October 6: Revelation 10:7-11

Revelation 10:7-11

In the previous note, we began to examine the message uttered by the heavenly Messenger (Angel) in verses 6b-7:

“…there will not yet be (any more) time [xro/no$]; but (rather), in the days of the voice of the seventh Messenger, when he shall be about to sound the trumpet, even (then it is that) the secret of God is completed [e)tele/sqh], (even) as He gave the good message (of it) to His slaves the Foretellers.”

As I indicated, this statement, along with the verses which follow, are most important for a correct understanding of the book of Revelation as a whole, and of the visions which make up the remainder of the book. However, a precise interpretation of the Angel’s words here in vv. 6b-7 is by no means easy to establish; indeed, the language and phrasing used presents a number of difficulties. I begin with the initial statement:

xro/no$ ou)ke/ti e&stai
which I have translated as
“there will not yet be (any more) time”

Of the two primary Greek words translated “time”, xro/no$ and kairo/$, the former (used here) more properly refers to a length of time, as opposed to a particular point in time (kairo/$). The compound particle ou)ke/ti means “not yet” or “no longer”. The bluntness of the statement has led some commentators to think that it may refer to a cessation of time itself. This, however, is unlikely; more probable is a reference to the time which is to pass before the end comes and God’s Judgment is completed. To say that “there will not yet be time” or “there will no longer be time” simply means that the end will finally come. This is described in verse 7 as the completion of the “secret [musth/rion] of God”. That it is a “secret” means that it has been kept hidden, revealed only to the Prophets (“Foretellers”)—both those in the Old Testament, as well as chosen believers in Christ such as John. Much the same idea is expressed elsewhere in the New Testament, in passages such as Rom 16:25-26; Eph 3:3-5, and 1 Pet 1:10-12. From the standpoint of the visionary narrative in the book, a final stage in this process of (special) revelation involves the sealed scroll of chaps. 5ff. Its opening by the Lamb (6:1ff) indicates that its contents are to be read and made known.

The message also gives a general notice as to the time-frame according to which the end will finally come: “in the days of the seventh Messenger, when he is about to sound the trumpet”. The expression “in the days of…” could suggest that a period of time is involved; from the point of view of the visions, this would mean a period between the first six trumpet-visions and the time when the seventh sounds.

Though the declaration “there will not yet be (any more) time” is set (in the visionary narrative) at a point after certain events will have taken place, it would have had meaning as well for readers/hearers at the present moment (i.e. when the book was first written and transmitted). As I have discussed at various points in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, as well as in these notes on the book of Revelation, early Christians generally held to an imminent eschatological expectation—i.e. that the end would occur very soon. If, as is commonly thought, the book of Revelation was written toward the end of the first century (c. 90-95 A.D.), most of the first generation of believers would have already passed away, and Christians at the time would have become increasingly aware of what is referred to as “the delay of the Parousia” (cf. 2 Pet 3:3-10, etc). The entire thrust of the book reiterates and reinforces the idea that the end-time Judgment and return of Jesus will yet occur very soon.

Rev 10:8-10

Verses 8-10 describe an interesting scene, involving a symbolic action (within the context of the vision) which resembles certain episodes in the Prophet books of the Old Testament, especially that in Ezek 2:8-3:3. The seer (John) is commanded, by a voice from heaven, to eat the scroll held by the Messenger. As I argued in the previous note, this is the same scroll from chaps. 5ff, which had been sealed, but has now been opened (by the Lamb, 6:1ff). It is important to remember that the visions in 6:1-8:1 stem from the opening/breaking of the seals; they do not, it would seem, reflect what is actually written on the scroll itself. This is what the prophet John consumes in the vision. The action is narrated in a repetitive, three-fold manner, which has most ancient roots in Near Eastern (Semitic) oral tradition and writing:

    • The voice tells John to take the scroll from the Messenger, implying that the Messenger will instruct him what to do with it (v. 8)
      • The Messenger tells John to take it and eat it, describing what the effect will be (v. 9)
        • John follows the Messenger’s instruction (practically verbatim), takes the scroll and eats it, and experiences the effects (v. 10)

As noted, the action itself draws upon Ezek 2:8-3:3, describing the scene more or less precisely—the prophet eats the scroll, with writing on front and back, as commanded, and it was sweet (as honey) in his mouth. Here is how this is narrated in verse 10:

“And I took the little paper-roll [i.e. scroll] out of the hand of the Messenger and I ate it down (completely), and it was sweet as honey in my mouth, and (yet) when I ate it my belly [i.e. stomach] was made bitter (by it).”

I would interpret this graphic contrast as follows: the words of the scroll initially seem sweet, as they entail the fulfillment of God’s will and the deliverance of His people; however, the implications of this also involve pain and bitterness. The source of this discomfort, best understood as the realization and experience of the Judgment, may be two-fold: (a) the suffering/persecution to be faced by believers, and (b) the suffering of humankind generally during the Judgment. The same verb (pikrai/nw) was used in the third trumpet-vision (8:11).

Moreover, it is the prophet who experiences this bitterness in his stomach, implying that it is difficult for him to digest. This relates specifically to his role as prophet—i.e. spokesperson/representative who delivers the divine message. This certainly is reflected in the Ezekiel passage (2:3ff; 3:4ff), indicating the difficulties facing the prophet in delivering the message—the word and will of God—to the people.

Rev 10:11

This prophetic task is precisely what is described in verse 11:

“And he said to me: ‘It is necessary for you again to foretell about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings’.”

The four terms (peoples, nations, tongues [i.e. languages], kings) are comprehensive—i.e. all of human society—and echo the wording used earlier in 5:9. This marks an important shift in the book. Up to this point, the visions foretelling and announcing the coming Judgment involved the world and humankind generally, treated as a whole; but now, in the remainder of the book, a more distinct world-historical approach will be taken, entailing visions and prophecies related to the history of God’s people (Israel/Believers) and the surrounding nations (the Roman Empire, etc).

In this regard, as we shall see, the visions of the book come to resemble the visions of Daniel, in many aspects. The Danielic influence has been present throughout, but perhaps comes into sharper focus here in chapter 10. In concluding this note, I would point out certain parallels of wording with Dan 12:6-9 (cf. the upcoming special study on Dan 12); in this illustration here I follow Koester (p. 489), using his translation with relevant words in italics (modified slightly):

“How long shall it be until the end of these wonders?” The man clothed in linen … raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven. And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished. I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end.” (Dan 12:6-9)

October 5: Revelation 10:1-7

Revelation 10:1-7

As in the earlier Seal-vision cycle, there is here an interlude between the sixth and seventh Trumpet-visions—the seventh trumpet does not sound until 11:15. As a literary and dramatic device, this serves to build suspense, but it also turns the attention of the audience away from the Judgment and back toward the worship of God (and Christ) in Heaven. Also, in the book of Revelation, the number seven symbolizes the holiness and perfection of God, even as the number six (coming just short of seven) reflects the limitation and imperfection of the created order, and of humankind in particular. Thus, from a thematic point of view, a clear demarcation between the first six visions and the seventh is entirely appropriate. However, technically, based on 11:14, it would seem that the author of the book regarded this interlude (10:1-11:14) as part of the sixth vision.

Rev 10:1-2a

The core of this particular vision (vv. 1-7) features the presence of a “strong Messenger”—i.e. an especially powerful heavenly being, with distinctive attributes. His visual appearance is described in vv. 1-2a:

    • “stepping down [vb. katabai/nw] out of the heaven”—perhaps indicating a shift in visionary locale, i.e. a descent to appear before the seer (John) on earth (as in 1:12-20); more likely, the spatial reference is part of the vision itself, as is the reference to earth in v. 2b.
    • “having been cast about [i.e. clothed/robed] by a cloud”
    • a brilliant halo (i@ri$, i.e. rainbow) upon his head (cf. 4:3)
    • his face is “(bright) as the sun”
    • his feet are as “pillars of fire”

These characteristics echo both the language of theophany (the manifestation of God [YHWH]) and christophany (the appearance of the exalted Jesus), which includes the traditional imagery surrounding the appearance of the “Son of Man” (Dan 7:13-14). The clouds and related meteorological phenomena are part of the traditional storm-theophany—i.e. manifestation/description of the sky/storm as deity, or personified as deity. For ancient Israelites, El-Yahweh shared many of these storm associations, which were visible when he became manifest to humankind, according to the Old Testament narrative and traditions (most famously in the Sinai theophany, Exod 19:9, 16; 24:15-26ff). Especially important, from an eschatological standpoint, is the cloud-imagery related to the “Son of Man” figure in Daniel 7, who was identified with the exalted Jesus in the Gospel and early Christian tradition (Mk 13:26-27; 14:62 par; Rev 1:7; cf. also Acts 7:55-56). The same cloud-imagery is specifically associated with the future return of Jesus (i.e. the Son of Man) in Acts 1:9-11 and 1 Thess 4:17.

