Category: The Apostle Paul’s Mysticism

The Best Gift

Earnestly desire to prophesy!

When was the last time you received a word of encouragement, one that consoled you during a time of loss or simply gave you a quick “nudge from behind” to keep moving in spite of your discouragement?

Reading the Scriptures, particularly the Apostle Paul’s teachings in I Corinthians, we see clearly that God desires to give us these kinds of messages through the ministry of fellow believers.  He does so by empowering believers through the Holy Spirit’s “spiritual gifts,” which are listed in the following passage:

But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills (I Corinthians 12:7-11).

According to the writer of the Book of Hebrews, these gifts were demonstrably manifested through the believers in the Early Church:

how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will. (Hebrews 2:3-5)

Have the Gifts Ceased?

In recent years, comparatively at least, many dispensational Bible teachers and their disciples have taught that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were no longer given after the age of the Apostles.  This teaching is primarily based on the following passage:

 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part;10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known (I Corinthians 13:8-12).

This seems clear enough according to a superficial reading:  based on Paul’s description of the spiritual gifts in this passage, therefore, it is believed by many in the Church today that the gifts are “childish,” not intended for mature believers, for they are “partial” and imperfect.  As Paul writes, “We see in a mirror dimly” (II Cor. 3:12).  It is believed instead that the “perfect” has come to the Church through the completion of the Holy Scriptures, so we no longer need the Holy Spirit’s gifts to teach us and lead us, and the “partial” has been done away with because the “perfect” Bible has been completed. 

However, we must read all of the Scriptures in their contexts, particularly those written by the apostle Paul.  Consider the following passage:

But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.  Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.  But we all with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed [metamorphosized] into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.  (II Corinthians 3:15-18)

It seems ironic, therefore, that the Apostles and Prophets of the Early Church who exercised these “childish” and “imperfect” spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit were also the very ones who thoroughly read the books of the Old Testament (“Moses is read”), and wrote the books of the New Testament.  I can only conclude that the dispensationalist interpretation of Paul’s message is incorrect and misleading. 

Looking Into the Mirror

Instead, the “mirror” references in these passages reveal that the  “perfect” that was predicted is not the New Testament itself, but instead is Jesus Christ when He comes again.  He is the “perfect” Who is coming, and when He appears, we all will be instantly transformed and metamorphosized into His image, for we will see Him in all of His glory.  When this happens, we will be “like Him”:

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. (I Corinthians 15:51-53)

See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are.  For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.  Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be.  We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is.  And every one who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.  (1 John 3:1-3)

What is the Outcome, then?

We must not be like those sons of Israel who hardened their hearts and heard the reading of the old covenant (Moses) with a “veil” over their hearts.  We must turn to the Lord, who takes the veil away from our hearts, and He will give us liberty.  Read again Paul’s exhortation:

Therefore having such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech,13 and are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away. 14 But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. 15 But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; 16 but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (II Corinthians 3:12-18).

Since “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,” Paul further exhorts us to be used by the Holy Spirit through the “gifts of the Spirit”:

So also you since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. (I Corinthians 14:12).

In the Book of Acts, Luke the author and disciple of the Apostle Paul writes this description of Peter’s message to the curious onlookers when on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the gathered believers:

 “…Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38-39).

In context, therefore, the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us in the same way, for the promise is to “all who are far away, as many as the Lord calls.” When we are baptized in His Spirit, therefore, we will find that we will experience the gift of speaking in tongues, plus all the other gifts when needed, if we continue to follow Him (1 Corinthians 12, 13, and 14). These are God’s gifts of power to enable us to accomplish the tasks to which we have been commissioned.

These gifts have been abused by many, unfortunately, even by some in the Early Church, according to the Apostle Paul’s admonitions in the “Love Chapter” (I Corinthians 13).  If the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not operated in love, Paul writes, we align with the following description:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. (I Corinthians 13:1-3).

Nevertheless, we should not take lightly the Lord’s words to us provided in John’s Gospel.  Clearly, we need today the “rivers of living water” Jesus promised us:

…Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified). (John 7:37b-39)

Finally, the Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to “earnestly” desire the best spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 12:1). 

What are the “best” gifts?  They are those that are most in need at the moment.  We should be open to being used by the Holy Spirit at any time in any way He chooses.  And Paul particularly recommends that we desire to prophesy,

 Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. (I Corinthians 14:1-4).

He makes this recommendation specifically because prophecy is a gift that we all need to experience, for spiritual encouragement.  

One who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. (v. 3)

In addition, the Apostle Paul also reveals another reason why prophecy is important in the Church:

24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.  (I Corinthians 14:24-26)

I experienced just such a moment early in my ministry when, while leading a home group meeting, I was praying and a word of knowledge came to me.  I spoke the revelation with my eyes closed, and when I opened them, a young woman whom I had never seen before was standing in front of me weeping.  “How did you know those things about me?” she said.  I asked if she wanted to invite Jesus into her life to be her Lord and Savior, and she readily agreed, praying for salvation that night.  

We must understand, therefore, that the gift of prophecy is not intended to “predict the future,” as so many believe.  It should not be connected with occult astrology, fortune telling, or divination by any means.

Another Example

Just yesterday in a women’s Bible study and prayer group here in Hopkins, Belize, my wife Jan received a “word of knowledge” and spoke to a young mother who tended to be very shy in the group.  In effect, Jan said to her, “Do not be troubled about what you will say when you are led to speak to someone, for you love Jesus and you only need to let His light shine through you to others.”

