Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

Search for…
Prev Entry
Next Entry
Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

Scripture frequently describes God as one who knows all things, even that which the human mind could never know or finds incomprehensible. Thus he sees the secret intentions of human hearts (Psalm 139:1-4,23; Matthew 6:4-6; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 14:25; Hebrews 4:13 ), comprehends the seemingly unfathomable mysteries of the universe (Job 38:1-39:30 ), and, most important, understands the meaning of human history. God understands human history because the events that comprise it correspond with his own intentions: he wills all that happens, and does so to accomplish his own purpose (Daniel 2:37; 5:21; Romans 11:25-36 ). People, on the other hand, both because of their sin and because of their human limitations, remain ignorant of God's purpose when left to their own reckoning (Daniel 2:27,30; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 19:41-44 ). God graciously responds to this human inadequacy by revealing his purpose to his people. When God's purpose is revealed in this way, the Bible frequently refers to it as a "mystery."

The content of the divine mystery is painted in broad strokes in the Old Testament, takes on greater detail in the Gospels, and receives its finishing touches in Paul's letters. In Daniel, where the term first appears (raz in Aramaic, always translated with mysterion [2:44; cf. Revelation 1:20; 17:5,7 ). The details of these events, however, and the nature of God's kingdom, once established, remain sketchy in Daniel. The mystery of God's purposes gains greater specificity in the Gospels, where Jesus, particularly in his parables, reveals the "mystery of the kingdom of God" (Mark 4:11; cf. Matthew 13:11; Luke 8:10 ). Paul also identifies the divine mystery with the revelation of God in Christ (Colossians 2:2; 4:3 ) but gives the concept even greater clarity in three ways. First, he equates the divine mystery with the gospel of Christ's atoning death on the cross (1 Corinthians 2:1 ); second, he describes it as God's plan, through Christ's atoning death (Ephesians 2:13-16 ), to include the Gentiles among his chosen people; and third, he defines it as the reconciliation of all things to God (Ephesians 1:9-10 ). Thus, Daniel described the divine mystery in general terms as the eventual establishment of God's eternal kingdom; Jesus defined it more specifically as his proclamation of God's kingdom; and Paul described it more specifically still as the constitution of a new people, from among both Jews and Gentiles, through the atoning death of Christ on the cross.

This understanding of divine mystery illustrates three aspects of God's character. First, it emphasizes God's omniscience . After God revealed the "mystery" of the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream to Daniel, Daniel thanked God in prayer for his wisdom and power (2:23; cf. 2:20) and described him as a God who "knows what lies in darkness" (2:22). Paul, similarly, after revealing the mystery of God's plan to include the Gentiles among his chosen people breaks into praise of the "depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God" (Romans 11:33 ).

Second, the biblical concept of divine mystery emphasizes God's sovereignty . The mystery revealed to Daniel and communicated to the king demonstrates not only that God knows the beginning of history from its end but that the rise and fall of human empires and the establishment of God's own kingdom happen according to his decree (2:36). Similarly, Paul says that the mystery of God's intention to unite both Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ has been in place from ages past (Ephesians 3:9-11; Colossians 1:26-27; cf. Ephesians 1:9-10; 3:5 ).

Third, and most important, the biblical understanding of divine mystery emphasizes God's grace . This can be seen immediately in the stark contrast between the biblical use of the term "mystery" and its use as a technical term in ancient Hellenistic mystery religions. In these cults the term was used to signify the esoteric knowledge that initiates were instructed, with threats of severe punishment, not to reveal to the uninitiated. The Bible, however, emphasizes God's gracious willingness to reveal the mystery of his purposes to his servants the prophets and through them to other people (Revelation 10:7; cf. Amos 3:7 ). The biblical emphasis is well illustrated in Daniel. There God graciously reveals his mysteries to Daniel to save him from the king's cruel sentence of death upon the royal wise men for their inability to interpret the king's dream (2:16-19). Because Daniel recognizes the graciousness of God's response, he is quick to acknowledge before the king that the dream's interpretation has come from God, not from Daniel's abilities as a counselor (2:27,30). Similarly, Jesus graciously explains the parable of the sower to his disciples with the comment that, although the parables baffle those on the outside, the mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to them (Matthew 11:25-26 ).

In Paul's letters this aspect of the mystery of God comes to a climax. Paul points his readers again and again to the unique position they occupy as those who have experienced the fulfillment of the mystery of God's purposes. Although predicted in the Scriptures, the mystery was kept silent for long ages (Romans 16:25-26 ), hidden for generations past (Colossians 1:26; cf. Ephesians 3:5,9 , 11 ) that it might be revealed to apostles and prophets such as Paul himself and through them to believers (Ephesians 3:1-12; cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12 ). Paul describes his calling to reveal the mystery of God to the Gentiles as "the grace of God given to me for you" (Ephesians 3:2 ), and a few verses later, in a magnificent piling up of the language of grace, he identifies it as "the gift of the grace which God gave to me according to his effective power" (v. 7).

The biblical idea of mystery, then, reminds Christians that God holds the course of human events in his hands and has so shaped them that they work for the salvation of his people. It also demonstrates the graciousness of God in revealing his redemptive purposes to prophets and apostles and, through them, to all who are willing to hear.

Frank Thielman

See also Paul the Apostle

Bibliography . G. Bornkamm, TDNT, 4:802-28; R. E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term "Mystery" in the New Testament; A. E. Harvey, JTS 31 (1980):320-36; J. A. Robinson, St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians .

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Mystery'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.​dictionaries/​eng/​bed/​m/mystery.html. 1996.