Did you know the world's best-selling book, the Bible, is actually a good mystery story? The story begins when God created everything and it was all good. But then we are told about a creature which was more crafty than any of the wild animals. This 'strange' serpent contradicts and twists the words God had said to Adam and Eve, but we're given no explanation as to how he is able to speak, neither are we told why this creature is in the Garden of Eden, acting in opposition to God. Mystery stories don't give you all the details right at the start.
Later in the Bible we find a similar lack of details in the book of Job, especially in regard to the enemy, Satan, even though he has a major role to play in what happened. Why all this obscurity and mystery? Well, it is no secret that “books of the mystery genre are characterized by their suspenseful, obscure nature. This is intended to excite curiosity in the reader as well as engage the reader in the process of solving the mystery.” (Elements of a Good Mystery Story, Kathryn Stanley)
Did God deliberately chose to reveal only certain details so that we have only a basic understanding of how the world became corrupt and ruined through sin and ultimately an evil serpent? Yet early on, God also set in motion a plan to cleanse, restore and renew all things. After rebuking Adam and Eve's sin, the LORD God cursed the Serpent and foretold that he would suffer a fatal blow from a mysterious hero-figure descended from Eve, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) Naturally readers are curious to know, “Precisely what does it mean to 'crush the serpent's head' and 'strike the heel' of Eve's descendant?” As the story progresses down through the centuries, it becomes evident that God did, in fact, intend these initial statements to be somewhat unclear, and actually we could say, mysterious.
If you only had the first three chapters of Genesis you would still be mystified wouldn't you? In fact, we will discover that the unfolding message of the entire Bible reveals God's plan, gradually interweaving various kinds of clues. One example is God's instruction to Abraham in Genesis 22 to do the unthinkable – to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, whom he loved, thus foreshadowing the supreme act of Divine love some 2,000 years later.1 As it is written, in John 3:14-16;
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have ETERNAL LIFE in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have ETERNAL LIFE.
Isn't it more than a little thought-provoking, (mind-boggling?), for humans to grasp how Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac pales in comparison with God's selfless act of giving up his one and only Son, Jesus? In the final analysis, God did not require Abraham to do the unthinkable, but he himself did. This is precisely why we stand in awe of God!
These verses in John 3 contain another strange, if paradoxical analogy, comparing the uplifted snake on a pole in the wilderness to Jesus being lifted up (on the cross)! For 2,000 years Bible students have pondered this unlikely redemptive analogy. More recently, I noted how these insights can be relevant for pointing those who may venerate snakes to Jesus Christ – people like Yezidis from the Middle East or, for that matter, anywhere around the world!
In John 12 Jesus gives us another clue in the unfolding mystery portraying himself again as lifted up. Clearly this passage refers to Christ's pending sacrificial death (& resurrection).
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for ETERNAL LIFE. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me... Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world [Satan] will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:23-32)
Jesus makes an obvious comparison between himself, on the one hand, dying and rising up, and on the other hand, a kernel of wheat dying in the ground and sprouting up to produce an abundant crop. Clearly this passage implies Christ's exaltation after he rises up from the grave and is glorified. Notice also that God will be glorified (v.23-28).
Interestingly, both passages, John 3 and John 12, fittingly describe the Serpent/Satan's downfall as a judgement and predicted punishment resulting from Christ's atoning death and resurrection. Then finally, near the end of the Bible, we are given a much more detailed and dramatic summary of the epic story of enmity between the serpent's offspring and the woman's offspring. Revelation 12 describes a heavenly battle between good angels and evil angels, in which, a male child born of the woman (God's Messiah) eludes the Serpent's grasp and is “snatched up to God and to his throne.” (v. 9) Accordingly, Satan did not succeed in keeping Jesus in the grave. Whereas death has ruled over humanity from Adam until now, Jesus Christ was the only human being who overcame death by rising again as predicted. Death was Satan's ultimate weapon but Jesus disarmed him totally. Praise the Lord!
