One of the favorite doctrines of dispensationalists is that of the mystery. It is often spoken of in reverent tones, and is said to be God’s special revelation to us today. However, I have found it very frustrating that it is almost never explained what exactly the mystery is. Mystery truth is supposed to be important, and the mystery is said to define what we are in Christ today, but no one ever tells what exactly this mystery is. At one point in my studies I personally experienced a great deal of frustration in trying to determine what exactly this mystery is. Yet the truths of Scripture are there for those who are willing to study, and so I want to share what I have found to be true in my studies of the Word, and thus attempt to “solve the mystery” in this message.

If we are ever to learn what THE great mystery of Scripture is, it is necessary to establish what exactly A mystery is in the first place. We know in English that a mystery is some unknown thing that happened in the past which curious men of the present are attempting to figure out. Often unsolved crimes are spoken of as a mystery, and police or private detectives are called in to try to solve them. But the fact is that this is not what the word meant in ancient Greek. The word for mystery in Greek is musterion. Since this word was so close to the English word “mystery,” the translators of the English Bible merely transliterated the word into English as “mystery.”  Since “u” and “y” are the same letter in Greek, and “-ion” is just a word ending, you can easily see how “mystery” is derived from musterion. But this transliteration did nothing to translate the meaning of the word.

The fact is that the Greek word musterion means “secret.” This is its meaning, and this is how it should be translated and understood by Bible students whenever they come upon this word in their studies. Moreover, it becomes obvious to anyone studying the Bible that this word is used by God when He is about to reveal something which had never previously been revealed through any Biblical writing or any spoken word of a prophet.

Some have tried to expand this word “mystery” into a general label for the truths of this dispensation. They call all truth for today by the general label “mystery truth.” Then, when they find the word “mystery” in Paul’s earlier letters, in Romans 11:25, 16:25; I Corinthians 2:7, 4:1, 13:2, 14:2, 15:51; and II Thessalonians 2:7, they declare that this proves that the dispensation of grace had already begun with the call and commissioning of Paul, and that the latter half of the Acts period was a “transition period” into the dispensation of grace. Yet those who make this argument seem to ignore the fact that Christ used the word “mystery” as well, in Matthew 13:11, Mark 4:11, and Luke 8:10. If the mere presence of the word proves that the dispensational change had already taken place, then even Christ’s ministry would have to be included in our current dispensation!

As I said above, the word “secret” is used whenever a revelation from God that had previously been hidden is being set forth. There were such revelations in Christ’s ministry, there were such revelations in Paul’s ministry during the Acts period, there are such revelations in the later letters of Paul, and there are even such revelations in the book of Revelation written about times yet future. The word “mystery” has no special meaning that makes it only apply to the truths of our dispensation today.

We can see an example of how this word “secret” or mystery is used in I Corinthians 15:51-52, where Paul reveals a certain fact about the resurrection.

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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

Since the very fall of man the truth of the coming resurrection had been revealed. However, it had never before been revealed that not all should die. It had always been assumed that “it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) However, the Holy Spirit here reveals that those who are not “sleeping” at the Day of Judgment shall be changed without ever dying! This is a “secret” or mystery…in fact, this might be said to be THE mystery of I Corinthians.

There is also a “mystery” or previously unrevealed secret in the book of Romans. This is revealed in Romans 11:25, where it is stated,

25. For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

This was a secret that had never before been revealed. There was the revelation of Christ to Israel and their subsequent submission to Him…that had been revealed. And there was the total blindness of Israel as quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10.

9. And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10. Make the heart of this people dull, And their ears heavy, And shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And return and be healed.”

This prophecy of Israel’s blindness is repeated over and over in the New Testament, and is quoted from the Old Testament, so it was never any secret that Israel as a whole would be made blind. But that blindness IN PART should come upon Israel…this was a fact never before revealed, until God revealed it through Paul in the book of Romans. So the truth of partial blindness upon Israel was what we might call the mystery of Romans 11.

But now let us turn our attention to the mystery that is revealed in the book of Ephesians, and which many in our day refer to as “THE mystery.” And indeed it deserves to be called that, for it is in many ways the key to unlock the mystery of God’s dealings in our day, and in fact is the very reason that we as non-Jews can freely come to God for salvation.

