Why is the Gospel a Mystery?

The Gospel (“good news” “good message”) is that Jesus the Son of God has freed humans from sin and separation by His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave, if we trust in Him alone to save us—and, if we are faithful, we can partner with Him in ruling His future kingdom. Within the Gospel are mysteries concerning God’s plan to heal the human race and the world itself, in ways no man could expect, surpassing our imagination, and yet inviting us to participate and benefit. The unforeseen reality of these blessings are astonishing, which is why Paul often references the Gospel as a “mystery” (Romans 16:25, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1:9, 3:3, 4, 9, 6:19, Colossians 1:26).

The mystery of the Gospel centers around its central figure—the Messiah.

This article will consider several ways the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed through Jesus Christ—the Messiah:

  1. The mysterious duality of how the Messiah is described and characterized in the Old Testament—and the divine answer. 
  2. The mysterious indwelling of the Messiah in all who believe in Him.
  3. The mysterious opportunity for believers to share the Messiah’s glory and honor.

The Two Messiahs

For centuries, before Jesus Christ came, Israel expected a savior of some kind, a “Messiah” sent by God. Messiah is the transliteration of the Hebrew word “māšîaḥ,” meaning “anointed one” or “consecrated one.” Someone God has set apart for a special purpose. Throughout the Old Testament, there are prophecies of a coming Messiah for the Jewish people, and for the world at large. But while these Messianic prophecies brough great hope to Israel, they were mysterious and often perplexing. 

In the Old Testament prophecies, the Messiah is described as being both a suffering servant Messiah as well as a victorious king Messiah. 

Jewish tradition calls the suffering servant Messiah the “Son of Joseph.” The Messiah would suffer greatly prior to being lifted up as Israel’s savior, similar to Joseph the son of Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, was falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned, before rising to a position of authority and saving his people (Genesis 50:20). 

Another tradition calls the victorious king Messiah the “Son of David” in anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promise to put a descendant of King David’s on the throne of Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16).

The characterization of the Messiah being a Servant who suffers largely comes from Isaiah’s prophecies. Isaiah, receiving messages from God, wrote four distinct “Servant Songs.”

These Servant Songs are Isaiah 42:1-4, 49, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12. These prophecies depict the Messiah as one who is misunderstood, maligned, and mistreated in His service to the LORD—like Joseph was misunderstood, maligned, and mistreated as he obeyed God.

The fourth and most quoted “Servant Song” (Isaiah 52:13-53:15) is commonly known as “the Suffering Servant” Song. It prophesies that the Messiah will be worshiped by the Gentiles even as He will be unrecognized, hated, and ultimately slain by Israel. God’s Messiah will be “pierced through for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” but “by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). 

This Servant Song also accurately describes how God’s Messiah will die “with wicked men” but be buried in the tomb of “a rich man” (Isaiah 53:9), just as Jesus was executed alongside criminals and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:38, 57-60). God’s “Servant will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11). He will “render Himself as a guilt offering” (Isaiah 53:10), and so the Lord “will allot Him a portion with the great” (Isaiah 53:12).

These Servant Songs of Isaiah were perhaps the clearest prophecies indicating that the Messiah would be a Suffering Servant. Other prophecies that predict the Messiah’s suffering include: 

  • Psalm 22 
  • Psalm 31
  • Psalm 35
  • Psalm 69
  • Psalm 116

These psalms, composed a thousand or more years before Jesus walked the earth, depict with remarkable accuracy numerous cruelties and circumstances that Jesus the Messiah would suffer. Among the many Messianic prophecies within these psalms are: 

  • The Messiah’s hands and feet would be pierced.
    (Psalm 22:16)
  • The Messiah’s garments would be divided among His foes according to games of chance.
    (Psalm 22:18)
  • The Messiah would be slandered and falsely accused.
    (Psalm 35:11)
  • The Messiah would be horribly abused by His adversaries.
    (Psalm 35:15-16)
  • The Messiah would be offered gall and vinegar to drink.
    (Psalm 69:21)
  • The Messiah’s friends would abandon Him, despite their vows.
    (Psalm 31:11, 116:11)
  • The Messiah’s enemies would mock Him for believing in God.
    (Psalm 22:8)

The Old Testament clearly prophesied that the Messiah would suffer unjustly in His service to the LORD. 

