The epistle to the Ephesians reveals a remarkable use of the Greek noun μυστήριον (mystērion), rendered “mystery” or “secret” in most English versions. Mystērion is used 27 times in the Greek New Testament,1 Ephesians having the highest occurrence (6 times).
The way mystērion is used in Ephesians is striking. The first mystērion is God’s purpose to gather together things in heaven and things on earth in Christ (1:9, 10); the second is the inclusion of Gentiles as coheirs and members of the same body with Jews (2:11–3:9); and the third one, called the great mystērion, is the union between Christ and the church in one flesh (5:30–32).
In Ephesians, mystērion follows a progressive movement that goes from the vertical movement of heaven to earth, passes through the horizontal movement of Jews and Gentiles, and finds its climax in Christ becoming one flesh with the church. Mystērion is displayed in a form of the zoom of a camera and begins with a broad image of unifying heaven and earth. Then this word proceeds to a medium image of unifying Jews and Gentiles and finds its full expression when Christ is finally fused in one flesh with the church, His body.
Meaning of the word mystērion and use in the Bible
The Greek word mystērion derives from the verb myein, which means “to close” the lips or the eyes.2 The first Greek letter in the word is pronounced “mu,” with closed lips. In the Greek mystery religions, a person who underwent the mystery ritual (the mystēs in Greek) ought to close the lips in order not to reveal the secret.3
The Bible, however, uses mystērion differently. In the Old Testament, the only canonical book that uses the word mystērion (in the Septuagint) is Daniel, with nine occurrences (eight in chapter 2 and one in 4:9). All nine occurrences translate the Aramaic word rāz, which means “secret.”4 In Daniel 2, mystērion refers to King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2:18, 19, 27–30, 47), which he had forgotten. Daniel asked his companions to pray that God reveal the mystērion to them (2:18), and God revealed it to Daniel (v. 19). Similarly, in Daniel 4:9, mystērion refers to the king’s dream that all the wise of Babylon failed to interpret except Daniel (4:8, 18). Thus, in Daniel, mystērion is something that can be understood by humans to whom God reveals it.5 Once God reveals this mysterion, it becomes broadcast.
In the New Testament, mystērion is used 3 times in the synoptic Gospels, 4 times in Revelation, 14 times in the Pauline epistles other than Ephesians,6 and 6 times in Ephesians. In the synoptic Gospels, the mystērion, hidden to the outsiders in parables, could be explained to the disciples (Mark 4:11; see also Matt. 13:11; Luke 8:10). In Revelation, it refers to cryptic symbols that required explanation7 and to God’s eschatological plan of redemption (10:7),8 which will finally be disclosed at the seventh trumpet. In the Pauline epistles, apart from Ephesians, the 14 occurrences of mystērion show that it is something that was unknown but that God reveals to some people, who must preach it to others.9
Thus, in both the Old and New Testaments, mystērion is not something unexplainable. In addition, those to whom God reveals it should, then, proclaim it.
With this background, how does Paul use mystērion in Ephesians? Vertical mystery in Ephesians 1:9, 10 The first occurrence of mystērion in Ephesians is found in chapter 1:9, 10, “Having made known unto us the mystery [mystērion] of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one [ἀνακεφαλαιόω] all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.”10 Verse 10 defines the mystērion mentioned in verse 9.11 The Greek verb ἀνακεφαλαιόω (anakephalaioō), translated as “gather together in one,” is used only two times in the New Testament, here and in Romans 13:9. In Romans 13:9, Paul lists five of the Ten Commandments as a sample and declares that the commandments are summed up (anakephalaioō) in one. In Christ, heaven and earth are summed up in one.
