About 20 years ago, a program began airing on A&E titled, Mysteries of the Bible. I remember tuning in, hoping to find some of the more perplexing passages of Scripture explored. Unfortunately, however, the producers of the show treated as “mysteries” things that, for evangelical Christians, are not really all that mysterious. They treated as open questions such things as the “mystery” of whether Noah’s flood ever happened, whether Abraham was a historic figure, or whether Moses led Israel out of Egypt.
Christians, of course, speak of mysteries in the Bible, but by this they do not mean, “The Bible says X occurred, but it’s a mystery whether or not it really did occur.” When Christians speak of Biblical mysteries, they refer to things that are beyond our understanding. For example, John Wesley once said that how God can be both three and one is a great mystery. That he is both three and one, however, is, Wesley said, no mystery at all—rather, this is the plain teaching of Scripture.
What Wesley said of the Trinity is true of a number of other theological mysteries. Regarding Jesus’ identity, Christian orthodoxy doesn’t allow us to read the gospels and walk away saying, “Maybe he was a man; maybe he was divine—it’s a mystery.” How Christ can be both God and Man is a great mystery; that he is both God and Man is no mystery though. Similarly, the Scripture itself professes to be of both human and divine origin. How the Bible can be both the words of individual authors, reflecting their own temperament and cultural background, and also the very Word of God, breathed out by the Holy Spirit, is a great mystery; that the Bible’s origin is, like Christ, fully human and fully divine, is not a mystery. Conceding that there is much that is “mysterious” about the Bible does not mean adopting an agnostic attitude about whether the Bible is divinely inspired at all.
Regarding the sacraments, Paul says that the Lord’s Supper is a “participation” in the body and blood of Christ. Those who emphasize that the Lord’s Supper is “only a symbol”, as well as those who go to great lengths explaining precisely how, when, and why the elements are transformed into Christ’s body and blood, are overlooking the fact that what transpires at the Lord’s Table will this side of heaven ever remain largely a mystery. How partaking of Holy Communion is a “participation” in Christ’s body and blood is a great mystery; that it is a participation in Christ’s body and blood is not a mystery.
Regarding how God deals with the hearts of sinners, the Bible says that God chooses to have mercy on some, while hardening the hearts of others. Why God does this is a great mystery; that God has mercy on some, while hardening others, is not a mystery. Conceding that there is much about predestination and free will that is beyond our comprehension doesn’t mean we can know nothing whatsoever. At the very least, we can know, in the words of Christ, that no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him. We should bear in mind Martin Luther’s words:
“Why God sometimes, out of his divine counsels, wonderfully wise, unsearchable to human reason and understanding, has mercy on this man, and hardens that one, it beseems not us to inquire… Truly, if God were to give an account to every one of his works and actions, he would be but a poor, simple God.”
Regarding Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, C.S. Lewis once said the human mind is unable to fully grasp how Christ’s work brings about our redemption. We cannot even picture the atoms that make up the physical world, Lewis said, so it ought not surprise us if we likewise cannot grasp spiritual realities. “If we found,” he said, “that we could fully understand [Christ’s death and resurrection], that very fact would show that it was not what it professes to be—the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning.”
Apart from taking the initiative to make himself known to us, God would be largely unknowable to us. Thankfully, though, he has revealed himself. Do we know everything there is to know about God? Of course not. There is much we don’t know about God, just as there is much that a four year old child doesn’t know about her father. But if the father cares at all about cultivating a relationship with the child, he will at least reveal enough of himself to the child so that she can know his general character—that he loves her, that she is safe with him, that he is her protector, etc. It is like this with God and us. Though there is much we don’t know about God, we can at the very least know what his character is—that he is Love, that he is just, that he cares for the hurting, that he doesn’t wink at wrongdoing, that he is gracious and merciful.
A person can eat dinner, Lewis said, and be nourished by the vitamins in the food without having much of a working knowledge of the human body or understanding exactly how food nourishes the body. Similarly, he said a person “can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.”
According to a poll Christianity Today reported last year, an alarmingly high number of American Protestants believe that the Bible can only be understood by people with “years of intense theological training”. Sure, the Bible can be difficult, but it belongs to God’s people, the church, collectively, not just to “experts”. Let us not make the Christian faith more elusive and inaccessible than it really is. Let us not dismiss as “mysteries” things that God has disclosed to us about himself. Christianity professes to be an account of how God, the Being behind all that exists, has intervened to save the human race. By definition, such a story will include some things beyond our understanding. That said, the gospel message is not an indecipherable riddle. It is refreshingly accessible. As Paul said, we do not need to scale the heavens to bring Christ down or descend to the depths of the earth to find him. He is as near as our own hearts and mouths—if we confess he is Lord and believe God raised him from the dead, we will be saved (Romans 10:9-10).