The expression, mystery, occurs frequently in the Holy Scriptures. In I Tim. 3:16 Paul, writing to Timothy, speaks of the great mystery of godliness, consisting of: “God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” Also in I Cor. 15 the same apostle speaks of “mystery.” There he writes of the great change which shall take place when, at the last trump, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we shall all be changed. And in Ephesians 6:19 Paul speaks of the mystery of the gospel. It is to this last expression that I would call attention in this article. And it is my intention to emphasize not the idea of the gospel but the fact that it is a mystery.
The gospel, we know, is the glad, joyful news concerning God’s promise of our salvation. The word itself means literally “good news.” And in Gal. 3:8 it is identified with the promise. The gospel is “good news” exactly because it concerns this promise of God. Were salvation merely an offer and therefore dependent upon our acceptance of it, the gospel, as the proclamation of such an offer, would hardly be “good news”. We must remember that the sinner is born dead in sins and trespasses, unable to will the things of the Kingdom of God. He is carnally minded and cannot will the things of the Spirit. Now it is, of course, true that repentance must be demanded of the sinner who cannot repent. But, to proclaim unto him that salvation is his if he will accept it, that his blessedness is, as far as God is concerned, merely an offer, means that he will never be saved because he cannot will the things of God and accept the “offered” salvation. And this is hardly good news. However, the gospel, never to be confused with an offer, is the blessed proclamation of God’s promise. And God’s promise is His solemn declaration of what He can and will do. The gospel is “good news” because it speaks of our salvation in Christ Jesus as dependent upon and realized by our faithful covenant God whose word never faileth.
This gospel is a mystery. A mystery, in Scripture, is not a contradiction. It is often presented as such today. The term, mystery, then, is conveniently applied to “truths” which are in irreconcilable conflict with each other, such as the sovereign will of God and the “offer” of salvation or of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. Of course, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility must never be understood as contradicting each other. That man is responsible never means that he is independently free, that he can and does determine his own destiny. But it does mean that he consciously and willfully chooses his own course of action. Only, it must never be separated from God’s sovereignty but included in it and determined by it. This, then, does not involve us in a contradiction but in a truth which is far beyond all human understanding. Neither is a mystery in Scripture specifically something which we cannot understand. Of course, we do not wish to imply that we would eliminate this element from the concept, mystery. Fact is, there is nothing which we really understand. All things, also in creation, are far beyond our human comprehension. And this is particularly true of Scripture. Who will even begin to fathom the divine Trinity? The truth that God is one in being and three in persons, that the three Persons are co-eternal and co-essential surely transcends all human understanding. Or, who can grasp the Incarnation? Fact is, this truth is reflected creaturely in our own life. The human person operates through a body and a soul which are wonderfully adapted to each other. This is beyond our human comprehension. How much greater then is the “mystery” of the Incarnation, God in the flesh! Besides, this same element may also be applied to the gospel. Who would presume to understand the gospel, that work of God which is so strictly divine, which must be revealed to us, which never could arise in the heart of man! Yet, in the light of the Scriptural passages which we have quoted, I think we may safely conclude that a mystery in Scripture is not specifically a matter which is beyond our human understanding, although this consideration must not be excluded. When Paul, speaking in I Cor. 15 of the change which shall take place in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, calls this a mystery, he would not emphasize the idea that this is something we cannot understand. And I believe that this must also be applied to I Tim. 3:16.
A mystery, “eene verborgenheid,” is that which lies beyond the scope of all human thought and life, which could never arise in the heart of man, which essentially lies beyond this world and all human, earthy existence. It is super-worldly, above and beyond this life. It must therefore be revealed unto us shall we ever learn of it. In this sense the apostle, in I Cor. 2:7, speaks of “the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom,” as something which, according to verse 9, “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” In the same sense the Scriptures speak of the mystery of godliness. Godliness is a mystery because it concerns the manifestation of God in the flesh. Also here the truth is emphasized that godliness must come from above and could never have entered into the heart of man to conceive of it. And when Paul speaks of that great change which shall occur at the last trump, he emphasizes the same thought. Hence, a mystery, is truly something which is beyond our human understanding, is essentially that which is other-worldly, lies beyond this present life, above and beyond the scope of our earthy existence. Salvation is a mystery because it is from above and will culminate in that world which surely never could be conceived of in the heart of man.
