In the New Testament, the word “mystery” almost always refers to information that had been previously unknown. A mystery was a revelation from God that had been revealed to the author of that book of Scripture but hidden from everyone up until that time. There isn’t anything mysterious about the mystery, it’s more of a secret — God’s secret, until He chose to tell it.
Paul defines the term when he used it in Colossians 1:26: The mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints.
Let’s look at some of the mysteries that were revealed to Paul.
Romans 11:25 — For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. — The Jews — Israel — are God’s chosen people. He blessed them and set them apart and gave them His protection and His ceremonial laws by which they could demonstrate their faith. He sent the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, through them and to them so that all the world, Jews and Gentiles (through Israel), could be saved. But Israel rejected the Father in the Old Testament, the Son at Calvary and the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts. As a result, God has brought blindness upon the nation and offered salvation to all — until the time God has chosen to remove the Body of Christ from the earth and restore Israel to their promised blessings. That blindness — the period of time when Israel would be set aside — was a mystery.
Romans 16:25-26 — Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, 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. — Here Paul is referring to “my gospel” — the message given to Him that: For He [God] made Him [Jesus Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is a truth preached nowhere in Scripture prior to this time.
1 Corinthians 15:51-52 — Behold, 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed. — The Lord is working on earth through the Body of Christ — those who have trusted Him for salvation. In order for the promises to Israel to be fulfilled, the Body of Christ has to be removed. Jesus Christ will return and meet believers in the air — first those who have died first and then, immediately after those who are still alive — to take us to heaven where we will be glorified. This is the “Rapture” although that term doesn’t appear in Scripture. The Body of Christ is a mystery (as we will shortly see), so it isn’t surprising that the Rapture is a mystery. This is often misunderstood by those who claim that there will be no Rapture because Christ never mentioned it during His earthly ministry.
Ephesians 1:9-10 — Having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth — in Him. — The “fullness of times” means “the completion of the ages.” It’s referring to the future, after the Millennial Kingdom, when God will wrap everything together in Jesus Christ. Note that there is still a distinction between things in heaven (the inheritance of the Body of Christ) and things on earth (Israel’s promised home for eternity). What is missing is “things under the earth” (see Philippians 2:9-11), those who have died without trusting Christ.
Ephesians 3:3-6 — How that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, 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: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel. — Only to Paul was it revealed that Gentiles could be saved into the same body as the Jews and partakers of the same spiritual promises. Yes, God did first reveal to Peter, on his visit to Cornelius, that Gentiles could be saved so that Peter and the other apostles wouldn’t interfere with Paul’s ministry. But it was only to Paul that the Holy Spirit revealed the depth and scope of that salvation — and that, going forward, saved Jews and Gentiles would be part of the same body.
Ephesians 5:30-32 — 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.” This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. — Paul is using a simile here to explain the Body of Christ. The marriage relationship between a man and a woman isn’t a mystery — God revealed that back in Genesis. But here Paul uses the marriage relationship to illustrate something that is a mystery — the relationship between Christ and the church. (While we’re on the subject … Paul is not teaching that the church is the bride of Christ. Scripture refers to believing Israel at Christ’s second coming as the Bride of the Lamb, but that terminology is NEVER used by Paul and NEVER in reference to the Body of Christ.)
Colossians 1:24-27 — I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. — Here Paul calls the church (the Body of Christ) a mystery and then reveals a characteristic of the Body of Christ which is also a mystery — “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The truth that Christ dwells in the believer (Romans 8:10; 2 Corinthians 13:5) is new information given to Paul. The fact of Christ’s presence in the believer gives us hope (faith in the future) that we will someday be with Him in glory.
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. — There is some disagreement among commentaries on what, exactly, the mystery refers to in this verse. It’s most likely that it refers to the Body of Christ again. Let’s break it down phrase by phrase to see if it fits.
- God manifested in the flesh — On the surface, this seems like it must apply to Christ Himself, but Paul was just referring to the church in the previous verse (1 Timothy 3:15) and he uses almost these exact words to refer to the church (the spiritual Body of Christ) in 2 Corinthians 4:11: For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
- Justified in the Spirit — Christ certainly never needed to be justified for His own sins, but justification is a two-way street. Our sins were put on Him, making Him sinful. And His righteousness was put on us, making us justified in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). This justification was a mystery revealed first to Paul.
- Seen by angels — Of course Jesus Christ was seen by angels, but this was no mystery. What is a mystery is that the angels would learn of the wisdom of God by observing the members of the Body of Christ (Ephesians 3:10; 1 Corinthians 11:10).
- Preached among the Gentiles — Paul was chosen by God to take the message of salvation by grace to the Gentiles and the church is now tasked with that mission. Prior to Paul, the message went out only to Jews. When Christ was on earth, He and His apostles ministered only to Israel. (Gentiles could be saved prior to Paul, but only by becoming Jewish proselytes and adopting the Jewish rituals and religion.)
- Believed on in the world — The twelve were commissioned to reach the world through Israel. Israel rejected their message and the kingdom gospel was set aside. Then Paul was given the message to the Gentiles and … You have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing (Colossians 1:5-6).
- Received up into glory — Christ rose into glory, but this was predicted in the Old Testament (Psalm 68:18) and so wasn’t a mystery. But that the church would be received up into glory was a mystery as we already saw earlier in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52.
There are several other places where Paul uses the word “mystery” to refer to his gospel in a general sense (1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 3:9; 6:19; Colossians 2:2; 4:3; 1 Timothy 3:9).
It’s important to keep these mysteries in mind when studying other portions of Scripture. If these truths were first revealed to Paul and hidden from all generations previous to Paul, then there can be no teaching in earlier Scriptures on these truths. Yes, Matthew refers to a “church,” but the word “church” simply means an assembly. (I hope to write some posts sometime on how words in Scripture have precise meanings but a single word can have more than one precise meaning and the meaning in question often has to be determined by context.) Matthew could not have been referring to the Body of Christ because Paul says that truth was only revealed to him.
Paul’s gospel of salvation by the blood of Christ, the Rapture, the blindness of Israel while salvation was offered to all on an equal basis, the indwelling of Christ in the believer — all of these truths appear for the first time in the writings of Paul. If you think you’re seeing them in earlier portions of Scripture — the Old Testament, the gospels, the early chapters of Acts, the book of James — you’re mistaken. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be mysteries
(Note: The only use of the word “mystery” by Paul that doesn’t seem to fit this pattern is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:7: And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. — The “mystery of lawlessness” is, I think, connected to the harlot Babylon — false religious systems — found in Revelation 17:4-5: The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” Paul was explaining that the Tribulation won’t come until the Anti-Christ is revealed, but that the false religious systems that will in the future produce the Anti-Christ were already at work in his day.)