The Mystery of “Mystery”

Few words can be more misleading to the modern ear than the Orthodox use of the word “mystery.” It’s a fine New Testament word and is (technically) the proper name for the sacraments in Orthodoxy (though we most often say ‘sacrament’ in English). Its root meaning is that of something “hidden.” In our culture’s language, mystery is more a matter of a who-done-it or a reference to something so puzzling or beyond us that it cannot be known. It’s not unusual for the non-Orthodox to complain that when pressed really hard, the Orthodox will take refuge and say, “It’s a mystery.” So, what is the mystery in “mystery?”

There is a debate about the exact root of the word in Greek. Most agree that it has to do with silence. Indeed, one speculation is that it is onomatopoetic (a word that sounds like what it is). As such, it comes from a root which is the sound you make when your mouth is closed (“mmmm”). In St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy, directions to priests on certain prayers are that they are to be said “mystically,” meaning that the prayer should be spoken softly (sotto voce). This soft-spoken meaning also can reflect the sense of “secret.”

“Mystery” is a major term in some of St. Paul’s writings, particularly Ephesians and Colossians. There he describes the entire plan of salvation as a “mystery that has now been revealed.” He makes reference to the same thing in Romans as well (16:25). Christ Himself uses the term in Mark’s gospel, telling the disciples that it has been given to them to “know the mystery of the Kingdom of God,” while it is hidden in parables for others (4:11).

But there is more to the word than mere secret. St. Paul also speaks of the “mystery of godliness” and the “mystery of iniquity.” In those expressions the word does not describe secret information, but a hidden process at work. And this gets closer, I think, to St. Paul’s other uses as well. For him, “mystery” is not the same thing as “secret.” It is not information that is being held back. Rather, it is a reality that is not made manifest as of yet. And this is at the very heart of the Orthodox use of the word.

When St. Paul speaks of the “mystery hidden from before the ages” (1Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26) he is referencing Christ’s Pascha, the “Lamb slain from the foundation.” This is not a reference to a secret plan, but to the very hidden truth of Christ Crucified and its work in creation. I’ve always appreciated C.S. Lewis’ play on this in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He describes a “deep magic” which the witch does not know, and, on account of which she unwittingly brings about her own defeat. In the Corinthians passage St. Paul says:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Cor. 2:7-8)

In the presentation of Christ crucified as mystery, we are to understand that the crucifixion itself is a manifestation in time of that which has been true from before the ages. The crucifixion is more than an event – it is a revelation of the truth of who God is. It is proper for us to say that Christianity is inherently apocalyptic – it is a revealing of that which has been hidden.

This same theme even plays out in the description of our salvation:

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Col. 3:2-4)

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. (Rom. 8:18-19)

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 Jn. 3:2)

Something of the same notion is found in the Old Testament as well:

 Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wis. 3:5-7)

It is keenly important to understand that what is hidden is not something that does not already exist: that would be a mere secret, an idea. The mystery described and referenced within the Scriptures is a reality that existed before the creation itself. It is Christ crucified. It is the treasure of our salvation:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Pet. 1:3-5)

It is this very “mystery” that forms the substance of the sacraments of the Church. In Baptism, we are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ (an eternal reality); in the Eucharist, we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the crucified Christ, slain from the foundation of the earth, and so on. The mystery of our salvation is not presented to us as something that has not yet happened. It is rather something that has not yet been revealed. Its reality is greater than the things we see at present:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17-18)

This same understanding is the basis for the various forms of allegory used in reading the Scriptures. That reading is not a literary device. Rather, it is a discernment of something that is true and real and that lies beneath the surface of the words. Those who champion the “literal-historical” reading, as though it were the only firm foundation, utterly neglect the very character of our salvation. The mystery of the crucified Christ is the content of all Scripture, and is read by those who know Him.

The Orthodox answer, “It is a mystery,” is not an effort to dodge difficult questions. It is, instead, an attempt to say what is most profoundly true. Not only is Christ the mystery which has been made known, but we ourselves are a mystery, yet to be revealed. The world around us, like the Scriptures themselves, have Christ Crucified as their truth, for Christ is the Logos, according to which and through which the logos of every created thing is made. If you do not know the mystery of creation, then you do not know creation.

