Word of the Week
October 2, 2021
Mustērion: Unsolvable Mysteries
To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things.
Ephesians 3:9 (NASB)
People love a good mystery. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, mystery writer Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of all time, with total sales of over 2 billion copies!
Readers can’t wait to crack open the latest novel and follow the sleuths deciphering clues that eventually lead to the culprit. Who can resist the challenge of seeing how quickly you can finger the bad guy?
First-century Romans were also fascinated by mysteries, but of a much different kind. The ancient world used the term mystery for religious festivals and ceremonies connected to gods like Isis or Mithras. Mystery religions promised that you could gain eternal life by participating in secret rituals such as baptisms, sacred meals, and reenactments of events in the life of a deity. Only the initiated could learn the secrets of the cult.
When we come to the New Testament, we find yet another kind of mystery, one that forms the foundation for the Christian faith. Our English word mystery comes from the Greek word mustērion – a unique kind of mystery that is definitely worth unraveling!
A New Testament mystery is not something ominous or spooky.
It is not a puzzle that you can figure out by analyzing clues.
And it is definitely not a set of secret rituals that hold the key to eternal life!
Mustērion appears 27 times in the New Testament, mostly in Paul’s writings. It expressed one of the central concepts in Paul’s theology, and he provides the best definition for the word.
He describes his insight into “the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:4-5).
A biblical mystery, then, is something that (1) has not been revealed to past generations but (2) has now been revealed by God.
A mustērion is something that God knows, but we do not. And there is no way that we could ever figure it out by searching for clues or logically deducing God’s intention. He is the only one who truly knows what He is planning). We can’t squeeze it out of Him; we will only know His mind when He chooses to reveal it.
Fortunately, the Lord has chosen to bring His plan out into the open. It’s no longer hidden; He has revealed it.
First century Jews knew a lot. They could browse through the Old Testament scrolls and find many passages about God’s plan to bless His people through a coming King. But they never guessed the full extent of what God planned to accomplish through Jesus Christ.
Some of the greatest truths of the New Testament came as a surprise to the Jewish people. They were mysteries, unexplained by the Old Testament but brought into the light by Jesus and His spokesmen.
Here are a few of the most important ones:
- Jesus used parables to explain the mysteries of the kingdom – the fact that the next stage of His kingdom would feature gradual spiritual growth, not a military takeover (Matthew 13:11; M14k 4:11; Luke 8:10).
- Paul explained that the nation of Israel would undergo a temporary, partial hardening of their hearts while the good news of Christ was spreading to the rest of the world. (Romans 11:25).
- Jesus Christ Himself was the greatest mystery of all (Colossians 1:26-27; 2:1; 4:3) The Old Testament only hinted at His death and resurrection, but it all became clear in the New (Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7).
- The book of Ephesians shows that the church is a mystery. What a surprise to learn that God was no longer using Israel as His channel of blessing for mankind. Now God has inaugurated the church, composed of both Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-5, 9)
- Paul describes the mystery of the Rapture, the moment when the church, both the dead and the living, will be raised to new life in a glorified body (1 Corinthians 15:51).
The word mustērion is also used for other things that can’t be deciphered without an explanation. Listening to a person speaking in tongues only makes sense if someone interprets (1 Corinthians 14:2). There is a mystery of lawlessness which will be at work in the end times (2 Thessalonians 2:7). The apostle John saw seven stars and seven lampstands in a vision which only made sense when the Lord revealed the meaning (Revelation 1:20).
We have lots of questions about the Bible. You have probably thought, “When I get to heaven, I want to ask David what he meant in that Psalm.” It’s a good instinct: Ask the writer to reveal the meaning.
Life raises even more questions: Why did this happen? What is God doing?
Some of these questions will remain unanswered until we reach heaven, because we certainly can’t figure them out ourselves.
As Moses said,
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29).
The Lord never promises to completely satisfy our curiosity, but He reveals every mystery we need to know for one more day of walking by faith.
It is easy to misunderstand a word like mustērion because it has become part of our English vocabulary: mystery. However, the meaning has changed over the centuries, so we must avoid the temptation to read modern ideas into it. Paul is not the same as Agatha Christie!
Mystery religions were running rampant in the Roman Empire, and it would be helpful to research them further in a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. There are some parallels between Christianity and the mystery religions, but the differences are even more striking. That’s why we need to use the definitions actually given by Paul and the other New Testament figures, rather than seeing this as a reference to thee pagan cults.
Q – Our Bible study leader said that the apostle John used an extremely simple writing style, comparable to the children’s readers that say, “See Dick run. Jump, Spot, jump.” Is this accurate?
A – Your leader may have exaggerated a bit, but it is true that John wrote in a relatively simple style of Greek. He tends to use short sentences, and he often repeats a few key terms again and again. Paul, on the other hand, often writes sentences that extend to several verses. Ephesians 1:3-14, for example, is a single sentence in Greek.
I always have my beginning Greek students start translating in 1 John because that simplicity will allow them to build confidence quickly. Luke or Hebrews might be discouraging!
Do you have a problem with anxiety? Is anxiety normal or is it a sin? Next week we will look at the Greek word for anxiety in search of a balanced perspective on it.
©Ezra Project 2021