Is the Gospel a ‘Mystery’?
When discussing the greatness of God’s nature and infinitude, there is a temptation that overtakes a Christian. It is the temptation to appeal to mystery as an excuse for having no thoughts about God. We have all done it, I think. We are both humble and healthy to say often, “I don’t know.” But that’s a different thing entirely from saying “I can’t know.” In many cases, we end discussion by erecting a wall of ignorance out of William Cowper’s misquoted phrase: “God moves in a mysterious way.” We forget that the hymn that begins with God’s majestic transcendence ends in God’s self-revelation:
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Of course, I am too quick to judge. We are not always wrong to quote Cowper about “mysterious ways”, depending on the subject matter. If we are discussing omnipresence, the discussion is bound to cross the path of the Psalmist: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” Here the word “cannot” is important; it expresses God’s final and inviolable transcendence. This is what is meant by Christian mysticism in its best sense, in the sense A. W. Tozer used it: we can know God as we know a friend, but we cannot comprehend him with fullness and finality. We do not yet know him as we know ourselves. As Tozer said, the moment that we understand our God fully, is the moment we have created an idol. Paul said, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
But God forbid we replace Paul’s “I know in part” with “I don’t know at all.” Some Christians have draped God’s incomprehensibility over the whole of their theology, fearing or neglecting to opine about the Friend we should know so well. And yet another day we may sing of walking with him in the cool of the day. Why?
One culprit is a misunderstanding of the biblical sense of mystery. As William Cowper and biblical David knew, mystery should lead us not into ignorance, but into worship. Mystery shows us our finiteness. But Paul uses the Greek word musterion, from which the English word comes, in quite a different sense than we do.
The revelation of the mystery … was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed … (Rom 16:25-26)
This begs the question, how a mystery, which to us means the unknowable, can be both revealed and disclosed. A quick look at the New Testament usage of this word will, I think, show us secret is much closer to what Paul usually meant, and judging by his letters, many of God’s secrets are made to be revealed in due time.
What Paul Meant by ‘Mystery’ (Gk. musterion)
The word mystery (Gk. musterion) is used 27 times in the New Testament, mostly by Paul. The word ‘mystery’ denotes grand themes such as the Church, the Gospel, the Incarnation, the Body of Christ, the Resurrection, or Christ himself. I’ve divided these passages into four lists to show four ways the word mystery is used in the New Testament.
1. As you’ll see in the first list, mystery is primarily used in the New Testament to mean, not something that’s now unknowable, but something that was once unknown. Usually Paul means the Gospel itself, which is known to Christians but which an unspiritual person “is not able to understand” (1 Cor 2:14). Paul sometimes speaks of a mystery as being kept secret but more often, he speaks of them being made known, as he does in the passage quoted above. So a better understanding of the word mystery, for Paul at least, is a secret—something that was unknown or unknowable until God revealed it to us in Christ.
2. Another common theme for Paul is “declaring the mystery” of the Gospel. Again, a gospel that cannot be understood by the Christian cannot be proclaimed to anyone else. Paul asks his readers to pray for him, that God would open a door for him to “declare the mystery of Christ” (Col 4:3). (See List 2.)
3. As I said, Christ is the greatest secret that God ever revealed to Paul. But there are a few other concepts that he calls mysteries, seen in List 3. Every concept that Paul identifies as a mystery is more fully revealed in Christ’s New Covenant than it ever was in the Old Covenant. Although Paul uses words like “unsearchable” and “inscrutable” to describe God’s transcending wisdom and knowledge (Rom 11:32-36), he never uses the word mystery in this way.
4. Finally, John uses the word “mystery” in Revelation for prophetic symbols which were not understood by John at the time that he first saw them. (You could also argue that Paul uses this meaning in Eph 5:32 for Christ and the church.) In both of John’s cases, his heavenly guide had to reveal the meaning of those symbols to him, effectively putting an end to the “mystery” of each symbol.
In the final analysis, none of Paul’s usages of this word lead us into God’s incomprehensibility—for that we have to look elsewhere. But he does show us something else about God; though he kept a big Secret from humanity all the way from Adam to Mary, it was only hidden that the dull human heart might not read it unprepared, and miss the meaning entirely. God is always ready to offer a Word, but we are rarely ready to receive it. For this reason we complain that so little-s secrets pass us by. But for those of us who have met Christ, the capital Secret has been written, as Lewis says, in small letters that our eyes might understand. It was kept so well, that angels desired to look into it—but it was, in fact, a Secret made to be broken.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father … that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. (Eph 3:14,17-19)
1. God Made Known the Secret of the Gospel
And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven …”
Mt 13:11 (cf. Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10)
The revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations …
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge …
1 Cor 13:2
… making known to us the mystery of his will … which he set forth in Christ …
… the mystery was made known to me by revelation …
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 …
To me … this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God … so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rules and authorities in the heavenly places.
… the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make knownhow great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim …
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea … that their hearts may be encouraged … 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 wisdomand knowledge.
They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
1 Tim 3:9
And the angel … swore by him who lives forever … that there would be no more delay, but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.
2. We Declare the Secret of the Gospel
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age … But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.
1 Cor 2:6-7
… servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
1 Cor 4:1
For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God … he uttersmysteries in the Spirit.
1 Cor 14:2
… making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mysteryof the gospel … that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ …
3. Other Secrets
a. The hardening of the Jews
I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery …
b. The Resurrection
I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.
1 Cor 15:51
c. Christ and the Church
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
d. End-time lawlessness
For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.
2 Thess 2:7
e. The Incarnation of Christ
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
1 Tim 3:16
As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand … the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches …
And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great…”
But the angel said to me, “Why do you marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman … the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”
Rev 17:7, 18