[‘Mystery’ - ‘Revelation’ - ‘Knowledge’]

The bible is a long and complex book - indeed, it is a whole library of books - and its rich tapestry consists of many different threads intricately woven together. To present an ‘overview of the bible’ can therefore be a helpful and instructive exercise, and a variety of such schemes can be, and has been, constructed to serve as route-maps through the bible’s rich complexity to the vital truths at its heart. This process usually involves picking out a few threads from the tapestry and combining them into a cord which can guide the bible student through the labyrinth of scripture to its central message of salvation - the gospel. The success of this exercise, of course, depends on the selection of the threads: which ones to choose? The three Greek words at the top of this page seem to me to be as good a choice as any. More to the point, they seem to be the focus of Paul’s overview of scripture: 21 of the 28 uses of ‘mustērion’ in the NT are Pauline. Furthermore, this scheme itself, the journey from mystery to knowledge, is just one aspect of the journey from darkness to light, which is, perhaps, the most basic of all the bible’s many themes. To expound that would take a whole book (this study is just half a book!), but a brief ‘overview’ takes us from Genesis 1, where “darkness covers the face of the earth”, to Revelation 21 and the new Jerusalem, permanently and gloriously illuminated by the glory of God himself.


Ephesians 3.2-5

This study focuses predominantly on ‘mystery’, together with other words regularly associated with it. ‘Revelation’ occurs from time to time throughout, while ‘knowledge’ has a brief section to itself at the end. But first it might be helpful to have a preview of this overview, so that we have some idea of where we are heading. For this, we turn to Paul’s great letter to the Ephesians: “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace given to me by him for your sakes, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation --- so that you can realise my understanding of the mystery of Christ, which was not made known in other generations to the sons of men in the way that it has NOW been revealed in the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets” (3. 2-5). Paul here (and elsewhere, as we shall see) seems to divide history into three unequal periods: the long ages of ‘mystery’, the brief “BUT NOW” of revelation, and the present age of ‘knowledge’; or, in other words, the history of the Jews, the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and the mission of the church. In the OT, knowledge of God is partial and fragmentary, and his great plan for the salvation of mankind is given to us as a jigsaw: all the pieces are there, but we cannot form them into a fully meaningful picture - until the coming of Christ, the picture on the lid, when all begins to make sense, and the glorious gospel is fully revealed. What was ‘mystery’ is now ‘knowledge’ - but knowledge entrusted to the church as a sacred stewardship to be made known to the world. Paul’s words here, “for your sakes”, are the essence of stewardship: the gifts God gives us are not just for our own benefit but to be used in the service of others.

Derivation and Classical background

Of all the words we shall look at, ‘mustērion’ needs the clearest explanation and the most careful study. In contemporary usage, a mystery is an inexplicable event - a baffling crime for an ace detective to solve, or an impenetrable secret, a challenge for an intrepid adventurer or a determined reporter to expose. Mystery, in short, is the stuff of fiction. Its derivation is rather more prosaic. The Greek verb ‘muō’ means to ‘close the eyes’, or, more relevantly, to ‘close the lips’. In this latter sense it is onomatopoeic, since the letter m has to be articulated by closing the lips. In English we express the same idea as ‘keeping mum’: a mystery is something that must be kept secret, and someone promising to keep a secret may well say “My lips are sealed”. In Classical Greek the word is mainly used in the plural, and is mostly associated with the ‘Mystery Religions’. The best known of these were the Eleusinian Mysteries, Eleusis being a small township near Athens which was the centre of the cult. Unlike the civic religion, the worship of the Olympian deities, which required no personal involvement but merely formal observance, ‘mystery’ religion was for initiates only. Its main attraction was that it offered elite status in the after-life in the underworld, and its key feature, which gave it the title ‘mystery’, was that the details of the initiation rituals were a closely guarded secret, which the initiates swore never to divulge. So faithfully, in fact, did these initiates keep their lips sealed that to this day, despite much scholarly research and some educated guesswork, no one really knows what took place at these ceremonies: they remain a mystery!

