It is not defined by what the world system or pagan religions say, nor is it what popular Bible teachers seem to preach.
In Greco-Roman pagan religions, mysteries were secret rites and strange customs that were never intended to be revealed but forever concealed. In the New Testament, mysteries were God’s secret counsel in the past, but now they have been revealed in Christ.
Now let’s turn to defining a NT mystery.
The Greek noun is mystērion (pronounced moo-stay-ree-on or mee-stay-ree-on), and yes, we get our word mystery directly from it. It is used 28 times.
BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, and it says: In the Greco-Roman world, a mystērion is about mystery religions, “with their secrets teachings, religious and political in nature, concealed with many strange customs and ceremonies. The principal rites remain unknown because of a reluctance in antiquity to divulge things.” In other words, Greco-Roman mysteries were about concealment.
In contrast, in the NT, it is about disclosure of God’s plan, revealed only in part in Bible prophecies, and now these mysteries were fulfilled and completely revealed in Christ. As God’s plan moves from one age to the next, this is called eschatology (the study or science of last things or a shift in ages that God ordains).
BDAG goes into formal two definitions, each one very rich.
I.. First definition
A.. “The unmanifested or private counsel of God, (God’s) secrets.” The lexicon adds: Mysteries “are hidden from human reason, as well as from all other comprehension below the divine level, and await either fulfillment or revelation to those for whom they are intended.” In other words, human reason cannot sort out what God’s counsel is until he reveals it. The example the lexicon gives is the Logos (“In the beginning was the Word [Logos]” … and the Word was made flesh and lived among us. We did not realize before John 1:1 that Jesus was the Logos. Now we do.
In contrast, in Greco-Roman pagan religions, only the perfected gnostic is the listener and knower of the secrets of the religion. In NT mysteries, however, everyone who is a born-again believer and receives God’s wisdom, can understand them. And Christ has been made our wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30). In Christian literature in the NT and just after, it is used in “reference to the transcendent activity of God and its impact on God’s people.” So God’s mysteries must be relevant to people’s lives—the more people the better, since all biblical mysteries are revealed in Christ.
B.. The Gospels
Jesus spoke in parables, so the secrets (mystērion) of the kingdom would be given to the twelve and others around him, but not those on the outside (Mark 4:11 // Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10). The parables were available to everyone who heard him teach, but the people did not have the spiritual discernment to sort them out. This method was designed to create hunger in people to search out the answers.
C.. Paul’s letters
The word mystērion is used 21 times. It was too profound for human ingenuity. Let’s take the term in order, as it appears in different context.
1.. The noun is used about the partial hardening of Israel’s heart, until the gospel goes around the Gentile world and has its maximum effect (Rom. 11:25).
2.. A mystērion pertains to the Parousia (coming or arrival of the Lord), and everyone will be changed in a twinkling of an eye. Not everyone will sleep or die, because they shall be alive when he returns (1 Cor. 15:51). So once again, the mystery is revealed in Christ, this time at his Second Coming. Mystery is eschatological.
3.. Especially important: Christ himself is God’s secret or mystery, particularly his death on the cross (Col. 1:18, 20). This mystery was hidden long ago (Col. 1:26), but now it is revealed to the Gentiles (Col. 1:27), who hear this secret now proclaimed to them (Col. 4:3). So, revealing the mystery is key to mystērion.
4.. In Rom. 16:25-26 (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1), the plural of the noun for Christian preaching by the apostles and the teachers is as follows: “I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from[f] faith” (Rom. 16:25-26, NIV).
5.. Christians who have their prayer and praise languages, archaically called ‘tongues,’ can speak out the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 14:2). So the possession of all mysteries is a great joy (1 Cor. 13:2).
See my related posts:
6.. In Ephesians the tearing down of the differences between Jews and Gentiles predominates (Eph. 1:9; 3:3-4, 9; 6:19). Christ and the church is a great mystery because it relates to the intimate relations between a husband and wife (Eph. 5:32).
1.. Mysteries take on a concealment nuance. The whole content of the book is a mystērion. But the book is called the revelation, so God communicates the content of the book and unconceals or reveals it. The problem is in interpreting the content.
II.. Second definition
A.. BDAG also defines mystērion, as follows: “that which transcends normal understanding, transcendent / ultimate reality, secret” with the focus on Messianic Jewish experience.
1.. To move beyond this experience, in 1 Tim. 3:9 Paul says elders must hold the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. This is different from pagan religions when they advocated the belief that the flesh is evil, so it is legitimate to engage is bodily pleasures.
2.. The mystery of the man of lawlessness is already at work and will be exposed and defeated by Jesus at his Second Coming (2 Thess. 2:7-8).
How does this post aid me in knowing God more thoroughly?
Nowadays, Christian teachers on TV say a lot about mysteries and secret codes, usually embedded in some Hebrew word or the months in the Hebrew calendar. I can’t state that a secret meaning behind a Hebrew letter is categorically false, nor can I say that it is true. I can say, however, that in my opinion they are becoming a big distraction away from Christ and his cross.
The apostolic community, who gave us the New Testament, did not fuss over the secret meanings of Hebrew words or the months in the Hebrew calendar. They summed up the secret counsel of God in the OT by disclosing and proclaiming Christ.
I believe we should stay close to the apostolic teaching about mysteries. What was kept hidden is now revealed in Christ.