A Commentary by John Stott
Three times in this short paragraph Paul uses the word ‘mystery’: *how the mystery was made known to me by revelation (verse 3)…you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ (verse 4)…to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery* (verse9). It is a key word for our understanding of the apostle Paul. We need to realize that the English and Greek words do not have the same meaning. In English a ‘mystery’ is something dark, obscure, secret, puzzling. What is ‘mysterious’ is inexplicable, even incomprehensible. The Greek word *mysterion* is different, however. Although still a ‘secret’, it is no longer closely guarded but open. Originally, the Greek word referred to a truth into which someone had been initiated. Indeed it came to be used of the secret teachings of the heathen mystery religions, teachings which were restricted to initiates. But in Christianity there is no esoteric ‘mysteries’ reserved for a spiritual elite. On the contrary, the Christian ‘mysteries’ are truths which, although beyond human discovery, have been revealed by God and so now belong openly to the whole church. More simply, *mysterion* is a truth hitherto hidden from human knowledge or understanding but now disclosed by the revelation of God.
If that is the general meaning of ‘mystery’ in the New Testament, what is the particular open secret or revealed truth, which was *not made known to the sons of men in other generations* but *has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit* (Verse 5) and uniquely, Paul adds, *made know to me by revelation* (verse 3)? He calls it in verse 4, as in Colossians 4:3, *the mystery of Christ*. So evidently it is a specially revealed truth ‘of which Christ is both the source and the substance’. Its exact nature Paul spells out with force and clarity in verse 6. It is *how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.* Thus the mystery concerns Christ and his one Jewish-Gentile people. In order to define it more precisely, Paul assembles (and in one case invents) three parallel, composite expressions. Each has the same prefix *syn*, ‘together with’, and indicates what Gentile believers now have and are in partnership with Jewish believers. What is this? Gentiles are ‘co-heirs’ (*synkleronoma*), ‘concorporate’ (*syssoma*) and ‘co-sharers’ (*symmetocha*) of the promise. But these three unusual Greek words need to be spelled out a little. What Paul is declaring is that Gentile and Jewish Christians together are now fellow heirs of the same blessing, fellow-members of the same body and fellow-partakers of the same promise. And this shared privilege is both *in Jesus Christ* (because it is enjoyed equally by all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, provided that they are in union with Christ) and *through the gospel* (because the gospel proclamation includes this unity and so makes it available to those who believe).
To sum up, we may say that ‘the mystery of Christ’ is the complete union of Jews and Gentiles with each other through the union of both with Christ. It is this double union, with Christ and with each other which was the substance of the ‘mystery’. God had revealed it specially to Paul, as he had written briefly (verse 3) in the previous chapter. But it had also been made known to God’s *holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit* (verse 5), and through them ‘to his saints’ (Col.1:26, An example was the special revelation to the apostle Peter of God’s purpose to include the Gentiles, as recorded in Acts 10 and 11.). It is now therefore the common possession of the universal church.
It was a new revelation. For it was *not made known…in other generations* (verse 5) but was *hidden for ages* (verse 9). These statements have puzzled Bible readers because the Old Testament did reveal that God had a purpose for the Gentiles. It promised, for example, that all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham’s posterity; that the Messiah would receive the nations as his inheritance; that Israel would be given as a light to the nations; and that one day the nations would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and even ‘flow to it’ like a mighty river (Gn.12:1-3; Ps.2:8; Is.42:6; 49:6; 2:2-4). Jesus also spoke of the inclusion of the Gentiles and commissioned his followers to go and make them his disciples. But what neither the Old Testament nor Jesus revealed was the radical nature of God’s plan, which was that the theocracy (the Jewish nation under God’s rule) would be terminated, and replaced by a new international community, the church; that this church would be ‘the body of Christ’, organically united to him; and that Jews and Gentiles would be incorporated into Christ and his church on equal terms without any distinction. It was this complete union of Jews, Gentiles and Christ which was radically new, and which God revealed to Paul, overcoming his entrenched Jewish prejudice (cf. his claim to direct revelation in Gal.1:12).