The woman was so moved by this message that she began to weep joyfully, for she indeed had been encouraged, edified, and exhorted.  

Final Comments:

Please note that the Apostle Paul does not denigrate the gift of speaking in tongues, for he tells us that he speaks in tongues more than anyone else.  He does so because through the Holy Spirit he is able to pray “in mysteries” when his mind does not know how to pray.  Consequently, he is personally edified.  He only stipulates that this gift must be used properly and in love.  Paul also states that its use in the Church must not be forbidden:

 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. . . .39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner. (I Corinthians 14:4-5).

What Is the Nature of True Confession?

True Humility Versus False Humility

What is humility?  It is the quality or condition of being humble, of having a modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, status, or rank.  

It is surprising to me, however, how many in the Church, especially those who may lead in prayer or praise ministries, take on a false humility by focusing on their own “unworthiness,” telling the congregation that they, and we, all are nothing more than “ugly sinners saved by grace,” or “dead in our trespasses and sins, not worthy to invoke or receive the promises of God.”

One of the most relevant passages in one of the most significant books of the New Testament, however, declares the falsity of these statements.  In fact, such declarations are fully demonstrated to be examples of false humility by the Apostle Paul.

Paul states to the Corinthian Church why true believers are no longer defined by a sinful nature as they once were before coming to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Redeemer from sin:

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (II Corinthians 5:17)

In itself, this verse alone couldn’t be more clear in revealing to us who we are in Christ Jesus:  If we are “in Christ,” we have a “new” nature, for we are now a “new creature.”  

Paul elsewhere describes our former sinful nature as the “old man,” as opposed to the “new man” we have become in Christ:

Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him. (Colossians 3:9-10)

And Paul exhorts the believers in Ephesus to act on the new standing they have obtained in Christ:

But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind. (Ephesians 4:20-23)

Being “renewed in the spirit of your mind” simply means that we need to change our minds about who we are in Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Teaching to the Romans

Paul further expounds on these truths in depth in his letter to the Romans, as he writes in the following passage from Romans 6:1-18, and 8:1,6.  I have underlined some of the most relevant portions of the text:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him.  For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.  Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!  Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that  though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:1-18, and 8:1,6)

 

Looking Ahead and Not Backwards

I just heard from someone the other day who gave me a very simple guideline for living victoriously.  She said that when we drive, we don’t just look at the rearview mirror.  If we only did that, we would eventually crash!  Instead, we need to look forward to the future with expectant hope, trusting that the Lord Jesus has not only forgiven us of all our sins, but also redeemed us from their curse of eternal separation from God.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that we have never sinned.  In order to receive Jesus as Lord, we need to confess all of our sins, as the Apostle John writes:

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. (I John 1:8-10)

However, if we have been forgiven and redeemed, we need to act like we have been transformed by His power and consider ourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ! Above all, we must not continue in sinful behaviors and practices, then publicly confess to relieve our consciences.  

To those who mistakenly believe that we need to denigrate the finished work of Christ in order to make unbelievers comfortable in our presence, I suggest that they do not go on presenting the members of their bodies to sin as instruments of unrighteousness by seeing themselves as sinners. Instead, believe and confess that you have been “born again” in Christ’s likeness.  As a result of this rebirth, you are no longer “such a worm,” as the old hymn “At the Cross” suggests (These are Isaac Watt’s lyrics; see this site: Watt.)

Looking to Things Unseen

New Criticism

When I began my studies in English Literature in the late 1960s, the favored method of textual interpretation was called “formalism,” or “New Criticism,” proposed by I.A. Richards in the 1920s.   Other approaches were not favored necessarily, particularly Freudian criticism, Marxist criticism, and philosophical criticism.

New Critical methods focused on discovering the author’s intentions through a “close reading,” while looking at the uses of figurative language or other expository techniques and asking what the author’s purpose was and what he or she wanted the reading audience to learn or discover.  This method involved analyzing a poem, novel, or short story based on the writer’s techniques, without bringing in a lot of background information about the author’s life, the history of the time, the beliefs or values of the culture at the time.

As students, our goal was to analyze each text based on the text alone as much as possible, discovering an ironic tone, for example, or the imagery patterns the author may have developed.  We also analyzed the work’s setting, characters, and the author’s overall point of view and try to discover what the author’s message was in the text.

When I entered my doctoral program of study over twenty years later, I learned that the world of literary criticism and study had changed drastically, for the work of Jacques Derrida, labeled “Deconstruction,” had overtaken the literary realm from New Criticism. This new method was nearly antithetical to New Criticism, for it essentially denied the possibility of any work’s having an inherent meaning, for such a meaning was considered impossible given the nature of human language and thought.

I’ll never forget one published article I read that essentially said, “The meaning of a text changes the moment it is written down, and it continues to change with every person’s reading of that text.”  This idea was stunning to me, for I asked myself, “Why read anything then?”

One of the first essays I wrote for my PhD classes concerned the imagery patterns in a particular novel we were analyzing.  I focused on similar passages in the novel that used the same types of images (similes, metaphors), so I quoted the texts at length, completing a thorough New Critical study of the novel.

