This Mystery

ancient mirror
When we look at ourselves in the bathroom mirror, we usually see a pretty clear and accurate image. Maybe we don’t always like it all that much. But it’s pretty clear.
However, back in ancient times, people didn’t have the mirrors we have, with plate glass and a silver coating. They used highly polished metal – like bronze – but that didn’t really reflect light all that well.  That sort of bronze mirror can only give a dim and faint reflection.
It was just that type of mirror that the apostle Paul was thinking of when he wrote this to the Corinthian church:

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV) (The KJV has the more traditional “For now we see through a glass, darkly.”)

Paul was writing about seeing Jesus. Seeing him, but not seeing him with full clarity. We can make Him out, but not in total focus.
Everyone who is a Christian knows Jesus now, but not fully. We can see Jesus, but we see Jesus as if we were seeing a dim reflection in one of those old mirrors.
But one day we will see Jesus face to face.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Jesus had already been revealed to the world in His birth, life, death and resurrection. Yet what Paul knew was still only a tiny glimpse of the glory of Jesus Christ that we as believers will one day see.
As John the apostle wrote,

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2 ESV)

Even though we can’t see Jesus fully yet, on this side of the cross we do know things that were hidden from God’s people for centuries. We know things that were gradually being revealed, revealed to God’s people like the slow opening of a curtain.
From the very beginning of humankind, there has been a patient and steady revelation of God’s plan to gather a redeemed people to Himself. From the very moment of the fall of mankind, there also has been the promise of a redeemer. And in the Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi, there is a steady unfolding of that story.
One book even describes the story of what’s going on in the Old Testament with the title The Unfolding Mystery. (Edmund P. Clowney)
How do we know that this unfolding mystery points to Jesus?
Well, Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) used the opportunity of that seven-mile walk with two despondent and distraught disciples to explain all the things in the Scriptures that spoke of him.
And in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells skeptical Jews that Moses wrote about Him.
IN FACT, Jesus is all over the Old Testament.
You may have heard the statement that, “the Old Testament is Jesus concealed and the New Testament is Jesus revealed.” But I beg to differ. Because Jesus is revealed all over the Old Testament.
From the Old Testament, we get the perspective on what it is Jesus came to do. We see mankind mired in sin and rebellion and constantly in need of grace.
We see pictures of Jesus in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by His coming in the NT. We see an unfolding mystery in what theologians call “redemptive history” – God’s work over the centuries to save a people for Himself. That unfolding mystery is finally explained when Jesus comes.
People could not see every detail that has been revealed to us about Jesus now that He has come. But make no mistake: Jesus is all over the Old Testament.
We see in Genesis 3 that an offspring of Eve will crush the serpent’s head. We see in Genesis 22 that through Abraham’s offspring, all the nations will be blessed. We see in 2 Samuel 7 that an offspring of David will be on his throne forever. In Isaiah 11, we read that a shoot shall come forth from the root of the stump of Jesse – that’s Jesse, the father of David.
In the first Passover, we see a picture of Jesus, our Passover lamb. In the Exodus, we see a picture of our Exodus from the dominion of sin and the kingdom of this world. In the words of the prophets, we see Jesus as suffering servant, Jesus as the light of the nations, and Jesus as faithful husband.
Even in the tabernacle in the wilderness and in the temple in Jerusalem and in its rituals and sacrifices, we see pictures that prefigure Jesus in His person and work. The tabernacle itself shows us that God dwells with us – and in John’s gospel we see that the Word – Jesus – became flesh and tabernacled among us.
These pictures, types and shadows all show us something of Christ. Later in Colossians, Paul explains to us that these former things “are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:17 ESV)
In the Old Testament, the mystery unfolds. The curtain is opened to reveal the Savior. Jesus is the substance, the center, the mystery revealed.
And that’s the way to understand Scripture. To understand Scripture as the unfolding story of who Jesus is.
Who Jesus is. That is the central story of Scripture and the most important message of the Bible.
Even so, Paul highlights in our passage today one part of the unfolding mystery which was not revealed in the Old Testament. Part of that unfolding mystery is finally revealed to us. “This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
So let’s dig in and see what God has to tell us this morning in His word. Let’s rejoice together in His unfolding mystery as it has been revealed.
Lacking in Christ’s afflictions
Let’s begin in verse 24 of Colossians 1.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions …”

