You might have heard it before, God’s “secret plan,” and perhaps it sounds like the plot of a spy movie or root of some conspiracy theory. But the Bible uses the term numerous times throughout two key epistles to the early church, and it’s hinted at throughout Scripture.
Both in Ephesians and Colossians, the writer talks about God’s secret plan, or mystery, which has been revealed to him and which he is now tasked to share with the world.
But what is God’s secret plan? And what does it mean for today’s Christian?
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Where in the Bible Is God’s Secret Plan Mentioned?
Some translations say “secret plan,” while others use “mystery” or “secret purpose,” but the meaning is the same. In multiple verses in Colossians and Ephesians, the writer says God kept this mystery a secret for many ages but now wants the world to know God’s full plan through him: that Christ came that all people, and both Jews and Gentiles would be saved in Him.
As he explains in Ephesians, “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” (Ephesians 3:6).
The original Greek word used is mystērion, which Strong’s Greek Concordance defines as being a derivative of muo, meaning a “secret or mystery.”
Most scholars believe the apostle Paul wrote Colossians and Ephesians, or that someone else did on his behalf. Renamed from Saul to Paul after his spectacular epiphany and then conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul had been a devout Jew and ultimately became the man responsible for bringing Christianity to most of Asia Minor. He is thought to have authored 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament.
In Colossians 1:25-27, he writes that God gave him a special commission “to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
In Colossians 2:2, Paul continues explaining that he’s trying his best to encourage these new believers “in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ.” And in Colossians 4:3-4 he asks for prayer that God will “open a door” so this secret plan can be shared clearly.
He’s even more specific in his letter to the early church in Ephesus, especially in the third chapter (3:3-13), where he reveals how God gave him a revelation and then outlined the plan, which involved spreading the Gospel to all people, not only God’s earlier “chosen ones” the Jews. All.
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Why Is God’s Secret Plan Significant?
Before, while many groups of people worshipped God, only the Jewish people were thought to be God’s special and chosen ones. This was because God, who deeply loved Abram and renamed him Abraham, promised the man he would be the father of many nations and that God would establish an everlasting covenant between God, Abraham, and his descendants (Genesis 17:3-8). God reiterated this covenant with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, in Genesis 28:13-15, and later renamed Jacob “Israel.”
This status of “chosenness” didn’t mean other groups of people besides the Jews, or Israelites, weren’t also precious to God, but when the Messiah came in the form of Jesus, His message at first was only to them.
For Jesus was a Jew, descended from Abraham and later King David, born to a Jewish peasant girl named Mary in the town of Bethlehem, and raised to know Jewish law and customs. Indeed, the Messiah, or savior, is itself a Jewish concept, and this Messiah’s coming had been foretold in Jewish scripture for centuries.
Jesus spoke in Jewish temples and Jewish towns. His disciples were all Jews. When He sent out these disciples to heal in His name, Jesus instructed them not to go among the Gentiles or Samaritans but only to the lost of Israel (Matthew 10:5-8). Later, when a (non-Jewish) Canaanite approached Him begging Him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, at first Jesus refused, telling her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel … It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:24, 26). But she persisted, and impressed with her faith, Jesus granted her request.
But later, in the Great Commission after His resurrection, Jesus instructed His disciples to “therefore, go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
After His ascension, on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit alighted on the apostles (Acts 2), at first the apostles only shared the Gospel with other Jews. But then God sent the apostle Peter to share the Gospel with a small group of Gentiles (Acts 10). It then became acceptable for Gentiles to be baptized and counted among the followers of Christ. Most still believed Jesus offered salvation only for Jewish believers or those who adopted Jewish ways, such as through circumcision.
Paul’s life’s work, however, changed all that. And his writings on God’s revelation—that God’s true plan was to reconcile all people, both Jew and Gentile in Christ—helped the church ignite.
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Why Was God’s Secret Plan So Divisive?
Paul was so passionate about revealing this secret plan that he willingly allowed himself to be taken prisoner and ultimately martyred for his faith.
As Ephesians draws to close, he asks, “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Ephesians 6:19-20).
But this mystery was divisive and upsetting to many, which we can understand when we look at the historical context. For ages, Jews and Gentiles steered clear of each other. This is made clear during Jesus’s conversation with the woman at the well who was surprised Jesus would ask her for a drink, for as John 4:9 almost offhandedly explains, “Jews do not associate with Samaritans.”
Indeed, the secret plan uprooted what was a longtime cultural tradition of mutual avoidance between the two peoples. Conflict ensued. For as Gentiles began to follow Christ, many Jewish Christians began to insist these new believers be circumcised. They felt Gentiles must first become Jews, submitting to the Law and, ultimately, circumcision.
Finally, a council of elders had to be called in Jerusalem, where Peter and other church leaders ultimately affirmed people are saved through faith and God’s grace, not through pious or legalistic acts such as circumcision. Peter settled the discussion, noting, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:8-10).
It’s an affirmation reiterated in Galatians 3:28, which reminds the church, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
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Where Else Is God’s Secret Plan Hinted At?
It might seem odd that God waited until He’d called Paul to the ministry to reveal His secret plan. Indeed, reading the rest of the Bible, including many passages in the Old Testament, it seems clear God strongly hinted at this plan.
But we are reading from a more informed perspective, one that already understands the full meaning of the Gospel. For us, the meaning is clearer.
For instance, when God promises Abram a great nation would come from him, we see a hint of God’s secret plan in God’s promise that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). People of that day would not have understood it the same way.
We see this hint again in the prophets, such as in Isaiah 9:1-7, which speaks of the coming of the Messiah who will bring a “great light” to all people in the land of deep darkness by offering a new world, a new form of government, with a unified peace that has no end. People of that day interpreted this as salvations for the Israelites, while today we understand it’s unity for all who believe.
A close read of Scripture reveals a number of hints that indicate God’s “secret plan” was always whispered, though most people of that day would not have recognized the full scope.
How Does God’s Secret Plan Help Today’s Christians?
Today, the world can be just as divided—between races, between genders, and even between denominations with theological differences but the same core Christian faith.
Given this, it is important to understand the root meaning of God’s secret plan: God came for all. God came to break the barrier between people. God wants to unite His children into one body, with Christ as the head.
There’s nothing we can do—other than believe—to become part of this body, and all are welcome to the table. Period.
When Jesus breathed his last upon the cross, cried out in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split” (Matthew 27:50-51).
The tearing of that temple curtain is the point of God’s plan: all have access to God. With the ripping of the veil, the tearing of the curtain, the way to God was opened and made fully available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
The apostle John sums this up in one of the most quoted verses of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).
Today’s Christians can take heart that all who believe are one in Jesus.
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Originally published Monday, 24 May 2021.