Mustērion


11. THE MYSTERY OF THE GOSPEL.

(a) brief references


Of Paul’s 21 uses of ‘musterion’ we have now looked at the 6 which refer to a specific mystery, and the 3 which use ‘mysteries’ in the plural; the remaining 12 all refer to the mystery of the gospel. Of these, 6 are brief references which, collectively and cumulatively, define the essence of the gospel, while the remaining 6 occur in longer passages which describe the development of the mystery of the gospel into revelation. We will look first at the 6 brief references.

(i) Ephesians 6.19: the mystery of the gospel

The first and simplest of these comes in Ephesians 6.19, where Paul urges his readers to “persist in prayer for all the saints, and for me too, that, as I open my mouth, word (‘logos’) may be given to me boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel”. There may be a mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, but Christianity is quite different, as we saw at the beginning of this study, from the ‘mystery religions’ in Greek culture, whose initiates are sworn to secrecy so that the mystery may remain the preserve of the elite. Paul’s teaching here reflects his own lifelong (well, new-life-long) practice: those to whom the mystery of the gospel is revealed should not only themselves “boldly make it known” to those around them still in the dark, but also support with their prayers those for whom this is a special calling, the evangelists whom God gives to his church (Eph. 4.11). There should be a further element to our praying, too. Jesus himself told his disciples to “pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest-field”, for “the harvest is great, but the labourers few” (Matt. 9.37-8).

(ii) Colossians 4.3: the mystery of Christ

Our next reference is the closely parallel passage in Colossians. Once again, Paul tells his readers to “persist in prayer --- praying at the same time for us also that God may open for us a door for the word (‘logos’), to speak the mystery of Christ” (4.3). The “mystery of the gospel” is, essentially, “the mystery of Christ”: without Christ there is no gospel, so to preach the gospel is to preach Christ. We encountered a very similar truth in the very first study of Paul’s use of ‘mysterion’ in 1 Timothy 3.16: “As all agree, ‘great is the mystery of godliness’”. We saw there that ‘the mystery of godliness’ is Christ himself, in all the sinless perfection of his life on earth revealing to us the holiness of his Father in heaven. But if this was one part of Jesus’ mission to mankind, to live a perfect life, the other part was to die a sacrificial death on our behalf. The “mystery of the gospel” combines both glorious truths. If the gospel message were just the holiness of God, it would not be very good news for sinful man, for it would just make it apparent that we could have no fellowship with such a God, but were doomed to die in our sins. Peter’s awestruck reaction to the miraculous catch of fish in Luke 5.8 would write the script for all of us: “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord”. The gospel is good news, because it offers us justification as a free gift of God’s grace; this justification is a two-way transaction: all our sins are laid on Jesus on the cross, and all Jesus’ godliness is, amazingly, accredited to us.

(iii) Colossians 2. 2-3: the mystery of God: Christ

Paul has, in fact, already made this point - that the ‘mystery of the gospel’ is Christ himself - earlier in this letter, in chapter 2 verse 2. But whereas in 4.3 he is asking the Colossians to pray for him, that he may be a faithful and effective evangelist, in 2.2 it is Paul who is praying, not in his apostolic calling as an evangelist, but as a teacher and pastor. For Paul, evangelism is never just scalp-hunting. He is passionately concerned not just to bring people to faith in Christ, but “to present every person mature in Christ”, which entails “instructing and teaching every person in all wisdom” (1.28). Where is this wisdom to be found ? In Christ alone! Paul’s prayer for the churches in Colossae and Laodicea is that their “hearts should be encouraged as they are united in love and into all the riches of the fullness of understanding, into a full realisation of the mystery of God - Christ! In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2.2-3). To grow into maturity as a Christian is to explore “all the treasures” of the mystery of Christ. To this end, Paul says that he is “working hard and striving earnestly” (1.29). When he is with them in person, this presumably refers to his “teaching and instructing” (v.28) - which can, indeed, be very hard work! But as he writes he is clearly not with them, nor has he ever been in Laodicea, as implied by 2.1. So when he says in that verse that he wants them “to know what a great struggle I have on your behalf”, he must be referring to his earnest prayers for them.


Pastoring and Prayer - a real struggle!
‘agōn’, ‘agōnizomai’

Col 4.12, 1 Corinthians 9.25, Hebrews12.1, 1Tim 4.10, 6.12, 2 Tim 4.7

The word for ‘struggle’ here is ‘agōn’; from this noun is derived the verb ‘agōnizomai’, which was used by Paul in the previous verse (1.29 - another unhelpful chapter division), which I translated “striving earnestly” (“struggling”, NIV). This is also, of course, the word from which the English ‘agony’ is derived, via a parallel noun ‘agōnia’. This is used just once in the NT, of Jesus’ ‘agony’ in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22.44). The verb ‘agōnizomai’, by contrast, is used 8 times, one of which we met not long ago, when Jesus tells Pilate that “my servants (‘hupēretai’) would have ‘struggled’” to prevent his arrest (John 18.36). Jesus also uses this word in Luke 18.24, when he tells us to “make a determined effort to enter through the narrow door”, or “strive with all your might” (Luke 13.24). All but one of its other uses are Pauline, the most relevant to our verse being the excellent example of Epaphroditus, himself “one of you” (i.e. a Colossian), but now with Paul; he sends his greetings via this letter to his fellow townspeople, but shows his commitment to them supremely by “always striving on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature [in your faith]” (Col 4.12). The ‘sustained and determined effort’ needed for such intercessory prayer is only a part of the ‘sustained and determined effort’ needed to live the Christian life, an effort that Paul elsewhere likens to running a long-distance race (1 Cor. 9.25), as does the writer to the Hebrews: “Let us run with determined perseverance the race that lies in front of us” (12.1). When Paul tells Timothy in his first letter to “struggle the good struggle” (6.12), and then in his second letter (4.7) testifies that he has “struggled the good struggle” (both ‘agōnizomai’ plus ‘agōn’), though both AV and NIV translate “fight the good fight” and “I have fought the good fight”, it seems more likely that he is thinking rather of running a good race; this is suggested not just by the Hebrews parallel, but by the rest of the second of the two verses to Timothy: “I have completed the course” - rather than “I have survived 12 rounds”! But ‘fighting the good fight’ is probably too deeply embedded in Christian terminology - and hymnology - to be seriously challenged; and Paul certainly regarded the Christian life as a battle as well as a race. The final instance of ‘agōnizomai’ also occurs in 1 Timothy (4.10), and provides convenient closure for this mini-study by echoing the verse with which we began it, Colossians 1,29: in both verses Paul says “for this purpose I work hard and strive earnestly (‘agōnizomai’) ---”; in Colossians his purpose is their spiritual maturity, for Timothy his ‘godliness’, the two terms being virtually synonymous - as are the two verbs Paul uses in both these verses. The first of these is ‘kopiō’, which differs from ‘agōnizomai’ more in context than in meaning, stressing the sheer hard work involved in intercessory prayer particularly, and in pastoring a church more generally. ‘agōnizomai’, by contrast, implies the tough opposition that must be faced in both forms of ministry. At its simplest, prayer is just a conversation with our heavenly Father, in the same way that “the Lord would speak to Moses --- as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex. 33.11); but intercessory prayer is more a conflict with the Satanic forces, Satan the ‘adversary’. This is apparent from Ephesians 6. We saw in section (i) that Paul ends this chapter by appealing for prayer support from the Ephesians; but the earlier part of the chapter supplies the context. “Our struggle”, says Paul (not ‘agōn’ here but ‘palē’, literally ‘wrestling-match’), “is not against flesh and blood --- but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (v.12, NIV). Therefore, he continues, we need to be clothed in “the whole armour of God”, which he specifies in detail, ending with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” - but, typically of Paul, the sentence continues without a break, despite the insertion of full-stops by officious editors, who thus obscure the important point that, in Paul’s thinking, prayer is as much part of this spiritual battle and divine armour as all the earlier items of equipment: we have a powerful enemy, so that prayer to an even more powerful God is vital.
It is, perhaps, worth taking a moment to reflect that, if all Christian pastors followed Paul’s example and devoted as much ‘hard work’ and ‘earnest striving’ to the task of praying for their one flock as Paul did for his many churches, that might do more to achieve the godliness and spiritual maturity of their congregations than all the sermons they ever preached, and revolutionise and reinvigorate God’s people. Moreover, it is also worth reflecting that if all Christians obeyed Paul’s exhortation to pray for their pastors and preachers to “boldly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6.19), not just the church but the nation and the world might be revolutionised. .

