What is Christian Mysticism?
Q. In many New Covenant writings mention is made of "mysticism" or "esoteric", words which I cannot find in the Bible. Isn't "mysticism" another term for "occultism", and shouldn't we as Christians shun it altogether?
A. We do have a real problem with language here. First let us take the dictionary meanings (which remember evolve with time). The word "occult" has two primary meanings: (1) That which is hidden, or secret, which is restricted to those with special knowledge; and (2) Supernatural, or magical. "Mysticism", by contrast, is generally held to mean a teaching or belief that knowledge of God and of real truth may be obtained through meditation or spiritual insight, independently of the mind and the senses. A "mystic" is a person who seeks union with God and, through that, realisation of truth beyond men's understanding. A "mystery" is that of which the cause or origin is hidden or impossible to understand. The word "esoteric" means spiritual knowledge intended only for those who are initiated, for a small circle of disciples or followers (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, OUP, 1974).
Quite obviously some of these definitions of "occult", "mysticism" and "esoteric" harmonise with Biblical teachings and some do not. Let us take each in turn.
(a) MYSTERY. The word only appears once in the Old Testament (OT) and then only in the Aramaic section of Daniel (2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:9) where the Septuagint (LXX -- Greek translation of the OT) renders the Aramaic rÔz by mysterion (KJV, RV "secret"; RSV "mystery"). In this context the word carries a specialised reference, as in the phrase, "there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries" (2:28, RSV). Here "mystery" means primarily that which is hidden and still needs to be made known. These mysteries are contained within the eternal plan of God and are made known by Him in advance to His prophets.
In the New Testament (NT) the meaning of the term mysterion in classical Greek is "anything hidden or secret" and was used in the plural particularly (ta mystÚria) to refer to the sacred rites of the Greek mystery religions in which only the initiated shared. The root verb is my˘, which means primarily "to close the lips (or eyes)" (Latin, mutus, from which we get the English "mute"). But whereas "mystery" may mean, and in modern usage often does mean, a secret for which no answer can be found, this is not at all the connotation of the term mysteri˘n in classical and biblical Greek.
In the New Testament mysteri˘n signifies a secret which is being, or even has been, revealed, which is also divine in scope, and needs to be made known by God to men through His Spirit. In this way the term comes very close to the New Testament term apokalypsis, "revelation". Mysteri˘n is a temporary secret, which once revealed is known and understood -- a secret no longer; apokalypsis is a temporarily hidden eventuality, which simply awaits its revelation to make it actual and apprehended (cp. 1 Cor.1:7, for example, where apokalypsis is used, as so often, in reference to Christ Himself; and Rom.8:19, where Paul describes the creation as waiting with eager longing for its apokatastasis in the coming age of glory (Millennium), which is to be revealed (apokalypthÚnai) at the apokalypsis of the sons of God themselves.
In the Gospels, the word mysteri˘n appears only once (Mk.4:11 = Mt.13:11 [pl] = Lk.8:10 [KJV "mystery", RSV & NIV "secret", ]). Here the term is used to refer to the Kingdom of God, the knowledge of which, just because it is God's kingdom, is reserved for those to whom it is "given". As a result, the unrevealed mystery is, for those "outside" (ex˘), hidden in "parables".
To understand these mysteries requires a special prophetic gift which is given to those set apart in the prophetic office: "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret unto His servants, the prophets" (Amos 3:7, KJV) whom He has established in the Church of God to do this work in the New Covenant (1 Cor.12:28). One of the signs of God's presence in His Church is the presence of a prophetic ministry, revealing the mysteries of the Kingdom of God deliberately hidden away in the sayings of Jesus for the benefit of the elect who are specially gathered out to receive them (Mt.24:31).
Paul uses the word "mystery" frequently (21 times in his epistles) and uses it in four different senses:
- (1) God's mystery is eternal in its scope, in so far as it relates to the divine plan of salvation. The "mystery" is the good news which forms the content of God's revelation (Eph.6:19); it is the mystery of God Himself, the focus of which is in Christ (Col.2:2). As such it is contained within God's everlasting counsels and hidden in Him (Eph.3:9): "We speak of God's secret wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began" (1 Cor.2:7, NIV). It is declared as God's sophia ("wisdom"), and veiled in human understanding, though awaiting its disclosure, throughout the ages (1 Cor.2:8; Rom.16:25).
