The Apostle Paul’s Mystical Perspective: Part I


The Apostle Paul’s Mysticism

As a young adult (confused teenager), I was not only self-conscious about my appearance, but also rather envious of others who seemed to mature faster and grow facial hair before I did.  I was always in the front row of class pictures because I was slow in developing, and I wore the smallest uniform in seventh grade when I was able to join the marching band.

My self-image didn’t improve one day when I was looking in the mirror  of our home and saw an image of myself.  I was appalled, for my face was not at all symmetrical, my forehead much too broad.  I thought, “No wonder the girls don’t seem to like me!  I’m a monster!”

It wasn’t until later that I discovered that the real problem was not my appearance, though I was never the “knockout” I desired to be.   Instead, I found that when I moved my body position up or down in front of the mirror, my face changed, altering depending on how high or low I made my reflection in the glass.

What a revelation!  I was thrilled to learn that the mirror was distorting my image, and I saw  a more faithful image in other mirror later.

The Apostle Paul has some wisdom to impart that relates to mirrors, and I hope to provide an accurate interpretation of his insights.

While still named Saul of Tarsus, the future Apostle to the Gentiles has a spectacular mystical experience on the road to Damascus, where he is travelling to continue his persecution of the followers of Jesus.

Blinded by a great light, Saul is instructed to wait in the city. Ironically, only after he cannot see with his physical eyes are his spiritual eyes opened. After three days, Ananias, who has seen the Lord in a vision, is instructed to go and administer healing to Saul, who while praying has seen his own vision of Ananias’ coming.  As a result, Saul’s sight is restored, and he receives illumination: “And immediately there fell from his eyes as it were scales, and he received his sight; and he got up and was baptized” (Acts 9:18 NASB).

Saul, whose name is later change to “Paul” to reach out to the gentiles, subsequently receives other mystical visions as well. In a dream, for example, he sees a man beseeching him to come and help the Macedonians (Acts 16:9-10). And referring to what is very likely a near-death experience, possibly after being stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20), Paul describes to the Corinthians his visions and revelations from the Lord:

 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. (2 Cor. 12:2-4)

His experience is so entirely inexplicable, or ineffable, that Paul’s perspective is displaced, and he even describes the event in the third person.

Finally, the gospel he preaches, Paul declares, came not as a result of being discipled by other Christians but as a direct revelation from Jesus Himself (Galatians 1:11-12), although Paul later submits his teachings to the other apostles in Jerusalem as a result of a further revelation, fearing that he might have “run in vain” (Gal. 2:1-2).

Paul’s Gospel

An examination of Paul’s teachings also reveals the mystical nature of his gospel. First, it is received by faith and by the spirit rather than the intellect. Paul states that even the foolishness of God is wiser than humankind’s wisdom. In order than none may delight in his own wisdom or insight, therefore, God has chosen to reveal his secrets first to the spirit rather than to mind:  

For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger then men. For see your vocation, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble: But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his sight. (1 Cor. 1:25-29)

The truths of the Spirit of God are received only through the transformed human spirit. In St. Paul’s words, the gentile seeks for wisdom and the Jew seeks after signs, yet neither receives illumination, for the former seeks intellectual wisdom, while the latter seeks carnal wisdom. Those who seek God through the intellect or the physical eye shall seek enlightenment but not find it.   Likewise, St. Paul’s preaching is effected neither through eloquence nor the persuasive powers of the intellect: “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew; for if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:7-8).  These mysteries, profoundly beyond the reach of the mind to comprehend, may be revealed by the Holy Spirit, Who has been joined to the reborn human spirit:

10 For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.(1 Cor. 2:10-11)

As a result, the mysteries are revealed only to the spiritual man, not necessarily in terms of human language but in the language of the spirit:

13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.  (1 Cor. 2:13-16)

God’s desire to reveal his mysteries and secrets only to those on the way to salvation requires that a man may not be justified in God’s sight through the works of the law but through faith, a faith that brings identification with the crucified and resurrected Christ himself. Paul lives his life as though he were dead to this world, but alive as a new creature whose citizenship is in Heaven:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Gal. 2:20).

Thus, by faith, looking to things unseen rather than to things seen, Paul lives in the flesh but dwells in the realm of the spirit.

(To Be Continued)



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