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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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The Greek mystçrion in Christian Latin became mysterium , and thus passed into modern languages. The kindred mystic and mystagogue , imported directly from the Greek, point to the primary significance of this word. In 8 NT passages the Latin Vulgate replaced mysterium by the alien rendering sacramentum (the soldier’s oath of allegiance), which has taken on, with modifications, the meaning of the original.

In common parlance, ‘mystery’ has become synonymous with ‘secret’ (a usage peculiar to the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] in extant Greek: see Sir 22:22 , 2Ma 13:21 etc.), signifying a baffling, recondite secret. Divine doctrines or dealings of Providence are said to be ‘mysterious’ when we fail to reconcile them with accepted principles, though presuming the reconciliation abstractly possible. Primarily, however, the NT mystçrion is not something dark and difficult in its nature, but something reserved and hidden of sat purpose, as in Romans 16:25 ‘the mystery held in silence for eternal ages.’ It connotes that which ‘can only be known on being imparted by some one already in possession of it, not by mere reason and research which are common to all.’

In its familiar classical use the word amounted almost to a proper noun. ‘The Mysteries’ were a body of sacred observances connected with the worship of certain Hellenic deities (chiefly those representing the primitive Nature-powers), which were practised in retreat, and which bound their Initiates into a religious confraternity. The higher of these Mysteries conveyed, under their symbolic dress, a connected esoteric doctrine vague, it may have been, but impressive bearing on the origin of life, on sin and atonement, and the bliss or woe of man’s future state, the basis of which was found in the course of the seasons, in the conflict of light and darkness, and the yearly parables of the seed-corn and the vine-Juice. The Eleusinian Mysteries , annually celebrated in Attica, attracted visitors from the whole civilized world, and appear to have exerted a salutary Influence on Pagan society. The distinctions of country, rank, or sex were no bar to participation; only slaves and criminals were excluded from the rites. These were the most famous of a host of Mysteries, many of them of a passionate and even frantic, some of a disgraceful, character, which were rife in the Græco-Roman world at the Christian era; they formed, says Renan, ‘the serious part of Pagan religion.’ The Greek Mysteries were already rivalied in popularity by the Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis, and subsequently by the Persian Mithraism, which spread in the 3rd cent. to the bounds of the Empire. These associations supplied what was lacking in the civic and family worships of ancient heathendom, viz. emotion, edification, and moral fellowship.

The term ‘mystery,’ with its allied expressions in the NT, must be read in the light of these institutions, which preoccupied the ground and were known wherever the Greek language was current. Christianity found its closest points of contact with Paganism, and the competition most dangerous to it, in ‘the Mysteries’; its phraseology and customs in the case of the Sacraments, possibly, its doctrinal conceptions as these took shape during the first five centuries bear the marks of their influence. This influence betrays itself first in the Apocrypha, when the writer of Wisdom speaks in Wis 2:22 of ‘mysteries of God’ bidden from the unworthy, and, like the Apostle Paul, promises to disclose’ the mysteries’ of Divine wisdom ( Wis 6:22 ) to his readers; in Wis 14:15; Wis 14:23 , the Gentile ‘mysteries and initiatory rites’ are mentioned with abhorrence. The NT affords 27 or (including the dubious reading of 1 Corinthians 2:1 ) 28 examples of the word, 3 of these in Matthew 13:11 and the Synoptic parallels, 4 in Rev. ( Revelation 1:20 , Revelation 10:7 , Revelation 17:5; Revelation 17:7 ), the other 20 (or 21) in Paul; of the latter, 10 belong to Eph. and Col., 5 (or 6) to 1 Cor.

The NT usages are distinguished as they are wider or narrower in application: (1) in Revelation 10:7 , ‘the mystery of God’ covers the entire process of revelation; in 1 Timothy 3:15 ‘the mystery of godliness,’ and in 1 Corinthians 2:7 ‘the wisdom of God in a mystery,’ embrace the whole incarnate manifestation hidden up to this epoch in the womb of time ( Romans 16:25 f.), which is summed up by Colossians 2:2 as ‘the mystery of God, even Christ.’ ‘The mystery of lawlessness’ ( 2 Thessalonians 2:7 ), culminating in the ‘paronsia’ of Antichrist, presents the counterpart of the Divine mystery in the realm of evil.

