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The Greek Word
The word "mystery" is misleading, because in English it means "something strange or not known that has not yet been explained or understood."
{1} The Greek word mysterion (μυστήριον) has a somewhat different meaning: it signifies something that was unknown in the past but now is revealed to certain people.

The earliest attested usage is from the 6th century B.C., when it was a technical term for the sacred rites of certain gods, especially Dēmētēr (the Greek goddess of agriculture). In the Hellenistic period—relevant to the apostle Paul's milieu—the Gnostics conceived of the mysteries as secret revelations granted only to the elect of their cult for the purpose of the soul’s redemption. {2} The New Testament uses the word in this sense, pertaining to God's "secrets" revealed to certain people.

God doesn't keep "secrets," does He?
In one sense, an infinite God is beyond the full comprehension of finite beings. However, God is an interpersonal being and has revealed Himself to His creatures. Most of the Old Testament is the story of that relationship with the ancient Israelites; the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Amos give testimony about whether or not God keeps secrets:

Amos 3:7

כִי לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה אֲדֹנָי יהוה דָבָר כִי אִם־גָלָה סוֹדֹו אֶל־עֲבָדָיו הַנְבִיאִים

Certainly Adonai Yahweh does nothing without first revealing His plan {3} to His servants the prophets. {4}

Isaiah concurs with Amos:

Isaiah 45:19

לֹא בַסֵּ֫תֶר דִבַּ֫רְתִי בִמְקוֹם אֶ֫רֶץ חֹ֫שֶׁך

I have not spoken in secret, in a hidden place. {5}

And again:

Isaiah 48:16-17


קִרְבוּ אֵלַי שִׁמְעוּ־זֹאת לֹא מֵרֹאשׁ בַסֵּ֫תֶר דִבַּ֫רְתִי מֵעֵת הֱיוֹתָהּ שָׁם אָ֫נִי  

προσαγάγετε πρός με καὶ ἀκούσατε ταῦτα, οὐκ ἀπʼ ἀρχῆς ἐν κρυφῇ ἐλάλησα οὐδὲ ἐν τόπῳ γῆς σκοτεινῷ,

ἡνίκα ἐγένετο, ἐκεῖ ἤμην.

Approach me! Listen to this! From the very first I have not spoken in secret; when it happens, I am there.

The prophets thus answer the modern inquiry, "Does God do things secretly?" The answer is, "No, he reveals them to His prophets beforehand." Subsequent apathy, or misunderstanding by many, does not equal a hiddenness of God. God told Adam he would die if he ate the forbidden fruit. He told Noah to build an ark because the Earth would flood. He told Moses He would use him to free Hebrew slaves. He told Isaiah, Daniel, and Malachi that He Himself would be coming to Earth.

So then, how does mysterion fit into the New Testament?


Mysteries vs. A Mystery vs. The Mystery
The most New Testament space is devoted to The [Great] Mystery of God (
τό μυστήριον τοῦ θεοῦ), but first let us look at other usages of mysterion so that they are not confused with the main meaning. Paul and John use the word mysterion to reference other revelations of the Christian faith, such as the Rapture [1 Cor 15:51] or the institution of marriage [Eph 5:32]. The Synoptic Gospels use the plural "the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven" (τὰ μυστήρια τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν) when describing Parables of Jesus, viz. the insider knowledge to which His true followers have access [Matt 13:11; Mark 4:11; Luke 8:10]. Paul identifies believers as stewards of the mysteries of God [1 Cor 4:1] and of mysteries generally [1 Cor 13:2; 14:2]. Elsewhere in the New Testament, even Satan has a mystery [2 Thess 2:7], and so does The Harlot of Babylon [Rev 17:5]! But the central Mystery of God is the object of our inquiry, so let us look at it now.


The Mystery of God
Ephesians 3:3-19 entails a lengthy explanation of The Mystery of God. Paul introduces it by saying, "by revelation The Mystery was made known to me" (
κατὰ ἀποκάλυψιν ἐγνωρίσθη μοι τὸ μυστήριον). He then calls it "The Secret of Christ" (τό μυστήριον τοῦ Χριστοῦ). To save space, here are the relevant parts of the pericope (in English, with important or clarifying Greek phrases): 

3:5 Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by The Spirit (ἐν πνεύματι), 3:6 namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of The Body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. […] 3:8d this grace was given to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ 3:9 and to enlighten everyone about God's secret plan (ἡ οἰκονομία τοῦ μυστηρίου)—a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who created all things. 3:10 The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God (ἡ πολυποίκιλος σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ)  should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. 3:11 This was according to the eternal purpose (κατὰ πρόθεσιν τῶν αἰώνων) which He accomplished in (ἣν ἐποίησεν ἐν) Christ Jesus our Lord. […] 3:16 I pray that according to the wealth of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner person (εἰς τὸν ἔσω ἄνθρωπον), 3:17 that Christ may dwell (κατοικῆσαι) in your hearts through faith, so that, because you have been rooted and grounded in love, 3:18 you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 3:19 and thus to know the surpassing-knowledge love of Christ, so that you may be filled up in all the fullness of God (ἵνα πληρωθῆτε εἰς πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ θεοῦ).