- (2) It is historical in its announcement. This mystery is also the "mystery of Christ", announced historically and definitively by God in Christ Himself (Eph.1:9; 3:3ff where this mysteri˘n is said to be revealed to Paul kata apokalypsin; cp. Col.4:3) when the "fullness of the time" had arrived (Gal.4:4). It is precisely this mystery, centred and declared in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, through whose death God reconciles us to Himself (2 Cor.5:18ff; cp. 1 Cor.2:2), that Paul was commissioned to proclaim (Eph.3:8ff; cp. 1 Cor.4:1). In his letter to the Ephesians Paul considers particularly, against the background of a general and gradual movement towards a Christ-centred inclusiveness, the dominant and related notions of "hope" and "mystery". Christ is the hope of men (1:12) and of the universe (1:10), and we possess as a result a hope which is both glorious (1:18) and real -- already the Christian is saved (in the forensic sense), and raised with Him (2:4-6). Not only so, but also, and this is the particular character of the mysteri˘n which Paul has been sent to preach, and which in the Epistle to the Ephesians he is chiefly concerned to outline, the new hope, and thus the new life in Christ, is available for Jew and Gentile alike (3:8; cp. Col.1:27, where the content of the mystery is qualified as "Christ in you, the hope of glory").
- (3) It is spiritual in its perception. We have seen already from the Synoptic Gospels that the mystery of the Kingdom is spiritually perceived. Paul retains this idea when he regards the mystery of Christ (the focus of which is particularly "the Gentiles as fellow-heirs") as revealed to apostles and prophets by the Spirit (en Pneumati, Eph.3:5; cp. also 1 Cor.13:2; 14:2. For a full treatment of the Kingdom, see The Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Mark). In line with this must be understood the term as it is used derivatively by Paul in connection with Christian marriage (Eph.5:32), and the "man of lawlessness (or sin)" (2 Thes.2:7). The divine significance of these "mysteries" is apprehended by a conjunction of revelation and spiritual understanding (cp. also Rev.17:3-7).
- (4) It is eschatological (concerning the "end times") in its outcome. The mystery which has been revealed in time still awaits its divine consummation and fulfilment in eternity. This is the sense in which the term must be understood in Rev.10:7: "the mystery of God" already announced will be corporately fulfilled without delay, "in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel" (RSV). And this is equally true in terms of personal salvation -- the "mystery" of "being changed" when the trumpet sounds, or mortality being finally replaced by immortality -- the resurrection (1 Cor.15:51ff). Such a mystery, even when it is made known, overwhelms us still with the depth of nothing less than the wisdom and the knowledge of God Himself (Col.2:2).
The use of the word "mystery" with reference to the Sacraments (e.g. the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ideas about the Lord's Supper), or the Trinitarian formulation of the Godhead, is entirely post-biblical although there is another sense, not connected to salvation per se, in which various symbols (like the Menorah and the Temple) may be said to have sacred or mysterious knowledge hidden up in them which Paul briefly touches on in Hebrews.
These are the only Biblical accepted meanings of the word MYSTERY and are the only sense in which mysteries are understood, and used by, the New Covenant Church. Such would be described by us as NEW COVENANT MYSTICISM. The idea that a mystery cannot be known is not Biblical, even though it is true that it cannot be known by unbelievers or by those who are not the "elect".
The goal of all Christians must be, having accepted the forensic salvation of Christ (justification), to come to full sanctification and a knowledge of God through Christ (Jn.17:3). From a Hebrew point-of-view, the term "mysticism" applies whenever a person is convinced that it is possible to establish direct contact, apart from sense perception and intellectual apprehension, with God. Since Christ enables us through faith and repentance to have access to God there is a sense in which all true Christians are mystics, since they of necessity must make contact with the divine. Mysticism is therefore part and parcel of the true Christian faith.
(b) OCCULTISM. Though technically we ought to have no quarrel with the word "occult" in the sense that it is concerned with "hidden" truth, the reality is that today the word "occult" conjures up magic, the New Age, demonism, Satanism, mystical non-Christian organisations and philosophies, etc.. For this reason we do not consider ourselves to be "occultic" -- in fact, the very opposite. Typically, an occultist tries to manipulate supernatural forces by means of rituals, meditations, etc., to serve his needs. This is diametrically opposite to Christianity. Christians do not seek to "manipulate" God in any way but to "surrender" or "yield" to His will.
A word ought to be said about "revelation" in this connection. The occultist seeks "revelation" about the unseen world through various techniques; by contrast, the God of Israel gives revelation solely on His own initiative. Though we may petition God for revelation about some matter through prayer, we do not force the matter with Him. It is up to God to choose whether He reveals or not. If He chooses not to, then we are supposed to leave it at that. We are not, for example, to engage in long fasts, prayers and meditations for the sake of forcing Him to reveal Himself, as occultists do with demonic powers. Though Christianity is certainly a mystical faith, it is not an aesthetic one, but immensely practical. Christians live in expectation of receiving God's Word but do not force it, because they know that "the wind blows wherever it pleases..(and) so it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (Jn.3:8, NIV).
