In the previous post I talked about how and why Jewish mysticism developed and I hinted at its significance for the early Jesus movement in shaping their faith. Since Christian faith lacked the Temple as a symbol of God communing with his people spiritual experiences were an important avenue for God to communicate with the new people of God through faith in the Messiah Jesus. So in the New Testament period Jewish mysticism underwent certain significant changes because of Jesus of Nazareth that led to a distinctively Christian form of mysticism. This is what we will explore in this post.
There are several examples of mysticism in the New Testament. For instance in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul speaks of being caught up to the third heavens and gaining insight into unspeakable mysteries. This is reminiscent of Hekhalot mystical writings. Hekhalot is the Hebrew word for palaces and is a form of mysticism associated with ascent into heavenly places. It therefore overlaps with Merkabah mysticism and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. The most obvious example of mysticism in the New Testament however is the Revelation of John Patmos. It is essentially an amalgamation of various important Jewish mystical, prophetic and apocalyptic texts framed within an explicitly Christian context. As with the Hekhalot John the mystic is taken up to heavenly places. What makes it particularly Christian is the importance of Jesus. Like Daniel and Ezekiel God is majestically seated on his throne. The difference with Revelation is that with its symbolism Jesus is consistently assigned a unique role that places him with in the divine identity. This was an unprecedented evolution in Jewish mystical experiences and theology. How do we account for this?
First we must recognize the power of religious experiences, in this case the mystical, to bring about innovations in a worldview. According to NT Wright there are four features of a worldview: fundamental answers, narrative, symbol and praxis. Ezekiel’s vision dealt with the absence of a central symbol of ancient Jewish identity, the Temple. Daniel wrestled with the principal narrative of the Jewish nation, that is, the covenant-promises being left unfulfilled in his time. Ezekiel also introduced the idea of resurrection while Daniel elaborated on its scope, nature and consequences. These spiritual experiences did not get rid of their old worldviews but rather modified it in important ways. I am also not saying every spiritual experience must bring something new to the table but some of them do. Jesus being uniquely identified with God in Revelation is a significant modification of the Jewish worldview.
In this worldview there are two categories of being, that is, God and the world respectively. As the creator of the world he is completely distinct from his creation. As king over his creation he is the sole object of worship. Only he alone is worthy of adoration. By the same token of world he is uniquely involved in his creation which is completely dependent on him. Jesus is a man and humans as members of God’s creation fit comfortably in the category of the world. What is strange about the early Christians is that they consistently and openly placed Jesus on the God side of reality. For thorough going Jews of that time to do such a thing was unparalleled. As I said the Book of Revelation of continues in the great tradition of mystical writings like Ezekiel and Daniel. Yet Revelation believes all these prior traditions have climaxed in Jesus, placing him within the divine identity as one worthy of the honour God alone receives, due to his unique role in fulfilling God’s plan for the world. That is to say they worship God in Jesus’ name. So in terms of the Jewish mystical tradition Revelation can be seen as innovative. However, scholars date Revelation as the last book in the New Testament canon and by that time John takes it for granted that Jesus ought to be worshipped alongside God. The New Testament records other spiritual experiences prior to Revelation that specially involve Jesus. This means within early Christianity a new mystical tradition has emerged already which has some important distinguishing features from its Jewish heritage. The most important distinguishing characteristic being the veneration of Jesus as divine. How then do we account for this fundamental change in their worldview?
Larry Hurtado, a New Testament scholar who specializes in early Christian worship, argues that spiritual experiences are part of the reason for this. He contends that religious experiences were an important factor in the unprecedented practice of worshipping Jesus as divine among the early Jesus movement. These revelatory experiences were partly responsible for early high Christology. Paul for instance, had an intense revelation of Jesus appearing with divine glory on the road to Damascus. This completely changed him from being an opponent of the early Jesus movement to being one of its greatest champions and exponents of all time. Professor Hurtado argues post resurrection spiritual experiences are the chief reasons for Jesus worship among the first Christians. They range from dramatic encounters with the risen Lord like the ones we find in the Gospels to prophetic visions and revelations of an exalted Jesus like what we see with Stephen.