Revelation chapter 12 goes on to explain how this battle resulted in the Devil's downfall to earth (v. 9-10). Note: the contrast between Satan being cast down to earth and the Messiah being “snatched up to God and his throne.” (cf. 'lifted up' in John 3 & 12)
Then after losing this battle the Devil continues to wage war against the rest of the woman's offspring – “all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.” (v. 17, NLT) As the war unfolds, the Devil is imprisoned for a time and then released. Significantly, Christ's followers win the victory over Satan by not shrinking back from laying down their lives as martyrs for Christ's sake. Verse 11 says, “they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die.” As Christ overcame Satan (paradoxically) by laying down his life (Hebrews 4:15), so too, these martyrs courageously laid down their lives. Finally at the very end of Revelation we read that Satan is totally defeated and consigned to eternal punishment in the lake of fire.
Elsewhere in Revelation we read that, “in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.” (Revelation 10:7, bold added) Indeed, mystery is implicit throughout Scripture, “Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past ...” (Romans 16:25, bold added) Likewise in Colossians 4 the apostle Paul underscores the need to clarify the mystery of the Gospel,
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:2-6, bold added)
Perhaps these puzzling mysteries make you wonder, “Why didn't God simply communicate his message to mankind using straightforward true and factual statements? Is it really necessary to use all these perplexing metaphors and symbols as cited in Genesis, John and Revelation?” “Why does the Bible contain parables, proverbs, riddles and mysteries?” Why did God hide things? What is he trying to do?
Let me begin to explain why the Good News about Jesus Christ is a mystery by tracing the theme of eternal life throughout the Bible. Notice: eternal life is twice mentioned in John 3:14-16 as well as in John 12:24 (in capital letters). Also eternal life is implied in the story of Adam's downfall and banishment; “the LORD God warned him, 'You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die.” (Genesis 3:16-17)
Many years later King Solomon2 observed; “God has planted eternity in the human heart, yet even so people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) In any mystery, and certainly in the Bible, only the author knows the whole story from the beginning. Readers discover it bit by bit, and only at the end is everything finally revealed.
Interestingly, or better yet, paradoxically, Solomon went on to say,
A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born. Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies – so the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. Better to be criticized by a wise person than to be praised by a fool. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-5, NLT)
The psalmist wrote a song alluding to this profound paradox as rooted in our human aversion/repugnance to death. Like Solomon, the psalmist underscores that everyone dies, yet instinctively humans would pay almost any price so as to avoid dying and gain eternal life. He writes in Psalm 49:4-9,15:
I listen carefully to many proverbs and solve riddles with inspiration from a harp. Why should I fear when trouble comes, when enemies surround me? They trust in their wealth and boast of great riches. Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave. … But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave. (NLT, bold added)
Many years later, someone even wiser than Solomon arose and was approached by a wealthy man inquiring what he must do to inherit eternal life. The story is recorded in Mark 10:17-27,
As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” (NLT, bold added)
Of course it is utterly impossible, humanly speaking, for someone to go through the eye of a needle3 and enter God's kingdom. But this is not impossible with God. Indeed, as the psalmist confidently testified, “God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave. ” Of course, when he wrote this, it was by faith because the whole detailed plan had not yet been revealed.
The story in Mark 10 continues in verse 28:
Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said. “Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.” (v. 28-31, NLT, bold added)
The riddle as to how a person can inherit eternal life is finally resolved through knowing God as our Redeemer. “He gave his one and only Son [as the 'ransom', Mk. 10:45] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, bold added) Let's also bear in mind the earlier riddle regarding the day of death or birth – which one is better? As Christians we may face the imminent possibility of death, but we can testify, as did Paul, that dying is “even better … I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me.” (Philippians 1:21-23)
There is another aspect of mystery subtly embedded at the beginning of the story of the rich man. Did you notice: It seems like Jesus is denying that he is God when he tells the man, “Only God is truly good.... Why do you call me good?”
