Colossians and the Mystery of Faith

To [the holy in Christ, saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. . . . in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Colossians 1.27, 2.3

There are many mysteries in life. Some of these are apparent mysteries, mysteries that are temporary and will eventually become known, such as future events, or the workings of the universe, but other mysteries are far more profound. These mysteries are the mysteries of faith and these mysteries are absolute and we with human minds will never grasp the fullness of these mysteries. A prominent example of an absolute mystery is how we worship “one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence,” an idea that humanity has only grasped through circumlocution and metaphor [1]. Another example is how we will never fully understand how God and man are united in one hypostatic union in the person of Christ. These are mysteries, things that we as people can never fully understand. These verses in Colossians and other verses in the Pauline corpus put forth another mystery: the mystery of Christ. This is another mystery that we can never fully grasp, for why should a just God save a fallen humanity, and yet we must try to understand for the mystery of Christ does form the centre of Christian faith, a centre that we can never deny.

The context of Colossians is one of the most important aspects in determining what exactly constitutes this mystery of Christ. There are two aspects to the first century concept of mystery, a Jewish aspect and a pagan aspect. Additionally, it is also important to note the later development of Gnosticism, which formed one of the largest groupings of self-affiliated Christians that did not conform to the orthodox definitions of Christianity in the next few centuries after Paul. Colossians is not likely to have been written against any of these issues specifically, but it is still important to know how Colossians can form a general letter against all these practices. I would like to first describe Gnosticism and the mystery religions, as they are pertinent to the nature of mystery here in Colossians. Mystery religions were one of the areas influenced by the Hellenism that emerged out of Greco-Roman philosophy, specifically Platonism and duality of the spirit and the body, with the spirit being pure, and the body utterly evil and holding us back from god. These mystery religions proclaimed that we could obtain knowledge through secret initiation rites. These rites would reveal special knowledge to those few that participated. Some Christians in the second to fourth centuries took this idea of special revelation and mixed it with Christ, making Christ the bearer of gnosis, or knowledge, creating Gnosticism. This knowledge was the revelation of God to humanity what was needed to alter a state of radical dualism where the pure and eternal soul would be freed form the corrupt and corporeal prison that the spirit inhabits. Additionally, the Jews of the first century would also have another conception of mystery: something that is hidden with God, and stored in heaven until he chooses to release it. These mysteries are stored with God until the end times, a theme common in Jewish apocalyptic literature of the first century. In the end, Colossians shows how Christ is the one mystery, and that there is no other. This singular claim to truth rejects the claims of the mystery religions and ultimately fulfills this idea that revelation of mystery would bring about the end times, the times in which we now live.

So what is the true mystery evident in Christianity? Quite simply, the mystery of Christianity is the Word of God. That is to say, God has revealed himself to humanity through the written revelation encapsulated in the Bible. For as Colossians 1:5 says “you have head before [of the hope laid up for you in heaven] in the word of truth, the gospel.” Thus the Bible becomes the revelation of the mystery hidden from humanity from the beginning of time, the mystery being the means by which we have the ultimate hope of glory, Christ – the one that redeems fallen humanity and reconciles all things to himself. So within the Bible, we get the fullness of God, for where the fullness of God dwells in Christ [2], Christ dwells and is the Word [3]. The totality of the mystery can be summed up as this: (1) Creation is the work of God through and in Christ, (2) the sum total of knowledge and wisdom is found through and in Christ, and (3) the ultimate purpose of redemption is revealed through and in Christ. This meaning that all parts of God’s plan are done through and in Christ where Christ is that visible image of an invisible God through which we strive to understand the whole of the divine nature by moving from mere existence, to the reception of knowledge, and then by believing that revelation we finally obtain our reconciliation to God through and in Christ [4].

All the other mysteries of Christianity (and there are many) are contained within this overarching theme of the mystery of Christ, our hope of glory, contained in the Word. This furthers the total sufficiency of Christ central to Christianity, and ultimately sets the stage for the later condemnation of asceticism and self-made religion in the latter part of Colossians 2. By the sufficiency of Christ, I mean to say that the totality of God’s revelation is found in Christ and therefore all the other means of obtaining any form of gnosis (knowledge) to reach the divine nature or heaven falls in the realm of falsehood. So no, there is no rite, no ritual, outside of Christianity that can obtain the fullness of truth about God except that which we found in the Bible, and through Christ, ultimately the church (which is the body of Christ) [5]. Ultimately, this means that those among the Colossians that listened to false teachers and their means of denying self, ultimately cannot find the fullness of truth, for where Christ is not present, there can only be partial truth. Indeed, when we have the full truth found in the Bible, why should Christians try to find God any other way [6]! Paul tells and exhorts us in Colossians to “walk in Christ” [7]. This is to say that, having received the mystery of Christ we must also strive to grow in wisdom and understanding of Christ, and to live out our understanding in a manner worthy of our calling [7]. Only in this way, with this constant desire to learn more about and draw closer to Christ can we fulfill Paul’s wish for all believers to reach “all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” [8].

The idea that the totality of mystery has finally been revealed by God to humanity places a unique and compelling commission on the church: we have become stewards of the mystery of God, and having received the mystery, must now proclaim it to others in these last days. I have previously described the Cosmic nature of the reconciliation of all things in and to Christ seen in Colossians 1.15-20, but looking next at verses 21-23 we can see a shift from this cosmic aspect of Christianity to the local aspect of the church, showing how Christ is indeed reconciling you and I to himself, not in any general term, but though an active working which is done by the gospel, which the same gospel that has always been proclaimed and which does not change in its perfection, and through the Holy Spirit.  It is now of great note that the Word is not just for Jews as in the Old Testament, but it has now been revealed to all people, both Jews and non-Jews alike [9]. This allows us, not of the line of Abraham, to be grafted into the tree of Israel, ultimately becoming part of God’s people and thus allowing us to have communion with God [10]. To this end, we have been indwelt with the Holy Spirit, for where in Augustine likens the trinity to the mind, where the Father is memory, the Son is Understanding, and the Spirit is will, it is the Spirit that makes us more and more like unto Christ, the ultimate exemplar of communion with God [11]. Having been made aware of the mystery, it is thus our part to act on the degree of our knowledge. This is why we continue to live, to learn more about God and to express our communion with God to those around us that they too may be reconciled unto Christ.

So through all this, we are Christian, and being Christian we have been made aware of the fullness of the mystery of God found in Christ. Now we are to be stewards of this knowledge, proclaiming it to that that have not heard, in hopes that they too may be reconciled unto Christ, and we must also live in a manner worthy of our calling. There is no other way to Christ, no rite, no ritual, no idea that can bring us into reconciliation with God except through Christ, and him crucified, a crucifixion done to bring us salvation, truth, life, and ultimately communion with God as we become more like Christ. Finally, ;et us always remember that our “chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever” [12].

Ad majorem Dei gloriam, soli Deo gloria

[1] Quicunque Vult

[2] Col. 2.9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily

[3] Jn 1.1 In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

[4] Col 1.22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his dead, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him

[5] Col 2.23 [Human precepts and teachings] have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

[6] Jn 14.6 I am the way, the truth, and the life

[7] Col 1.9-10 And so from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

[8] Col 2.3

[9] Eph 3.6 That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel (KJV)

[10] Rom 11.17-24

[11] Augustine, de Trinitate

[12] Westminster Larger Catechism: “Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man? Answer: Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”

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