Let us look at Ephesians 3, the passage where this mystery is set forth.

Ephesians 3:1. For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles—

Here we have the writer of this amazing and extremely important sentence revealed as Paul the apostle. Moreover, he reminds them that he was in reality not a prisoner of Rome, but a prisoner of Jesus Christ. This tells us that Christ Himself wanted Paul to be where he was at that time, and that it wasn’t the Romans who were really responsible for his incarceration at all!

This incarceration is actually on behalf of “you Gentiles.” This word should not be translated as “Gentiles,” but rather as “nations.” It was for the sake of us of the nations, whatever nation we might be from, that Paul was imprisoned. In Ephesians 1:1, Paul had dedicated this book “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus.” Yet there is good evidence that the words “in Ephesus” do not belong in the text. This book was originally dedicated to the “saints being and believing in Christ Jesus.” This book was to all who are in Christ, and all who are actively believing in Him. It was for the sake of all these, no matter what nation they might be from, that Paul was now a prisoner of Christ Jesus.

The word translated “cause” here is actually the word charin in Greek, and is the accusative form of the word charis, which means grace. It is on behalf of this grace that Paul is setting forth the truths that he is about to reveal to us in the following verses. Grace is God’s motivation in all the things that we are about to learn and consider. It is on behalf of His grace that He is setting forth to us all that He is doing in this world today. And Paul indeed is going to share things with us of extraordinary importance in the next few verses.

Ephesians 3:2. if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you,

Paul asks if they have already heard of one new truth recently revealed, that is, that God’s new dispensation is one of grace. There is some doubt expressed here in the words “if indeed,” yet the Greek here is difficult to express. The bottom line is that these things are true whether or not they have heard of them. But there was a question. Had they heard, or hadn’t they? This question is still a good one to ask, for many around us still have not heard about this dispensation, or if they have heard, they certainly do not understand it. Let us examine this phrase and its meaning very carefully, for God clearly wants us to hear about this very important truth.

“Dispensation” is a translation of oikonomia, a Greek word combining “house” (oikos) and “law” (nomos.) It means the way that God rules, orders, arranges, or deals with His people.  In other words, Paul wants those who are reading this letter to learn that God has now determined to rule His people entirely based on the principle of His grace, exclusive of any judgment whatsoever!  What a staggering prospect.

So we might define the dispensation of the grace of God as being God’s policy of grace. Grace is God’s love and favor shown to men regardless of whether or not they deserve it. There are many questions that people ask about God that we can answer by understanding that God’s dispensation and His policy towards the earth today is grace. People are constantly wondering about God’s seeming indifference towards all the problems and deficiencies of this world. What will God do about wicked men, one might ask? And we could answer, His policy is grace. He shows these wicked men love and favor, not judgment or justice. We may wish He would judge them, but He does not. What will God do about natural disasters? His policy is grace. He will be working in grace towards those who have to go through these things, but He will not judgmentally determine where these disasters will occur, or keep them from happening if the people involved do not deserve them. And the questions we could ask and answer with this understanding of grace go on. What will God do about the environment? His policy is grace. How will He respond to the threat of nuclear war? His policy is grace. In anything and everything, God’s activities regarding this earth are always and exclusively gracious. He always acts in grace, and when he cannot act in grace, He will not act at all.

God’s policy has not always been gracious. Certainly, grace has always been an important part of His character and nature. Ever since He did not kill Adam and Eve immediately in the garden, He has shown His grace to those who did not deserve it. Yet in spite of the fact that God was very gracious in many dealings of the past, we could also point to many other times where God acted in judgment, in government, and in fairness. God’s grace gives favor to men who do not deserve it, but God’s justice gives men exactly what they deserve. For example, in the flood, God wiped out all life on the earth save what was in the Ark, which was a very governmental act. God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites when He sent them to inherit the land, which was a definite act of government by God upon the Canaanites. When God finally brought destruction upon Jerusalem for all their sins and unfaithfulness to Him, this was an act of judgment, and totally the opposite of grace. Yet God saved Noah and his family in the Ark, which was a very gracious act. He delivered Israel from slavery and brought them to their promised land in spite of all their stubbornness and rebellion, which was also a very gracious act. He allowed a small remnant of Israelites to escape the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, and later brought them back to their land, which was certainly gracious and undeserved. In all these things, God acted toward some in judgment, and toward others in grace.

