Early Christians struggled to understand their faith rationally. This essay continues the essay of July 27, 2013.
The mystery of all things united in Christ. Some Pauline disciples believed that "in the fullness of time" God intended to gather into Christ the sum total of everything in heaven and on earth (Eph 1:9-10)—i.e., all things and all beings. Christ becomes a receptacle for everything in the universe in the fullness of time so as to establish a kind of cosmic harmony and unity—just as it all had begun in Christ (Col 1:16-17; cf. Rom 11:36; 1 Cor 8:6).
The very concept is breathtaking, albeit a bit strange—all things are united in Christ and nothing exists outside him. Christ in a sense becomes "the all in all" of the universe, i.e., its plenitude. With the universe gathered "in Christ," it would be sanctified—ie. e., made holy. The distance between the sacred and profane would be overcome, and the profane transformed into the sacred. At the same time, it was clearly an odd idea for those who lived in the first century—hence their description of it as mystery. But it is even odder for those of us who live in the 21st century. How exactly can such a concept be understood in the modern scientific age? The universe is clearly expanding rather than contracting—and what exactly do you suppose "sanctified matter" might be anyway?
The mystery of lawlessness already at work. In 2 Thess 2:1-12 the author corrects a misapprehension that the day of the Lord had already come. The assertion is that it cannot have come, since it must first be preceded by "the rebellion" and by the appearance of the "man of lawlessness." The mystery lies in the fact that already "lawlessness" is at work—although the lawless one has not yet been revealed. In other words, there is an established timetable for the coming of the day of the Lord, and the mystery is that the scheme has been partially breached or compromised. How can that be? How explain that lawlessness is already at work even though "what restrains" (2 Thess 2:7) is still in place and the man of lawlessness has not yet appeared? This kind of thinking is called apocalyptic eschatology, a kind of thinking in which imagined schemes are devised to account for what will transpire at the end time (cf. 2 Esdras 6:1-34). Such thinking imposes a fictive plot on history that never happens. On the other hand, Christianity was clearly more successful with its fictive plot on time separating a pagan time-frame from a Christian time-frame by Before the Common Era and Anno Domine.
The mystery of Christ. The "Christ event" is by far the most perplexing of these mysteries. This mystery, more than anything, revealed the difficulty that later followers of Jesus had with the most basic concept of their faith (1 Timothy 3:16). They preached the mystery of Christ (Col 4:2-4)—that is, how could it be that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19)? How could it be that all the treasures of wisdom had come to be in Christ (Col 2:1-3)? How could the gospel of a crucified Jewish teacher be the wisdom of God destined from the ages to bring about human glorification (1 Cor 2:7)?
The early followers of Jesus did not settle the questions evoked by these mysteries—in fact, they never even really grappled with them. They contented themselves with the idea that the solutions to these mysteries reside in the mind of God, and naturally remain incomprehensible to the human mind (Rom 11:33). There was a surprising lack of curiosity or inquisitiveness on their part that apparently resulted in a reluctance to pursue them. Certainly part of this mind-set was due to the idea that they regarded their teaching as absolutely true, but principally it was because they considered inquisitiveness (ἐκζητήση) a negative attribute. The word appears in the New Testament where it is translated as "speculations" (ἐκζητήσεις). Inquisitiveness also carries with it the idea of getting to the bottom of things—or making an investigation. Hence there existed a kind of early anti-intellectualism on the part of the early Christians. They simply ignored these issues, until much later when the diversity in the church forced later leaders to address them. The mystery of Christ was eventually directly addressed in the councils of the fourth century, but never really resolved. It was simply glossed over by adoption of an arbitrary scheme (the doctrine of the Trinity) at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Mystery is a puzzle to be deciphered. The word "mystery" is used only three times in the canonical gospels, and all in the same parallel context (Mark 4:11-12 = Matt 13:11, 13 = Luke 8:10). The word does not indicate a divine mystery, as it appears elsewhere. In the gospels a mystery is a deliberate strategy used by Jesus to present information about the kingdom of God in oblique language in order to obfuscate the understanding of the masses. In the Apocalypse, on the other hand, it is generally used almost as the equivalent of a "puzzle" (Rev 1:20; 17:5, 7) to be solved. In Rev 10:7, on the other hand, it is a divine mystery that would be accomplished at the trumpet call of the seventh angel. This obscure reference to the "mystery of God" is not really made clear to the reader, but it is clearly a divine secret about to be unveiled.
Should Christianity be understood as one of the mystery religions that emerged about the same time it did?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University