I was stunned when I received my graded paper back.  My grade wasn’t the usual top of the ladder mark I was used to getting, and my professor simply wrote in explanation, “So what?”  In other words, he was saying, you have uncovered an imagery pattern, but in itself it means nothing.  What does the novel say as a result of these patterns?

In other words, he was saying, you have uncovered and analyzed the author’s imagery patterns, but in itself your analysis means nothing.  What does the novel say as a result of these patterns, if anything?

I wasn’t used to having to explain the interpretation of a text necessarily, so I definitely had to readjust my thinking when approaching a work of literature if I wanted to succeed in getting my PhD degree.

 

The Scriptures

In actuality, the New Critical approach I learned as an undergraduate was very appropriate for studying the Scriptures, however, for I had learned to recognize the truth resident in the words themselves, understanding that the truth was infallible and could be discovered, for that was God’s purpose.  I had found that a deconstruction approach, however, was futile, for it declared itself to result in meaningless meanings from a text that was itself meaningless. However, I believed that the words of the Scriptures had true meanings, and they could be not only understood but also life changing if received by faith.

However, I believed that the words of the Scriptures had true meanings, and they could be not only understood but also life changing if received by faith.

 

Biblical New Criticism?

Analyzing literary techniques found in the Scriptures is not always easy, for we live in a different age and culture.  Nor are we familiar with the writing strategies prominent in the Scriptures, and finding them is difficult.

For example, the use of an ironic tone in the Bible is not always apparent, and if it is used, it is often difficult to discern.  However, we may discover fairly easily that Elijah is being very ironic when he says, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone” (I Kings 18:27).

If you will recall, Elijah had set up a test for the 450 prophets of Baal.  He challenged them to offer an ox as sacrifice; however, they were not to start a fire, but instead were to challenge Baal himself to burn the sacrifice on his altar.

So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. When midday was past, they raved until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice; but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention. (I Kings 18:28-29)

When no fire appeared, Elijah was moved to speak words of ironic ridicule, saying, “Perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.”

Elijah then showed how God was strong on his behalf.  He had the Lord’s altar rebuilt with a trench around it, then he had four pitchers of water poured over the ox, not once but three times, until the water filled the trench also.

When he prayed for God to reveal Himself, the fire appeared miraculously:

Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.” (I Kings 18:38-39)

 

Double Meanings

One university freshman literature class I had was reading an essay from our text that was written in a highly ironic tone. The author essentially was saying that medical personel should not be required by law to hold to their Hippocratic Oath, for they should not be required to treat patients with extremely communicable diseases such as AIDS.

Several students wrote their analysis of this essay agreeing with the author, not realizing that he was using an extremely ironic tone in his essay.  In essence, his intentions were entirely the opposite of what his words seemed to be saying.

After studying this lack of recognition in students further, I learned that the cognitive abilities of most young people do not completely function until well after their teens when their pre-frontal brain lobes have fully developed.

Thus, college freshmen by and large are unaware of the many nuances of tone in language and in writing particularly.  I found I had to demonstrate verbally, using exaggerated tones of voice, to show the difference between the many different messages that might be communicated in writing just by altering the tone in my voice.

 

Irony in the Scriptures?

This kind of ironic double meaning is apparent in the description God gave to Isaiah:

Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. (Is 6:10)

Why would God not want people to hear, or see, or understand the prophet? Why wouldn’t He want the people to be healed? Jesus essentially said the same thing after telling His Parable of the Sower:

To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven. (Mark 4:11)

In other words, an obstinate people may hear the words, but they will not receive the message for which they will then be held accountable.  Is God being cruel to these people?  No, He ultimately is being kind.

 

Finding Patterns

In a similar way, I learned that finding patterns in the Scriptures was helpful in understanding what the authors, and hence the Holy Spirit, intended.

While reading through Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth, for example, I found some significant passages in the fourth and tenth chapters that seemed interrelated, especially after I was able to discern the similarities in their contexts and meanings.

Read through the following passages carefully to see if you also can find the similar meanings:

  • But our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (II Corinthians 3:5-6)
  • And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (II Corinthians 4:3-4)
  • But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak, knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. (II Corinthians 4:13-14)
  • Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.  (II Corinthians 4:13-18)
  • I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.  (II Corinthians 10:2-4)
  • You are looking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we.  (II Corinthians 10:7-11)

Finding the common themes in these passages may be difficult for you, at least at first, but read them through several times slowly, while thinking about what the Lord is telling us through the Apostle Paul.

Take note of the following extractions from these passages, for they may help you to find the common themes:

  • . . .not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
  • . . .if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. . .so that they might not see the light of the gospel
  • . . .having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,
  • . . .while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
  • For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.
  • You are looking at things as they are outwardly.

Combining these ideas together, we find that we Christians are contending in a daily struggle or a kind of warfare against two competing realms.  The conflict is in the realm of the flesh and the realm of the spirit, between what is seen as opposed to what is unseen, the outward appearance versus the unseen inner reality, between faith fighting against unbelief, and what is veiled in darkness against what is seen in the light.

Consequently, we find that the Apostle Paul wants to teach us about walking in the Spirit according to the Word of God, not looking to outward appearances or moving according to the flesh, but being guided by the unseen presence of the mighty God and taking our guidance from Him.