How should the rich man have responded to Jesus? Was Jesus really denying he is good? Instead of glossing over his own weaknesses and glibly stating that he had kept all these commandments, the rich man should have paused and shown more humility. Then he might have been willing to give up everything like Peter and the disciples, and follow Jesus. His problem was over-estimating his own goodness while under-estimating Jesus' goodness. To be sure: true godliness is indeed a 'great mystery' as seen in 1 Timothy 3:16,4
Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He [Jesus] appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. (bold added)
The Gospel records another example where Jesus engages someone in lively conversation about eternal life as found in John chapter 4. Unlike the rich man in Mark 10, this individual is not wealthy nor is she religious. While journeying to Galilee Jesus and his disciples had to pass through the province of Samaria (known today as the West Bank). They came to the well of Jacob near Sychar.
And Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noontime. Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink.” He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food.
The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”
Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”
“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”
Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”
“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” (NLT, bold added)
Samaritans acknowledge a Divine creator, much like their Jewish cousins, yet they often felt the brunt of Jewish racial/religious prejudice. Indeed, when the disciples saw their master comfortably conversing at the well with the Samaritan woman they felt uneasy – clearly outside their comfort zone. Meanwhile Jesus was already engaging in spiritual matters, having mentioned God's gift and 'living water,' a mysterious beginning to the conversation, indeed. In this way, he appealed to her longing for eternity.
No doubt, the disciples were in for another surprise when these 'foreigners' (see Luke 17:18) from the village of Sychar asked Jesus to stay longer and tell them more about God. Amazingly, after two extra days of discussion they all concluded; Jesus is indeed God's Messiah the long awaited Saviour of the world! (John 4:42)
“What do you think Jesus discussed during those two days that might have caused the Samaritans to conclude: he is indeed the Saviour of the world?” We don't know exactly what transpired between Jesus and the Samaritans, but he likely 'unfolded' truths from the OT prophets as he did in Luke 24:25-27 and as foreshadowed in Psalm 119:130; “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” Did Jesus mention Isaiah's prophecy saying that the Messiah would bring God's light and salvation to the ends of the earth? (Isaiah 49:6) Certainly this prophecy fits hand in glove with his name, Jesus, which means, 'God is salvation'! The meaning of Jesus' name is further explored in Signposts to Paradise.5
The word “simple” in Psalm 119 calls to mind ordinary, everyday kind of people in the social circle of the Samaritan woman – friends and neighbors who she invited to come and see Jesus. Let me share a recent experience where I met a neighbor in the parking lot at my apartment building. I noticed how someone had just parked next to me and so I put down my window and shouted a friendly “Hello.” I explained with a smile that she looks like another neighbor I had recently met named Lynette. We ended up exchanging names and she asked, “So which of the two apartment buildings do you live in?” It turns out we live in different buildings which is why we hadn't seen each other before. Almost instinctively, I reached into my console and grabbed a picture of a beautiful sunrise. Then I gave it to her saying, “You've probably heard the saying, 'A picture is worth a thousand words'.” I explained, “This picture reminds me of some wise sayings that have stuck with me and I hope you enjoy them a much as I do.”6
Several wise sayings from Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are on the flipside of the sunrise picture:
“God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end... A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born.” ... “the path of the righteous is like the bright morning light, growing brighter and brighter until full day” … “In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality.”
The Lord planted a beautiful garden for his precious people which was ruined by sin but God also planted something beautiful in the human heart – a longing for eternity which is still there in each and every one of us!
On another occasion, I entered a shoppers drug mart and was greeted warmly by a Muslim lady working in the cosmetics department. I smiled back at her. Then, as we exchanged a few words, I gave her a card containing Ecclesiastes 3:11 saying that God has planted eternity in the human heart. A few minutes later she went looking around the shop until she found me. “I want to tell you personally,” she said, “how much I appreciate that card you gave me.” Another similar encounter happened when a barber was cutting my hair and told me his name is Khalid. Since I already knew his name means 'eternity', I gave him a copy of Ecclesiastes 3:11 as I left the shop.
I've shared this little card with hundreds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, not only here in Canada but also in Africa. I never cease to be amazed and impressed seeing how it touches people's hearts and arouses their curiosity. Sometimes it also sparks an ongoing relationship.