Certain similarities with the vision of the exalted Jesus in 1:12ff have raised the possibility that the Messenger here in chapter 10 also represents an appearance of Christ. This, however, seems unlikely; the parallels are too general, and simply reflect the fact that descriptions of the exalted Jesus follow closely the traditional depiction of divine/heavenly beings.

Verse 2 establishes an important parallel with the vision-scene in chapter 5—the Messenger holds a scroll in his hand, just as the “One seated on the throne” holds the sealed scroll in his right hand (5:1). There is some question whether this is the same scroll (lit. paper roll, bibli/on, here bibliari/dion) from chapters 5ff. Almost certainly, it should be understood this way, based on the description of it here as “having been opened up” (vb. a)noi/gw, used 11 times in chaps. 5-6, beginning with 5:2). Moreover, it would present a visionary structure exactly parallel to that indicated at the very start of the book (1:1), referring to the revelation contained in the book as coming:

    • from God [YHWH]—par the scroll in his right hand (5:1)
      • given to Jesus—par the Lamb taking and opening the scroll (5:6-6:1)
        • and then sent through his Messengers—i.e., the figure holding the opened scroll here in chap. 10
          • to his servants (e.g. the seer John)—the scene in chap. 10
Rev 10:2b-4

These verses describe the action of the great Messenger:

“And he set his foot (on) the giving (side) [i.e. his right foot] (down) upon the sea, and his well-named [i.e. left] (foot) upon the earth, and he cried (out) with a great voice, just as a lion (does when it) bellows. And when he cried (out), the seven thunders spoke (with) their (own) voices.” (v. 3)

Here again, we see evidence of the ancient storm-theophany. In the Semitic idiom, thunder is literally the voice (loq) of God, and this imagery is utilized in the great throne-vision (4:5; 6:1). The roaring of the storm is paralleled with the roar of the lion—a powerful animal figure used to represent both God (Amos 3:8; Hos 11:10) and his anointed representative (i.e. Messiah/Christ); on the latter, cf. Rev 5:5, and the underlying tradition from Gen 49:9 (see also Mic 5:8). The lion’s roar is especially associated with the divine Judgment in the Old Testament (Hos 5:14; 13:7-8; Jer 2:15; 4:7, etc; Zech 11:3).

The significance of these “thunders” is indicated in verse 4:

“And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write, and (then) I heard a voice out of the heaven saying (to me), ‘You must seal the (thing)s which the seven thunders spoke, and you shall not write them’.”

The description of these voices as “thunder”, along with the number seven, shows that they are closely connected to the voice of God Himself. However, the reflexive pronoun (e(autw=n) in verse 3, indicates that they are not precisely identical with God’s voice—i.e. they speak with their (own) voices. Nevertheless, they accurately reflect God’s voice, much as the “seven spirits” before the throne represent God’s very eyes (5:6, cf. Zech 4:10). According to the ancient religious consciousness and mode of expression, the personification of divine attributes was extremely common; whether, or the extent to which, the “seven spirits” and “seven thunders” are to be understood as independent beings in their own right, is extremely hard to determine. These passages should not be used to establish a precise Theology (properly speaking) for the New Testament.

The proximity of the thunders to God’s own voice is confirmed by the command to seal the things they spoke—here, as in chaps. 5-6, the seal (sfragi/$) implies that something is kept hidden and undisclosed (i.e. the contents of the scroll are not to be read). This suggests something of the numinous and awesome (divine) character of these voices. Whether the seer understood what the thunders spoke is beside the point, though it may be that there is a similarity with what Paul relates in 2 Cor 12:4. The underlying idea and imagery finds an interesting, though faint, parallel in the ancient Canaanite “Baal Epic”, in which the storm deity (personification of the storm) Baal Haddu addresses his sister Anat (through a messenger), part of a refrain that runs through the text:

“For a message I have, and will tell you,
A word and I will recount to you,
The word of tree and the whisper of stone,
The converse of Heaven with Earth,
Of Deeps with Stars,
I understand the lightning which the Heavens do not know,
The word people do not know,
And earth’s masses do not understand.”
(translation, with some modification, by Mark S. Smith in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Society of Biblical Literature and Scholars Press [1997])

Rev 10:5-7

The action of the Messenger continues in verses 5-7, as he stands astride the surface of the earth—one foot on the sea, the other on the land. The symbolic majesty of the scene is enhanced as the Messenger proceeds to swear an oath, marked by the raising of his right hand to heaven (v. 5b). The ancient practice of swearing by oath is quite foreign to us today, though modern society retains a faint vestige of it in courts of law and certain other official settings. The ancient (religious/magical) sense and significance of the practice is indicated by the verb o)mnu/w, which, in its fundamental sense and earliest usage, refers to making (or holding) something firm through contact with a sacred object. In the setting of public affairs, including the delivering of message, giving testimony, etc, it can mean confirming the truth of what a person says. That is the basic meaning here. By raising his hand to heaven, the Messenger is affirming the truth of what he says through symbolic/ritual contact with Heaven itself (cf. Matt 23:22). Moreover, he utters his message through the name/authority of God Himself (“…in/by the [One] living into the Ages of the Ages [i.e. forever]”). The oath is presented in the manner of an ancient religious/theological formula, one which may be traced all the way back to the Abraham narratives in Genesis (cf. Gen 19:18-20), presenting God [YHWH-El] as the one true Deity and Creator. The more immediate reference here clearly is to Daniel 12:7.

The message itself, preceded by such solemn grandeur, follows in vv. 6b-7:

“there will not yet be (any more) time [xro/no$]; but (rather), in the days of the voice of the seventh Messenger, when he shall be about to sound the trumpet, even (then it is that) the secret of God is completed [e)tele/sqh], (even) as He gave the good message (of it) to His slaves the Foretellers.”

These verses, and those which follow here (vv. 8-11), are vital for a proper understanding of the structure of the visionary narrative in the book, as well as the time-frame that is involved. For this reason, I feel that it is worth devoting a separate note to a careful study of them—this will be done in the next daily note.

“Gnosis” in the NT: Col 2:2-3 (continued)

Colossians 2:2-3 (continued)

In the previous study, I explored the context and setting of Col 2:2-3 in the letter, examining the structure, language and imagery being employed. Today, I will look more closely at these specific verses.

“…being lifted [i.e. brought/joined] together in love and into all (the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind), into the (full) knowledge about the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One), in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away.”

As I discussed previously, the language used here echoes and repeats that of the exordium (introduction), especially in the first sentence (spanning vv. 9-20), which is sometimes referred to as the “Christ hymn” of Colossians. Let us begin by comparing 2:2-3 with 1:9.

Col 1:9 opens with an expression of Paul’s wish (and prayer) for the Colossians, and similarly in 2:1:

    • “Through this [i.e. for this reason] we…do not cease speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying]…over you” (1:9)
    • “For I wish you (could) have seen [i.e. could know]…” (2:1)

His wish is expressed through the subjunctive, involving the word “fill, fullness”:

    • “that [i%na] you might be filled [plhrwqh=te]…” (1:9)
    • “that [i%na] their [i.e. your] hearts might be called alongside [i.e. helped/comforted]…into…the full [plhro-]…” (2:2)

In 2:2, he uses the word plhrofori/a, which is somewhat difficult to translate. Literally, it indicates something which is carried or brought out fully, often in the sense of something being demonstrated convincingly; it thus connotes the idea of confidence or assurance i.e., that something is true or will be accomplished, etc. This “fullness” Paul wishes for the Colossians is defined and qualified with prepositional phrases and genitive chains using the key words gnw=si$/e)pi/gnwsi$ (“knowledge”), su/nesi$ (‘comprehension’) and sofi/a (“wisdom”).

