The term "mystery" as used positively in the New Testament relates to a cognitive dissonance—that is, to the disconnect between faith and reason. Positively used, it describes the incomprehensible working of divine power, which the early followers of Jesus struggled to understand rationally. At least six issues perplexed them; oddly some of these same issues remain rational problems to the modern Christian mind.
The mystery of the failure of the Jewish mission: Paul was perplexed about the failure of the Jewish mission. Why hadn't the Jewish people as a group embraced the "good news" about Jesus that Paul preached? In Paul's view it had always been God's plan (Rom 9:1-5) to save the world through the sacrifice of Jesus. Why didn't the Jewish people understood the Scripture, their own holy books, which early followers of Jesus believed "testified of Jesus" (John 5:39)? That "a hardening had come upon Israel" until the proper number of Gentile had "come in" was a "mystery" according to Paul (Rom 11:25-29). Paul appealed to the Jewish Scripture showing that this "hardening" had always been part of God's plan (Rom 11:8; Deut 29:3-4; Isa 6:9-10).
The mystery that gentiles are heirs of the promise of Christ: After Paul's day the historical situation changed and a new problem was created by the failure of the Jewish mission. At this later point Judaism and the church were recognized essentially as two different religions. From the later perspective the question became: how is it that Gentiles (of which the church was then mostly comprised) are also heirs of the promise of Christ (Eph 3:3-6)? They had come to recognize that the inclusion of the Gentiles was a promise made to Israel in the new covenant spoken of by Jeremiah (Heb 8:8-13; Jer 31:31-34).
Today the church no longer considers either of these a "mystery." From the perspective of history it is clear that by the middle first century the movement represented by Paul had already turned the corner. Judaism and the early followers of Jesus actually represented two distinct social and religious groups, and Paul was too close to the situation to recognize it.
The mystery of the spirit body: Paul also considered the resurrection of the believer, which involved the transformation of the physical body into a "spirit body," a mystery (1 Cor 15:51-52). How could such a thing as the transformation of a physical body into spirit body occur? How could the perishable become imperishable in "the twinkling of an eye"? He never answers the question "how," but simply calls it a mystery—signaling by this term that it was something he did not understand. His arguments for understanding the resurrection as a spiritual experience (1 Cor 15:35-50) are analogies rather than substantive logical arguments. What he clearly does understand, however, is that the fleshly, physical, and perishable "cannot inherit the kingdom of God," which is innately imperishable and spiritual (1 Cor 15:44, 50). Later Pauline disciples reinterpreted his idea of the spirit body by arguing for the ascent of the spirit or the soul apart from the body (Treatise on the Resurrection 45:14-46:2; 47:30-48:6; 49:9-16) rather than for a "spirit" body. Why should a spirit need "embodiment" anyway?
The resurrection still remains a mystery to the Christian mind. In an age of reason and scientific thinking a resurrection in whatever form is a problem for many. But many modern believers persist in believing in the resurrection of the physical body and simply ignore Paul's view, arguing instead that the resurrection will be physical (i.e., the resuscitation of the natural body), a view that is encouraged in the gospels (Matt 28:9; John 20:17; 21:12-13; Luke 24:30) and 2 Clement (9:5).
Here is a curiosity question: Do you "believe" anything that you would consider a mystery?
(End of the first installment—three more early Christian mysteries to come)
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University