So in the past, God has worked sometimes in grace, and sometimes in fairness. Yet in the dispensation of grace, God has limited Himself to only acting in grace. This is a staggering truth, yet it is one of the most important truths for us to understand regarding God’s work with us today. God does not treat us in judgment or in fairness. He does not punish us when we sin or reward us when we are faithful. He does not set things in order based on what He determines is good and right in every situation, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. Instead, He acts always and only in grace. This is a great change from what He did in the past, and we need to understand it or His actions today will ever be a mystery to us.

Now, Paul also says that the dispensation of the grace of God was “given to me for you.” What does this mean? Does this mean that the dispensation of grace belongs to Paul, and that it is actually his dispensation, not God’s? Did the dispensation of grace only apply to the time that Paul was alive to dispense it? Some have argued this way, insisting that all Paul is saying was that he was given the task of dispensing grace. Yet notice that the grace he is talking about is the grace of God. Could Paul really dispense God’s grace? Moreover, remember that the word oikonomia means “house-law,” not “dispense.” Consider the use of the word oikonomia in Colossians 1.

Colossians 1:24. I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, 25. of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God,

Though the New King James reads, “the stewardship from God,” in the Greek this is “the dispensation (oikonomia) of God.” Certainly one could not argue that Paul was dispensing God, like one would dispense beverages from a machine. What is meant by “of God” is that this was God’s dispensation. How was this given to Paul, then? It was given to Paul because he received a revelation of how God was going to exercise His authority over the world. Then, having received it, it was his job to set forth this revelation to others, so that they too would understand how God is working in this dispensation of grace, and so that they too could benefit from this knowledge. That is how this was given to Paul “for you.”

Ephesians 3:3. how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already,

Both the dispensation of the grace of God and the mystery were made known to Paul by a revelation. This is the Greek word apokalupsis, and means an “unveiling.” In this case, God unveiled to Paul the plan which He had formerly kept entirely secret. Now, God has made known to him this secret.

Paul says that he had “briefly written already” of this secret. These words have puzzled many, and others have tried to find this brief writing to which Paul is referring. Some believe that they find it in the words of Paul in Romans 16:25-26, while others speculate about a “lost epistle” of Paul that contains this brief record. Yet I believe that these are looking in the wrong place, for Paul is not referring to some other writing of his, but rather to something he has written briefly about in this very letter that we are currently studying. His words here are similar to if I should refer to something earlier in this writing, and should say something like “see above” or “as I said previously.”

I believe Paul is probably talking about his words in Ephesians 1:9, where he wrote of God, “having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself.” This was a brief reference to God’s current work that has to do with the previously unrevealed secret of His will for the current dispensation. We will learn more about what this will is as we follow out this passage.

Ephesians 3:4. by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ),

Paul had knowledge of this mystery directly from God, and now he is going to set it forth so that they can understand that knowledge as well. Paul does not mean he wants them to be impressed by realizing how much he knows. Rather, he is concerned that they gain knowledge. By getting to know this mystery, they will have the power to understand what Paul already knows regarding this mystery. Moreover, we learn from this passage that this is not just any mystery, but the mystery of Christ Himself! This does not mean that the truth about Jesus Christ is the mystery, but rather this is Christ’s secret. He was the One Who kept it secret up until now, and He is the One Who has now revealed it.

Ephesians 3:5. which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets:

Paul here sets forth for us a definition of what a mystery is, and it matches up perfectly with what I set forth above. A mystery is something that was not made known in other ages, but has (just now) been revealed.

