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The numinous. the ineffable. The incomprehensible. These terms speak to the mysterious character of facets of our faith inasmuch as they affirm that the God in whom all our belief finds its center is Himself mysterious. Christians have spoken through the centuries of the “mystery of faith” and even of the triune God as Himself mysterious.
Theologians and philosophers point out that modern thought drawn from the Enlightenment frequently reduces God to just another figure in the dramas of worldly history. Think of your insurance policy, which does name God (under that baffling subsection title “acts of God”). But we don’t help ourselves if we think this is a uniquely modern problem. The Old Testament names this proclivity to make God merely another figure in history or as “just like us, only stronger” as idolatry and treats it as an abiding temptation. Whether in Egypt or Canaan, the Israelites found themselves surrounded by peoples who thought gods could be found aplenty. In Ephesus and Rome, Paul and the other Apostles found a church that had to confess the gospel amid such pluralism and polytheism as well. The gods of the Greeks were grand in many ways but remarkably familiar. Zeus had power, of course, but was largely a worked-up frat boy desiring power and sex and the things of this world. Pharaoh of Egypt was the god-man, and yet he too bore the normal human aspirations for high reputation and acclaim, for ever more deeply lined pockets and military security.
Moses had to learn that God is in a class by Himself. At the burning bush, God was the “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14), not capable of identification by means of anything or anyone less. Upon Sinai, Moses would later learn that the glory of God cannot be seen; only His backside might be glanced around the cleft of a rock (chap. 34), and even then he is reminded of that elusive name “The Lord, the Lord [that is, I am, I am]” (v. 6). Later, Paul would ascend into the third heaven and be incapable of speech befitting those divine heights (2 Cor. 12:2). In both the Old and New Testaments, leaders marked their highest moments with the sight of divine light that is quite literally stunning.
What Makes It Mysterious?
Mystery may well challenge us. Indeed, we could say it must challenge us, as it reminds us that we are but dust. But, contrary to what may seem a commonsense assumption, mystery need not stymie our hope and shower us in despair. Nihilism is not the fruit of Moses’ meeting on Sinai, and cynicism is not the lingering effect of the disciples’ beholding the transfiguring glory. Rather, mystery dispels fear and impels boldness.
How? How is it that a word that necessarily limits and qualifies our knowledge of God actually provokes confidence, peace, and self-sacrificial love? Mystery is bound up with the gospel; thus, we can say that the mysteriousness of this news is elemental to its goodness. The gospel tells us that we are not merely needful of moral retooling or political renewal. We are dead and need life, which can only come from One who is Himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6–7). If our life must come from One who is different from us—the Creator and not a mere creature—then our language for and knowledge of this One must be mysterious. To save us, He must be different; to be different, He must be strangely glorious.
What Mystery Isn’t
Here we are propelled to define mystery a bit more. Mystery is not darkness, but light; it’s not an excuse for intellectual laziness, but a prompt to love and sing and wonder.
To say that knowing God involves mystery is not a statement that knowing Him is hard or difficult. Mystery attests the character of what is said and caught, not what is not told or not grasped. We tend to think that a mystery abides when things are not yet shown or seen. Well, the reader or viewer has yet to be shown enough data to say, and so we refer to the drama as a mystery. That’s fair and legitimate, but that’s not the only way to use the word. When we speak of God as mysterious, we come across an episode where encounter and awareness lead to (not from) the sense of its incomparability and uniqueness, its sheer singularity and, thus, its profound mystery. God leads us into this confession that He is incomprehensible; it is the voice of faith that attests the ineffable character of the God of the gospel. The great hymn “Immortal, Invisible” gets at this remarkable claim by singing, “In light inaccessible, now hid from our eyes.” The limits of our knowledge come from the excess, not the lack, of God’s illumination.
Biblical mystery, then, is not the absence of knowledge, nor is it the irrationality of our confession. Mystery does not mean nonsense or no awareness. Mystery is the wise perception of precisely who God is—the One who is above and beyond and more and still yet, precisely as He is revealed in the transfigured form of Jesus Christ, in the third heavens with Paul, and atop those mountains with Moses. Mystery in this case—and only in this case—is an intellectual achievement of sorts inasmuch as it rightly befits the fact that God transcends us and our knowledge.
The Grace of Being Taught This Mystery
The gospel does not merely answer our questions. God is not merely gracious enough to provide closure to our lingering curiosities or our self-identified problems. God goes one step further in showing us the true character of our need and the real shape of our happiness. Revelation from God involves not merely the giving of answers but the relocation and redefinition of our very questions.
Mystery, then, is a gift and a revelation. It is a gift because we tend toward such mundane views of things. John Calvin told us that our hearts were “a perpetual factory of idols,” and he meant that we easily imagine God to take the form of the familiar. We identify God with power—maximal power—in its normally experienced creaturely form (which is seemingly dog-eat-dog). But we have to be taught that our understanding of power must be reformed when applied to God so that it is “strength . . . made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). The mysterious character of God is His uniqueness over against the posers, the powers, and the principalities. And God’s people need to be reminded of this as well, for we can so easily presume the idols of this evil age and the ideals of our sin-sick hearts. We, too, need not merely to resist conformity to the patterns of the world but also to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
For these reasons, the great Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck would say that “mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics.” Mystery, for him, provided vitality to theological knowledge. It was not a point to give up in despair or cynicism. It was not an excuse to cease reading Scripture and prayerfully pursuing wisdom. Mystery—the divine mysteries of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the God revealed therein—actually brought strength and nourishment for each and every part of the theologian. As we seek the mind of Christ with regard to our beliefs and our desires, our goals and our comforts, our questions and our answers, we find that there is life and strength there when we turn again and again to that wonderful story that is so strangely glorious in its display of grace and mercy. We find living hope there in the blessedness of the God who raised Jesus from the dead (1 Peter 1:3). This mystery provides, again and again, the best and most satisfying of ends.
The Ideal Readers of This Mystery
Mystery writers sometimes speak to the ethics of a good detective yarn. A good mystery cannot be manipulative, for instance, but must bring its reader to a conclusion that, while surprising, still sits coherently with the data and drama of the previous acts. We may and should reflect upon the ethics of biblical mystery: How do we read it well in a way that befits its glory and goodness?
First, we remember that we are but pilgrims like Moses and Paul or the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. We are being brought on a journey by God’s grace that leads unto glory. But we have not yet arrived at our final destination. While we have been told the final riddle ahead of time, we still long to see the risen Jesus burst forth before us in all His beauty and glory. Thus, the reader of this mystery and the theologian of the gospel walk humbly before the living and true God. God is to be taken with utmost seriousness; our own judgments are not taken quite so seriously.
Second, this humility does not lead to cowardice but actually instills confidence and boldness. Our humility is in our perception of things, not in the reality or the goodness of our God. Knowing His transcendent glory does show us how far we fall short, yet it much more deeply assures us that He is capable of revealing Himself, or raising us anew, of delivering us complete unto our heavenly Father. So, ultimately seeing and savoring the mysterious glory that is God’s alone gives us deep and abiding hope even in the face of personal failures or earthly disappointments. Because God is different from us, we can have hope even in the face of our stumbling.