One of Paul's own parallels to "the promise of Christ Jesus" in Ephesians 3:6 is the phrase "granted in Christ Jesus before time began" (τὴν δοθεῖσαν ἡμῖν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων) in 2 Timothy 1:9. There are several similarities between 2 Timothy 1:8-14 and Ephesians 3:3-19, including a link to The Father's grace. From Ephesians alone one might isolate "eternal purpose" in 3:11 as a false crux interpretem, and declare the mere intention or plan of God is denoted across the Bible's declarations about the Epiphany. Instead, "God's purpose which He accomplished in Christ" in that same verse of Ephesians 3:11 is semantically both instrumental and ontic. That is, God accomplished it through Christ [instrumental] as Christ [ontic]. A wider examination of NT prepositional semantics as they relate to instrumentality, agency, and prophecy fulfillment would allow a better view of this phenomenon.   

The central definition of The Mystery in Ephesians 3 is the phrase "that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith," with a summarizing epexegesis in v.19: "that you may be filled up in all the fullness of God." This adds another nuance to our investigation, because the One in us is The Spirit of Christ—The Holy Spirit—not the incarnate Son. Elsewhere in the New Testament "in your heart" is often in parallel with The Spirit, and "through faith" with The Son.

There are four other, shorter passages dealing with The Mystery of God:


Colossians 1:25-27

I became a servant of the church according to God's stewardship—given to me for you—in order to complete the word of God, that is, the mystery that has been kept hidden from ages and generations (τὸ μυστήριον τὸ ἀποκεκρυμμένον ἀπὸ τῶν αἰώνων καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν γενεῶν), but has now been revealed (ἐφανερώθη) to his saints. God wanted to make known to them the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you (ὅ ἐστιν Χριστὸς ἐν ὑμῖν), the hope of glory.

The Mystery is put in parallel with "the word of God," perhaps referring to Scripture rather than The Logos. But then, The Mystery is explicitly called "Christ in you [the believer]." This mirrors the conflation of Son and Spirit in Ephesians. The inclusion of The Spirit in fulfillment of The Mystery was thus more than an ancillary comment.

Colossians 2:2c-4

εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ μυστηρίου τοῦ θεοῦ, Χριστοῦ,

ἐν ᾧ εἰσιν πάντες οἱ θησαυροὶ τῆς σοφίας καὶ γνώσεως ἀπόκρυφοι.

τοῦτο λέγω ἵνα μηδεὶς ὑμᾶς παραλογίζηται ἐν πιθανολογίᾳ.

of the knowledge of The Mystery of God—namely, Christ—
in Whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
I say this so that no one will deceive you through arguments that sound reasonable.


Here, "Christ" is an appositional genitive. The Mystery of God is Christ. As we have seen already, this entails "Christ our Lord and Christ in you." Later, in Colossians 4:3, Paul says it is for the mystery of Christ that he is in chains (τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ Χριστοῦ, διʼ ὃ καὶ δέδεμαι).

1 Corinthians 2:7-8:

ἀλλὰ λαλοῦμεν θεοῦ σοφίαν ἐν μυστηρίῳ, τὴν ἀποκεκρυμμένην, ἣν προώρισεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸ τῶν αἰώνων εἰς δόξαν ἡμῶν·

ἣν οὐδεὶς τῶν ἀρχόντων τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου ἔγνωκεν, εἰ γὰρ ἔγνωσαν, οὐκ ἂν τὸν κύριον τῆς δόξης ἐσταύρωσαν·

Instead we speak of the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory.
None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known, they would not have crucified The Lord of Glory.

Jesus is given the ascription "The Lord of Glory." Heightened ascriptions are not at their zenith, however. In 1 Timothy, Paul talks about The Mystery of the Faith (τὸ μυστήριον τῆς πίστεως; 3:9) of the church of The Living God (θεός ζῶν; 3:15):  

1 Timothy 3:16
καὶ ὁμολογουμένως μέγα ἐστὶν τὸ τῆς εὐσεβείας μυστήριον·

Ὃς ἐφανερώθη ἐν σαρκί,

ἐδικαιώθη ἐν πνεύματι,

ὤφθη ἀγγέλοις,

ἐκηρύχθη ἐν ἔθνεσιν,

ἐπιστεύθη ἐν κόσμῳ,

ἀνελήμφθη ἐν δόξῃ. 

