Wednesday, November 7, 2012

This Mystery is Great: Unity and Marriage

A few months ago I began meditating, reading and praying over a familiar New Testament (NT) passage. It is a passage popular at weddings. It was my turn to read it as I had done many times I had presided at weddings. This time, however, I was the father and the bride was our firstborn daughter. I prepared fully anticipating the possibility I just might choke-up a bit. I did, _ but I got past it to pronounce my daughter and her fiancé as husband and wife. It was during my preparation that I sensed a need to understand and appreciate more fully the title words of this article which are the words in that passage. (Yes, of course. The condensed wedding message was about a three sentence summary.)

Sometimes when things are not explained or not explained satisfactorily they are often dismissed and written off as being incomprehensible, mysterious, conspiracies, matters to be scorned and mocked. Discussion is often averted with glib, unconvincing responses such as, “You just gotta have faith” or the squeaky new modern, “It is what it is” neither of which offers any understanding which might enlighten listeners.

This is often true in matters of faith and politics. Some of the New Testament writers in the Bible often wrote of what they called a mystery. This has led some NT readers to view those scripture passages as a mystery; secretive and incomprehensible. Worse still is when saints in Christ are admonished by those who preach and teach to simply believe rather than do the work of praying, examining, discussing and understanding those mysteries like all other difficult matters of faith. The result is saints live weak lives, are easily troubled or confused or drawn away by what, at least in the moment, seems to make sense to them. However, the NT use of the term by those writers is nothing like the above when they spoke of mysteries.

A great mystery

When people ask, “Can you keep a secret?” it can mean two things. They want to tell you a secret, or they want to make sure that what they tell you will remain a secret and unknown to anyone. A mystery can be like a secret in that it too can remain unknown. However, unlike a secret which can remain unknown by choice a mystery can remain impenetrable and without comprehension despite great efforts to understand it, to reveal it and to make it known. The apostle Paul in the first century made reference to a mystery that is great when he wrote to the church in the city of Ephesus in chapter five of his letter.

This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.

Paul wrote these words after an immediate, prior reference to man and woman in the same letter.

For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother,
and shall cleave to his wife;
and the two shall become one flesh.

Specifically, he related the flesh oneness of man and woman with the spirit oneness of Christ and the church. This use of flesh and spirit by the apostle may seem strange especially given the constant appeals and admonitions by Paul for the saints in Christ to walk not in the flesh, but in the Spirit.

Yet, Paul does not appear to speak of this mystery as something which was unknown or which was to remain unknown to the saints in Christ at Ephesus or throughout the ages. He definitely did not intend to be deliberately obscure or cryptic in his message to the saints in Christ on this matter.

The mystery seems to be something which was to be understood, as in the relationship between man and woman, but also as between Christ and the church.

Again, this seems especially true given that Paul uses the word nourish, cherish and love in the marriage union as clear and palpable outward expressions between spouses in marriage. His call for husbands to love their wives is likened to how Christ loved the church.

The importance of understanding this mystery that is great

Why is it important for the saints in Christ to understand the meaning of this great mystery? One reason is the fact that it centers on the human relationship between Adam and Eve. Second, it necessarily takes one back to that moment when Satan came between Adam and Eve to disrupt their relationship with each other and with God. Third, it is the fact that Satan didn't stop after he lied about God to Adam and Eve. A fourth reason may be as concerns the significance of mysteries in religious cults. Specifically, in Ephesus and throughout Asia the cult of Artemis was dominant in which mysteries were known only to a select, elite few.

After the fall of mankind in the garden Satan proceeded to lie about God. Satan continues to deceive many concerning what God said about the fulfillment purpose of a man with a woman and a woman with a man. There are many who have believed Satan. They have believed their own rationale that all manner of human relationships are pleasing to God if, 1) one was born in that way, 2) they are not hurting anyone, or 3) they are happy. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I believe to understand this great mystery is to understand something about the nature, the oneness, of God and how he desires to see that same oneness in marriage and in the church.