It is a mystery known to the trees and rocks. They groan, waiting for it to be made manifest. Occasionally, they begin to shout, to sing and to clap their hands. The song of creation is a mystery, heard by those who have ears to hear.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





41 responses to “The Mystery of “Mystery””

  1. Tikhon Avatar

    It reminds me of the faith of little Lucy in the Narnia series. She has faith to see the mystery and discern Reality. How do we cultivate this discernment when our (my) faith is so weak? How do we learn to trust in an age of skepticism?

  2. Byron Avatar

    Wow! How wonderful, Father! I look at the theme of Mystery in the verses you list concerning the “description of our salvation” and wonder at the how the fullness of our humanity will be revealed….

  3. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    This is another one I’m printing up to hold and read again and again.

    I’m so grateful for describing the groaning of the rocks and trees. Listening to their song brings me joy.

  4. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    Thank you Fr. Stephen, and also Tikhon. Also, how do we deal with such things as appeals to get entangled in political stuff? I got an email asking me to write to politicians about a bill that may well cause problems for the churches in the future. But is this even worth concerning myself with? If “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory,” is it perhaps just damaging to my soul to get embroiled in the matter?

  5. Johnpaul Avatar

    Very timely article!
    I am in a discussion with a Muslim on the Incarnation and the Trinity.
    I want to be careful in my use of the word “Mystery” because I don’t want to come across as conveying the idea that Christians are “sloppy” and intellectually lazy. This article has helped clarify the word a lot.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    These are things that we do little by little, I think. I’ll speak from my own experience: I ground everything in the resurrection of Christ. It is that single, historical fact that is my starting point. I start there, precisely because of the messiness of my inner life (subjectivity). I’ve always needed something steadier as a foundation. I think that the historical case for the reality of Christ’s resurrection is very solid. I recommend reading and video material from Dr. Gary Habermas. He’s an evangelical biblical scholar whose work on historical reliability of the Scriptural account of the resurrection is very solid.

    But, starting from that acceptance of Christ’s resurrection – I am able to “move out” from there. Habermas’ value lies precisely in the fact that he takes on skepticism quite directly.

    I then begin to “feel” my way forward, following the lead of the Fathers. Assuming that the world is more than my immediate senses tell me, I “stretch” myself towards that perception. I’m still a pretty skeptical person – I was raised that way. But this has been beneficial to me.

    What I cannot and will not do, is try to ground any of this in an internal perception of God. That kind of thing comes and goes so easily. I don’t ignore my internal perceptions – but I do not base very much of my life on them. That said, there are days that the perception is so strong that it is like ecstasy. And there are days that everything seems empty and blank. I take that about as seriously as I do my moods. Depressed days are a pain in the neck, but they only give me information about what’s going on inside me – no about the world outside.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I am increasingly convinced that politics is a “religious force” in the American mind – driven by the passions. It’s a form of religious pornography, in that regard. Thus, I tend to avoid it, even though it permeates the world around us.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Another complication with the word in ‘modern speak’ is that it can connote rational problem that can be solved by rational means instead of entering into something by revealed grace that is not contained by human rationality.
    It also implies 1. It can be contained and 2. we can control it.

    Such assumptions make explicating it challenging even when done so well as Fr. Stephen does. Ultimately, it has to be accepted and entered into in the midst of our sin.

    I read a quote from St. Nikolai Velimirovich: “No sin, no matter how many times repeated is greater than God’s mercy. ”

    That is because His mercy is a mystery that endures forever. Sin only lives in death.

  9. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    By the way Father, I also want to thank you for mentioning Gary Habermas’ work. You have done so in the past and it’s good to bring him up again. I’ve had a long difficulty with Evangeletical Protestants over the course of my life, for various reasons having to do with their general behavior, outlook, and politics and the consequences of such on my mind and heart. However, his work has gone a long way toward healing my soul of the wounds they have inflicted upon it. His work outweighs all the rest of the nonsense.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, at what point does avoidance become counter-productive and challenging the religion of politics become necessary. Saying “No” to the technocratic demands for command and control. I tend to equate it to Christians prior to Constantine in the Roman Empire.
    Or is that, too, a mystery of a sort?

