If you love a good mystery, you’re going to want to listen to this message.
In a recent article the noted preacher William Willimon talked about the idea that the main business of preaching is to address one’s culture or relate one’s message to the culture. Willimon disagrees, “The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it,” he says. The way culture is changed is by people being changed, and the way people are changed is by becoming Christians and joining the body of Christ, and the way they do that is through hearing the gospel. Or, as Willimon explains: “God’s appointed means of producing change is called ‘church’; and God’s typical way of producing church is called ‘preaching.’”
That sentence could be used as a capsule summary of the theme of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. To put it another way, the church – the body of Christ, God’s transformed and transforming people – is brought into being and built up and directed by the preaching of the Word of God, especially the message about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here is Paul writing to the Colossian Christians to explain to them the nature of his own work:
God’s plan was to make me a servant of his church and to send me to preach his complete message to you. For ages and ages this message was kept secret from everyone, but now it has been explained to God’s people. God did this because he wanted you Gentiles to understand his wonderful and glorious mystery. And the mystery is that Christ lives in you, and he is your hope of sharing in God’s glory.
(Colossians 1:25-27, cev)
THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST
One of Paul’s favorite terms was the word “mystery.” He used it 21 times in his New Testament letters to various churches, including four times here in the letter to the Colossians. I have become a servant of the church, he tells them in chapter 1, “according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints . . . this mystery which is Christ in you the hope of glory” (vv. 26-27, nrsv). In chapter 2, he talks about them having “the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself” (v. 3, nrsv). And finally in a personal reference near the end of his letter, Paul asks the believers in Colossae to “pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison” (Col. 4:3, nrsv). On the basis of all those references, I suppose you could say that Paul was a man who loved a good mystery!
But, of course, “mystery” didn’t mean the same thing to Paul as it does to us. We think of a mystery as a puzzle or a riddle, a crime to be solved, a “whodunit” novel. A mystery is a challenge to our intellect and powers of investigation. The way we approach a mystery is to gather evidence, examine the clues and use logic to reason our way to the correct answer. But in the New Testament, a mystery is something quite different. There, a mystery is something secret or hidden, to be sure. But it’s not something we could ever figure out or solve on our own, because it relates to the plan or purposes of God.
“Who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?” asks the Bible (Romans 11:34, cf. Isaiah 30:14). No human being could ever begin to guess at the nature of the plans God has made for human history. I can no more read God’s mind and figure out what his purpose is for the world he has created than the fly buzzing around inside my car can understand what I’m doing and where I’m going as I drive down the street.
But here is the great thing: God has made his mystery known to humankind! He has revealed his plan; he has opened his mind to us. He’s told us what he is doing, what his purpose is as he both acts within history and guides history to its appointed goal. So a New Testament mystery is not just a secret – it’s an open secret. It is God’s plan revealed. The mystery “has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed” to God’s people (v. 26, nrsv); and in fact, the means by which God’s mystery is revealed turns out to be Paul’s own ministry of preaching the gospel. So what a mystery in the New Testament sense requires is not a detective like Sherlock Holmes to solve it, but an apostle like Paul to proclaim it. It’s not a puzzle to be cracked; it is good news to be announced and explained, as Paul does here in simple and clear terms that anyone can understand.
The heart of the good news is Jesus Christ; he is the mystery of God (Col. 2:2; 4:3). All of God’s plans and purposes center on Jesus. I want you, says Paul, to “grasp God’s secret, which is Christ himself” (Col. 2:2, reb). As this brief letter of Colossians explains, everything God has done has been done through Christ. Everything God intends to do will be done by Christ. Christ Jesus is the agent of creation: through him and for him all things were made, and in him all things hold together. Christ Jesus is the Savior of the world: God has made peace by his blood shed on the cross, and through him God reconciles everything and everyone to himself. Christ Jesus is the risen and reigning Lord who rules all things and who is returning one day to judge the living and the dead and to make all things new. From a biblical perspective, one could describe the history of the human race as a drama in three acts: creation, redemption and re-creation. Christ is the star of the whole play; he has the lead role in every act. In fact, the entire drama was written with him in mind!
