Many of us love a good ‘mystery’, whether in the form of a book or a film. We try to piece together subtle hints and obscure clues in order to decipher the underlying shape of the story-line, in the hope of being able to foresee how it will all come together in the end. And then there comes a crucial moment; the big ‘reveal’. Something is disclosed that suddenly reframes everything, making sense of numerous elements that had previously seemed opaque and unconnected. It all begins to fall into place.
The story-line of God’s interaction with humanity throughout history is very like this, and the first disciples of Jesus, as they penned the New Testament, speak of ‘mystery’ in much the same way. They tell of how, at just the right moment, all the diverse threads from the Old Testament come to be seen in a fundamentally new light. And that light is Jesus; he is the big reveal. His life and teaching, and most centrally his death, resurrection and ascension, reframe everything.
Hence when, in the New Testament, they write of ‘mystery’ it is almost always in terms of “the mystery that was kept secret from past ages and generations, but now has been revealed to God’s holy people.” (Col 1:26) What was previously hidden has now been made clear and comprehensible, and these disciples were commissioned to declare it.
And while there remain some details of the future that are not yet fully disclosed – just as sometimes a film may leave a few ‘loose ends’ to be resolved in a sequel – the overwhelming emphasis is that what had been mysterious has now been made clear.
Lately I’ve begun to notice that there are some rather different ways in which we sometimes talk about ‘mystery’. At times we use the word to acknowledge, with appropriate humility, that there are things that – in this age at least – we can never fully comprehend. The awesome greatness and unimaginable glory of God himself would be an example, and we deceive ourselves if we ever think we have an exhaustive understanding of the creator of the universe! And yet our God has always been deeply committed to self-disclosure. Just because we cannot know everything does not mean we should assume we know nothing. It is not somehow more ‘spiritual’ to claim that God is wholly beyond our understanding; sometimes this merely hides our reluctance to ask, to seek, to knock. While we cannot know everything about him, we can know with full confidence the most fundamental aspects about him; for he is like Jesus.
Then again we can be tempted to use the word ‘mystery’ in another sense. We can use the word as a fig leaf to hide behind, enabling us to simultaneously affirm two things that are in fact simply contradictory. We avoid having to confront a fundamental inconsistency between two supposed ‘truths’, and side-step the need to grapple seriously with the issue, by simply claiming that “this is just a mystery”. But nonsense is still nonsense, even if we call it by another name. It is one thing to humbly confess that I don’t yet understand how certain ideas fit together, but quite a different thing to just shrug off the apparent dilemma by labelling the whole thing ‘a mystery’. We are called to love God with our minds. As with Jacob, God loves us to wrestle with him, even if we come away with some of our cherished opinions somewhat dislocated.
Truth-telling Spirit, my Companion:
Grant me revelation to recognise and celebrate the mysteries now revealed in Jesus.
Cultivate in me the humility to stand in awe as I recognise the glory of the Father, beyond my human comprehension.
And strengthen me with stubborn courage and unyielding honesty, to pursue you until‘my love overflows more and more with knowledge and full insight.’ (Phil 1:9)