“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: Col 1:26-27; 4:3, etc

In this series of studies on the occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament, today I will be looking at its use in Colossians and Ephesians. Both of these letters have been considered by many critical commentators as pseudonymous; for the purposes of this study, I essentially treat them both as Pauline. I tend to regard Colossians as an authentic work by Paul (on objective grounds), while allowing for a bit more uncertainty in the case of Ephesians. Since there are many points of similarity in language and structure between the two writings, I deal with them together here.

Colossians 1:26-27

These verses form part of the second main section of the letter, which I delineate as 1:24-2:5, an (auto)biographical narration (by Paul) similar in certain respects to the narratio of classical rhetoric. It follows the opening exordium (1:3-23), marked by thanksgiving and praise for the Colossians, but which also contains a core Christological declaration (vv. 15-20) presented in hymnic (or semi-hymnic) form. Col 1:24-2:5 may be divided into two parts:

    • Paul’s suffering as a minister of the Gospel (1:24-29), and
    • His suffering on behalf of those in Colosse (and Asia Minor) (2:1-5)

Col 1:24-29 is made up of a single sentence in Greek; its structure is marked and governed by a kind of step-parallelism (indicated in bold):

  • “I rejoice in (my) sufferings over you… over the body of (Christ), which is the Gathered (Community) [ekkl¢sia i.e. the Church]
    • of which I have come to be a minister…to (ful)fill the word/account [lo/go$] of God
      • the secret [musth/rion] hidden away from the Ages…but now has shone forth to His holy ones
        • to whom God wished to make known what (is) the (full) wealth of the honor/glory of this secret…which is the Anointed (One) [i.e. Christ] in you…
          • whom we bring as a message…teaching every man…(so) that we might stand every man alongside (God) complete in the Anointed (One)
            • unto which I also labor (hard)…according to His working (power itself) working in me in [i.e. with] power”

The start of each line picks up from the end of the previous line. The entire sentence also forms an inclusio, bracketed by Paul’s (personal) declaration:

    • I rejoice in my sufferings over you…
    • …unto which I also labor hard, struggling

The idea of the “secret” (musth/rion) being “hidden away [a)pokekrumme/non] from the Ages” was expressed, in nearly identical wording, in 1 Cor 2:7 (cf. the prior study), and also is found in Eph 3:9 (cf. below). Two points regarding this “secret” are clear from an examination of vv. 24-29:

    • It is parallel to the “account” (or “word”, lo/go$) of God (v. 26), which, in turn, is generally synonymous with the Gospel message in early Christian thought.
    • Verse 27 defines what this secret is, but in qualified, exalted language (“the [full] wealth of the honor/glory [do/ca] of this secret”): “the Anointed (One) in you”. There are three components of this definition:
      (1) the person of Jesus Christ (implied)
      (2) that he is the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ)
      (3) that he is “in you” (i.e. in believers), usually understood in terms of the Spirit
      The author further glosses this with the phrase “the hope of honor/glory”—that is, the future/ultimate salvation of believers, culminating in the resurrection and eternal life

God has made known—indeed, from the beginning he has wished this to be made known—the secret to the “holy ones”, that is, those chosen by Him to become believers in Christ (cf. below).

Colossians 2:2

Col 2:1-5 runs parallel to 1:24-29, and contains similar wording and phrasing; consider, for example, the opening words of each portion:

    • “Now I take delight [i.e. rejoice] in (my) sufferings over you…in my flesh…” (1:24)
    • “For I wish you (could) have seen (what) great struggle I hold over you…and (also) those who have not seen my face in the flesh” (2:1)

There is also a similar phrase using the word musth/rion (“secret”); note the italicized words in vv. 2-3, for which there are parallels in 1:26-28:

“…(so) that their hearts might be called along [i.e. helped], driven together in love and unto all (the) wealth of the full accomplishment of putting (things) together [i.e. understanding], unto (the full) knowledge about the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One), in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away…”

Here the Anointed One (Christ) is defined more precisely as the secret itself, but note how even this is qualified with some interesting elliptical phrasing, which I outline as a chiasm:

Clearly Christ is at the center of the secret, but is not exactly identical with it.

Colossians 4:3

In this verse (4:3), Paul uses the expression “the secret of (the) Anointed (One)” (to\ musth/rion tou= Xristou=). It is not entirely clear whether the genitive here should be understood as objective (Christ is the content of the secret), or subjective (Christ is the one holding/delivering the secret). Generally, Paul’s usage, and manner of referring to Christ, suggests the former—i.e. the secret is about Christ, making known the truth about him. As such, it is more or less synonymous with the Gospel message. However, as Paul makes clear in Galatians 1:6-9, 11-12, 16, he received the Gospel (and his commission to preach it), initially through revelation direct from Christ himself. This raises the possibility that Paul may have understood the “secret” as something which Christ himself delivers to believers (on this, cf. Eph 3:3-4 below).

