What is Christian Mysticism?
NCW 37, 2nd edition 2018
Q. In many Messianic Evangelical writings mention is made of 'mysticism' or 'esoteric', words which I cannot find in the Bible. Isn't 'mysticism' another term for 'occultism', and shouldn't we as Christians shun it altogether?
A. We do have a real problem with language here. First let us take the dictionary meanings (which remember evolve with time). The word 'occult' has two primary meanings:
'Mysticism', by contrast, is generally held to mean a teaching or belief that knowledge of Elohim (God) and of real emet (truth) may be obtained through meditation or spiritual insight, independently of the mind and the senses. A 'mystic' is a person who seeks union with Elohim (God) and, through that, realisation of emet (truth) beyond men's understanding. A 'mystery' is that of which the cause or origin is hidden or impossible to understand. The word 'esoteric' means spiritual knowledge intended only for those who are initiated, for a small circle of talmidim (disciples) or followers (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, OUP, 1974).
- (1) That which is hidden, or secret, which is restricted to those with special knowledge; and
- (2) Supernatural, or magical.
Quite obviously some of these definitions of 'occult', 'mysticism' and 'esoteric' harmonise with Biblical teachings and some do not. Let us take each in turn.
(a) MYSTERY. The word only appears once in the Tanakh (Old Testament/OT) and then only in the Aramaic section of Daniel (2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:9) where the Septuagint (LXX -- Greek translation of the OT) renders the Aramaic rÔz by mysterion (KJV, RV "secret"; RSV "mystery"). In this context the word carries a specialised reference, as in the phrase, "there is an Elohim (God) in heaven who reveals mysteries" (2:28, RSV). Here "mystery" means primarily that which is hidden and still needs to be made known. These mysteries are contained within the eternal plan of Elohim (God) and are made known by Him in advance to His nevi'im (prophets).
In the New Testament (NT) the meaning of the term mysterion in classical Greek is "anything hidden or secret" and was used in the plural particularly (ta mystÚria) to refer to the sacred rites of the Greek mystery religions in which only the initiated shared. The root verb is my˘, which means primarily "to close the lips (or eyes)" (Latin, mutus, from which we get the English 'mute'). But whereas "mystery" may mean - and in modern usage often does mean - a secret for which no answer can be found, this is not at all the connotation of the term mysteri˘n in classical and biblical Greek.
In the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) mysteri˘n signifies a secret which is being, or even has been, revealed, which is also divine in scope, and needs to be made known by Elohim (God) to men through His Ruach (Spirit). In this way the term comes very close to the New Testament term apokalypsis, "revelation". Mysteri˘n is a temporary secret, which once revealed is known and understood -- a secret no longer; apokalypsis is a temporarily hidden eventuality, which simply awaits its revelation to make it actual and apprehended (cp. 1 Cor.1:7, for example, where apokalypsis is used, as so often, in reference to Messiah Himself; and Rom.8:19, where Paul describes the creation as waiting with eager longing for its apokatastasis in the coming age of glory (Millennium), which is to be revealed (apokalypthÚnai) at the apokalypsis of the sons of Elohim (God) themselves.
In the Gospels, the word mysteri˘n appears only once (Mk.4:11 = Mt.13:11 [pl] = Lk.8:10 [KJV "mystery", RSV & NIV "secret"]). Here the term is used to refer to the Kingdom of Elohim (God), the knowledge of which, just because it is Elohim's (God's) kingdom, is reserved for those to whom it is "given". As a result, the unrevealed mystery is, for those "outside" (ex˘), hidden in "parables".
To understand these mysteries requires a special prophetic gift which is given to those set apart in the prophetic office: "Surely the Yahweh-Elohim will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret unto His servants, the nevi'im (prophets)" (Amos 3:7, KJV) whom He has established in the Messianic Community (Church) to do this work in the B'rit Chadashah (New Covenant) (1 Cor.12:28). One of the signs of Elohim's (God's) presence in His Tehilah (Congregations) is the presence of a prophetic ministry, revealing the mysteries of the Kingdom of Elohim (God) deliberately hidden away in the sayings of Yah'shua (Jesus) for the benefit of the elect who are specially gathered out to receive them (Mt.24:31).
