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, “Let 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 ‘mystery 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 H?cule 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 ‘mysteries’ 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 word ‘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 ‘mystery.’
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 ‘mystery,’ 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 plain.
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!” 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.
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:
Christ has died
Christ is risen
Christ will come again!