I’LL LET YOU IN ON THE SECRET
So Jesus Christ is God’s mystery, God’s open secret. Everything we could possibly need to know, or have, or want we will find in him. But as Paul explains it to the Colossians, there’s even more to it than this. The mystery is not just Christ, he says. “The mystery is that Christ lives in you and he is your hope of sharing in God’s glory” (1:27, cev). “God . . . wanted you gentiles to understand his wonderful and glorious mystery.”
The mystery of God’s plan really has two parts. Part 1 is that salvation comes in and through Jesus. It’s not based on our good works, on human religion, on obedience or sacrifices to any other gods or spirits. Salvation is based only on faith in Jesus’ death on the cross. Part 2 of God’s open secret is that this salvation is for the gentiles as well as the Jews. That is, God intends to save the nations – all the peoples of the world in their ethnic and linguistic and cultural communities -through faith in Christ. Salvation in Christ is offered to everyone. Or as Paul puts it here in Colossians 1, the mystery is not simply Christ in you; it is Christ in you, you gentiles.
This really is a breathtaking revelation. We humans are clannish creatures. We tend to keep to ourselves, to stick to our own kind, to live within our own particular tribes, tribes defined by race or by nationality or by income level or by educational or cultural attainments. It’s hard for us to mix very much with those who are different. And we have a strong tendency to exclude those who are different from our group. But God doesn’t want to exclude. He wants to include. He says, in effect, “Listen, I’m going to let you in on the secret. And the secret is: I’m going to let you in – no matter who you are.”
Christ is “the hope of glory” (the means of salvation) for everyone. His body, the church, is all-inclusive. “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11, niv). As sinful people, we may want to push strangers out or keep certain kinds of people away, but God wants to bring them in and draw them close to himself and to each other.
When Paul talks here about the mystery of salvation in Christ being for everybody, he is consciously using language that was very popular in Colossae. Paul was echoing the terminology of the mystery religions, cults that promised salvation to their initiates on the basis of secret rituals and special knowledge taught and practiced by only a select few. The initiates of such groups were required to take a vow of silence, promising not to divulge the secret ceremonies of the cult lest such knowledge become public and thereby lose its imagined power.
What a contrast with the gospel! There the mystery is not dark or hidden. It is openly revealed and publicly proclaimed. Salvation isn’t won by taking part in ritualistic ceremonies or by using secret passwords. It is through faith in Jesus Christ who died and who rose again so that those who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life. Most of all, this good news of the gospel isn’t for the chosen few or for “just our kind.” It’s for everyone in the world!
That means it’s for you too, whoever you are, whatever your race or nationality or language or sex or religion. None of that matters, not really. What does matter is whether Christ is living in you, because he alone is your hope of sharing in God’s glory.
THE TREASURE HOUSE OF WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE
Now what does this all mean in practical terms? Paul explains it in chapter 2: “I tell you these things to keep you from being fooled by fancy talk . . . I am glad to know that you are living as you should and that your faith in Christ is strong” (Col. 2:4-5, cev). The trouble, you see, is that there are always people who think that Christ alone is not enough, that something more is needed. To be truly spiritual, it’s not enough just to know Christ and to trust Christ. You need to know something further. You need to have some additional experience. That was the message of the false teachers in Colossae, and it’s still the message of countless false teachers today.
But Paul would have none of it. Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3, nrsv). Christ is God’s treasure house containing all the wisdom and knowledge we need for our salvation and hope of eternal life. Imagine you had been given the key to the vault at Fort Knox that contained all the gold reserves of the United States of America. Then a man rushes up to you, grabs your arm and tries to convince you to go along with him and buy a gold mine he’s just discovered in some remote mountains. “Friend,” you’d say to him, “I don’t know what you’re trying to sell me, but I don’t need it. I already have the key to the whole treasury, and it’s all mine.”
That’s what you need to say whenever someone tries to convince you that you need something more than Jesus Christ. Don’t let them fool you, no matter how fancy they may talk. Don’t let them frighten you. As long as you are living as you should, and your faith in Christ is firm, there’s nothing to worry about. You have everything you need. And that’s the real secret!