 

Spiritual Discernment and Scriptural Interpretation

 

Growing up, I loved to watch cowboy films, not in movie theaters but on the only television in our neighborhood, right across the street.  Occasionally, however, my sister and I saw a movie in town at the theater, a place that scared me so much that on one occasion I refused even to get out of the car to go inside.  

The previous time we had watched a rather violent seafaring film that entailed a flogging.  I was so upset afterwards that I resolved to stay in the car while the rest of the family watched the movie and ate popcorn, a situation that my parents strongly disliked.  They left me alone in the car, hoping I would change my mind.  When I didn’t, we all had to go home, and I was put to bed early while the sun was still out!

When I was older, I later was intrigued with what a “league” was after seeing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I couldn’t conect its context with what I knew for sure, a league in baseball or football!  

But it was in another seafaring film that I first heard the word “fathom,” although I had to wait until we got home to learn what it meant.  I recall the sailors in the film taking depth findings, so I gathered that a fathom had to do with how deep the water was.

Many years later, I read the same word, or at least a similar form of the word, in the following Bible verse:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!  (Romans 11:33)

It wasn’t difficult for me, therefore, to realize that the term unfathomable in this context meant “deep, impossible to fathom, incapable of being fully explored or understood, mysterious.”

Based on this verse in Romans, we learn that the depth of the riches of both the wisdom of God and the knowledge we have of Him are impossible to completely determine, or fathom.  To say, therefore, that anyone may fully or completely understand any of the verses or chapters in the inspired Word of God, the Scriptures, is impossible, as the following prophecy of Isaiah declares: 

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Nor is it logical to believe that the Scriptures, the unfathomable Word of God, must only be interpreted literally, or according to the most basic kind of reading like I learned in first grade.  

Yes, some passages are clearly intended to be read literally, such as the following:

  • The Ten Commandments
  • For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
  • “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

Other passages are most definitely to be read figuratively, including the following:

  • The 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
  • If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24, et al.).
  • Jesus’ parables.
  • The story of Zachaeus in the tree.

I understand that many theologians and Christian leaders are anxious to discourage heretical teachings in the Church. Therefore, they try to limit the possibilities for misreading unlimited, bottomless, or unfathomable repositories of Christian doctrines, including the even more obscure Biblical mysteries. 

Perhaps a better standard for biblical interpretation is “true” rather than “literal,” an approach with which I agree, for truth may be expressed and understood in many ways, all of which provide additional insight and depth of understanding.      

 

The Holy Spirit is Our Teacher

To prevent heresies in the Church,  however, the Holy Spirit has been given to distribute gifts of discernment and wisdom to Believers to be used to judge the teachings and messages of teachers and preachers in the Body of Christ.  Yet these gifts have been restricted in the Church today because the users of these gifts have been mistrusted, or these gifts of the Holy Spirit somehow have been misused.  Some theologians have even taught that the gifts have passed away and are no longer distributed to the Body of Christ today because they supposedly ceased after the Bible was completed.  

The logic of this reasoning is fallacious, for these gifts were given by Christ Jesus through the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, who was given to lead all believers into the ways of righteousness until Christ comes again. At that time we will no longer be like children, led astray by every wind of doctrine, we will  see no longer as in a mirror “dimly,” but then face to face:  “Now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).  

Unfortunately, without the powerful help of the Helper, the Holy Spirit, the one called alongside to teach and empower us, we are left with earthly tools and methods, carnal ways of learning and understanding spiritual truths from the Scriptures.  The Apostle Paul’s message to the Church in Corinth directly condemns these carnal approaches, however:

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

         “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
         And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. . . . Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.   (I Corinthians 1:18-25)

Ironically, Christ taught His disciples that they needed to be like little children to discover the secrets of the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:14-16).  In fact, the inability to peer into the mysteries of God’s Kingdom arises from the foolishness and pride of the human mind and intellect, as Paul says in Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.  (Romans 1:18-20)

It is highly ironic, therefore,  that rather than finding the unfathomable wisdom of God through the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the mysteries of His Word, or even God’s creation, humans have turned the omniscient and omnipotent God into any number of literal idols and have worshipped the creation rather than the One Who made all things:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Romans 1:20-23)

Unfortunately, some believers have unknowingly carried these idols into their tents, for they continue to use the world’s wisdom to understand the deep mysteries of God.  Likewise, some Bible teachers base their favorite teachings on literal renderings or other kinds of misinterpretations based on spurious readings.  The following are some of the missteps that lead to false doctrines:

  • Imposing a meaning onto a scripture (eisegesis) rather than drawing out a meaning from the scripture itself (exegesis). 
  • Not considering the genre or kind of writing that is being interpreted.  Poetry should not necessarily be read literally but figuratively, as poetry, for example, and a dream should not necessarily be interpreted the same way a historic event is understood.    
  • Not reading from the perspectives of the authors and time periods when the Biblical books were written. Reading the descriptions of the creation of the universe from a modern scientific perspective, for example, may result in incorrect interpretations.  
  • Imposing one definition of a certain word in Scripture onto another passage of Scripture. The word “day,” for example may indeed refer to twenty-four hours, but it may also be understood as one-thousand years (see Psalms 90:4 and II Peter 3:8).  

 

The Apostle Paul’s Perspective

The Apostle Paul makes clear the perspectives of interpretation emphatically throughout his letters, but most clearly when He is writing specifically about the mysteries, or ‘hidden wisdom,” that the Lord desires for us to know.  