In this sense we also speak of the mystery of the gospel. The gospel is essentially the proclamation of that work of salvation which is exclusively divine. It speaks of the promise of Jehovah which He alone fulfills. Surely the work of salvation is a work which does not originate within us but from above. And, it leads us into the heavenly life. Firstly, the blessed realization of God’s covenant with us in Christ Jesus could never have entered into the heart of man. We could not even have conceived of it. For man is by nature dead in sin and misery, barred from God’s blessed fellowship. To return into God’s favor is impossible for him, inasmuch as the righteous judgment of God demands a payment for his sin which he cannot bring. Besides, he is filled with darkness, is a hater of God, and therefore does not will to experience God’s favor and bend the knee before the Most High. Because of this salvation cannot enter into the heart of man. Add to this the fact that the gospel speaks of a heavenly salvation which will ultimately be revealed in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. How shall man, who, besides being sinful and therefore not desirous of returning unto God’s fellowship, is of the earth earthy, ever conceive of a glory which is other-worldly, heavenly, not of this earth! Salvation therefore must come from above.
The gospel of our salvation is a mystery, being beyond the scope of all human life and understanding, firstly because it is a matter of God’s own sovereign will. Jehovah, whose ways are unfathomable, past finding out, Who had no counsellor with Him, was not determined by any creature, willed, for His own Name’s sake, to glorify Himself in a heavenly renewal of all things through sin and grace. Hence, the gospel originated in the eternal God Himself. However, also when Jehovah realizes His blessed covenant in time, this fulfilment of His promise lies over and beyond the sphere of this world. The gospel is distinctly otherworldly. This is true of Bethlehem. What we see is a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, as miserable a birth as one could possibly conceive of. What we do not see and cannot see at Bethlehem is the fulfilment of the promise. We cannot see the Incarnation, God Himself assuming our human nature in the Person of the Son. The same is true of Calvary. We see a sufferer, a most extraordinary sufferer, it is true, we hear groans ascending from the bottomless pit. But again the gospel is hid from us. The mystery of the cross, God in Christ reconciling the world with Himself, we cannot possibly see. The human mind could never conclude from the cross that Jehovah was saving His people. And is this not also true of Jesus’ exaltation? We see the empty grave but the resurrection was witnessed by none. Shortly afterwards Christ disappears entirely from our view, is taken up into heaven, receives all power at the right hand of God. From out of heaven He saves us, by His Spirit, calling us out of sin into the blessed reality of God’s covenant communion. And His work of salvation will continue until all the elect, the entire Church, shall have been called out of this earthy into that heavenly state of things which God has willed from before the foundation of the world.
Therefore the gospel is a mystery. It is so otherworldly. It is so exclusively divine. It lies entirely beyond the scope of our human, earthy life. It originates in God, is realized alone by God, will culminate in the heavenly state of glory. Because of this the gospel must be revealed unto us by God. We read in Lord’s Day 6, concerning this holy gospel, that it was first revealed by God in Paradise and lastly fulfilled by His only begotten Son. How necessary that God should reveal it in Paradise! In what other way could we ever learn of a salvation which never arose in our hearts and which is so exclusively divine? And, how necessary that God Himself, in the second Person, should fulfil this gospel, this divine promise of our salvation! Finally, having fulfilled this promise by His only begotten Son, in Bethlehem and upon the cross, how necessary that He Himself should infallibly lead His apostles into this truth which never could have entered into our mind! Bethlehem, Calvary, the resurrection and ascension, so exclusively divine, must be revealed unto us by God Himself. This God did when He Himself imparted unto His apostles the knowledge of this work of salvation. And then, when Jehovah realizes this work of salvation in our hearts, sanctifies His own revelation unto our souls, we bend the knee before Him in all praise and adoration, exclaiming: “For of Thee, and through Thee, and to Thee, are all things: to Thee be glory for ever. Amen.”