Time Periods in the Bible: What is the Great Mystery?

In previous articles, we have discussed some reasons why dispensationalist theology went through revisions among scholars. First, we saw that many scholars recognized the importance of the words of Jesus. Second, we saw how many recognized the fact that the phrases “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are synonymous. There are some additional dispensational ideas that deserve more scrutiny. In this article, we will examine a common topic: the Great Mystery. What we will see is the remarkable interplay between the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures as they progressively reveal God’s plan of redemption. 

The Analogy of a Puzzle

Before we get into the Bible, I want to begin with a simple analogy. Imagine that you are trying to put together a 500-piece puzzle. What strategies can you use to put together the puzzle? Perhaps you like to start with the major framework, working your way around the edges. Maybe you like to group the puzzle pieces by color, putting the sky pieces with sky pieces and ground pieces with ground pieces. Perhaps you start by looking at the picture of the completed puzzle on the box cover. Whatever your strategy, it takes time and effort to complete the puzzle. Now: imagine that you don’t know what the finished puzzle is supposed to look like (you lost the real box cover long ago). Imagine after hours of work, you find that 20 pieces are missing, all from the same area of the puzzle! How do you feel? Do you have a complete picture? No! But do you have a lot of context around the picture? Sure you do! Let’s bring this analogy to bear on the biblical concept of the Great Mystery. 

What is the Great Mystery?

Whenever I discuss a Biblical topic with someone, it is helpful to define the terms precisely. The word “mystery” in many English translations comes from the Greek word musterion. It’s important to note that this word is used in many contexts and in many ways.[1] One possible usage of musterion has been termed “the Great Mystery.” So, what is the Great Mystery? The Great Mystery is defined quite narrowly in Ephesians:

Ephesians 3:6 (ESV)
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The Great Mystery, as it has been termed, is that Gentiles are members of the same body as Jewish Christians. In other words, the people of Israel were the first to receive the promises of a Messiah. Jesus first went “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). However, as we have seen already—and is evidenced in the Ephesians passage above—Jesus’ ministry did not stop with Israel. After Pentecost, Jesus sent his ministers (most notably Paul) to preach the gospel to Gentiles. Those Gentiles were not to be treated as second-class citizens, but rather full partakers in the promise of Christ Jesus (see also Ephesians 2:19 and really the whole context of Ephesians 2 and 3). 

It’s worth our time to build a strong Biblical foundation for the inclusion of the Gentiles. Let’s see what the Bible has to say about Gentiles in the post-Pentecost Church: 

Romans 11:17-24 (ESV)
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree,
do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.
Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”
That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.
For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.
Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.
For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.

There’s a lot going on in this section. Let’s focus on a very particular aspect of this passage. Paul (by revelation) described Israel as an olive tree, taking on a figure from Old Testament times.[2] Paul relates how Israel lost some branches (some Jews did not follow Jesus) and how Gentiles who followed Jesus were grafted into the proverbial “olive tree.” But if the Jews who did not follow Jesus wanted to return, then they could be grafted back into this olive tree. In this passage, God plays the role of the husbandman, the One Who takes care of the tree. 

This passage is remarkably similar to John 15, in which Jesus is the true vine. Applying that understanding to this passage, we realize that the true Israel is identified in and through Jesus the Messiah. Those who follow Jesus will be saved. Those who do not will not. And in fact, that is the message of the context in Romans 10!

Romans 10:5-21 (ESV)
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.
But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down)
“or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”
But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”
Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”
But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”

Notice that there is no difference between the Jew and the Gentile (verse 12). All are identified in and with the Messiah, Jesus. This leads to the difficult question Paul handles next: was God abandoning Israel? His answer is emphatically, “No!” Throughout the Old Testament, God told Israel (specifically via Moses and Isaiah, as quoted in this passage) how to follow Him and await His Messiah. If some Jews are disobedient and miss that call to salvation, that is their free will choice to do so. 

I Corinthians 12:12-14 (ESV)
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

All Christians have been baptized into one body and all made to drink of one spirit. Jews and Gentiles are all members of one body. 

