What does Paul mean when he uses the term ‘mystery’ in verses 26 and 27. This is not the only time he uses the word in Colossians (see 2:2; 4:3) and he also uses it in others of his letters. For example, he mentions the mystery of godliness when summarising the person of Christ (1 Tim. 3:16), the mystery of Israel’s blindness and future restoration (Rom. 11:25), and the mystery of the resurrection day (1 Cor. 15:51).
We tend to use the word ‘mystery’ when speaking about something inscrutable and secret. Paul uses it to describe an aspect of the Christian faith that was previously hidden by God but which he has now revealed to his people through his supernatural guidance of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). This guidance included new insights into Old Testament passages and new information as the New Testament books were added to God’s Word.
As we think of the unfolding of God’s purpose, it is obvious that its details were revealed gradually (Moses received more than Abraham, David received additions to Moses, Christians have been given more than Old Testament believers). Of course, we should remember that in the future, after Jesus returns, many other secret features of God’s purpose will be revealed gradually throughout eternity.
Further, its details were revealed graciously. By this, I mean that God shared his secrets with the most surprising people. Abraham was an idolater, Moses was a failure in rescuing his people, David was on the run for many years from Saul, the apostles of Jesus were unimportant socially, and Paul was malicious against the gospel. What but grace would have done it in such a way!
Also, its details were revealed as guaranteed. Abraham was guaranteed a seed even although he and his wife were old and childless at the time; Moses was guaranteed deliverance from the power of Egypt even although he had no personal influence or resources at that time; David was opposed by many, yet he was assured that the Messiah would be his descendant; the disciples of Jesus were assured that he would use them to take his gospel to the world.
Paul in writing to the Romans (15:25-27) includes a reference to God’s revealed secrets concerning the gospel age when he composes a wonderful doxology: ‘Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith – to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.’ We praise him for revealing truths about Jesus and for sharing his riches with us.
The mystery here in Colossians is the presence of the Messiah with his people. Of course, the Old Testament predicted that he would come, but inevitably it did so using Old Testament imageries that listeners would have been able to consider. So they realised that he would be a king who would rescue them and defend them, that he would take care of them. But it was a secret concerning how near he would come to them, how intimate the new relationship would be. After all, how could a ruler be simultaneously with all of his subjects? The answer is in the revealed secret, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’
At the same time, this presence will be very extensive (among the Gentiles), in other words, throughout the world. This was even the case in Paul’s day, and it was to continue spreading. Further, this presence will be very exceptional (note that Paul draws attention to ‘how great’ it will be). Of course, it has extended down to us, but do we think how exceptional, how great it currently is? According to Peter, the Old Testament prophets wanted to discover the great blessings that were to come to us (1 Pet. 1:10ff.).