  11. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Forgive me Father, is there a specific book of G. Habermas you would recommend? I’ve listened to his talks, and I’d like to read whichever you’d think is most relevant for an interested Orthodox Christian.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m less concerned about challenging the command and control of politics, per se, like the stuff politicians put forward. I’m more concerned with challenging fellow Orthodox Christians who think it is possible to combine politics (of every sort) with their Orthodox faith and not have their faith co-opted by the political narrative (which is a false religion). I expect governments to act like governments. I would to God there were greater humility in their political projects – that would help. But, modern Christians tend to “believe” in politics.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve only ever listened to his videos. I would suspect that his book, Case for the Resurrection, would be worth having. He also has an interest in near-death experiences, which I do not find terribly useful.

  14. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    Thank you, Father! I have been trying to pray more for politicians and worry less about what they are actually doing. I am finding that my heart is better disposed toward them as a result. I will not be writing to any of them. Unless, perhaps, to Andy Barr to let him know I continue to pray for him and his family on the loss of his beloved wife.

  15. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Ok thank you Father. Yes the after life reports have a tendency to venture too far out of the range of Orthodox theology.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, no doubt you are correct. That reality means that a good deal of persecution comes from within the Church for those who do not “believe” or “believe correctly”.
    I think somewhere along the way we inverted Constantine’s vision. Instead of a message and call to the Cross, it has become a call to power.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The delusion is that power can change the world. That is a lie of the devil – an offer made to Christ by the adversary in the last temptation. It is, sadly, a lie that has been made universal through the advent of democracy. Used to be only a tempation offered to kings and those close to them. Now, everybody is tempted – and, when you point out the sin involved – they accuse you of not caring about the world, or of tolerating injustice, etc. It is a power offered to them by the tempter, because he knows it will not bring justice, but that the delusion of power will bring corruption of souls. And as our souls are being corrupted, we deceive ourselves and imagine that we “care” about the world.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, certain of the near death accounts are like candy to the occultists and “new agers”.

  19. Subdeacon John Avatar
    Subdeacon John

    To prepare for conversing with Muslims, I would recommend the the book “No God But One, Allah or Jesus” by Nabeel Qureshi. It is very informative reading from a convert from Islam to Christ.

  20. Johnpaul Avatar

    Thank you subdeacon!

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ideological politics, which all of our politics has become, leads to division, hatred and destruction. It breaks apart families, communities and it is creating havoc in the Church. The only solution is stop and repent but there is always an important reason not to. After all, the other side is “evil”. So the cycle of hubris and being “pure” continues. “But we can’t just do nothing!”
    But the truth, repentance and seeking God’s mercy takes tremendous courage and is the opposite of doing nothing.

  22. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    Amen, Michael.

  23. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    Thank you, Michael Bauman. I used to scream at the television whenever Hillary Clinton came on. As a survivor of childhood sexual molestation, I had been shocked and dismayed by her treatment of the women who had been misused by her husband. And then I watched as the “feminists” followed her lead. And then I watched her actions over many years, and I grew to hate her. It is only since my conversion to Orthodoxy that I have been able to let go of the hatred and confess my own sin. I feel sorrowful now, for her and for so many others. I pray for them. And I pray for God to keep cleaning out my heart. I have been withdrawing more and more from politics. I think I am about done, except for praying for them.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My wife and I are fans of the Scottish detective show ‘Taggart’. We just watched an episode in season 25, Episode 4: Crossing the Line that centered on a small Scottish mining town that had been devastated in the mining strike of the 1980s and the way in which the ideological political divide devastated the whole community and led to several murders.
    It is a poignant illustration of what politics and the quest for justice does to people, families and communities. The acting is top drawer. It also is a commentary on the human cost of “progress” but that is a sub-plot.

  25. Therese Avatar

    “I then begin to “feel” my way forward, following the lead of the Fathers.”