Galatians 3:5-9 (ESV)
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—
just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Abraham, the Father of Faith, was a Gentile. Abraham believed God, and because of his trust in God, he gained righteousness. The context here in Galatians is fascinating because Paul discusses the poor treatment of the Gentile Christians by legalistic Jewish Christians, who even convinced Peter and others to do wrong (see Galatians 2:11-14). You see, for hundreds of years, Jews had customs about practices like who they could eat with, and Gentiles were excluded from “table fellowship.” But those customs were meaningless in this new age, where Gentiles are full heirs of the promises alongside their Jewish counterparts. The further context of Galatians is that there was another group of Judaizers trying to convince the Galatians to observe aspects of the Law. Paul warns them that this is “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6ff). So, in Galatians 3:8, Paul quotes a verse from Genesis and applied it specifically to Gentile Christians. 

The force of what Paul says is this: “These Judaizers want you to believe that you have to be Jewish to be saved. But I have taught you the true faith, and you are justified by belief in the true faith. Being justified by the true faith in Jesus, you are the true sons and daughters of Abraham!” What a stunning reversal! The ones who thought that they were following Abraham and Moses to the letter of the Law were in fact the ones forming another gospel. Then and now, those who follow Jesus in true faith—they are the true children of Abraham. In other words: it is not about our physical bloodline but our spiritual heritage. And the fullness of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant is bigger than what Genesis says about the blessings to Abraham’s seed. In God’s typical fashion, the fullness of eternity in his kingdom is beyond what anyone could imagine (Ephesians 2:7).   

To sum up what we have seen to this point: the Great Mystery, as defined by the New Testament, is the simple fact that Gentiles are now fellow-heirs with the Jews. Instead of God’s favor primarily resting upon the Jewish nation, the Gentiles who believe in Jesus have been brought into the body of Christ. God no longer only works within the structure of the people of Israel; now, God works within the body of Christ, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. This is the definition of the Great Mystery. It is important to recognize that the fullness of the inclusion of the Gentiles was not revealed publicly until after Pentecost. Also, the idea that there would be one combined Body of Jew and Gentile was not fully understood until after Pentecost. 

What is the glory of the Mystery and other related items?

Some have misunderstood the definition of the Great Mystery and think that it includes specific ideas about salvation or the idea of “Christ in you.” However, as we have already seen, the Bible defines the Mystery in Ephesians 3 as Jews and Gentiles fellow heirs and of the same Body, the Body of Christ. 

Where does this confusion come from? Much of the confusion comes from a passage in Colossians chapter 1:

Colossians 1:24-27 (ESV)
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,
the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Paul uses the word “mystery” twice in this context. Many look at verse 27 and see that “Christ in you” is mentioned in the same context as the mystery. These conclude that “Christ in you” is the mystery. But if we carefully read verse 27, we see that “Christ in you” is “the riches of the glory of this mystery.” The Mystery is still that Gentiles and Jews are in the same Body. The riches of the glory of the Mystery is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” 

I think at this point, we should point out that there are a number of items that are related to the Mystery but that should be disambiguated from the Mystery itself, including a whole laundry list of things that came after Pentecost and were only hinted at or were somewhat surprising to various groups of people. Here is a partial list:

    • Holy spirit being poured out on all believers, not just prophets and kings or people with a specific mission (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:16-21)
    • The importance of the Father-Son relationship between God and believers 
    • Identification with Christ in his burial, resurrection, and ascension (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12; Ephesians 2:4-7)
    • The transfer of dominion from Satan back to Jesus (Colossians 1:13, Matthew 28:18)
    • The fullness of the kingdom offer (“life in the coming age” / “eternal life”)

We will discuss these items in detail later in this article. 

What does the word “Mystery” mean?

The word “mystery,” as it is used in Biblical contexts, can generally mean one of two things: 1) something that is completely unknown and then revealed by God; 2) something where the contents are known to some degree but then some details (or a true explanation) that give greater insight are revealed later. Which one of these fits the usage of the Great Mystery? 