Preaching Christ:[a] in Jerusalem [b] on a desert road [c] in Antioch
‘euangelizomai’
Acts 5.42, 8.35, 11.20,

If, then, the ‘mystery of the gospel’ is the mystery of Christ, as Paul twice says in Colossians, to preach the gospel is to preach Christ. In Greek, to ‘preach the gospel’ is a single verb, ‘euangelizomai’, to ‘evangelise’, derived from the noun ‘euangelion’, ‘gospel’. This verb is used 15 times in Acts, and 54 times in the NT as a whole; in 4 of its uses in Acts ‘Jesus’ is the object of the verb. Whether consciously or not, Luke uses this construction in both the first and the last instances of the verb in Acts. The first occasion is in chapter 5 verse 42. The apostles have been arrested and beaten by the authorities for preaching the gospel, and sent away with strict instructions “not to speak in the name of Jesus”; despite this, “every day both in the temple and in private homes they did not cease teaching and preaching-the-gospel - Jesus Christ”. It is just as important to ‘preach Jesus’ in personal as in public evangelism, as Philip shows us in chapter 8. When he discovers that the Ethiopian official is (providentially) reading a passage in Isaiah prophesying the crucifixion, “he opened his mouth” (a pre-echo of Paul’s request to the Ephesians - and another linguistic link between Luke and Paul) and “beginning at this passage of scripture, he preached-the-good-news to him - Jesus” (v.35). Nor do you have to be a ‘big name’, an apostle or a deacon, to ‘preach Jesus’. After the martyrdom of Stephen there followed a general persecution of Christians, driving them out of Jerusalem, and so spreading the gospel; “some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene who came to Antioch and kept on speaking [the word] to Greeks also [as well as Jews], preaching-the-good-news, the Lord Jesus” (11.20). These men may have been anonymous, but their faithful evangelism was a key part of God’s plan, for the church at Antioch proved to be second in importance only to the church at Jerusalem.

[d] in Athens
Acts 17.18

Luke’s final use of ‘euangelizomai’ comes in Acts 17.18. Paul has gone on ahead to Athens, and is, unusually for him, on his own in the city; but that does not deter him from preaching the gospel: “he discoursed in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearers, and in the market-place every day with any one he met.” There is an echo here, both verbal and structural, of the earlier passage in 5.42, though whether deliberate or not we cannot be sure. In both verses the evangelism is ‘daily’, and in both it takes place both in ‘religious’ venues (the Temple in Jerusalem and the synagogue in Athens) and in secular locations, ‘homes’ in Jerusalem and ‘the market-place’ (the ‘agora’) in Athens. The argument for supposing that these echoes may be more than coincidence is that Luke regularly establishes parallels between the ministry of Peter, in particular, and the other apostles in the first half of Acts, and Paul’s ministry in the second half. In Athens, though, the actual mention of ‘euangelizomai’ comes just after the verse (17) I have just quoted, when “some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers disputed with Paul, and some said ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’, and others said ‘he seems to be a messenger of strange gods’”. Then Luke explains that they thought Paul was a polytheist because “he was preaching-the-gospel, Jesus and the resurrection” - as though ‘Anastasis’ (‘resurrection’) was another deity alongside Jesus. The gospel, then, is not just ‘the mystery of Christ’, but ‘the mystery of Christ and the resurrection’, the Christ who was raised from the dead, the living Christ.

‘spermologos’
Luke 8.11

It is hard not to believe that Luke here has a wry smile on his face as he records the misunderstanding of Paul’s message by these intellectual Athenians, supposing that ‘Anastasis’ was some new god, like Isis or Osiris. There is also, I believe, some irony in his use of the word in this verse which I have followed AV and NIV in translating ‘babbler’, and it is worth having a brief look at this before moving on to the next ‘mystery’. The word is ‘spermologos’, and this is its only occurrence in the NT. It is a word of two halves: ‘sperma’, which means ‘seed’, and the verb ‘lego’. There are, in fact, three quite different verbs spelt like this in the Greek lexicon, by far the most common of which means to ‘say’ or ‘speak’, and it is this which gives us the noun ‘logos’,‘word’. The derivation of ‘spermologos’, however, is from the ‘lego’ which means to ‘choose’ or ‘pick up’, which is most commonly found in the compound form ‘eklegomai’, to ‘choose out’, from which we get the English ‘eclectic’, and, via Latin (where ‘lego’ predominantly means to ‘choose’), ‘elect’. Originally, then, ‘spermologos’ described a bird that ‘picked up seed’ to eat, but soon moved on to describe people who were ‘scavengers’, picking up scraps to live on from anywhere they could; from there it was just a short hop to ‘vagrant’ and ‘beggar’, and so to ‘charlatan’ (NEB’s translation here), a huckster with a good sales pitch - and so, at last, to a ‘babbler’ desperately trying to sell his foreign goods - or gods! It is hard, however, to believe that Luke, even if he has looked the word up in his lexicon to discover its original meaning, can use this rare word without being aware of its ironic overtones. While ‘-logos’ here may strictly be derived from to ‘choose’ or ‘pick up’, on its own ‘logos’ can only mean ‘word’, and in conjunction with ‘seed’ surely cannot fail to remind us, and Luke, of the parable of the sower, in which “the sower sows the word” (Mark 4.14), or, in Luke’s own version of the parable, “the seed is the word of God” (8.11). Moreover it is particularly appropriate to be reminded of this parable in this context since the Areopagus, where these philosophers took Paul to hear what he had to say, was a rocky outcrop on top of a hill opposite the Acropolis, and did, indeed, prove to be largely ‘stony ground’ for the seed of the gospel which Paul sowed in his sermon there. Nevertheless, “some seed fell on good ground”, for “some people believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman called Damaris” (17.34).


(iv) 1 Corinthians 2.1-2: the mystery of the cross

After Athens Paul journeyed to Corinth, and we saw earlier how this journey would have taken him through the town of Eleusis, the home of the ‘Eleusinian Mysteries’, and so, possibly, the origin of Paul’s 21 uses of ‘musterion’ in his letters. Right at the start of his ministry in Corinth, he writes “I came to you, brothers and sisters, not with flights of rhetoric or philosophy, but simply proclaiming the mystery of God. For I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and, what is more, Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2.1-2). Maybe this was in reaction to the comparative failure of his address to the philosophers of the Areopagus, but for us it adds another element to the ‘mystery of the gospel’. If the heart of the gospel is Christ, then at the heart of Christ’s ministry on earth was the cross; and the cross was proved to be a triumph rather than a tragedy by the resurrection. ‘Anastasis’ may have been incomprehensible to Athenian philosophers, but to Christians of every age the resurrection is the guarantee of our hope of eternal life (John 11.25), and of the justification which alone can make this possible (Rom. 4.25), and is at the heart of the gospel whose ‘mystery’ has now been gloriously revealed.

(v) 1 Timothy 3.9: the mystery of 'the faith'
‘pistis’
Jude 3, Galatians 1.23

The Lordship of Christ, the centrality of the cross, the reality of the resurrection, these could be seen as the three central truths of the Christian faith; and that leads us on to our next ‘mystery’ verse. Paul, writing to Timothy, says that, among other qualifications, deacons should be people who “hold the mystery of the faith in a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3.9). Knight, in his commentary, helpfully paraphrases “the mystery of the faith” as “the revealed truths of the Christian faith”, those truths which, for long ages, were mysteries, but now in the gospel age have been revealed in Jesus Christ. The Greek word for ‘faith’ is ‘pistis’, which, just like its English equivalent, can be used either subjectively, of' the 'faith’ which a Christian has in Christ, or objectively and collectively, of all the separate beliefs which together constitute 'the Christian faith’. An earlier verse in 1 Timothy is an example of both uses in a single sentence, and an interesting parallel to 3.9. We looked at this verse a little earlier in a different context: we are now concerned with the faith rather than the fight. Paul tells Timothy to “fight the good fight, having faith [in Christ] and a good conscience; some have rejected this and so have shipwrecked their Christian faith” (1.18-19). Paul, then, is saying that deacons should both believe in Christ and behave like Christ, their doctrine orthodox and their lives blameless. Paul uses ‘pistis’ 140 times in his letters (40 of them in Romans) - it is one of his favourite words; the great majority of its uses are ‘subjective’, the ‘saving faith’ by which alone we can appropriate for ourselves the blessings which Jesus has won for us. But a dozen or so times he uses it in the ‘objective’ sense we find here, a sense most clearly exemplified in Jude’s phrase “the faith handed down once for all to the saints” (v.3). Here again ‘the faith’ must mean ‘the revealed truths of the Christian faith’. There is one other example of this usage worth looking at, in Galatians 1.23. Paul is referring to his early days as a Christian in Syria and Cilicia, when he was known only by hearsay to the church in Jerusalem, who said of him: “the man who once used to persecute us now preaches-the-gospel (‘euangelizomai’ again) - the faith which once he tried to destroy”. To preach ‘the faith’ is the equivalent of the phrase we looked at earlier, to “preach Christ”, since his Lordship, death and resurrection are the central planks of the Christian ‘faith’.

