(*This is the second essay in an end-of-crazy-2020 series.)
I remember the first time I watched the movie “The Sixth Sense,” a brilliantly written and acted thriller. I got so caught up in the characters that I did not perceive that I was experiencing a sense of mystery. Toward the very end, I had an exhilarating, sudden flash of insight when the truth of the plot was revealed.
For some reason, we humans are attracted to mystery. We are intrigued by things we do not yet understand. This drives many of the efforts of scientists and philosophers alike.
We like the riddle, the puzzle, and the tension of not knowing, followed by the pleasure of revelation. Mystery can be a beautiful thing, especially when it points us to the glorious attributes of our holy God.
Webster’s dictionary defines mystery as a “profound, inexplicable, or secretive quality or character.”A second definition is “a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand.” I think both definitions are necessary when speaking of the mystery Paul describes in Ephesians.
A quick concordance search of the word translated mystery in the King James Bible reveals 22 hits, all in the New Testament, six of them scattered across the 6 chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Paul was a vessel chosen by God to receive revelation of mysteries that had been hidden for ages. Speaking of the mystery, Paul wrote, “God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by his Spirit he has revealed it to his holy apostles and prophets” (Eph 3:5).
At the right time, after the resurrection of Jesus, and after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God ordained that this man Paul would be the vessel to carry and then teach God’s long-hidden truth.
What was this mystery that Paul revealed to the church as God’s messenger? It has a few interwoven components.
First, Paul was one of the first to discover and describe the mysterious, supernatural transformation of an individual soul from death to life, sin to redemption, darkness to light—made possible only by the grace of God through faith. God, so rich in mercy, desired to “point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us…” (2:7). It’s a mystery why God would care enough to rescue us so perfectly and completely.
This links to a second revelation. Because this great gift of salvation is available to “whosoever believes” (Jn 3:16), believers are eternally united with Christ and with each other irrespective of their ethnic or religious pedigree.
In Paul’s day, it was a big deal to be a Jew. Jews had always looked down on Gentiles as heathens. The mystery of God revealed by Paul (and also by Peter) blew their justification for racial or religious prejudice to smithereens. Repeatedly in Ephesians Paul hammers at this second crucial aspect of God’s mystery:
“You Gentiles used to be outsiders…but now you have been united with Christ Jesus” (2:11,13).
“Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people” (2:14)
“He broke down the wall of hostility that separated us” (2:14)
“He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups” (2:15).
“Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us” (2:18).
God’s story is in the genre of mystery! He keeps us in suspense. When his mystery is “solved” through the Holy Spirit, it turns out it is all about reconciliation. We hold the tension of separation from him and from others who are different until we are ready to take in God’s incredible plan to make us one.
Paul speaks not of a political unity, but an organic one: all believers become members of one body, with Christ as our Head. It’s not just that we now have a basis to get along, though that may be a good fruit of unity. It is that we are inseparable from each other. We are parts of the same organism.
I like to think about how our Chinese, and African, and other faraway brothers and sisters are connected with us in this mysterious way, at God’s pleasure. He has a plan to show off his intricate workmanship at the end of the age.
God allows Paul to give us these teasers in Ephesians so we don’t have to wait for the new heaven and earth; we can start experiencing and enjoying our oneness now. Paul sums it up–
“And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus. By God’s grace and mighty power, I have been given the privilege of serving him by spreading this Good News” (Eph 3:6-7).
I know my focus is on Ephesians, but I have to add a parallel passage from Paul, this one written to the Corinthians, expressing the thrilling revelation–
“The wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God—his plan that was previously hidden, even though he made it for our ultimate glory before the world began. But the rulers of this world have not understood it; if they had, they would not have crucified our glorious Lord” (1 Cor 2:7-8).
The idea that Christ would bring together people from all nations of the earth into one body was so threatening to the powers of darkness that it had to be kept a secret until after the crucifixion. If they had understood the mystery of God’s plan for the church, they wouldn’t have crucified him, and we’d still be dead in our sins, unredeemable.
I have been pondering this mystery revealed to Paul for many years. But no matter how long I ponder it, it remains mysterious. This is as it should be, because that is the nature of mystery. This is God’s design.
It’s as though our Father has purchased an amazing Christmas gift for his family to share, and gives us some hints of what it will be like when we can open it an use it freely and fully. That will happen when he returns and restores things to the way they should be.
In the meantime, we wait eagerly, and practice being one with him and with each other.
This is God’s mysterious plan.