“Mystery” in the New Testament

The Hebrew professor spoke the phrase “eved elohim” to the class, explaining that it means “servant of God”. One of his students, a rather passionate and impulsive young man, abruptly stood up from his seat, turned his back to the rest of the class, whipped off his shirt, and shouted, “That’s what I’ve got on my back!” Sure enough, there it was, in black and teal Hebrew lettering, tattooed onto his skin.

Have you seen any tattoos inked in a different language? Chinese is popular, as its characters are intrinsically artistic.  I’ve also seen tattoos in Greek and like the one above, in Hebrew. My wife, who has no tattoos, has recently mused that perhaps Gaelic would be a nice language for a tattoo. A language other than one’s own adds a sense of mystery to a tattoo. “What does that say?” “What language is that?” “What does it mean?” Ironically, rather than keeping a secret, foreign language tattoos invite curiosity. I remembered hearing in another of my seminary classes that the biblical concept of mystery was similar, in that it is not something that is intended to hide, but something that is to be revealed.

For years, the unofficial gatekeeper at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago was Dr. Klyne Snodgrass. Actually, it was his class, entitled “Interpreting the New Testament I”, that separated the wheat from the chaff among first-year students. Dr. Snodgrass is a gentle, hospitable Tennessean who, along with his wife Phyllis, invites students into his home each semester for a time of food and fellowship. But when it comes to the Scriptures, students in his classes are expected to fully engage and interact with the assigned material – no excuses. I found it amazing that not only could Klyne quote, complete with chapter and verse, just about any passage in the Bible, but he could also tell you, off the top of his head, what various interpreters and commentators had to say about that passage.

So when it came to discovering what the New Testament has to say about “mystery”, I sought out Dr. Snodgrass. He concurred with me that the term is usually connected to God’s revelation, not some sort of desire God has to keep things hidden from God’s creatures. He also pointed me in the direction of two books: one dense and erudite, the other thin and–well, I have to admit I don’t remember the other adjective. I also promptly forgot the title and author of the thicker volume. But I did jot down the second one, and began a search for Raymond Brown’s The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament. Amazon.com had it, but so did the Creighton University Library. I asked my wife, who works at Creighton, to pick it up for me. Apparently the last time this popular book had been checked out was in May, 1985! I believe Brown’s little book gives us some interesting conversation pieces to share when talking to someone who has a mysterious tattoo – one that incites curiosity and invites questions.

In the first section of the book, Brown deals with several words from the Old Testament and other Semitic texts that can be translated “mystery”. One of these words, he explains, “Besides referring to an assembly in heaven (or on earth), conveys the notion of intimate friendship” (5). Later, when discussing Jesus’ parables, Brown notes that

“…even to outsiders the mystery is at least given; and the parables which cloak it are not meaningless narration. The parable gives some knowledge of the kingdom of God without completely unveiling it. The complete unveiling will come not so much by way of added revelation, as of added perception gained through faith, so that hearers may comprehend what they have already heard” (36).

Jesus reveals the mysteries, contained in many of his parables, directly to his disciples when they gather in more secluded, more intimate places. One might say that God desires an intimate relationship in which to reveal God’s mysteries to us. Mystery is linked with intimacy. Perhaps then in a similar manner, asking another about the mystery contained in their tattoo can lead to some surprisingly intimate revelations about the meaning in their ink and their life.

It is not surprising that most of Brown’s book deals with the Apostle Paul’s use of the word “mystery”. Paul’s letters to the various churches contain most of its appearances in the New Testament. Brown suggests that “…Paul’s favorite use of mysterion [is] the divine economy of redemption” (50), and “…for Paul, Christ’s life and role in the salvation of man [sic] are the revelation of God’s mysterious plan hidden from ages past” (51). For Paul, “the gospel announces the mystery, which is salvation for all in Christ” (64).

When we put these two concepts together, one might say that God desires an intimate relationship with us in which he can reveal to us the way of salvation, which is Jesus Christ. Following Christ, submitting to Jesus’ lordship and committing to his kingdom are the way of salvation. Because God’s kingdom of justice, reconciliation, beauty, and wholeness is not readily seen in our world, it remains for some a mystery yet to be revealed. The task of the believer, then, is to develop intimate relationships in which we can be witnesses of the mystery being unveiled: “Yes, I can see signs of God’s kingdom–and you can too.”