The answer lies in looking at how this word is used in the Old Testament Greek translation (called the Septuagint).[3] When we look at the Septuagint, we find that the word musterion is only used in the book of Daniel, and it only translates the Aramaic word raz. There is a one-to-one correspondence in the Old Testament. Here is a comprehensive list of usages:

Daniel 2:18-19,27-30,47 (ESV)
and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.
Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a vision of the night. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven.
Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked,
but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days. Your dream and the visions of your head as you lay in bed are these:
To you, O king, as you lay in bed came thoughts of what would be after this, and he who reveals mysteries made known to you what is to be.
But as for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because of any wisdom that I have more than all the living, but in order that the interpretation may be made known to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your mind.
The king answered and said to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery.”

 

Daniel 4:9 (ESV)
“O Belteshazzar, chief of the magicians, because I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you, tell me the visions of my dream that I saw and their interpretation.

In both the Daniel 2 dream and the Daniel 4 dream, the contents of the mystery were disclosed beforehand. In other words, these were not situations where the contents of the dreams had never been revealed to any human being. In the first dream, of course, Nebuchadnezzar forgot the dream. However, once he heard the description from Daniel, he remembered the events and imagery of the dream. Thus, in every usage of musterion in the Greek Old Testament the “mystery” is something whose contents have been revealed but where the complete meaning is still unknown. 

How much was the Mystery obscured? 

Hints from the Old Testament

As we return to the concept of the Great Mystery as recorded in the New Testament, can we apply the same understanding from Daniel? To what degree was the Mystery hidden? What aspects were revealed and what aspects were concealed? The first way to answer this question is to ask: what did the ancient Hebrews know about the blessings that were to come to the Gentiles? 

Genesis 12:3 (ESV)
I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

 

Genesis 18:17-18 (ESV)
The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,
seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

 

Genesis 22:18 (ESV)
and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

 

Genesis 26:4 (ESV)
I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed,

In Galatians 3:8, Paul quotes these verses and applies them to the Gentiles in the church. Everyone in his audience knew that Abraham would be the father of many nations and that kings would rise from his offspring. Everyone knew that, in Abraham, the nations of the earth would be blessed. In Galatians 3:16, Paul applies the word “offspring” or “seed” directly to Jesus, making the promises and covenant of Abraham applicable to Gentiles who have faith in Christ. 

But what about specific blessings? In the context in Galatians 3 (see verse 14), Paul mentions the blessing of the spirit. Was it ever revealed that the nations would have access to the spirit of God? 

Joel 2:28-29 (ESV)
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

This doesn’t mention Gentiles specifically, right? It is important to remember a few things as we approach this text. First, the average Israelite (even a faithful one) did not have access to the spirit during the Old Testament timeframe. So, before Christ, the idea that God would pour out his spirit on all flesh would have been foreign to their experience. 

Second, even in the original understanding of this prophecy, it is highly likely that the “servants” mentioned in verse 29 would have been of mixed ethnicity. Leviticus 25:39ff discusses the difference between the Israelite and the foreigner using the same word for “servants” that is found in Joel 2. This word was generally applied to foreigners, not to Israelites. This is why we see the transition between verses 28 and 29 in Joel 2: in verse 28, we have the Israelite sons and daughters prophesying, old men dreaming, and young men seeing visions. Verse 29 begins with the word “even.” The spirit would even be extended to those outside of the traditional Israelite family. And in Acts 2, Peter applies this prophecy in Joel to the experience of Pentecost. 

Even more important for our study of the Mystery is how Peter reacts to the conversion of Cornelius and his household. 

Acts 11:15 (ESV)
As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.

Just as Peter applies the prophecy of Joel 2 to his experience in his sermon on Pentecost, we (by extension) can apply the same prophecy to the outpouring of the spirit in Acts 10. 

What other blessings and promises were made to the nations? Here are a few examples:

Isaiah 2:1-4 (ESV)
The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Here is a prophecy that the LORD (Yahweh) will lift up Jerusalem and His house so that many peoples will come. “Yahweh will judge between the nations.” Here is a clear picture of a future blessing to Gentiles. 

Isaiah 49:5-7 (ESV)
And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him– for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength–
he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Here, we see the servant’s ministry extending beyond Israel and Jacob to be a light to the nations. Princes and kings around the world will pay homage to the chosen one, Jesus. 

Jeremiah 3:17-18 (ESV)
At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart.
In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage.

