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Classic Reflections on Scripture
By W. E. Vine
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 W.E. Vine
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Mysteries of Scripture
The Mystery of Christ The Mysteries of Scripture The Mystery of the Faith The Mystery of the Deity of Christ The Mystery of Godliness The Mystery of the Gospel The Mystery of the Hardening of Israel A Distinction The Mystery of the Kingdom The Kingdom of Heaven The Mystery of Resurrection Bodies The Last Trumpet The Mystery of Babylon The Mystery of Lawlessness The Man of Lawlessness The Restrainer The Mystery of God's Will Union in Christ The Completion of the Mysteries For Further Study
The Mystery of Christ
For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. —Hebrews 4:15
Scripture: 1 Timothy 3
God was "manifested in the flesh" (1 Timothy 3:16), and this statement directly declares Christ's deity. Furthermore, His pre-existence is also clearly implied. That which is manifested has been hidden previously. He "was with the Father and was manifested to us" (1 John 1:2). "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Identifying Himself with humanity (apart from sin), Christ took on flesh and blood. This was the first step toward His role as Mediator between God and man. That relationship could only be brought about fully by His death and resurrection.
He was also "justified in the Spirit" (1 Timothy 3:16). The Mediator, in order to atone for sin by His sacrifice, must Himself be sinless. The absence of all sin during the whole of His life has been proved in every possible way, His enemies themselves bearing witness. His was the spirit of holiness, of absolute freedom from all taint or defilement. "And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin" (1 John 3:5). Christ passed unscathed through the fire of fierce temptation.
But how was He justified? Not as we are. We are justified by grace as sinners, but He was justified in vindication of His sinlessness. Righteousness is imputed to us, but it was inherent in Him. To this the Father bore witness at His baptism and at His transfiguration, and completely vindicated His sinlessness by raising Him from the dead. Thus it was that God justified His Son, and thus was fulfilled the messianic prophecy of Isaiah: "He is near who justifies Me" (Isaiah 50:8). He was "declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness" (Romans 1:4). That declaration was only consistent with His holiness. Every test was applied, and He was proved to be the Just One, the Holy One.
An entire book—an entire library—could be written about the mystery of Jesus Christ, or God become flesh, and the mere surface of its depths would merely be skimmed. Indeed, an entire book has been written on the subject, for every page of the Bible is intent upon bringing to mankind God's ultimate good news, the gospel of God embodied in His Son. This book, too, endeavors to plumb in some small way the depth of God's grace through Christ, as we examine man's condition, the Devil's opposition, and Jesus' gift of eternal redemption. But before we can begin such an examination, we must first understand two vital pieces of this mystery: the deity of Christ and His sinless life on earth.
Jesus, God's only begotten Son, came to earth for the specific purpose of paying the price for the sin of the human race. But in order for this to be accomplished, He could not have any debt of His own to pay. The sin of Adam condemned all his descendants to a debt that they could not pay, the debt of death brought about by sin. God's justice demanded payment in full for this debt, but it could only be paid by One who was Himself without sin. Jesus lived His entire life on earth in complete obedience to the will of the Father and committed no sin. This fact was testified by the writers of the New Testament (Hebrews 4:15), and even by the very people who condemned Him to death on the cross (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). But the most irrefutable proof of His sinless life came from the Father Himself: "And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, 'This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'" (Matthew 3:17).
Jesus did not inherit the debt of death because He was born of a virgin, not having a human father to impart the sin nature to Him. Any human being born from Adam—that is, every human being who ever has lived or ever will live, apart from Christ—inherits the sinful nature because God ordained a law at creation: like brings forth like. A cow can only give birth to a cow, and a sinner can only give birth to a sinner. Every descendant of Adam is born under the curse, born subject to death, born with no possibility of being redeemed from sin—no hope, that is, apart from Christ. The only One who could ever live a life free from sin is God Himself, and that is the reason God became a Man—the Man Christ Jesus.
The Mysteries of Scripture
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith-to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. —Romans 16:25–27
Scripture: Ephesians 3
The word mystery in Scripture does not refer to something that is mysterious. On the contrary, it refers to something that is "made known," something that can be known only by divine revelation—it is knowledge which is beyond a person's natural powers of comprehension. These divine mysteries are made known only by God's Holy Spirit, and they are revealed in the time and manner which God alone decides.
When we use the word mystery today, we generally refer to some knowledge which has been withheld from us; but in Scripture a mystery is in fact "truth revealed." Thus, the Bible uses terms such as "made known," "manifested," "revealed," "preached," and "understand" in connection with divine mysteries. The following passages illustrate this principle:
The mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints.
(By which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets.
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began.
In the ancient religion of the Greeks, mysteries consisted of a set of rites and ceremonies which were considered very sacred, and they were observed with the strictest secrecy. Membership of the societies which practiced them was open to any who desired to be initiated, and those who had passed through the initiation were known as "the perfected." Paul probably had this in mind when he said, "However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature [literally, perfect], yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory.... Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God" (1 Corinthians 2:6–7, 12, italics added).
This all stands in striking contrast to the methods of secrecy adopted by the priests of the Greek mysteries. As Paul wrote, "But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Corinthians 4:2).