I’ve discovered that simply saying “I like your ink – is there a story?” can lead to deep, surprisingly intimate conversations with people you may not even know before you asked the question. If their tattoo contains some sort of mysterious element, ask if they are willing to share that with you. Another simple phrase here: “That looks cool. Can you tell me what it means?” Let your curiosity lead you, and see what God, through the Holy Spirit, reveals to you and your new friend.

 

All citations from Brown, Raymond E. The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1968.

NOTE: I’ve added a new book (published in 2014) to my Kindle, called Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery. It’s written by G. K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd. I’ll let you know about it soon.

Mystery: Definitions 2 and 3

Laying in my bed, I tried to stay awake and listen to Radio Mystery Theater and its creepy host, the late E. G. Marshall. Living my middle school and high school years in Minnesota, the show aired at 9:00pm on WCCO. According to their website,

CBS Radio Mystery Theater was meant to appeal to an audience that remembered when old time radio drama was a popular form of family entertainment. Riding on the wave of nostalgia fever, the radio show attracted many younger listeners who would stay up late, hidden under their covers to hear the program on their bedroom radio (and many of them were not able to go to sleep after listening to the frightening program!)

Radio drama was just one of the ways I fed my love of mysteries. I still enjoy mystery novels, television shows (especially the British ones) and movies. For me, mystery means trying to stay one step ahead of the plot, only to delightfully find myself two steps behind. My brain  always tries to solve the mystery, to understand the world, to consume information about how things work and how things happen in the world.

However, this is not the only definition of mystery. According to the  dictionary on my iMac, the word “mystery” has at least four  possible definitions:

  1. something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain;
  2. a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder;
  3. the secret rites of Greek and Roman pagan religion, or of any ancient or tribal religion, to which only initiates are admitted;
  4. a religious belief based on divine revelation, especially one regarded as beyond human understanding.

A chief desire that  I have for Ink and Skin: Word Made Flesh is to help readers make connections between the art that we apply to our bodies and the Spirit that inhabits them. One of the ways that we can do this is through the idea of mystery. While I began this post talking about mystery as defined by #2 in the list above, it is the other three definitions that apply more directly to body art and its connections to spirituality. I plan to present several blog posts that deal with these other aspects of mystery.

Let’s take a look at definition #3: mystery as a sacred rite that belongs to a particular religious sect. One might argue, in the case of Judaism (and early Christianity), that circumcision is a body art/marking that could match this definition of  mystery. It probably also fits into mystery definitions 1 and 4, as one may be hard-pressed to explain its practice to others.

Tattoos have a long history of use as part of religious rites, and can mark the bearers as belonging to a particular group or sect. John A. Rush notes that “The Greeks and Romans used tattooing to indicate status or clan membership (slave, freeman, political affiliation, etc.) and for religious/mystical/spiritual reasons (ancestor worship, life and death rituals, curing procedures).” (Rush, John A. Spiritual Tattoo. Berkeley: Frof, Ltd., 2005.) A rather innocuous way that this takes place is with friends who get the same tattoo, perhaps on the same location of their bodies, to signify a bond they have with one another. On the malevolent side of the spectrum, gang members often bear tattooed gang symbols to “permanently” display  loyalty to the gang. These symbols, both those shared by friends and those shared by gang members, can have mysterious connotations known only to those on the inside of the group. The irony of an outside marking, the meaning of which is known only by insiders, will eventually lead us to our other posts dealing with “mystery”. For now, I suggest that these tattoos are, like most tattoos, an invitation for us to enter into a conversation with their bearers.

Our curiosity about others’ tattoos, which leads us to say, “I like your ink – is there a story?”, might lead us to someone whose story includes a belief that they have been permanently, even religiously marked in a negative manner. They may believe they are beyond God’s help, that their life and behavior has cast them away from God’s care. Perhaps their mystery, embedded in their tattoo, points to their despair or their longing. This is where we might make a connection to the points that Samuel Kee makes about the permanence of the tattoos God has artistically rendered onto the skin of our souls.

In his book, Soul Tattoo,  Kee imaginatively suggests that God has given us four permanent, indelible “tattoos”, each of which helps to mark our identity. (Kee, Samuel. Soul Tattoo. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014.) The following tattoos represent God’s never-changing words to each of us:

  1. “You are mine”
  2. “I will be with you”
  3. “I love you”
  4. “I created you for my glory”

These are the words that many are longing to hear, and Kee tells us that they are already tattooed onto our souls. Using these images, Kee gently introduces readers to a God who is concerned for them, and who can transform them regardless of their past. I’m happy to recommend Soul Tattoo as an “Introduction to Christianity for the Inked.”

Don’t touch that dial! More on mystery in future posts.