Jeremiah prophesied that all nations would gather in Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. 

Micah 4:1-5 (ESV)
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.

Micah prophesied that the nations would come to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. This is a kingdom prophecy that has yet to be fully fulfilled. 

Zechariah 2:8-12 (ESV)
For thus said the LORD of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye:
“Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me.
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD.
And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.
And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.”

Zechariah, using language that bears a striking resemblance to the language of Revelation 21, prophesied that many nations would join Israel and Judah. Then, Zechariah promised that Yahweh would dwell in their midst. 

Here are some additional Old Testament passages that discuss the blessings that would come to the Gentiles:

  • Isaiah 11:10-12
  • Isaiah 42:1-7
  • Jeremiah 12:14-17
  • Ezekiel 37:15-28

We can conclude, then, that the people of Israel before Christ knew that many promises and blessings would be extended to the nations through the promises to Abraham and prophecies made about Israel (and specifically, Israel’s Messiah). 

What about the big Mystery passages? 

The next question that we can ask is this: what aspects of items related to the Mystery were hidden and what aspects were not? To answer this question, we will begin with the verses from the New Testament that many use to prove how completely the Mystery was hidden. 

I Corinthians 2:7-10 (ESV)
But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.
None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”–
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.

One way to interpret this passage would be to say that this indicates that if the rulers of this age (the demonic powers associated with the kingdom of darkness) knew the fullness of the Mystery, they would not have crucified Jesus (the Lord of glory). However, I think it is important to consider that large elements of God’s plan were known to many before they took place. For example, the fact that Jesus was going to die was known early in his ministry (see John 2:19ff). The fact that Jesus was the Lamb of God sent to take away the sins of the world was known early as well (see John 1:29). 

In the context of I Corinthians 2, Paul is discussing the power of the spirit made available to each believer after Pentecost. And yet, as we saw earlier, this was prophesied in Joel 2 (which Peter cited in his first sermon in Acts 2). So, the pieces of the puzzle were mostly there, but the princes of this world did not fully comprehend the puzzle. That’s why they made the mistake of crucifying Jesus. However, we can look back and see the puzzle pieces lying around. This Mystery was just like the dreams that Daniel interpreted — the contents were mostly known, but the interpretation was unclear, and Paul, like Daniel, revealed how to put the puzzle pieces together through the power of the spirit (verse 10). 

There is, however, another way to interpret the phrase “princes of this world.” Many commentators suggest that “princes” would refer to the Jewish and Roman human authorities responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. If that is the case, then the either they would not have crucified Jesus for the same reason that the demons would not have (as explored above), or they would not have crucified Jesus because they would have followed him instead. No matter which way we interpret this passage, it is not saying that the Great Mystery was completely hidden. 

That brings us to another verse often used to show the hiddenness of the Mystery, found at the end of the book of Romans. Before we go to this verse, it is important to remember that the book of Romans has over 50 Old Testament quotations and allusions. Also, in Acts 17:11, the Bereans searched the Old Testament Scriptures daily to fact-check Paul’s preaching. This brings us to the end of Romans:

Romans 16:25-27 (ESV)
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages
but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—
to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

Some teach that the “prophetic writings” referred to here are writings like Paul’s Epistles, since Paul revealed the Mystery. However, there are several difficulties with this position. First, the context begins referencing “my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ.” Although I will handle this in detail in a future article, it is clear from the book of Acts that Paul’s gospel was the “gospel of the kingdom” that Jesus taught, Peter taught, and Philip taught (see Matthew 4:23, Mark 1:15, Matthew 24:14, Acts 2, Acts 8:12; Acts 14:22, Acts 19:8, Acts 20:24-25, Acts 28:23-31). Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom, prophesied that the gospel of the kingdom would be preached until the end of time (Matthew 24:14), and ordered his disciples at the ascension to teach others what he had taught them (Matthew 28:19-20). Just like Philip, Paul taught not only the gospel of the kingdom that Jesus taught, but also the things surrounding the accomplished works of Jesus.

Acts 8:12 (ESV)
But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

 

Acts 28:23 (ESV)
When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.