Some scholars hold that “things in heaven” are the Jews as people of God and “things on earth” the Gentiles,12 and so they interpret mystērion in Ephesians 1:9, 10 as they interpret it in chapter 3. Others see in the summing up of things in heaven and on earth in 1:9, 10 as the unifying of the cosmos in Christ 13 or the rule of a cosmic Christ.14
However, though the unifying of the cosmos in a cosmic Christ is implied in 1:9, 10, the mention of heaven and earth suggests that unity of these two entities is explicitly in view. Other passages support this view. For example, 2:6 declares that “[God] hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Here the earthly family of God is depicted as already united to the heavenly family in Christ (see also 1:3). Moreover, the vertical movement heaven–earth, and earth–heaven found in “he ascended . . . he descended,” with reference to Christ in 4:8–10, shows that union between heaven and earth is in view. However, it will be consummated at the fulfillment of Revelation 21:3, when God Himself will dwell among humans. Thus, the first mystery is vertical, the restoration of the lost unity between heaven and earth in Christ.
Horizontal mystery in Ephesians 2:11–3:9
Ephesians 3 mentions mystērion three times (vv. 3, 4, 9), and it is defined in verse 6 that “the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel.” In contrast to the vertical mystery of uniting heaven and earth in chapter 1:9, 10, the mystery in chapter 3 concerns the unity between Jews and Gentiles in Christ. Chapter 2 already introduced unity between Jews and Gentiles culminating in the statement that “he [Christ] is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (v. 14).
Though the “wall of partition” mentioned above is interpreted as the law,15 it also alludes to the wall that separated the court of Gentiles from the rest of the temple.16 An inscription was written that any Gentile who would cross the red line has to die.17 The whole world was divided in two blocks: Jews (people of God) and Gentiles (all the rest of nations). The content of the second mystērion is the union between the two blocks (which encompasses the whole world) into “one new man” (2:15), which is the church.18
One-flesh great mystery in Ephesians 5:30–32
While the first mystērion is the unity between heaven and earth in Christ (1:9, 10), and the second one the unity between Jews and Gentiles in Christ (2:11–3:9), the third one is the unity inside the community of believers (5:30–32). In fact, after exhorting wives to submit to their husbands and the husbands to love their wives (5:22–27), 5:28–32 continues: “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great [mega] mystery [mystērion]: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”
Throughout Ephesians, Christ is presented as Head of the church, and the church as body of Christ (1:22, 23; 4:12, 16; 5:23, 30). Believers are “members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (5:30). In 1 Corinthians 12:12–31, Paul uses the way the members of the human body work together as a model of unity that should characterize the members of Christ’s body (believers). The church as the body of Christ is one with Christ19 and shares the same dignity and status with Christ,20 since it is impossible to separate the head from the body.21 This is why the church is depicted as having been raised with Christ and sat down in Christ in heaven (Eph. 2:6).
It has been affirmed that the phrase the “two shall be one flesh” (5:31) applies to both husband and wife and Christ and the church.22 However, verse 32 specifies that this is a mystērion that is “great” (mega) and that it refers to Christ and the church. Just as the Word became flesh and tabernacled among humanity (John 1:14), Christ fused with the church and the two have become one flesh. In this mystery, Christ no longer acts as an intermediary through which two entities (heaven and earth, Jews and Gentiles) are united in Him, but rather He becomes one of the two united entities (Christ and church).
Mystery of the gospel in Ephesians 6:19
The last occurrence of mystērion appears in 6:19, where Paul asks the Ephesians to pray for him that words may be given to him to proclaim the “mystery of the gospel” for which he is an ambassador in chains (v. 20). The Greek genitive τοῦ εὐαγγελίου (of the gospel) in the phrase “mystery of the gospel” is considered by some as a genitive of production or product, which means that the mystery is not the gospel itself but rather the mystery stems from or is produced by the gospel.23
However, it has been correctly observed that “of the gospel” is an appositional genitive, which means that the mystery is the gospel itself.24 In fact, the phrase “mystery of the gospel” is clarified in verse 20. In verse 20, Paul specifies that he is an ambassador on account of the “mystery of the gospel” mentioned in verse 19. Because Paul is an ambassador, not of something produced by the gospel, but of the gospel itself, the mystery of the gospel for which he is ambassador is the gospel itself. Thus, mystērion in 6:19 is not a new one, but rather a restatement of the other mysteries that constitute altogether the gospel that Paul was preaching.