Wait. What? “Filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”?
Now that’s a difficult verse. That’s enough to make you slam on the brakes and scratch your head and ask … “What exactly does Paul mean about Christ’s afflictions lacking something?”
And it’s a verse that has been debated, just because … well … Christ did say, “It is finished,” didn’t He?
If Christ’s work is finished – and it absolutely is – then what does Paul mean that His afflictions are lacking? Wouldn’t that contradict the rest of Scripture? For example, wouldn’t that contradict the letter to the Hebrews which tells us that Jesus was our sacrifice once for all time? What more could Jesus face?
What Paul is talking about here is the afflictions of Christ’s body here and now, Jesus’ body on earth between His first coming and His return. Paul is talking about the afflictions of those who are His people, His body, the church. The afflictions of Christ’s church are the afflictions of Jesus.
Some of that affliction of the church even came at the hands of Paul. Remember that Paul, who had been called Saul, was a persecutor of the church. Acts chapter 9 reminds us that Saul, who had approved of the stoning of Stephen, was on his way to Damascus to round up and even murder members of the early church. Then a light shone from heaven and the Lord Jesus himself called out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
When the body of Christ, the church, is persecuted, Jesus is persecuted.
The afflictions of Christ that are being filled up are to His body, the church. These are part of the tribulation, the persecution, the birth pangs, that the church has to endure until the second coming of Jesus. And like Paul, we’re to find joy in facing these afflictions. Scripture tells us we are destined for this. We as Christ’s people are to share in His sufferings.
Or, as a friend said to me the other day, “If you’re not in the battle, the enemy isn’t going to be shooting at you.”
We, the body of Christ, are filling up His afflictions until His glorious return. And Paul rejoiced in his own affliction, because he knew he was doing it in service to the body of Christ and in harmony with His Master.
So: as members of Christ’s own body, we participate in the sufferings of Christ Himself.
Again, verse 24, and we’ll continue.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, [25] of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,” (Colossians 1:24-25 ESV)

Paul was definitely in the battle. And he definitely had been afflicted.
Paul, at this point, is writing some 25 years or so after that encounter with the glorified Jesus on the Damascus Road. In that time, as he spread the Gospel, Paul had been stoned and left for dead, beaten and jailed, hauled into court, shipwrecked, taken ill more than once … and Paul also was constantly tormented by a thorn in his side, an evil spirit that manifested itself in a way that many people have speculated about.
There’s no doubt, no question whatsoever, that Paul suffered greatly for the spread of the Gospel.
But on the very same road Paul was heading along on his way to torment the church, Paul was selected by Jesus himself to “make the word of God fully known,” that is, to preach the Gospel.
And, whether Paul knew it or not, and I think he probably did … Paul had been selected by Jesus to write 13 out of 27 books of the New Testament (not counting Hebrews, the authorship of which has been debated over the years – early tradition had it written by Paul.) Paul wrote 13 out of 27 books of the NT and almost 32 percent of the words.
Paul’s contribution to the church is arguably the greatest of any apostle. And his suffering – though he rejoiced in it – was constant and huge and unrelenting.
Paul suffered for his Savior, helping to fill the afflictions of Christ through the spread of his Gospel.
And perhaps that should give us some pause and some perspective when we think about what persecution is and what afflictions are. Do we consider ourselves persecuted when Christians in the U.S. are mocked for their faith, or when courts rule against Christianity, though we ourselves suffer no real physical discomfort or harm or even inconvenience?
Are we in the battle? Is the enemy taking aim at us?
If we aren’t suffering affliction, perhaps we should consider whether we are in the battle. Are we on the front lines or are we in the rear taking cover?
It’s something to think about, especially when our brothers and sisters around the world are persecuted and suffer and die for their faith, or when brothers and sisters sent out from our midst face danger for the sake of Jesus.
And it’s something to think about when churches in our nation become superficial places of entertainment and amusement and not faithful proclaimers of the gospel. Or when churches preach a message of prosperity instead of the gospel.
You can be sure that those churches and those preachers are not the target of the enemy.
Professor Michael Horton points to Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia a half century ago. Barnhouse told his radio audience that if Satan were to take over a city, “that all of the bars and pool halls would be closed, pornography banished, pristine streets and sidewalks would be occupied by tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The kids would answer ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, ma’am,’ and the churches would be full on Sunday … where Christ is not preached.”
And Horton comments, “Not to be alarmist, but it looks a lot like Satan is in charge right now.”
Afflictions? Let’s expect them, rejoice in them, and support each other in them while we fight the enemy and proclaim Christ, making the word of God full known.
The mystery hidden for the ages
So then, what was the “word of God” that Paul was “to make fully known”? Verse 26, “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” (Colossians 1:26 ESV)
What was that mystery? And what exactly is meant by “mystery”?
That word itself, mystery, comes directly from the Greek word, mysterion. That word, mysterion, shows up 28 times in the NT.
Paul is not using mystery in the way we commonly do. It’s not a mystery in the sense of a TV movie or crime drama like “Law and Order,” or “CSI,” or even (at the risk of dating myself like I always seem to do) Lt. Columbo. We don’t have to hunt for clues and figure out the mystery. God is telling us through Paul what the mystery is.
And Paul also is not talking about some sort of secret knowledge or mystic rituals. In fact, part of the reason he is writing to the Colossians is to caution against such ideas. He didn’t want them to fall into gnosticism or other secret religions and practices.
In the NT, in most cases, in those 28 uses of mystery, the word mystery is there to show two things: first, that Old Testament prophecy is beginning its fulfillment, and second, that this fulfillment is unexpected from the former Old Testament point of view. (Carson and Beale)
So two things: Prophecy is beginning its fulfillment and the way it is fulfilled is unexpected. That’s the mystery of what God is revealing.
Don’t we see that the fulfillment of prophecy has taken what even the disciples thought was an unexpected turn? For example, we seen when Jesus has returned from the dead and is about to ascend into heaven that His disciples still ask him,

