“Mystery” in the New Testament

The Hebrew professor spoke the phrase “eved elohim” to the class, explaining that it means “servant of God”. One of his students, a rather passionate and impulsive young man, abruptly stood up from his seat, turned his back to the rest of the class, whipped off his shirt, and shouted, “That’s what I’ve got on my back!” Sure enough, there it was, in black and teal Hebrew lettering, tattooed onto his skin.

Have you seen any tattoos inked in a different language? Chinese is popular, as its characters are intrinsically artistic.  I’ve also seen tattoos in Greek and like the one above, in Hebrew. My wife, who has no tattoos, has recently mused that perhaps Gaelic would be a nice language for a tattoo. A language other than one’s own adds a sense of mystery to a tattoo. “What does that say?” “What language is that?” “What does it mean?” Ironically, rather than keeping a secret, foreign language tattoos invite curiosity. I remembered hearing in another of my seminary classes that the biblical concept of mystery was similar, in that it is not something that is intended to hide, but something that is to be revealed.

For years, the unofficial gatekeeper at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago was Dr. Klyne Snodgrass. Actually, it was his class, entitled “Interpreting the New Testament I”, that separated the wheat from the chaff among first-year students. Dr. Snodgrass is a gentle, hospitable Tennessean who, along with his wife Phyllis, invites students into his home each semester for a time of food and fellowship. But when it comes to the Scriptures, students in his classes are expected to fully engage and interact with the assigned material – no excuses. I found it amazing that not only could Klyne quote, complete with chapter and verse, just about any passage in the Bible, but he could also tell you, off the top of his head, what various interpreters and commentators had to say about that passage.

So when it came to discovering what the New Testament has to say about “mystery”, I sought out Dr. Snodgrass. He concurred with me that the term is usually connected to God’s revelation, not some sort of desire God has to keep things hidden from God’s creatures. He also pointed me in the direction of two books: one dense and erudite, the other thin and–well, I have to admit I don’t remember the other adjective. I also promptly forgot the title and author of the thicker volume. But I did jot down the second one, and began a search for Raymond Brown’s The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament. Amazon.com had it, but so did the Creighton University Library. I asked my wife, who works at Creighton, to pick it up for me. Apparently the last time this popular book had been checked out was in May, 1985! I believe Brown’s little book gives us some interesting conversation pieces to share when talking to someone who has a mysterious tattoo – one that incites curiosity and invites questions.

In the first section of the book, Brown deals with several words from the Old Testament and other Semitic texts that can be translated “mystery”. One of these words, he explains, “Besides referring to an assembly in heaven (or on earth), conveys the notion of intimate friendship” (5). Later, when discussing Jesus’ parables, Brown notes that

“…even to outsiders the mystery is at least given; and the parables which cloak it are not meaningless narration. The parable gives some knowledge of the kingdom of God without completely unveiling it. The complete unveiling will come not so much by way of added revelation, as of added perception gained through faith, so that hearers may comprehend what they have already heard” (36).

Jesus reveals the mysteries, contained in many of his parables, directly to his disciples when they gather in more secluded, more intimate places. One might say that God desires an intimate relationship in which to reveal God’s mysteries to us. Mystery is linked with intimacy. Perhaps then in a similar manner, asking another about the mystery contained in their tattoo can lead to some surprisingly intimate revelations about the meaning in their ink and their life.

It is not surprising that most of Brown’s book deals with the Apostle Paul’s use of the word “mystery”. Paul’s letters to the various churches contain most of its appearances in the New Testament. Brown suggests that “…Paul’s favorite use of mysterion [is] the divine economy of redemption” (50), and “…for Paul, Christ’s life and role in the salvation of man [sic] are the revelation of God’s mysterious plan hidden from ages past” (51). For Paul, “the gospel announces the mystery, which is salvation for all in Christ” (64).

When we put these two concepts together, one might say that God desires an intimate relationship with us in which he can reveal to us the way of salvation, which is Jesus Christ. Following Christ, submitting to Jesus’ lordship and committing to his kingdom are the way of salvation. Because God’s kingdom of justice, reconciliation, beauty, and wholeness is not readily seen in our world, it remains for some a mystery yet to be revealed. The task of the believer, then, is to develop intimate relationships in which we can be witnesses of the mystery being unveiled: “Yes, I can see signs of God’s kingdom–and you can too.”

I’ve discovered that simply saying “I like your ink – is there a story?” can lead to deep, surprisingly intimate conversations with people you may not even know before you asked the question. If their tattoo contains some sort of mysterious element, ask if they are willing to share that with you. Another simple phrase here: “That looks cool. Can you tell me what it means?” Let your curiosity lead you, and see what God, through the Holy Spirit, reveals to you and your new friend.


All citations from Brown, Raymond E. The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1968.

NOTE: I’ve added a new book (published in 2014) to my Kindle, called Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery. It’s written by G. K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd. I’ll let you know about it soon.

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