There are some questions which emerge for the saints to examine on this great mystery.
  1. What is the significance of this great mystery?
  2. What does this great mystery suggest about the nature and purpose of God and his relation to mankind and the church?
  3. How does it concern man and woman in marriage?
  4. How does it concern the church?
  5. Why does Paul draw such a correlation between man and woman and Christ and the church?
  6. Is there a manner in which all mankind, not just the saints in Christ, participate and are therefore aware of the reality of this great mystery?
In the beginning

The significance (1) of this great mystery of human interaction is that it has been lost. This is not to say one cannot understand or acquire this great mystery anew. It is to say it is forgotten in troubled, abandoned relationships and marriages. This mystery is not something which was never known prior to Paul's writings. Yes, it has come to be rejected by some for whom the flesh union is the sum of human relationships as well as by others for whom spiritual/spirituality is a personal matter and no business or concern of God, the saints, the church or the scriptures. Rarely are the physical and spiritual valued as essential to the completeness of relationships. Yet, as much as God, who is spirit, declared man had become like Him knowing good and evil it is the flesh form of man which makes man different from God since the beginning.

When Paul referred back to the beginning in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis it was because it was there that the prophecy was first spoken by God before the fall of Adam and Eve. Genesis relates the creation account. It relates the beginning of the marriage of man and woman. It relates the beginning of the relationship between the Creator and his creation. God, who is spirit, relates to and is in relationship with the man and woman he created who are flesh. Since that time God has beheld before his eyes the intimate, physical and spiritual interaction, even if shattered and fragmented, between the man and the woman he had created. This same garden scenario suggests (2) the oneness that is God, which He knows and He has seen mere glimpses of that oneness in the marriage union. This same oneness He desires to see in the church.

Why does this glimpse of the oneness of God in the scriptures strike some as something to regard as a human behavioral curiosity while it sends others into a theological scramble? It may be how God refers to himself in the plural (“let US”) form, hence the theological scramble, and when he spoke the mystery of the man and the woman (“man has become like one of US”) becoming one flesh, hence, the human behavior curiosity. The ancient unresolved, misunderstood plural references by God to himself in the scriptures are not the exclusive domain of Jewish, Christian or Muslim scholar discussions. This plurality is as evident in the scriptures about God as it is in the troubled plurality of human relationships.

A prophet: The oneness of God

The mystery of the oneness of God, to whom scripture often refers in the plural sense, was prophesied by God in this reference to a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:15.

Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from among you, of your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him.

As much as first century Jews and twenty first century Christians quantify this passage and see a single individual in the references to a prophet, that is not the interpretation and application by the inspired apostle Peter in Acts 3 and Stephen in Acts 7. The interpretation and application is on the lineage of prophets which God was to send to Israel soon after Moses. Notice how the Deuteronomy passage is framed from beginning to end with references to the prophets in the plural. Notice also, the mention of the disobedience of Israel as much towards Moses as towards the prophets who, Stephen says,
They (Israel, the fathers) killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One  (Acts 7:52)

Unfortunately, that clarification and declaration by Stephen of "the Righteous One" is quite likely quantified by fellow saints in Christ with the numeric value of one. Yes, there was and is ONE Jesus, the Son of God, but the reference of one is of the God clarified and declared by the NT writers inspired by the Holy Spirit as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; all who are Righteous.

What God impressed on Israel through Moses was the one, single, complete, total harmony between 1) everything God said directly to Israel, 2) what Moses said God said, 3) what the prophet(s) said God said, 4) what Jesus said came from God, 5) what the apostles said the Holy Spirit said, and 6) what the saints in Christ state when they read the scriptures.

As much as prophets were to speak with one calling the will of the Lord so, too, the husband and wife in marriage and the church have received the same call from the beginning in the garden and on Pentecost to speak and act in harmony and unity as one.

