We are accustomed to thinking of a mystery as a riddle to be solved, a puzzle that is hard to decipher, but in the New Testament, it is something different than this. A mystery is a gift to the believer, something God wants us to search out, indeed to revel in, because of the substance of God’s mysteries.
The word mystery occurs 27 times in the New Testament. rsion—a translation known for its consistency. 20 of these occur in Paul’s epistles. He speaks of the mystery of Israel’s hardening, the mystery of lawlessness, and the mystery of the faith, but those are all single-mention uses of the word. I want to instead consider two important ways Paul uses the word in his epistles, specifically, to explain the identity of the Church, and to discuss the spiritual riches in Christ.
The Mystery of the Church
Ephesians 3:1-6 is a paradigmatic explanation of what Paul means when he speaks of mystery:
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles— assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
By way of definition, then, we can say the following: A mystery is a previously concealed truth that God has now chosen to reveal to believers, through the agency of his apostles.
Paul says that the mystery was made known to him by revelation, that is, that God unveiled to him something that was previously unknown. It may have been partially known, or dimly perceived. For example, the blessing of Gentiles was there in the Old Testament. God promises Abraham that through him, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. In Psalm 22, we read “All the families of the nations shall worship before you.” Or also, Isaiah 19:25-26:
“In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”
But the manner of that blessing was hidden, specifically that it would be in such a thing as the church. Earlier in Ephesians Paul has talked about the redemption Jesus accomplished on the cross, and he says that one of the things he did was “create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.” (2:15) That is new! Gentile blessing was not, but that it would occur in such a thing as the body of Christ, the church—this was a mystery. For centuries, any who attached themselves to the God of Israel did so as a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who took up the law of Moses and became a Jew in all but bloodline. Here, Paul is saying something different, that the Lord Jesus did a new thing, created a new body, the church, in which there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, the inheritance and blessings are not distinguished based on anything physical, but it is all spiritual.
This is the essence of the church as a mystery: the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (!)
The Mystery of Christ
Paul treats a similar theme in Colossians (in many ways a companion epistle to Ephesians) but with a slightly different emphasis. There, the theme is the preeminence of Christ, and so he speaks of “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:26-27)
The emphasis is on the person of Christ, his rule and authority, his headship in the church, and that he is all and in all. Because the issue in Colossae was “philosophy and empty deceit” that is, a claim to superior revelation or knowledge, Paul counters with him who is superior to all. His desire for believers is “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (2:2-3)
Note Paul does not say that the wisdom is in the Christian faith, but that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in him, in Christ.
These mysteries are not for head-scratching contemplation, but they are instead the substance of worship. Too often people quote 1 Cor 2:9 with a shrug of the shoulders:
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him.”
While there remain some mysteries unrevealed, there are several that God has revealed, and his desire is that we understand and appreciate just how rich these glories are, just how much we have in Him.