I received this LDS Daily Gem yesterday:
The temple is a place to know the Father and the Son. It is a place where we experience the divine presence. The Prophet Joseph Smith made this plea: ‘I advise all to . . . search deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Godliness‘ (History of the Church, 6:363). And where shall we search? In the house of God. (Richard H. Winkel, “The Temple Is About Families,” Ensign, Nov. 2006, 11)
One of the things that I have learned is that when the word mystery was used anciently, it had a very different meaning than it does today. As Hugh Nibley has explained:
In a recent and rather sensational work, Morton Smith demonstrates at length that the word mystery, as used by the first Christians, usually refers to ordinances. He duly notes that Judaism itself was an ancient “mystery religion” in which the rites of circumcision and passover were “mysteries,” and that such early and orthodox Christian writers as Clement of Alexandria “think of Jesus as a ‘hierophant,’ a teacher of mysteries.” As Smith sums it up, “This was the mystery of the kingdom—the mystery rite by which the kingdom was entered,” i.e., the ordinances of initiation. (Hugh Nibley, “The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri”, 515)
The original Greek word for mystery was mystērion, the meaning of which has changed significantly over time. John Gee informs us of how the meaning of language has evolved:
Lexical reinterpretation is the changing of the meanings of words, such as occurred during the second sophistic period. Between the time of writing the New Testament and the end of the second century, the meanings of several of the words changed. Examples include the change of the principle meanings of . . . mysterion from “(initiation) rite” to “secret.” (“The Corruption of Scripture in Early Christianity“, in “Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy“, 163-204).
Barry Bickmore also has an extensive section in his book “Restoring the Ancient Church” devoted to talking about how the term mysteries was used by the early Christians.
There has been much said on this subject. Today we think of the word mystery as something strange, concealed, secret, inexplicable, or not understood. But I’ve also found it interesting that remnants of the ancient meaning of this word still linger strong. Doing a simple search on Google to define the term mystery reveals some different unusual definitions for this word:
- The Orthodox term for “Sacrament”, the means by which God’s Grace is imparted to us by His Holy Orthodox Church. Only Orthodox Christians may receive the Holy Mysteries.
- A term derived from the Latin word mysterium. Mystery is also closely related to the Latin word mysterium tremendum, which is a term used to express the overwhelming awe and sense of unknowable mystery felt by those to whom some aspect of God or of divine being is revealed.
- Any matter that is hidden, secret, unexplained or inexplicable, beyond human knowledge or comprehension, such as a religious truth known only from Divine Revelation. (see their other interesting definitions of the word mysteries at this ministry)
In fact, the very first definition of the word mystery from Merriam-Webster is:
1 a: a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand b (1): any of the 15 events (as the Nativity, the Crucifixion, or the Assumption) serving as a subject for meditation during the saying of the rosary (2)capitalized : a Christian sacrament; specifically : eucharist c (1): a secret religious rite believed (as in Eleusinian and Mithraic cults) to impart enduring bliss to the initiate (2): a cult devoted to such rites
The etymology of the word from Merriam-Webster is thus: “Middle English mysterie, from Latin mysterium, from Greek mystērion, from mystēs initiate.” Therefore, the word mystery came from the name given to those who practiced these sacred rites, the mystēs, or initiates. Wikipedia further defines this term from mystēs:
An individual who followed such a ‘Mystery’ was a mystes “one who has been initiated,” from myein “to close, shut,” a reference to secrecy (closure of “the eyes and mouth”) or that only initiates were allowed to observe and participate in rituals.
Wikipedia’s article on Sacred Mysteries is also instructive as it relates how the term applies to Christianity. Indeed, the Eastern Orthodox believe that it is through the “Sacraments, or Sacred Mysteries are the most important means by which the faithful may obtain union with God [theosis], provided they are received with faith after appropriate preparation.”
The Catholic “Discipline of the Secret” is also instructive in this matter:
A theological term used to express the custom which prevailed in the earliest ages of the Church, by which the knowledge of the more intimate mysteries of the Christian religion was carefully kept from the heathen and even from those who were undergoing instruction in the Faith.
It has been revealed in this dispensation of the fullness of times that the ancient mysteries as were indicated by the apostles and practiced by the early Christians, and in other areas and cultures of the world, are none other than the ordinances and ceremonies revealed and restored through the prophet Joseph Smith and are found today in their full and perfect form in the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Another great post.
I recently made a post on my site MormonMysticism.com on this same subject (The Power of Godliness). I am posting a link from there to here.
Thanks. Great insights on your blog too. Much of the Christian world today believes that you cannot truly know God, as he is “unknowable” as defined by the creeds, and so they give up trying. God becomes an bodiless essence which fills the universe, without form, parts, or passions. But Christ said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). How do we come to know Him? By following the commandments and ordinances of His gospel, especially those found in His house.
Bryce, thanks for this post. I have lately been very interested in Christianity, specifically the restored Gospel, as a “mystery religion”, and the ordinances as related to the “mysteries of Godliness”. I’m curious about your last paragraph. Are you saying that the mysteries practiced by early Christians are the ones that are practiced in our temples these days? That the “mysteries…practiced by the early Christians…are none other than the ordinances and ceremonies revealed and restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith and are found today in their full and perfect form in the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”? What resources do you have on that that would allow me to see this (I have Bickmore’s book)? I’m very interested!
You’re welcome, Jason. Yes, I believe that the mysteries that were practiced by the early Christians are the same mysteries that we practice today in our temples. It is the same gospel of Jesus Christ today as it was then. Christ came to restore the fullness of the gospel in his own time, and then again through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Some particulars may differ, but the overarching themes are the same. One of the problems with trying to find explicit examples is that the mysteries were sacred, and not often written down, same as they are today. For this reason we only catch glimpses here and there of early Christian practices that are quite familiar. For example, baptism for the dead mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:29. The Mount of Transfiguration, where it is believed Peter, James, and John received their endowments. There is much evidence of garments, in writings and artifacts. The Book of Revelation is replete with temple imagery, reflecting early Christian practice. There are many more examples on this website, too many to note here; feel free to look around. The books noted in the store are also great resources on this subject. Some other clear examples are initiatory washings and anointings found in the catechetical lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem, which I wrote about here: http://www.templestudy.com/2008/04/23/cyril-of-jerusalem-on-washings-and-anointings/