Paul as it was to other Jews. Now he is the ambassador of Jesus’ kingship to the nations, explaining that God was setting the world right by including them, along with Israel, under divine kingship.
Never in his wildest dreams had Paul imagined this answer to the mystery of God’s intention for the nations. This revelation defines who Paul is. His purpose in life is to be Jesus’ ambassador to the nations (apostle to the gentiles):
Ephesians 3 2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. 4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. 6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
This is not a mysterious text. It’s crystal clear when you read:
- mystery = the unknown: the issue of what God would do with the nations when he saved Israel;
- revelation = the reveal: the astounding realization that God is including the nations, along with Israel, as a fully restored humanity in the Christ (God’s anointed ruler).
Of course, this is what the whole letter has been about. Chapter 2 bubbled over with the good news of peace, God breaking down the division, so the excluded nations receive citizenship through the Messiah. And Chapter 1 began the big plan God predestined for creation (1:4), the reign of the Messiah through whom God “fills everything in every way” (1:22).
And a final twist. The word “revelation” in 3:3 is apokalypsis — the very word that gave its name to Apocalyptic literature, the writings that imagined God pouring out judgment on the nations and destroying them for what they did to Israel. But it turns that God had been far more generous than anyone had imagined. The God revealed in Messiah Jesus includes the nations under his reign instead of destroying them.
So perhaps we shouldn’t imagine the worst for things that are still a mystery to us, issues like the fate of the unevangelized. We might be better to trust the character of God instead of our fears.