The New Covenant Church of God was not formed because of the will of the founder. He did not seek to found a Church. Rather, God revealed Himself to the founder to begin this Church at a time when he was just about to join another one! God takes the initiative always, and it is up to man to respond: "For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight" (Eph.1:4, NIV). God invites (calls) and then, if we are faithful, chooses: "For many are invited, but few are chosen" (Mt.22:14, NIV). "Have I (Jesus) not chosen you, the Twelve..?" (Jn.6:70, NIV). "You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in My Name" (Jn.15:16, NIV). God invites and chooses, not the other way round.
Thus we should ask ourselves: Have I chosen to do what I am doing, or has God chosen me to do it? Have I truly been called? If our answer is "no", or "I don't know", then we are likely on the wrong path. Such a doctrine is completely antithetical to occultism.
Therefore we will categorically state that New Covenant Christians are not occultic! Absolutely not!
(c) ESOTERIC. This is not a biblical word, at least not directly, and when New Covenant Christians use it, we use it in the sense of "Christian mysticism". It is, unfortunately, a word used by occultists, though such does not, of course, give them ownership of it anymore than New Agers who use "Christ" in their own idolatrous and perverse way own the Name of Christ. We must be careful not to concede ownership of anything to Satan which has a holy meaning too. Because such symbols as the Star of David (Mogen David) and the Cross are used by Satanists (with different meanings), there are a number of Christians who believe these signs are therefore "Satanic" and shun them. Look in any occult dictionary of symbols and you will see that one of Satan's traits is profaning that which is holy by incorporating Christian symbols (and, more recently, words like "Christ", "salvation", "baptism", etc.). New Covenant Christians use both the Cross and the Star of David which have concrete, biblical meaning for us. They are esoteric symbols (concealing mysteries of the faith) which we are not about to surrender to the devil just because he misuses them.
If we take the Oxford definition of "esoteric", meaning "intended only for those who are initiated, for a small circle of disciples or followers", then we must say that true Christianity has an esoteric component. Jesus reserved the teaching of deeper mysteries to ever smaller circles of initiates ("one who receives secret knowledge"). The Sermon on the Mount was given only to believers; deeper mysteries were reserved for the 12 Apostles and some "women" (not specifically identified in the NT), and held back the most esoteric secrets for the Patriarchate (Peter, James and John) who, for example, of the Twelve, were alone permitted to witness the Transfiguration of Jesus. Thus the implication of an esoteric Gospel is that sacred knowledge is revealed by degrees according to the election of each individual, presumably in proportion to his trustworthiness and obedience to the Gospel. We do not know, from the pages of the NT, why Jesus singled out the 12 apostles as He did, nor why Peter, James and John were favoured in another way. We can make intellectual deductions, of course, but without revelation from the prophets, we cannot finally know.
One very important point New Covenant Christians make about esoteric truth is that it must build upon, or expand, that which has already been revealed. One of the sure marks of a false Gospel is where "secret", "inner", "hidden" "truths" are revealed to a select few which totally contradict what is taught the masses. Many so-called "occultic Christians" maintain, for example, that reincarnation was a true teaching of Jesus but is "deliberately concealed" from the ordinary believer. This is a sure sign of demonic activity, for this bluff was used to infiltrate Christianity in the mid-19th century to "prepare" unsuspecting believers (who ought to have known better) for the New Age doctrine.
Any "esoteric" teaching that does not harmonise with the Bible in doctrine and practice, or which is not a natural unfolding or deeper revealing of previously stated divine truth IS FALSE, particular in regard to the Person of Christ, His atoning work, physical resurrection, and all the doctrines of the Apostles' Creed. On this condition New Covenant Christians firmly nail their esotericity. Though we indeed have what may be called "secret teachings" or "mysteries" which are reserved for the elect, they absolutely do NOT contradict the Word of God in the Bible and have no part of any "occult" or non-Christian esoteric tradition. New Covenant Esoteric Christianity is a fresh revelation from within Biblical Christianity. It has no connection, as has sometimes been falsely maintained, with, for example, Kabbalism (even though Kabbalism does indeed contain some inspired truth). Kabbalism, which is Jewish occultism, rests ultimately on a New Age doctrine about the "transcendence" and "impersonality" of God who manifests "him/itself" in "emanations". Jewish occultism (Kabbalism) is simply a form of paganism couched in sophisticated Biblical language.
That the Scriptures have an esoteric component is a long and well established fact of Judaism. Sod, the esoteric interpretation of exoteric Scripture, is used frequently by both Jesus and the NT writers. (For a full treatment of this subject, see The Four Modes of Scriptural Interpretation).
There is no justification scripturally or historically to shun mysticism. True mysticism is, in any case, our search to understand and know God and thus, indirectly, ourselves. Any Christian teaching which lacks an esoteric, mystical component is at best incomplete, and at worst distorted, without any real depth.
For an example of an esoteric interpretation of an historical event in the life of Jesus, see Section 268 of the Olive Branch, Stilling the Storm, or the pamphlet, LOGOS -- The Word: What Is It?
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Last updated on 17 December 2007
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