(vi) Colossians 1.27: the mystery of 'Christ in us'

The noun ‘pistis’ is derived from the verb ‘pisteuō’, to ‘believe’ or ‘have faith in’. This distinction is important, and is indicated in Greek by the different constructions used with the verb. Followed simply by the dative case, or with ‘en’ (meaning ‘in’), it means to ‘believe’, to ‘give intellectual assent to’. But John, in particular, uses ‘pisteuō eis’, to ‘believe into’, to express ‘an act of personal commitment’. This usage is found 36 times in his gospel, and another 3 in his letters. This expression marks the vital development of belief ‘into’ faith, when creed becomes commitment, and religion blossoms into relationship; now ‘believing in’ Jesus and ‘behaving like’ him are crowned by ‘belonging to’ him. This brings us to our last mystery in this section, perhaps the most wonderful feature of a wonderful gospel. If ‘Christ crucified’ assures us that our guilty past has been forgiven, and his resurrection is our guarantee of an eternal future with him in heaven, this great truth fills in the gap. At the end of a longer statement of ‘the mystery of the gospel’, which we will look at later, Paul succinctly sums up “the riches of this glorious mystery: CHRIST IN YOU!” (Col. 1.27). When we put our faith ‘into’ Jesus, he comes ‘into’ our lives: we are ‘in Christ’ (one of Paul’s favourite phrases), and he is in us, in the person of his Holy Spirit. The past is history, the future is hope - “a glorious hope”, as Paul goes on to call it in this very verse - but the pressing daily reality of the present moment is what most concerns most of us most of the time. If Jesus is in us, he is with us at every moment: we are never alone. And if he is with us, his help and strength are always at hand - just an ‘arrow’ prayer away. The mystery of “Christ in you” can only become a reality as it is revealed day by day in our experience. As we come to know with increasing assurance in our hearts what we already believe in our heads, so we learn to step out in faith, one step at a time, in our walk with Jesus.

(b) longer passages

The remaining 6 instances of ‘musterion’ are spread out over 4 longer passages, in which Paul develops his full ‘theology’ of mystery - ‘mysteriology’, perhaps! In an attempt to be appropriately systematic, I have summarised the key points of these 4 passages into a 12-step programme. I set out these 12 steps below, and will then provide a translation of the 4 passages, with the numbers in brackets referring to the relevant step.

Paul’s ‘mysteriology’

The whole process stems from and reflects [1] the wisdom of God, which is expressed [2] in his eternal purpose, his plan and promise of salvation. This purpose is [3] partly revealed in the prophecies of scripture, but [4] the full truth is a MYSTERY, concealed and hidden [5] for long ages and from previous generations. BUT NOW the mystery has been [6] fully revealed [7] by the Holy Spirit [8 i] to the saints and apostles, and [8 ii] “to me”, Paul; this revelation is [9] a stewardship, not to be kept to oneself but [10] to be made known to others, [11] to all nations, gentiles as well as Jews, for those to whom the wisdom of God is made known [12] become wise themselves, “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3.15, AV) - for true spiritual wisdom is “to think God’s thoughts after him”, or, in other words, to have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2.16)

(1) Ephesians 3. 5-11

The longest of these passages, which contains 3 of the remaining occurrences of ‘musterion’, is Ephesians 3 5-11. My slightly expanded translation of these verses (though omitting verse 10), reads as follows:

“You have heard [9] of the stewardship of God’s gospel of grace that has been given to me to pass on to you; for the mystery of the gospel was [6] made known [8 ii] to me [6] by revelation, as I mentioned a little earlier (in 1.9), so that you can be assured [12] of my full understanding of the mystery of Christ. This mystery was not [6] made known [5] to other generations of men as fully as [6] it has now been revealed [7] by his Spirit [8 i] to God’s holy apostles and prophets; [for he has clearly revealed] that [11] the gentiles are just as much members of the body of Christ as the Jews, sharing equally with them all the blessings of the gospel [2] promised to all who are in Jesus Christ. I, by the grace of God given to me, and by his strength at work in me, [9] am a minister of this gospel. Yes, to me, the less-than-the-least of all the saints, this grace was given, [10] to preach [11] to the gentiles the gospel of Christ, riches greater than we can ever imagine, and [10] to make clearly known to all what a great privilege it is to be entrusted [9] with the stewardship of this mystery, which [5] for long ages [4] had been concealed in God, who created all things --- (v.10) --- [2] according to his eternal purpose and plan.”

‘elachistos’, ‘elachistoteros’
Matthew 25.40,45, Luke 16.10, 1 Corinthians 15.9

Before we move on to the next passage, there are two unusual words in this one that merit a brief look. Paul in verse 18 describes himself as “less-than-the-least” of all the saints. I have used hyphens here to indicate that in the Greek this is a single word - a word which Paul seems to have coined especially for this verse. In Greek, as in Latin and English, but not French, adjectives generally have separate comparative and superlative forms (e.g. ‘big’, bigger’, ‘biggest’); but in NT Greek superlative forms are rare. One, however, that is fairly common (14 instances) is ‘elachistos’, ‘least’ or ‘smallest’; this has a corresponding comparative form, ‘elasson’, but there is no basic adjective form from which it derives - just like, as it happens, ‘lesser’ and ‘least’ in English. This superlative is used in several familiar contexts. Bethlehem is “not the least among the leaders of Judah” (Matt. 2.6, from Micah 5.1). Twice in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus explains that “in as much as you did this / did not do this to the least of these my brethren, you did it / did not do it for me” (Matt. 25. 40, 45). Another double usage occurs at the end of the parable of the unjust (or prudent) steward, in Luke 16.10, where Jesus says that a steward who is “faithful in the smallest task will also be faithful in a great one”, and then adds the converse. But the usage which most closely parallels our context comes in the (earlier?) letter to Corinth, where Paul describes himself as “the least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15.9). But by the time he writes to the Ephesians his sense of unworthiness has deepened even further: just being “the least” does not seem adequate to express it, so he invents a comparative form of an already superlative adjective, adding the normal comparative suffix ‘-oteros’ to produce the unique ‘elachistoteros’. It has often been observed that this intensifying sense of his own sinfulness reached its climax (or its nadir) in 1 Timothy 1.15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am chief” (literally, ‘first’, the ultimate superlative!).

‘anexichniastos’
Romans 7.33

The other word also occurs in verse 8, and is almost as rare as ‘elachistoteros’ - it occurs only twice. This is the word I translated, rather long-windedly, as “greater than we can ever imagine”; AV and NIV more simply have “unsearchable”, and NEB “unfathomable”. If I had to opt for a single word it would be ‘inexhaustible’. The Greek word is ‘anexichniastos’, at the heart of which is the noun ‘ichnos’, a ‘footprint’. This then becomes a compound verb, ‘exichniazō’, to ‘track down’ or to ‘search out’, which, with a negative prefix, ‘an-’ and an adjectival ending, ‘-astos’, gives us a literal meaning ‘unable to be searched out or tracked down’. In its other appearance, also courtesy of Paul, this meaning is more appropriate. At the end of his discussion in Romans 11 of ‘the mystery of the Jews’, which we studied a while back, he bursts into a doxology: “O the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements! How untraceable (‘anexichniastos’) his pathways!” (v.33)The wisdom of God’s eternal purpose, his ‘pathways’ through human history, cannot be ‘searched out’ or ‘tracked down’ by human intelligence; they are a mystery which can be understood only if and when God chooses to reveal them. In Romans, then, the word means ‘unfathomable’ in its normal sense: we cannot understand it or work it out for ourselves. But in Ephesians it means ‘unfathomable’ in its literal sense: we can never get to the bottom or reach the limits of God’s grace; a plumb-line lowered into the ocean of God’s goodness will never be long enough to reach the sea-bed.

(2) Colossians 1. 25-27

Colossians runs parallel to Ephesians in a number of ways, not least in its ‘mysteriology’. The key verses are 1. 25-27, the latter part of which we have already looked at: “I became [9] a servant of Christ’s body, the church, in accordance with [9] the stewardship given to me by God for you. [He has entrusted me with the task of] [10] making his word known to you in all its fullness, the mystery of the gospel that [4] was kept hidden [5] from all previous ages and generations, BUT NOW has been [6] made known [8i] to his saints. To them, [2] it was God’s will [6] to make known the glorious riches of this mystery [11] among the gentiles, the mystery of Christ living in your hearts, giving you the sure and certain hope of the glory of heaven.” We have also looked at the opening verses of chapter 2, but I repeat the relevant parts here to show how the first of the 12 steps, the wisdom of God, leads ultimately to the 12th step, the godly wisdom of the individual Christian: “I work hard and strive earnestly --- that their hearts may be encouraged as they are brought together in love and into all the riches of the fullness of understanding, [12] to a knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ, in whom [4] are hidden [1] all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

(3) 1 Corinthians 2. 6-10

This last verse is a beautifully expanded version of I Corinthians 1.30, where Paul simply says that Christ “became for you wisdom from God”. Wisdom is the central theme of the first 2 chapters of this letter: the noun, ‘sophia’ occurs 8 times in chapter 1 and another 7 times in chapter 2, and in addition the adjective ‘wise’ (‘sophos’) occurs 5 times in chapter 1. We have already seen how chapter 2 begins with perhaps Paul’s first use of ‘musterion’, prompted by his journey from Athens to Corinth via Eleusis, and how he goes on to define that mystery in verse 2 as the core gospel message of “Jesus Christ - Christ crucified”. But by verse 6, ‘mystery’ has developed into ‘mysteriology’, the emphasis here being, as in this whole section, the contrast between God’s wisdom and human wisdom: “We speak of wisdom to those who are spiritually mature, but not the wisdom of this age; --- We speak [1] of the wisdom of God, which [4] was hidden in mystery, [the wisdom of God’s plan of salvation], which [2] he foreordained for our glory [5] before time began; (v.10) [8] but to us [6] God has revealed this [7] through his Spirit, for the Spirit searches out everything, [2] even God’s deepest secrets.”

godly wisdom and worldly wisdom
‘aiōn’

Our final mysteriology passage will take us back to (ancient) Rome, but for now we will stay in Corinth to look more closely at the distinction Paul makes in verses 2 and 6 between “the wisdom of this age” and “the wisdom of God”. The word for ‘age’ here is ‘eon’, ‘aiōn’ in Greek; its Latin equivalent is ‘saeculum’, which gives us ‘secular’. We could, then, label these two kinds of wisdom ‘secular’ and ‘spiritual’. A little further on (3.18) Paul repeats this use of ‘aiōn’: “If any one among you thinks he is wise ‘in this age’ ---”, that is, “thinks he has secular wisdom”; but he goes on (v.19) to introduce another label: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s eyes”, so that we might re-label this as a contrast between ‘worldly’ wisdom and ‘godly’ wisdom. At the same time, this verse has introduced us to another contrast Paul makes use of in chapters 1 and 2, that between ‘wisdom’ and ‘folly’ - though in fact, since ‘worldly’ wisdom is folly in God’s eyes, it is just a different way of making the same contrast.

the folly of worldly wisdom
Is 29.14, Romans 1.21-2

Paul has three precedents for using ‘wise’ and ‘wisdom’ in this pejorative sense. The first is found in the language itself. In Classical Greek, while ‘sophia’ always meant ‘philosophy’, used with approval of a much-admired intellectual activity, its related adjective ‘sophos’ found itself taking two divergent paths: on the one hand (‘men’!) it was a term of approval, ‘wise’, as in English, but on the other it acquired the disapproving overtones of English ‘clever’. A clever Englishman, if he is also prudent, who wants to succeed in politics, will keep his cleverness well under wraps, lest he be thought a ‘clever Dick’, even if his name is Tom or Harry, or, even worse, ‘too clever by half’. In the same way, ‘sophos’ had been tarnished by the behaviour of the ‘sophists’. This group, contemporaries with Socrates but very different from him, used their ‘sophia’ to indulge in verbal trickery rather than serious enquiry, notoriously promising (if Aristophanes is to be believed - admittedly a big ‘if’) to ‘make the weaker argument the stronger’. The dialectic of Socrates, whose aim was to reach the truth via serious argument, was replaced by mere rhetoric, whose aim, all too often, was to obscure the truth. This is how ‘sophistry’ and ‘sophism’ have entered the English language to express the use of specious argument. I doubt that the word ‘philosophistry’ exists, but if it did, it would be a good translation for Paul’s negative use of ‘sophia’. It was not, therefore, particularly ground-breaking for Paul to use the noun ‘sophia’ as well as the adjective ‘sophos’ in a negative sense. But for Paul, Hebrew scripture was always a more authoritative guide than Greek language. Thus in 1 Corinthians 1.19 he quotes the prophet Isaiah, where God declares that he will “destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the intelligent” (Isaiah 29.14). What has driven God to make such an utterance? A couple of verses later Isaiah tells us: “You turn things upside down”, he says to God’s rebellious people, “as if the potter were thought to be like the clay. Shall what is formed say to him who formed it ‘He did not make me’? Can the pot say of the potter ‘He knows nothing’?” (v.16, NIV). As so often happens, their ‘wisdom’ and ‘intelligence’ have bred an intellectual arrogance and a self-satisfied pride, so that they see themselves as autonomous ‘masters of the universe’, rather than creatures made in God’s image, and stewards of God’s creation. Such an ‘upside-down’ view of the world seems so often to be the conclusion of ‘worldly wisdom’ - or ‘philosophy’. One of the most famous of the aforementioned sophists was Protagoras, and his most famous saying was “Man is the measure of all things”, which could be the foundation text of atheistic humanism. This leads us to Paul’s conspectus of human apostasy in Romans 1. The first step of man’s downward spiral into depravity is the denial of creation, and so of the Creator. Because God has revealed himself clearly in creation, Paul argues, mankind is “without excuse” in its failure to give him the honour and thanks that are his due. Man’s refusal to recognise God as Creator meant that “all their philosophical dialogues were fruitless, their hearts were darkened and uncomprehending” (1.21, translated rather freely). The next verse needs no paraphrasing: it is, in Greek, a four-word verdict of devastating bluntness: “Claiming that-they-were wise, they-became fools” - the folly of idol-worship, as verse 23 makes clear.

Three parables of folly
‘mōros’, ‘mōria’, ‘mōrainō’
Matthew 7.26, 25.2,3,8, Luke 12.13-21

The last word in verse 22 is the rare verb ‘mōrainō’, to ‘make stupid’, and it leads us to consider this small family of NT words, central to Paul’s discourse in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians; we will return to look at the third and most important precedent for Paul’s negative use of ‘sophia’ after this brief study. The most common word in the ‘stupid’ family is the adjective ‘mōros’. It has two separate meanings, ‘blunt’ and ‘stupid’; from the latter we get, obviously, ‘moron’, and from the former, ‘oxymoron’: since ‘oxus’ means ‘sharp’, an ‘oxymoron’ is a ‘sharp-blunt’, the word that describes a juxtaposition of opposites - a not wholly irrelevant example of which I saw the other day: a board advertising ‘practical philosophy’ courses. The Latin word ‘obtusus’ also has these two meanings, both ‘blunt’ and ‘obtuse’. In its 12 NT occurrences, 6 in the gospels and 6 in Paul’s letters, ‘mōros’ always means ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish’. Jesus describes as ‘foolish’ both the builder who built his house on a foundation of sand (Matt. 7.26) and the bridesmaids (Matt. 25. 2,3,8) who did not bring with them spare oil for their lamps: stupidity is, evidently, an equal-opportunities employer. To think only of the convenience of the present moment, and not to plan for problems in the future, is the essence of folly. The parable of ‘the rich fool’ (Luke 12.13-21) makes the same point: the successful farmer thinks only of his own present ease, and not of the future - or of God, who addresses him with an even stronger term than ‘mōros’: he is not just ‘foolish’, he is completely ‘mindless’ (‘aphrōn’). The adjective ‘mōros’ produces the verb ‘mōrainō’, which we have just met. It occurs 4 times in the NT, twice in the gospels and twice in Paul. Its twin usage in the gospels (Matt. 5.13 = Luke 14.34) reflects the other sense of ‘mōros’: Jesus tells his disciples “You are the salt of the earth; if the salt [loses its sharpness and] is blunted, how will it be re-sharpened ?” (Mark just says “if the salt becomes unsalty”, 9.50). A good translation of ‘mōrainō’ here might be “if the salt ‘loses its edge’ ---”. How easy it is for our Christian witness to ‘lose its edge’, dulled by the daily abrasion of our living in a godless world, and compromised by the relentless tug of our own sinful desires! Paul’s two uses of the verb are interestingly complementary. In Romans 1.22, as we have just seen, the verb is used in the passive: “they- were-made-stupid” - ‘stupefied’ seems to absolve them (i.e. us!) of blame, while ‘stupidified’ lacks gravitas; ‘moronised’ is closest to the Greek, so I shall go for that. At a first reading, ‘they were moronised’ sounds like an impersonal and inevitable process, the natural consequence of rejecting the Creator and declaring U.D.I.. But as the chapter continues, Paul makes it clear that mankind’s downward spiral into depravity is the result of God’s sovereign judgement: three times (vv. 24,26,28) we read those awesome words “God gave them up” (AV), or ‘handed them over’, to their own freely chosen desires - it was God who condemned godless mankind to ‘idiocy’. It is thus appropriate that Paul’s other use of ‘mōrainō’ is in the active voice, with God as its subject. After the quotation from Isaiah that we looked at above, he asks (rhetorically!) “Where is the ‘wise’ man? --- Has not God reduced the wisdom of the age (‘aiōn’) to folly?” - or “moronised worldly wisdom”. The noun ‘mōria’, ‘folly’ or ‘stupidity’, occurs 5 times in the NT, each one of them in these three chapters of 1 Corinthians. The first four of these, rather surprisingly, all refer to the ‘word’ or the ‘proclamation’ of the cross, or more generally (2.14) to the ‘mysteries’ revealed by the Holy Spirit: the verdict of the world on God’s most precious truths is that they are folly. But 3.19, which we looked at earlier, restores the proper perspective - God’s - and gives him the final word, as he always will have: “The wisdom of the world is foolishness in God’s eyes”. Any philosophy or world-view which is not founded on a belief in a Creator God is, indeed, a house built on sand - a folly!

The teaching of Jesus on wisdom and folly
Luke 10.21, Matthew 18.3, 1 Corinthians 1.21

The third and most important precedent for Paul’s negative reference to ‘wisdom’ is, of course, the teaching of Jesus. This is a saying, recorded both by Matthew and by Luke, which we looked at much earlier in the context of ‘revelation’, and it is of central importance, whether consciously or not, to Paul’s ‘mysteriology’. The saying is virtually identical in the two accounts, but in Luke the context illuminates the meaning more helpfully. On the one hand, Jesus has just been uttering ‘woes’ against the unbelieving and unrepentant cities of Israel (Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum); but then the 72 return full of joy at the successes of their mission. So “at that very hour, Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have concealed these [truths] from the ‘wise’ and ‘intelligent’, and revealed them to children. Yes, Father, for this was what was pleasing in your sight’” (Luke 10.21 = Matt. 11.25-6). It is almost as though the whole of Paul’s discourse from 1 Corinthians 1.18 to 2.16 is an exposition of this text. This not only takes us to the heart of Paul’s ‘mysteriology’, but also adds an extra dimension to it. We have seen already that the source of mystery is a God who both conceals and reveals, and that the dividing line between the two is a time-line: B.C. and A.D.. For long ages God’s plan of salvation was concealed, BUT NOW, with the coming of Christ, it has been gloriously revealed: the gospel is now an open secret. It is open to all, but to many it is a secret still. Now the dividing-line is not one of time but of pride. Those ‘clever Dicks’ and ‘smart Alecs’ - and ‘smart Alices’ too, since, as we have seen, such folly welcomes all comers - who refuse to accept any proposition which does not pass their ‘intelligence test’ will never discover the secret of the gospel, blinded to it by their own intellectual arrogance. The door to the Kingdom of Heaven may seem to be locked, but Jesus our forerunner has gone on ahead of us, and left the key under the mat. That key is the key of childlike faith, and any one who is prepared to kneel down and reach for the key can find it and enter in. The closer one is to the ground, and the more flexible one is, the easier it is to kneel, so that children are at an advantage, and the childlike. To be close to the ground is, literally, to be humble, for that is the root meaning of the Latin ‘humilis’. Jesus re-emphasises this point a few chapters further on in Matthew’s gospel: “Truly I tell you, if you do not turn round and become like children, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (18.3). Paul sums up this truth in a powerfully trenchant verse: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased through the foolishness of the gospel we proclaim to save those that have [childlike] faith” (1 Cor. 1.21). Here in this one verse we find all the ironies and antitheses that Paul is working out in the whole passage. Twice here ‘God’ and ‘wisdom’ are juxtaposed, the first time referring to God’s wisdom, then to worldly wisdom; but worldly wisdom can never lead to the most important knowledge of all, knowledge of God, so that in reality it is folly. But human wisdom considers the gospel message of the cross mere foolishness, though in reality it contains God’s supreme wisdom, the wisdom that can make us ‘wise to salvation’. The suggestion that Paul here is consciously echoing Jesus’ prayer to his Father can draw at least some support from his use of “God was pleased”: the Greek verb here, ‘eudokō’, is related to the noun ‘eudokia’, ‘good pleasure’, which is used in both Matthew’s and Luke’s version of the prayer - “Yes, Father, for this was pleasing in your sight” (literally, ‘this was good pleasure before you’).

‘eudokō’ and 'eudokia'
(i) eudokō: to ‘be pleased with’

1 Corinthians 5.8, 12.10, Matthew 3.17, 17.5, 2 Peter 1.17, Col 1.19, Hebrews10.38

There are few things more important than knowing what pleases God, so it is worth looking at these two words in more detail. The verb ‘eudokō’ means literally to ‘think well’ (just as ‘eulogō’ means to ‘speak well’, to ‘eulogise’, and so, in the NT, to ‘bless’). From there it means to ‘be pleased’, and can be used in two ways: followed by a noun, usually a personal noun, it means to ‘think well of’, or to ‘be pleased with’, someone (or something); followed by an infinitive, it means to ‘be pleased to’ do something - something good. This verb occurs 21 times in the NT, and of these, in 14 instances, the subject (or in one case the virtual subject) is God. It is these verses that provide the essential knowledge of what it is that pleases God, and what it pleases God to do. Of the other instances, the churches of Macedonia are the subject in Romans 15. 26 & 27: they, Paul says, ‘were pleased’ to contribute money for the relief of the church in Jerusalem. On most of the other occasions Paul himself is the subject; two examples from 2 Corinthians, one of each usage, will suffice. In 5.8 he says that he would be ‘pleased rather’, that is, he would “prefer to leave my home in this body and be at home with the Lord”; and in 12.10 he claims, memorably, “So I am pleased with my weaknesses --- for when I am weak then I am strong”. What is it, then, that pleases God? We have already seen that the simple faith of the childlike pleases him, so that to them he reveals the truths of the gospel. In those two verses (Matt. 11.26, Luke 11.21) the noun ‘eudokia’ is combined with the verb to ‘be’, giving the noun the force of a verb. The verb is used 6 times in the gospels, always with God as its subject. Of these, 3 (Matt. 3.17, Mark 1.11, Luke 3.22) occur in God’s testimony from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”; and a fourth (Matt. 17.5) echoes these words exactly as God again speaks from heaven at the transfiguration. A fifth occurrence of this statement is quoted by Peter in his second letter (1.17), carrying particular authority as he was one of the three ear-witnesses on the mountain-top. In fact, God was quoting himself on these two occasions, as Matthew helpfully, if rather obliquely, points out, for in 12.18 he quotes the opening of Isaiah 42: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight”. It is worth noting that the LXX version of this verse from Isaiah uses neither ‘beloved’ (‘agapetos’) nor ‘eudokō’, so that Matthew is clearly harmonising his (Greek) translation of the original with the words of God he quotes twice elsewhere. Anyway, if we include the Isaiah text, God declares 7 times in scripture that he is ‘well pleased’ with Jesus. Why is he well pleased with his Son? Philippians 2 gives us the answer: “Jesus humbled himself and became obedient, even to the point of death, death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him ---” (vv. 8-9). If there is anything which pleases God as much as simple faith, it is humble obedience, and this was, perhaps, the supreme characteristic of Jesus. As we move into the epistles (neither ‘eudokō’ nor ‘eudokia’ occurs in Acts), another verse from Isaiah (57.15) helps to emphasise the same point: “For thus saith the high and lofty one --- : 'I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit'” (AV). This verse is a helpful commentary on Paul’s amazing statement in Colossians 1.19 that “in Jesus the whole fullness [of the Godhead] was pleased to make his home” - a beautifully humble home. ‘eudokō’ occurs three times in Hebrews 10, each time telling us what, or who, God is not pleased with. The writer quotes Psalm 40. 6-8 to draw a contrast between the Old Covenant of animal sacrifices and the New Covenant inaugurated by the coming of Christ: “Burnt offerings for sin you were not pleased with” (v.6, repeated in v.8); but, by implication, God was pleased with his Son, who said: “Behold, I have come to do your will, my God” (v.7). The humble obedience of his Son pleased God more than all the animal sacrifices offered throughout the whole history of Israel; that, surely, is the point the writer is making by quoting these verses. The third negative comes right at the end of the chapter, and conveniently reminds us of our first point - our starting-point for this study. This time he is quoting from Habakkuk 3.3-4: “My righteous one will live by faith; but if he draws back (or “backslides”) my soul is not pleased with him” (v.38). It is important, of course, that simple faith develops into mature faith; but a mature faith is not a complicated faith, but a faith that has grown stronger by surviving the tests to which it will, inevitably, be subjected. . Maturity must always cohabit with humility, and never lead to the sort of self-confidence which believes that we can please God by our own efforts: it is the simple trust, and the trusting dependence, of a child in its Father, that pleases God. Before we move on to look at what God is pleased to do, there is one more example of God’s displeasure to consider. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul describes the blessings the Israelites experienced at the Exodus, crossing the Red Sea on dry land, and constantly guided by God’s cloud; they were, in Paul’s striking phrase, “baptized into Moses” by these experiences. BUT “with most of them God was not pleased, and they were laid low (i.e.“died”) in the wilderness” (v.5). Why was this? It was because of their disobedience, which Paul goes on to catalogue in verses 6-10. Here is more evidence that the way to please God is, in the words of the old chorus, “to trust and obey”.


(ii) 'eudokō: to ‘be pleased’ to ---
1 Corinthians 1.21, Col 1.19, Luke 12.32, Galatians 1.15

What, then, does it please God to do ? We have already seen two examples of this, beginning with the verse which launched this parenthetical study: “It pleased God through the ‘foolishness’ of preaching the gospel to save those who have faith” (1 Cor. 1.21). At the heart of this gospel is the incarnation of Christ, in whom “the whole fullness of God was pleased to make his home” (Col. 1,19). What above all God is pleased to do is to effect his plan of salvation, from drawing-board to finishing touches. The two remaining uses of the verb ‘eudokō’ of which God is the subject, and 6 of the 9 uses of the noun ‘eudokia’, make this clear. First, the two instances of ‘eudokō’. The first is the only use of ‘eudokō’ with the infinitive in the gospels, Luke 12.32. This verse comes at the end of a passage (22-30) in which Jesus tells his disciples not to waste their time and energy worrying about their material needs, for God knows what they are; “just seek his kingdom, and all these material needs will be given to you as well”. Then (v.32) he tells them not to be afraid, because “God is pleased to give you the kingdom”. Here, in a single verse, is the gospel of grace. To enter God’s kingdom we do not have to pay a subscription or apply for a visa or pass an exam, or spend years on a waiting-list anxiously hoping that our number will eventually be called. No! We have a free pass, a gift of God’s grace which he delights to give us. The other verse reminds us that we only have a free pass because Jesus has paid the entry-fee for us. In Galatians 1.15, Paul describes his conversion rather differently, and rather more succinctly, than his two accounts in Acts (22.6-16, 26. 12-18): “God was pleased --- to reveal his Son in me”: it was not what happened to Paul on the Damascus road that changed his life, but what happened in him. God is pleased not just to reveal the mystery of his plan of salvation to the world in the coming of Christ, but is pleased to reveal his Son to all, and in all, who turn to him to be saved.

(iii) ‘eudokia’
Ephesians 1.5,9, Philippians 1.15, 2.12-13, 2 Thess 1.11


We have already seen how God particularly delights to reveal his truth to ‘children’, having looked at Jesus’ prayer to his Father (Matt. 11.26 = Luke 10.21) - these are the first two instances of the noun ‘eudokia’, though made into virtual verbs by the addition of “‘it was’ your good pleasure”. Paul also uses ‘eudokia’ twice in Ephesians 1 in the same context - and in that same seemingly interminable sentence that we looked at earlier. In both verses (5 and 9), ‘eudokia’ is found in the company of ‘thelema’, God’s ‘will’, or ‘purpose’, or ‘plan’. If, then, we translate ‘eudokia’ as God’s ‘gracious purpose’, and ‘thelema’ as his ‘plan of salvation’, verse 5 reads: “He foreordained us [before the foundation of the world - v.4] for sonship [in his family] through Jesus Christ by the gracious purpose of his plan of salvation”; but it is not until we reach verse 9 that we get to realise fully what glory God has been planning for us through the long ages: “He made known to us the mystery of his plan of salvation, his gracious purpose which he planned long before [to bring into effect] in Christ”. It is God’s ‘good pleasure’ not just to plan our salvation, but also to perfect it in Jesus and then to proclaim it through his apostles and then his people down the ages. Sonship implies stewardship, as we have seen earlier: God makes his truth known to us so that we may make it known to others. Furthermore, if we are ‘in Christ’, we are not just (‘just’?!) ‘sons of God’, but, like Jesus, ‘beloved sons’ with whom God is ‘well pleased’. Our next verse tells us more about how it is possible for us to please God. Paul, writing to the Philippians, tells them (2.12) to “work out”, or to “live out [the implications of] your own salvation; (13) for God is at work in you [by his Holy Spirit] so that you both want to do what pleases him (‘eudokia’), and have the inner strength to do it”. Salvation is not just the start of a whole new life-story for each of us as we are ‘born again’, but it should also be the start of a whole new lifestyle, in which our main aim is to please the God who is already pleased with us ‘in Christ’. This verse should be read as a prologue to the two other Pauline uses of ‘eudokia’, which both refer not to God’s ‘good pleasure’, but to the ‘good will’, or ‘good intentions’, of Christians. Just a few verses earlier in Philippians (1.15), Christ is being boldly proclaimed in the ‘Praetorium’ where Paul is being held prisoner (in Caesarea, in my view, though many believe this refers to his Roman imprisonment). “Some”, Paul says, “preach Christ out of envy [for me] and in a competitive spirit, but others, too, with good will (‘eudokia’)”. Writing to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 1.11), he prays that God will (literally) “fulfil your every good intention (‘eudokia’) of goodness”. Christians, as the ‘prologue’ verse reminds us, only have ‘good will’ or ‘good intentions’ because God’s Holy Spirit prompts them within us, and are only able to translate them into actions because the same Spirit empowers us. Here, then, we have a beautifully ‘virtuous circle’: God is ‘well pleased’ with us because we are ‘in Christ’, and by his Spirit prompts and empowers us to do what is ‘well pleasing’ to him. As we have seen, God’s supreme pleasure is his ‘gracious plan’ (‘eudokia’) of salvation, made possible by the humble obedience of his “beloved Son”, and now to be ‘made known’ to a world in darkness by all whom he has “adopted as sons”: to please God is to proclaim Christ - with ‘good will’ - as by the power of the Spirit we carry out the ‘good intentions’ which God himself has inspired in us.

(iv) 'eudokia' in Luke 2.14: "good will towards men"?
Romans 5.1, John 14.7

Apart from Romans 10.1, where Paul says that his ‘heart’s desire’ (NEB, followed by NIV, for ‘eudokia’) is for the salvation of his people the Jews (a desire, presumably, prompted by the Spirit), the only other occurrence of ‘eudokia’ in the NT is, chronologically, at least, the first, and certainly the best known. This is in the song of the angel choir to the shepherds in Luke 2.14. It is most familiar in the words of the AV, which tends to get wheeled out for carol services: “On earth peace, good will toward men”. More modern translations, however, defer to the consensus of textual criticism, which now favours the alternative reading of the MSS, not ‘eudokia’ (nominative case) but ‘eudokias’ (genitive) - “men of good will”. This translation, however, would reduce the angels’ message to a bland tautology: men of good will do not, by definition, war with each other. So both NEB and NIV opt for the theologically more convincing, if linguistically demanding, translation “Peace on earth to men on whom his favour rests”; the Living Bible offers the rather simpler equivalent: “Peace on earth for all those pleasing him”. The two competing teams of MSS are listed beneath the Greek text in the UBS edition, and to my inexpert eye there seem to be rather more supporting ‘eudokia’ than ‘eudokias’ - though the latter do have Augustine as their team captain. If, however, textual criticism were merely a matter of counting up the numbers on both sides (‘One MS one vote’), then any one could be a textual critic, and scholarship would be reduced to simple arithmetic. Nevertheless, judging solely by what is more appropriate to the context, rather than by the reliability of the respective MSS, I prefer the nominative ‘eudokia’ reading, as in the AV. Firstly, this is consistent with the carefully balanced phrasing of the angels’ song, a balance particularly characteristic of Luke’s sense of classical form. The first statement - or, more exactly, exclamation - “Glory to God in the highest” is then contrasted with the two following parallel phrases: “in the highest” / “on the earth”, and “to God” / “among men”; “glory” is then paralleled by two similar abstract nouns, “peace” and “good will” - all three in the nominative, and forming a sequence of increasing length, as recommended by all the best books on Greek rhetoric: ‘doxa’ (‘glory’, 2 syllables). ‘eirēnē’ (‘peace’, 3 syllables) and ‘eudokia’ (4 syllables). Secondly, consider the narrative context. The message of the angels and their hymn of praise come to a group of terrified and probably not too literate shepherds - a beautiful example of God’s ‘good pleasure’ in revealing his truth to the ‘simple’. The subtleties of parallel structure may be some way over their heads (literally!), but the message is clear: ‘good will - God’s good will - among men’. To extrapolate ‘men of good will’ into ‘men on whom God’s favour rests’ would surely have been beyond them. No! The angels are bringing ‘good news’ (v.10), and doing so in banner headlines which any one can understand: “GLORY! PEACE! GOOD WILL! Thirdly, this reading is more consistent with the meaning of the noun ‘eudokia’ in the rest of the NT. We saw earlier that the verb ‘eudokō’ could either mean to ‘be pleased with’ someone (or something), or, when followed by an infinitive, to ‘be pleased to’ do something, to ‘have good intentions’, or ‘a good plan’. In all the other 8 occurrences of the noun ‘eudokia’, as we have seen, it takes its meaning from the second of these two usages of the verb: it means not ‘pleasure’ or ‘favour’ for someone, but rather ‘a good plan’ or ‘a good intention’ - or, in Romans 10 1, ‘a good desire’. Eight-nil seems to me to be a fairly decisive defeat for the idea that “men of ‘eodokia’” could mean “men on whom God’s favour rests”; it could only mean “men of good intentions”. If the angel choir came all the way from heaven to a chilly field near Bethlehem just to sing “Peace on earth among the well-intentioned”, one has to ask “Was their journey really necessary?” No, the birth-announcement (as they usually are) may be in the small print of the solo voice (“the angel of the Lord”, v.9), but the implications of this “good news” are chorused in three simple proclamations, as it were in capital letters: “GLORY TO GOD! PEACE ON EARTH! GOOD WILL TOWARDS MEN!” As so often, headlines do not tell the whole story, but are intended to arouse our interest in the full details which follow. So here, we need to read on through the New Testament to discover the whole wonderful truth of the gospel of grace; when this is understood, we can see that the full meaning of the angels’ song could be expressed like this: “Glory to God in the highest! The baby born in Bethlehem today inaugurates God’s gracious plan of salvation (‘eudokia’), which will make it possible for men on earth to be at peace with God in heaven”. Two thousand years of subsequent history have shown pretty conclusively that the angels were not proclaiming peace between man and man, but the even more important peace between sinful man and a holy God. The coming of Christ did not, alas, put and end to wars on earth, but it did make it possible for man to be at peace with God in heaven. We could even, perhaps, push the news story beneath the angels’ headlines a stage further. To have “peace with God” (Rom. 5.1) is the only way truly to have peace within oneself, the peace which Jesus promised to his disciples in John 14.27: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you ---”. Outside, war may be raging, and all too often is; but still Jesus’ followers can have peace within. So perhaps we could translate the angel’s proclamation a little differently: the preposition ‘en’ in Greek can mean ‘within’ as well as ‘among’, so here the angels may be promising “peace within the hearts of men”, made possible by God’s plan of salvation and the coming of Jesus, “the Prince of peace”.


' knowledge' and 'wisdom'
'gnōsis', 'sophia'

We need now to get back to the verse which launched our study of ‘eudokō’ and ‘eudokia’, 1 Corinthians 1.21: “For since in the wisdom of God the world did not get to know God through its ‘wisdom’, God was pleased (‘eudokō’) through the ‘foolishness’ of the gospel we proclaim to save those who have faith”. Just as Jesus contrasted wisdom and folly through his parables - of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7. 24-7, and of the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25. 1-13 - so in these opening paragraphs of his first letter to the Corinthians Paul, in his more abstract way, is making the same contrast - with added irony: the wisdom of God’s long-matured plan of salvation seems like foolishness to ‘sophisticated’ men and women, while all the accumulated ‘wisdom’ of mankind is mere folly in the eyes of God. And just as Jesus taught (Matt. 7.13-4), by simple pictures, the stark truth that there are only two ways to live and two paths to travel through life, the broad way that leads to destruction and the narrow way that leads to life; and that at the end of life’s journey there are only two gateways to pass through, the broad gate to destruction and the narrow gate to life, so Paul in this chapter is equally binary. EITHER men and women can start in pride and end in folly - the pride of worldly wisdom (‘philosophistry’) and the folly of godlessness - OR they can start in humility and end in wisdom - the humility that asks for help, and the godly wisdom to which we will now turn our attention.

(i) head- knowledge and heart-knowledge
Galatians 1.16
Col 2.3, Luke 1.77, Galatians 1.16, 2 Corinthians 4.6, Philippians 3.7-10, 1 Corinthians 8.1

What is the difference between wisdom and knowledge? When Paul says in Colossians 2. 3 that in Christ “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden”, is this just tautology, or is there a distinction? In an attempt at clarity, but at the risk of over-simplification, I would define the difference as follows: knowledge is truth learnt, while wisdom is knowledge lived. To be spiritually wise, one must have some knowledge of the truth; but it is just as possible to have little knowledge and much wisdom as to have much knowledge and little wisdom. The Greek word for knowledge is ‘gnōsis’ (as in English ‘diagnōsis’ and ‘prognōsis’), derived from the verb ‘ginōskō’. This noun occurs 29 times in the NT, 23 of them in the letters of Paul. Fear not! We will only look at a few key instances. Its first appearance is in Luke 1.77, when Zechariah, “full of the Holy Spirit”, prophesies that his son, John the Baptist, has been sent to “go before the Lord --- to give knowledge of salvation to his people”. This is the knowledge needed to answer the Philippian jailer’s question (Acts 16.30): “What must I do to be saved?”, that is, knowledge of the basic facts of the gospel - soteriology 101 (‘soteria’ is the Greek for ‘salvation’). But it is one thing to know the facts of God’s plan of salvation, and quite another to know the Saviour - the distinction often referred to as that between ‘head-knowledge’ and ‘heart-knowledge’. But even head-knowledge of the gospel can only be learnt if God, in his grace, chooses to reveal this mystery to us, as he revealed it to Paul. We saw in the first ‘mysteriology’ passage (Eph. 3.3) that Paul said that “the mystery of the gospel was made known to me by revelation”; but in Galatians 1. 16 he expresses the same truth in a significantly different way: “when God graciously decided to reveal his Son in me” - not, here. “to me” but “in me”: head-knowledge now becomes heart-knowledge. This is more fully expressed in 2 Corinthians 4.6, a deservedly famous verse: “It was the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge (‘gnōsis’) of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ”. This general statement of the ‘darkness to light’ image, which is a central theme of scripture from beginning to end, Paul rewrites as his own personal testimony in Philippians 3.7 ff.: “But whatever was gain for me [his Pharisaic background] for Christ’s sake I counted as loss; indeed I still do count everything else as loss because of the most important thing of all, the knowledge (‘gnōsis’ again) of Jesus Christ my Lord”. Now Paul’s overriding aim is to “be found in Christ” (v.9), and to “know him and the power of his resurrection” (v.10 - the verb ‘ginōskō’ here rather than the noun). While head-knowledge that does not lead to heart-knowledge is dry and dead - just as belief without faith is dry and dead - heart-knowledge needs to be securely based on head-knowledge - just as feelings need to be founded on facts - if our Christian lives are to have firm foundations that will survive the storms and floods of life. So Peter, at the beginning of his second letter, in laying down a seven-step programme for growth into Christian maturity, makes knowledge step two: “To your faith add goodness, and to your goodness add knowledge” (1.5). Then he ends his letter by exhorting us to “grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (3. 18) - “to know him more clearly --- day by day”, in the words of the well known prayer. Paul is confident that his Roman readers are “full of all knowledge” (15.14), and thanks God that the same is true at Corinth (1 Cor. 1.5). But he is also aware that, while love “builds up” a Christian fellowship, knowledge tends to “puff up” an individual Christian with pride (1 Cor. 8.1): knowledge which does not flow into the heart merely swells the head !

(ii) wisdom: [a] exemplified and promised by Jesus

Psalm 111.10, Luke 2.40,52, 21.15, Mark 6.2, Acts 6.3,10

Wisdom, by contrast (‘sophia’ in Greek, used 51 times in the NT), begins with “the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 111.10, Proverbs 9.10), which, far from “puffing us up”, cuts us down to size: pride and wisdom, godly wisdom, are incompatible. Our model, as always, is Jesus himself, who “took on the form of a servant and humbled himself”. From his earliest boyhood, Luke tells us, twice, “Jesus grew and became stronger, filled with wisdom” (2.40), and “Jesus grew in wisdom as he grew in height” (2.52). These two statements are balanced by two questions, reported in the other two synoptic gospels. Jesus returns to his boyhood home, Nazareth, and teaches in the synagogue, and his townspeople ask in amazement “what is this wisdom that has been given to him?” (Mark 6.2); Matthew’s version reads: “Where does this man’s wisdom come from?” (13.54). The use of ‘sophia’ here implies that Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue revealed not just his knowledge of the scriptures but also his application of that knowledge to the lives of his congregation. If the first stage of biblical exposition is to ask the question “what does this mean?” the second stage must be “what does this mean for me?” If these verses give us a glimpse of the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden” in Jesus (Col. 2.3), the next pair of verses shows that it is a treasury to which his followers can have access. In Luke 21, Jesus warns his disciples of the persecutions they will face when he is gone, but assures them that he is still able, by his Spirit, to help them: “I will give you words and wisdom which your opponents will not be able to withstand or gainsay” (v.15). Luke clearly remembers this promise when he comes to write Acts. In chapter 6, seven deacons (‘diakonoi’ in Greek) are chosen by the early church to help with its practical administration while the apostles give themselves to prayer and preaching (literally,“the ministry - ‘diaconia’- of the word” - they, too, are deacons!); these deacons must be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6.3) - the practical wisdom needed to ensure that their daily ‘serving’ (diakonia’) of food was fair to both the Hellenistic and the Jewish Christians. One of these deacons is Stephen. He does not seem to have read his job-description very carefully, for he is soon (v.8) performing “signs and wonders” and engaging in debate with some Hellenistic Jews, who “were not able to withstand (‘antistēnai’, literally 'stand against', as in Jesus’ promise in Luke 21.15) the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (v.10) - so his character reference, at least, checked out.

[b] Wisdom in James
James 1.5, 3.17, 4.2

If such wisdom is a gift of the Spirit promised by Jesus in times of need, how do we obtain it? James gives us the answer to this question. I have, from time to time in this study, indulged in some idle speculation; here is my final foray into this ‘terra incognita’ of bible exposition. James was Jesus’ brother, presumably still living in Nazareth when Jesus returns there to teach in the synagogue. Was he among those who, incredulous and unbelieving, asked “where does this man’s wisdom come from?” (Matthew 13.54) If so, by the time he writes his letter he has discovered the answer: “True wisdom, wisdom that is holy, comes from above”, that is, from God (3.17) - and to “holy” he adds another 6 adjectives to give a sevenfold picture of what ‘knowledge lived’ looks like in a holy life. Not only does James tell us where wisdom comes from he also tells us how to get it: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask for it from God, who does not blame us for our weakness, but gives generously to everyone, and wisdom will be given to you” (1.5). The corollary is obvious: those who don’t ask don’t get, as James, ever full of practical good sense, tells us a few chapters later: “You do not have because you do not ask” (4.2): simple - though not necessarily easy.

[c] Wisdom in Colossians

But if wisdom comes in time of need as a free gift of the Spirit, it also comes through hard graft in study of the scriptures. Paul tells the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ make its home in your hearts, filling you richly with all wisdom” (3.16). We saw earlier that it was Paul’s pastoral aim to “present everyone spiritually mature in Christ (Col. 1.28), and to this end he “taught every person and instructed every person in all wisdom”. Now he tells them to “teach and instruct each other” in the wisdom they have learned from their study of the word of Christ living in them. The two verbs used in both these verses are ‘didaskō’, to teach (which gives us ‘didactic’), and ‘nouthetō’, the first half of which is ‘nou[s]’, meaning, as in English, ‘sense’ or ‘intelligence’, while the second half is from ‘tithēmi’, to ‘put straight’. The two verbs, then, are not quite synonyms: ‘didaskō’ means to ‘teach the truth’, while ‘nouthetō’ means to ‘correct error’. If the health and maturity of a church are measured by the level of biblical knowledge of its individual members, and by its mutual sharing and teaching of this knowledge, it is also measured by the depth of its concern for those outside. Paul’s final use of ‘sophia’ in Colossians is in chapter 4 verse 5: “Walk in wisdom towards those who are outside the church, making the most of every opportunity --- knowing how you should answer each individual who asks you about your faith” - this last clause is not in the text, but seems required by the context! In such personal evangelism, “each individual” is different, and requires a different approach, though the truth we have to communicate, the truth of the gospel, is always the same. If we are to be effective in our evangelism, we need both the knowledge of this saving truth which comes through the word of God, and the wisdom, which comes from the Spirit of Jesus, to communicate it appropriately in each situation.

(d) wisdom through teaching
Matthew 28.19-20

Paul tells us, in the verse which we started from, Colossians 2.3, that wisdom and knowledge are both “treasures hidden in Christ”; this means that they are both ‘mysteries’. But Jesus himself tells us that there is “nothing hidden (‘apokruphos’, as in Col. 2.3) that will not be known (‘ginōskō’) and become clear” (Luke 8.17). This revelation, as we have seen, comes in two stages. God’s plan of salvation, for long ages shrouded in secrecy, is finally revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and proclaimed by the apostles: it is now an open secret. All who hear and, by the Spirit’s light, understand this proclamation of the gospel now have “the knowledge of salvation” - the knowledge that is ‘truth learnt’. But this head-knowledge must become heart-knowledge; belief ‘in’ Christ must become faith ‘into’ him, as Jesus reveals himself not just ‘to’ us but ‘in’ us. We then have access to “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden in Jesus”, but this wonderful treasure only becomes ours as, with the Spirit’s guidance (he has the treasure-map!), we explore the scriptures. It is here that the church needs to be faithful to its ‘great commission’, not just to preach the gospel to every nation, but to “make them disciples” of Jesus (Matt. 28.19). All Christians are disciples, and disciples are learners: Christian disciples are lifelong learners. Learners need teachers, so Jesus goes on to tell the apostles to make disciples by “teaching them to observe everything I have commanded” (v.20). So a mature church, one that satisfies Paul’s aspirations and answers his prayers, is one where truth is taught and error is corrected: these are the two sides of the same coin, both vital to a healthy church, though ‘correcting error’ is today too often ‘tails’.

Knowledge and wisdom: summary

If, then, ‘truth learnt’ becomes merely head-knowledge it can all too easily ‘puff up’, as Paul warns; but heart-knowledge should lead to humility, and humility is the beginning of wisdom. Just as mystery, translated by the Spirit into truth, becomes knowledge, so knowledge, translated by the same Holy Spirit into daily living, becomes wisdom, the wisdom needed to take the right decisions, to make the right friends, and to say the right words at the right time. Such wisdom, as James reminds us, can only come “from above” (3.15, 17), from “God who alone is wise” (Rom. 16.37). It is the wisdom of God himself, modelled throughout his earthly life by Jesus, and now mediated by his Spirit living in us. If true knowledge is knowing how much we still have to learn, true wisdom is realising how little wisdom we have, and how much we need. And “if any of you lacks wisdom --” - James again (1.5) - “---let him ask for it from God, who gives generously to every one”.

(4) Romans 16. 25-7
'sigō'

We come now, at last, to the fourth and final passage in which Paul sets out the mystery of the gospel. It comes, appropriately enough, in the great doxology at the end of Paul’s greatest epistle, Romans. In the first 15 chapters and 23 verses of this letter he has only used ‘musterion’ once, his reference to ‘the mystery of the Jews’ in chapter 11 that we looked at earlier. His full ‘mysteriology’, however, he reserves until the very end; its key features are indicated by the numbers in brackets, as explained before the first passage on page 82:
“To him who has the power to keep you standing firm in the faith of the gospel I have expounded to you, the proclamation of Jesus Christ, [6] the revelation of the mystery which was [4] shrouded in silence [5] for long ages of time, BUT NOW [6] has been made clear [6] and made known to all the nations of the world, [11] Jews and gentiles alike, [3] through the prophecies of scripture [2] as ordained by the eternal God so that they might believe and obey - [1] to the God who alone is wise through Jesus Christ be glory for ever. Amen. (16: 25-7 - v. 24 is now generally omitted, since it is not found in the best MSS). Perhaps I should say that in the above version “shrouded in silence” is something of an over-translation; literally, the verb just means “kept silent”. This verb needs a brief comment, both because it is unusual in itself, and because in his other treatments of ‘stage [4]’ of his ‘mysteriology’ he uses ‘apokruptō’, to ‘hide away’. Here, however, he uses ‘sigō’, which is used 10 times in the NT, but in all its other 9 appearances it is used in its normal, intransitive, sense to ‘be silent’ - as when the Sadducees, after asking Jesus their ‘catch 22’ question about paying taxes to Caesar, “were amazed at his answer, and fell silent” (Luke 20.26). But here Paul uses the verb in the passive, as though in the active it meant, not to ‘be silent’ but to ‘keep something silent’; there is no equivalent usage to this in English, whence my rather fanciful translation. In English, one can ‘silence’ a crowd - or even, with difficulty, an unruly classroom; but here the context requires to ‘keep silent about’, or ‘not to talk about’. It is, in effect, the equivalent of ‘apokruptō’: if this means to ‘keep unseen’, ‘sigō’ here means to ‘keep unsaid’. It is possible that, in using this unusual word in an unusual sense, Paul has in mind the root meaning of ‘musterion’ which we looked at right at the start of this study. It is derived from the verb ‘muō’, to ‘close the lips’, or to ‘keep mum’. In the pagan world, mysteries were so called because their sacred rituals were never to be revealed to any except insiders: they were to be ‘shrouded in silence’. But Paul here deliberately balances the past participle “kept silent” with its antithesis, the very next word in the Greek text, “made clear”, not just to a few initiates but to “all the nations of the world”. This is exactly the same phrase Jesus used in his ‘great commission’ to his disciples as he took his leave of them and ascended into heaven: “Go to all the nations of the world and make them my disciples” (Matt. 28.19). God’s great mystery, the mystery of the gospel, is a mystery no more, but a glorious truth and a rich treasure, and we who are privileged to live in the ‘BUT NOW’ age have the equivalent responsibility of shining the light of God’s revealed truth in a dark world, and sharing the riches of this priceless treasure, long buried but now wonderfully discovered, with a world living in spiritual poverty. This is the prime purpose of the church collectively, and the pressing responsibility of each of us individually. We are each of us entrusted by our Master with the ‘pound’ of the gospel: will we share it, or bury it?

Next->mystery completed