From the third installment of a series on the article "The Apostolic Origins of the Orthodox Church" published in the booklet "The Harvest", June, 2000, written by Archimandrite Damian, the abbot at the
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Great Is The Mystery
The Jewish Background of Early Christian Worship
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness. (1 Timothy 3:16)
In the second century and later, the word "mystery" was used from one end of the Church to the other to refer to any outward and visible manifestation of God's truth and power. Thus the sacramental rites of the Church were called "the Holy Mysteries", and the doctrines of the Faith were known as "the Mysteries of the Faith". During the second century, the Holy Scriptures were translated from Greek into Latin. The above understanding of the word "mystery" was so standard in the Church that the Latin word chosen to translate the Greek mysterion was nothing other than sacramentum, from which the English word "sacrament" is derived.
The word "mystery" appears many a time in the New Testament writings. Does the word "mystery" as used therein mean anything like "sacrament"? Or was that usage a later development? Most modern translators of the Bible clearly seem to think that it was. Some translate the Greek mysterion as "secret truth". Others translate it as "secret", and still others as "a truth". In English, only the King James Version, and its tradition, avoids such interpretations by simply using "mystery" for mysterion.
In modern English, mystery often means "a problem to be solved", or "something no one knows anything about", or "incomprehensible". This much is crystal clear at the outset: Never in the New Testament is "mystery" used in any one of those senses. The only modern usage of the word mystery which comes even close to the New Testament meaning of mysterion is "frightening" or "scary", as in "that old house certainly looks mysterious". A mystery in the New Testament sense always has awesome dimensions, because it manifests supernatural reality far beyond our capacity to comprehend.
In passing, if we were to explain human existence merely in terms of the theory of evolution, why on earth would an animal evolve with the capacity to feel awe and wonder? What possible survival purpose do those emotions serve? Our built-in capacity for awe and wonder are excellent natural "proofs" for the existence of God and the supernatural.
It is true that the word "mystery" (mysterion) originally meant "secret" in Greek. Nevertheless, in every case in the New Testament, a mystery is a revealed secret. Therefore, "secret" or "secret truth" fails to provide a sufficiently accurate translation of the New Testament Greek word mysterion. In a Scriptural mystery, that which is incomprehensible is revealed in comprehensible terms. The revelation in a Christian mystery, then, is not incomprehensible. Since the mystery has been revealed in comprehensible terms, a New Testament mystery becomes precisely comprehensible!
Beginning many centuries prior to the writing of the New Testament, the word mysterion was often used to designate the secret rites and teachings of various pagan cults. So when they spoke of "the Mysteries" in the first century Greek and Roman world, they usually had in mind rites, ceremonies, and secret teachings revealed to initiates. In that way, the word "mystery" had come to have in everyday Greek a meaning similar to "sacrament" or "sacramental significance", with the connotation of "awesome", mentioned above. That is the only instance where modern usage even begins to approach the traditional Christian meaning of "mystery". "Mystery" is used unquestionably in the sense of "sacramental sign" in Revelation 1:20:
The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches."
Elsewhere in the Apocalypse of John the Theologian, the author uses mysterion to refer to "sacramental signs" which are in no wise holy. For instance, in Chapter 17, we read of "the scarlet woman", and of the "the scarlet beast". The angel explains "the mystery" of the woman and of the beast, their significance, that is. But this negative usage of the term only serves to confirm our main point: "Mystery" is used in the New Testament, at least in the Apocalypse, to mean "sacramental sign" or "sacramental significance", whether positive (the stars and the lampstand) or negative (the woman and the beast).
In the light of these facts, let us turn to another New Testament text, a very famous verse containing the word "mystery", Ephesians 5:32. There Saint Paul speaks of marriage as "a great mystery". The most literal translation of the Greek reads, "This mystery is great and I speak as to Christ and as to the assembly;" or another reasonably literal translation is, "This mystery is great, and I refer it to Christ and to the Church." Saint Paul certainly does not mean that marriage is a great secret, a mystery to be solved, or something unknown. Carefully reading the entire passage, Ephesians 5:22-33, Saint Paul is clearly saying that Holy Matrimony is an outward and visible sign of the marriage between Christ and His Church. Marriage is a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and His Bride, the Church. The marriage relationship between Christ and the Church is that He was incarnate in order to seek Her out, He bought Her with His Blood, and died that God the Holy Spirit might breathe life into Her at Pentecost. It is evident, then, that in Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul uses the word "mystery" to mean a "sacramental sign". That passage is, in fact, the only place in the Bible where one of the traditional fundamental Christian Mysteries or sacramental rites is specifically named "a mystery", and "great mystery" at that!
Paul is very fond of the word "mystery". He uses it seventeen times, and each time in an important context. We tend to think that he always uses "mystery" to refer only to some revealed teaching. In several places that is plainly the case. But we have seen that in Ephesians 5, he clearly uses the word to mean a sacramental sign. Does he do this elsewhere? In 1 Corinthians 4:1, Paul speaks of himself and his companions as "stewards of the mysteries of God". Does he mean simply that the Christian leaders are stewards of mysteries only in the sense of Christian teachings? Or does he mean more than that? Does he perhaps mean that they are also stewards of mysteries such as the rites of Holy Baptism and of the Sanctified Gifts? Other evidence from Pauline Literature needs consideration.
The subject of Ephesians 3 is the revealed Mystery of Christ. Is Saint Paul speaking only of the Doctrine of Christ? In the King James Version, Ephesians 3:9 is translated thus, "...to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ," the mystery which is now revealed in Christ. However in the Greek text of the same verse, there are two key words that disappear in this English translation. A more literal rendering would read "to enlighten (photisai) all (as to) what (is) the fellowship (or communion) (koinonia) of the mystery which has been hidden from the ages in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ."
The term photisai, enlightenment, was used in the Church very early as a synonym for Holy Baptism. We have seen it used this way in Hebrews 6:4. (N.B.: the first installment of this series, The Harvest, vol. 19, no. 1, p. 13). In 1 Corinthians 10:16 the word koinonia (fellowship or communion) is undeniably used with reference to the Sanctified Gifts, the Holy Eucharist. There Saint Paul speaks of the "koinonia of the Body and Blood of Christ". He clearly does not mean "fellowship" in any superficial sense, but rather "communion" in the most profound and intimate sense of shared union, i.e., we are one with each other because we are partakers of His nature. As we have seen, koinonia is a bonding union as deep as, and deeper than, the union of man and wife in Holy Matrimony. So we need to take into careful account Saint Paul's choice of words when we interpret Ephesians 3:9. For there the Apostle uses these two words which are employed elsewhere in the New Testament Scriptures as sacramental words, photismos referring to Holy Baptism, and koinonia referring to the Holy Eucharist. It seems highly likely, therefore, that in Ephesians 3:9, Saint Paul uses "mystery" to refer not only to revealed Truth, but also to the believer's intimate participation in that Truth through the Christian sacramental Mysteries of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
It is clear, then, that in the second and third centuries the usage of the word "mystery" to mean both sacramental sign and revealed Turth, far from being a later invention, in fact dated from New Testament times. That is the Scriptural meaning of the word "mystery". Sometimes in the New Testament, the word "mystery" clearly means only sacramental sign, as in Ephesians 5:32 and Revelation 1:20. In other places, such as Romans 16:25, it clearly refers only to revealed Truth. In other places, such as 1 Corinthians 4:1 and Ephesians 3:9, the word mysterion may very well refer to both sacraments and teachings.
Let us note, however, that the word "mystery" in the New Testament always denotes Sacrament in some sense of the word, with the further connotation of awesome. For whether we use "mystery" to mean revelation, or to mean sacramental significance, the meaning in both cases is quite similar. Any Scriptural Mystery, be it a sacramental rite or a doctrine, is the awesome outward and visible sign or manifestation of Truth and Grace from God. A revelation is the sacramental manifestation of Truth: It is a manifestation or showing forth of meaning, of significance, in comprehensible words. A revealed Truth, then, is by nature sacramental, for the incomprehensible and invisible Truth of and about God has been revealed in concrete and comprehensible terms.
We can demonstrate that Christian teaching itself is sacramental with a clear example. The Bible is made up of ink and paper, material goods. A Bible is a physical thing. But the Bible reveals and communicates the Incomprehensible God in human terms, and therefore the Bible is a sacramental means of Grace. To the early Christians, it was patently obvious that the Sacred Scrolls of the Holy Scriptures were divine Mysteries. Reading the Scriptures was a mystical activity. Preaching the Word was the proclamation of the Mystery of the Faith. For that reason, the Reformation controversy over "Which is more important- Word or Sacrament"? would simply make no sense whatsoever to the early Christians. For they clearly saw that the Word of God is revealed sacramentally in the Scriptures, and they were equally aware that the Sacraments in turn reveal the Word of God. For in the early Church, everything from reading the Scriptures and preaching to receiving the Sanctified Gifts was understood to be a participation in "the Mystery of Christ".