In the traditional communion liturgy used
by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and many others, there is a time
when the officiant raises the bread and wine of communion and says,
us proclaim the mystery of our faith! And the people respond in unison with
one of the most ancient Christian affirmations:
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again!
And many people in the congregation are left to ponder just exactly what
the mystery is. If they stop to think about it, many suppose that the
of our faith is something spooky and inscrutable, not understood by the
smartest of scholars, and perhaps even inaccessible to human reason. Some
even may go so far as to think that the
mystery of our faith is irrational.
To some of you, the word
mystery conjures up incongruous images—for a
mystery is a novel or a television show in which the main character attempts
to figure out a murder. There are different types of mysteries: in some,
like Murder She Wrote or Perry Mason, the thrill comes
in figuring out who did it. In others, like Columbo, we know who
did it; the thrill comes in watching the bad guy get caught. I understand
that there are several other types, but those two come to mind at present.
These stories are called
mysteries because the whole plot revolves around
the protagonist’s efforts to clear up a mysterious happening.
For us a mystery is something confusing, complicated, unknown, or even unknowable.
If we cannot fathom something, we say,
It’s a mystery to me.
So when we hear about the
mystery of our faith in church or see the word
mystery in the New Testament, we immediately think of Jessica Fletcher,
Lieutenant Columbo, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason, or Hércule
Poirot—and we don’t see the connection. In that sense, there is no mystery
of our faith at all, because everyone knew all along that Judas Iscariot
betrayed Jesus. There is no scene in the New Testament (nor is there a need
for one) where all the apostles are gathered in the drawing room, nor is
there a detective to throw up a series of scenarios implicating each apostle
in turn until Judas breaks down and confesses. We don’t see any direct connection
between Poirot and Paul, so we think that when Paul speaks of the
of our faith, he means deep, inscrutable things. We think that our puny human
minds can perhaps peer from the railing into these deep theological truths,
but that if we drop an intellectual pebble into them, we will never hear
it hit the bottom.
The problem here is that we are trying to fit a twenty-first-century meaning
into a first-century usage. So today, let us clear up the mystery of the
mystery in the New Testament. To do that, we simply need to turn to
the first thirteen verses of the third chapter of Ephesians, in which Paul
talks about the
In verse 3, Paul says that the
mystery of Christ was made known to him
by revelation. In other words, he didn’t take lessons. This is obviously
a reference to His conversion experience, which came by way of a direct revelation
from Jesus Christ and not through listening to an evangelist’s sermon. (See
Acts 9 and Galatians 1.) Paul does not maintain here that it is only possible
to learn this
mystery through a special revelation from God, he only says
that in his case that’s how it happened.
In verse 5, we learn that Paul isn’t the only one who knows this mystery.
He says that the
mystery was revealed by the Holy Spirit to God’s holy
prophets and apostles, and that they are all in on it. We might infer that
the prophets learned the mystery through divine revelation as Paul did. Many
of the prophets, such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah speak of a personal
encounter with God. (Star Trek fans might imagine some sort of Vulcan mind
meld.) But the apostles didn’t seem to have such an experience. Scripture
records that most of them lived quite ordinary lives without such numinous
experiences. So we might theorize that the mystery was conveyed to them during
Jesus’ resurrection appearances.
Verse 6, however, lets all the air out of that balloon, for in this verse Paul spells out precisely what this particular mystery is:
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 of Christ Jesus.
Ephesians 3:6, NIV
So this is the mystery that Paul is talking about! That’s not so mysterious,
at least not any longer! Then in verses 9 and 10, Paul explains that his
job as apostle is to make everyone understand this mystery, which was kept
obscure in the past. This fits, because even though this truth is obvious
to us today, it wasn’t so obvious in the past. (See Acts 10.) The term
then, is a technical term in the New Testament, which refers to truth that
was once obscure but is now made plain. A mystery is not something spooky
or esoteric or irrational at all! A mystery is simply something that should
have been obvious all along, but was obscure until through Jesus it became
It is as if the Old Testament were a mystery novel, and we only know who they talking about after we read it and discover that it is Jesus Christ—and then we feel a little embarrassed that we didn’t see it earlier.
The earliest Christians were Jews and Gentiles who heard the scriptures
read in the synagogues every Sabbath. After Jesus was resurrected, everything
fell into place. Every time they heard the scriptures read, they saw it all
in a new light, which was so plain and obvious they couldn’t imagine how
they had missed it before! Every time they read the scriptures or heard them
read, they kept exclaiming,
Oh, I get it now! Passages that had bamboozled
them were now crystal clear in the context of Jesus’ life! Their eyes were
opened, and many mysterious passages were made plain. They saw the life,
death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in them. They understood the power
of His atonement, and they were assured of His coming again. Jesus became
their key to understanding the scriptures; all mysterious passages were explained
in Him, all prophecies were fulfilled in Him, all penalties were borne by
Him, all requirements were met by Him, all blessings were administered by
Him. Truly, the mystery of our faith is:
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again!
My prayer is that you may also read the scriptures with open eyes, that the mysteries may be made plain to you as well. May your mind leap with joy as you comprehend its utter simplicity; may the mystery of our faith, which was once obscure, be obvious and plain to you: