Mustērion


2. MYSTERY AS PARABLE AND SYMBOL.

(a) The parable of the Sower.
'parabolō'
Hebrews9.9, 11.19

Let us, then, at last, come to Christ, and in particular to his parables. We have seen that in the OT God reveals his truth - or part-reveals it - in both words and pictures, presenting his people with ‘mysteries’ which need interpretation before revelation can be complete. A parable is a picture in words, and so is a mystery twice over. It is worth noting in this context that the only occurrences of the word ‘parable’ (Greek ‘parabolē’, literally ‘a comparison’) outside the gospels are in the letter to the Hebrews, both referring to foreshadowings of the gospel in the OT. The sacrificial system in the tabernacle is a ‘parable’ (NIV ‘illustration’) which can only be seen as such, and so interpreted, “in this present age”, now that the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ in the cross has been offered (9.9). Similarly, in 11.19, God’s last-second intervention to prevent Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, his “only-begotten” son, and the substitution of a ram caught by its horns in a thicket, is a ‘parable’ of receiving new life in Christ through his sacrificial death in our place. Here are two more of the jigsaw pieces of God’s part-revelation in the OT of his master plan. But parables need interpretation, and for the parable of the sower we are given an interpretation by Jesus himself: he is the Daniel providing the solution to the mystery his own parable has posed. The parable of the sower is recorded in all three synoptic gospels, and in all three it provokes a question from the disciples. In Matthew, they ask “Why do you teach them in parables ?” (13.10); Mark just says “they questioned him about the parables” (4.10). Luke, as so often, is more subtly expressive: “they asked him what this parable might be” (8.9); the (rarely used) optative mood of the verb here suggests, perhaps, the disciples’ bafflement: “they asked him what on earth this parable was all about” might be a way of expressing this. But in all three gospels Jesus’ answer is the same, and it seems to correspond most directly with the question asked in Matthew’s version: “To you it is given to know the mysteries of God, but to the others [it is revealed] in parables” (Luke 8.10). The second half of this sentence lacks a verb in the Greek, so I have taken the liberty of supplying one, though perhaps “part-revealed” would have been more appropriate. Matthew’s version ends more bluntly: “ --- but to them it is not given” (13.11). The verb ‘to know’ here (in all three versions) is ‘gnōnai’, its ‘gno-‘ stem now, I hope, familiar from ‘gnōrizō’, which we met in the previous section. Here, then, we have a miniature example of our main theme. God, now in the person of his Son, part-reveals some of his truths in the form of a parable; this ‘mystery’ is then explained, so that revelation is complete and leads to knowledge - knowledge which is then ‘made known’ to the many by the few to whom it has been revealed, the apostles, who both taught it to the church in their own age, and recorded it in scripture for all ages and “all nations”.

(b) Symbols in Revelation
Revelation 1.20, 17.5-7

We will return to these synoptic chapters in a moment, but first, having looked at the 3 occurrences of ‘mustērion’ in the gospels, we will turn to 3 of the 4 in Revelation. If a parable is a verbal metaphor, a symbol is a visual metaphor, and both are in equal need of interpretation. The Book of Revelation is full of symbols, each one a ‘mystery’ - which has led to a great deal of speculation down the ages. But on two occasions an interpretation is supplied for us. The first of these could be seen as a parallel with the parable of the sower, in that the interpretation is given by Jesus himself. This is, of course, the risen Christ who appears to John in all his glory at the beginning of the book. First, he hears behind him a great voice, and “turning round I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the middle of the lampstands one like the Son of Man --- holding in his right hand seven stars” (vv. 12-13, 16). Jesus says to him: “Write what you have seen, the things that are and the things that must happen after this. The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, [is this]: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (19-20). Just as with the explanation of the parable of the sower (“the sower sows the word ---”, etc., Matt. 4.13), the explanations here are simple one-for-one (or 7 for 7!) equivalents, so that for John these two features of his vision are now, indeed, revelation, and he can record it in scripture, as he is instructed, so that his knowledge is now available to all who read. In the ensuing chapters, John saw many things and much symbolism which is not so helpfully interpreted for us; but in chapter 17 he has a vision which, in some ways, is the antithesis of his vision of Christ in chapter 1. This is his vision of the gorgeously arrayed “whore of Babylon” seated on a beast “with seven heads and ten horns”; her name is inscribed on her forehead: “Mystery! Babylon the Great, mother of whores and the abomination of the earth”. Not surprisingly, John is amazed, but the angel says to him: “Why are you amazed? I will tell you the mystery of the woman and of the beast which carries her” (17. 5-7). The remainder of the chapter consists of a series of explanations of the details of the vision which John has seen - though it must be said that, even so, there is much that remains a mystery, as is true of the book as a whole. This leads us to an interesting point, not often, I think, remarked upon. With regard to ‘mystery’, we today are in much the same situation as were the people of Israel in the OT. They knew one thing for sure, because God had revealed it to them unambiguously, that a Messiah was coming, but they knew neither exactly when or how he would come, or what his mission would be. This had been revealed, but only in part, so that it was a mystery to them - and still is, as we shall see later. Likewise, we today know for certain that Christ, the Messiah, will come again, because Jesus himself told us so many times, but the details of when and where and how remain a mystery. Much is revealed, both in Revelation and elsewhere in the NT; but, as with so much of OT prophecy before the coming of Christ, many of the details, while inviting speculation, defy authoritative interpretation - they remain a mystery. One day, some day, all will be revealed, and the many pieces of the jigsaw which now we find so puzzling will suddenly all fall into place, and we will see clearly God’s big picture, whose centrepiece, we can be sure, will be Jesus himself. Then, finally, the journey from darkness to light will have been completed, and we will no longer “know in part”, but will know everything, “even as we are known” (1 Cor. 13.12).

(c) The ‘Lampstand’ Parables
‘luchnia’
Matthew 5.14-15, Luke 11.33-36

We now return to the synoptic gospels. We have looked at the three occurrences of the actual word ‘mustērion’, but now we turn to two related sayings of Jesus which shed further light on the theme of mystery in scripture, and which will help us to explore some of its related vocabulary. The ‘mystery’ of the seven golden lampstands in Revelation 1 provides us with a convenient link. The Greek for ‘lampstand’ is ‘luchnia’, which occurs 7 times in Revelation - yet another of the numerous 7’s in the book. The first 4 we have met already in chapter 1, and these are quickly followed by 2 more in the letter to the church at Ephesus at the beginning of chapter 2; all these are pictures of the church. The final instance, however, is in 11.4, where the 2 witnesses are referred to as “the two olive trees and the two lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth”; this reminds us that, just as the essential purpose of a lampstand is to give light in the darkness, so the church’s main calling is to witness to Christ, the light of the world. Apart from a single passing reference in Hebrews (9.2, a list of the furniture in the tabernacle), the only other uses of ‘luchnia’ in the NT all occur in a saying of Jesus, which is recorded 4 times, so that ‘luchnia’ occurs 12 times in all. It would be easy to assume that these 4 ‘lampstand’ parables, which is what they are, should all be interpreted similarly - easy, but wrong! The best known of the 4 versions comes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, right after the beatitudes, which is probably why it is so familiar, and has given to English idiom the phrase ‘hiding one’s light under a bushel’. A more up-to-date version might read: “You are the light of the world --- people do not light a lamp and then put it under a storage jar - no, they put it on a lampstand, and then it gives light to everyone in the house” (Matt. 5. 14-15). In this context, the analogy, or mini-parable, of the lamp on the lampstand clearly expresses the call to Christ’s disciples to be witnesses to his love and light to the world outside the church, and it is in this sense that the lampstand is used in Revelation. Jesus’ next words establish this context: “Let your light shine in the presence of your fellow men and women ---” (v.16). Luke records this analogy twice. The second instance (11. 33-6) also seems to be about the importance of Christian witness: we can only shine effectively for others if we ourselves are full of light, if, as Jesus puts it, our “eye is single”. The other two uses, however, are in a quite different context, and have a quite different significance, and they are the reason for this brief detour, which has now brought us back to our main theme.

(d) The Parable of the Sower (continued)
Luke 8.16-18

Both these uses occur in the aftermath of the parable of the sower, in Jesus’ discourse to his disciples about the use of parables in general, where he implies that parables are ‘mysteries’ revealed to the disciples but hidden from the crowds. In both Mark and Luke, Jesus reveals to his disciples the ‘mystery’ of the parable, and then continues as follows (in Luke, which is slightly shorter): “No one lights a lamp, and then hides it in a pot or puts it under a bed, but rather puts it on a lampstand, so that all who enter the room may see the light. For there is nothing that is concealed that will not become clear, nor anything that is hidden away which will not be known and made clear. So watch out how you listen; for whoever has, to him will be given [more], but whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken away from him” (Luke 8.16-18, = Mark 4.21-5). These verses express the essence of the ‘mystery principle’ which we saw so well illustrated in Daniel. Here, the ‘light’ is the light of the gospel, part-revealed in prophecy and parable, only so that it may be fully revealed to the apostles and through them to the world. Just as a householder does not go to the trouble of lighting a lamp, and the expense of burning up his precious supply of olive oil, only to cover it up and stay in the dark, so God has not sent his prophets, or his Son, into the world so that their message should be for ever shrouded in mystery and obscurity, but so that, in due course, all should become clear; nor does Jesus tell parables so that they should for ever perplex us, but in order that those who truly listen to them should come into the light of God’s truth.

Hearing or listening?
‘akouō’
Mark 4.1-25

It is listening which is the key; or, if we update Jesus’ analogy, we might say that listening is the light-switch. It is Mark who particularly emphasises the importance of listening, and not just hearing. Greek is (for once!) at a disadvantage here, for it has only one verb, ‘akouō’, to cover both ideas, so that the context has to determine whether ‘hear’ or ‘listen’ is the more appropriate translation, though the tense of the verb also gives us an important clue. Mark’s version of the parable of the sower begins with the imperative “Listen!” (4.3). The form of the verb used here (‘akouete’) is both plural and present, and a present imperative in Greek is what is known as ‘present continuous’: “go on hearing”, and so “listen”. At the end of the parable (v.9) Jesus concludes with the admonition “he who has ears to hear, let him listen”. The first verb merely expresses the physical ability - the sense - of hearing; the second repeats the present imperative in v.3 (though now third person singular rather than second person plural): “let him continue to hear” - which is to “listen”. The verb ‘akouō’ is used 10 more times in this one chapter, two of them in a repetition of this admonition (v.23). This is followed by another imperative: “See” - or “watch” - “how you hear”, which could, perhaps, be paraphrased “make sure that when you hear you really listen”, so that the prophecy that Jesus quoted earlier, referring (originally, at least) to the Jews of Isaiah’s day, is now fulfilled also in them, that “seeing they should see and not see” (i.e. “get the point”), “and hearing they should hear [rather than listen], and so not understand” (v. 12, = Is. 6.9).Then, in v. 25, comes the verse I quoted earlier in the context of the wisdom of Daniel: “The one who has, to him will be given”; the verb ‘has’ here really requires an object, which is most naturally supplied from v. 23, where the verb ‘has’ first occurs, so that the whole sequence reads: “Whoever has ears to hear, let him listen. Make sure that your hearing is listening, for whoever has a listening ear, to him will be given more, but whoever does not have a listening ear, from him will be taken even what he has” (23-5). In spiritual anatomy, of course, a listening ear is located in the heart, and is a key feature of the ‘good soil’ which is the subject of the parable of the sower. It is, I think, significant that in Jesus’ explanation of the parable each of the four groups “hears the word”, but in the first 3 the verb is in the aorist (“when they have heard it”, vv. 15, 16, 18), indicating just a single act of hearing, whereas Jesus says of the 4th group, those who are sown in the good soil, that they “go on listening” to the word (present tense, v. 20), so that their roots continually deepen and strengthen, so that “more is given to them”. If, as we saw earlier in the context of Daniel, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, it is because “the fear of the Lord” creates a listening ear. Keen observers may have noticed that in my paraphrase of verses 23-5 above I omitted a large chunk of v. 24; this was to make the logical flow more apparent. In fact, these words of Jesus make an appropriate conclusion to the ‘lampstand parable’. “In what measure you measure, it will be measured out to you and added to you”. This saying of Jesus, too, is repeated in the other two synoptic gospels (Matt. 7.2, Luke 6.38), and forms part of the Sermon on the Mount or Sermon on the Plain respectively. But, once again, the context is crucial to the meaning. In Matthew the context is “Do not be judgemental”: the more generously you judge others, the more generously you yourself will be judged. In Luke, the context shifts on slightly from judging (v.37) to giving: the more generously you give to others, the more generously they will give to you. The context in Mark is, as we have seen at some length, quite different: “Listen! For the measure of your listening will be the measure of your learning”. The more we listen the more we learn, and the deeper our roots in Christ grow; and the deeper our roots grow, the more fruitful we become in our service for Christ, and the more brightly our light shines. It is listening that transforms mystery into knowledge, and holiness that elevates knowledge into wisdom.

(e) The “nothing hidden” sayings of Jesus.
Matt.10.26, Mark 4.22, Luke 8.17, 12.2

Before we move on to Pauline ‘mustērion’, we will take a look at some of the related vocabulary that the ‘lampstand’ parable introduces us to. These key words are contained in what I shall refer to in short as the “nothing hidden” sayings of Jesus, one of which we have already looked at in Luke 8.16. This in turn introduces us to a remarkable parallelism. Just as the ‘lampstand’ parable appears 4 times in the 3 synoptic gospels, so does the “nothing hidden” saying; and in both cases it is Luke who repeats the passage. Two of the “nothing hidden” sayings follow on immediately from ‘lampstand’ parables (Mark 4.22, Luke 8.17), and so emphasise the point that it is God’s eternal purpose that the darkness of mystery should, sooner or later, be opened up into the light of knowledge. The other two, as with the lampstand, are found in quite different contexts, focusing not on God’s plan of progressive revelation, but on our response to that revelation. The two other ‘lampstand’ references support Jesus’ exhortation, first to his apostles and then to all his disciples, to holiness of life (Luke 11.33) and to witness to the world (Matt. 5.15-16). The other two “nothing hidden” sayings are quite separate from these ‘lampstands’, though they combine to make the same distinction between responding inwardly to the light of the gospel and reflecting it outwardly. The latter point is made in Matthew 10.26, and so develops the ‘lampstand’ parable of chapter 5, with its linked imperative “you are the light of the world”. The context in chapter 10 is different. Jesus is talking to his disciples, not to the crowds, and he is giving them instructions for their forthcoming mission. Opposition and persecution are to be expected, but not feared: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, nor concealed that will not be known. What I tell you in the darkness you must speak in the light, and what you hear [whispered] in your ear you must proclaim from the rooftops.” There are, indeed, mysteries in Christianity, but Christianity is certainly not a mystery religion, whose secrets are confined to an elite inner circle of initiates: what is revealed to the apostles is to be made known to the world. The other occurrence of this saying is in Luke 12, a chapter containing much of the material of Jesus’ discourse to his disciples in Matthew 10. But the immediate context of the “nothing hidden” saying is quite different. “Be on your guard”, Jesus tells them, “against the leaven of the Pharisees, that is, hypocrisy. For nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, or concealed that will not be made known” (vv. 1-2).Only God knows the truth of the human heart, and those who deceive their fellow men with outward shows of piety cannot deceive their all-knowing Creator: one day, Judgement Day, all will be revealed. I have developed this point at some length because it seems to me that such patterning across all three synoptic gospels cannot be due to the artistic sense of any one writer, but must be the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the supreme architect of scripture.

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