    • “{filled} (with) the knowledge [e)pi/gnwsi$] of His will in all wisdom [sofi/a] and spiritual comprehension [su/nesi$]” (1:9)
    • “{into…full} understanding [su/nesi$], into knowledge [e)pi/gwsi$] of the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One)” (2:2)
      “in whom are all the treasures of wisdom [sofi/a] and knowledge [gnw=si$] hidden away” (2:3)

The word su/nesi$, which I here translate as “comprehension” and “understanding”, literally means the putting together of things, i.e. in the mind. In 2:2 the use of this noun together with plhrofori/a (cf. above), functions as a kind of hendiadys (two words for a single concept). They form a genitive chain modifying the noun plou=to$ (“rich[ness], riches, wealth”)—plou=to$ th=$ plhrofori/a$ th=$ sune/sew$. My attempt to capture something of the literal meaning (cf. the translation at the top of this note) is:

“(the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind)”

As always, the parentheses indicate glosses which make the translation more readable. From the standpoint of the Greek syntax, a better rendering would be:

“(the) rich(ness) of the full conviction and understanding (given to us)”

In terms of hendiadys, the translation might be:

“(the) rich(ness) of the full understanding (we have)”

I would suggest that each of these translations captures aspects of what the author (Paul) is genuinely saying. Another important point of syntax in 2:2 is the use of parallel prepositional phrases governed by ei)$ (“into/unto”), indicating the goal for believers as they are “lifted/joined together in love”:

    • “into [ei)$] all (the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind)”
    • “into [ei)$] (true/complete) knowledge of the secret of God”

These two phrases are parallel and apposite (placed side-by-side), the second explaining the first—that which is fully brought together in the mind of believers is the knowledge of the secret of God. This begins with the hearing of the Gospel, but continues through the Christian life, through the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned here in 2:2-3, but it may be inferred from the wording of 1:9 where the comprehension/understanding (su/nesi$) is characterized as pneumatiko/$ (“spiritual, of the Spirit”). In 2:2 (as in 1:9-10) the word translated “knowledge” is e)pi/gnwsi$ rather than the simpler gnw=si$ (which is used in 2:3). The compound form often signifies a more thorough, complete, or intimate knowledge about something (or someone). It can also carry the sense of recognition or acknowledgment. The distinction and range of meaning can be difficult to translate effectively in English without losing the etymological connection.

Of special importance is the expression “secret [musth/rion] of God”. Often in Paul’s letters this secret is identified with the Gospel; here, however, it is more properly identified with Christ himself. The syntax and word order caused some difficulty for scribes copying Colossians, as there are a number of variant readings at this point among the manuscripts, which attempt to clarify the (presumed) meaning. Along with most commentators and textual critics, I assume the reading of Ë46 B as original. The words “God” and “Christ” follow after each other, both in the genitive case (qeou= xristou=). There being no punctuation in the earliest manuscripts, the syntax was somewhat ambiguous; we can approximate this in English translation as “the secret of God of Christ”. The word xristou= (“of [the] Anointed”, “of Christ”) is best understood as being apposite the expression “of the secret of God”, with “Christ” related to “the secret” rather than “God”. In other words, Christ is the secret, hidden away from the ages and generations past, but now revealed through the proclamation of the Gospel (1:26-27). Verse 3 provides an interesting parallel use of the verb a)pokrup/tw (“hide [away] from”)—while Christ is the secret hidden away, at the same time, God has hidden away in him “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. The parallel expressions in vv. 2 and 3 are clear enough:

    • “all [pa=$] the riches [sing.]…of understanding…knowledge of the secret” (v. 2)
    • “all [pa/nte$] the treasures [plur.] of wisdom and knowledge hidden away” (v. 3)

For another parallel to the syntax of verse 3, we must turn again to the exordium (introduction), to 1:14, where the Son (Christ) is described with the following phrase: “…in whom we hold the loosing from (bondage), the release of sins”. Note the formal similarity:

    • “in whom [e)n w!|] we hold [e&xomen]…” (1:14)
    • “in whom [e)n w!|] are [ei)sin]…” (2:3)

If we press the parallel further, it is possible to tie the verses together conceptually. In other words, the things that are in Christ are those things which we have/hold in him (and vice versa). This would mean that the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” can, and perhaps should, be identified with the saving work of Christ referenced in 1:14, which is again described by two phrases set in tandem:

    • “loosing from (bondage)” (a)polu/trwsi$)
    • “release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins” (a&fesi$ tw=n a(martiw=n)

This association would tend to negate any sort of markedly gnostic interpretation of the Christian message, by connecting knowledge with the sacrificial death of Christ. Though this particular soteriological aspect is not brought out in Colossians until the main portion of the letter (see vv. 8-15), it is central to Paul’s own understanding of the Gospel. One need only consult the discussion and line of argument in 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 to find this expressed most vividly—that it is in the Gospel as the “word of the cross” that God’s wisdom is most perfectly conveyed, destroying the empty and inferior “wisdom” and “knowledge” of the world.

“Secret…”: Conclusion (Rev 1:20; 10:7)

This series on the use of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament concludes with today’s study. The last two references to be addressed are Revelation 1:20 and 10:7 (see the previous study, on Rev 17:5, 7).

Revelation 1:20; 10:7

To begin with, we have the statement by the one “like a son of man” (v. 13) to the seer (John) in 1:20:

“The secret of the seven stars, which you saw in my giving [i.e. right] (hand), and the seven golden lamp-stands, (is this): The seven stars are (the) Messengers of the seven Congregations, and the seven lamp-stands are (the) seven Congregations.”

This use of the word “secret” (musth/rion) is comparable to that in Rev 17:5, 7 (cf. the previous study), relating to the hidden meaning of the vision and its details. The influence of Daniel 2:18ff; 4:9 on the book of Revelation in this regard is clear. The verse, of course, leads in to the famous sets of messages (or ‘letters’) to the Seven Churches in chapters 2-3. In the context of this vision the one “like a son of man” (a heavenly being, or, more probably, the exalted Christ himself) gives to each of the (heavenly/angelic) Messengers (a&ggeloi) a message to write out. Ultimately, it is the author of the book of Revelation, the seer (John) in the narrative, who writes this out.

In Revelation 10:7, we find a somewhat different use of the word musth/rion:

“…but in the days of the voice of the seventh Messenger, when he should be about to (sound the) trumpet, even (then) is completed the secret of God, as He gave as a good message [i.e. announced/declared] to his (own) slaves the Foretellers {Prophets}.”

This relates to a different set of seven heavenly Messengers—those who blow the trumpets in the vision of 8:6-9:21. The seventh Messenger does not blow his trumpet until 11:15ff. This seventh trumpet closes the main division of the book spanning chapters 4-11, which is comprised of a complex interconnected sequence of visions and descriptions of the (impending) end-time Judgment by God. According to 10:7, this final trumpet blast marks the time when “the secret of God is completed [e)tele/sqh]”.

The expression “secret of God” is also found in 1 Cor 2:1 v.l. (also v. 7) and in Col 2:2; the plural “secrets of God” occurs in 1 Cor 4:1. In Ephesians 1:9 we have the expression “secret of his [i.e. God’s] will”, as well “secret(s) of the Kingdom of God” in Mark 4:11 par (see the previous daily notes for a discussion of these references). Eph 1:9 provides probably the closest parallel to the context of Rev 10:7. There, Paul (or the author) uses the expression “the secret of His will” in relation to the entirety of what we would call salvation history—from the predetermined ‘election’ of believers to the final consummation/restoration of all things (vv. 3-10ff). Every aspect of this salvation history is centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ, as the concluding words make clear:

“…making known to us the secret of His will, according to His good consideration which he set before(hand) in Him(self), unto/into the ‘house-management’ [oi)konomi/a] of the filling/fullness of the times, to bring up all things under (one) head in (the) Anointed (One) {Christ}…” (vv. 9-10, cf. the earlier study)

Like a faithful house-manager (oi)kono/mo$), God has dispensed and portioned out the times and seasons (kairoi/) until their completion at the end-time. This is very much the idea expressed in Rev 10:7, where the seventh trumpet-blast marks the completion (te/lo$) of all these things.

