The Mystery of the church

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In Ephesians Paul uses the word ‘mystery’ four times. He writes of ‘the mystery made known to me by revelation’, his ‘insight into the mystery of Christ’, and how God has appointed him to ‘make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery’. In verse six he states the mystery in plain terms; ‘This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus’.

To us modern day multi-cultural Christians this hardly seems a mystery at all, but to the Jews of Paul’s day it must have been a shocking revelation.

The Jews were the chosen few and the Gentiles were the lost many, and now Paul was saying that these blasphemous goyem were included through Christ Jesus in the people of God! What an outrageously radical idea!

Paul’s mysterious revelation goes even deeper. He was a student of ancient Jewish mysticism and would have been familiar with the concept the Rabbis’ called the Adam Kadmon, the Heavenly Man, or what later became known as the Cosmic Christ. This mystical being was believed to be the final revelation of God, representing the fusion of the divine with the human. His head was in the heavens and his body was on the earth and as such he filled the entire cosmos. Paul uses ‘Cosmic Christ’ type language extensively in Ephesians and is suggesting to those in the know that the church, the mysterious body made up of all types of people, is the Adam Kadmon. That’s why he writes that God’s intent was that ‘now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Ephesians 3:10-12). Jesus is the head in heaven and the church is the body on earth!

Now, it may not be particularly relevant, or mysterious, to us today to accept that Jews and Gentiles alike make up the Body of Christ, but it is certainly relevant to know that the church is in some sense part of the mystical co-joining of divinity and humanity. Now we can understand why Paul wrote  that ‘God placed all things under his (Jesus’) feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way’ (Ephesians 1:22-23).

So the Gentiles as well as Jews are part of the church, and the church is the Body of the Cosmic Christ. But there is more, there is a third level of mystery that Paul is revealing in Ephesians. He writes of the riches of God’s ‘glorious inheritance in the saints’ (1:18) and he ends his wonderful prayer in chapter three with ‘to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus’. The blessings of Israel are now the blessings of the church. Ephesians 3:6 states that ‘through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.’ They are therefore the blessings of each of us who are part of the church. But here’s the thing; the promises and blessings that Paul prays for are for us, not in isolation, but as members of the church. The blessings set out in Ephesians, and elsewhere, are corporate! He writes that we (plural) ‘may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’ (3:19), and in chapter four verse thirteen he continues, ‘until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ Do you know of any single person apart from Jesus himself who has attained to this? No, because the promise applies to us corporately as part of the church, and not to us as independent individuals.

This idea of our corporate identity is as shocking to many of us today as the revelation of Gentiles being included in the church was to the people of Paul’s time. Why do I say this? I believe this because for centuries now Christians have been taught that Christianity is all about ME; what I can have, my health, wealth and happiness, my eternal destiny, and my personal relationship with God.  Yet this idea is utterly alien to Jesus’ message because He said that it’s all about others, giving, and community.

Now, if I believe the ‘I lie’, then what is the church to me? Well, it’s a supplier of services of course. It’s there to supply me with life principles, friendships, music, community projects, and so on. The church is a supplier and I am a religious consumer. No wonder church leaders moan about the fact that only 20% of their church members are active, committed, and growing spiritually. No wonder Christians move from one local church to the next when they feel that their needs are no longer being met. Why not, because if one supermarket no longer stocks the brands I like, or raises the prices, then I move to another supermarket without a thought – so why not with church?

What a tragic misunderstanding! We miss God’s purpose for us almost entirely, and we miss so much of His blessings, when we fail to see that we are saved into the body of Christ, the church, not into a self-centred consumerist individuality. This is indeed a mystery, but a glorious and blessed mystery!

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