The Fourth of July celebrations yesterday bring to mind the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.
Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian and philosopher, observes in Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind (2015: p.109), that the equality of humanity is not self-evident: ‘The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are “equal”?’, he asks. According to Harari who writes as an atheist, ‘Homo Sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas, and chimpanzees have no natural rights’ (Sapiens, p.111).
Harari rightly observes that Christianity teaches that all men and women are equal before God. We often forget that the opening chapter of the Bible describes humanity as being created in the image of God – the climax and glory of God’s creation. And as we read on into the New Testament, we find that Matthew includes non-Israelite women in Jesus’ human bloodline: Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute and Ruth, the Moabitess. Both came to trust Israel’s God (Matthew 1:5).
Furthermore, Luke, in his Acts of the Apostles, records a meeting between Philip and an official from the court of Queen Candace of Ethiopia – ancient Cush, the region south of modern Egypt, into Sudan (8:26-38). While the Bible doesn’t refer to skin color (and so doesn’t note that the official from ancient Ethiopia would have been black), it is vitally interested in our relationship with God. In this instance, Luke tells us that the man responded to Philip’s gospel presentation and was baptized.
Significantly, recent researchers such as Vince Bantu (in A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity) record the strength and vitality of African churches from the very earliest years. Why did this happen – especially given the antipathetic attitude towards Christianity’s founder amongst the Jewish leaders? We find an important clue in chapter 3 of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians where he writes of the revelation of God’s mystery.
Mystery revealed. Paul uses the word mystery, not as secrets that are only revealed to the top level ‘insiders’, but rather to refer to God’s plan that had been hidden in the past but is now openly revealed to everyone. He says it has to do with Christ who has opened the way for the non-Jewish world to enjoy full and equal benefits of all God’s promises (3:4, 6). This is radical. He is saying that a unique relationship between men and women and God’s Messiah is now available, and that this relationship removes the barriers and hostility between all peoples, no matter their skin-color or race and includes Jewish and non-Jewish peoples.
Through the years the Jewish people had understood that God would bless the nations through them – as he had promised Abraham (Genesis 12:3); they also knew Isaiah had said that Israel would be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). But there is no hint, either in the Old Testament or in Jesus’ teaching that God planned to involve the non-Jewish peoples of the world as equal beneficiaries in a new international community he is building – a community whose head would be the Jewish Messiah, Christ Jesus.
Mystery proclaimed. In verse 7 Paul writes: Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power.
Saying he is the very least of all the saints, Paul speaks as one of God’s emissaries in announcing the boundless riches of Christ to the non-Jewish world (3:8). The boundless, unsearchable, inexhaustible, incalculable riches of which he speaks is one of the most profound ideas in the Bible. Paul wants us to know we shall never come to the end of the wealth of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ.
An important theme permeates this as he brings together the ideas of revelation and commission: God’s truth is to be passed on! Just think: if we were sure that the gospel is God’s truth and the riches of Christ are for all men and women, not one of us would be able to keep quiet.
The story is told of a conversation between a prominent Russian communist leader and a Western church leader at the height of the cold war. The Christian was bemoaning the fact that the USSR was closed to Christianity. The Russian leader’s response was immediate: ‘You don’t know what you are talking about! We envy you. Look at the vast resources you have to get your message out: you have people.’ When the first Christians came to faith their lives were changed and they talked their faith – gossiped the gospel.
Light and Truth. To make everyone see (enlighten) what is the plan (administration) of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, Paul continues (3:9).
Plan or better, administration refers to the implementation of God’s plan – which is revealed in Bible-believing and teaching churches. So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (3:10).
The mystery of God was no abstract idea. Now revealed, it takes shape as men and women from all walks of life, from all cultural and racial backgrounds, are brought together as one people. It reveals the rich tapestry of God’s grace, power and wisdom. And as the story of this work of God continues to unfold, Paul tells us that there are supernatural watchers, the angelic world, spectators to the drama of God’s astonishing work.
This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, Paul writes, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory (3:11-13).
Sadly, so many of us have lost sight of the wonder of God’s great cosmic plan. The very existence of healthy, vital churches growing across the nations of the world, reveals the global extent of Christianity and, when we think about it, the impact of the fundamental value that all men and women are created equal.
A prayer. Lord Christ, eternal Word and Light of the Father’s glory: send your light and your truth so that we may both know and proclaim your word of life, to the glory of God the Father; for you now live and reign, God for all eternity. Amen.