In everyday usage, the word ‘mystery’ suggests ‘something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain’ (COD).
Unfortunately, this usage is too readily imported into discussions about what the word means in its biblical context.
So let’s take a look.
In the OT, the word ‘mystery’ only occurs in the Aramaic part of the book of Daniel (Dan 2:18–19, 27–30, 47; 4:9), where the word rāz is rendered mystērion in the LXX. In that context, the word refers to God’s hidden plan which revelation and the unfolding of events are in the process of making known.
In the NT, the word mystērion again refers to a secret that has been, or is being, or will be, divinely revealed. Its meaning is, therefore, close to that of apokalypsis, ‘revelation’.
Mounce notes that the word ‘mysterion‘ occurs in the following expressions:-
- “the mystery of the kingdom of God (Mk 4:11);
- “the mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:4; Col 4:3);
- “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19);
- “the mystery of God” (1 Cor. 2:1; 4:1; Rev 10:7);
- “the mystery of God, namely Christ” (Col 2:2);
- “God’s secret wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:7);
- “the mysteries of the faith” (1 Tim. 3:9);
- “the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16).
So it’s clear that most of the NT references to ‘mystery’ occur in Paul’s letters:-
- it is focused on the divine plan of salvation, centred on Christ, Col 2:2; decreed before all ages, 1 Cor 2:7; contained in God’s everlasting counsels, Eph 3:9; long-hidden to human perception, 1 Cor 2:8; Rom 16:25; now openly preached, Eph 6:19.
- it has been disclosed in history by Christ himself, Eph 1:9; 3:3f; in the fullness of time, Gal 4:4; declared in the person and reconciling work of Jesus Christ, 2 Cor 5:18f; proclaimed by Paul, Eph 3:8f; and bringing a message of hope and new life, Eph 3:8.
- it is perceived spiritually, having been entrusted to the prophets and apostles by the Spirit, Eph 3:5. What is revealed by the Spirit must be understood by the Spirit.
- it is eschatological in its outcome, for what has already been revealed it yet to reach its consummation, 1 Cor 15:51ff.
Such a mystery, even as it is revealed, overwhelms us with an appreciation of God’s wisdom and knowledge, Col 2:2.
Based on NBD, art. ‘Mystery’ (S.S. Smalley)