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Why Foreign Missions? 20h. The Gospel According to Paul—Word Study 5: Mystērion

Why Foreign Missions? 20h. The Gospel According to Paul—Word Study 5: Mystērion

The term ‘mystērion’ is the fifth term to consider in a discussion of the Gospel.  It has no nuanced meaning as a word, but it does have two contextual uses of interest to a study of the term in relation to the Gospel.  One is the use of the term in Daniel 2, and the other is the use of the term in the Graeco-Roman world.  These uses shed light on the use of the term in the New Testament and, particularly, Paul’s use of the term in reference to the Gospel.

‘Mystery’ in Daniel

The word ‘mystery’ is only found in the Greek Old Testament in Daniel chapter 2.  King Nebuchadnezzar required of his sages not only that they tell the mysterious meaning of his dream to him but also that they tell him what he dreamed in the first place.  What he dreamed, and the meaning of the dream, were truly a mystery.  Yet Daniel was able, by God’s revelation, to tell this mystery.  The king’s dream was about a large statue that was made of different substances in different parts, each indicating a different ‘kingdom’ that would arise in succession to the former one.  A stone, not cut by human hands, rolled into and toppled the statue, and it became a huge mountain that filled the entire earth.  The stone represented the kingdom of God:

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever… (Dn. 2.44).

Thus, in a single passage from the Old Testament, we have a link between the word ‘mystery’ and the notion of the kingdoms of the world that culminates in God’s Kingdom.  This link can also be connected to the word ‘Gospel.’  We have already noted a connection between the restoration of Israel from captivity and the establishment of God’s reign in Isaiah, where the announcement of this is spoken of as ‘Good News,’ or ‘Gospel.’  So, despite the single occurrence of the word ‘mystery’ in such a context in the Old Testament, Dn. 2 does provide the background for Paul’s usage of the term ‘mystery’ in reference to the Gospel.

In addition to the connection between the word ‘mystery’ and both (1) ‘kingdom’ and (2) ‘Gospel,’ we can also see that ‘mystery’—understood with Dn. 2 in view--captures two aspects of the Gospel: (3) it is God’s plan, and it is (4) God’s hidden plan unfolding according to his sovereign will.  A final observation in regard to Dn. 2 is that (5) God’s Kingdom will overthrow other kingdoms and be universal.  This last point means that the Gospel as God’s mystery (a) has political significance for other kingdoms and, as a kingdom, (b) operates according to its own laws rather than being an adaptation of or to another kingdom.

Daniel 2 and New Testament Uses of ‘Mystērion

Daniel 2 seems an appropriate enough background for the use of the term ‘mysteries’ on one occasion in the Synoptic Gospels.  Jesus refers to the ‘mysteries of the kingdom’ that are revealed to the disciples but that remain riddles in Jesus’ parables to others (Mk. 4.11; Mt. 13.11; Lk. 8.10).  Apocalyptic writings are revelations of the mysteries of God’s plan for the world, and we find the term used four times in the book of Revelation.  Yet the term is mostly a Pauline term in the New Testament.

Herman Ridderbos says that Paul’s use of the term ‘mystery’ is 'materially altogether in harmony with the great theme of Jesus' preaching of the coming of the kingdom of heaven,’[1] and 'the mystery is the real content of Paul's gospel (Rom. 16.26).'[2]  The Gospel's content, moreover, is Jesus Christ.[3]  The connection between ‘mystery’ and ‘kingdom,’ already found in Daniel 2, can be connected with the Gospel precisely because Jesus is the one who brings the kingdom and is the content of the Gospel.

Similarly, Joseph Fitzmyer says that ‘mystery’ in Paul

introduces us more deeply into the content of the gospel, which concerns Christ, by enhancing the total view of it as a revelation.  For in the gospel is revealed the divine plan of salvation, which is being realized in Christ Jesus.  It is particularly in contexts mentioning the gospel as revelation or manifestation that mystērion occurs.[4]

The Gospel (our faith, our religion) is linked to the term ‘mystery’ in several passages in Paul (in both undisputed and disputed texts in regard to Paul’s authorship):

Romans 16:25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages….
Ephesians 6:19 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….
1 Timothy 3:8-9  8 Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money;  9 they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.
1 Timothy 3:16 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.