From Athens to Corinth via Eleusis.
1 Corinthians 2.1-2

What follows is an educated guess rather than scholarly research - unless consulting a concordance and reading the text counts as such. The concordance reveals that ‘mustērion’ is used 28 times in the NT, and, as said earlier, 21 of these usages occur in the writings of Paul. It is used 3 times in the synoptic gospels, in parallel passages, and 4 times in Revelation. Why did Paul make so much of this otherwise rare word? In Acts 17 Paul is in Athens, for once on his own. Invited to preach to an audience of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on the Areopagus, he takes a very different approach from all his other recorded sermons. He begins with deism, then moves to theism, quoting Greek poets rather than Hebrew scriptures, and finally introduces, though not by name, Jesus as Judge rather than as Saviour. But at the mention of the resurrection it seems that his ‘sophisticated’ audience could take no more, and the meeting breaks up before Paul can preach his usual gospel of salvation. Some have seen this sermon as a model for preaching to a secular and intellectual audience, and certainly Paul’s preaching was not in vain, for we read that “some men joined him and believed” (17. 34). But immediately afterwards (18. 1) “Paul left Athens and came to Corinth”. He was, presumably, still alone, and on foot, and would have had plenty of time to reflect on recent events. In Philippi (16. 11-40) he had been beaten and imprisoned, but had founded a church. In Thessalonica (17. 1-9) his preaching had caused a riot - but founded a church. In Berea, there had been another riot, but “many believed”. In Athens, by contrast, he had been treated as an honoured guest and given a platform - that is what the Areopagus is! - to address an elite; but there is no letter of Paul “to the saints in Athens” in the NT. The journey from Athens to Corinth takes the traveller through Eleusis. It is hard to believe (this is the guesswork!) that as Paul walked alone through this small town with such historic associations he would not have reflected on the superficial similarities and radical differences between the Eleusinian mysteries and the gospel of Jesus Christ: both required personal commitment and initiation, both offered advantages in the after-life, both were open to all, not just a privileged class or race. But one was based on myth, the other on reality; one offered to make the underworld more bearable, the other offered eternal life with Christ. But perhaps the most striking contrast was that one demanded of its initiates a lifetime of ‘keeping mum’ about their experience, while Jesus required his disciples to proclaim the good news from the rooftops and to every nation. The truths of the gospel had, through all the ages, been a mystery, BUT NOW they were an open secret. Well, we cannot tell exactly what went through Paul’s mind on this journey, but we do know the resolution he had made by the end of it: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with over-clever words of wisdom in proclaiming to you the mystery of God. For I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus, Jesus crucified” (1 Cor. 2.1-2). This seems to represent a ‘back-to-basics’ policy. Paul tells us that he came to Corinth “in weakness and in great fear and trembling” (v.3). “Weakness” (‘astheneia’ in Greek) often means ‘illness’, but here, in conjunction with the other two words, it rather suggests that Paul had suffered something of a crisis of confidence after the relative failure of his ministry in Athens. Furthermore, he was on his own for the first time, so far as we can tell, in his apostolic ministry. The Greek word for ‘wisdom’ is ‘sophia’, and we will have a fuller look at it later. It is the word from which ‘philosophy’ is derived (‘a love of wisdom’), and it occurs 51 times in the NT; remarkably, one third of these (17) are in 1 Corinthians. It seems that Paul’s Athens experience has convinced him that it is not human wisdom that brings people to faith in God, but rather that it is coming to faith in God that leads to true wisdom. Maybe, too, his walk through Eleusis had reminded him that God’s eternal plan of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ was a mystery which could not be discovered by philosophic enquiry, but could only be revealed by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel - “Christ crucified”: it is he who, supremely, is “the mystery of God”.

