In our last post in the ROOTED series we saw how Paul opens with a huge vision of Jesus, set in a colossal cosmic drama – a magnificent Story in which we play a part. We saw how Paul presented Jesus, we considered what he was up to, and we thought about the implications for us.
The next idea we’re going to encounter is Christ the Mystery (Colossians 1:24-2:5). This is a dense topic, and honestly I can feel a little paralyzed as I think about trying to unpack it. It’s possible to start developing the ideas here and find that when you’ve finished you’ve just restated the New Testament. The mystery of Christ, and what it means to steward, declare and receive it, are the hub of New Testament theology. So, to give it barely adequate (but not exhaustive) treatment, we’ll break it up into three sections, giving a post to each:
As we explore this, it will be useful to change the order of our questions, beginning this time by considering what Paul is doing, and then considering Christ and our practice in each of those three streams.
Ready? Here we go
What is Paul doing?
It looks to me like Paul is making some introductions. Having introduced Jesus, he’s moving on now to introducing himself, the gospel and the church. And he’s doing it all relative to “the mystery of Christ”. Let’s start with how Paul presents himself to these saints who have never met him.
Paul is an apostle. One of the things apostles do is they steward the mystery. To get a handle on that let’s examine the word “mystery”. In the New Testament, this word refers to something that was always true before, but totally unknown. We can even say that it was unknowable, but for revelation. And that’s what makes it a mystery – it has been revealed. Mysteries (in the New Testament use of the word) are very true things (not new things) that we could not have known, but God has revealed them and now they are known, and as knowable as they can be by us human folk.
Ok. So, that’s what a mystery is. What does it mean that apostles steward the mystery? Stewards ran houses, businesses, shipping agencies, estates. Someone else’s houses, businesses, shipping agencies, estates. And they ran them for the well being of that owner’s beneficiaries. Stewards made what masters wanted to happen, happen. Think slave-with-authority, and slave-with-responsibility.
Now, when we say “steward the mystery”, it’s easy to begin to envision something mysterious, mystical, magical. “You know, I steward the mystery. I’m kind of a big deal in mysterious circles.” But that kind of image is misleading. Think less illuminati-magician, and more delivery boy. If an employee of Papa’s Pizza makes a pizza for Papa’s daughter, delivers it, and of course refuses payment because it’s for his boss’s family, that would be stewarding the pizza.
To use another image, if we were to think of each of the Ephesians 4 persons (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) in light of the mystery of Christ, we might think about it this way:
Evangelists want it announced.
Prophets want it seen and heard.
Teachers want it understood.
Shepherds want it experienced communally.
And apostles want all this to happen (perhaps with less concern over any one of the parts of the process than each of the others might feel), with the mystery remaining whole and in one piece; and they want it to happen in ways that make it likely to happen again, and again, and again.
Paul is introducing himself this way because he is very serious about these Colossian saints coming into the full experience and expression of Christ. He wants them to know what he’s doing – namely, unpacking Christ and all the many ways to engage Him, to be engaged by Him, and to reveal him (to perpetuate the mystery) to the world. Paul is letting them know who he is and what he is, Whom he works for and what his aim is, so they know how to dance with him. It’s an act of love. Answering, “Who is this guy and why did he write us?” before he gets to the nuts and bolts that he doesn’t want them missing while they’re wondering about him.
You can hear his concern for the recipients (inhabitants, participants, hosts) of this mystery all over the passage.
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.
In my flesh I fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church.
The stewardship FROM God given TO me FOR you.
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face.
Paul understands himself as a steward of the mystery, entrusted with the message of the mystery and tasked with helping the recipients of the mystery catch it well.
Mission agencies, ministries, churches, parachurch organizations, etc., can be classified in one of two ways: those who focus on making individual disciples, and those who focus on the church. And they tend to argue that one must come before the other, or to insist that one of these is our job and the other is God’s.
“We make disciples.”
“Well, we plant churches.”
“We make disciples that spontaneously become churches.”
“We develop faith communities where disciples can grow organically.”
In reality, most seem to oscillate every 5-20 years or so, swinging back and forth between these two positions, or positions very near these. The literature certainly does.
In the New Testament, while different workers at different times might have different endeavors they were focusing on, apostles seemed to be somewhat ambidextrous. You see it here in this passage. Throughout the passage Paul presents himself as a steward, tasked by God for them. But his burden or sense of responsibility is two-fisted. In one hand (1:28-29), he and his team warn and teach everyONE, that they might present everyONE complete in Christ. Proclamation, warning, teaching and formation executed with individuals in mind. This sounds like the “make disciples” camp.
But in the other fist, gripped just as tightly, is the communal reality (2:1-5). He wants their hearts knit together in love so they can catch the mystery he’s proclaiming, the continual revealing of the self-giving God in Christ. This sounds like the church/community planting camp.
In reality, I’m thinking it’s both. Americans like things to go in straight lines. We joke about what comes first, the chicken or the egg. Most of the rest of the world couldn’t care less what came first. They just want breakfast. We think the universe is a machine, and if we could just find the one key, everything else would rumble to life. The cause/effect dichotomy that we’re so fond of – most of the world is less fascinated with that. Do disciples become churches or do churches nurture disciples?
Yes. In a non-linear way, yes.
And apostles steward the mystery so both can happen. Getting clarity on that might be useful right now. Paul thinks it’s important that they know what kind of person he is, and what he’s after with them. How he intends to help them, based on how God has made him and what God has called him to do.
He has to know who he is. And they have to know who he is, so they can take his help. His ability to help them is dependent on that clarity on both sides.
I propose that one essential piece of our generation’s task in the cosmic drama of healing the world is recovering clarity on these Ephesians 4 personalities. God has never stopped calling and tasking these folks. He didn’t turn off those parts of the Body for 1,700 years. They’ve always been doing what they do. Or they’ve been shut down for doing what they do.
But getting clear on who these folks are, helping them discover what they are supposed to bring the rest of us, helping them learn to die for the church (and not helping them leverage the church as a self-actualization ramp), and helping them learn how to come at the church so she can accept their help (like Paul does so masterfully in this passage) seems to me like a strategy that could change the game.
For further exploration
Posts on this blog in The Katartic Fist category will be directed at this conversation.
Alan Hirsch has done some illuminating work on this question. Especially “The Perpetual Revolution”. He has a very google-able internet presence. His work seems to rely on sociological metaphor. But it’s clear. And it’s useful in tandem with…
Watchman Nee’s “The Normal Christian Church Life” (not to be confused with “The Normal Christian Life”). The time and attention given to the Scriptures in this work are laudable. In my opinion, still the best book on the topic.
Wolfgang Simpson’s “Houses That Change The World” is also good.