The Gospel is a mystery in that it is the secret plan of God.  Three passages in Colossians demonstrate this claim:

Colossians 1:24-27  24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.  25 I became its servant according to God's commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,  26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.  27 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.
Colossians 2:2-3  2 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 himself3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
Colossians 4:3-4   3 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,  4 so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.

The same understanding can also be found in Romans and Ephesians (a point worth emphasising in light of the fact that the Pauline authorship of Colossians and Ephesians is sometimes disputed):

Romans 16:25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages….
Ephesians 1:7-10   7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace  8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight  9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,  10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

As a mystery, the Gospel 'is apprehended only by faith.’[5]  This aspect of the Gospel as God’s plan now revealed also relates well to Daniel 2.

‘Mystery’ in the Graeco-Roman World

Paul’s usage of the term ‘mystērion’ may have been encouraged further because of its use in his context of ministry—the Graeco-Roman world.  Certainly his hearers would have first heard the term from this context, since it was frequently associated with the religions of the Roman Empire.  The Greeks referred to the cultic practices of these religions as ‘mysteries.’  Several facts should be noted about the mysteries in Graeco-Roman religions: (a) the use of the term in the singular and plural; (b) the role of priests in the mysteries; and (c) the mysteries of a religion are not to be revealed.
The use of the plural, ‘mysteries,’ extends the meaning beyond beliefs and includes the practices of a religion.  We might first note that these mysteries were not to be revealed.  Revelation of and making light of the mysteries of a religion was expected to result in severe consequences from the gods or the city.  Several primary sources illustrate this.  Thydidides records a story about certain drunken youths who ‘had in private houses acted the mysteries of their religion in mockery’ (Thycidides,  History of the Peloponnesian War, 6.28; cf. 6.53).[6]  Many young men, some innocent, were imprisoned (6.60), and the leader of the Athenian warriors, Alcibiades, was also accused of participating with them.  He recognises that he has been accused of ‘great crimes’ (6.29)—enhanced because the fate of the army could hang on whether or not the crimes were true, since the gods may punish them under his command.  In Euripides’ Hipolytus, Hippolytus travels to ‘see and celebrate the holy mysteries of Demeter’ (Euripides, Hippolytus 25).[7]  Euripides also tells a story of the slaying of a man by the goddess Athena because she mistakenly believed that he had revealed ‘the dark mysteries with their torch processions’ (Euripides, Rhesus, 943).[8]

Second, we should note that priests of the religions were entrusted with the mysteries.  They beheld, celebrated, and kept them (cf. Plutarch, Biography, ‘Marcius Corolianus,’ 32.2.1-2).

This background enlightens our understanding of Paul’s use of the term ‘mystery’ on several occasions in 1 Corinthians and Romans.  First, Christians experience their faith as a speaking of mysteries in the Spirit when they speak in tongues that are not understood by others, only by God.  Believers may have a great spiritual understanding into the mysteries of their religion—something the Corinthians gloried in but Paul downplays with his concern for believers to love one another:

1 Corinthians 14:2 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.
1 Corinthians 13:2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

Second, while these passages suggest something mysterious, Paul can use this language in reference to eschatology, to various theological teachings about God’s future, ultimate plan:[9]

God’s Future Plan Regarding the Resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15:51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed….
God’s Future Plan for Jews and Gentiles: Romans 11:25 So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, 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.
God’s Unfolding Plan for the Church: Ephesians 5:29-32   29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church,  30 because we are members of his body.  31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh."  32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.
God’s Future Plan Regarding the Man of Lawlessness: 2 Thessalonians 2:7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed.

