Do you like mysteries? Some people love them – some love setting them and others love solving them.
Mysterion (μυστήριον – ‘mystery’) is used 28x in the New Testament and Paul accounts for 75% of these!
Paul loves to talk about how amazing the gospel is and how nobody could ever have expected it. He describes it as something ‘hidden for ages … but now revealed’ (Colossians 1:26). But what exactly is this mystery? How would you sum up the mysterious aspects of the gospel in a sentence or two? What would you say?
Things that might jump to mind may include things like:
- That God would send his Son to save us
- That Jesus would come just as foretold in the scriptures
- That Jesus won the victory through a seeming defeat
- That Jesus would die a criminal’s death
- That we would be saved through his death and resurrection
- That this was always God’s plan, from before creation.
All these are certainly part of the mystery Paul describes. These are all amazing, divine secrets, only revealed in Christ. Nobody could have anticipated them.
But there’s something else; something more.
Something about who would be joining the party.
Paul’s doxology at the end of Romans links the mystery to ‘all nations:’
… 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. (Romans 16:25-27)
In Colossians Paul mentions ‘the Gentiles’ (ethnos, ἔθνος,) as he describes his ministry within Christ’s body:’
…for the sake of his body, that is, the church …, 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. (Colossians 1:24-27)
Sandwiched between sections on the nature of the church in Ephesians, Paul explicitly states that the mystery is the inclusion of ‘the Gentiles’ through Christ’s gospel:
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. (Ephesians 3:1-6)
The mystery is that Christ’s body would include Gentiles!
Looking back from the 21st Century, when the church is so cosmopolitan, this may not seem very surprising. It’s self-evident. But imagine yourself in the Jerusalem church in the early years, just after Pentecost (Acts 2-7). At that point the burgeoning church only understood part of the mystery. The early believers seemingly had no idea that, in Christ, other nations would be included alongside them. Actually, that was a distasteful thought, as Peter’s food nightmare makes very clear (Acts 10).
Enter the so called “Apostle to the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:8)! Saul’s conversion to Christ included his startling commission: “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15). No wonder the other apostles were suspicious of him! Gentiles were often considered little better than dogs.
It needed repeated, divine intervention to convince the early church that all nations were included:
- Pentecost – festival goers heard God’s wonders in their own languages (Acts 2:5-12)
- Scattering – the early believers were forcible scattered from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-4)
- Samaritans revisited – Philip ends up in Samaria and revival breaks out (Acts 8:5-25)
- Ethiopian royalty – Candace’s treasurer finds Jesus on the road home (Acts 8:26-39)
- Italian regiment – Peter is surprised by faith in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10)
- Antiochan repentance – some ‘preached to Greeks also’ in Antioch (Acts 11:19-21)
We sometimes miss the shock factor of Gentiles believing in Jesus – Israel’s saviour. The early church was completely taken by surprise and often seemed to be playing catch up with the fast pace set by the God ‘of all the earth’ (Gen 18:25).
Do you like mysteries? Does God?
Nebuchadnezzar picks up from Daniel that his God “… truly is a God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of secrets….” (Daniel 2:22, 28, 47). If our God delights in revealing secrets, then the inclusion of people from ‘all nations,’ in a world where ethnic deities abound, is surely the biggest reveal of them all.
So next time you’re sitting next to somebody from a different country in church then thank God for a gospel that was secretly hardwired to meet the spiritual needs of people all over the world. And let’s not think of ourselves as mere observers of the Gentile mission, but the fruit of it! Most of us reading this are Gentiles – little mysteries of divine inclusion, through God’s wide mercy and grace.
The influx of ‘the nations’ into God’s kingdom is something beautiful and quite unique in a word of localised, ethnic deities. The gospel flows naturally right around the globe – the ultimate magical mystery tour.
 Strong’s Concordance, G3466. Strong’s range of meanings for ‘mysterion’ includes mystery, secret doctrine, secret requiring initiation, counsels of God, Christian revelation generally and/or particular truths of Christian revelation.
 Please excuse this allusion to one of my favourite Beatles albums.