The Role of Mystery in the Church

With the recent passing of Christmas, we once again enter the world of the mundane. This sacred holiday with all of its delight and cheer, wonder and grace, stands as the last bastion of transcendent mystery in a world of scientific modernity. Everything else can be measured, tested, examined and quantified—but it’s difficult to put Santa under the scope. It’s why some are set on perpetually extending or prematurely beginning the Christmas season: they don’t want the magic to end. It’s why we keep telling children the Santa story, even though we know one day it will break their hearts. We hunger to witness, even in the eye’s another, the basking awe of mystery. Long ago, our hearts forgot the blessed tremor of the unknown. We consumed the fruit of knowledge, and now stand in shame at the naked world secularism and materialism offers; a world we can quantity, but not one we can enjoy.

We both like and dislike mystery. We thrill at whodunit stories, and watch TV specials on Bigfoot and aliens. We enjoy the thrill of not knowing; the excitement of investigation and the thrill of discovery. The invitation of the unknown is simply too titillating to ignore. At the same time, our fear of the unknown often drives us to discard mystery. We prefer hard facts, clear boundaries, and settled conclusions. Of course, there is nothing wrong with such; most of our life is consumed with important, objective facts which leave us with little wonder but make a world of difference. Science, math, logic, etc. all play a necessary role. Yet, without mystery, we are robbed of one of the driving forces which delights and captures the heart of humanity.

The church is not immune from this tendency to biforcate the known from the unknown, what we’re sure of from what we wonder about. While I can only speak to my own experience, I imagine it may be true for others. Mystery played no part in my past walk of faith—everything was known, quantified, and placed within a particular pattern. Due to my hermeneutic, I was driven to seek, not simply to understand the what, but to articulate the how and the why—and then draw lines of fellowship around such. Like Adam and Eve, we are not content to remain in awe of the mystery of the tree; we must partake—we must know!

A good example would be the role and work of the Holy Spirit. While scripture has much to say about the Holy Spirit and his role and work within the church, there still remains a mystery as to how he works within the life of the saint. We confess to such every time we sing the hymn I Know In Whom I Have Believed: “I know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin, revealing Jesus through his word, creating faith in Him.” Yet churches were split—and continue to be—over our unwillingness to humbly speak of the Spirit’s power, while standing in awe of the mystery. Jesus taught such in John 3:8:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

We don’t know the mystery of the wind, yet we see its results; neither can we comprehend the full power of the Spirit’s regeneration, but we witness its fruit.

Our hesitancy to do such may be due to our misunderstanding of the concept of mystery. In his book, The Cruciform Church C. Leonard Allen gives a good explanation of this:

In scriptural usage… “mystery” has a double sense: it often refers to the quantity of the unknown (that is, to what has not yet been revealed), yet it also refers to the quality of the known (that is, to what has been revealed but cannot be fathomed). Facing mystery, in the first sense, means simply remaining in ignorance; facing mystery, in the second sense, means being filled with awe and wonder (p. 64).

We see this usage by the apostle Paul within the book of Ephesians. In 3:2-6, he declares that the mystery of salvation—that God would redeem the nations through Jesus—has been revealed; thus, we no longer stand in ignorance of God’s plan. Yet, in chapter 5:31-32 he uses mystery in the second sense when discussing the sexual union experienced in marriage. It is revealed, and yet the full implications of such—in relationship to Jesus and his people—remains a mystery. In Ephesians 3:14-19 even prays for the church to be strong enough just to try to plumb the “bread and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ, which he tells us, “surpasses knowledge.” Paul prays for God to grant us the strength to seek to fathom the unfathomable!

Paul engages in the second use of the word in 1 Timothy 3:16 when he claims that the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus is a great mystery. We would agree with Paul on the nature of our Lord. Revealed? Yes. Comprehended? Not fully. While we accept the invitation of the mystery, probing more deeply into the unfathomable as a community of God’s people, we must do so with humility and wonder. Once again, Allen speaks to this:

We seek to probe the mystery, to be sure, thus we never devalue the life of the mind, vigorous Bible study, or the reasonableness that so satisfies and compels us. But the deeper we enter into the mystery the more it beckons and allures, dazzles and surprises. Before it we find ourselves alternately befuddled and enlightened, humbled and exhilarated. Just when we have established the boundaries of the possible, God unexpectedly enlarges them. Just when, after much patient labor, we solve a problem, we find that the solution itself thrusts us further into the divine mystery. We find, as a noted scholar once exclaimed, that we may “bury ourselves in a lexicon and arise in the presence of God” (p. 65).

Such wonder and awe compel us to worship. God’s revelation and mystery coincide to create a life that is both challenging and exhilarating. No matter how much I may know, there is much more to know. The inexhaustible knowledge of God is the fuel that motives my quest to know him more fully; he always keeps us wanting more, inviting us into the depths of his glory. Thus, we stand in the awe of the greatest mystery: God’s indescribable gift and love for his creation (2 Cor. 9:15).

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”—Deut. 29:29

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