    Could you give me an example of what this part looks like?

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good question! An example would be the Holy Eucharist. Scripture and the Fathers teach that it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ. I accept that and proceed with that as a given. But, accepting that, does not mean that there’s some sort of immediate perception that tells me this is true. Indeed, the Church celebrates the Liturgy in a manner that helps me perceive its truth. The dynamic of the Liturgy, the fasting and prayer used in preparation, etc., all support their teaching.

    It then happens, in time, that “glimpses” beyond my initial non-perception begin to appear. It’s like your eyes beginning to focus so that you see things in a manner not seen before. Much of what is going on is the purification of the heart. When the heart is pure, we see God. But seeing with a pure heart is not the same kind of seeing that we normally have with an impure heart.

    So, again in time, we begin to trust this new perception, and act on it. Vladimir Lossky describes it as a “participatory adherence.” What a thick phrase! I think of this, somewhat, in terms of how I perceive someone whom I love. I extend myself towards them, and extend my empathy towards them. I work to see things from their perspective, etc. In responding to a new perspective given by the Scriptures and the Fathers, I extend myself towards it. I begin to act on the assumption that it is true. I “live into” it.

    It also can be compared to learning a new language. There are the first classes, some vocabulary and examples of dialog. But there are also those first attempts at conversation – full of risks and mistakes and fumbling with words and grammar – but a true extension of the self towards something.

    There are many things, like the Eucharist, that are part of the “grammar” and “vocabulary” of the faith. Little by little we practice and slowly gain a little fluency.

    These are examples of what I had in mind. I hope they are helpful.

  27. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    A wonderful explanation Father, given to Therese but helpful for all of us.

    Thank you Therese for your question!

  28. Tikhon Avatar

    Therese, thank you for that question! Father, thank you for both explanations–they are very helpful!

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m thinking I should do an article on “believing.” We easily get very confused in our day and time.

  30. Tikhon Avatar

    Father, I would love that. It is exceedingly difficult to believe when we cannot even agree on what is True. There is so much noise in the world, and all of it claims to be the truth. We see this very clearly in our politics, but I imagine that it is just a manifestation of what has been simmering the last 30+ years. It has escalated to the point that what is true does not matter–only how loud you shout your “truth”. But for some, that isn’t satisfactory. I would prefer to know the truth and be impoverished by it than to live a lie. That being said, it has led to a very tenuous faith (if I can call it that). I am beginning to heal from wounds inflicted long ago on my mind and soul, and carefully piece together what I think I can know, what I can believe, and what/whom I can trust. Lord have mercy!

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Because much of our conscious life is also a participation in the common life of a culture – there is a very dense cloud of false belief, conflicting ideas, dissonance, and ever so much that makes Christian believing, in its classical sense, rather difficult. I’ll definitely be putting an article together. I appreciate the conversation – it’s helping me gather my thoughts for this.

  32. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    Thank you, Father, for your explanation to Therese. Is it ultimately an attempt to see things from the perspective of God? I have been trying to see people as Christ would see them. It has helped me to gradually let go of a lot of anger and hatred, and to replace that with love and compassion to the best of my ability. But I find I have to withdraw from a lot of situations, or I will be drawn right back in. It is a constant battle. I guess I should not expect it to be otherwise.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, how much of Christian belief is legitamatly connencted with the encounter with the unseen? I think it would be helpful if you address that as well