Read carefully the following passages taken from I Corinthians.  First, Paul relates that his wisdom is directed to those believers who are mature in Christ, those who are walking in the Holy Spirit and are receiving the “mysteries” or insights only God may give.  These insights are not understood by the carnal methods used by the “rulers of this age,” for these methods are only transient, or “passing away.”   

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (I Corinthians 2:6-8)

These mysteries, or secrets God desires to reveal, are given through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (our Advocate, Helper, or Teacher).  Only the Holy Spirit has the insights we need, for He is One with God the Father and God the Son (He is also called the “Spirit of Christ”).  And these insights are not taught “by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit.”

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. 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. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.  (I Corinthians 2:10-13)

Thus, God’s wisdom is received by combining “spiritual thoughts with spiritual words,” a process that is much more genuine than merely reading and interpreting the Scriptures literally.    

Paul summarizes his teaching by relating that a “natural man,” one who thinks according to human wisdom and uses the methods of the intellect rather than the spirit, does not understand these mysteries, for they may only be spiritually discerned:

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. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.  (I Corinthians 2:14-16)

We must align our means and methods of interpretation to those of the Apostle Paul, therefore, and begin thinking with the “mind of Christ,” thinking not according to carnal wisdom or human methods, however wise they may seem.  They are not wise, according to Paul, and they may even be foolish, leading us into error.  It was this same kind of thinking that led the rulers of this world to crucify the Lord of glory.

 

Christian Cannibalism?

For example, in Matthew’s Gospel we read about the Last Supper, when Jesus gave His disciples the bread and wine:

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying,“Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.  (Matthew 26:26-28)

We cannot read this passage and interpret it literally without falling into the false doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the bread and the wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist become in actuality the body and blood of Christ, not merely the signs or symbols of His body and blood.

Also, in John’s Gospel, we find another example.  After feeding the five thousand, the crowds follow Him and try to get Him to continue feeding them.  Jesus says they are only following Him because they “ate of the loaves and were filled.” He then says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35).  

Are we to take His words literally?

Later, the skeptics among the Jews question Jesus’ statements, having misunderstood Him and indeed taken them literally:  

Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 

Jesus responds with the following statement, which is even more obviously not to be taken literally:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. (John 6:53-56)

This passage from John is sufficient for many unbelievers even today to accuse Christians of advocating and practicing cannibalism, all because Jesus’ words have been taken literally, first by the skeptical Jews who heard His words and later by misguided Christians who have also taken the written words in the Gospels literally.  

One blog article I read even surmised that this is actually what happened to Jesus’ body:  He didn’t actually rise from the dead.  Instead, the disciples ate His body because He had commanded them to eat His flesh and drink His blood.  This is what comes from taking the words of Jesus, or the entire Bible, literally rather than spiritually.

Christ in You

The Mystery of Christ

Reading and studying the Scriptures, particularly the Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament, we find a number of passages that use the term “mystery,” so we’ve been looking to see if we can uncover the secrets God wants to reveal to us. Here is another one in Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.  (Colossians 1:24-29)

Several significant points emerge immediately concerning the mystery from this passage, and they include the following:

  • The mystery has been hidden from past ages and generations.
  • The mystery has now been manifested to Christ’s “saints.”
  • God wants to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery.
  • The mystery, in essence, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
  • Paul therefore seeks to admonish and teach all believers about this mystery so they may be “complete in Christ.”

The Hidden Mystery

The mystery, Paul writes, has been kept hidden for many ages and generations.  Why is this?  In part at least, it was because humans were separated from God, unable to hear God’s voice or receive His wisdom.  

Even with God’s chosen people, the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Lord communicated them visually and externally, rather than from the inside.  And in the accounts of God’s direct dealings with His prophets, priests, or kings, we read that the Holy Spirit “came upon” them rather than filling and living in them as He does now under the New Covenant.  

Here in the case of the anointing of David as future king of Israel  is one of many examples:

Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel arose and went to Ramah. (I Samuel 11:6)

Here is an account of the first Judge who helped deliver the Israelites from their enemies:

When the sons of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel. (Judges 19:9-10)

And similar accounts are told about Samson, Amasai, Jeptha, Jahaziel, King Saul, and others, how the Spirit of the Lord “came upon” them.

Before His crucifixion and after His resurrection, however, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would not only be their teacher but also would fill them with power so they could be His witnesses in all the earth.  

 

The Infilling of the Holy Spirit

Just after Christ’s resurrection, He appeared to the disciples and breathed on them, saying to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). This is the moment when they were “born again” into the New Covenant, but they still needed more of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  It wasn’t until the the Day of Pentecost that this promise of the Spirit’s power was given to them:

This is what Peter declared in his message on the Day of Pentecost, when the gathered disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit:

Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.  (Acts 2:33)

This “Gift of the Holy Spirit” was foretold by the Prophet Joel and the promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost.  Peter refers to this prophecy in his message to the crowd that has gathered:

“It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
 Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”  (Joel 2:28-29)

This promise of the Spirit was new, kept hidden from past generations, but on the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit appeared like flaming tongues of fire that rested on each one of the believers in Christ.  

Peter relates that this same promise was made to all who will call upon Him in the future:  “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:39).  This is the mystery God wants to reveal to the saints of all ages, showing the “riches of the glory” of this infilling of the Holy Spirit.

 

        

 

The Healing of the Man Born Lame

After the Day of Pentecost, Peter and John are arrested and called before the Jewish leaders after a man who was lame from birth was healed.  They spend one night in prison and then are called before Annas the high priest and all who were of high-priestly descent.

Peter, who is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” speaks in response to gathered rulers, who ask, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” (Acts 4:7).

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health.

When Peter and John are released, they return to the rest of the Believers gathered in Jerusalem, relating their story.  The Believers give thanks and praise to God, saying:  

“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.” And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:29 -31)

Thus, God fulfills His promises both to fill and continues filling, the faithful believers as they seek to manifest His glory to the world, as it says later in Acts:   “And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit”  (Acts 13:52).  Is it any wonder that the Gospel spread so quickly and so powerfully in the early days of the Church?  

 

Riches of Glory

In describing this Mystery of Christ to the Colossian believers, Paul emphasizes certain words to reveal their importance:  

God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

The one word that stands out the most in this description is the word “glory.”  This word is kaw-bode’, or כבוד, in Hebrew. The word relates to “heaviness in weight,” or figuratively, “weighty in terms of importance,” as in the weight of a particular attribute such as majesty, strength, beauty, or splendor.  

In the New Testament, on the other hand, the Greek word for glory is doxazo, which means “brilliance” or “radiance.”

Summarizing and connecting this word’s meanings to our mystery-text, “glory” refers to the “fullness of God,” or “the acts and the attributes” of God.   God’s glory refers to the things God does and the things God is, just because He is God.  It is the self-manifestation of God’s love, might, and power.

Those who have asked for and received, the Holy Spirit, in their lives, the very presence of the Spirit of Christ, know from personal experience what this glory is.  Those who have not received the gift need only ask, seek, and find, for all who call upon the name of the Lord will receive His promise of the Spirit if they ask in faith.

Isn’t it significant that many Eastern Mystics meditate to receive peace by essentially emptying their minds?  

Yet instead of emptying themselves, Believers in Christ seek to be filled, continually filled, with the  eternal presence of the Holy Spirit.  This is what it means when Paul writes,

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.  (I Corinthians 6:18-20)

 

The Hope of Glory

The mystery–“Christ in you, the hope of glory”–is a rich mystery indeed, so rich that Paul constantly is proclaiming, admonishing and teaching to ensure that believer is complete in Christ.  

We still need to receive revelation about a significant question, however:  What does “hope of glory” mean?  

The word “hope” means “a joyful and confident expectation” that a promise of God will be fulfilled.  Since faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,”  our faith believes that a promise for the future, as in ‘hope,” has already been fulfilled.  Hope, on the other hand, anticipates its arrival.  

Lacking patience, many people cease believing or seeking when an answer is not immediate.  They may even petulantly give up if they do not see the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises right away.  This is why Paul needed to “admonish” and “teach” the people.  They needed to learn steadfastness, unswerving stability, when seeking the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Thus, we must live our lives in constant expectation of seeing God’s glory in our lives at any moment, remaining steadfast in spite of circumstances that God will reveal His will according to His promises to us and perform it in our lives.

Combining these ideas with those concerning “glory,” we now understand that we can live our lives in constant, joyful expectation that Christ’s glory will manifest, that we will receive new revelations of Him at any moment. 

 

 

 

 


The Apostle Paul’s Mystical Perspective: Part IV

butterfly

Paul’s Mysticism Communicated

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is especially revealing in terms of his insistence on conveying the Gospel through the Holy Spirit to those who are on the way to salvation, for in the second chapter, he relates how he shared the Gospel with them:

  • He did not come to Corinth with “superiority of speech or wisdom” or using the wisdom of this world (v. 1).
  • His message was not delivered with persuasive words of wisdom, but in the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v. 4).
  • He did speak God’s wisdom to them, however:  “We speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory” (v. 7)
  • Paul had received this hidden wisdom from God by the Holy Spirit, “combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” which a “natural man” cannot accept (v. 13-14).
  • Only a spiritual person may understand this hidden wisdom, a person who has the “mind of Christ” (v. 16).

Finally, in spite of the appeal Paul’s teachings held for many seeking deliverance from a troubled world, Paul carefully establishes the fact that while a believer’s spirit was in heaven with Christ, his hands and feet still needed to be firmly planted on earth. Like Christ, the Word made flesh, the believer must paradoxically dwell by faith on both sides of the divide between Heaven and earth.

Though a believer may speak with the tongues of men and angels or understand all mysteries, Paul taught, he is nothing without love, a love which found expression in helping the poor and needy or working with one’s own hands rather than depending on others for sustenance. And as transcendent as his teachings are, they find expression in the ordinary observances of baptism or the communal partaking of bread and wine.[8]

This simple adherence to the sacraments, in spite of Paul’s disparagement of formalized religion reflected in his antipathy to the Judaizers, ties his teachings to physical observance rather than the mere contemplation of the transcendent only. 

I recall the expression, “He’s so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good!”

 

The Apostles John and Peter

Indeed, the teachings of Christianity, as expressed by Christ and the apostles, are not entirely otherworldly.

The Apostle John emphasizes the incarnation as the central focus of God’s revelation: Not only has the Word become flesh and dwelt among us, he writes, manifesting the light and life of God, but also this same “Word” ate fish after his resurrection. 

