Whereby, when ye read, ye can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; which in other generations was not made known unto the sons of men, as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to wit, that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Ephesians 3:4-6).
A lot of people enjoy a good mystery.
When most people today think of a “mystery,” they tend to think of some sort of problem or conundrum to solve. Books and television programs in the “mystery” genre involve complex stories which some enterprising detective or group of people must sort out in order to find the truth; Sherlock Holmes is the paragon of this kind of “mystery.” For years one of the most popular shows on television was Unsolved Mysteries, featuring stories about everything from ghosts to fraud, murder to lost treasures, and all with the conceit that maybe you, the viewer, had the piece of evidence needed to solve the mystery.
We can understand, therefore, why many people come to the Bible, read about the “mystery of Christ,” and conclude that it, too, is a problem or conundrum for us to solve, and seek to go about trying to figure out how to make sense of it all using reason, deductive logic, and exploration. In the Bible, however, a “mystery” is something of a very different nature.
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul has been setting forth the overwhelming and humbling blessings and power which God has displayed toward us through Jesus in the Spirit (Ephesians 1:1-2:22). He had previously declared that God had made known the mystery of His will to Christians (Ephesians 1:9), and he decided it was important to take a moment to explain this mystery in more detail (Ephesians 3:1-3). In Ephesians 3:4-6 Paul came out with it: the mystery of Christ is that Gentiles are fellow-heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers in the promise of Jesus in the Gospel. This is a mystery which was not made known to people in previous generations, but now has been revealed to the apostles and prophets in the Spirit.
The substance of the mystery may seem dull and obvious to us; such is the case only because we have learned to take it for granted. It was not at all obvious, dull, or evident to anyone in the first century. Welcoming Gentiles as joint participants in Jesus while still Gentile caused great controversy among many of the Jewish Christians, and many Jewish Christians refused to accept it as true, and strove diligently to convince Gentile Christians to submit to circumcision and the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:1-29, Galatians 1:6-5:16).
For that matter, it was not even immediately apparent or obvious to the apostles and prophets of Christianity in the first century that the message of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return should be proclaimed among the nations as it was in Israel. It required an angel visiting Cornelius, a vision from the Lord Jesus to Simon Peter, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his associates to convince Peter and the Jewish Christians with him that God intended for the Gentiles to receive the repentance that leads to life, and that only after the Gospel had been proclaimed to the Israelites for a time (Acts 10:1-11:18). The deliberations of the council in Jerusalem required Peter’s witness regarding these previous events, the report of Paul and Barnabas regarding the powerful signs and miracles God wrought in Christ among the Gentiles of Asia Minor, and the interpretation of the prophetic message by James the Lord’s brother to secure the agreement among all that indeed, the Gentiles were to be accepted and welcomed as Gentiles, and they did not have to submit to the customs of the Law of Moses to enter God’s covenant in Christ (Acts 15:1-29).
Paul’s whole point in Ephesians 3:4-6 is how nobody figured out the Gospel on their own. We have yet to find any evidence within Second Temple Judaism of the expectation of a Messiah to arise in Israel, growing up in Galilee, serving and doing good, dying on a cross, being raised on the third day, and ascending to receive an eternal dominion from God to fulfill all of what God had promised, let alone that the message of said Messiah would also be proclaimed among the Gentiles to allow Jewish and Gentile people to become reconciled into one body in God in the Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:1-22). Not only did no one think it would happen this way, no one would have wanted it to happen this way. This was not the deliverance for which Israel sought; this was not the way of redemption which those among the nations imagined.
The impoverishment of the modern mind is evident in the claim of many scholars that Christianity is the innovation of the earliest followers of Jesus, as if somehow the despondent disciples of Jesus suddenly came up with this whole narrative about resurrection, ascension, and proclamation to all the nations on their own. Such is a fabulous tale, without any kind of warrant from anything that came before, and indeed requires more faith to believe than to accept the story as written!
The “mystery” of the New Testament and the “mysteries” of books and television shows all do share a common origin: they are things that are veiled. Yet the means of unveiling could hardly be more different. In the world, mysteries are unveiled through human discovery, reason, logic, and exploration; in Christ, mysteries are unveiled when God reveals their substance to His servants.
As Christians we have much for which to be thankful regarding the mystery of Christ. Most of us today come from the nations, and not Israel according to the flesh, and our ability to have access to God and stand before Him is entirely dependent on not only what God has done in Jesus but also in the revelation that God’s work in Christ was equally effective for us among the nations if we would put our trust in Him (Ephesians 2:11-3:13).
Yet this mystery of God in Christ is instructive for us, and it is a lesson we must learn and proclaim today: we humans will never figure out God’s mysteries on our own without Him making them known through His apostles and prophets. This message was set forth and proclaimed in the first century; it has been revealed once for all (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, Jude 1:3). Whatever is difficult to understand will remain difficult to understand until the Lord’s return. Whatever has been left without a lot of detail will remain without a lot of detail. Whatever questions were left unanswered will remain unanswered. As humans we can learn about what God has made known through the apostles and prophets; we can use reason and logic, paired with humility, faith, and prayer for strength, to come to a better understanding of what God has made known through the apostles and prophets regarding the Gospel. We can even learn more about the historical and cultural contexts of the Scriptures so as to provide more depth and color to why God spoke as He did, but that never means that we could add to what God has already made known.
Ever since the Lord arose from the dead there have been many who have claimed to have obtained special knowledge, either through esoteric interpretations of Biblical texts, cunning schemes involving human innovation and worldly wisdom, or the belief in some kind of conspiracy which has hindered people from knowing the truth. All such people treat the mystery of God in Christ as a problem or conundrum to be solved, when in fact the mystery of God in Christ is something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. If God wanted something to be made known, He would have clearly made it known through His apostles and prophets. If there is something which God has not made known through His apostles and prophets, it is something which is not for us to know. Perhaps it is beyond our capacity of knowledge; perhaps it serves no good purpose.
God’s power is made evident in His work of liberating everyone from the forces of sin and death through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return; this is not a story people would make up on their own, but something God has made known through His apostles and prophets. God’s mysteries are not for us to solve; it is for us to trust in God’s goodness, power, and love so that we can humbly learn and accept what He has made known, and let be all that remains the secret things of God. God has made provision for all people to become one in Jesus through the Spirit; may we participate in God’s work in Christ and take hold of that which is truly life!
Ethan R. Longhenry