Paul’s gospel was the gospel of the kingdom and the preaching of Jesus Christ. The source of Paul’s information to preach that gospel was the Old Testament (the Law of Moses and the Prophets). That gospel, and indeed the Mystery itself, has its foundations in the Old Testament Scriptures. That’s why the Bereans were able to fact-check Paul using the Old Testament (Acts 17:11), and that’s why Jesus was able to use the Old Testament Scriptures to unveil the need for his death and resurrection on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27). Yet, it is important to recognize that Paul taught some things that Jesus did not teach, for example about how to practically administer aspects of church service. However, Paul built on the foundation of Jesus (I Corinthians 3:11). 

Second, as I already mentioned, Paul has already quoted and alluded to the Old Testament more than 50 (and depending on how you count, closer to 100!) times in this very epistle. The Old Testament sections that Paul referenced in Romans were written mostly by prophets.[4] Related to this, Paul never used the word “Scripture” to refer to his own writings. Lastly, there is great parallelism to the beginning of the book. Let’s look at the first six verses and compare the language found there with the verses we just referenced in chapter 16. 

Romans 1:1-6 (ESV)
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,
which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh
and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,
including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

Paul said that the gospel of God was “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2). This is clearly referring to the Old Testament. Look at how this language mirrors the language used in Romans 16:25-26 (“according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ…. has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known…”). Thus, the evidence is overwhelming that the “prophetic writings” mentioned in Romans 16:26 must be the writings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, etc., that Paul quoted earlier in Romans. Again, the contents were known but the meaning was not completely understood.

Yet another important Mystery passage occurs in Ephesians. Here it is:

Ephesians 3:1-10 (ESV)
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—
assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you,
how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ,
which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.
This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power.
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things,
so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

There is a lot going on in this section, so we will take it piece by piece. First, the word “stewardship” is important. For a dispensationalist, this word indicates a specific period of time  (the “Age of Grace”) that dispensationalists believe was completely unknown to anyone before God revealed it to Paul. But until the 1800s, when the dispensationalist interpretation was formalized, this Greek word simply did not mean a period of time. If you take the time to look at how this word is used in Scripture, you will find that it means “to manage the affairs of a household.” More generally, we can understand Paul here talking about being a steward of what God has showed him. In fact, that’s literally what the verse says: “stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you.” There’s nothing in here referring to a secret period of time in God’s timetable. That is simply external thinking being placed over the text (called “eisegesis” by textual critics). 

Next, verse five says that this Mystery was “not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed.” There are at least two ways to take this: one option is to say that no one knew anything about this before Paul. The second option is to say that no one in prior generations knew how to put the whole puzzle together like Paul and others of his generation did. One important bit of information to help us decide is found in noticing an important word: “as.” The Greek word for “as” means “as, like, even as, according as, in the same manner as.”[5] This word is important for us; it indicates that the second interpretation is preferable to the first. God showed Paul the interpretation of facts that had been revealed to some degree but not put together like Paul did in his epistles. 

In addition, notice the word “gospel” in verse 7. As we saw above, Paul’s gospel was Jesus’ gospel: the gospel of the kingdom of God. And as we saw before, the contents of this gospel were known during Jesus’ ministry. The facts of the gospel message were finalized with Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, but the essential gospel that Jesus taught was the same as the apostles and disciples of Jesus after Pentecost. In other words, the use of the term “gospel” here highlights the continuity between Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles. 

I also wanted to comment on the word “unsearchable” in verse eight. Again, there are two ways to interpret this word. First, we could understand this to say that the truth Paul is discussing was (in prior times) completely “unknowable.” The other option is to use another definition of this Greek word, which is “incomprehensible.” The fullness of God’s riches in Christ are definitely incomprehensible to the human mind. In the context, there is no need to add the additional layer of meaning that there was no clue of the blessings of the Messiah to the Gentiles, because, as we have seen already, there were ample clues in the Old Testament of such blessings. 

Finally, I want to return to an important point from Ephesians 3:6 that I did not understand until a few years ago. Notice the exact phrasing of the verse: “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The Gentiles were not in some separate group of people from Israel. The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body with the true Israel. Gentiles now partake of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. We have already seen that the gospel has not changed from Jesus to Paul. In addition to this, though, the phrase “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus” is incredibly important. In the book of Galatians, Paul developed the idea that the promise to Abraham was the basis for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Body of Christ. One of the foundational covenants of the Old Testament, God’s covenant to Abraham by promise, is extended to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ. This understanding does not fit the traditional dispensational interpretation of the Bible. 

