“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”.

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