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Mystery novels, movies, and television programs are a popular and enduring type of fiction in which the reader or viewer uses his wits and intellect to unravel the "whodunit," trying to guess at the truth, which the fiction writer has tried hard to disguise. We also tend to use the word mysterious in reference to a thing or person about which we know very little. We frequently add a sense of romantic adventure to the word, as though the "mysterious person" has a deep secret that we yearn to unravel.
The Bible, however, does not use the word mystery in these ways. The dictionary helps us to understand the biblical meaning: "a religious belief based on divine revelation, especially a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving." There are two important distinctions in the Bible's use of mystery versus our casual English use: 1) a biblical mystery cannot be understood by human reason, but requires God's direct revelation; 2) a biblical mystery is intended to become clear, in God's timing, unlike modern mystery stories, which are deliberately designed to confuse and mislead a reader or viewer.
God desires that all people should know and understand the mysteries of the Bible, because these mysteries actually reveal His character and His will. A modern mystery writer wants to confuse his readers, to mislead them away from the truth of the plot—but God desires to reveal truth completely to anyone willing to listen. Ultimately, God's truth is fully revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ. "I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus told His disciples. "No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him" (John 14:6–7). All the mysteries of the Bible eventually lead us to Christ.
The Mystery of the Faith
Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. —1 Timothy 3:8–9
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 2
Paul tells us that one of the qualifications for deacons is to hold "the mystery of the faith" in a good conscience (1 Timothy 3:9). This faith is the body of Christian doctrine, "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). The faith was revealed in the person and work of Christ, made clear by the Spirit of God to His apostles, and recorded in the New Testament. It had been kept secret by God in preceding ages, until the advent of Christ Himself, and it is in Christ that all doctrines of Scripture are centered.
There was "a fullness of the time" for the revelation of the faith, and God chose the time when it would be fully revealed. The doctrines pertaining to this faith had been dimly foreshadowed in the Old Testament, but the clear revelation of the mystery was brought about by Christ Himself in His days on earth, and the revelation was completed by His apostles.
Paul refers to this as "the mystery of faith" because it requires faith to fully comprehend it. Faith is a spiritual activity rather than an intellectual exercise, because spiritual understanding is required to comprehend spiritual truths. Human intelligence alone cannot understand the mysteries of God, as Paul tells us: "But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Understanding the mystery of the faith is essentially the work of the Spirit of God, and He prepares the heart to receive it. Indeed, the very first step in comprehending this mystery is the act of accepting Christ by faith, on the spiritual understanding that His sacrifice on the cross was the only means of forgiveness for sins.
All these things illustrate the nature of a scriptural mystery. There was first a period of "divine reticence," a time when God chose not to reveal the full plan of mankind's salvation. Next, there was an appointed time for the revelation of the mystery, through the coming of Christ and the commission of His disciples, who more fully explained those mysteries. And finally, the mystery was fully explained to the "chosen few," those who were specially prepared to receive the knowledge—in this case, any person who accepts the gospel of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit.
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Paul urged Timothy to teach others to be "holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience" (1 Timothy 3:9). The context of this statement was in choosing deacons, but the principle applies to all believers, whether or not we have been called to be deacons or elders within the church. But what does it mean in practical terms to be "holding the mystery of the faith"?
Vine points out two important elements of this process. First, Vine writes, "This faith is the body of Christian doctrine." The process of holding the mystery of the faith first requires that a Christian be well grounded in Christian doctrine. This can only come through an ongoing discipline of personal Bible study, meditation, and prayer, coupled with sound biblical teaching through regular participation in the local church. Second, Vine adds, "The faith was revealed in the person and work of Christ." This is perhaps the most important element in holding the mystery of the faith: walking in a close, obedient relationship with Jesus Himself. People learn best by imitation, and one can only imitate another person by spending time in close fellowship with that person.
Finally, as Paul reminded Timothy, one must have a "pure conscience," which can only be gained through diligent obedience to the Word of God and a regular habit of confessing sins when we fall short. This process of walking with Jesus and maintaining a pure conscience enables God's Holy Spirit to transform us into the image of Christ by renewing our minds and purifying our lives (Romans 12:1–2). And this transformation is critical to fully understanding and holding on to the mystery of the faith. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, "The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).
The Mystery of the Deity of Christ
That their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. —Colossians 2:2–3
Scripture: Colossians 2
Two mysteries involve doctrines concerning the Son of God: the mystery of God, and the mystery of godliness. The first is described as "the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ" (Colossians 2:2). This mystery refers to a duality within God's nature—that is, the Godhead is composed of two distinct persons, both Father and Christ. (The complete revelation of this mystery shows us that, in fact, the Godhead is composed of three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Divine Trinity.) This divine unity, that multiple entities compose a single unified God, is beyond human understanding; the mystery can only be revealed by the special revelation of God.
But Christ came to give that revelation to all mankind. Early in His ministry, He declared that "no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him" (Matthew 11:27). He bore testimony to the Pharisees concerning His perfect unity with the Father when He declared, "I and My Father are one" (John 10:30). His disciples heard Him pray to the Father on their behalf, "Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.... And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one" (John 17:11, 22, italics added).
Excerpted from Classic Reflections on Scripture by W. E. Vine Copyright © 2012 by W.E. Vine . Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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