Ephesians 1:9

In many ways, the first half of Ephesians (chaps. 1-3) can be read almost as a commentary on the first two sections of Colossians (1:3-2:5, cf. above), that is, as a greatly expanded introduction. This larger scope is indicated by the fact that Eph 1:3-14 may be regarded as one long sentence in the Greek—an exalted, majestic, theological (and Christological) statement which brings together many aspects of Pauline thought. There are also a number of similarities and parallels in expression with Col 1:24-2:5; this can be glimpsed in the following translation of Eph 1:7b-10a:

“…according to the wealth of His favor, of which He has given over (and) above unto us, in all wisdom and thought(fulness), making known to use the secret of His will, according to His good consideration which he set before(hand) in Him(self), unto the ‘house-management’ of the filling/fullness of the times, to put all thing(s) up (under one) head in the Anointed (One)…”

The expression “secret of His will” is central to 1:3-14, and refers, not so much to Christ himself, but rather to what we might call the entire process of salvation—from its original predetermination by God to the final redemption and completion of all things (in Christ).

Ephesians 3:3-4, 9; 6:19

Chapter 3 contains an (auto)biographical narration (by Paul), similar in position and tone to that in Col 1:24-2:5; and, it too includes several references to the “secret” (musth/rion). In verse 1, Paul identifies himself as “the one in (the) bonds of the Anointed over you the nations”, that is, (1) as a prisoner for the sake of Christ, and (2) as an apostle/minister to the Gentiles (“nations”). Verses 2-3ff describe this ministry in relation to the “secret”; because of the rather awkward syntax of vv. 2b-3 (which are parenthetical), I initially leave that portion out of the translation of vv. 2-5:

“if indeed [i.e. probably/surely] you have heard (of) the ‘house-management’ [oi)konomi/a] of the favor of God th(at) is being given to me unto you: [that], according to an uncovering [i.e. revelation] He made known to me the secret—(parenthesis)—which in other (period)s of coming-to-be [i.e. generations] was not made known to the sons of men, as now it has been uncovered to His holy (one)s set forth [i.e. apostles] and (the) foretellers [i.e. prophets] in (the) Spirit…”

This is a rather elaborate way of saying what Paul does elsewhere:

    • The secret (of God) has been hidden from previous generations, and
    • It is only made known (uncovered) now to (chosen) believers (“holy ones”) in Christ

These “holy ones” are the disciples of Jesus and first generation of believers (which included Paul), described by two terms or expressions: (1) “the (one)s set forth” [a)posto/loi, i.e. ‘apostles’], that is, those commissioned by Jesus to preach the Gospel, and (2) “the foretellers [profh/tai, i.e. ‘prophets’] in the Spirit”, that is, those called to communicate the word and will of God. It is possible to read “in the Spirit” as applying to both ‘groups’—”apostles and prophets in the Spirit“. The secret is made known in stages: first to the apostles, etc (such as Paul), then to others (“given to me [to give] unto you”); as is also clear from the parenthetical statement in vv. 2b-3:

“—even as I wrote before in (a) little (writing) toward (that) which [i.e. so that] you may be able, (by) reading [lit. knowing again], to have in mind my understanding [lit. putting-together] in the secret of the Anointed (One)—”
As this is extremely cumbersome rendered literally, allow me here to paraphrase:
“—even as I wrote before in a few words so that you might be able, by reading it, to have my (own) understanding of the secret of Christ in mind—”

This locates Paul’s understanding of the secret specifically in his letters, which is one of the details which has caused commentators to question the authenticity of Ephesians. Also worth noting is Paul’s reference to his ministry as the “house-management” (oi)konomi/a) of the favor/grace of God; recall that in 1 Cor 4:1, Paul refers to himself, along with his fellow ministers, as “house-managers” (oi)kono/moi) of the secret of God”. The same idea is repeated in verse 9:

“…and to enlighten [for all] what is the ‘house-management’ of the secret hidden away from the Ages in God…”

The phrasing here suggests that the managing/distributing of the secret is something that has occurred even prior to its revelation unto Paul and the apostles; probably we should understand a chain of revelation: (1) hidden away in God, (2) hidden in Christ, (3) made known to the apostles, etc, (4) made known to believers at large. Paul’s role in this process is again stated in Eph 6:19, where he asks believers to pray for him:

“…that (the) account [lo/go$, i.e. ‘word’] may be given to me in (the) opening of my mouth, in outspokenness, to make known the secret of the good message [eu)agge/lion]…”

Here, again, we find the “secret” more or less identified with the Gospel and the “word/account of God”.

Ephesians 5:32

Finally, we must consider the specific use of musth/rion in the instruction given regarding the Christian household. Recall the use of oi)kono/mo$/oi)konomi/a (“house-manager/house-management”) as a metaphor for making known the secret of God. Now, in the midst of instruction about how one should manage one’s house (5:21-33)—principally in the context of the marriage bond—Paul (or the author) again draws an important illustration: the relationship between Christ and believers (the Church) is similar to that between a husband and his wife. Just as Christ loves the Church and gave his life for it, so a husband should follow this example toward his wife. This love and sacrifice effectively purifies and makes perfect the marriage tie, which symbolizes the union/unity between the two (v. 31). The statement follows in verse 32: “this is a great secret, and I say/relate it unto the Anointed (One) and unto the Gathered (Community) [i.e. the Church]”—it is an illustration which applies to Christ and the Church. In many ways, this is similar to Jesus’ own disclosure of the “secret(s) of the Kingdom” to his disciples through the use of parables (cf. Mark 4:11 par and my prior discussion on this passage).

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