“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: 1 Cor 2:1, 7 etc

Having discussed the expression “secret [musth/rion] of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11) in a recent trio of daily notes, I now turn to the use of the word musth/rion (myst¢¡rion) elsewhere in the New Testament. Most of the occurrences (21 of 28) come from the Pauline letters, and most notably in 1 Corinthians where it is found six times. I will briefly examine Paul’s use of the word in these passages.

1 Corinthians 2:1, 7; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51

1 Cor 2:1, 7

The first two occurrences are especially instructive with regard to Paul’s understanding of the nature and character of the Gospel:

“And I, (in) coming toward you, brothers, did not come down (with) a superiority of word or wisdom, (in) bringing down as a message to you the secret [musth/rion] of God” (2:1)
NOTE: Many manuscripts read martu/rion (“witness”) instead of musth/rion (“secret”); the evidence is rather evenly divided, but probability slightly favors the reading musth/rion.

This “secret” is explained, by inference, in the verses which follow; Paul makes several important points:

    • The only knowledge he sought to convey (in his missionary work to the Corinthians) was that of the person of Jesus himself (the Anointed One, i.e. “Jesus Christ”), and, specifically the death of Jesus (on the stake, i.e. crucifixion)—verse 2.
    • His preaching was done with fear and weakness (verse 3)
    • He did not rely on persuasive speech or (human) wisdom, but on the Spirit and power of God (verse 4)
    • This was done so that the Corinthians’ trust in Christ would be based on the power of God, not Paul’s skill as a speaker (verse 5)

What does this tell us about the “secret of God”? This Paul begins to expound in verses 6-8:

“And (yet) we (do) speak wisdom in/among the (one)s (who are) complete—and (it is) a wisdom not of this Age, and not of the chief (ruler)s of this Age (who are now) made inactive—but (rather) we speak (the) wisdom of God in (a) secret [e)n musthr/w|] hidden away from (this Age), which God marked out before the Ages unto our honor/glory, (and) which none of the chief (ruler)s of this Age has known; for, if they knew (it), they would not have put the Lord of honor/glory to the stake!”

Again, a number of key points are made regarding this “secret”:

    • It is an expression or embodiment of the wisdom of God
    • It is different in nature and character from the (human/worldly) wisdom of this age (and those who exercise power in it)
    • It has been hidden from hearts and minds of people in the world until the present time (i.e. following the death and resurrection of Christ); on the important use of the verb (pro)ori/zw, cf. Acts 2:23; 4:28; 10:42; 17:31; Rom 1:4, and also Rom 8:29-30; Eph 1:5, 11
    • It has to do fundamentally with the person of Jesus and his identity (as the Anointed One)—which most of the people and their rulers did not understand or accept
    • It is tied to Jesus’ death (on the cross)

Two additional, fundamental themes develop, along these lines through the remainder of chapter 2:

    1. It was not possible for human beings to recognize or understand the secret of God until the work of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel—prepared by God, in advance, for those who will come to faith. This is poignantly expressed by the citation of Isaiah 64:4 in verse 9. Note the use of the same triad—eyes-ears-heart—which also occurs in Isa 6:9-10 (cf. the discussion in the previous note):
      (a) “no eye has seen”—eyes smeared shut / not seeing
      (b) “no ear has heard”—ears made heavy / not hearing
      (c) “has not come upon the heart”—heart made thick / not discerning
    2. The secret of God is understood entirely through the Spirit of God (and Christ), the Holy Spirit (vv. 10-16)

1 Cor 4:1

“So, let a man count us (simply) as attendants of (the) Anointed (One) and ‘house-managers’ of the secrets of God”

This statement follows the discussion regarding divisions in the congregations, in which Paul seeks to downplay the importance of (apostolic) personalities—they are merely servants of Christ, workers on behalf of the Gospel. The declaration in 4:1 summarizes this fact. The derivation of the term u(pere/th$ (rendered above as “attendant”) is not entirely certain; it may mean something like “under-guide” or “under-boss”—that is, someone who works as an assistant under the main person guiding the work. The word oi)kono/mo$ (literally something like “house-manager”) is often translated “steward”, but this somewhat obscures the cultural context. The oi)kono/mo$, among the wealthier classes, who managed the house(hold) often would have been a trusted slave or servant. This fits with Paul’s tendency of referring to himself, along with his fellow ministers, as “slaves” (dou=loi) of Christ. The use of the plural “secrets” (musth/ria) may be general—recall the variant “secret(s) of the Kingdom” in Mark 4:11 par. If it is meant in a specific sense, it probably refers to the various early Christian (and Gospel) traditions passed down from Jesus and his disciples, along with things revealed to the Apostles (and their companions) by Christ and the Holy Spirit. These traditions would cover a wide range of teaching and instruction, as evidenced from Paul’s letters.

