This article is a survey of the uses of the Greek word thelema (noun: will, desire) in the New Testament. I will particularly focus on how thelema is used concerning God’s will. The Bible uses multiple words to express God’s plan or desires, so this words study is far from exhaustive. Still, I hope that it will give the reader insight into God’s will.
Will as Want, Plan, and Assignment
For a long time, when people would ask me about how to find the “will of God” I would begin by making a distinction between the moral will of God and the sovereign will of God. God has revealed his moral will – what he wants of human beings – through Scripture. When God tells us to know or do his will, he’s talking about his moral will.
God’s sovereign will is what he accomplishes, or will accomplish, in history. We can only know his sovereign will after the fact, except through special revelation, as, for instance, through a prophet. God doesn’t ask us to know the details of his sovereign will, though in hindsight we could see how God wove together different events or circumstances to accomplish that will. When I started my survey of God’s word, I began by categorizing the instances of the word through this grid. Was the word about his moral will, his sovereign will, or was the reference ambiguous? However, while is there is still theological and pastoral value to this categorization, it didn’t prove to be a very helpful way of looking at the meaning of the Greek word.
Based on my survey of the uses of thelema in the New Testament, I believe that it carries with it the sense of want, plan, and assignment. These three senses are interrelated, but often one sense comes to the forefront in the verse. We can see how the senses are related through the lens of the father/son relationship. Jesus tells a parable of two sons in Matthew 21:28-32. A father tells his two sons to go work in the vineyard, one says he will go, but does not, the other says he won’t, but then goes and works. Jesus asks, “Which of the two did what his father wanted [thelema]?” (Matthew 21:31)
Here, the senses of want and assignment are forefront. The father wanted his sons to work in the field and so he gave them an assignment. We know which one did what the father wanted based on who did the assignment. The sense of plan fades into the background, though we might infer that the father wanted the sons to work in the field because he had a plan to harvest the crop by such and such a date and so he gave an assignment to his sons to work.
Will as Want
The sense of will as want (or desire) is forefront when the word is used in regards to human desire. For example:
- Pilate surrendered Jesus to the crowd’s will (Lk 23:15). He let them do what they wanted to with him. The sense of plan also comes forward since they planned to have Jesus killed.
- Paul says that an unmarried man who has control over his own will (desires), can stay unmarried (1 Cor 7:37).
- Paul says that we all start “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (Eph 2:3).
What does the text say about what God wants?
Before moving on, I need to introduce the idea of God’s salvific plan, which I think you will see comes forward clearly in the text. God wants to rescue humanity, so he has a plan, and he carries out that plan through human agents, to whom he gives assignments. Jesus stands as the most frequent human agent, and he often speaks in terms of doing the Father’s will, which we can see as carrying out the Father’s desires, plan, and assignment. Jesus wants what the Father wants, purposes what the Father purposes, and does what the Father asks.
What, then, does the Father want?
- “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14)
- “This is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but shall raise them up at the last day” (John 6:39)
- “For the Father’s will is that everyone who looks at the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40)
- “God… wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). I am cheating a little by including this reference since the word here is the verb thelo (to will/want) not the noun thelema, a much more common word. However, the sense fits so well, and the words have the same root, that I have decided to include it.
In the passages above, the sense of want comes out most strongly. God does not want anyone to perish. He wants all who believe to have eternal life. He wants all people to be saved. But, the sense of a plan also comes through. For, we could also say, “the Father’s plan is that everyone who looks at the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”
The Father carries out his salvific plan through Jesus. In the Garden, Jesus prays “if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42, see also Luke 22:42). This aligns with Jesus’s stated mission, to do the will of Him who sent him (John 4:34, 5:30, 6:38). In these passages, the sense of assignment also comes through, but they fit within a larger plan. In Gethsemane, Jesus sets aside his desire (will) to carry out the assignment (will) given, following the Father’s plan (will).
Here’s how Paul carries out this idea:
- “Jesus Christ… gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God” (Galatians 1:4)
- God “predestined us for adoption to sonship, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5)
- God “made known to us the mystery of his will” (Ephesians 1:9)
- “In [Jesus] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:11)
We need to parse out the three usages in Ephesians. What is the “mystery of His will”? The broader context of Ephesians has to do with the incorporation of the Gentiles into Christ. “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). I propose that God’s will, either as a plan or as want in Ephesians, is centered on the union of Jew and Gentile in Christ, which is itself part of a broader cosmic plan to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
Finally, let’s look at Hebrews 10:5-10. The writer argues that when Christ came into the world he said “Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will [desire, plan, assignment], my God” (10:7, 9). Instead of offering sacrifices, per the law, he offered his own body, following God’s will. “By that will [desire/plan], we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
To summarize the points thus far: God wants all people to be saved, a plan which involves the incorporation of the Gentiles. This plan requires Jesus to carry out the assignment, primarily his sacrifice (Heb 10:10), through which he can reconcile all people to God (Ephesians 2:16).
The above passages have focused on either God accomplishing his own will (wants, plan) or Jesus accomplishing the Father’s will (wants, plan, assignment), but many passages talk about humans doing or knowing God’s will. In these passages, will as want and assignment come to the fore.