Third, Paul is also a keeper of the mystery, but he understands this role to involve revealing the mystery of God, the Gospel, rather than keeping it a secret.

1 Corinthians 2:1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.
1 Corinthians 4:1  Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries.

Various points already noted can be found in Ephesians 3.1-12:

Ephesians 3:1-12   This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles--  2 for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you,  3 and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words,  4 a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ5 In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:  6 that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power.  8 Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,  9 and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;  10 so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.  11 This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,  12 in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

I see the following points related to the Gospel in this passage:

1. The Gospel is a mystery in the sense that it is something that God has revealed (to Paul and, through him, to others; vv. 3, 5, 9);
2. The content of the mystery is the content of the Gospel (v. 7), which is Jesus Christ (v. 3);
3. The ‘mystery’ as God’s secret plan now revealed, includes, as in Rom. 11.25, what God has planned for Jews and Gentiles (v. 6).


In conclusion, the term ‘mystērion’ opens up further insight into the content of the Gospel, particularly in Paul.  The term’s use in Daniel 2 brings out the following points:

          *’Mystery’ is related to God’s kingdom.
*’Mystery’ in reference to God’s kingdom means that God’s kingdom will overthrow other kingdoms.  God’s kingdom has political significance for other kingdoms and is different from the other kingdoms--it has its own laws.
*’Mystery’ as God’s eventual bringing of His kingdom rule in Dn. 2 should be related to passages in the prophets that speak of the 'Good News' (as Isaiah puts it) of restoration of Israel from captivity and the return of God’s rule over Israel.  In this way, ‘mystery’ and ‘Gospel’ are already related in Old Testament theology.
*’Mystery’ has to do with God’s plan—his plan for the world from the time of its very foundation.
          *’Mystery’ has to do with God’s sovereign plan being hidden at one time but now revealed.

These points do relate to the use of ‘mystery’ in the New Testament, particularly to Paul’s use of the term for the Gospel.  Use of the term ‘mystērion’ in Paul not only relates to Daniel’s use of the term but also to the use of the term in the Graeco-Roman world.  It has to do with the ‘mysteries’ of a religion—its teachings and practices.  Christians, too, enter into the mysteries of the Spirit, speaking mysteries in other tongues.  However, unlike those religions, when the term ‘mystery’ is used of the Gospel, Paul's commission is not to hide divine mysteries but to reveal the ‘mystery’ of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The hiddenness of the mystery of the Gospel has to do with the fact that only in Christ is God’s plan made manifest.  Only in Christ is God’s plan accomplished.  There is, simply put, no other way of salvation, no other rule of God, no other truth.  The mystery of Christ has been revealed.

[1] Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 48.
[2] Herman Ridderbos, Paul, p. 47.
[3] Ridderbos, Paul, pp. 49ff.
[4] Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., 'Pauline Theology,' in Jerome Biblical Commentary, Section 79 (New York: Prentice Hall, 1968), p. 807.
[5] Joseph Fitzmyer, ‘Pauline Theology,’ p. 807.
[6] Thucydides, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1881).  Online: (accessed 28 July, 2013).
[7] Euripides, with an English translation by David Kovacs (Cambridge. Harvard University Press, forthcoming).  Online:; accessed 21 July, 2013.
[8] The Plays of Euripides, translated by E. P. Coleridge, vol. 1 (London. George Bell and Sons. 1891).
[9] By making the point in this way, I am also suggesting that those who claim that some author other than Paul uses ‘mystery’ in a different way in Ephesians are simply wrong.  Paul actually uses the term in reference to his eschatological beliefs, as noted.  Moreover, in Ephesians there is a link between ‘mystery’ and the revelation of God’s secret plan, as in other letters.  The revelation of God’s secret plan includes what God has planned for Jews and Gentiles in both Rom. 11 and in Ephesians 3 (see below).  I find the dispute over Pauline authorship of Ephesians over this issue to be remarkably weak.