Matthew 13:11

Again and again I am struck by how much confusion there is about the meaning of mysticism, and the nature of Christian mysticism. To try to explain Christian mysticism as simply and clearly as possible, I’d like to consider a word found in Matthew 13:11, which I present here in several different English translations:

Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.” (New American Standard Version)

He answered and said unto them, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” (King James Version)

He said to them in reply, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted.” (New American Bible)

He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” (New International Version)

In answer, he said, ‘Because to you is granted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not granted.’ (New Jerusalem Bible)

He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (New Revised Standard Version)

The Greek word that is translated as “mystery” or “secret” in this verse is musterion; which means “a mystery or secret doctrine.” This in turn is derived from mueo, related to another word meaning “to shut the mouth;” mueo means “to initiate into the mysteries,” hence “to instruct” or “to have learned the secret.” (For all you reference geeks, I’m using the Greek dictionary from the Accordance Bible software). This is a lovely example of Jesus using the language of proto-mysticism (in this case, to suggest to his followers that the reason he speaks in parables is to protect the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven and to reveal them only to those who know him). In Christian understanding, then, Jesus is the initiator into the mysteries of God. We who receive Jesus, who recognize that he loves us and therefore seek to love him and follow him in return, are “initiates” into the mystery.

And what is the mystery of God, as revealed in Jesus Christ? Simply, that Jesus is one with God (John 10:30), and furthermore, that he abides in those who abide in him (John 15:4). In the words of Paul, we are the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27) and we have the Mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16). The second letter of Peter notes that we are partakers of the Divine Nature (II Peter 1:4).

Do the math, my friends. Christ is one with God and we are called into “oneness” with Christ (I put it in quotation marks because Christianity always insists that a distinction exists between God and creation, but aside from that foundational distinction, the language of the mystery is pretty clear). In other words, mysticism — Christian mysticism, the kind that has its roots in the New Testament — celebrates the relationship and communion between God and God’s beloveds: in other words, you and me.

Every now and then somebody comes to my website and announces that the Bible “forbids mysticism.” When I press them on this, they pull out some verses from the Hebrew Scriptures that condemn occult activities such as spiritualism or mediumship. Sigh. It would be nice if folks could do their basic homework on the history of mysticism and its roots in the earliest centuries of Christian theology (and in the teachings of the New Testament) before they go around making sweeping statements that are based not on sound scholarship, but on popular misconceptions. Just because some people confuse mysticism with occultism doesn’t mean it’s so. Indeed, occultism (the quest for so-called paranormal knowledge) and mysticism (disposing oneself to the mystery of God through silence and contemplation) are significantly different things.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Simon Whitney


    Interesting, as always.

    I would only add a few comments. Firstly, I had never seen that verse as relating to contemplation. Rather, it seems to me to refer to basic Christian truths. My Vine’s Dictionary says “In the ordinary sense a mystery implies knowledge withheld; its Scriptural significance is truth revealed”.

    Secondly, it is about those who receive the Christian revelation through the action of the Holy Spirit. But not all who have received the Christian revelation through the action of the Holy Spirit are contemplatives – as you have pointed out.

    Thirdly, what this says to me is that the highest levels of contemplation are simply a continuation of a normal Christian life – they are not something weird and wonderful and accessible to some sort of elite.

    Fourthly, it shows that whatever is revealed in contemplation cannot contradict what has been revealed through the action of the Holy Spirit in terms of the teaching of the Church. The Holy Spirit does not teach different things to different people.

    Finally, (and I will put this as a question) does the quote you have chosen mean that those to whom Jesus has not revealed the mysteries are excluded from true mysticism and contemplation? (…but not to them)

  • Kris Branaman

    Very interesting conversation you have started here, Carl. I share your frustration with sweeping generalizations as immediate response to what appears unfamiliar. This happens often in church life as we tentatively step forward into territory where we have not before ventured. I second Simon Whitney’s question inviting you to say more about the “not to them” portion of this passage. It does seem that much of the mistrust of mysticism in the contemporary Church stems from this tension. There is often an assumption among those who find mysticism “weird” that contemplatives presume to be partakers of something which the rest of us mere mortals cannot attain. In all my experiences with those who would immerse themselves in “the mysteries of Christ” I have found the truth to be the polar opposite of that predisposition. Please say more about your understanding of the “not to them” tension in the verse you have brought to our attention here.

  • tana

    Regarding the elitism: I’ve always believed, and therefore could be completely wrong, that the only reason a person would be denied that which his or her brother or sister is receiving is because he or she does not have an open heart to it. I can’t imagine God denying a person the sharing of the mysteries if the person is a authentic seeker of God and someone who can accept that he or she does not know the depths that exist. A person has to be willing to consider that something (mysteries) exist in the first place before starting the search for it. If everything that is to be known has supposedly already come from the Church or the current understanding of Scriptures, then there really are no mysteries to consider beyond those which the Church lists and then defines for us. Of course people who come from this point of view are going to take issue with mysticism – it creates a tension between what is actually possible and what they are being told is possible. I know this can be an aspect of the over-all tension because I have experienced it myself.