Quickly revisiting my definition of legitimate mystical experiences as spiritual experiences, the early believers thought all these experiences were uniquely empowered by the Spirit of God. In fact the divine spirit was so uniquely identified with the Messiah that they believed you could receive it in his name. It was only God who could pour out his spirit to his people but if that spirit is received exclusively through Jesus it meant the Spirit of God was indeed the Spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit being a unique attribute of God now being uniquely associated with Jesus meant he was somehow included in God’s identity, uniquely sharing divine glory. The principal event that changed their understanding of the Spirit of God was Pentecost. The outpouring on that day was an unprecedented spiritual experience. It was interpreted as a prophetic outpouring to all the people of God in the messiah Jesus in fulfilment of scripture (Acts 2:16-18.) Through the Spirit all believers had access to genuine spiritual experiences from God in the name of Jesus (1 Corinthians 12.)
Mystical revelatory experiences are understood in the New Testament to be Spirit generated. In fact John of Patmos describes his Apocalypse in exactly those terms (Revelation 1:10, 4:2.) What happened to John is an example of a visionary mystical experience. In these visions Jesus is literally placed next to God. However, that conception of the relationship between God and Jesus is not new so we must look further back to find its origins. I think there is an even earlier primitive form of this visionary conception of God and Jesus. There is a common formula in New Testament writings which is basically “Jesus is seated at the right hand of God.” There are variations of this basic formula but that to me is the core statement. When you look at the statement it is primarily visual in nature, that is, it creates a mental image when you hear it of Jesus’ position in relation to God presumably in heaven. The bulk of the Book of Revelation can therefore be seen as a dense elaboration of this basic Christian visual metaphor and declaration. The idea of Jesus being seated at God’s right hand in the New Testament comes from Jesus himself. He famously declared this at his trial by the High Priest where he is referencing and adapting both the Psalms and Daniel 7 (Psalm 110:1; Daniel 7:13-14.) It seemed it was only Jesus who used those scriptures in that way to refer exclusively to himself. Therefore if a person has a vision of Jesus being seated at the right hand of power it would be a confirmation of his claim to being a divine Messiah. When we read Mark he includes Jesus’ prediction of exaltation (Mark 14:62.) The Gospel ends with his exaltation being realized. It reads,
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. – Mark 16:19-20 ESV
Mark moves seamlessly from Jesus’ ascension to his early followers preaching him. However, when we read Acts we do not see such a smooth transition. They do see Jesus taken up into heaven but they do not immediately go preaching him. The first time we see any one proclaim Jesus is at God’s right hand is Peter during the spiritual outpouring on the first Pentecost post resurrection. Something during that outpouring caused them to believe Jesus’ words so boldly that they preached it. They were inspired by the Spirit to proclaim Jesus at God’s right hand. Maybe the Spirit illumined his understanding of that Pentecost experience in the light of past events involving Jesus and the scriptures to mean the crucified Messiah was seated at the right hand of God. The latter explanation seems more likely to me since that is the message he preached but it certainly does not rule out Peter having a vision of Jesus in that exalted position. Whatever the case maybe, a profound mystical experience had occurred in which Jesus was preeminent over all reality. The epicentre of this mystical innovation was Pentecost which has changed the world ever since.
It is possible that mystical Helakhot practices continued in the early Church as I mentioned earlier with Paul and his many visionary and revelatory experiences. In Merkabah mysticism, practitioners focused on the throne-chariot of Ezekiel that through fervent prayer and meditation they too will be whisked away in visions of divine glory. I think Christians mystics rather meditated on the image of Jesus seated at the right hand of God. Indeed, when Paul was combatting false mysticism among other things in the Epistle to the Colossians he said,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 ESV
Jesus had become the centre of their worldview, the object of loving devotion and service. Given that expressions of worship have the profound power to evoke the mystical, I would not be surprised that as the early Church sung and prayed to God in the name of Jesus, they too were inspired by the Spirit and received glorious revelations of the exalted Son of God. I think they interpreted these prophetic revelations in the light of the scriptures to confidently proclaim the crucified Nazarene prophet had been glorified as Lord.
I think we can identify today with the mystical experience of the exalted Lord through our worship. Personally, when I am deep in the throes of worship, the rapturous scene of the heavenly liturgy of Revelation 4 and 5, takes over my mind. There is no doubt in my mind that the vivid details of heavenly worship that are provided are meant to evoke powerful visual images that transport your imagination, and perhaps the rest of you, into heavenly space. A divine dimension where you can commune with your maker. In the end Christian mysticism is rooted in the worship of God our Father in the name of his Son Jesus. It is not about the individual being exalted to higher plane of existence but the Most High God being exalted for what he has accomplished through his son. Christian mysticism must be framed in the context of Christian worship. If the experience does not God in Christ then it is not genuine.
 Wright N.T., The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 106, 1992.
 Hurtado L., How On Earth Did Jesus Become God?, p. 179-204, 2005.