Plumbing the Mysteries of God
In modern English when we describe something as a “Mystery”, we mean it has not been “solved”. Either we can get enough information and can solve it, or we can’t and it remains a mystery. But that’s not what the word means when you read it in the Bible.
In the Bible the word “mystery”, which in Greek is “μυστήριον” and in Hebrew, “רָזָ֖ה”, means something which requires revelation from God in order to be known. The word more generally means something that requires special initiation before one is entrusted with the knowledge. Childbirth, for example, has a number of such mysteries, and only someone who has experienced childbirth can truly know them. Mums know the mystery of childbirth. That’s what mystery means in the Bible.
The New Testament insists, over and over, that the mysteries of God have been revealed. So when I hear people surrender the pursuit of understanding, using phrases like, “It’s one of the mysteries of God”, or “God works in mysterious ways”, this actually represents a lack of faith.
Why does it matter?
|To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom
The reason this matters to me is that I hear people shrug, announce that something is “a mystery”, and then conclude that it cannot be understood. No problem there, as far as it goes, but then the person will continue to bang out dogma, even when they profess ignorance about the essence of it. This results in a church which rehearses ancient liturgy and praxis and declares an incomprehensible message, while actively resisting any attempt to understand it.
One of the most “mysterious” topics in Christian apologetics is the doctrine of the Trinity. This teaching insists that there is only one God, but also that there is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These are said to be “three persons in one substance”, in wording over which people have fought and died.
|Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
On one hand, if there is really only one God, and Jesus is God, then to whom does he pray? And did God die on the cross or not? On the other hand, if there is more than one god then what we have is simply polytheism.
“It’s a mystery”, the teachers tell us. We are not able to reconcile it, yet we insist on it being so. It becomes an act of faith to give assent to it.
I disagree that it cannot be explained. I wrote about reconciling many of these seemingly intractable issues in Jesus’ strange sayings about God: Not so strange after all, revealing the way the original hearers were understanding things, rather than the theologians 300+ years later. Because for some 300 years, nobody considered the issue of a divine Jesus to be polytheism. It wasn’t that they hadn’t got around to thinking about it. It’s just that we don’t properly understand how they were thinking, and why it didn’t occur to them as a problem.
|With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will
The nature of “Election” in the Bible is another long-debated topic. Following the Calvinist and Arminian apologists all they way through, eventually each of them ends up admitting that they cannot reconcile all of the aspects of their teaching. Martin Luther, for example, gave up with “It is wrong to pry into God’s mysteries at this point”, and admits that this is a failure to resolve the issues. Clearly, this means, “It doesn’t make sense and I can see that, I just can’t figure it out. Don’t ask any more questions.”
Again, I wrote two articles explaining the concept of “Election” without having to resort to such obfuscation: Biblical Election: It’s not a Democracy, and “Election”: Calvin…? No; Arminius…? No; “The Corporate View”…? Almost…
|This mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory
Election relates closely to another favourite, Predestination – another famously misrepresented idea, and another on which theologians are happy to admit that they don’t understand it, yet proclaim it anyway, using descriptions they know to be unworkable. They don’t understand it because they have made some incorrect assumptions, sending them in the wrong interpretive direction. By using the “mystery” cop-out, they avoid the exercise of going back to first principles and figuring out why the author could make sense of the word but the reader cannot.
See a very unusual, but simple and clear explanation of what the author was meaning here: Romans 8:28-30: Not “Predestination”, but an argument against Judaisers
Christian contemplation has made this very simple, ordinary word into a seemingly magical one. The word means “setting aside”, or “making distinct”. In Biblical language it more specifically implies that the thing is set apart exclusively for God’s purposes.
See a discussion on just how elaborate theologians have become with interpreting this plain, ordinary word well outside of its original semantic range: Holiness: It’s not a process.
… and there are countless other examples.
The word, “Mystery”
So let’s take a look at how the Biblical writers use the word, “Mystery”
To you it has been given to know – 3 times
He answered, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”
This is an example of something one must be initiated into – insider knowledge. It has been revealed. It can be known. “Them” is the non-believers. “You” is the followers of Jesus.
I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.
Clearly, this “mystery” can be known. Paul is explaining it. It is not “unknowable”.
Romans 16:25 N-GNS
GRK: κατὰ ἀποκάλυψιν μυστηρίου χρόνοις αἰωνίοις
NAS: to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret
KJV: to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret
INT: according to a revelation of [the] mystery in times of the ages
… according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles…
The mystery had been kept secret, but is now revealed. All this language is really very clear.
I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom… we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory … these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit … no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
1 Corinthians 2 is painstakingly explaining that God has revealed his mysteries by imparting the Holy Spirit to us (“us” is the church teachers and leaders here – the ones mature in the faith and the ministry).
Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.
Paul is referring to his ministry team – the leaders of the church. These are “stewards of God’s mysteries”. Certainly not for the purpose of keeping them secret! As the other quotes are showing, it is for the purpose of advertising, proclaiming, and teaching those mysteries.
For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.
The conversation here is acknowledging that those prophesying are speaking mysteries just as those who speak in tongues. The only difference is that those speaking sensible language are benefiting other people. In other words, the mysteries are knowable and communicable.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will 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 will be changed.
That’s… it. That’s the “mystery”. It is written out in black and white, and couldn’t be clearer.
With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
I don’t think I can add anything to this by way of commentary. It couldn’t be clearer.
Ephesians 3:3 N-ANS
GRK: μοι τὸ μυστήριον καθὼς προέγραψα
NAS: there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before
KJV: unto me the mystery; (as
INT: to me the mystery according as I wrote before
the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.
Again, not only does Paul know the mystery, but has written it down. In this context he is referring to the revelation that God is reconciling not only Israelites, but also Greeks to Himself.
Ephesians 3:9 N-GNS
GRK: οἰκονομία τοῦ μυστηρίου τοῦ ἀποκεκρυμμένου
NAS: is the administration of the mystery which for ages
KJV: [is] the fellowship of the mystery, which
INT: administration of the mystery which has been hidden
this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things
Clearly Paul’s ministry was to lay out God’s mysteries clearly. Anyone claiming to have been left in the dark is therefore either accusing Paul of failing to teach, or themselves of failing to learn.
This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.
“This” refers to what Paul has just written about husbands and wives, and about Christ and the Church. It is not a secret. It is part of the same paragraph.
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Paul’s life work was to proclaim the mystery of the Gospel, so that it would not remain unknown.
I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been 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.
In one phrase, Paul expresses the “mystery of the gospel”. it is “Christ in you [Greek, as well as Jewish believers], the hope of glory”.
I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Again, Paul is expressing his ministry in terms of imparting the knowledge of the mystery to others. Indeed, in this context, Christ Himself is “God’s mystery”, and Christ can most certainly be known!
At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.
Paul is crystal clear about this topic, again and again.
Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed…
This passage makes clear that “mystery” is something to be revealed, and Paul is explaining exactly how and when it will be revealed. Indeed, he has already revealed most of it. Only the identity of “the lawless one” remains hidden. For now.
they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
How can anyone do this without understanding what that mystery actually is?
Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.
Again, this is “the mystery of our religion”. It is spelled out. No secrets.
As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
John points to a “mystery”, and exposes it. No more mystery.
And so I appeal to the thinkers of the Christian tradition, and I implore: stop using “mystery” as an excuse to stop learning. There are answers to the questions. The answers may upset some dearly held dogmatic nuggets, but are’t we seekers of truth?
Come, let us reason together…