It is striking to notice that the parallel verse to Ephesians 6:19, 20a—“that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds”— found in Colossians 4:3—“that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds”—reads “mystery of Christ” rather than “mystery of the gospel.” This implies that the gospel is Christ Himself. Therefore, the mystērion in Ephesians 6:19, which is the gospel that Paul preached, is actually Christ (see Col. 1:26, 27; 2:2; 4:3).
In Ephesians, mystērion is the restoration of the vertical union between heaven and earth in Christ, and the horizontal union between Jews and Gentiles in one body in Christ. Nevertheless, mystērion is fully expressed when the aforementioned body and Christ become one flesh; thus the body becomes the body of Christ. Mystērion is displayed in a progressive movement that begins broadly with the union heaven-earth, passes through the union Jews-Gentiles, and culminates in the union Christ-church, the great mystērion. The disclosure of mystērion constitutes the gospel. Colossians equates mystērion with Christ Himself.
1 There is a possibility of having 28 occurrences rather than 27. However, mystērion in 1 Corinthians 2:1 presents a textual problem. Some manuscripts have mystērion, where others read martyrion (testimony).
2 Marvin W. Meyer, “Mystery Religions,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, vol. 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 941.
3 Ibid., 942.
4 Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The
Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, rev. by Walter Baumgartner and Johann Jakob Stamm (2000), s.v. “rāz.”
5 G. W. Barker, “Mystery,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986), 452.
6 Assuming that Paul is the author of 1 Timothy, the two occurrences of mystērion in 1 Timothy 3:9, 16 are included in the 14 occurrences. This paper assumes also that Paul is the author of Ephesians.
7 In Revelation 1:20, Jesus explains to John that the mystērion of the seven stars and the seven golden candlesticks are the angels of the seven churches and the seven churches. In Revelation 17:5, 7, the mystērion is the name “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth” and the woman seated on the seven-headed beast, which the angel explains to John.
8 David E. Aune, Revelation 6–16, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 52B (Dallas, TX: Word, 2002), 569.
9 James Montgomery Boice, Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), 1369.
10 All the scriptural references are taken from the King James Version.
11 Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 42 (Dallas, TX: Word, 2002), 30.
12 Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary: Ephesians (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1999).
13 Lincoln, Ephesians, 33.
14 Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3 (London: Yale University Press, 2008), 91.
15 Charles J. Ellicott, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians: Critical and Grammatical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2008), 47.
16 John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 77.
18 Sang-Won Son, “The Church as ‘One New Man’: Ecclesiology and Anthropology in Ephesians,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 52 (2009): 19.
19 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 590.
20 Teresa Okure, “ ‘In Him All Things Hold Together’: A Missiological Reading of Colossians 1:15–20,” International Review of Mission 91 (2002): 69.
21 David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1, 1 to 23 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 443.
22 There are three views about the interpretation of mystērion in Ephesians 5:32: sacramental, typological, and analogical. The sacramental view connects mystērion to human marriage and considers human marriage as a sacrament. The second emphasizes that human marriage is a type of the union between Christ and the church. The third holds that there is only an analogy between human marriage and the union between Christ and the church. See Andreas J. Köstenberger, “The Mystery of Christ and the Church: Head and Body, ‘One Flesh,’ ” Trinity Journal 12 (1991): 82.
23 Thomas L. Stegall, The Gospel of the Christ: A Biblical Response to the Crossless Gospel Regarding the Contents of Saving Faith (Milwaukee, WI: Grace Gospel Press, 2009), 469.
24 W. Hall Harris III, “The Ascent and Descent of Christ in Ephesians 4:9–10,” Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (1994): 204.