As I read through Colossians, I found myself fastened on the word mystery. Paul says God commissioned him to present “the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people” (Col. 1:25b-26, NIV).
Prior to reading those words, I had been thinking about the perplexing problem of herem warfare in the Old Testament. (Herem warfare is explained in the previous post, but in essence, it is a type of warfare where God’s people were commanded to completely destroy their enemies.) Could Paul’s teaching shed light on troublesome Old Testament texts, such as herem warfare?
According to Colossians 1:25-26, while the Old Testament events were unfolding, Paul believes that a mystery was kept hidden. And he is the one who is now divinely authorized to present it. What is the mystery? “The word of God in its fullness.” That doesn’t give us much detail, but it does imply that the word of God was not previously expressed in its fullness. What does that mean for Paul’s view of prior revelation? Was it only the word of God in part?
Paul continues, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. He is the one we proclaim” (1:27-28a).
The riches of the mystery is Christ in the Gentiles providing the Gentiles with the hope of a glorious future. But what is the mystery? The mystery is the content of Paul’s proclamation and the content is Christ. “He is the one we proclaim” The word of God in its fullness, the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, is Christ.
If you’re not convinced that Christ is the mystery Paul is referring to read the next few verses.
After stating how hard he is working for the Colossian and Laodicean believers, Paul writes, “My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2-3, italics mine).
Paul is saying that while the Old Testament was unfolding, God was keeping a mystery hidden. And that mystery was hidden for ages and generations. And that mystery was Christ. But what about the prophecies and allusions to Christ throughout the Old Testament? In comparison with Christ coming in the flesh, Old Testament references to Christ have a strong element of obscurity.
What does the idea of a hidden mystery mean for Christians approaching troublesome Old Testament texts? This takes us into the heart of a two-millennia Christian controvery: the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament. But let’s stay focused on the hidden mystery in relation to herem warfare.
According to Paul’s statement, while those warfare commands were being divinely sanctioned, God was withholding a mystery—”the word of God in its fullness,” “namely Christ.” Since the secret mystery is God’s word in its fullness, the warfare commands cannot be God’s word in its fullness.
But should they be considered God’s word in its fullness in the time they were given? That’s a difficult question and the answer probably depends on perspective. Looking back, now that we have Christ who is the mystery revealed, we cannot read those commands as God’s word in its fullness. Christ is not only the fullness of God’s word, he is the “fullness of the Deity” in “bodily form” (2:9).
I’m having a hard time looking at that question without Christ and I think that’s the point of the New Testament. Now that we have Christ, everything looks different. In the ultimate sense, no, those commands were not God’s word in its fullness, because Christ is God’s word in its fullness.