The word “ages” here is the Greek word geneais, and would be best translated “generations.” Yet we would be getting the wrong idea if we thought of this as generations of people. The English word “generation” comes from a family of words related to the verb form “to generate.” Many things can be generated, like power, or heat, or excitement. Power is something that is necessary for life as we know it. Heat is necessary to sustain life in colder climates. Those who seek to be salesmen attempt to generate excitement about their products. The things that produce all these can be called “generators” in English, and, technically speaking, that which is produced by them can be called a “generation.” We have specialized this last word to mean people of a certain age living at one time, since these are all a generation that was produced by their parents, who were of a previous generation who lived before them. Yet really anything that is generated can be a generation. This might seem strange to us, and be against our customary use of the word “generation.” I looked at several English dictionaries online, and found that only one of four even mentioned “that which is produced or generated” as a meaning of “generation.” Yet I do not think that if we honestly think about this word, we can deny that this is its basic meaning, and that our use of it has more to do with custom than with the actual underlying meaning inherent in the word.

Now “generation” is an excellent translation of this Greek word, and yet it, too, has its basis in the idea of that which is produced or made. The Biblical word is often used for generations of people, like we use it, and yet it also sometimes goes back to the basic meaning of the word, and is used merely for that which is generated, even if it is not in reference to people at all. Bible expositors have tended to miss this fact, and yet this should not surprise us, for, as I pointed out, many of our English dictionaries miss this definition of “generation” as well.

So what was God speaking of when He spoke of “other generations” here in Ephesians 3:5? Well, for thousands of years, God had generated many revelations of truth. This had resulted in many books of Scripture being written, and had given men much understanding of Who and What God is, and what His plans are for the world and the future. The revelations that God had generated could rightfully be called “generations,” and these are the generations that Paul is referring to here. In other generations of truth, God had not revealed this secret to the sons of men. Yet now, in this revelation (or generation) of truth, the Spirit had revealed this secret to God’s holy apostles and prophets.

Now we learn that Paul was not the only one who had received the revelation of this mystery, but that other “holy apostles and prophets” had received it. Holy means “set apart,” so these apostles were ones specially set apart by God for the revelation of this mystery. Now many will ask who these apostles and prophets were to whom God revealed the mystery? For we understand that we live in a time when “there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.” I Timothy 2:5. As such, God-commissioned apostles and prophets who can speak the words of God to others have no place in this dispensation. So who were the “apostles and prophets” to whom this revelation was made?

There can be no doubt that these “holy apostles and prophets” were men who had been specially chosen by God to reveal this truth. Yet I would suggest that in most cases these were probably the very same men who had been chosen as apostles and prophets among the believers of the Acts period. Those people who believed then would have been taken by surprise by this great, dispensational change. No one was expecting it, for it was a secret hidden in God. Who could tell them of the change whom they would trust to be telling the truth? For in the dispensation of grace, this revelation could not be accompanied by signs and wonders to prove its accuracy. If just any person came up to them and started telling them about this secret that God was now revealing, they could have and would have rightfully asked what gave this person the right to speak for God. So whom would they have been expected to trust to reveal God’s truth, even if that person could not produce signs and wonders to back his words up? Who else but those whom they already knew were the prophets and apostles of God from seeing them perform miracles and signs in the Acts period? Just as Paul was perhaps the greatest revealer of truth in the Acts period, and God chose him to be the greatest revealer of truth for today in the dispensation of grace, so it seems natural that those who were lesser prophets and apostles in the Acts period would be the ones God would choose to give a confirmatory witness to the truth of the mystery that Paul was teaching through this book. Otherwise, if this was a whole new set of apostles and prophets, the people would not have believed them unless they could give a sign of their ministry, and this definitely would not fit with the time in which we live.

Now there was a period between the great proclamation at Acts 28:28 and when Paul put down his pen from writing the last words of II Timothy, and during this period there was a transition going on. We might not want to use the phrase “transition period,” but this was a time when God was revealing the truths for the current time and in a way “sweeping up” and bringing to a close that great work that He had done in the Acts period. He did not just drop all those believers from the Acts period like a hot potato. They deserved some sort of explanation from God as to what had happened, and they got it. This was through their own, local apostles and prophets that had served them in the Acts period. For us today, however, Paul was the one through whom God had these things written down, and it is through him that we as believers today come to know this truth.