Paul uses the word "mystery" frequently (21 times in his epistles) and uses it in four different senses:
- (1) Elohim's (God's) mystery is eternal in its scope, in so far as it relates to the divine plan of salvation. The "mystery" is the good news which forms the content of Elohim's (God's) revelation (Eph.6:19); it is the mystery of Elohim (God) Himself, the focus of which is in Messiah (Col.2:2). As such it is contained within Elohim's (God's) everlasting counsels and hidden in Him (Eph.3:9): "We speak of Elohim's (God's) secret wisdom that has been hidden and that Elohim (God) destined for our glory before time began" (1 Cor.2:7, NIV). It is declared as Elohim's (God's) sophia ("wisdom"), and veiled in human understanding, though awaiting its disclosure, throughout the ages (1 Cor.2:8; Rom.16:25).
- (2) It is historical in its announcement. This mystery is also the "mystery of Messiah", announced historically and definitively by Yahweh in Messiah Yah'shua (Jesus) Himself (Eph.1:9; 3:3ff where this mysteri˘n is said to be revealed to Paul kata apokalypsin; cp. Col.4:3) when the "fullness of the time" had arrived (Gal.4:4). It is precisely this mystery, centred and declared in the person of the Master Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), through whose death Elohim (God) reconciles us to Himself (2 Cor.5:18ff; cp. 1 Cor.2:2), that Paul was commissioned to proclaim (Eph.3:8ff; cp. 1 Cor.4:1). In his letter to the Ephesians Paul considers particularly, against the background of a general and gradual movement towards a Messiah-centred inclusiveness, the dominant and related notions of "hope" and "mystery". Messiah is the hope of men (1:12) and of the universe (1:10), and we possess as a result a hope which is both glorious (1:18) and real -- already the Christian/Messianic is saved (in the forensic sense), and raised with Him (2:4-6). Not only so, but also, and this is the particular character of the mysteri˘n which Paul has been sent to preach, and which in the Epistle to the Ephesians he is chiefly concerned to outline, the new hope, and thus the new life in Messiah, is available for Jew and Gentile alike (3:8; cp. Col.1:27, where the content of the mystery is qualified as "Messiah in you, the hope of glory").
- (3) It is spiritual in its perception. We have seen already from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) that the mystery of the Kingdom is spiritually perceived. Paul retains this idea when he regards the mystery of Messiah (the focus of which is particularly "the Gentiles as fellow-heirs") as revealed to apostles and nevi'im (prophets) by the Ruach (Spirit - en Pneumati, Eph.3:5; cp. also 1 Cor.13:2; 14:2. For a full treatment of the Kingdom, see The Kingdom of Elohim in the Gospel of Mark). In line with this must be understood the term as it is used derivatively by Paul in connection with Christian marriage (Eph.5:32), and the "man of lawlessness (or sin)" (2 Thes.2:7). The divine significance of these "mysteries" is apprehended by a conjunction of revelation and spiritual understanding (cp. also Rev.17:3-7).
- (4) It is eschatological (concerning the "end times") in its outcome. The mystery which has been revealed in time still awaits its divine consummation and fulfilment in eternity. This is the sense in which the term must be understood in Rev.10:7: "the mystery of Elohim (God)" already announced will be corporately fulfilled without delay, "in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh malak (angel)" (RSV). And this is equally true in terms of personal salvation -- the "mystery" of "being changed" when the trumpet sounds, or mortality being finally replaced by immortality -- the resurrection (1 Cor.15:51ff). Such a mystery, even when it is made known, overwhelms us still with the depth of nothing less than the wisdom and the knowledge of Elohim (God) Himself (Col.2:2).
The use of the word "mystery" with reference to the Sacraments (e.g. the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ideas about the Lord's Supper), or the Trinitarian formulation of the Godhead, is entirely post-biblical although there is another sense, not connected to salvation per se, in which various symbols (like the Menorah and the Temple) may be said to have sacred or mysterious knowledge hidden up in them which Paul briefly touches on in Hebrews.
