In his epistles, the apostle Paul speaks of the mystery. He defines the mystery in his letter to the Romans:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my GOSPEL and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to THE REVELATION OF THE MYSTERY which was kept SECRET FOR LONG AGES but is now disclosed and through the PROPHETIC WRITINGS is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith - to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.
Paul associates the mystery with the preaching of the gospel. He says that the mystery was kept secret for long ages; and it has been revealed through the prophetic writings, that is, the Old Testament scriptures.
In what manner has the mystery been revealed, and to whom has it been revealed? Paul speaks again of the mystery in his letter to the Ephesians:
... how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I wrote before in a few words, by which, when you read, you may understand my 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 ...
The mystery has been made known not only to Paul, but also to the apostles and prophets of the early church. The mystery has been revealed by the Spirit; and it is by the Spirit that the apostles and prophets receive an enlightened understanding of the Old Testament scriptures.
The mystery is also revealed to the saints by the Spirit, through the teaching of the apostles and prophets:
1 Corinthians 2:7,9-10:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the
wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory. ... But as it
Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. [Isa. 64:4]
But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.
Let's consider the mystery, in its several aspects, as presented in the epistles of Paul.
Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this MYSTERY, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, 'The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.' [Isa. 59:20-21]
Paul here is cautioning the Gentile believers in Rome to be humble in faith, as one day all Israel will be saved. And, we should note that, to emphasize and illustrate his point, he quotes from the writings of the prophet Isaiah.
1 Corinthians 2:7-10:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a MYSTERY, the
which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the
rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have
crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written:
'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.' [Isa. 64:4]
But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.
Paul says that the wisdom of God has been revealed to the saints by the Spirit. Paul quotes from the book of the prophet Isaiah who foretold this revelation by God to those who love Him.
1 Corinthians 15:51-55:
Lo! I tell you a MYSTERY. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.' [Isa. 25:8] 'O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?' [Hosea 13:14]
Here, Paul speaks of the resurrection from the dead, and of immortality, which awaits the saints at the sound of the last trumpet. He quotes from the book of Isaiah, and from the book of Hosea, to clarify his teaching.
For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the MYSTERY of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
This aspect of the mystery speaks of God's purpose -- his plan of the ages -- to unite all things in Christ. Paul speaks of this same idea in his letter to the Philippians where he connects the name of Jesus with God's plan:
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This scripture in Philippians is a direct reference to a scripture in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath.
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; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
This aspect of the mystery, regarding the Gentiles, has now been made known to the apostles and prophets by the Spirit. Paul is well aware of Peter's vision of the sheet and the unclean animals as recorded in Acts 10, where we read the story of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to the Christian faith. Peter expresses his understanding of this aspect of the mystery:
And Peter opened his mouth and said: 'Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.' ... While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.
And so, by way of revelation to both Peter and Paul, this aspect of the mystery had been revealed to Jewish and Gentile believers alike.
The apostle James is also aware of this aspect of the mystery, which had been hidden for long ages, and revealed to him. He quotes from the book of Amos when he speaks at the Jerusalem conference:
And after they had become silent, James answered,
'Men and brethren, listen to me: Simon has declared how God at the
first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.
And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:
After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen down. I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the LORD who does all these things.' [Amos 9:11-12]
To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all people see what is the fellowship of the MYSTERY, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
Christ has "disarmed principalities and powers" and has triumphed over them in the cross (Col. 2:15). In Christ, the saints are "more than conquerors" (Romans 8:37-39). Thus, the church, as the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15) now makes known "the manifold wisdom of God ... to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places."
Peter, in his first letter, speaks about the prophets of old:
1 Peter 1:10-12:
Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, ... To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven -- things which angels desire to look into.
Peter says that God's plan of salvation and grace was foretold in the prophetic writings, and made known to the saints, by the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the gospel. He also says that angels desire to understand these truths which have been revealed to the saints.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter quotes from the book of the prophet Joel:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; ... And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. [Joel 2:28,32]
For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. ... So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' [Gen. 2:24]. This is a great MYSTERY, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless, let each one of you in particular so love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
In explaining the relationship between Christ and the church, Paul uses an illustration of the husband/wife relationship; and to clarify this teaching, he refers again to the prophetic writings; in this case, he quotes from the book of Genesis.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the MYSTERY hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest 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.
Paul speaks of this hope of glory in Romans 8:28-30. God brings "many sons to glory" through Christ, the "author of their salvation" (Heb. 2:10-11). In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul says that the "Lord Jesus Christ ... will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body." David also anticipates this hope of glory which he speaks of in the Psalms:
As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness.
For I want you to know how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged as they are knit together in love, to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God's MYSTERY, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
In my opinion, Paul here refers to a scripture in the book of Isaiah:
I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
This Old Testament scripture seems to fit the sense of Colossians 2:3, and Paul may very well have had this particular passage in mind when he wrote his letter to the Colossians.
1 Timothy 3:16:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.
Paul here speaks about Jesus, and explains that He was God manifested in the flesh. This fundamental truth can also be found in John's gospel:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. ... And from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
This aspect of the mystery -- God was manifested in the flesh -- was foretold by the prophet Isaiah, as quoted in the gospel of Matthew: Matthew 1:23:
'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel', which is translated, 'God with us.' [Isaiah 7:14]
Professor C.H. Dodd, commenting on Ephesians 3:6-9, writes about the mystery:
A precise definition is given in v. 6 of the content of the 'mystery'. In Colossians 1:27 it is otherwise stated. In 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 the 'mystery' is the mode in which the divine 'wisdom' exists, and it refers especially to future glory. So in Colossians 1:27 it concerns 'the hope of glory', and in Ephesians 1:9-10 it refers to the ultimate 'summing-up' of all things in Christ. In Romans 11:25 one particular aspect of the 'mystery' is touched upon, namely, temporary 'hardening' of Israel with a view to the ultimate gathering-in of the Gentiles. In Colossians 1:27 the reference to the conversion of the Gentiles is present in the context, and here it is made the central feature of the 'mystery'. Thus there is a real coherence in all references to the 'mystery' in the Pauline Epistles, only that different aspects of it are emphasized in different places" ...
[The Abingdon Bible Commentary, 1929, p. 1231]
The various aspects of the mystery, mentioned by the apostle Paul in his letters to the saints, had been kept secret for long ages. The mystery was revealed through the prophetic writings, that is, the Old Testament scriptures. Thus, for each aspect of the mystery, we find either a quotation from, or a reference to, the Old Testament scriptures.
The mystery was made known not only to Paul, but also to the apostles and prophets of the early church. The mystery was revealed by the Spirit; and it is by the Spirit that the apostles and prophets received an enlightened understanding of the Old Testament scriptures.
The mystery was also revealed to the saints by the Spirit, through the teaching of the apostles and prophets.
The mystery expresses the essence of the gospel -- the good news of Jesus Christ:
...praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints -- and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel ...
[Scriptural references are taken from either the NKJV or the RSV.]
Copyright © 1996 by Deborah Cox
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