‘Mystery’—Its Definition, Use, and Significance in Daniel and the Rest of the Bible

alphabet close up communication conceptual

. . . but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days.
— Daniel 2:28 —

. . . the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ,
in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
— Colossians 2:2–3 —

In Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery, G. K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd show how “mystery,” as a word and concept play an important role in Daniel 2 and 4 and the rest of the Bible. Indeed, for anyone familiar with the word “mystery” (mysterion) in the New Testament, it is vital to see how this word comes from the context of Daniel. Conversely, for those puzzled by Daniel’s presentation of the last days, they need to see how the New Testament interprets Daniel and applies of Daniel’s mystery to Christ and his Church, as in Colossians 2:2–3.

In what follows, I will offer a definition of mystery, a sampling of its usage, and a summary of its implications. Beale and Gladd offer a comprehensive study of this topic, one that I would highly recommend. Many of my observations rely on this subject rely on their work. But, hopefully, all can see that it is the text of Scripture that is definitive for understanding mystery in Scripture.

The Definition of Mystery in Daniel

In Daniel 2 we find God giving Nebuchadnezzar a dream about the “latter days” (v. 28), i.e., “what would be after this” (v. 29). Here, “latter days” does not necessarily speak of the end of the world, but instead some future turning point in history, namely the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth which will displace all other kingdoms (see Paul House, Daniel, 69). To the Jews in the days of Daniel, this may have appeared as the “end of the world,” but in the fullness of time, we now understand how Christ’s kingdom came and is coming with two advents.

In Daniel, we find two competing kingdoms (or actually five — four fleeting kingdoms, than one final kingdom) that stand between the days of Nebuchadnezzar and the arrival of Christ in his first advent. In this context, the relationship between Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Daniel’s interpretation serves as a pattern for the way God reveals himself throughout the Bible and history. And this is where the word “mystery” comes in.

In Daniel 2:18–19 we find Daniel describing Nebuchadnezzar’s dream as a “mystery.” Then in the next verse, God reveals the mystery to Daniel. As we come to find out in the rest of the chapter, this revelation includes an interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Importantly, as Beale and Gladd make plain, this interpretation does not deny Nebuchadnezzar’s partial understanding of his vision. It is likely, he does not “publish” his dream’s contents, because he has a sense that his dream is about him and (the downfall of) his kingdom. As they put it,

It appears that Nebuchadnezzar has some insight into the symbolic meaning of his dream before Daniel discloses the dream’s interpretation. This observation affects our general understanding of mystery at a fundamental level. On this basis, we will argue that mystery is not a radically new revelation but a disclosure of something that was largely (but not entirely) hidden. (35)

This observation, that full revelation of a mystery follows a partially-revealed vision, occurs again in Daniel 4, where the word mystery shows up again in v. 9. Commenting on these two chapters, Beale and Gladd write,

Though our study affirms the general maxim that mystery constitutes a revelation that was previously hidden but now has been revealed, we refine this definition by adding that the initial, symbolic revelation was not entirely hidden, though most of it was unknown. The idea of “partial hiddenness—fuller revelation’ is apparent in Daniel 2 and Daniel 4, the only places in Daniel where the word mystery actually occurs. Thus subsequent revelation discloses the fuller meaning of end-time events. (41)

Beale and Gladd show how this pattern occurs also in Daniel 9 and suggest that it may occur in Daniel 5, 7–8, and 10–12, though space does not permit their full investigation. What their work does show is that mystery demonstrates a “threefold pattern”:

(1) little understanding of a prophetic vision (possibly by Nebuchadnezzar in Dan 2, and by Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel in Dan 4),
(2) followed by an interpretation that reveals greater understanding of the prophecy, which
(3) is then followed by fulfillment of the prophecy, bringing with it an even greater understanding than before. (41)

From this inductive study of Daniel, “mystery” relates to a regular and predictable pattern, one that helps us read the unfolding revelation of God’s Word: First, there is a prophetic vision; second, there is a fuller revelation; third, there is the fulfillment of the prophetic vision and interpretation.

In the New Testament, when we find this word (mysterion) used twenty-eight times (28), we come to realize that “mystery” possesses a technical meaning, which is to say that when New Testament authors employ the word, they are using it in a particular way that harkens back to Daniel. As a result, we cannot define “mystery” with Dictionary.com. We must look at how Scripture itself and learn how it uses this word.

In fact, as we will see, Daniel’s use of mystery does more than just provide a way of reading Scripture. Daniel’s use of mystery also finds significant expansion in the New Testament. With a range of uses, mystery in the New Testament will be used to speak of Christ, his cross, his resurrection, the church, and the union of Jew and Gentile—all of which are related to God’s kingdom. In short, the mysteries partially revealed in Daniel have a royal fulfillment in Christ and his Church, and we need to see where and how the New Testament authors make use of this word.

The Use of Mystery in the New Testament

From the perspective of Daniel, every vision of the “latter days” is eschatological, meaning everything Daniel sees points to the future arrival of God’s kingdom. From our perspective, everything is eschatological too. Only today, after the coming of Christ, much of the future is present—to borrow language from George Eldon Ladd.

