Previous article in this series: January 15, 2014, p. 186.
You will remember our reference last time to Calvin’s observation that “there was a difference between the Law and Gospel, as if there were a veil between them so that they might not see more closely the things that are now revealed to our eyes.”says the same concerning the disciples’ failure to grasp Jesus’ instruction about His impending death: “But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not.”
A “veil.” A veil that “hides.” Not a difficult concept, surely, but one that can nevertheless be misunderstood.
What it emphatically does not mean is that, throughout the 4,000 years of Old Testament history, God concealed from His people what they otherwise could have, and therefore should have, understood.
Rev. Ophoff puts any question about that to rest when he states simply that the “elements constituting the counsel of redemption” belong to those things that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard. Neither have these things entered into the heart of man (I Cor. 2).” That settles it, I say, because it puts Christ—who He is and what is His work—squarely in the realm of…mystery. Which means simply this, that man could, and can, never come to know it, and to believe it, apart from…revelation.
“For the gospel,” comments Calvin on that same verse in, “towers over the insight of the human mind so that those who are considered intellectually of the first rank may look as high as they like, but they never reach its eminence.”
Indeed, “towers over.”
Do you ever ponder that?
We live two millennia after the fact, so to speak. Two thousand years after Pentecost. And most of us who read these lines have been born and raised in the church and in a Christian home. So familiar have we become with the realities of the new dispensation that they seem almost elementary. We wonder how the disciples could have been so “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” We have lost, then, some of the sense of awe for the mystery of the gospel that towers over human intellect.
Sometimes our young people, when they make confession of faith before the consistory, are asked, “Who is Jesus?” I’ve always been impressed by, and thankful for, the ready, almost matter-of-fact, answer: “the Son of God.” Simply confessed. Without question. By faith.
That’s no little thing. For the wonder of the Incarnation is in fact a towering mystery. I like the way J.I. Packer emphasizes that in his book God’s Words:
That men brought up in Jewish monotheism should ever affirm the deity of a fellow-man might seem incredible. To Judaism and Islam, Christian faith in Jesus as God seems a wild absurdity, a lapse into the paganism that deified Egyptian kings and Roman emperors. Theologically, it looks suicidal, for it involves three mind-blinding mysteries which when first stated sound quite fantastic: (i) that the one God consists of more than one Person; (ii) that one of the divine Persons, without ceasing to be what he was, became human and remains so; (iii) that while this Person was sharing the limitations of human life on earth as a baby in Bethlehem and a boy in Nazareth, then teaching in Palestine, sweating in Gethsemane, dying on Calvary, lying dead in Joseph’s grave, he was also simultaneously keeping the universe together, ‘upholding all things by the word of his power’ (; ). Plainly, these were not beliefs to which Peter and Paul and John and the writer to the Hebrews could have come easily; equally plainly, they were driven to them by Jesus’ own words, and the events of the forty days from his resurrection to his ascension, and visions such as Paul’s on the Damascus road and John’s in Patmos ( ; ), and the witness of Old Testament prophecy, and the light of the Holy Spirit convincing them that what they saw in Jesus’ face was indeed the image and glory of God ( ).
The truth to which they were thus led remains, however, stranger than fiction—much stranger: it is as much an inexplicable mystery to theological minds as it is an inescapable implication of historical events.
Ophoff no doubt had that same thought in mind when he wrote that “the realities of the Gospel…would have dazzled and greatly perplexed the church had they suddenly been presented to it in all the fullness of their splendor, majesty, and power.”
Ophoff was referring of course to the church of the old dispensation, when the gospel was, as Matthew Henry put it, “wrapped up in dark types and distant prophecies.” While it is true that we can now read into those very prophecies all that Christ and the apostles later explained, yet the prophets “taught with so much obscurity, when compared with the shining clarity of the Gospel, that we need not be surprised if those things which are now revealed to us are said to have been hidden” (Calvin, on). Mysteries they were.
Calvin adds that “only when God appeared to His ancient people face to face through His only begotten Son, were the shadows dispersed and the treasures of heavenly wisdom finally opened.”
“It is now made manifest,” writes Matthew Henry in his comments on those same verses in the epistle of Paul to the Romans. “The shadows of the evening are done away, and the Sun of righteousness has risen upon the world. But how is it made manifest by the scriptures of the prophets? Surely, because now the event [the fulfillment] has given the best exposition to the prophecies of the Old Testament. Being accomplished, they are explained” (emphasis added).
Shadows dispersed. Heavenly treasures opened. By the event itself.
An analogy is sometimes made with another mystery—one that remains still to be made manifest. “Behold,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians, “I show you a mystery.” He was speaking of the resurrection, when what was sown in corruption will be raised in incorruption, when what was mortal will put on immortality. Without a doubt, mystery. As is also all that is of heaven. True, the book of Revelation gives ‘detail’ not only of the end times but also of heaven itself. But not such that we have any clear conception of the glory that awaits the people of God. That remains to be…seen. The event will be the best exposition of Revelation. Being accomplished, it will be explained. Not till then. We live in hope.
Just like the saints of old. And, notably, as their hope was ‘wrapped up’ in Christ, so is ours. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (). “For ye are dead,” Paul wrote to the Colossians ( ), “and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.” And, from : “…it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”
Once more, then, Calvin on: “…only when God appeared to His ancient people face to face through His only begotten Son, were the shadows dispersed and the treasures of heaven finally opened.”
“…Jesus Christ…the revelation of the mystery…kept secret since the world began…now is made manifest and…made known to all nations” ().
Or again Calvin, on: “…whereas God had, before the advent of Christ, governed His church under dark coverings, both of words and ceremonies, He has suddenly shone forth in full brightness by the teaching of the Gospel.”
Inescapably clear is this truth, that “the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations” is now made manifest.
But did not Packer suggest that it was not—that the mystery that was, still is…as mind-boggling as ever?
Packer is correct. He does not contradict Calvin. Or Paul.
The solution is, of course, simple. It’s in the very verse referred to above, Colossians 1:26: “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints.”
Not, you see, to ‘theological minds,’ but to us.
Which confirms what we said at the beginning of this article, that “mystery” is something that can be known only by revelation.
Think again of those verses in I Corinthians 2: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things that God hath prepared for them that love him.” And then this, in the very next verse: “But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit.”
Can one ponder that, and not end in doxology? Rev. Schipper could not, in an SB article on those verses from I Corinthians:
Blessed eyes, which, though they cannot yet perceive all the beauty of the inheritance of God laid away for them, nevertheless by faith fix their beholding of Jesus who has promised!
Blessed ears, which, though they are not able as yet to catch the strains of heavenly music, are nevertheless able to discern the Word of God, the Holy Gospel of good news, that speaks to them in sweetest tones concerning the glory that is theirs in the day of Christ!
Blessed hearts, which are no longer dead in natural depravity, but made alive by the regenerating Spirit of grace, and so enabled to understand concerning the things which have abiding value—the things God has prepared for them, and unto which they are graciously preserved….
Blessed Spirit of Christ!…
Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift!
… to be continued.