1 Cor 13:2

“…and if I hold (the ability) of foretelling [i.e. prophecy] and see [i.e. know] all secrets and all knowledge, and if I hold all the trust (in God) so as to set apart mountains, but I do not hold love, I am nothing.”

Here “secrets” (musth/ria) is used in a generic sense, one must assume, for any kind of special, hidden knowledge or revelation. However, it is possible that Paul also has the use of the plural from 4:1 in mind as well (cf. above). This would not be inconsistent—even if he means the “secrets” of Christ and the Gospel, these still would be subordinated to the principle of love. The “love-principle” (or “love commandment”) is central to early Christian thought and belief, attested in several different strands of tradition. It goes back, of course, to Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:28-34; Matt 5:43-47; 7:12 etc, and pars), and, under that influence, came to be seen as a summation and encapsulation of the entire Law under Christ (James 2:8-13; Gal 5:13-14; 6:2; Rom 13:9-10, etc). Even the greatest of the spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Cor 12) pale beside the principle of Christian love—which might fairly be called the greatest “secret” of the Gospel.

1 Cor 14:2

“The one speaking in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God—for no one hears [i.e. understands], and he speaks secrets in (the) Spirit”

Here Paul uses the plural “secrets” in reference to the phenomenon of speaking in an (unknown/foreign) “tongue”. The wording used here in 1 Corinthians suggests that, unlike the references in the book of Acts, this does not so much mean a foreign language as a kind of special spiritual or prayer language. The hidden things (“secrets”) which are communicated through this language are tied to the work of the Spirit (cf. above on the discussion in 1 Cor 2:6-16).

1 Cor 15:51

“See, I relate a secret to you—we all will not be (left) sleeping, but we all will be made different…”

This is the culmination of the famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Cor 15, beginning with the tradition of Jesus’ own resurrection (vv. 1-11), and an exposition of the promise that believers will be raised according to the same pattern, by way of our union with Christ (vv. 12-34). In verses 35-49, this argument is developed further and addresses the nature and character of the resurrection. Paul is probably the first—and one of the only—Christian writers to attempt something of an explanation of what actually happens in the resurrection: that the physical (dead) body is transformed into a spiritual entity, just as in the case of Jesus. The Adam-Christ parallel (also used, famously, in Romans 5:12-21) suggests a new kind of transformed humanity, or human nature, that comes about as a result of being raised in Christ. The statement in verse 51 follows upon the declaration in the prior verse 50:

“And this I declare, brothers: that flesh and blood is not able to receive the kingdom of God as (its) lot, and the decaying [i.e. mortal] does not receive the undecaying [i.e. immortal] as (its) lot.”

This is the immediate context of the “secret” of the resurrection in vv. 51ff—the moment at which believers enter/inherit the kingdom of God. This is vividly and dramatically described in verses 52-54a, climaxing with the (composite) Scripture citation (from Isa 25:8 and Hos 13:14). It is important to note the juxtaposition in vv. 50-51 of the “kingdom of God” (basilei/a [tou=] qeou=) and the “secret” (musth/rion), as these are precisely the components of the expression (“secret of the kingdom of God”) used by Jesus in Mark 4:11 par. In an earlier note, I discussed how this “secret” related to the death and resurrection of Jesus; here in 1 Corinthians, Paul extends this to the resurrection of all believers in our union with Christ. It is no coincidence that his entire line of argument in chapter 15 concludes with the words: “…through [dia/] our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed {Jesus Christ}” (v. 57).

NOTE: The idea of “secrets” in Pauline usage certainly relates to special knowledge (cf. above on 1 Corinthians chap. 2), though always focused on the principal Gospel message of the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. However, the connection with knowledge (gnw=si$, gnœ¡sis) brings into view the difficult question of Gnosticism in relation to the New Testament and early Christianity. The views of Paul’s opponents in the letters, of certain believers at Corinth, and even of Paul himself, have variously been called “Gnostic” by commentators over the years. Much confusion surrounds the term. I have sought to clarify this, so far as I am able, in an article on Gnosticism which I have recently posted; it may be useful to consult it here, in light of Paul’s use of the word musth/rion.

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