When Christ rose from the dead, he inaugurated the kingdom of God. In truth, the kingdom was unfolding from the time of his birth, through his ministry, to the cross (where he was crowned king of the Jews), to his resurrection and ascension. Today, he sits enthroned in heaven, all authority has been given to him, and he continues to send forth his Word and his Spirit to do battle in the world. In other words, many of the visions in Daniel have already been or are currently being fulfilled in Christ.

More exactly, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated in Christ’s first advent. Certainly, it has not been consummated yet; we are still awaiting the final day of judgment. But since Christ’s resurrection, the last days have begun (cf. Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2). This means that when we read Daniel, the eschatological visions are not just future; they are also past. Christ has fulfilled (and is fulfilling) the kingdom promises of Daniel 2 and 7, and he is bringing into effect the final defeat of his enemies.

This is observed in the way the New Testament sites Daniel, but also in the way the New Testament talks about the mystery revealed in Christ. In other words, when we pay attention to the language of mystery in the New Testament, we discover that what was mostly-hidden and only partially-revealed in Daniel has now found many, wonderful fulfillments in Christ.

In what follows, we will look at all the places where Paul uses the language of mystery. If we had more time, we could also look at Matthew and Revelation, but I will let you do that on your own (or with Beale and Glass). From Paul’s usage, we will be in a good place to see how we should understand the term and the relationship between Daniel and the New Testament.

Three Primary Ways Paul Speaks of Mystery

1. The Gospel of Jesus Christ

The first primary way Paul employs the term mystery is in relationship to the message of the gospel, the message of Christ, and the fulfillment of the promises of God—promises that were once hidden, but now revealed. In Romans 16:25–26, 1 Corinthians 4:1; Ephesians 1:7–10, 3:3; 6:18–20; Colossians 1:26; 4:3–4; and 1 Timothy 3:9, 16 we find various examples of how mystery is used. These uses give us a range of applications, but all find their focus on Christ.

Romans 16:25–26

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 26 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—

1 Corinthians 4:1

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Ephesians 1:7–10

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Ephesians 3:3 

3 . . .  the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.

Ephesians 6:18–20

18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Colossians 1:26

the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

Colossians 4:3–4

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

1 Timothy 3:9 

9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.

1 Timothy 3:16

16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

While there remains a need to see how Paul is using “mystery” in each of these passages, it becomes clear that he sees the mystery of God as coming to full revelation in Christ. The gospel itself is called a mystery, but one that is not mysterious, as the term is used in modern parlance (think: Unsolved Mysteries). Rather, God’s mystery, that all things will be unified in Christ, has now been revealed. Hence the content of our faith (1 Tim. 3:9, 16) is centered on Christ, which leads to the next set of verses using mystery—those that speak of particular aspects of Christ’s person and work.

2. The Person and Work of Christ: Christ, His Cross, His Resurrection, and His Return

In 1 Corinthians 2:6–7; 1 Corinthians 15:50–52, and 2 Thessalonians 2:7–8; we discover, respectively, how the cross, the resurrection, and the final defeat of evil are established in Christ. In each instance, the word “mystery” is used (although the word mysterion is translated “hidden” in 1 Cor. 2:7) to speak of a particular aspect of Christ’s work. Then in Colossians 2:2–3 we see that all wisdom is found in Christ too, a wisdom that is demonstrated in his death and resurrection.

1 Corinthians 2:6–7

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

1 Corinthians 15:50–52 

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

2 Thessalonians 2:7–8

For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming.

Colossians 2:2–3

. . . that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

If we take these “mysteries” in order, we see how the cross of Christ is the mysterious wisdom of God that unexpectedly defeated the powers and principalities. The mystery of Christ’s resurrection is that what was expected to happen all at once has now spanned the ages—Christ has been raised from the dead, as the first fruits, and when he returns all those in Christ will be raised with him. Likewise, Christ’s return will conclude the defeat of evil. The mystery now revealed is that the man of lawlessness continues to wage war against the Church. This enemy opposition will not last forever, but for now, Christ’s kingdom and Satan’s kingdom continue to wage war.

This contest between Christ and his enemies furthers the mystery found in the New Testament. Whereas Old Testament prophets anticipated a final and sudden arrival of the kingdom, the reality is that Christ’s kingdom came in two stages. In his cross, he bought his people with a price and he freed them from the bondage of sin. In his resurrection, he defeated death and the devil. Yet, the final consummation of his kingdom has not come. This was unseen in the Old Testament and required the unfolding of God’s plan in Christ’s death, resurrection, and promised return.

In this way, we see how the mystery of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ and how it continues to expand in the Church. Today, the people of God are still awaiting the return of the Lord, and until then Christ’s people are called to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and to find all treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Christ (Col. 2:2–3). For truly, Christ is the fulness of God’s wisdom; the cross is the wisdom of God; and the resurrection proves the wisdom of God. In all these ways, the New Testament shows how God has fulfilled all of his promises in Christ and his kingdom and how that kingdom revealed partially in Daniel has come into the world and continues to grow—just like the Nebuchadnezzar’s vision!

