In last week’s blog, I ended with a short look at Jesus’ words to the disciples in Mark 4:11. To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God.” The apostles are allowed to be in on the secret of Jesus’ kingdom.” 

Yet, even though they are in on the secret, the nature of the kingdom as a mystery doesn’t disappear. This is surprising and crucial. If the kingdom were simply a secret in the normal sense, then the apostles, having been given” the secret, would be among the insiders — they would be in the know.” Therefore, though the secret would still be mysterious to others, it would no longer be mysterious to Peter, James, John, Andrew, and the rest of the apostles. The secret would no longer defy their reason.

Yet is this what we find in the Gospels? As Matthew, Mark and Luke present the story, the disciples go through most of their three years with Jesus utterly confused and befuddled by the mystery they should by now supposedly understand. 

True, part of their problem is no doubt that their conventional Jewish expectations about the kingdom continue to lead them astray. But note that even as the story continues, even after the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, even after the apostles have begun to preach Christ with all authority and boldness, the mystery remains a mystery, even to them. Paul, who explicitly insists that to him the mystery was made known … by revelation” (Eph. 3:3) and whose whole commission is precisely to make known the mystery that has been kept hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed” (Col. 1:26) – even this apostle is happy to confess, O, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:3).

For Paul, the plan of God is not a puzzle to be solved once it is communicated. Instead it is communicated by God, revealed by God, precisely as a mystery. God’s plan never ceases to have this mysterious character. 

In the New Testament, God reveals lots of mysteries: the hardening of Israel is a mystery (Rom. 11:25); the final resurrection of the dead is a mystery (1 Cor. 15:51); the summing up of all things in Christ is a mystery (Eph. 1:9); the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church is a mystery (Eph. 5:32); Christ in you, the hope of glory” is a mystery (Col. 1:27); Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” is God’s mystery” (Col. 2:2 – 3). 

In every one of these passages, mystery is linked decisively with its revelation, with God making the mystery known, and yet the mystery does not cease to be mysterious as a result. Note carefully. The mystery is in some sense established, not eliminated or solved, by its revelation. What would be a good name for such a mystery? How about revelational mystery? A revelational mystery is one that remains a mystery even after it has been revealed. It is precisely in its revelation that its distinctive character as mystery is displayed. 

The fascination of many of the New Testament mysteries lies in their peculiar character even after they have been revealed. This unusual character explains why the response appropriate to revelational mysteries is so distinctive. A revelational mystery excites wonder, awe, amazement, astonishment. Think again about the mysteries that pertain to the gospel. We understand the good news, and yet it continues to overwhelm us by its elaborate intricacy, its unanticipated beauty, its stunningly benevolent glory. This is the way a revelational mystery works: we know, and yet the mystery remains.

Catch up with all of Chris’s blog posts at Conversations with Chris.

This series has been adapted from Steven D. Boyer and Chris Hall’s The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. Hungry for more? Please visit Baker Academic for more information.