John therefore proclaims, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands handled, of the word of life . . . we declare unto you, that you may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship may be with the Father, and with his son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-2).

The Apostle Peter cites his own mystical experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, hearing the voice of God:

17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— 18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.   (2 Pet. 1:17)

However, Peter states that the Scriptures confirm personal experience, for they are not interpreted privately, according to one’s own insight, but according to the Holy Spirit’s revelation to the whole Church. While each believer must work out his own salvation, he finds the source of his power through the Holy Spirit, who holds all believers together into one body of Christ.

As important as individual experience is, the whole Church benefits from individual expression. The apostles placed their emphasis, therefore, on the whole Church rather than the individual’s private expressions and personal revelations. Believers were taught to avoid schisms and recognize the mystical unity they had with Christ and all parts of his body.  Therefore, they were not to “forsake the assembling of themselves together.”

 

CONCLUSION

While this brief survey of the Apostle Paul’s mysticism is by no means complete, the mystical elements of early Christian teaching and practice are clear. Christ crossed the gulf separating humankind from God, and by willingly ascending the Cross, He bridged the gap for all who enter into mystical oneness with Him.

 

Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it (I Corinthians 12:27)

Body of Christ

The Apostle Paul’s Mystical Perspective: Part III

 

Prayer

Throughout his writings, Paul’s own personal mystical practices are revealed. First, Paul differentiates between private devotion and public worship. He says he speaks in tongues “by the Spirit” more than all the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:18), yet he would rather speak the word of God in a known language in the assembly so that all may receive edification.

And by comparing his intercessory prayer life to the groanings of childbirth, bringing to life new children into the Kingdom of God, Paul relates the fervency of his devotion. To the Galatians he relates his disappointment that they have received the teachings of the Judaizers, who taught that gentile Christians must be circumcised and follow Moses’ Law: “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you”  (Galatians 4:19).

And in a significant passage in his letter to the Romans, Paul describes his experiences of praying in the spirit, a form of prayer that is beyond language: “

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  (Romans 8:26-27)

Paul also compares his experiences with intercessory prayer as a spiritual battle, waged not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness and wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12).

Paul’s teachings are also permeated with references to mystical secrets and revelations, from the mystery of marriage, a man and a woman becoming one flesh as a reflection of Christ’s relationship with his bride the Church, to the “mystery of the gospel” as a whole.  The gospel, Paul relates, was once kept secret, hidden for long ages, but now has been manifested to all nations (Rom. 16:25). These mysteries were kept hidden from the spiritual rulers of this world, the forces of darkness:

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 not have crucified the Lord of glory.  (1 Cor. 2:7-8)

But the mysteries were hidden in order to fulfill God’s plan, a plan which is now revealed through the Church to all nations (Eph. 8:11). These mysteries of the Gospel are exceedingly rich, particularly for the gentiles who were once excluded from the promises of God. This mystery, Paul declares has been hidden for ages and generations, but has now been manifested to all.

Furthermore, God desires to make known the riches and the glory of this central Christian mystery, which is the possibility of oneness with God through Christ (Col. 1:26-27). To know Christ, to be identified with him, to be joined to him in one spirit, to be changed into the same image from glory to glory, to be seated with him in heavenly places, to be a part of his kingdom rather than finding one’s citizenship in this world—all these mystical ideas find expression in Paul’s teachings of the mysteries of the gospel of Christ, for in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). If the Christian is dead, then he lives only by the animating spirit of Christ:

Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.  (Colossians 3:1-4)

Paul also speaks of the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:7) which will work in the world until the time of the appearance of the Anti-Christ and Christ’s triumphant return; yet the mystery of godliness is far greater, for Christ Himself is the mystery: 

He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.  (I Tim. 3:16).

Paul implies that while a believer’s standing in Christ is not a result of works, the deeper mysteries of the Kingdom of God which are themselves unfathomable and may only be seen in this life through a “glass darkly,” may be received through diligent devotion and imparted by God’s grace.

Paul refers to Moses’ shining countenance when Moses descended Mount Sinai, noting the Israelites’ inability even to look on his face. Paul compares their inability to receive full and direct spiritual revelation to the same blindness the Corinthians have in reading the Scriptures. Moses had to wear a veil because the Israelites could not look at his face, even though Moses brought to them a law which was only temporary. This same veil remains upon their hearts, for their eyes have not been opened to see the truth of Christ’s appearance (2 Cor. 3:13-15).

As with Paul’s own blindness after his experience on the road to Damascus, this blindness is removed upon conversion and the receiving of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:16-17). And as a result of the new believer’s ability to receive revelation in the freedom of the Holy Spirit, he is able to truly see Christ and the manifestations of his glory.

Consequently, the believer is metamorphosized and transformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Paul’s belief in continual transformation and revelation is communicated in his prayer in the Letter to the Ephesians that “God might give them a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Christ, that their eyes might be enlightened to see the riches of their inheritance (Eph. 1:17-18). Thus, unlike the esoteric mysteries of the Greek mystery cults, all may receive the mysteries of the Kingdom of God if only they will turn aside from man’s wisdom and come in humility to Christ.

Finally, until a future Blog post, Paul describes how we are transformed or “metamorphosized” into the image of Christ.  Unlike those who believe that “practice” and diligent discipline, along with trial and error, are necessary to keep the laws of God, Paul relates that followers of Christ are under no such bondage.  Instead, we are changed into the image of Christ by seeing Him:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

This is a confusing verse, but allow me to explain it the best I can. 