“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6 ESV)

The expectation was of a restored physical temple – not the temple of His body that he raised up in three days.
The expectation was of an earthly kingdom – not of a kingdom that is not of this world.
And the expectation was of the defeat and expulsion of the Gentiles from Israel – not a future Kingdom that included every tribe and nation and tongue (despite Isaiah’s message that the messiah would be a light to the nations.)
The fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament definitely take a direction not expected by Israel.
The land promises end up being not for a patch of ground in the middle east, but for a kingdom that fills the whole earth.
The day of the Lord turns out not to be a single day or event, but this time now between the first coming of Jesus and His return. It’s the time in which the age to come overlaps the present evil age, a time during which the afflicted and tormented church eagerly awaits the return of Jesus, when He sends “out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matthew 24:31 ESV)
And even more unexpected and even more incredible, is this mystery we hear about in verse 27.
How great the riches
This mystery we hear about, that is made known to the saints and made great among the Gentiles – that is to say among all of the nations, not just Israel – this mystery, Paul writes, shows the riches of God’s glory.
The riches of God’s glory.
And how infinitely rich those glories are. These are the riches of glory that Paul said were worth suffering for. As he wrote in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Revealed to us is the glory of Christ Himself, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
And the mystery is this: not only is Christ revealed to us; Christ is in us.
This mystery
“This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Could the people of the Old Testament ever have conceived of this?
Probably not. But, certainly, there are hints of this.
Joel chapter 2 was fulfilled at Pentecost, according to Peter, when God’s Spirit was poured out on the flesh of all of His people.
Ezekiel promised that God would put His Spirit within us.
Jeremiah 31:33 promises a time when the law will be written on the hearts of God’s people, and Paul confirms that this has happened when he tells us in 2 Corinthians 3 that the Spirit in our hearts replaces the law written on stone tablets.
But the idea that the Son of God through His Holy Spirit would come to dwell within His body, the church? That’s unexpected. That’s prophecy fulfilled in an unexpected way.
This mystery is a promise of fellowship with our Creator, bringing us into a relationship with the Living God like Jesus has with the Father. John describes this fabulous mystery when in Chapter 14 he recalls Jesus promising the Holy Spirit:

 [15] “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. [16] And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, [17] even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
[18] “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. [19] Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. [20] In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. [21] Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:15-21 ESV)

You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
That’s an experience that the saints of the Old Testament could not fathom.
Before Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all of God’s people and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all of God’s people was not a universal condition. The Old Testament describes situations in which people would receive the Holy Spirit. They would receive the Spirit for a special work or for a special office: Kings, prophets, even the craftsmen who built the tabernacle received the Holy Spirit for a time.
But the Holy Spirit also could be taken away.
King Saul received the Holy Spirit, but he had the Spirit taken from him: “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.” (1 Sam 16:14) And David feared the same might happen to him. He would cry out in Psalm 51, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:11 ESV)
For New Covenant believers, the Holy Spirit is given as a down payment, given as a promise.
Paul writes,