- Paul is an apostle by the will of God (1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1, 2 Tim 1:1). The strongest sense here is assignment, though that could be an assignment under God’s plan to reconcile the Gentiles to God through Christ. In Acts, Ananias says to Paul, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth” (Acts 22:14). He links this to his role as a witness (22:15)
- In Acts, Paul says that David is a man after God’s own heart because he does everything God wants him to do (Acts 13:22). David does what God wants. Like the father/son parable we started with, God’s wants, at least in part, are expressed as assignments (i.e., the law, or direct instruction)
- Jesus encourages his followers to be those who do the will of his Father (Matthew 7:21, 12:50, Mark 3:35, Luke 12:47, John 7:17) and those words are often tied directly to following some moral command: “whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice” (Matthew 7:24)
- The blind man who Jesus heals defends Jesus by saying that God “listens to the godly person who does his will” (John 9:31)
- Paul frequently links knowing and doing God’s will to ethical instructions:
- The Jews know God’s will because they have been instructed in the law (Romans 2:18)
- Testing and approving God’s will is linked to moral instruction for life in the community (Romans 12:2ff)
- Knowing God’s will parallels with living with wisdom (Ephesians 5:15, 17)
- Servants obey their masters, for in doing so they are doing the will of God (Ephesians 6:6-7)
- Being filled with the knowledge of God’s will enables us to please the Lord, bearing fruit in every good work (Colossians 1:9-10)
- Standing firm in the will of God links with being mature and fully assured (Colossians 4:12)
- It is God’s will that we will be sanctified by avoiding sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
- God’s will is for us to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
- The two instances in Hebrews where we are called to do God’s will link with persevering in suffering (Hebrews 10:37) and being equipped with everything good (Hebrews 13:21)
- In 1 Peter we do God’s will by doing good to silence foolish slander (2:15) and resisting the urge to live for evil desires (4:2). Peter also says that “those who suffering according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator” (4:19). This doesn’t appear to be a moral injunction to suffer. But, in the example of Christ, suffering may be part of the Christian’s assignment.
- 1 John says that “those who do the will of God live forever” (2:17) and this appears to be linked to keeping his commands (2:3). John also says that “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. One of those prayers is that God would give life to a brother or sister who sins (5:14, 16).
In all these cases, God’s will, in terms of what he wants, ties closely together with his will, in terms of what he assigns for us to do. Again, this makes complete sense when understood through the father/son parable with which we began. In some ways, there is a circular relationship between knowing what God wants in a general sense, and knowing his particular commands. What God wants leads directly to his commands, but we also learn about the character of God – about what he loves – through his commands. The law should instruct us both in what God requires of us and the nature of the God who makes such requirements. What is absent is the idea that God wants us to know detailed particulars of what he is going to do, or what we should eat for breakfast, or what our major should be in college.
If we want to link these assignments to God’s plan then it would be permissible to do so in a general sense. God plans to bring salvation to the end of the earth, bringing together one people reconciled to God. Our assignments (living wisely, being sanctified, doing good) all fit into that plan. We must recognize though, that outside of references to Jesus and Paul, that is mostly a theological step, not necessarily a linguistic one.
My argument is that God’s will is best understood in terms of what God wants, plans, and assigns. God wants to rescue humanity. To do so, he carries out his plan by sending Jesus. Jesus carries out this assignment through his obedient life and perfect death. We can also do God’s will by understanding what he wants us to do: our assignments. Those assignments can be understood through Scripture, in light of God’s broader mission to bring all things to unity in Christ.
Appendix: Other uses
My overview has not listed every use of thelema in the New Testament so, to be thorough, I will list the remainder here.
- Matthew 6:10: In the Lord’s prayer we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In this case, will is best understood in terms of what God wants. God’s desires are already fully realized in heaven, but we want to see those desires also fully realized on earth. Those fully realized desires are expressed in terms of the kingdom of God.
- John 1:13: John says that Jesus makes those who receive him children of God, children not born of the will of the flesh or the will of the husband, “but born of God.” The structure of the verse suggests that being born of God means being born by God’s will. God’s desire is the sense most likely in view here as it parallels John 6:38-40.
- There are three instances where God’s plan, in a non-moral, non-assignment sense, appear to be in view:
- Acts 22:14 “When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.'”
- Romans 1:10 “I pray that… by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come.”
- Romans 15:32 “so that I may come to you with all joy, by God’s will.”
- All of these involve some uncertain future: What will happen to Paul in Jerusalem? Will Paul be able to visit Rome? The people don’t know what will happen, but trust that God will carry out his plan.
- 1 Corinthians 16:12 “Apollos… was quite unwilling to go”. This is a case where human desire is in view.
- 2 Corinthians 8:5 “They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.” Paul is extolling the Thessalonians for giving so generously to those in need in Jerusalem. The will here appears to be what God wants since it lines up with God’s desire for generosity.
- 2 Timothy 2:26 “…escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” This is a rare case where will is not used about God or humans, but the devil. “To do his will” seems to mean “to do what he wants,” or maybe “to do his assignment.”
- 2 Peter 1:21 “prophecy never had its origin in human will.” I take this to mean that true prophecy doesn’t occur just because a prophet wants it to occur. God, through the Spirit, initiates the prophetic word, according to his desire, plan, and assignment (see Jeremiah 1:4-5)
- Revelation 4:11 “for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Again, I think what God wants is in view. He created and sustains all things because doing so aligns with what God loves and values