(24.) On Christ as Mystery

(24.) On Christ as Mystery

(24.) On Christ as Mystery.

“What is your name, that we may honor you?’ The Angel of the LORD replied, ‘Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding. It is a name of wonder.'” (Judges 13:17-18).

The Angel of Yahweh, that mysterious heavenly Messenger that appears and then disappears in many stories in the Hebrew Bible, has long been considered by many biblical scholars to be none other than Jesus Christ before His incarnation. Early Church theologians and many others since then have recognized that this unique Angel not only represents Yahweh, but also speaks for Yahweh, and is seen by witnesses as being Yahweh Himself. We do know the Scripture is clear – no one can see God face-to-face and survive the experience. And we do know that God is a Spirit. So it is safe to assume that any manifestation of God in the form of man is Jesus in His pre-incarnate state.

The Angel of Yahweh appeared many times in the Hebrew Bible, including twice in the era of the Judges, a difficult period in Hebrew history. After taking the Promised Land for God’s Chosen People, Joshua died and it was time for the Israelites to develop their unique culture based on the worship of Yahweh. Unfortunately, the new-found national life disintegrated while they were possessing the Land. There was moral and spiritual anarchy as the Israelites fell into idolatry, mixing worship of the god Baal with Yahweh. Morally, “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” So the people had to endure constant oppression from their enemies as punishment for their idolatry and disobedience. The repeating cycle of sin, oppression, and salvation continued for 400 years. To bring order out of the national chaos, God would raise up military leaders who would save the Israelites from their enemies. These national leaders were called Judges. God intervened often during this era, and in two cases God made an appearance in the form of the Angel of Yahweh. This Messenger, Jesus, appeared in two important situations: the calling of Gideon (Judges 6), and the birth announcement of Samson (Judges 13). It’s no surprise Yahweh would send His Son to help raise leaders who would save Israel, even if that salvation turned out to be temporary.

In Judges 13, Israel had once gain done evil in the sight of the Lord. The cycle of idolatry had once again surfaced in the lives of the Israelites. The consequences were severe. Yahweh delivered the Israelites into the hand of their sworn enemy, the Philistines. This punishment was no light matter, because the Philistines dominated Israel for forty long years during this time. In the midst of this divine judgment was a woman who was childless with her husband Manoah. This unknown woman was paid a visit by none other than the mysterious Angel of Yahweh. The first time this Messenger appeared, she ran to her husband and reported to him, “A Man of God appeared to me! He looked like one of God’s Angels – very awesome to see, and terrifying! (13:6). The Angel told her that she would conceive a son, this son will live his life in service to God, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines.

Manoah then prayed that this Man would come a second time to offer more instructions regarding this puzzling message. Sure enough, the Messenger, Jesus, returned to the couple and gave them specific instructions. Manoah was not aware of who this Man was yet, so He asked the Angel for His Name. Jesus answered that it’s no use asking for His Name. It is too wonderful to comprehend. His Name is beyond human understanding. So here we see Jesus who is beyond names and titles. His essence is more of a divine secret. His identity is unknowable and unimaginable. I could try to tell you my essential Name or Title, but you wouldn’t understand it, Jesus is saying. My Name is sheer wonder.

Manoah decided to honor this special Messenger, and respectfully offered to sacrifice a burnt offering and a grain offering. The Angel accepted this idea. And then an amazing thing happened which only added to the mystery. “As the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the Angel of Yahweh ascended from within the flame.” (13:20). Manoah and his wife immediately fell to the ground in awe and worship and fear. Manoah knew that this was the unique Man representing Yahweh, and he thought they would surely die, “because we have seen God!” (13:22). His wife disagreed. We won’t die, we still have a son to deliver, she said. Samson’s extraordinary story is told in Judges 13-16. Manoah was right, they had really seen God, in the form of God’s Son. And His Name is indeed wonderful, a Namd beyond all names, a Title beyond all titles.

Unpacking Christ’s titles and names is a dangerous business. We could easily delude ourselves into thinking that we fully understand our friend Jesus, that we are on a strictly first-name basis with the eternal Godhead. Surely we know that God is an unfathomable mystery to us mere mortals. If we try to remove the mystery hidden with God’s vast existence and identity, our quest for the transcendent truth of the world disappears. Jesus is a Person with inspired biblical titles, to be sure, titles that are helpful, descriptive, rich, and they are necessary to begin our understanding of Him. Descriptions understandable to humans, though, cannot fully represent an eternal Creator Spirit. His names and titles in Scripture are merely snapshots of a handful of facets of a diamond larger than the universe. His Name is mystery, a Name full of wonder. Anything we are blessed to see of Him are the merest of hints, barely audible echoes. As Job once said, we are merely on the borders of His ways. Titles and names describe the Lord, but they don’t define Him. He is beyond definition.

Assuming that words might be inadequate to the task, may this prayer nonetheless lead into a faithful union with the untitled Christ, the nameless God, in whom we live and move and have our being:

O God, Ground of Being, Ancient of Days. What a glorious and wonderful mystery you are! In your mercy you have revealed yourself to us in names and titles and places and people, through word and experience and Scripture. Yet there is so much more of your life that is hidden, and I kneel in awe before you. You are marvelous beyond my understanding, your Name is full of unspeakable wonder. I accept that I am only on the outermost borders of your ways, Lord, the mere fringes of your eternal identity. Even so, this is enough for me. My limited glimpse of your power and purity is sufficient to seek you. The faintest whisper of your eternal voice is enough to guide me to your love. And so, Triune God, I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a little child resting in his mother’s arms. Like a weaned child is my soul within me. I know only the smallest fraction of your Reality, God, but I put my hope in you, from this time forth and forevermore. Amen.