And incontestably, this godly mystery is amazing: 

Who was manifested in flesh, 
vindicated by The Spirit, 
seen by angels, 
proclaimed among the nations, 
believed on in the world, 
taken up in glory.

The bottom six lines are often taken as a liturgical formula, but Paul has provided an antecedent for ὅς in v.16—and it is not Jesus. It is "The Living God” from v.15! In other words, v.16 does not say, "[Jesus] was revealed in flesh," but "[The Living God] was revealed in flesh." The relative pronoun could have easily been amended to  in order to accord with the neuter noun "mystery"—indeed, early copyists did that very thing. Furthermore, in this section (vv. 14-16), there is no other masculine noun except "God/The Living God." There is no grammatical recourse to another referent. The Living God is either Jesus specifically, or Yahweh generally.   

This is corroborated further by the odd phrase "seen by angels." What do angels not see? It implies that something previously invisible is now visible (God is notably called "invisible" or "unseeable" [e.g., 1 Tim 1:16; 6:16; and especially Col 1:15]).

As a tertiary note, these sentences also contain exact biblical verbiage for the word "Incarnation": in + carne is the Latin translation of the Greek ἐν + σαρκί.

Collated Syntactic Data on μυστήριον
Narratival Elements

Made prisoner because of it (δέσμιος τοῦ Χριστοῦ) [Eph 3:1]


of Christ (τοῦ Χριστοῦ, descriptive genitive) [Eph 3:4] 
which is Christ in you (
ὅ ἐστιν Χριστὸς ἐν ὑμῖν, direct equation) [Col 1:27]
[which is] Christ (
Χριστοῦ, appositional genitive) [Col 2:2]

Actions Upon

Made known by revelation (κατὰ ἀποκάλυψιν ἐγνωρίσθη μοι) to Paul [Eph 3:3]
Made known (
γνωρίσαι) to the Gentiles [Col 1:27]
Revealed (
ἀπεκαλύφθη) to God's holy apostles and prophets [Eph 3:5]
Revealed (
ἐφανερώθη) to God's saints [Col 1:26]

Revealed (ἐφανερώθη) in flesh [1 Tim 3:15-16]

Temporal Phrases

Hidden from the ages (τοῦ ἀποκεκρυμμένου ἀπὸ τῶν αἰώνων) [Eph 3:9]
Hidden from the ages and the generations (
τὸ ἀποκεκρυμμένον ἀπὸ τῶν αἰώνων καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν γενεῶν) [Col 1:26]
Determined before the ages (
προώρισεν πρὸ τῶν αἰώνων) [1 Cor 2:7]

Salvation and holy calling derived from it granted in Jesus before time began (τὴν δοθεῖσαν ἡμῖν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ πρὸ

χρόνων αἰωνίων) [2 Tim 1:9]

Synthesis of All Data

The Mystery of God is this: "Christ in flesh and Christ in you." That is, the one who is called The Wisdom of God [Eph 3:10; 1 Cor 2:7] and The Living God [1 Tim 3:15] manifested in flesh [1 Tim 3:16] to God's saints [Col 1:26] as Christ Jesus Adonenu [Eph 3:11]; and the one who is called The Spirit of God [Rom 8:9b] and The Spirit of Christ [Rom 8:9c; 1 Pet 1:11] and "Christ in you" [Col 1:27b] has been sent from Heaven [1 Pet 1:12] in order to dwell in the hearts of Christians [Eph 3:16-17; Rom 8:9], which was foretold as an action of Yahweh [Ezek 37:26-27]. This mystery was not comprehended by The Darkness [John 1:5] nor known by the rulers of this age [1 Cor 2:8], but now the saints are able to comprehend (καταλαβέσθαι) it and God has made it known to the Gentiles [Col 1:27a] so they too can be partakers in the promise [Eph 3:6].

            {1} Cambridge Dictionary, s.v. "mystery," accessed 13 April 2020, 

            {2} Moisés Silva, ed., NIDNTTE, s.v. "μυστήριον."

            {3} The word סוֹד can mean either "secret" or "confidential council/plan."

            {4} Hebrew text is the WLC from, modified for Davidic pronunciation. Greek Septuagint text is Rahlfs 1935. Greek New Testament text is the SBLGNT. English translations are my own.

            {5} The phrase בִמְקוֹם אֶ֫רֶץ חֹ֫שֶׁך is literally "in a place of a land of darkness," but because the phrase is in subsequent parallel with תֹהוּ—a wasteland, wilderness, or formless place of chaos—perhaps a contrast to ANE divinatory practice in caves or Ov pits is in view. Thus "blighted earth" might be a better translation, but for the abbreviated translation, "hidden place" would accord with the extant parallel of "in secret."

Written by Jack Kien, November 2017. Edited and uploaded April 2020.

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