The eschatological, apocalyptic setting in the book of Revelation also fits reasonably well with the use of the similar Hebrew/Aramaic expression la@ yz@r* (“secrets of God”) in several texts from Qumran, especially the War Scroll (1QM). In 1QM 3:9, the phrase “(the) secrets of God to destroy wickedness” is written upon the trumpets used in the end-time battle; and the destruction of the “sons of darkness (or Belial)” is part of God’s predetermined plan and the “secrets” of his will (14:14; 16:11, 16). The persecution/suffering of God’s faithful at the hands of Belial (and his empire) until the end-time Judgment is also an important element of the “secrets” of God (17:9), expressed in 14:9 in terms of “the secrets of his [i.e. Belial’s] animosity”. Similar language surrounding the “secrets (of God)” is found in the Community Rule (1QS 3:23; 4:6, 18). Elsewhere in the Qumran texts, “secret(s)” refers more generally to the hidden aspects or “mysteries” of creation, sin and salvation, etc, in the plan and will of God (1QS 9:18; 11:3, 5, 19; 1Q26 fr 1-2 line 5; 1Q27 col 1 lines 2-4, 7; 1Q36 fr 16; and often in the Hymns [1QH] IV/XVII line 9; V/XIII line 8, 19; IX/I 11, 13, 21, 29; X/II 13; XII/IV 27, etc). These secrets are made known to the Prophets (in Scripture) and, in turn, to the members of the Qumran Community, through the inspired interpretation of its leaders—this interpretation is primarily eschatological, understanding the Community’s central role in the end-time salvation and Judgment brought by God (cf. especially the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk [1QpHab] 7:5, 8, 14). The connection of God’s “secrets” with salvation history (cf. above on Eph 1:9) is expressed in the so-called Damascus Document [CD/4Q269] 3:18.

“Secret of Lawlessness”: 2 Thess 2:6-8; Rev 17:5, 7

Having discussed the context of the expression “secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in 2 Thess 2:7 in the previous study, here I will examine a bit further the interpretation of 2 Thess 2:6-8, as well as a similar use of the term musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7.

2 Thessalonians 2:6-8

Assuming that my analysis of vv. 6-8, and, in particular, the use of the verb kate/xw, is on the right track (cf. the previous study), it may be possible to discern something of what Paul has in mind, specifically, in this passage. Let us briefly examine each portion:

Verse 6

“Now you have seen/known the (thing) holding down (power)”—This indicates that Paul’s readers should be able to recognize what this is that currently “holds down (power)” [to\ kate/xon]. The neuter suggests that the reference is to a particular condition, situation, or tendency currently at work and in a position of power in the world.

“unto his being uncovered”—The preposition ei)$ indicates the purpose or direction (“so that”, “toward”) of the thing holding down power. It is possible that a temporal sense is also implied (“until”). The verb here is a passive infinitive of a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from, uncover”). In Greek the syntax of an infinitive + accusative can be very difficult to translate; often it is necessary to render it as a possessive + participle (or gerund) construction—as in this instance: “his being uncovered”. Perhaps a more literal translation is to be preferred: “the removing of the cover (from) him”. Clearly the “he/him” (au)to/n) is different from the thing (currently) holding down power (to\ kate/xon is neuter). The nearest reference point is the “man of lawlessness” (some MSS “man of sin”) in vv. 3-4.

“in his (own) time”—That is, when the time is right for the “man of lawlessness” to be revealed. The expression may also connote the idea that, in a sense, this time belongs to him, i.e. a ‘time of lawlessness’. For the use of kairo/$ (“time, season”) in a definite eschatological context, or suggesting a time of evil and testing, cf. Mark 1:15; 13:33 par; Matt 16:3; 26:18; Luke 4:13; 8:13; 19:44; 21:8, 24, etc; and for a similar use of “hour” (w%ra), cf. Mark 13:11, 32; 14:35, 41; Luke 12:40, 46; 22:53, etc.

Verse 7

“For the secret of lawlessness is already working in (the world)”—The adverb h&dh (“already”) indicates “even now”, currently (in Paul’s own time). On the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$), cf. the prior study. The present verb e)nerge/w means that the secret is (currently) active, i.e. at work (e&rgon), in (e)n) the world (and the present Age).

“only until the (one) holding down (power) now”—In my view, this is the best way to read this portion of the difficult clause in v. 7. The temporal aspect is indicated by the formula “only…now until” (mo/nona&rti e%w$). This means that there is someone holding down power now (currently, that is, in Paul’s time), but will only continue to do so for a (short) period of time. On a similar Pauline use of clauses with e%w$ (or w($) in the postpositive position, cf. Rom 12:3; 1 Cor 3:5; 6:4; 7:17; 2 Cor 2:4; Gal 2:10, etc (Wanamaker, p. 255).

“should come to be out of the middle”—The use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) with the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) could be taken to mean that either the “one holding down (power)” or the “lawless one” will appear in/from the midst/middle (of things?); however, the expression e)k me/sou (“out of the middle”) rather suggests someone or something being removed. When the one (currently) holding down power is ‘removed’, then the way will be clear for the lawless one to appear.

Verse 8

“and then the cover will be (removed) from the lawless (one)”—This renders quite literally the verb a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from”, “uncover”, i.e. disclose, reveal, etc); the passive form probably should be understood as a “divine passive” (with God effectively as the one who acts). The adverbial particle to/te (“then”) fills out the temporal sequence from verse 7h&dh (“already”), a&rti (“now”), to/te (“then”). The substantive adjective “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$) gives personal expression to the impersonal “lawlessness” (a)nomi/a) in v. 7, and is certainly synonymous with the “man of lawlessness” in vv. 3-4. In 1 Cor 9:21 Paul uses the adjective a&nomo$ in the specific (literal) sense of those “without the Law”—that is, without the Torah, i.e. Gentiles (cf. also Acts 2:23). Normally, however, it is used in the more general sense of persons who do not adhere to established law and custom—in society at large this means crime and rebellion (Luke 22:37), while, from a religious standpoint, typically immorality is indicated (2 Peter 2:8); in 1 Tim 1:9 both aspects are combined. The character and action of this person is described in vv. 3-4.

“whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up…in the shining (forth) of his (com)ing to be alongside upon (the earth)”—The terms e)pifa/neia (“shining upon”, i.e. appearance, manifestation) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be along[side]”) both had a history of eschatological and apocalyptic usage by the time Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, and they are combined here, in especially exalted language for dramatic effect. The word parousi/a (parousía) in particular quickly turned into a technical term for the end-time appearance (return) of Christ. In the previous study, I commented on the intentional parallel (and contrast) drawn between the coming (parousia) of Christ and the coming (parousia) of the “lawless one”. The rest of verse 8, describing the punishment and fate of the lawless one, is drawn from the traditional language and (Messianic) imagery of Isaiah 11:4.


Here I would suggest the following thumbnail interpretation of what Paul is describing, and perhaps envisions, in vv. 6-8:

  • The secret of lawlessness—This is the power of sin, evil and opposition to God, which has been, and is currently (h&dh, “already”) at work in the world. It is a “secret” (musth/rion) in the sense that its presence and activity is largely hidden to people at large—they are unaware of it and how it functions. Also, its true nature, and full manifestation, are kept away from people—this will only be revealed at the end time. It is generally to be equated with the working of “the Evil (One)”, i.e. Satan, and the various (invisible) evil powers that control and influence the fallen world. It is also possible to view the “secret” in terms of the timing and duration of this lawless/evil period within the hidden plan/will of God (see esp. the Qumran text 1QS 4:18-19).
  • The (thing) holding down power—This is best understood as worldly power, taken as a whole, specifically the ruling power in Paul’s time: the Roman imperial government and authority (i.e., the Roman Empire). While often viewed in a negative light by early Christians (as in the book of Revelation, cf. below), the Roman Empire was not evil per se. However, the exercise of worldly power was generally seen as being opposed to the way of God and Christ. Though it is related to the “secret of lawlessness”, the thing “holding down power” (to\ kate/xon) is not identical with it.
  • The (one) holding down power—If the general identification with the Roman Empire as “the (thing) holding down (power)” is correct, then “the (one) holding down power” (o( kate/xwn) probably should be taken as a reference to the current Roman Emperor. When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians (late 40s/early 50s, c. 50 A.D.?), the ruling Emperor would have been Claudius. The Emperor would rule until such time has he “came to be (removed) from the midst”. Perhaps an imperial coup or assassination was imagined, for which there certainly had been precedents, and would hardly be surprising; however, ultimately such historical processes were controlled by God himself.
  • The lawless (one)—The removal (?) of the current ruler would allow for the “cover to be removed” (by God), thus revealing “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$). This figure would fulfill more completely the prophecies by Daniel (in 9:20-27; 11:31; 12:11, etc), of the coming wicked ruler which had already been embodied by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-2nd century B.C. Jesus’ own eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 13 par) seems to follow the same basic line of interpretation (note the allusion to Dan 9:27 in v. 14). Prior to the reign of Claudius, Gaius (Caligula) had come close to living and acting out many of these expectations; so, it was not at all unreasonable to expect that the next ruler (or one soon coming) would be even more wicked and godless. Almost certainly, from the early Christian standpoint, the idea of an Antichrist-ruler of the end-time was largely modeled after the pattern of Roman rulers such as Pompey, Gaius, Nero, and (possibly) Domitian. For more on this, cf. the discussion on Revelation 17:5, 7 below. However, Paul makes clear that this is no ordinary political ruler, but a truly evil figure, empowered and inspired by Satan.

