Word Watch: Mystery

I grew up thinking that a ‘mystery’ was a book written by Agatha Christie or one of her ilk. At the heart of such a book was an impenetrable puzzle that only a great detective could solve. The best of these, for me, were John Dickson Carr’s impossible “locked room” mysteries in which the victim would be found in a hermetically sealed room (all the doors and windows locked on the inside). Only a genius could solve a mystery of that order.

So when, as a young Christian, I first encountered this word ‘mystery’ in Paul’s letters1 I thought this was something that I was not meant to easily understand: that I was being presented with a puzzle, a secret. Clearly Paul had a generous helping of Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” and could figure this stuff out, but it was not for ordinary mortals.

Which was exactly how the pagan religions of Paul’s time had employed the word ‘mystery’: you had to be an insider, an initiate, one of the few, to be given the meaning of this secret mystery. It took me some time to discover that in the New Testament “mystery” always refers to something that God has already solved—and told us the solution.

In this sense, God is the Great Detective of the New Testament who unlocks the locked room. The Oxford English Dictionary puts its lexicographical finger on the right spot when it says that in the NT ‘mystery’ means “a religious truth known only from divine revelation”. In Ephesians 3:3 Paul talks about “how the mystery was made known to me by revelation”; that is, the disclosure of Jesus as the Christ.2

But I still meet folk from time to time who are critical of us evangelicals who, with our constant opening of the Bible, are “wanting to explain everything and leave no mystery”. This neo-pagan hankering after an esoteric frisson is a million miles away from the revelation of Jesus Christ—which should not escape our notice, since it was not “done in a corner” (Acts 26:26).

  1. See Stephen Renn, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Hendrickson, 2005, p. 659.

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