For most of us a mystery represents a puzzle to be solved. We read a murder mystery and look for clues to identify the killer. When we speak of mysteries in the spiritual realm, we also think of puzzles, but the unsolvable kind. Consequently, when someone asks us a difficult question about God, we are tempted to shrug our shoulders and say, “It’s a mystery.”
We may mean only that God operates by rules we do not understand. They make sense to Him and are consistent with His nature but are mysterious to us. Or we may speak of mystery when we see an apparent paradox in Scripture, like the seeming tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation. In most cases what we really mean when we describe something as a mystery is, “I don’t know.”
When Paul speaks of “mystery” in the book of Colossians, he means something very different (Col. 1:26, 27; 2:2; 4:3). He is not speaking of a puzzle to be solved or of something that is impossible for us to understand. Instead, Paul describes mystery as a truth which was previously hidden but has now been made known by God. In the book of Colossians the mystery Paul has in mind refers to the indwelling of Christ, the believer’s hope of glory.
Paul outlines the broad contours of biblical mystery in Colossians 1:26 when he characterizes this doctrine as something that “has been hidden for ages” but is “now disclosed to the Lord’s people.” Mystery in this sense is synonymous with revelation. Christ Himself is the mystery. It is the revelation of the person and work of God’s Son who is also Israel’s Messiah.
This mystery also includes a revelation of the extent of Christ’s work. In Ephesians 3:3–4, Paul writes of the mystery made known to him by revelation, which he also refers to as “the mystery of Christ.” This mystery was not made known to previous generations but was revealed by the Holy Spirit to those who first preached the gospel. It was the good news that the Gentiles could be heirs together with Israel and members of the church, which is Christ’s body. The news that Gentiles could share in the promises in Christ, along with those Jews who embraced the gospel, energized the outreach of the early church and propelled the gospel to the ends of the earth. It is this same promise that empowers the church’s evangelism today.
For Further Reading
To learn more about the mystery of Christ, read Love So Amazing: Exposition of Colossians by D. Martyn Lloyd Jones (Baker).
By John Koessler, Chair and Professor of Pastoral Studies
John Koessler serves as chair and professor of pastoral studies at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is married to Jane and has two sons, Drew and Jarred. John is the author of Folly, Grace & Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching (Zondervan), A Stranger in the House of God (Zondervan) and served as general editor of The Moody Handbook of Preaching (Moody). John has written several other books and articles and serves as a contributing editor for Today in the Word.