Revelation 17:5, 7

These two references have a contextual setting that is similar, in many ways, to that of 2 Thess 2:1-11. Chapters 17-19 of Revelation serve as the climax to the division of the book which spans chapters 12-19. I outline this division as follows:

    • Chs. 12:1-14:5—The faithful (people of God), symbolized as a woman who is attacked by the dragon (and its beasts)
      • 12:1-17—Vision of the Woman giving birth; the labor pains, etc, relate to the war made on her children (believers, people of God) by the dragon (the Devil and his Messengers)
      • 12:18-13:18—Vision of the two beasts, which are ‘offspring’ of the dragon
      • 14:1-5—Vision of the 144,000, the faithful ones who have endured the dragon’s attacks (implied)
    • Chs. 14:6-16:21—Judgment of God upon the world (Babylon) and the wicked
      • 14:6-13—Vision of the (Angelic) announcement of Judgment
      • 14:14-20—Vision of the Man with the sickle, about to reap the harvest (of the Judgment)
      • 15:1-8—Heavenly vision that introduces the pouring out of God’s wrath
      • 16:1-21—Vision of the Seven Bowls of God’s wrath poured out on the world
    • Chs. 17-19—Wicked/worldly power, symbolized as a woman seated upon the beast
      • 17—Vision of the Woman (prostitute) identified as “Babylon”, with an interpretation
      • 18—Oracle (Hymn) on the fall of Babylon
      • 19:1-10—Heavenly vision and hymn (on the fall of Babylon)
      • 19:11-21—Vision of the Rider on the White Horse and the defeat of the Beast

Two women are set in (contrasting) parallel with each other—one representing the faithful people of God, the other symbolizing the wicked of the world—each flanking a great cluster of visions describing the end-time Judgment. This second woman is depicted in chapter 17 under the figure of a prostitute (pornh/). All the rulers and inhabitants of the earth are said to have had intercourse (euphemistically, “soaked from her wine”) with this prostitute (v. 2). As part of the actual vision (vv. 3-6a), we find this detail:

“…and upon the (space) between her eye(s) [i.e. her forehead] a name has been written (which is) a secret [musth/rion]: ‘Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking (thing)s of the earth'”

In Greco-Roman literature of the period we read of prostitutes adopting the names of colorful characters (e.g. Demonsthenes, Oration 59.19; Juvenal, Satires 6.123), as well as wearing bands around their foreheads (Herodotus, Histories I.199.2). In Jeremiah 3:3, the expression “forehead of a prostitute” (hn`oz hV*a! j^x^m@) to indicate blatant immorality is likely proverbial. While it is possible that a prostitute might write a name upon her forehead band, here in Rev 17:5 the name should be understood as one applied (by God) to her in the vision. The main aspect of the “secret” has to do with the identification of the prostitute as Babylon. In verse 7, the secret involves the woman herself (the Angel speaking):

“And I will utter to you the secret [musth/rion] of th(is) woman and of the beast th(at is) bearing [i.e. lifting/carrying] her, the (one) holding seven heads and ten horns.”

Here the “secret” involves the explanation or interpretation of the vision, much as the “secret of the Kingdom of God” in Mark 4:11 par involved the explanation of Jesus’ parables to his circle of followers. Of greater influence for the book of Revelation is the use of the Aramaic zr` (“secret”) in reference to the vision-interpretations given to Daniel (Dan 2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:9); in these passages God is said to reveal to Daniel the secrets hidden in the visions.

By combining the name of prostitute (“Babylon”) with the explanation of the visionary details provided in 17:7ff, it seems fairly clear that this woman is meant to symbolize the wicked/worldly power associated with Rome (i.e. the Roman Empire). An association between Rome and Babylon was already traditional by the end of the New Testament period, as indicated by the setting in other Apocalyptic writings (2/4 Esdras 3:1-2, 29-31; 16:1; 2 Baruch 10:2; 11:1; 67:7; Sibylline Oracles 5:143, 159); “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is probably also a cipher for Rome. The association was natural, since both Rome and Babylon were the center of great empires (i.e. the Babylonian empire of the 7th/6th century B.C.), and both invaded/conquered Judea and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple in the process. The identification with Rome would seem to be confirmed by the interpretation of the beast in vv. 7ff and the imagery of the hymn in chapter 18. The explanation of the “seven horns” as “seven mountains” (v. 9) certainly suggests the seven hills traditionally connected with the city of Rome. Moreover, chapter 18 describes a great commercial empire with control of the seas. With such an identification, the “seven kings” (another interpretation of the horns) would presumably represent rulers of the Empire, five of whom have died and a sixth who is currently living (ruling?). The author and/or audience of the book may have known just who these six rulers (Emperors?) were, but today we can only guess; various proposals have been made, none of which are entirely convincing.

It is important to point out that, even if the primary association of the woman (and the beast) is with the Roman Empire, that is simply because it was the clearest and strongest manifestation of wicked/worldly power at the time that the book of Revelation was written (as in the case of 2 Thessalonians, cf. above). Clearly, the evil power and influence of the beast(s)—and, in turn, the dragon (identified with the Devil/Satan)—transcends the specific connection with Rome. The heads/horns of the beast represent power and authority which rightly belongs to God, but which the beast and the worldly rulers he controls have appropriated for themselves. Similarly, God is typically seen as residing upon a mountain in ancient (Near Eastern) religious and mythological imagery; the association with the symbolic (sacred/divine) number seven only strengthens this idea. There are two interesting (contemporary) examples in this regard:

    • In 1 Enoch 18:6-8 the heavenly vision includes seven great mountains, the central of which stretches “to heaven like the throne of God”. These seven mountains are connected more closely with God’s throne in chapters 24-25. First Enoch was probably composed variously over a considerable span of time, from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st cent. A.D.; it was popular and influential on Jewish thought (and apocalyptic/messianic thought, in particular) at the time of the New Testament. Chapters 37-71 may date from the early 1st century A.D., being contemporary with the earliest layers of Christian tradition. An important theme of the book (especially in chaps. 37-71) is how the kings of the earth will face God’s Judgment for their (arrogant) refusal to submit themselves to His authority, and for their mistreatment/persecution of God’s people.
    • In the 1st Oration, or Discourse, of Dio Chrysostom (on Kingship), we find a vision of two great mountain peaks (66-84)—one is the Royal peak, associated with Zeus, upon which is a beautiful and dignified woman, representing true and proper kingship; the second is the peak of Tyranny, upon which is seated another woman (representing Tyranny) and described in a manner reminiscent of Revelation 17-18. Dio would have been in his prime c. 90 A.D., about the time often assumed for the composition of the book of Revelation.

The prostitute is carried, born aloft, by the beast, meaning that she is supported by him. His horns and heads are a natural, if grotesque, outgrowth of the beast’s evil life and power.

For some of the references cited above (and others), cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014), pp. 674-8.
References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).

“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: 2 Thess 2:7

This study, dealing with the occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament, examines 2 Thessalonians 2:7 and a very distinctive use of the term.