These are the only Biblical accepted meanings of the word MYSTERY and are the only sense in which mysteries are understood, and used by, Messianic Evangelicals. Such would be described by us as NEW COVENANT MYSTICISM. The idea that a mystery cannot be known is not Biblical, even though it is true that it cannot be known by unbelievers or by those who are not the "elect".
The goal of all Christians/Messianics must be, having accepted the forensic salvation of Messiah (justification), to come to full sanctification and a knowledge of Elohim (God) through Messiah (Jn.17:3). From a Hebrew point-of-view, the term 'mysticism' applies whenever a person is convinced that it is possible to establish direct contact, apart from sense perception and intellectual apprehension, with Elohim (God). Since Messiah enables us through emunah (faith) and teshuvah (repentance) to have access to Elohim (God) there is a sense in which all true believers are mystics, since they of necessity must make contact with the divine. Mysticism is therefore part and parcel of the true Christian/Messianic emunah (faith).
(b) OCCULTISM. Though technically we ought to have no quarrel with the word 'occult' in the sense that it is concerned with 'hidden' emet (truth), the reality is that today the word 'occult' conjures up magic, the New Age, demonism, Satanism, mystical non-Christian organisations and philosophies, etc.. For this reason we do not consider ourselves to be 'occultic' -- in fact, the very opposite. Typically, an occultist tries to manipulate supernatural forces by means of rituals, meditations, etc., to serve his needs. This is diametrically opposite to Christianity. Christians/Messianics do not seek to 'manipulate' Elohim (God) in any way but to 'surrender' or 'yield' to His will. Unfortunately churches and messianic synagogues are today becoming increasingly occultised, from the charismatics to the messianic kabbalists.
A word ought to be said about 'revelation' in this connection. The occultist seeks 'revelation' about the unseen world through various techniques; by contrast, the Elohim (God) of Israel gives revelation solely on His own initiative. Though we may petition Yahweh for revelation about some matter through prayer, we do not force the matter with Him. It is up to Him to choose whether He reveals or not. If He chooses not to, then we are supposed to leave it at that. We are not, for example, to engage in long fasts, prayers and meditations for the sake of forcing Him to reveal Himself, as occultists do with demonic powers. Though Christianity/Messianism is certainly a mystical faith, it is not an aesthetic one, but immensely practical. Christians/Messianics live in expectation of receiving the Davar Elohim (Word of God) but do not force it, because they know that "the wind blows wherever it pleases..(and) so it is with everyone born of the Ruach (Spirit)" (Jn.3:8, NIV).
NCAY was not formed because of the will of the founder. He did not seek to found a Church. Rather, Yahweh revealed Himself to the founder to begin this work at a time when he was just about to join another one! Yahweh takes the initiative always, and it is up to man to respond:
Elohim (God) invites (calls) and then, if we are faithful, chooses:
"For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be qadosh (holy, set-apart) and blameless in His sight" (Eph.1:4, NIV).
Elohim (God) invites and chooses, not the other way round.
"For many are invited, but few are chosen" (Mt.22:14, NIV).
"Have I (Yah'shua/Jesus) not chosen you, the Twelve..?" (Jn.6:70, NIV).
"You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in My Name" (Jn.15:16, NIV).
Thus we should ask ourselves: Have I chosen to do what I am doing, or has Yahweh chosen me to do it? Have I truly been called? If our answer is 'no', or 'I don't know', then we are likely on the wrong path. Such a doctrine is completely antithetical to occultism.
Therefore we will categorically state that Messianic Evangelicals are not occultic! Absolutely not!
(c) ESOTERIC. This is not a biblical word, at least not directly, and when Messianic Evangelicals use it, we use it in the sense of 'Christian or Messianic mysticism'. It is, unfortunately, a word used by occultists, though such does not, of course, give them ownership of it anymore than New Agers who use 'Christ' in their own idolatrous and perverse way own the Name of Christ or Messiah. We must be careful not to concede ownership of anything to Satan which has a qadosh (holy, set-apart) meaning too. Look in any occult dictionary of symbols and you will see that one of Satan's traits is profaning that which is qadosh (holy, set-apart) by incorporating Christian/Messianic symbols (and, more recently, words like 'Christ', 'salvation', 'baptism', etc.).
If we take the Oxford definition of 'esoteric', meaning "intended only for those who are initiated, for a small circle of disciples or followers", then we must say that true ChristianityMessianism has an esoteric component. Yah'shua (Jesus) reserved the teaching of deeper mysteries to ever smaller circles of initiates ("one who receives secret knowledge"). The Sermon on the Mount was given only to believers; deeper mysteries were reserved for the 12 Apostles and some "women" (not specifically identified in the NT), and held back the most esoteric secrets for the Patriarchate (Peter, James and John) who, for example, of the Twelve, were alone permitted to witness the Transfiguration of Yah'shua (Jesus). Thus the implication of an esoteric Besorah (Gospel) is that sacred knowledge is revealed by degrees according to the election of each individual, presumably in proportion to his trustworthiness and obedience to the Besorah (Gospel). We do not know, from the pages of the NT, why Yah'shua (Jesus) singled out the 12 apostles as He did, nor why Peter, James and John were favoured in another way. We can make intellectual deductions, of course, but without revelation from the nevi'im (prophets), we cannot finally know.
One very important point Messianic Evangelicals make about esoteric emet (truth) is that it must build upon, or expand, that which has already been revealed. One of the sure marks of a false gospel is where 'secret', 'inner', 'hidden' truths are revealed to a select few which totally contradict what is taught the masses. Many so-called 'occultic Christians' maintain, for example, that reincarnation was a true teaching of Yah'shua (Jesus) but is 'deliberately concealed' from the ordinary believer. This is a sure sign of demonic activity, for this bluff was used to infiltrate Christianity in the mid-19th century to 'prepare' unsuspecting believers (who ought to have known better) for the New Age doctrine which is even now coming to full maturation.
Any 'esoteric' teaching that does not harmonise with the Bible in doctrine and practice, or which is not a natural unfolding or deeper revealing of previously stated divine emet (truth) IS FALSE, particular in regard to the Person of Messiah, His atoning work, physical resurrection, and all the doctrines of the Apostles' Creed. On this condition Messianic Evangelicals firmly nail their esotericism. Though we indeed have what may be called 'secret teachings' or 'mysteries' which are reserved for those who are more mature, they absolutely do NOT contradict the Davar Elohim (Word of God) in the Bible and have no part of any 'occult' or non-Christian esoteric tradition. Messianic Evangelical Esoteric Christianity/Messianism is a fresh revelation from within Biblical Christianity. It has no connection, as has sometimes been falsely maintained, with, for example, Kabbalism. Kabbalism, which is Jewish occultism, rests ultimately on a New Age doctrine about the 'transcendence' and 'impersonality' of God who manifests 'him/itself' in 'emanations'. Jewish occultism (Kabbalism) is simply a form of paganism couched in sophisticated Biblical language.
That the Scriptures have an esoteric component is a long and well established fact of Judaism. Sod, the esoteric interpretation of exoteric Scripture, is used frequently by both Jesus and the NT writers. (For a full treatment of this subject, see The Four Modes of Scriptural Interpretation).
There is no justification scripturally or historically to shun mysticism. True mysticism is, in any case, our search to understand and know Elohim (God) and thus, indirectly, ourselves. Any Christian or Messianic teaching which lacks an esoteric, mystical component is at best incomplete, and at worst distorted, without any real depth.
For an example of an esoteric interpretation of an historical event in the life of Yah'shua (Jesus), see Section 268 of the Olive Branch, Stilling the Storm. See also NCAY's 'Grand Unified Doctrine of Creation' The Cosmic Principle or the several articles on Divine Tavnith or Pattern which reveal the deeper meaning of the annual festivals.
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Last updated on 19 January 2018
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