'mu(e)ō' and ‘muōpazō’
Philippians 4.11

Before we embark on our study of ‘mustērion’ itself, we will take a brief look at two related words, which each occur only once in the NT. The first of these is ‘mu(e)ō’, almost indistinguishable from the original ‘muō’, but from rather higher up the evolutionary tree. ‘muō’ means to ‘keep silent’, ‘mustērion’ means a ritual which must be kept silent, and ‘mu(e)ō means to ‘initiate’ someone into that mystery. It is not surprising that it is Paul who uses this word, and in view of his frequent use of ‘mustērion’ it seems certain that in using it he is fully aware of its original meaning. Writing from prison to the Philippians, he expresses his gratitude for their renewed concern for him, presumably in the form of a gift of money. This seems to imply that their concern for him had lapsed for a while, but Paul says (tactfully?) that it was just that they had lacked an opportunity to express it. Then he continues (4.11): “Not that I speak because of want, for I have learned to be self-sufficient with whatever I have. I know how to manage both with less than enough and with more than enough: in every situation and in all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content ---”. The first “I have learned” here is the normal verb ‘manthanō’ (whence ‘mathematics’, ‘polymath’, etc.), but the second is the perfect passive of ‘mu(e)ō’ - ‘memuēmai’. NIV’s “I have learned the secret’ is good, better than AV’s “I am instructed”. But to catch the full import of Paul’s use of this word we might translate: “I have been initiated into the mystery of contentment”.

(ii) 2 Peter 1.9
The other word is even less common: its single occurrence in the NT is the only example cited in the (very!) large Liddle and Scott lexicon of Classical Greek. ‘muōpazō’ takes us back to the primary meaning of ‘muo’, to ‘close the eyes’ (the ‘-op’ addition is the root from which we get ‘optical’, etc.), reminding us that a mystery is something kept in the dark. This word is used by Peter in his second epistle (1.9). He urges his readers to grow in their faith by adding to it “goodness --- knowledge --- self-control --- endurance --- godliness --- brotherly affection --- love”: a challenging check-list. Any one who is not developing these qualities, he says, “is blind, closing his eyes and completely forgetting the forgiveness he has received for his past sins”. This ‘closing of the eyes’ seems to be deliberate, so that we could translate the whole phrase “he is turning a blind eye” to the forgiveness of his sins, so that spiritual growth is stunted by complacency. We might compare such a person to a teenager whose mother opens the curtains and wakes him up in the morning, but who then closes them again and goes back to sleep. Going further down the age-range, I am reminded of an illustration I once heard in a sermon. A couple in the church had a young daughter who had just graduated from cot to bed - a significant rite of passage! After putting her to bed, they were sitting in the living-room immediately below her bedroom when they were startled by a loud thump on the ceiling. They rushed upstairs to find their precious daughter lying on the floor, dazed but unhurt. They asked her what had happened, and she said: “I think I fell asleep too near where I got in”. Sadly, too many Christians do the same: they ‘get saved’, but then get stuck, and go to sleep “too near where they got in”. A glimpse of ‘the mystery of God’ has been revealed to them, but instead of exploring in wide-eyed wonder all that God has given them, they close their eyes and carry on much as before.


And so to ‘mustērion’ itself. Of Paul’s 21 uses of this word, 14 refer, in one way or another, to God’s eternal plan of salvation in Christ, hinted at in the OT through prophecies and pictures, BUT NOW fully revealed in the gospel age. In all these instances, ‘mustērion’ is used in the singular, nearly always preceded by the definite article - “the mystery”. The other instances of ‘mustērion’ in the singular refer to specific details of the end-times - for the future is always a mystery, even though the central fact of Christ’s return is a certainty. When used in the plural, ‘musteria’, it refers to spiritually revealed truths in general. Of the 4 uses of ‘mustērion’ in Revelation, 3 refer to baffling details of the vision John has seen, which need angelic interpretation - or revelation; the 4th is a mystery we will tackle later. That just leaves the three occurrences in the synoptic gospels; rather confusingly, Mark uses the singular, but Matthew and Luke the plural, in otherwise more or less identical passages.

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