In working with young people, I love the questions they ask. Some are simply the most insightful stuff I have heard. Some of the questions are repeats of stuff I’ve studied before, and the review is really helpful. And some questions are those asked by just about every student of Scripture at some point.
It was one of those necessary questions asked by every student that came up yesterday. She referred to Colossians 1:26, where Paul refers to a “mystery”, hidden from the ages and generations, but now revealed. “What mystery?” It’s a great question because Paul uses that term fairly inconsistently.
The context of Paul’s statement is this:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body—for the sake of his body, the church—what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. I became a servant of the church according to the stewardship from God—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God, that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to his saints. God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him by instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ. Toward this goal I also labor, struggling according to his power that powerfully works in me.Colossians 1:24-29 NET (emphasis mine)
So, if you do a search of Paul’s use of “mystery” in his writings, you find that he does use it in several letters. When you examine each instance, it quickly becomes clear that he doesn’t use it to refer to the same thing, or at least not precisely the same thing. It always has to do with salvation through Jesus, but there seems to be some element which is “mysterious”.
Here, in Colossians, the mystery seems to be “Christ in you, the hope of glory”, at least according to the NET translation. Most modern translations have something very similar, but there is a possible connection to Gentiles. It seems that this “mystery” is Christ in Gentiles, that they have a hope of glory.
So, while everyone expects Jews to have this hope of glory, that the Messiah would come for them, that Jesus affects salvation for Gentiles is supposed to surprise everyone. Context is important here. Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches seeks to correct, rather roughly, erroneous teaching that the Gentiles had to follow the Jewish law to be saved.
Considering this, it makes a lot of sense that Paul would refer to the salvation through faith in Jesus as a mystery. It clearly was to some people, namely those teaching this false doctrine of “circumcision for salvation”.
What about Jesus saving His human creatures is a mystery to you? It’s a weird question, like “what don’t you know?”, but it is worth spending some time considering. For instance, are there people you functionally consider beyond the reach of Jesus? Allow me to be more pointed, who, in your community, are you intentionally leaving out of your community of faith?
Before you let yourself off the hook, think through who attends, who is among you weekly, who serve in worship, who help with various elements of the worship service, teach or participate in groups. And then, consider who do not attend weekly, who are not serving, participating, or leading. And then, why are they not? What would it take for them to consider themselves a part of your community?
You see, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We blow right passed this reference to “mystery” without considering that, like these “Judiasers” were creating barriers for Gentiles, we also create barriers for people. How should they dress, how should they look, speak, laugh, where should they live, what should they drive, or how often should they bathe?
I’m really struggling with this because I’m in a class challenging me to address poverty through relationships. I’m being challenged to view myself as impoverished, just as much, if not more, than those I seek to help. I’m being challenged to consider the attitude with which I minister, and I’m painfully aware that pride and arrogance, so much a part of our culture, pollutes my own service to my King.
So, let’s clarify the mystery of why we are such mopes, flailing about, trying to serve those who have so much to offer us, as if we have nothing to learn from them. Jesus wants to purify us as much as cleanse them. He seeks our hearts as He seeks theirs. So, let’s set ourselves up to learn, relationally, from those with fewer material goods, as we share with them the riches of the grace we have found in Jesus.