The last verse that I wanted to consider in this section is from Colossians 1:

Colossians 1:24-27 (ESV)
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,
the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

We have already discussed the word “stewardship” from verse 25. Again, this is a general reference to Paul’s ministry and his stewardship of that responsibility, not a period of time. The key phrase I want to zero in on is: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” 

As we have seen with similar phrases before, we have two choices on how to interpret this phrase. Either we can interpret it to mean “the mystery completely hidden and completely unknown for all time” or we can interpret it to mean “the mystery whose full meaning was hidden for ages and generations.” I believe one key can be found in the word “revealed.” This same Greek word is the word translated “disclosed” in Romans 16:26. As we clearly saw in that context, the “revelation” or “disclosure” is not of completely unknown facts, but rather a completion of a puzzle whose pieces were mostly known. The same sense works here. The Great Mystery was hinted at throughout the Scriptures, but the fullness of its impact was not understood until Paul’s ministry and epistles. 

Did Jesus know the Mystery? 

As we have seen so far in this article, many aspects of the Great Mystery were not completely unknown before Paul wrote his epistles. There were clues, hints, and puzzle pieces lying around the whole time. This leads us to ask the question: did Jesus know the Mystery? Or perhaps more accurately: what aspects of the Mystery did Jesus know? Let’s return to the list of related items to the Mystery that we made above:

    • Holy spirit being poured out on all believers, not just prophets and kings or people with a specific mission (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:16-21)
    • The importance of the Father-Son relationship between God and believers 
    • Identification with Christ in his burial, resurrection, and ascension (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12; Ephesians 2:4-7)
    • The transfer of dominion from Satan back to Jesus (Colossians 1:13, Matthew 28:18)
    • The fullness of the kingdom offer (“life in the coming age”/“eternal life”)

Jesus was definitely aware that the holy spirit was going to be poured out on all believers. In some of his earliest teachings in John, he mentioned the spirit as something coming to all so that people could worship the Father (John 4:23-24: recall Jesus was speaking to a Samaritan woman—a half-Gentile in many ways). Later in his ministry, right before his crucifixion, he gave a detailed discussion of the spirit and how having access to it would change the disciples’ lives (John 14-16). 

With respect to the Father-Son relationship, Jesus modeled that relationship for his disciples. Throughout his ministry, Jesus referred to God as his Father (John 3:35; John 5:17-23; John 6:32). Perhaps more importantly for this point, Jesus taught his disciples to pray as he did, which meant addressing God as their Father (Matthew 6:9). After his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that he was ascending to his Father and their Father (John 20:17). Clearly, Jesus modeled this new relationship with God and taught his disciples to walk in it. 

What about identification in Christ? Did Jesus know that believers would partake with him? When James and John asked Jesus to have them sit on his right hand and left in the kingdom, Jesus told them that they would be baptized with his baptism (Mark 10:35-40), but that seems to be a prediction of suffering. Jesus did tell Peter that he would not be able to follow him immediately, but that he would follow him eventually, cryptically referring to living and dying for God (John 13:36). Immediately afterwards, Jesus taught about the spirit and how the disciples must abide in him (John 14-16). So even though he nowhere put it exactly like Paul, Jesus knew some things about the believer’s identification with him. 

The transfer of dominion from Satan back to Jesus was foreshadowed during Jesus’ interaction with the Devil during his major temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) and through use of the example of the strong man (Matthew 12:28-29). Jesus and others knew about the role of Jesus in the salvation of mankind (John 1:29; John 3:16-17; John 12:47; Luke 19:10). Throughout his ministry, Jesus exerted spiritual authority unparalleled in human history (Matthew 7:29; Matthew 9:6-8; Mark 1:27). Jesus even granted authority to his disciples (Matthew 10:1; Luke 10:19). Right before the ascension, Jesus told his disciples that all authority had been given to him (Matthew 28:18). 

When we consider the kingdom offer, it is important to recognize that Jesus was the first to teach in detail about the kingdom and life in the age to come (Matthew 11:13; Luke 16:16). One of Jesus’ primary missions was to preach the gospel of the kingdom (Luke 4:43). When Jesus taught in front of crowds, generally speaking, he talked about the kingdom to them (notable among these are the Sermon on the Mount, see Matthew 5-7, and the Olivet Discourse, see Matthew 24 and 25, both of which center on aspects of the kingdom). In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus taught his disciples that the gospel of the kingdom would be preached until the end of the age (Matthew 24:14). This can be seen in the focus on the gospel of the kingdom throughout the book of Acts (Acts 8:12, 14:22, 19:8, 20:24-25, 28:23-31). The piece that is added in the Acts preaching of the gospel of the kingdom is the celebration of the completion of the work of Jesus in his being offered, his resurrection, and his ascension to God. None of these facts appear to be unknown to Jesus. 

As we have seen, Jesus knew much of the detail around the items we generally associate with the Great Mystery. But what about the Great Mystery itself? Did Jesus know that the Gentiles would be “fellow heirs and of the same body”? The Bible does not tell us all that Jesus knew, so it is impossible to know for sure. However, there is one verse that alludes to Jesus’ possible understanding of the Mystery (John 10:16):

John 10:14-16 (ESV)
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Most commentators agree that Jesus is talking about the Gentiles in verse 16. He clearly mentioned one flock with one shepherd; this sounds just like Paul’s later descriptions of the Body of Christ. So while it is impossible to definitively know everything that Jesus knew, we have stronger reason to believe that Jesus knew about the Great Mystery than that he knew nothing about it. 

Final Thoughts

Preaching throughout the post-resurrection section of the Gospels and the book of Acts follows a common trajectory: the gospel of the kingdom is taught, many Old Testament passages are referenced, and then the example of Jesus is applied to those Scriptures. Here are just a few examples of this happening through the Gospels and Acts:

Luke 24:25-27 (ESV)
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!
Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

On the road to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus opened the scriptures (the Old Testament) and explained why the Messiah would have to suffer and die and then enter into glory. Later, Jesus appeared to other disciples and taught them similarly:

Luke 24:44-47 (ESV)
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,
and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

In comparison to Jesus’ post-resurrection teachings, what did the early church teach? 

Acts 17:2-4,10-11 (ESV)
And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures,
explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”
And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

Paul taught the same way that Jesus taught: he opened the Old Testament Scriptures and showed the people how the Messiah was supposed to suffer and rise from the dead. Further, he continued by declaring that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled those requirements and is the Messiah. 

Acts 18:27-28 (ESV)
And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him [Apollos] and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed,
for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.

Apollos did the same thing as Jesus and Paul: he taught people what the requirements were for Jesus to be the Messiah from the Old Testament. The pattern is absolutely clear, and we must do the same (with the advantage of having the New Testament as well). 

Conclusion

Do you remember the puzzle analogy? Imagine that the Great Mystery is our puzzle. God left clues and hints scattered throughout the Old Testament. If the Mystery is a 500-piece puzzle, perhaps 475 or so can be found in the Old Testament. Key pieces are missing, like the fullness of the inclusion of the Gentiles, but the vast majority is there to understand in the Old Testament. 

Unlike ancient readers trying to muddle through the puzzle without a complete concept of the finished product, we as modern Christians have the advantage of having the template on which the puzzle was designed, the image of Jesus fulfilling prophecy and living as the Messiah. Paul described this process of looking backwards at the Old Testament through the lens of Christ as having a veil removed (II Corinthians 3:12-18). Praise God for the sending of His Son and the greatness of the Mystery! Let us continue to recognize the incredible interplay between the Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures, for that is the only way to make the most of both. 


1 See https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Lexicon.show/ID/G3466/musterion.htm for more information. 

2 See Jeremiah 11:16. 

3 I am greatly indebted to Jim Winchester for his work on musterion and raz. 

4 Paul is numbered among the “prophets and teachers” in Acts 13:1, but we don’t know if he held both ministries or only one of them. There are no other references to Paul being a prophet in the Bible. 

5 See Thayer’s entry for G5613 – hōs

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