    I have a difficult time with this supposition that mystics view mysticism as only for the elite. I have a hard time believing that mystics view it that way themselves simply because of the mystics I’ve met and known, none would ever suggest it. Part of the mystery revealed (for me) is the interconnectedness and oneness and virgin point (to use a phrase I learned in Portland) in every single human being, not to mention the incredible humbling aspect that makes it very clear, in a mysterious way, that I am no better than anyone else. This mindset, in my very limited experience, therefore comes from the outside of the tradition – those who want to dismiss mysticism as evil or false or dangerous or unimportant.

    Finally, are not Christian truths, in and of themselves, mysterious? Is it not mystical that God loves us in spite of the fact that part of our nature is to turn away from God and the essence of God in our lives? Can we not go deeper than the Greco-Roman salvation message when reading this chapter? I too was taught that this chapter was about those who “believed” correctly and were therefore saved, and those who did not. It takes on a deeper meaning for me, personally, when I consider that perhaps Jesus is talking about the openness of one’s heart and not whether or not a person is going to heaven or hell. Verse 11: Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted,” does not necessarily, automatically mean that God is deciding who shall know and who shall not, simply because someone told us that’s how it’s to be interpreted. Surely not? Did not the disciples make a choice to be open when Jesus called them? Therefore it was granted unto them because they were open to it. Does God not love us more than we can understand and therefore, as we open ourselves up to God, pour God’s self into us?

  • Laura

    This is very interesting. I admit it rubs my fur backwards a little bit. I find it a difficult passage to begin with, but I suspect it’s talking about the gift of the spirit that’s available to all who truly seek to follow Jesus, and not all of these will be contemplatives. And I don’t think being contemplative is an elite thing. I think it’s a vocation. Everyone is called to prayer. Not everyone is called to contemplation. Everybody is called to solidarity with the poor. Not everyone is called to go with Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day to the streets of Calcutta or to the Catholic worker House. It’s tricky, but thought-provoking and interesting. Thank you.

  • Kris Branaman

    “A person has to be willing to consider that something (mysteries) exist in the first place before starting the search for it. If everything that is to be known has supposedly already come from the Church or the current understanding of Scriptures, then there really are no mysteries to consider beyond those which the Church lists and then defines for us.”

    Good point, Tana. It does require an openness to receive what we have not yet imagined. There is something reassuring and comfortable about holding fast to what we have always been told, even if what we hold on to are the limits we have placed on ourselves and our understanding.

  • Suze

    I love how you say Christian mysticism “celebrates the relationship and communion between God and God’s beloveds: in other words, you and me.” For me that emphasises that mysticism is a living entity…that mystery is to be entered (through grace) and can never be known…yet when in divine contemplation with the mysteries, all becomes so clear and simple and co-reflects in our awareness as remaining ever mysterious (a paradox of utter graciousness).
    I so appreciate your mission to steadfastly clarify and distinguish the difference between occultism and mysticism, inviting all to the holy waters of blessed ordinariness through the hidden valleys of unknowingness. For my journey, it peels away a little more of my oversensitivities to wrongfully placed social taboo and label. :-)

  • AM

    Everyone is called to a contemplative life – to a growing, transformative union with God and neighbor. It’s the basic commandment in Luke 10:27. I don’t buy with the idea of determining who is called to become Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton. This is a human interpretation of events. It is God, through the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the person, who determines what will happen once we keep the commandment.
    Spiritual elitism in contemplative life? I guess there is and this confusion, this shuddering before its association with occultism is but a symptom. Clericalism in which most of the monastic communities are trapped into i believe is one causative factor. The other factor to my opinion is too much talk about mysticism itself – heralding its pillars, putting them on the pedestal giving us the impression that they are unreachable, analyzing their life and teachings, etc. Yes, contemplatives past and present have something to say. They can intercede for us. But the point is in keeping the commandment on our own – doing the work of prayer and see what happens. I think the Eastern tradition has got it right – just pray incessantly, clerics or lay. The arrival to the unitive point is no longer our business.

  • Don


    Thank you for this.

    I too would appreciate your response to the “but not to them” phrase in the verse.

  • Al Jordan

    Sometimes I think we make mysticism more difficult than it has to be. I don’t believe that it has to be all that esoteric. Of course, one has to be drawn to it and one needs guidance and spiritual direction but I truly believe that what we generally refer to as mysticism is the next step for mankind in the evolution of consciousness and the realization of our inner divinity (the Kingdom within). All the subtleties dissolve in the experience of Presence and At-one-ment. This is why the way of the east is sometimes easier for me to travel in my spiritual journey. And yet I find all the above in the mystery of Eucharist.