“[21] And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, [22] and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22 ESV)

The Spirit of Christ in us is our hope of glory. We are sealed, guaranteed, by the presence of the Spirit in us. Christ in us is our assurance.
The Holy Spirit will not be taken from you if you are a Christian. And that’s why Paul could write, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6).
The Holy Spirit in us is indeed unexpected from an Old Testament point of view.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, Israel expected the glory of the Lord to return to an idealized, spectacular temple. But I agree with those who explain that what Ezekiel describes in chapters 40-48 is an idealized picture of what the temple is in this New Covenant, but Ezekiel describes it in language about the temple that Israel could understand.
What Israel could not see is the fulfillment of God’s promise of a spectacular new temple being fulfilled by Christ’s body, the church. This indeed is an unexpected fulfillment, a mystery. Christ is in us through His Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is our hope of glory and He is our guide now. 2 Corinthians 3 tells us that we are being transformed by the Holy Spirit:

“[17] Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [18] And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 ESV)

It is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ in us, who is sanctifying us.
It is the Holy Spirit that provides His fruit in us. Galatians 5:22 reminds us that,

“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, [23] gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [24] And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:22-24 ESV)

The unexpected fulfillment of prophecy, this mystery, is Christ in us, the hope of glory.
None of this possible without the Gospel
The gift of the Holy Spirit to dwell in us needed the departure of Christ to make it happen. Jesus told his disciples that He had to return to the Father for the comforter to come.
Jesus had said he must suffer and die. Even though the prophet Isaiah had told them the Messiah must suffer, the disciples still did not expect it. Remember our mention of the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24 earlier?

[13] That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, [14] and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. [15] While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. [16] But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. [17] And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. [18] Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” [19] And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, [20] and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. [21] But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. [22] Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, [23] and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. [24] Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” [25] And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! [26] Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” [27] And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:13-27 ESV)

It is only because the Christ did suffer that we could be saved. The Messiah, who did not usher in an earthly kingdom in Israel instead launched a Kingdom that is not of this world. Jesus lived a perfect life to fulfill the requirements of the law; Jesus died a death on our behalf for our sin; Jesus rose from the dead so that those who believe would rise to everlasting life.
This mystery – this unexpected fulfillment – is Christ in you, the hope of glory. The hope of glory is the promise that we will see Jesus as He is and dwell in the presence of Jesus for eternity.
Him we proclaim
With Paul’s knowledge about this glorious mystery, how could Paul not desire to make known God’s riches? Verse 28:

“[28] Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

Note what Paul says here and more importantly, what he does not say.
Paul doesn’t say, “We go places and pass out some tracts and hold up some signs and tell people the Gospel.” That’s not what Paul says. Paul instead is speaking of discipleship.
Paul says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom …” Paul is busy making disciples. Teaching people. Admonishing people. Making sure they are mature in Christ.
That was something that clearly frustrated Paul when it didn’t happen. He wrote to the Corinthians,

“[2] I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, [3] for you are still of the flesh.” (1 Corinthians 3:2-3 ESV)

This is why we at this church desire not to just make converts or deliver an evangelistic message. It’s why we desire to follow the Great Commission and see disciples made in all nations. And made disciples here at ECF. That’s why teaching is central, that’s why the Bible is central, and that’s why Christ is central.
Toiling with God’s energy
With Christ in us, with his Spirit in us, we have power. Paul’s last words in this chapter remind us of his toil to make disciples and remind us of the power with which he toiled: “[29] For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Colossians 1:28-29 ESV)
Like the apostles, we too are clothed with power from on high.
Do we walk as those with power? Do we walk in the Spirit and not the flesh?
I think we would be amazed with what we could accomplish if we lived with the understanding that Christ lives in us. We would be amazed with what work we could do for the Kingdom if we remember what Jesus said that “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Fill the afflictions in the power of Christ
Accomplishing things for Christ almost certainly means we will face afflictions and participate in filling them up. Those afflictions could come in just about any form.
But, like Paul, if we are working for the Kingdom, we should expect affliction and rejoice in it. Jesus said,

“[20] Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20 ESV)

But as those saved by the grace of God, what do we have to fear?

“[31] What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 ESV)

You, beloved … you, believers, are living proof of an unexpected fulfillment of prophecy:

“this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

About Our Author: Ed Tre­fzger, serves as pastor/elder at Evangelical Church of Fairport, near Rochester, N.Y. Ed is the publisher of “This Mystery” blog.

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