2 Thessalonians 2:7

In 2 Thess 2:1-12, Paul addresses an eschatological issue: regarding whether the “day of the Lord” might have already come. The expression “day of the Lord” was inherited from Old Testament and Jewish tradition—a reference to the time, at the end of this current Age, when the Lord (YHWH) would appear to bring judgment upon the world and deliver the faithful among his people. By the time of the New Testament, the concept was closely tied to Messianic expectation—the end-time appearance of an “anointed” ruler and/or representative of God, whose appearance will precede or usher-in the Judgment. Jesus was universally accepted by early Christians as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ)—for the associations between Jesus and the main Messianic figure-types, cf. the notes and articles in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”—and the uniquely Christian contribution to the traditional eschatological picture was that Jesus would return (as God’s representative) to deliver his people (believers) and oversee the administration of the final Judgment. Paul, like virtually all believers of the time, expected that the end-time Judgment and return of Jesus were imminent, to occur very soon, and so it was understandable that the experience of intense suffering and persecution (the “birth pains”) might lead Christians to think that the Judgment was in the process of taking place. Paul wishes to make clear, in vv. 3ff, that certain events must still occur before the final Judgment comes. He is drawing upon a traditional eschatological framework—taken primarily from Daniel 7-12, especially 9:20-27, and the various apocalyptic works inspired by it (cf. my article on this passage). Jesus’ own eschatological teaching, as recorded in Synoptic tradition (Mark 13 par), draws from this line of tradition as well.

Before discussing 2 Thess 2:7 in context, it is worth pointing out the considerable difficulties for modern-day Christians in studying and evaluating these eschatological passages in the New Testament (which I address in the upcoming series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”). A wide range of interpretations (and systems of interpretation) have developed over the years—some more plausible than others—in order to make sense of the relevant passages. There is special difficulty associated with 2 Thess 2:3ff, since it, perhaps more than any other in the New Testament, appears to be a prophecy regarding specific historical events, set (so it would seem) in Paul’s own time, and involving the presence of the Jerusalem Temple (v. 4)—in other words, prior to 70 A.D. There are three main interpretative approaches, as with most of the eschatological passages:

    • Imminent-Historical—The events should be taken at face value, as a prophecy of things which would soon happen (perhaps within a few years), assuming the existence of the Jerusalem Temple (i.e. prior to its destruction)
    • Futurist—Again the prophesied events are taken more or less at face value, but in a future time (where, apparently, a functioning Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt).
    • Symbolic—According to this view, Paul uses specific traditional-historical eschatological imagery (“man of lawlessness”, “the Temple”, etc) to refer to more general spiritual/religious tendencies (apostasy, rebellion against God), which have been occurring, and which will occur with greater intensity (today/in the future), as the end approaches.

There are strengths and weaknesses to each approach, some more serious than others. In my view, only the first deals honestly with the text (and the historical context) of the passage as we have it, though, admittedly, it raises important questions regarding 2 Thess 2:3ff as a genuine (historical) prophecy. For the purposes of this study, I assume that Paul basically has his own time in mind (including the pre-70 Temple), without making any judgment on the wider theological/doctrinal issues. The key portion is vv. 6-8. Paul has already made reference to a “standing away (from God) [a)postasi/a, apostasía, i.e. ‘apostasy’]” which immediately precedes the end, as well as the appearance of the “man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (some MSS read “man of sin” […th=$ a(marti/a$]). There is a tendency by many Christians to identify this figure automatically with the “Antichrist” of subsequent tradition, blending 2 Thess 2 together with the epistles of John and the book of Revelation; however, while the underlying concept of antichrist is appropriate to the context here, it is important to limit our examination to what Paul himself says. This “man of lawlessness” is expounded by two phrases in vv. 3-4:

    • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)
    • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
      —”laying/crouching down against” [a)ntikei/meno$]
      —”raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

In other words, this person looks to attack, and to raise himself over, every proper religious idea people may have. This tendency culminates in the dramatic action of seating himself in the Temple sanctuary (nao/$) to demonstrate his own deity (v. 5). Verses 6-8 set the historical/chronological context for these events. Especially important (and difficult) is the use of the verb kate/xw (lit. “hold down”); there are two ways this can be understood—(1) holding someone down, in the sense of restraining or impeding him, or (2) holding down (i.e. having control of) power or a position. These two options lead to three basic ways of interpreting vv. 6-8 (for a good survey, cf. Wanamaker, pp. 249-58):

    • The lawless one and/or “secret of lawlessness” holds back (delays) the coming of Christ and the end judgment—i.e. it will not happen until the lawless one first appears
    • Someone/something holds back (restrains) the coming of the lawless one
    • The “secret of lawlessness”, including someone in particular, holds down (possesses) power until the time when the “lawless one” appears

In my view, the last of these approaches best fits the context and grammar of the passage. Here is a literal rendering of vv. 6-9 with this in mind:

“And now you have seen the (thing) holding down (power) unto [i.e. leading toward] the uncovering of him in his (own) time. For the secret of lawlessness already works in (the world), only until the (one) holding down (power) now comes to be out of the middle—and then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the Spirit of His mouth and will make inactive in the shining of his coming along [parousi/a] upon (the earth), and whose coming along is according to the working of (the) Satan in him in all lying power and signs and marvels.”

There is some confusion in the syntax due the reference of two different “comings” (lit. “coming to be along[side]”, parousi/a parousía)—that of the Lord (v. 8), and that of the “lawless one” (v. 9). This is rather easier to recognize in the original Greek, since the two relative pronouns (indicated by italics above) relate, by way of modifying clauses, to “the lawless one” at the beginning of v. 8:

    • “Then will be uncovered the lawless one [o( a&nomo$]
      • whom [o^n] the Lord will take up/away…and
      • whose [ou!] coming to be along [parousi/a] is…”

There can be little doubt that the juxtaposition of the coming of the Lord and the Lawless One is intentional, meant as a definite contrast—the coming of the Lawless One, who will show/proclaim himself as God, is an evil parody of the true coming of the Lord. Some manuscripts read “the Lord Yeshua” (o( ku/rio$ )Ihsou=$) , while others simply “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$). In the original Scriptural (Old Testament) tradition, it was God (YHWH) himself who would appear in Judgment at the end-time, though this was often understood as occurring through a heavenly/angelic representative—the “Messenger (Angel) of the Lord”, as (it would seem) in the original setting of Malachi 3:1ff. In subsequent Jewish thought, much of this role was taken by the Messiah, especially the figure-types of the Davidic Ruler and (heavenly) “Son of Man”. The imagery in verse 8b is drawn primarily from Isaiah 11:4, a popular ‘Messianic’ passage of the time.

Another important aspect of vv. 6-8 involves the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in verse 7. A similar expression (“secret[s] of sin”) is known from the Qumran texts (1QM 14:9; 1QH 5:36; 1Q27 1.2,7); and note also “secret of evil/wickedness” (musth/rion kaki/a$) in Josephus War 1.470 (cf. Wanamaker, p. 255). The word a)nomi/a (along with the adjective a&nomo$) essentially means “without law”, that is, without possessing or adhering to proper law and custom. From the societal standpoint, this results in “lawlessness” and is tantamount to anarchy and rebellion. In a religious sense, being “without law” generally refers to immorality; however, from a Jewish (and Christian) perspective, since the Law (Torah) is tied to the idea of the agreement established between God and his people, “lawlessness” is effectively the same as rebellion against God. Note the way that this dynamic is expressed in the eschatological context of vv. 6-8:

    • The (thing) holding down (power) [to\ kate/xon, neuter participle] (v. 6)
      • The secret of lawlessness [to\ musth/rion {neuter} th=$ a)nomi/a$] (v. 7a)
    • The (one) holding down (power) [o( kate/xwn, masculine participle] (v. 7b)
      • The lawless one [o( a&nomo$, masculine] (v. 8)

The parallel is clear and obvious, shifting from the neuter (a condition or tendency) to the masculine (a person or [personal] figure). The relationship can also be expressed as a chiasm, as follows:

    • The secret of lawlessness—i.e. of sin, evil and opposition to God
      —The (thing) holding down power
      —The (one) holding down power
    • The lawless one—directly empowered/inspired by Satan, opposed to God

The use of the verb kate/xw suggests a temporary situation—the holding down of power until [e%w$] the (final) manifestation of lawlessness in the “lawless one”. More to the point, the use of the term “secret” (musth/rion) indicates that this lawlessness is, to some extent, hidden during the current state of things (in Paul’s time). At the very least, we can infer that the true nature, and full extent, of this lawlessness is hidden from the awareness of ordinary people, though Paul definitely states that it is “at work in” (e)nergei=tai) the world (v. 7a). Again, there is a strong sense here of an evil parallel (and parody) with the Gospel:

    • The secret of God, which has been hidden away from the world
      —only now made known through the appearance and work of Christ
    • The secret of lawlessness, likewise hidden (at least in its full extent)
      —only to be made known through the appearance and (Satanic) work of the lawless one

A bit more must be said of this “lawless one” in the context of vv. 6-8; this will be done in the process of addressing the use of musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7, in the next study.

