What is the ‘mystery’ that Paul talks about in his Epistles?
The apostle Paul in his Epistles used the term “mystery” often (twenty-one times) when speaking of the Divine revelation. He spoke of the “mystery of the gospel,” “the revelation of the mystery,” “the mystery of God,” “the mystery of Christ,” “the mystery of the gospel,” “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,” the “mystery of the faith.” What did he mean?
One thing we can be sure of: That he was not thinking of a “mystery” in the sense in which the word is commonly used today. He was not thinking of something weird that defies explanation, or something having magical properties, baffling comprehension, as in the mystery religions of the time. The knowledge of God is not in any sense mysticism, nor is it mystic in quality. It is practical, rational, and factual. ” that which we have seen and heard we declare to you,” said the apostle John (1 John 1:3). Shortly after Pentecost, Peter and John said the same: “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). They were declaring facts, and they were as sure of them as of their own existence. They were preaching about a real Jesus, the Son of God, who had really been born, lived, been crucified, resurrected, and now had ascended to heaven. It was all real–they were witnesses (Acts 2:29-32).
Why, then, was the revealed knowledge of God called a “mystery”?
The word “mystery” is translated from the Greek musterion which is a derivative of muo, and means literally, “to shut the mouth; a secret or mystery through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites. Hence to initiate, to teach:–instruct” (Strong’s Analytical Concordance).
According to Thayer’s English-Greek Lexicon, it refers to a “hidden thing, secret, mystery,” as “religious secrets confided only to the initiated and not to be communicated by them to ordinary mortals.”
Another definition is: “a hidden purpose or counsel, secret will.” Then follows this comment: “In the New Testament, God’s plan of salvation which was once hidden but now is revealed–Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26.”
It is also applied to “the secret purposes relative to the kingdom of God,” Matt. 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10; used of certain single events decreed by God having reference to His kingdom or the salvation of men, Rom. 11:25… used generally of Christian truth as hidden from ungodly men.”
A Greek-English Lexicon by Bauer, Arnold and Gingrich adds that it is used of “knowledge too profound for human ingenuity,… the secret thoughts, plans, and dispensations of God which are hidden from the human reason, as well as from all other comprehension below the divine level, and hence must be revealed to those for whom they are intended.”
It seems that Paul by using the term “mystery” distinguished knowledge that can be known only as God chooses to reveal it, and knowledge that can be acquired from human resources.
Why did Paul say “mystery”? Why not just “revelation” or “truth” or “heavenly wisdom?” The term seems to describe at least partially the deep love and gratitude Paul felt for having a share in the wisdom of Christ. To know Christ and the hope lie set before men was treasured knowledge indeed, valuable beyond anything he could imagine. And it was knowledge that had to come from God, it was not available by any human means or from any human source; only through direct inspiration or connection with the Divine mind. Paul felt especially favored to be “in” on this knowledge, he who considered himself the greatest of sinners because he had persecuted the Church of Christ (1 Cor. 15:9).
Why is God’s knowledge called “secret”? Because its scope and magnitude cannot be comprehended by those uninitiated. It is “a hidden thing, secret” in the sense of not being revealed or understood by the majority–because only a few would take the initiative to search its depths along with the humility and faith to receive it; to the rest, the Divine knowledge would remain a mystery. Jesus Himself indicated that the knowledge of God would not be universal. He said, in prayer to His Father, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight” (Luke 10:21).
The singular feature of the Gospel at this point seems to have been the ministry to the Gentiles. This feature of God’s plan was revealed to the apostle Paul at his conversion; for when Jesus appeared to him on his journey to Damascus, He said, “I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:16-18).
This is Paul’s point in Ephesians 3: that God “by revelation…made known to [him] the mystery,” and that they by reading what he had written could understand his “knowledge in the mystery of Christ, which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel” (Eph. 3:3-6).
In this text Paul mentions three points about the privilege that had been granted to the Gentiles:
- that now believing Gentiles “should be fellow heirs”–i.e., all the benefits of the covenant were now open also to Gentiles. Now Gentiles, as well as Jews, could be “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” because “they are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”
- that now believing Gentiles could be “of the same body,” i.e., “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). Jews and Gentiles were to be alike baptized into one body by one spirit, with one head, even Christ, the head of both. The Gentiles were not there by permission of the Jews, nor the Jews by permission of the Gentiles. Both were equal in their relationship.
- that now believing Gentiles could be “partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” There is no promise of the new covenant that is not equally sure to Gentile and to Jew.