The night before He was crucified, Jesus spent an extended period teaching His disciples. Apparently He began teaching His disciples while they were in the upper room, then continued to teach them as they left the room and walked toward Gethsemane. Part of what He taught them centers upon the image of the vine and branches, reported in John 15:1-8. Specifically, in the context of this image, Jesus uttered the command to “abide in me.”
Interpreters are about evenly divided on the significance of this command. Some understand abiding in Christ to refer to salvation; others take it to refer to some experience beyond salvation that Jesus wanted His disciples to enjoy. Of course, arguments can be advanced on both sides of this debate. I don’t intend to go into all of them here. In my opinion verse 3 is decisive: the disciples to whom Jesus addressed this command were all already believers whose sins had been cleansed by His Word. They were already saved, and they were not in any danger of losing the salvation that they had received. To me, it seems necessary that “abiding in Christ” must refer to some experience subsequent to the reception of Jesus as Savior.
Things that appear to be the same are sometimes quite different in important ways. When judicial activists appeal to the rule of law, for example, they may use exactly the same language as originalists, but their meaning is very different. Discussions of mysticism tend to be like that.
The history of Christian mysticism displays a tension between two impulses that are fundamentally incompatible with each other. Both impulses tend to express themselves in similar language, but what they mean by that language is quite different. Let me briefly describe each of these impulses.
A mystical author of the fifth or sixth century adopted the pen name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Known to scholars as “pseudo-Dionysius,” he wrote such works as The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology. Pseudo-Dionysius appears to have imbibed rather heavily of the Platonistic streams that had been flowing into Christian thought since the incursion of Gnosticism during the second century. There is sufficient ambiguity in his writing that we have to be careful in the charges that we bring against him, but he seems to have subordinated certain aspects of Christianity to neo-Platonism.