References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians in The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] series (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).

“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: 1 Tim 3:9, 16

The next two occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) to be discussed are found in 1 Timothy 3:9 and 16. The Pastoral Epistles (especially 1 Timothy), like Ephesians, are considered by many critical commentators to be pseudonymous. This issue is complex and much debated, and I will not attempt to address it here. However, it certainly may be argued that 1 Timothy evinces a more developed sense of what we would call Christian tradition—a distinct, and relatively fixed, body of (‘orthodox’) beliefs and teachings which is to be preserved and carefully guarded against false teachers and other ‘heterodox’ outsiders. This, at least, suggests a relatively late date (sometime after 60 A.D.); those who regard 1 Timothy as pseudonymous would probably date it c. 90 A.D. It is not possible in the space here to offer a complete list of relevant passages, but a couple will be mentioned in passing.

1 Timothy 3:9, 16

These two references come from the end of the first half of the letter (cf. my outline of 1 Timothy below). The first is part of the instruction regarding ministers (lit. “servants”, diakonoi) in the congregation (3:8-13). The main criteria given for persons to serve in this ministerial role are outlined in two parts: (a) ethical/moral qualifications (vv. 8-10), and (b) head of a proper and well-run household (vv. 11-12).

NOTE: The possibility that verse 11 refers to female ministers, rather than simply to the wives of (male) ministers, is dealt with in a note in the series Women in the Church.

The following phrase is included within the moral qualifications of vv. 8-10:

“…holding the secret of the faith in a clean/pure sunei/dhsi$” (v. 9)

Normally, in early Christian language, pi/sti$ is to be rendered “trust”, i.e. trust in Christ, as also throughout the Pauline letters. However, gradually, the term came to have the semi-technical meaning “the (Christian) Faith”—Christianity itself as a religious designation. Something of this latter sense appears here in 1 Tim 3:9. As is clear from what follows in 3:14-16 and 4:1-5ff, the “secret of the faith” (to\ musth/rion th=$ pi/stew$) involves all of the core traditions and teachings which the minister must pass along and preserve/protect from corrupting influences. The word sunei/dhsi$ literally means “seeing (things) together”, i.e. a complete perception and understanding, often with a moral aspect, such as would correspond generally to the English word “conscience”. The moral/ethical sense is clear from vv. 8, 10, but it certainly also relates to a proper understanding of the Christian faith.

The first half concludes with vv. 14-16, and a Christological declaration (v. 16) that is the central point of the letter. It runs parallel to the exhortation to preserve correct teaching in 4:1-5 (and 6-10). Verses 14-15 relate to the (apparent) context of the letter—Paul is writing to Timothy, the written instruction serving an apostolic role in place of Paul’s appearance in person. The purpose of the writing is summed up with these words: “so that you might see [i.e. know] how it is necessary to turn (yourself) up (again) in the house of God”. The subjunctive perfect form ei)dh=|$ (eid¢¡s, “you might/should have seen”) could relate back to sunei/dhsi$ (suneíd¢sis, “see [things] together”) in v. 9 (cf. above). Also, in 3:11-12, it is said that the minister should be able to manage his own household, as a kind of prerequisite to serving in the house(hold) of God (i.e. the congregation), as stated here in v. 15. The verb a)nastre/fw (“turn up [again]”) in this context has the basic meaning of “return, go back (again)”, i.e. to show up repeatedly and work continually in “God’s house”. This “house of God” (originally used of the Temple) is specifically defined as the “congregation/assembly [e)kklhsi/a] of the living God”, and further characterized as “the pillar [stu=lo$] and base/ground [e)drai/wma] of the truth”. Again this truth relates back to the expression “secret of the faith” in v. 9, and, in verse 16, is centered in the core truth of the Gospel (regarding the person of Christ).

1 Timothy 3:16

This is one of the principal early Christian statements summarizing the Gospel message. In all likelihood, Paul (or the author) is drawing upon an earlier hymn or creedal formula. It is introduced this way:

“And account being given (all)together [i.e. according to us all] (we may say that) great (indeed) is the secret of good reverence [eu)se/beia]…”

The word eu)se/beia has no good translation in English; often it is rendered “religion, piety, godliness”, or something similar, but none of these are especially accurate. The related root verb se/bomai has to do with showing fear or reverence, esp. before God; and the compound verb eu)sebe/w essentially means showing good (that is, proper) reverence toward God. The eu)seb- word group is not used at all in the undisputed letters of Paul, but occurs more than a dozen times in the three Pastoral letters (1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 5:4; 6:3, 5-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5, 12; Tit 1:1; 2:12)—one of the differences in vocabulary which leads many commentators to doubt Pauline authorship. Apart from the Pastorals, the word group is found only in 2 Peter (1:3, 6-7; 2:9; 3:11) and the book of Acts (3:12; 10:2, 7; and 17:23 [spoken by Paul in the narrative]). It suggests the beginning of an understanding which regards (early) Christianity as a distinct religion. Here in 1 Timothy, the expression “secret of good reverence” (musth/rion th=$ eu)sebei/a$) is generally synonymous with the “secret of the faith” (musth/rion th=$ pi/stew$) from 3:9. The fundamental declaration of this “secret” in v. 16 is expressed in a hymnic statement, beginning with a relative pronoun (o%$, “who”) and consisting of six parallel lines:

“…[i.e. Jesus Christ] who
e)fanerw/qh e)n sarki/
was made to shine (forth) in (the) flesh
e)dikaiw/qh e)n pneu/mati
was made right/just in (the) Spirit
w&fqh a&gge/loi$
was seen (among the) Messengers
e)khru/xqh e)n e&qnesin
was proclaimed among (the) nations
e)pisteu/qh e)n ko/smw|
was trusted in (the) world
a)nelh/mfqh e)n do/ch|
was taken up in honor/glory

Each line contains an aorist passive verb followed by the preposition e)n (“in, among”) + dative; the preposition is missing in the third line, but probably should be assumed there as well. This simple, rhythmic structure would allow for easy memorization and use as a hymn or confessional formula. It consists of a set of three related pairs:

    • In the Flesh / Spirit
    • Among the Messengers (Angels) / Nations
    • In the World / Glory

It is also possible to read it as a chiasm:

Clearly these lines narrate the basic facts and elements of the Gospel, but not according to a chronological arrangement, as we might expect.

Perhaps most difficult is the use of the verb dikai/ow in the first line. It literally means “make right/just”, and is often used in the sense of a person being made (or declared) right/just before God, a sense which would not seem entirely appropriate applied to the person of Jesus. However, the verb may also be understood in the more general sense of “making (things) right”. An important aspect of the early Christian view of Jesus was that his death on the cross took place even though he was righteous and innocent of any crime; as such, on a basic level, his death was a terrible miscarriage of justice, one which God “made right” through the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to His right hand in heaven. This working-out of justice was done through the Spirit of God—the same (Holy) Spirit which makes believers right before God through trust in Christ.

Mention should be made of the important textual variant in 1 Tim 3:16. At the start of the hymn-formula, the majority of manuscripts read qeo/$ (“God”) instead of the relative pronoun o%$ (“who”). In spite of some opposition, most commentators (correctly) recognize that the relative pronoun is almost certainly original. It is appropriate to the hymnic/confessional form, and transcriptional probability overwhelming supports the alteration from o%$ to qeo/$, rather than the other way around. In the uncial Greek letters, o%$ would appear as os, which was then mistaken for qs, an abbreviated form of qeo$ (qeos). This “sacred name” abbreviation would be marked by an overline (+q+s), making it extremely unlikely that it would have been mistaken for the relative pronoun os. The change is probably also to be explained by the difficulty of syntax with the relative pronoun: “the secret of good reverence…who was…”; this difficulty is alleviated somewhat if we read the remainer of v. 16 essentially as a quotation: “…the secret of good reverence: (of Jesus Christ) ‘who was etc etc…'” On the other hand, if the majority reading turned out to be correct, then the “secret” would be localized specifically (primarily) in the incarnation of Christ (“God manifest in the flesh”).