One doesn't have to be a scholar to see a basic similarity between my experiences and Christ's encounter at a well in John 4. Isn't it interesting, seeing how Jesus ignited the curiosity of the Samaritan woman by simply asking her for a cup of water? Too often we underestimate the significance of such simple actions and conversations in the natural ebb and flow of our daily routines!
In fact, it is precisely these kinds of daily life encounters with lost neighbors that Paul had in mind in Colossians 4, when he said we should be prayerful and watchful for opportunities to share our faith. These doors of witness involve clarifying the mystery of the gospel. And Paul adds that we should do this in a gracious and seasoned with salt manner, following the example of our Lord himself in John 4.
Interestingly, these passages help to answer our earlier question, “Why does God use puzzling figures of speech and paradoxes?” Jesus used a perplexing word picture of 'living water' in John 4 to stimulate and stretch the thinking of the Samaritan woman and to keep her engaged. Not surprisingly, she was challenged to think outside her comfort zone, even to the point of acknowledging that Jesus spoke the truth about her multiple marriages. Then, rather than being ashamed and running away because he had exposed her messed up private life, she decided to come back and learn more of what he had to say. Her willingness to return and hear more from Jesus stands in stark contrast to the rich ruler who walked away and didn't return.
We have traced the story through the Bible showing how Christ's death on the cross disarmed Satan. Also the cross is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) In opposition to the Bible, the Qur'an emphatically denies Jesus died on the cross. Moreover, the Ahadith say he will die a natural death upon returning to earth in the end times and he will break the cross. It is significant, therefore, that Christ rebuked Peter for denying that Jesus would die, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:23)
Several topics mentioned above are explored in other of my articles, such as Serpent to Saviour, Pondering a Paradoxical Proverb, The Mystery of Abraham's Sacrifice, and Timeless Truth Encrypted in Ancient Wisdom.
All Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version unless otherwise indicated.
1. Abraham is revered by Muslims as a patriarchal father figure, indeed, the yearly festival of Eid ul Adha highlights Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. “But which son, Isaac or Ishmael?” The best discussion I've seen on this crucial question, which cites both Muslim and Christian sources, is a piece, titled, Isaac: the Reflection of the Father's Love.
2. Interestingly, 'Nabi' (prophet) Suleiman is esteemed in Islam as 'Hakim' (Wise) because Allah bestowed exceptional wisdom on him. An insightful article relevant to this discussion is titled, Solomon & Jesus: Eternity & Immortality.
3. Interestingly, the Qur'an says it is impossible for arrogant people to “enter Paradise until a camel enters into the eye of a needle.” Is there any significance to this startling imagery in Surah 7:40 which alludes to the earlier formulation in Christ's teaching in Mark chapter 10? We need to bear in mind the earlier warning in Psalm 49 against those who “boast of great riches... They cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave.” If the rich man had taken to heart Psalm 49, the story would have ended differently, but sadly, he was unwilling to let go of his possessions. He loved his riches more than God which means he was actually breaking the first and most basic law of Moses – not to worship anything or anyone except the one true God. Entrance into heaven is reserved for those who are “poor in spirit,” i.e. humble and contrite. (Matthew 5:3; cf. Isaiah 57:15; Luke 23:39-43) Jesus fulfilled the psalmist's hope of redemption in Psalm 49:15. As it is written, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45, bold added) Note: Christ's selfless sacrificial act demonstrated true humility. (Philippians 2:5-10)
4. In John 8:46 Jesus claims to be good in the sense that he never committed a sin. This is consistent with the Qur'an which affirms he is 'holy' (faultless). (Surah 19:19) So, what does this imply about Christ's Divine Sonship and Divine nature? Jesus demonstrated perfect godliness, which is indeed, a great mystery as cited earlier in 1 Timothy 3:16. Read a fuller discussion in Jesus the Son of God.
5. Muhammad I.A. Usman, a conservative Mufti/scholar from Pakistan, acknowledges in his book, Islamic Names (revised edition, p.77) that the name Isa/Jesus means 'God is salvation.'
6. This picture pamphlet is available online here, entitled, Let there be light.