|Volume 25 Number 5 May 2023
The Mystery of God
When we think of the word “mystery,” many define it as something that cannot be understood – that which is shrouded in incomprehensible ambiguity. The Word of God, however, does not predominantly use it in this manner but rather as something which was hidden or secret (although the clues were there) and was later brought to full understanding. There are things kept hidden or dimly lit throughout the Old Testament concerning man’s salvation that have been brought to light – revealed completely in the New Testament. The “mystery of God” is a central topic of the New Testament. What exactly is this mystery?
Background of the Mystery
The Old Testament contains records of prophecies that the Lord spoke through various ones (prophets) who, many times did not fully understand the very message they were given and instructed to tell others. One such prophet, Daniel, admitted as much in Daniel 12:8 as he received visions of the latter days (Daniel 10:14). God’s answer to him was “the words are sealed till the time of the end” (Daniel 12:9 NKJV). A reading of the whole of chapter 12 gives us the details that were revealed to the prophet concerning “a time of trouble, Such as never was since there was a nation… when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered… and the abomination of desolation is set up…” (Daniel 12:1, 7, 11; cf., Daniel 9). Students of the New Testament do not have to speculate about Daniel’s vision. The Lord in Matthew 24 used similar language in explaining to His disciples the signs of the times, that is, when they would see “…not one stone… left here upon another…” (Matthew 24:2). Jesus made it clear that they (those in the 1st century) would “see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place…” when He said, “this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (Matthew 24:15, 34). Indeed, within that generation, Roman armies came and desolated the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Holy Place (the Temple) was destroyed, and the holy people (the Jews) lost everything that they held dear. This was God’s judgment upon Israel for rejecting His Son – the One Who rendered that retribution upon Israel (Matthew 23:37-38; 24:30; 26:64). It was also God’s way of bringing to full glory the one body of the saved. No longer would the dead corpse of Judaism hold on to the Lord’s glorious church – consisting of all peoples, nations and tongues (Jews and Gentiles)!
Revelation of the Mystery
The New Testament uses the word “mystery” about 20 times (all in the epistles except Mark 4:11) in reference to that which was hidden, but then in the first century was being revealed fully to the world. Paul emphasized this subject in his letters to the churches, with the book of Ephesians containing the most references. The apostle to the Gentiles said that God “made known to us the mystery of His will… that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ…” (Ephesians 1:9-10). Paul addressed both Jews and Gentiles; note in verses 12-14 his use of pronouns. The Holy Spirit revealed to Paul that the Jews (“we who first trusted in Christ,” Ephesians 1:12; Acts 2) and the Gentiles (“you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth,” Ephesians 1:13; Acts 10, 19) now share the inheritance because of Christ’s blood (Ephesians 2:11-18). In the third chapter of Ephesians, Paul clarified the mystery that was hidden throughout all ages. God revealed it to him (and to all the saints, Colossians 1:26-27) – namely, “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). The mystery was explained – Jews and Gentiles in one body, the church belonging to Christ, her Head (Ephesians 5:32). The last place Paul mentioned the mystery in Ephesians is the last chapter where he asked the brethren for prayers, that he may speak “boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 4:3). In Colossians 2:2, he said that the mystery is understandable, and to the church at Rome, Paul wrote, “…I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery…” (Romans 11:25). Deacons were to hold “the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9). During the first century, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul and all of the apostles to “…speak the wisdom of God in a mystery...which God ordained before the ages” to all the world (1 Corinthians 2:7). They did just that and took the one, true Gospel of Christ to all nations (Matthew 24:14; Colossians 1:5, 6, 23; Romans 1:8).
Struggling with the Mystery
It may be difficult for us in the 21st century to fully grasp the tension between the Jew and Gentile relationship in the 1st century. Israel had been God’s special people for 2,000 years (in order to bring the Messiah into the world). As a whole, they prided themselves in the Law of Moses and looked scornfully upon other ethnicities, even though their own Scripture hinted at Gentile salvation (Isaiah 11:10; 42:1-7; Amos 9:12; Malachi 1:11; Psalm 117). Many Jewish Christians struggled with the concept of Gentiles among the body of the saved. The book of Acts bears this out. In Acts 10-11, we have the record of God acknowledging the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit (they miraculously spoke in languages unknown to them). Peter and the Jews with him needed to see this in order to fully understand that the Gospel is for all (Acts 10:45-48). Notice Acts 10:45 and 11:15, which link, “the gift of the Holy Spirit” to Acts 2. On the day of Pentecost, Peter clearly stated that what they were witnessing (i.e., the apostles miraculously speaking in languages) was what was prophesied by Joel (Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2). The promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was to Jews and Gentiles alike (“all flesh” Joel 2:28).
Due to Judaizing teachers causing trouble in the church by teaching that one had to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved, a special meeting was held in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Peter reminded everyone there what had happened some years ago and how “God… made no distinction between us and them” (Acts 15:8-9). Paul (who was also at that meeting) addressed this subject in many of his letters to the churches. The books of Romans and Galatians are two such examples. In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, he warned about those who refuse salvation to Gentiles were not pleasing to God. To Timothy, Paul said, “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” (1 Timothy 3:16).
Indeed, God powerfully established among all the churches that the Gospel was “…according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith” (Romans 16:25-26). He accomplished this by giving both Jew and Gentile miraculous gifts, which was done by the laying on of the apostles’ hands (Acts 8:14-18). Thus, through miracles, the New Testament was confirmed and completed (Romans 16:25-27; 1 Corinthians 2:12-16; 12-14; Hebrews 2:3-4).
Glory in the Mystery
Our Lord said in Matthew 24:14 that the Gospel would be “…preached in all the world as a witness to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Remember that in the context, He was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem; thus “the end” pertained to the Jewish system.) Thus, by the end of the 1st century, the revelation of the mystery by the Holy Spirit was made known to all nations. All people, no matter one’s ethnicity, now if they obey the Gospel of Christ, our Lord makes them in Him one special people (Genesis 12:3; 26:4; Galatians 3:19-29; 1 Peter 2:4-10). This is why Paul could write that “…God would make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), and we today, with the complete Word in hand and in heart, take “…the glorious gospel of the blessed God…” (1 Timothy 1:11) to souls around the whole world (Mark 16:15-16; 2 Timothy 2:2). Glory be to God!