Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Building Blocks of Reality

The Old Testament is full of hints, winks and nudges. Or so it seems to me.

For example, I cannot read Abraham’s words to Isaac, “God will provide for himself the lamb,” without marveling at the subtlety of the wording. It works as a double entendre in either Hebrew or English. Was Abraham a straight man or a prophet? I can’t tell you, but I love that line. From thousands of years down the road we look back and say, “He certainly did.”

That’s not a comment on our cleverness, of course.

Something to Work With

In the Old Testament, we have the promise that God would deal with the sin question, along with illustrations from the lives of God’s people, poetry, types and prophecies that hint at the mechanism by which he would accomplish it. In the New, we have all the details about how he did it, both historically and with theological explanations in case we missed anything that is not obvious in the Gospels. Thus, we cannot reasonably take any credit for being more astute or more spiritual than the ancient Hebrews. They made do with much less than we have.

But at least they had something to work with. All the things we find spelled out for us in glorious detail in the New Testament are consonant with the Old, though they are often far from explicit there. In many cases, you would not naturally infer what we now know to be the later spiritual implications from the Hebrew text.

Mystery Achievement

When Paul uses the word “mystery” in his epistles, I think it is this sort of thing he had in mind: the full revelation of what had once been partial, enigmatic and ephemeral. Then Christ fulfilled it and God began to explain it through his Holy Spirit. Today, we can look back on it and say, “Oh, of course, THAT’s what that means!”

The Greek word myst─ôrion (“mystery”) is used 27 times in the New Testament. Attention to context shows us it does not always refer to the same spiritual truth. Jesus spoke of the “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”, which he set forth in the form of parables to his largely Jewish audiences, then explained more fully in private to his disciples. This was not one mystery, but a series of related mysteries. The New Testament prophets unlocked these and others for the churches. It is evident the “mystery of lawlessness” and the glorious mystery Paul speaks of to the Colossians are not the same thing at all.

Two Mysteries

Paul mentions two mysteries in 1 Timothy. I suspect they are the same mystery, though I cannot be 100% certain. The two references occur in the same chapter seven verses apart, and it seems to me the one may explain the other. In v9, he tells Timothy that deacons [diakonos, or literally “servants”] must “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” Then in v16 he speaks of the “mystery of godliness”, which he then goes on to expound in detail.

Now, either Paul was essentially speaking in code to Timothy in v9, using an expression they both already understood the same way (“mystery of the faith”), or else v16 expands on v9. I tend to think the latter makes more sense. To be sure, Paul sometimes leaves out details with which the person to whom he is writing is already familiar, as is natural in personal correspondence. In his letter to Philemon, for example, he does not go into Philemon’s prior history with Onesimus in any detail.

That said, such omitted details are rarely theological; where they are, they do not form a major part of Paul’s arguments, but amount to mere curiosities for modern readers. (The “good confession” of chapter 6, for example, is a reference Paul doesn’t fully flesh out, but our inability to nail down with 100% certainty which of the Lord’s statements he is referring to does not significantly affect our understanding of the chapter.) The apostle’s theology could at times be hard to understand, but I doubt he went out of his way to be coy or enigmatic. He wrote “according to the wisdom given him”, and Peter tells us the main reason people get into trouble with Paul’s theology is because of their own ignorance and instability. In our churches today, those who prefer the voice of the spirit of the age to the plain statements Paul makes in his epistles are doing much the same thing.

Six Foundational Truths

Here, Paul is telling Timothy what sort of men may be chosen to serve God’s people in a visible way. The importance that he be clearly understood strongly suggests Paul would have, wherever possible, avoided any sort of deliberate ambiguity.

Thus I believe it is these six truths to which deacons must hold fast:

[Christ] was:
  • manifested in the flesh,
  • vindicated by the Spirit,
  • seen by angels,
  • proclaimed among the nations,
  • believed on in the world,
  • taken up in glory.
The substance of our faith is all there in a nutshell. Jesus Christ is the mystery. Jesus Christ is the substance. He is the means by which God has accomplished or will accomplish all his purposes in this world. He the goal to which they are aimed.

Mystery by Numbers
  1. The Mystery was manifested in the flesh, God incarnate. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Not merely another prophet, priest or even king, but “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
  2. The Mystery was vindicated by the Spirit, who testified to God’s pleasure in his Son by resting upon him after his baptism, by being the means through which Jesus cast out demons and demonstrated his nature to the world, and by being the means through which God raised Jesus from the dead. The Spirit did not make him anything he was not already, but he testified repeatedly to who and what he was.
  3. The Mystery was seen by angels, or literally “messengers”. Certainly the Lord Jesus was seen by angelic beings, both good and bad, but I wonder if what’s really in view here is the human witnesses who became his messengers to the world. After all, that is a vital component of the mystery of the faith: that the risen Christ appeared to “more than five hundred brothers at one time.” Paul lists this among the things he had received (hence the “mystery”) which are of “first importance”: that he died, was buried, was raised and that he appeared, which Paul repeats four times. He was “seen by messengers”.
  4. The Mystery was proclaimed among the nations. The Lord told his messengers, “Go therefore” on the basis of the authority given him by his Father. And go they did. The accusation against Paul and Silas in Thessalonica was that “These men ... have turned the world upside down.” This was hyperbole, but it was not an unreasonable characterization.
  5. The Mystery was believed on in the world. The book of Acts records it repeatedly. Five thousand in chapter 4, “multitudes” in chapter 5, a “great number” in chapter 11, a “great multitude” in chapter 14. Jews and Gentiles, men, women and Ethiopian eunuchs, Pharisees, synagogue rulers, soldiers, necromancers, and jailers believed — people from every walk of life, be they slaves or free men. The world heard, and the world believed.
  6. The Mystery was taken up in glory. Luke records that “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Later, in Acts, he adds, “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” In case they were in any doubt as to what they had seen, two men in white robes were sent to reconfirm the evidence of their eyes to them.
If these six statements do not accurately sum up the “mystery of the faith”, I’m not sure what does. They are fundamental in the best sense of the word: not simple or trivial, but foundational. A man who is soft on any of these six truths can hardly be expected to serve God’s people faithfully and consistently.

With a Clear Conscience

Deacons are to hold these convictions “with a clear conscience”. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul associates a clear conscience with service. In Hebrews, it is associated with honesty and behaving honorably. Elsewhere in 1 Timothy, a clear conscience is the diametrical opposite of insincerity or hypocrisy.

I take this to mean those who serve God’s people are not just to agree with these things Paul states about Jesus Christ theoretically and intellectually, but to live day by day as if they are the building blocks of their reality.

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