BY RICH LUSK
The “New Perspective” sheds light on what the New Testament means by the “mystery” of God. The mystery theme is quite pervasive in the apostolic writings, and shows up across genre lines, in the gospels, the epistles, and Revelation. One could even make a solid case that the revelation of the “mystery of God” is the center of Paul’s theology and ministry. The “New Perspective” is helpful here because it has called new attention to the ecclesial/social dimension of the gospel message, which, as we will see, is central to the New Testament’s category of “mystery.”
In Scripture mysteries do not have to do with things that are eerie or spooky or haunting. Instead they have to do with things that were previously veiled, but that have now been revealed. Specifically, mysteries often have to do with two becoming one. For example, Paul says the incarnation is a mystery because the two natures – deity and humanity – have been conjoined in one person (1 Tim. 316). Marriage is a mystery because the two – husband and wife, or Christ and the church – become one flesh (Eph. 5:32).
The church is a mystery as well (Eph. 3:8) because in it the two people groups of the old world – Jew and Gentile – are married together into Christ. They become one flesh, one body, one new man. Paul, as apostle of the mystery, is something of a matchmaker. His preaching coalesces Jews and Gentiles into the New Covenant society. In his epistles, he becomes something of a marriage counselor, helping the “newly weds” deal with problems stemming from the baggage each has brought into the relationship (e.g., Rom 14). His mission and ministry reveal and enact the mystery; his ecclesial correspondence works out the practical ramifications of the mystery.
The usage of “mystery” throughout the NT brings out some interesting connections. It is used in every major genre of the NT in a roughly consistent way. In Mark 4:11ff, the mystery of the kingdom is that most Israel is bad soil and will not receive the word of Jesus. This is why Jesus cites Isaiah 6: He is explaining why his messianic mission to Israel will appear to “fail.” He goes on to promise that Gentiles will come into the kingdom on a massive scale (Mk. 4:26ff). Thus, the “mystery” of the kingdom in view has to do with the transition from Old Covenant to New Covenant and the exalted status of the Gentiles (along with the remnant of believing Israel) in the new age. The kingdom mystery is the coalescence of believing Jew and Gentile into a new covenant community that fulfills the prophetic vision.
In Eph. 3:5-6, the mystery is the revelation that Gentiles are now fellow partakers of the promises with the Jews, so that there is no longer any Jew/Gentile distinction in the New Covenant community. This dynamic transformation of God’s redemptive program was hinted at all along, but the Old Testament clues have only come clear in the light of Christ’s finished work. In Col. 1:24-29 and Rom. 16:25-27, Paul announces that it is his calling (as apostle to the Gentiles) to make this once-secret mystery public by proclaiming it far and wide. In Rom. 11:25-26, we find the mystery has to do with the “dance” of Jew and Gentile as one people group is largely cut out to make room for another to be grafted in, with the ultimate goal that both people groups would experience redemption together in the same covenant tree.
Turning from the gospels and epistles to the New Testament’s “apocalyptic” literature, in Revelation 10:1-7, the mystery appears to be Jesus uniting Jew and Gentile, symbolized by land and sea (cf. Jonah; Isa. 5:30, 17:12-13, 57:20; Jer. 6:23; Lk. 21:25; Rev. 13:1, 11), in inaugurating the New Covenant. Jesus is the Angel, who appeared to the covenant nation in ancient times (cf. Ex.32:34, 33:2; Num. 20:16), whose face shines like the sun (cf. Rev. 1:16; Mal. 4:2; Lk. 1:78; and the Transfiguration accounts in the gospels), who is clothed with the glory-cloud of heaven (cf. Ex. 40:34-38; Lev. 16:2; Dt. 33:2; Ps. 68:17, 104:1-3), and whose legs are pillars of fire (cf. Ex. 13:21-22; 14:19, 24; 23:20, 23; 33:19; Num. 12:5; Hag. 2:5). Jesus stands upon Israel and the nations and swears an oath. He promises to make the kingdoms of this world his own kingdom. When this union of two peoples into one is completed, the mystery of God is finished (cf. Rev. 11:15). (I think this passage is best understood in preterist fashion. The seventh angel in 11:15 announces the final fall of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A. D. If so, it further reinforces my understanding of “mystery” as the trans-epochal union of Jew and Gentile in Christ. The mystery revealed in the New Covenant is the new shape of the people of God.)
Thus, the mystery is more than simply the inclusion of the Gentiles. It means Jew and Gentile together, in and through Christ, have entered the promised new age and have received the treasures of the kingdom, including access to the heavenly holy place. This is why the lowest New Covenant Gentile believer has a status above and beyond the greatest Old Covenant Jew, John the Baptist (cf. Mt. 11:11). The revealing of the mystery means that sanctuary access in heaven has been granted and the gifts of the kingdom have been given to the saints. The veil has been torn; the final form of the kingdom has been revealed; and we have been incorporated into the heavenly assembly (cf. Heb. 12:18ff). The mystery of the gospel of Christ, therefore, is both social and eschatological. In short, the mystery is the church.
In one sense, this “mystery” is easy for us take for granted after living with it and within it for nearly two thousand years. But if we are reading Scripture as we should – as a narrative that reaches its climatic turning point in the ministry of Jesus – then we will rightly regard the “mystery” as the core of the New Covenant. Things once hidden – namely the divine plan of worldwide redemption and the treasures locked up in the Most Holy Place – have now been revealed. God’s secret – his eternal plan to unite Jew and Gentile into a new creation – is now revealed.