However, Israel, to the extent that she killed the prophets, no more understood or accepted this unity; this oneness of God through the many messengers of God any more than Israel ever grasped and resolved those plural references. The response to those plural references by Jews to, “just ignore them,” as one rabbi states on the Shema:

Hear Israel: Yahweh is our God. Yahweh is one. (Deuteronomy 6)

seems hardly worthy of a teacher of Israel.

Before His eyes

This is the mystery which God has observed since the beginning of creation. He’s had a front row seat to the longest running stage play in the history of the world on display before his eyes. The principle actors in this performance, which opened in the garden, is the creation of his hands, the man and the woman, of whom God spoke,

Let US make man in OUR image
and later,
Behold, the man has become like one of US.

God viewed as the interaction played out between Adam and Eve. Yes, like Adam and Eve, we are amateur actors consistent only in our missed cues, forgetting our lines and poor performances. Too often we live in the love of God with something less than a convincing conviction for those who observe us. Yet, the initial creation of Adam alone in the garden to interact with God alone was not good in the eyes of God. Although Adam was one with God it was God who in essence acknowledged  that Adam needed a relationship with one of his own kind. Adam was deprived. God was deprived of the interaction He desired to see between two living beings - different one from the other and yet, like God.

Could it be that what God observed in the marriage of the man and woman (3) was what he purposed to see:

A semblance of the Divine Father, Son and Holy Spirit and as incarnated in Jesus, the Son of God?

What is the semblance of the divine which God hoped to see in the interaction of two human beings as different from one another as Father and Son and Son and Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Holy Spirit and Father? Could it be that the mystery which is great and which God desires and hopes to see is the oneness, the unity which is God, not just in our human flesh, but in spirit?

Unity of one

This unity of one is not a quantitative expression of God as one, two, three or four, as mistakenly viewed by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The Jews were privileged to receive the scriptures of God, but every generation is called to search for the unity and harmony in the interpretation of those scriptures and to discover, rejoice and proclaim that discovery. This is the same unity and harmony; the oneness, which God desired and in which He delighted to see between the man and the woman in the garden before the fall. This is the same unity, the same oneness, which Christ desires to see and delights to see in His body, His bride, the church.(4) How this concerns the church is that without this same unity and oneness the marriage of a man and a woman will remain in a constant struggle to survive.

The church, too, may survive but without the whole fullness and oneness that is God and which he desires for the health, goodness and joy of man and woman and the church without which neither one magnifies the glory of life in Jesus.

As humans, it is extremely difficult to be in complete agreement with anyone whether one’s intimate spouse, friend, acquaintance or much less a complete stranger. However, this is the unity the New Testament reveals about God through Jesus, the Christ. There is nothing which the Father, Son or Holy Spirit had to run by the other for prior approval and authorization before saying or acting out the will of God. Such is the God who is one. The explanation by some saints (self-proclaimed, “oneness”) that Jesus is the Father and Holy Spirit are at best a failure to grasp this plurality and at worse a denial of these divine living beings as they are portrayed by Jesus in the gospels and by Paul in Ephesians 1, particularly. There, Paul spells out the details of what the Father purposed, what the Son was to fulfill in accordance with the Father, and what the Holy Spirit was to do to signify with the seal which designates those who have believed God and obeyed the Son according to the Father's good pleasure. All this was defined before the foundation of the world.

All for one

Since Paul speaks of and frames this great mystery in the context of human relationship, specifically; man and woman in marriage, it is imperative that other human relationships be made subject to discussion. All, atheists, agnostics and theists alike, know and experience the human interaction of relationship in which every man and woman participates. This same human interaction is no less present in the homosexual relationship. Whether or not the homosexual regards or acknowledges God’s purpose as declared in the garden or merely professes a superficial acknowledgment of that beginning, the homosexual relationship he is not exempt from the discussion. It is, in fact, especially subject to the discussion because the mystery of unity of oneness which characterizes God is undeniably to be desired and a delight in all human relationships holy or profane.

Unity through diversity, -- not

Yet, the homosexual/lesbian relationship graphically epitomizes, both in the carnal mind and the flesh of the body, the very thing which God did not like after he created man – that the man was alone.