Outline of 1 Timothy
    • Greeting (1:1-2)
    • Exhortation to Timothy (1:3-20), regarding
      —Preservation of correct teaching and tradition (vv. 3-11)
      —Paul’s own example as minister of the Gospel (vv. 12-20)
    • Guidelines for the Churches (2:1-3:13)
      —General instruction on Prayer and Worship (2:1-8)
      —continuation, emphasizing the role and position of Women (2:9-15)
      —Regarding “Overseers” (3:1-7)
      —Regarding “Servants/Ministers” (3:8-13)
    • Central declaration (3:14-16)
    • Exhortation to Timothy (4:1-16), regarding
      —False teaching (4:1-5)
      —Preservation of correct teaching and (ethical) conduct (4:6-10)
      —Example of Timothy as minister and apostolic representative (4:11-16)
    • Guidelines for the Churches (5:1-6:2)
      —General instruction related to the handling of men and women (5:1-2)
      —Regarding (female) “Widows” (5:3-16)
      —Regarding (male) “Elders” (5:17-20)
      —[Miscellaneous/personal instruction] (5:21-25)
      —Regarding those in the churches who are Slaves (6:1-2)
    • Exhortation to Timothy (6:1-19), regarding
      —False teaching and ethical conduct (vv. 1-10)
      —Example/encouragement for Timothy as minister of the Gospel (vv. 11-16)
      —The use of riches (vv. 17-19)
    • Conclusion (final instruction) and benediction (6:20-21)

“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).

“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: Rom 11:25; 16:25

This study continues the survey of occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament, most of which are found in the Pauline letters. Previously, I discussed the references in 1 Corinthians; here I turn to a pair of verses in Romans.

Romans 11:25; 16:25

I begin with Romans 16:25, the beginning of a doxology (vv. 25-27) which is often thought, by many critical commentators, to be a secondary addition, and not part of the original letter. However, there can be little doubt that verse 25 reflects genuine Pauline thought, such as we find in 1 Corinthians 2 (cf. the previous study):

“And to the (One who is) empowered [i.e. able] to set you firm, according to my good message [i.e. Gospel] and the proclamation of Yeshua (the) Anointed, according to the uncovering of the secret kept silent for times (and) ages (past)…”

The phrasing in v. 25b is similar in thought (and expression) to 1 Cor 2:7. Here, however, two points are emphasized:

1. The secret (musth/rion, myst¢¡rion) is parallel to, and essentially synonymous with, the Gospel (eu)agge/lion, euangélion), which is further defined specifically as “the proclamation [kh/rugma, k¢¡rygma] of Jesus Christ”. This can be seen by an examination of the structure of this part of the sentence:

    • the one empowered/able to set you firm
      • according to [kata/] the good message [eu)agge/lion]…
      • according to [kata/] the uncovering of the secret [musth/rion]…

2. Two additional details are given regarding this secret: (a) it has been kept silent [sesighme/nou] for long ages past, and (b) it is now being uncovered (a)poka/luyi$, from the verb a)pokalu/ptw, “remove the cover from”). This “uncovering” of the secret is specifically parallel with the “proclamation” of the Gospel. Paul does not quite use this language in 1 Corinthians; rather he simply says that he and his fellow ministers are now speaking this secret, i.e. making it known, which generally amounts to the same thing. To the extent that this secret has been “uncovered” it has been done so by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:10).

Interestingly, Paul typically uses the noun a)poka/luyi$ and verb a)pokalu/ptw in relation to the appearance (revelation) of Jesus at the end-time (2 Thess 1:7 [and note 2:3, 6, 8]; 1 Cor 1:7 [and 3:13]; also Rom 1:18; 2:5; 8:18-19); though, more properly, it refers to any (personal) manifestation of Christ (cf. Gal 1:12, 16; 2 Cor 12:1), etc. It can also refer generally to anything communicated (a prophecy, etc) to believers through Christ or the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 14:6, 26, 30; Gal 2:2; Phil 3:15; also Eph 3:3). Perhaps most notable are those passages which indicate that faith, righteousness, salvation, etc., have been revealed (“uncovered”) in the person of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:23).

In Romans 11:25, the word musth/rion (“secret”) is used in a special context, but one which, significantly, takes us back to the saying of Jesus in Mark 4:11 par:

“I do not want you to be without knowledge, brothers, (regarding) this secret—that you should not be (going) [along] in your own mind(-set)—that the rock-hard (attitude) from part of Israel has come to be (so) until the (time) in which the filling/fullness of the nations should come in.”

From our vantage point, Paul’s syntax (read literally) could easily obscure the point he is making; the central declaration is as follows (paraphrasing):

“this secret is: that the hardness of part of Israel has occurred (only) until the full number of Gentiles should come in (to faith in Christ)”

This statement (and what follows down through verse 32) represents the climax of a long and complex line of discussion by Paul in chapters 9-11, where he attempts to explain an issue dear to his heart: why it is that many of his fellow Jews have failed (or have been unwilling) to accept Christ and the Gospel message. This is something Paul dealt with all throughout his missionary work. We find fierce opposition to Paul and his co-workers throughout the book of Acts (esp. in chapters 13-21), during which time he began to turn his attention toward preaching to Gentiles (non-Jews)—cf. Acts 13:46-47; 18:6; 28:28. Something of his own fiery reaction to this can be found in 1 Thess 2:14-16 (a passage which must be read and handled with great care). Jewish Christians continued to oppose certain aspects of Paul’s teaching, or offered rival doctrines and sources of authority to Paul’s own—cf. throughout Galatians, and especially in 2 Corinthians 10-13. What is especially notable is that we find, in Paul’s addressing of the issue (at the end of the book of Acts, 28:26-27), the same Scripture (Isaiah 6:9-10) cited by Jesus in Mark 4:12 par (cf. the discussion in my previous note). It is possible to trace a line of interpretation and development:

    • Mark 4:12 par—God has blinded/hardened the people (Israel) so they cannot understand the “secret of the Kingdom” disclosed in Jesus’ parables, etc
    • John 12:40—This blindness/hardness of the people (Israelites/Jews) has resulted in their failure (and/or unwillingness) to accept and trust in Jesus
    • Acts 28:26-27—The blindness/hardness of Jews has forced Paul to turn his missionary efforts to non-Jews (Gentiles), who are coming to faith in Christ
    • Romans 11:25—This blindness/hardness was brought about by God for the specific purpose of bringing (the full number of) Gentiles to salvation

The first three of these passages cite Isa 6:9-10 directly; it is only implied, one can assume, in Romans 9-11. This narrows the focus of at least one aspect of the “secret(s) of God” and the “secret(s) of the Kingdom”, but one which was of fundamental importance to early Christians (especially Paul). It is perhaps hard for believers today—particularly those in the Western nations—to appreciate how intense this issue was in the early Church. The first generation of Christians, including most (if not all) of the apostles, was predominantly Jewish. The problem at first involved how non-Jewish believers should be included within the Church, and, it seems clear, there was much heated debate on the matter, which we can now glimpse vividly (if only partly) by reading Acts 10-11, 15, 21, etc, and Paul’s argument running through Galatians. By the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans (mid/late 50s), many more Gentiles had come to believe in Christ, with congregations springing up all of the Greco-Roman world. A major theme, and purpose, of Paul in Romans was to make a fundamental statement on the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. This was given theological (and soteriological) formulation, in various ways, throughout chapters 1-8; in chapters 9-11, there is a stronger eschatological emphasis. Commentators continue to struggle on just how one should interpret (and apply) the logic and force of Paul’s argument(s) in Rom 9-11 (cf. my earlier article in the series The Law and the New Testament); it must be studied and treated carefully, lest we too miss out on this aspect of the “secret of the Kingdom”.

“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.