Or (2) ‘the mystery’ consists in some specific revelation, some previously veiled design of God as in the Eph.-Col. passages, where St. Paul thus describes God’s plan for saving the Gentile world. He points out (Romans 11:28 ) the shadow attending this great disclosure in ‘the mystery’ of the ‘hardening’ that has ‘in part befallen Israel.’ The institution of marriage viewed as prophetic of the union between Christ and the Church ( Ephesians 5:32 ), and the bodily transformation of the saints at the Second Advent ( 1 Corinthians 15:51 f.), are Divine secrets now disclosed; they mark respectively the beginning and the end of revelation. These and such matters constitute ‘the mysteries’ of which the Apostle is ‘steward’ ( 1 Corinthians 4:1 ), which enlightened Christians ‘know’ ( 1 Corinthians 13:2 ) and dwell upon in hours of rapture ( 1 Corinthians 14:2 ). According to the Synoptics, our Lord speaks of His parables as containing, in a similar sense, ‘the mysteries of the kingdom’ ( Matthew 13:11 etc.).

(3) Revelation 1:20; Revelation 17:5; Revelation 17:7 afford examples of a narrower reference in the term: ‘the seven stars’ and ‘the harlot woman’ are mystical symbols, patent to those who are ‘in the Spirit,’ of great realities operative in the kingdoms of God and of Satan.

This analysis brings out certain essential differences between the Christian and non-Christian employment of the word in question. In the first place, the new ‘mysteries’ are no human performances, ritual or dramatic; they are Divine communications embodied in Christ and His redemption, which God’s stewards are commissioned to impart. In the second place, they seek publicity not concealment ‘mystery’ and ‘revelation’ become correlative terms. These are not secrets reserved for and guarded in silence by the few; ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ,’ long concealed from all, is now thrown open to all ‘hidden from the ages and generations,’ but to-day ‘preached to the nations.’ Most emphatic is St. Paul’s insistence on the frankness of the gospel revelation; most earnest his disclaimer of any esoteric doctrine, such as the vendors of foreign ‘mysteries’ commonly professed. Nothing but moral insensibility or the false pride of the world’s wisdom, he asserts, bars any man from receiving his gospel it is ‘hid amongst the perishing, those whose thoughts the god of this world blinded’ ( 2 Corinthians 4:3 f.; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14 , Luke 10:21 ). The communication of the gospel mystery is limited by the receptivity of the hearer, not the reserve of the speaker; addressed to all men, it is ‘worthy of all acceptation’ ( 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 Timothy 2:4; cf. Romans 1:14 , Acts 26:22 , Colossians 1:28 ). ‘The mystery of iniquity’ ( 2 Thessalonians 2:7 ) and that of Israel’s ‘hardening’ ( Romans 11:25 ), however, still await solution; these will be disclosed before ‘the mystery of God is finished’ ( Revelation 10:7 ).

Several other NT words had been associated in Greek usage, more or less definitely, with the Mysteries: illumination ( 2 Corinthians 4:4 ff., Ephesians 1:18 , Hebrews 6:4 etc.); seal ( 2 Corinthians 1:22 , Ephesians 1:18 , Revelation 7:3 etc.); perfect (scil. initiated : 1 Corinthians 2:6 , Philippians 3:15 etc.); ‘I have learnt the secret ’ (‘have been initiated ,’ Philippians 4:11 ); and the original (cognate) words for ‘behold’ and ‘eye-witnesses’ in 1 Peter 2:12; 1 Peter 3:2 and 2 Peter 1:16 . The association is unmistakable, and the allusion highly probable, in the last two, as well as in the other instances. In these Petrine passages the thought of the spectators being favoured with the sight of a holy secret was, seemingly, in the writer’s mind.

G. G. Findlay.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mystery'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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