3. The Union of Jew and Gentile in Christ’s Church

The last kind of mystery text we should consider relates to the people of the Church, namely the union of Jew and Gentile. In at least three places, Paul identifies the peaceful union of Jews and Gentiles as a mystery—i.e., an unexpected result of God’s end-times work in Christ: Romans 11:25, which comes at the end of three chapters explaining the relationship between Jews and Gentiles (Romans 9–11); Ephesians 3:4–6 and 3:8–10, which comes after Paul explains the union of Jew and Greek as the creation of one new man (see Eph. 2:14–16); and Ephesians 5:32 which speaks of the Church, made of Jews and Gentiles, as the pure and spotless bride of Christ.

Romans 11:25

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Ephesians 3:4–6, 8–10

4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. . . . 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 5:32 

32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

In these passages, we discover that God’s plan, like he told Abraham from the beginning (see Gen. 12:1–3; 22:18; Gal. 3:8), was to unify all the redeemed in Christ. To Jews who lived according to the Law, this made little sense. For in the Law, God separated Israel from the nations; he put a dividing wall between Jew and non-Jew. However, God’s legal division was always intended to be broken down by Christ.

As Paul says in Galatians 3:16, Christ was the one seed of Abraham who was crucified in the place of Jew and Gentiles alike (3:13–14), so that the sons of Abraham could come from every nation. In Christ, there is no Jew or Greek (Gal. 3:28), no “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian” (Col. 3:11). Why? Because Christ has unified believing Jews and believing Gentiles in one gospel, with one Father, one Lord, one baptism, and one Spirit. This, Paul calls, a mystery!

To the law-abiding Jews, God’s wise designs could not be seen clearly from the perspective of the old covenant alone. That is why the inclusion of the Gentiles was a mystery. But in Christ, the mystery, which was always present but mostly hidden, had now been revealed. Such a revelation in Christ led Paul to even quote Genesis 2:24 and apply it to Christ and the Church—a truth that was not obvious in Genesis, until Christ came.

In other words, God created marriage in Israel and everywhere else as an institution that reflected the reality of Christ and the Church. In the Law, Israel became the covenant partner with Yahweh, but now in Christ, who is Yahweh Incarnate, God has made a new covenant with a bride who is redeemed from Israel and all the nations. This is the glorious mystery that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 3 and explains theologically in Romans 9–11. It was truly present in the Old Testament, but as a mystery, it was not readily apparent.

The Significance of Daniel’s Mystery

In the end, the significance of Daniel’s use of mystery has impact for Daniel and the whole Bible. For starters, the fact that mystery is a term that the New Testament uses regularly to speak of the gospel—its message and its effects—tells us that Daniel is a book that leads us to Christ, not just a list of events at the end of time. (For a kids book that gets this right, see Jesus and the Lions’ Den).

As many have observed, the last days are not some future time period that has not begun. Rather, the arrival of Christ, and specifically his resurrection and ascension, have inaugurated the last days—that period of time when the kingdom of God is building and growing on the earth. To be comprehensive, we should remember that the term “latter days” or “last days” goes back to Genesis 49:1 and God’s promise that his kingdom would be given to a son of Judah. Moreover, Moses and the Prophets (especially Jeremiah) spoke about the last days.

Thus, when Daniel spoke of the mystery of the last days, he was not introducing a new vision. Rather, he was building on promises that go back to very beginning. What Daniel adds to this promise of a kingdom is a vision of Christ’s kingdom coming in the days of Rome and growing until it fills the earth. In this way, Daniel points us to Christ and the kingdom that has come and is yet coming. The significance of the term “mystery,” in Daniel, therefore, when read with the New Testament, is the fact that the apostles identify this mystery as being fulfilled in Christ. For this reason, “mystery” serves as a key to understand who Christ is, what he is doing, and how God has been working in the world to establish his kingdom.

Even more though, if we rightly understand how Daniel’s mystery is used in the New Testament, it will also help us understand how the Bible fits together and how to interpret Daniel and the rest of the Scriptures. In fact, this is the culminating point in Hidden But Now Revealed, namely, that the way the word mystery is used in both testaments gives us a pattern for understanding how the apostles interpreted the Old Testament and how we should do the same.

All in all, tracing the idea of mystery through Scripture gives us an inspired model for understanding how God revealed himself over time and how he prepared the way for Christ, in whom all his promises are now fulfilled and being fulfilled. With this Christ-centered approach to the Scriptures we are protected from vain speculations about current and future events. Better, we are driven to see more of our Lord and Savior from all parts of the Bible. This must always be our aim, and when we take time to learn how “mystery” and mysteries are employed in Scripture, it leads us back to One who in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son and is fulfilling all that he promised to him.

To that end, let us continue to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, until faith becomes sight.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds