“Mystery” is a term that has suffered abuse in two different ways.
There have always been self-styled “teachers” who dodge the inexplicability and total lack of Biblical basis for their complex, high-flown “doctrines” by intoning, with an air of solemn superiority, “Oh, that …that is a part of the mystery of God!” These individuals do not even deserve the respect of refutation.
Throughout the course of Christian history, there have also been numerous cycles during which “scholars” claim to have “discovered” links between Christian faith and the Greek and near-eastern “mystery religions”. Although it is possible to find such “links” in corrupted versions of Christian thought and practice, the New Testament, although the word “mystery” does appear there, bears no credible resemblance to any of those observances. In fact, more frequently, it calls for the direct opposite in both belief and practice.
Many, if not most, of the “mystery” cults involved some variety of fertility worship, due to their derivation from the seasonal myths of Demeter and Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice, or other underworld connections. Their version of “resurrection” (loudly touted as a parallel) was merely a temporary return from the abode of the dead, repeated yearly, and celebrated with orgiastic fertility rites, or equally temporary asceticism. Communication with the deities was achieved with hallucinogenic substances, strong drink, or, as at Delphi, the noxious vapors of thermal springs.
All of these were very ancient – the Dionysian cult is dated by some historians as early as 6000 BC, the Eleusian about 2000 BC, and the Orphic in the 4th century BC. Although the second century AD writer, Justin Martyr, spoke of them as “demonic imitations of the true faith”, the actual fact was probably more likely the reverse: the syncretistic corruption of the New Testament message by the adoption of magical, secretive overtones of the “mysteries.” I had often wondered how the simple, symbolic observations, instituted by Jesus as reminders and teaching tools, morphed into a notion of magical, inherently powerful “sacraments” (please see chapter 9 of Citizens of the Kingdom). I have to wonder if this transformation was not effected by exactly that syncretism. It certainly does not appear in the New Testament.
Another major contrast is seen in the lack of conflict between the contemporary civil religion (emperor-worship) of the Roman Empire, and the “mysteries.” These were considered supplementary, and did not compete for people’s devotion, whereas commitment to the Kingdom of Jesus (see W.S.#4), which required absolute faithfulness, and refused political compromise, was often a matter of life or death for its adherents.
According to Liddell/Scott, musterion could refer either to secret knowledge imparted only to initiates, to the paraphernalia used in ceremonial rites, to medicinal recipes or remedies, or to military secrets! Interestingly, it is this latter category that was taken over into the Latin “sacramentum”, although Jerome, in the early 5th century AD, used that substitute seven times (Eph.1:9, 3:9, 5:32; Col.1:27, I Tim.3:16, Rv.1:20, 17:7) in his Latin Vulgate translation. I could not discern any pattern to these choices – can you?
By that time, of course, to further confuse the situation, the simple symbols of commitment had long been distorted into the magical notion of “sacrament”, along with several other ceremonies (see above).
The New Testament does use the word musterion, 26 times. In the New Testament, it is not an esoteric secret inaccessible to human minds, but always refers to information that has been revealed, although it does require a degree of spiritual discernment.
The most common (7 x) is the assertion (Rom.11:25, 16:25-26; Eph.3:3-6, Col.1:26-27, 2:2, 4:3) that God’s eternal plan for his people includes both Jewish and Gentile believers. This is typified in the end of Paul’s letter to Rome, “The mystery that from all eternity has been kept secret, has now been revealed…..His revealed purpose is that this plan be made known, so that all the nations [all the gentiles] may come to him in faithful obedience!”
The emphasis on the revelation of things formerly hidden appears another 6 x (I Cor.2:1, 2:7; Eph.1:9,3:3 – expounded in vv.9-12 – and 6:19), including the establishing of the Lord Jesus as the head over everything, and his intentions that his glorious grace, power and wisdom be demonstrated to everyone, everywhere, THROUGH HIS CHURCH!
Musterion occurs only once in each of the synoptic gospels – parallel passages – (Mt.13:11, Mk.4:11, Lk.8:10) when Jesus is explaining to the inquiring disciples the parable of the Sower/Seed/Soil. He characterizes this explanation as evidence that the “mysteries of the Kingdom of God” are being revealed to those who have accepted his call to that Kingdom, not to curious spectators.
Only 5 times is musterion used in the plural: twice here, and three times in I Cor.4:1, 13:2, 14:2. Might this be implying reference to multiple bits of information? The other 21 uses in the New Testament are singular, usually referencing God’s single, over-arching purpose for creation.
Three of the four references in the Revelation (1:20 and 17:5,7) are simply explanations of symbolism, while the other (10:7) refers again to God’s original purpose. This may parallel Paul’s summary statement to Timothy (I Tim.3:16), which basically reviews Jesus’ own history: specifically regarding his true humanity, his vindication attested by his resurrection (“made just …seen by messengers” – please remember that “messengers” may be either human or supernatural – the word is the same), the spread of his message to the gentiles/nations, and his ascension in glory!
Finally, sharing in the “mystery”, which is now revealed, rather than hidden, confers tremendous responsibility upon its participants: no longer under dread oaths to preserve secrecy as in the ancient mysteries, but instructed to make it known as broadly as they can (I Cor.4:1 and 13:2)!
This is also evident in Eph.3:9-12, a portion of which may serve us well as a closing summary. Marveling at the privilege of his assignment, Paul aims to “shed light on what is our responsibility, derived from the mystery ….to make known, now, to the rulers and authorities in heaven, through the church, the many-faceted wisdom of God! This is the plan of the ages, which he made in Christ Jesus our Lord!” And his people are entrusted with its execution!
In short, with an accurate understanding of the word (and the concept) “musterion”, faithful followers of Jesus will abandon their obsession with their “sacred rituals” (borrowed from the ancient “mysteries”), in favor of their sacred responsibility, rightly to represent the King and his Kingdom!
“Oh, the depth of God’s wealth, and wisdom, and knowledge! How (far) beyond reasoning are his judgments, and beyond comprehension his ways! ….
Glory to him forever! Amen!” (Rom.11:33, 36)