  34. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    Dee of St. Hermans, I have been ruminating on what you said. ” I’ve had a long difficulty with Evangelical Protestants over the course of my life, for various reasons having to do with their general behavior, outlook, and politics and the consequences of such on my mind and heart.”
    This is an ongoing struggle for me, too. It is relatively easy to forgive politicians who are far away and who I do not have to deal with directly in my own life. It is the people who I love and have to talk with and interact with that it becomes even more difficult. One part of my family is filled with atheists/agnostics/extreme liberal protestants. The other part is filled with Evangelical Protestants. Since the death of my husband, I am the sole Orthodox person in my family. Many of them think me either feeble-minded or Hell-bound. But I love them and would not cut myself off from them.
    In preparation for Lent, I am reading some back issues of “Life Transfigured”, the publication put out by the nuns at The Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration. Many of the issues I am reading have reprinted articles written by Mother Alexandra, The one I am reading today was issued shortly after her repose and includes a short article on forgiveness. It has been immensely helpful to me, for it reminded me that my loved ones, and indeed all Evangelicals, atheists, agnostics, etc. “know not what they do.” I must forgive them, not only for the benefit of my own soul, but also that I may have the proper attitude when I interact with them. Because it is the attitude of humility that may finally open their eyes. And I care about their souls, too.
    I still consider myself a neophyte to Orthodoxy. It is a huge struggle to put these things into action in my life. And I am old enough to know that it will continue to be a struggle until the day I die.

  35. Justin Edge Avatar
    Justin Edge

    “I would prefer to know the truth and be impoverished by it than to live a lie.”
    “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

  36. Dino Avatar

    Regarding the Greek understanding of ‘mystery’, I note that there is a further differentiation, (two different offshoots of ‘mystery’ in the Tradition, if you like), of which I have heard quite profound elucidations (by Elder Aimilianos in particular).
    The one offshoot is typically labelled the ‘sacramental life’ (in Greek: “μυστηριακή ζωή”) and the other is the mystical life’ (in Greek: “μυστική ζωή”). They are clearly distinct, even though they both share strongly ‘initiatory’/’mystagogical’ characteristics. The first regards the sacraments (and how the believer is gradually transformed and further initiated into the hidden life bestowed by the Spirit through them, etc) and it is far more ecclesiastical, while the second describes the more private face-to-face encounter of the Spiritual life and how (especially through the life of ‘secret/mystical’ prayer) a person is transformed through that. The elder often repeated how one can never exist without the other, and this is the key reason he kept perseverating about it.

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No doubt, the fact that “mysteries” is the term in Greek for what are more commonly called “sacraments” in English, would require additional treatment for a Greek-speaking audience. The associations with the word(s) in English require a yet different treatment. The underlying reality (the “hidden life”) is, I think, one and the same. There is only one “Life.”

  38. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    I don’t think you need my compliments, but well done. Revelation is mystery unveiled. I think of how the evening prayers say “That we may attain to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of Thine unapproachable glory.” I think this fact that mystery underlies everything, and then when you see it – there is the revelation – is from cover to cover in the Bible. The Bible often only brings out the things we already knew. The theme of suppression of knowledge, while the mystery speaks – very loudly even – is explained here.

    In one sense, almost everything we believe is affected by this understanding of mystery: natural/supernatural, miracles, the plan of salvation, historical/analogical/allegorical readings of Scripture, God’s relationship to time/space/matter, on and on.

    I’ve often thought of how the Scripture, when speaking of various ascensions, and Christ’s, gives this picture of going up into the universe. But I’ve usually thought of Christ going through this boundary that divides the heaven from the terrestrial. Either way the picture works. But it explains, the mystery hidden – yet known in some ways – that where God is, where we are, are not really different places, but different degrees of our awareness. The topics are endless I think – and from there – the return to this focus on the apocalyptic/eschatological parish – I think it would center us if in preaching we were constantly reminded who we are in this context. Who we are hasn’t even been revealed yet, so we wait in hope. When the boundary between the earth and the heavenly is removed, we will not be surprised if we were already waiting for its revelation.

    In Christ,

  39. Fr. Thomas Moore Avatar

    “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wis. 3:5-7)”
    When sparks run through stubble, they set fire to them. May we do likewise.

  40. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! The following words you wrote are very helpful for me.

    But there is more to the word than mere secret. St. Paul also speaks of the “mystery of godliness” and the “mystery of iniquity.” In those expressions the word does not describe secret information, but a hidden process at work. And this gets closer, I think, to St. Paul’s other uses as well. For him, “mystery” is not the same thing as “secret.” It is not information that is being held back. Rather, it is a reality that is not made manifest as of yet. And this is at the very heart of the Orthodox use of the word.

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