Ephesians 3:6. that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel,

This verse at last sets forth what this newly revealed secret is. It is that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel.

We need some clarification as to the Greek words used here. First of all, the word for “Gentiles” is ethnos, which simply means nations. To exclude Israel from these things, as if they applied to all other nations but theirs, is simply not true to what the Spirit is saying here. Secondly, in Greek the words for “fellowheirs,” “same body,” and “partakers” are sugkleronoma, sussoma, and summetocha. As you can see, all these words have a common prefix.  In English, we might translate this prefix by something like “joint” or “equal.” Then we could translate these words as joint-heirs, joint-bodies, and joint-partakers. This must have been a staggering pronouncement for those reading this book for the first time! Now, there was no advantage to the Jews whatsoever. Now, all nations and all peoples everywhere could come to God on a totally equal footing. Imagine what a privilege that was to the Gentiles of the day, who, even if they had wished to follow God, would never have been able to have a place with Him anything like that enjoyed by the nation of Israel. Now this was no longer so, as all nations are now considered equal or “joint” in His sight. But this must have been very staggering to the Jews as well. Now, they no longer had a special place. Now, they must humble themselves and accept the lowliest of Gentile believers as being equal with themselves. No doubt this was more than many of them could handle.

Some have declared that the mystery merely means that Gentiles can be saved today, not just Israelites. Others suggest that the mystery means that all nations, not just Israel, can now receive blessings from God. Yet neither of these things was a mystery. From ancient times God had given His promise that all nations of the earth would be blessed. God promised Abraham in Genesis 22:18, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” God’s plan has always included blessings for all nations. What was new in this was not that other nations besides Israel would be blessed. What was new is that always in the Old Testament, the blessings that the nations would receive were pictured as flowing to them through Israel. Israel was to be the mediatory nation to bring blessings to the rest of the world. Never was it revealed that all nations would be blessed equally and jointly alongside of Israel. Yet according to this newly revealed secret, the nations now were not to be subservient to Israel, but to be blessed right alongside them. This was a new truth that had never before been revealed. This was the truth of the secret that was being revealed here.

This truth was something new when Paul was writing Ephesians. This had not been true during the time period of which the book of Acts is the history. We can clearly see this in Romans 11:11-24, where the Gentiles are set forth as a wild olive branch grafted into the good olive tree of Israel. The entire passage should be read in this context, but verse 18 is a good summary of its teaching on the position of the Gentiles at that time.

18. Do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.

The Gentiles who were grafted into Israel were supported by Israel. They were in no way joint or equal with them. The truth of Ephesians 3:6 was not true then. In fact, Romans 11:18 and Ephesians 3:6 are mutually exclusive. One cannot be true as long as the other is true. The Gentiles can either be dependent branches grafted into Israel, or they can be equal and joint with Israel. They cannot be both at the same time. Therefore, we can see that in this regard the dispensational change at Acts 28:28 is critical to our understanding of these two passages. Romans 11 was true in the Acts period. Ephesians 3 is true now.

But how does this affect us today?  We need to understand that this mystery reveals to us not only the total equality of the rest of the nations and the nation of Israel, but also the totally equality of all believers.  We need to understand that there are no special “clergy,” no “men of the cloth,” no “priests” whom God has set above us.  We must cease having this mentality that churches and full-time ministers are somehow “special,” and that the rest of us are only “laymen.” The fact is that believers, like nations, are all equal in God’s sight. And as such we are all equally responsible before God for our own lives and walks. We cannot depend on our pastors or our churches to live out our walks for us. We all have the responsibility to seek for God, to find Him, to learn all we can of Him, and to grow to love Him. This is a task that all of us must share in striving to accomplish.  And though others may help, only we ourselves can do the work!

So the mystery is not really so hard.  It is not something “mysterious” or hard to understand. It is, in fact, quite simple, and is the very reason why all we as non-Jews can come freely to God for salvation. What a glorious truth that is! But it also extends to us a solemn responsibility…the responsibility to come to God and build a relationship with Him based on our own equal standing with all others before Him. How hard a task this is, yet how ultimately satisfying! How thankful we can be that God inspired Paul to reveal to us this glorious truth.