A Study of “Mystery” in the New Testament -- By: Galen W. Wiley

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 06:2 (Fall 1985)
Article: A Study of “Mystery” in the New Testament
Author: Galen W. Wiley

A Study of “Mystery” in the New Testament

Galen W. Wiley

The wordmystery as it occurs in ancient Greek and Semitic sources, as well as in the NT, refers to a secret which is only revealed to certain individuals. In the NT it is God who reveals the mystery and faithful believers who perceive it. Carnal believers and unbelievers are not able to understand the mystery. The mystery centers around the Lordship of Christ who is the Life of the church. Although the mystery is opposed by Satan, it will be fully known to all in the end.

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The word “mystery” (μυστήριον) occurs twenty-eight times1 in the NT. Although there are passing references to it in commentaries, technical studies on the background of the word in the Greek mystery religions and in the Semitic world, and a few Roman Catholic works which discuss the word, “there is no comprehensive monograph on μυστήριον.”2 The present study will not fill this gap, but hopefully it will stir interest and provoke further study.

The Meaning of the Word

The word μυστήριον can be translated “secret, secret rite, secret teaching, mystery.” According to Bauer, it is used in the NT “to mean the secret thoughts, plans, and dispensations of God which are hidden from the human reason, as well as from all other comprehension below the divine level, and hence must be revealed to those for whom they are intended.”3 However, to understand properly what this word meant in the early church it is necessary to explore its background.

First, there has been much written about the similarities between the Greek mystery religions and the NT use of “mystery.”4 The mystery religions had their roots in the Babylonian story of Ishtar and Tammuz.5 They spread throughout the Roman empire and played a significant role in the Greek world from the seventh century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.6 Though there were many differences among the various mystery cults, four similarities existed: 1) cultic rites were performed by a circle of devotees to portray and to share in the destinies of a god, 2) only the initiated were allowed knowledge of these sacred rites, 3) the devotees were promised salvation by the dispensing of cosmic life, and 4) a vow of silence was...

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