The response by God to Adam’s need was not to create another human male like Adam, but a human female like Eve. The homosexual/lesbian life is characterized, not by loneliness as some may distort the use of the word here, but by aloneness. It is the human (homosexual and lesbian) affront, not only to God, but even to the very same culture so much touted in the world of the homosexual and lesbian. You may wonder how. It is that the hearty slogan of “unity through diversity” extolled in the workplace, the athletic field as well as in the gathering of the faithful is nothing more than a dull, hollow thud. The mere fleshy union of two same-sex individuals does not and cannot equate to diversity or unity and is, in fact, contrary to the unity-through-diversity culture banner slogan. As much as God acknowledged He was not enough for the human Adam if Adam were ever to experience the joy of human fulfillment it was essential that Adam have a human female companion who was different than the male Adam, not as between male and male or female and female, but as between male and female.

Heterosexual and homosexual relationships are showcase display attempts at unity between two people. Either through the difference of heterosexuals or the sameness of homosexuals there is the mystery of unity which affects them both. This is true of the witting and unwitting regardless whether or not they know or acknowledge God as the Divine Creator. This unity and oneness of God is prevalent. It is the desire and delight of all human relationships even when the moral makeup of those relationships represents a rejection of God and his will. Yet, a union with a gender other than one's opposite is like a battery with two positive or two negative terminals. Such a thing cannot be made and still function as a battery even if it is called a battery. A behavioral homosexual can no more be produced by two homosexuals any more than a physiological woman/man can be produced by two women or two men together.

Other uses of the term, mystery

These are some appearances of the term and phrase involving the word mystery by the apostle Paul:

Paul refers to the mystery, that is, the will of God which was initially unknown only because it was drawn up by the Father BEFORE the foundation of the world or human minds and eyes could focus on it. Ephesians 1:9

The ancient mystery was that Israel were the people with whom God had a covenant. The other side of that was the Gentiles did not have a covenant with God. This changed when Israel's heart was hardened which resulted in the Gentiles hearing and obeying the gospel of Jesus. Romans 11:25


3 how that by revelation the mystery was made known to me, as I wrote before in few words,4 by which, when you read, you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; 5 which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; 6 that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of his promise in Christ Jesus through the Good News, of which I was made a servant, according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power. 8 To me, the very least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make all men see what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things through Jesus Christ; Ephesians 3:3-9

This mystery has been in the scriptures of the prophets from long ago. Romans 14:24,25

on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in opening my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the Good News, Ephesians 6:19
The mystery is inclusive in the entirety of the Good News.

the mystery which has been hidden for ages and generations. But now it has been revealed to his saints, 27 to whom God was pleased to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory; Colossians 1:26ff; 4:3

Clearly, the mystery in its fullness is revealed, understood and proclaimed best by those who have heard it, believed it and accepted; the saints in Christ. Yet, the unwitting too live in and participate in this mystery.


There is an important need for the saints in Christ to understand the mystery that is great in Ephesians 5 because of its far reach from the beginning in the garden to the church today. The mystery is related to and understood and lived in the relationship of the husband and wife in marriage as much as in the church, the bride of Christ. Paul's use of the phrase is much more than a superficial generality about marriage and the church. These relationships were created in diversity and difference in the beginning, not just in flesh, but in spirit too. Both relationships share a similar calling to speak and act in unity and harmony. This is the same unity, harmony and oneness, the mystery that is great, that is God.

Selected readings:

Great is the Mystery After a brief definition of terms and virtual synonyms the author stakes the content of this article on the importance of sacraments. There's no attempt to explain the phrase in its immediate or broader context.
Sacrament This outline form includes a substitution of sacrament for mystery and offers nothing more than the above.
The Mystery” What is it? Although this article, in my estimation, also fails to identify the mystery that is great with respect to, as Paul states, the church the author rightly emphasizes the importance for saints to understand the mystery.