Since we believers have become new creatures in Christ, the veil of unbelief and carnality has been taken away and we can see into the realm of the Spirit.  Paul says that as we look into the mirror we see not ourselves, but instead we see the “glory of the Lord.”  Consequently, when we see Him, we are changed into the same image.  We become Christlike by seeing Him, not by seeing our faults and sins.

The term “glory” is in itself mystical, but I define it as “the acts and the attributes of God in self-manifestation.”  In other words, it’s just a reflection of who God is, just because He is God.  It’s the totality of the things God is and the things God does, just because He is God. 

Thus, when we look into the “mirror,” instead of seeing ourselves, we need to see the mystery (secret God wants to reveal) of Christ in us, the hope of glory:

Of this church I was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God,  that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.  (Colossians 1:25-29).

Thus, Paul strove to see Christ Himself manifested in the lives of the believers he was teaching.

 

The Apostle Paul’s Mystical Perspective, Part II

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Paul’s principle of “faith alone” is decidedly mystical. Citing the faith of Abraham, who believed God’s promise that he would be the father of many nations in spite of his advanced age and Sarah’s barrenness, Paul demonstrates how faith is the “substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not:  Abraham believed God’s promises that he would be the father of many nations because God “calleth those things that are not, as those that are” (Rom. 4:16-17). Since God is able even to call into existence the things that do not exist, Abraham believed in spite of the evidence of his senses and his natural experiences in the world:

 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.  ( Rom. 4:18-21)

Paul uses a remarkable phrase in describing Abraham’s faith.   Abraham believed that God “calleth those things which be not as though they were” (KJV), or “calls into being that which does not exist” (NASB).  Therefore, Abraham looked forward to the future expectantly, even when his experience showed him the impossibility of God’s promises.

If believers exercise the same kind of faith, Paul writes, they too may be justified before God by believing the promises of God, in spite of their impossibility according to natural human intellect or experience.   And since a true believer has been “translated” out of the darkness, into the light, he must understand that believers in Christ are new creatures, and “the old things are passed away, behold all things are made new” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Paul concludes that believers must not place their confidence in the flesh but “walk in the spirit.” We must by faith put to death our old nature, or “old man,” and put on the new, “him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of him that created him.” By seeking the things that are above rather than minding the things of the earth, the veil is torn away, the believer sees Christ, and is transformed into Christ’s own image (2 Cor. 3:18). This transformation, or metamorphosis, is effected mystically by looking to things unseen rather than to the things seen, for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:18).

P.S.  I haven’t forgotten about the “mirror”!

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The Apostle Paul’s Mystical Perspective: Part I

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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)

 

 

Paul’s Use of an Analogy: Galatians

 

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The Apostle Paul is so angry that he refers to the people in the Church of Galatia as fools who are choosing to live under a curse. 

Rather than continuing under the Gospel of Grace  that Paul preached to them, he writes, they have been bewitched.  They have listened to those who claim that to be sons of Abraham those who follow Christ Jesus must also follow the laws given by Moses.  Consequently, the Galatians have decided to hold to the works of the Law rather than faith.

Paul then quotes from the Scriptures to show that the covenant God made with Abraham was not based on following laws, but instead on faith, believing in the promises of God.  In fact, he says, those who are under the law are cursed.  Jesus came, Paul relates, to redeem us from the curse of the Law by being cursed Himself (“Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” v. 13) so that the blessings given to Abraham might come to the gentiles also (v. 14).

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.  The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.  So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Galatians 3 NASB)

Clearly, the gentile believers in Galatia have foolishly fallen for a deception promulgated by those claiming that to follow Christ they must also follow all of the rules and regulations in the laws handed to the Israelites by Moses.  However, Paul relates in later chapters in his letter to the Galatians that following the Law is impossible.  In fact, the Law was given to show that there is none righteous, not one, and that we must depend on the unmerited favor of God to receive forgiveness and redemption.

Paul pauses briefly, however, to explain his meaning.  Since the Galatians have fallen into carnality (living and thinking according to the flesh) Paul uses an “analogy,” one of the logical tools  used by ancient philosophers and one we need to recognize in order to interpret all kinds of texts correctly.  Briefly, an analogy is a way of explaining ideas of things using comparisons.  Here is Paul’s comparison:  “I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it” (v. 15).

This verse may easily be overlooked  or skipped over because it appears to be only a transition between topics.  It is significant, however,  not only in this Galatian context,  but as we will see in other contexts, also. 

What is Paul Saying? 

I will try to paraphrase. I believe he is saying that to this point he has been giving the Galatian believers spiritual truths and mysteries (secrets that God wants to reveal to those able to receive them).  In his frustration, however, since the Galatians have chosen to follow an unspiritual path, attempting in their own flesh to follow spiritual laws, Paul finds it necessary to speak to them using the “terms of human relations.”

The New International Version of this text says, “Let me take an example from everyday life.”  

Paul’s analogy, therefore, is a comparison between two ideas or situations, in order to explain or clarify his meaning, but he feels he must do so using common language and ordinary situations.  He cannot expect  them to understand the secrets God desires to reveal to those on the way to salvation, those who are spiritual and who may be instructed “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:13).

 

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