But the Old Testament prophesied, perhaps with even more clarity, that the Messiah would rule as a mighty and just King. The Messiah would be a “Son of David.” As David was a renowned King who defeated thousands of Israel’s enemies and was a man after God’s heart, so would the Messiah be. 

In addition to the 2 Samuel 7:12-16 mentioned above, here are a few more Messiah-as-King prophecies:

“But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain.
I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’”
(Psalm 2:6-9)

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,
On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
From then on and forevermore.”
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

“And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.”
(Daniel 7:13-14)

See also: Isaiah 25-27, Jeremiah 23:5-6, Micah 5:2, Zechariah 6:12-13, 9:9.

Some of these prophecies, such as Isaiah 9:7, explicitly link the Messiah to “the throne of David.”

But one of the more powerful prophecies depicting the Messiah as a Son of David is found in Ezekiel 34,

“Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David will be prince among them; I the LORD have spoken.”
(Ezekiel 34:23-24)

How could the Messiah be both a Suffering Servant, as predicted by Isaiah and the Psalms, as well as a Conquering King, as predicted by many of the prophets and foreshadowed by the reign of David? How could the Messiah be a human, yet sit on the throne of David forever? For centuries, the answers to these questions were obscure.

Given these disparate descriptions, one a suffering man, the other an eternal human king, some scholars held that there would be two different messiahs (“anointed ones”) sent by God. 

Jesus reconciles every mystery of the Gospel.

  • Jesus is both God and Man
    As the Word made flesh, Jesus is both fully God (eternal) and fully human. His dual nature of Divine and Man enable Him to be an eternal human king whose kingdom has no end.
  • Jesus fulfills both roles/characterizations of the Messiah
    In His first coming to the earth, Jesus fulfilled the suffering servant, “Son of Joseph” prophecies (Matthew 20:28). In His future second coming to the earth, He will fulfill the conquering king, “Son of David” prophecies (Revelation 19:11-16).

The New Testament references the “Suffering Servant Song” six times: Matthew 8:14-17, Luke 22:35-38, John 12:37-41, Acts 8:26-35, Romans 10:11-21, 1 Peter 2:19-25. It is quoted as proof that Jesus was the Messiah and is an example of what Jesus did for us that we should imitate, to live as suffering servants in perfect obedience to Father God (Philippians 2:5-10).

But this suffering, the Messiah seems to conflict with the mighty, conquering ruler Messiah described in the Davidic covenant and elsewhere (Genesis 49:10, Psalm 2, Psalm 89, Daniel 9:24). 

The mystery of the Gospel reveals what the Old Testament scriptures were promising. God did send a Messiah, Himself in the Person of His Son, born a man, who would live a human life (His first “advent” “appearance, arrival”) as the Suffering Servant, and would depart from earth, with the promise of returning as the Conquering King (Revelation 1:7) 

Jesus the Son of God had to be born a man, and live in a human body, to fulfill His Father’s will by dying on the cross for the sins of the world (Philippians 2:7). As a reward for His obedience— living as a Suffering Servant to God—the earth was given to Him, making Him King of the entire world. He has not yet established His kingdom on the earth, but the promise remains that He will one day return and begin His reign. This will be His second “advent,” where Jesus will fulfill the messianic promises made to David, and will sit on the throne forever as a human descendant of David.

Christ in Us

The Gospel revealed another mystery. Before Christ, our hope of glory was hidden. Now it is manifested by Christ living within us.

The Apostle Paul wrote how every created thing looks forward to the great healing that will take place when Jesus establishes His kingdom. Humans desire this future glory,

“For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.”
(Romans 8:18-23)

This hope and desire for the restoration of all things, done through the power of Christ, is something we are invited to experience and participate in. Elsewhere, Paul writes,

“… so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
(Colossians 1:25-27)

The fact that Jesus would live within us, restore creation through obedience on the cross, and lead “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10) was a mystery that has been revealed. The Gospel (“good news”) of Jesus’s work of redeeming our world is that we can participate in the glory and honor bestowed upon Him. 

The Word of God in its full communication is Jesus (John 1:1-2, 14, 16-18). This was a mystery before it was revealed in the world when Jesus lived among us, taught us, died and resurrected for us. Paul’s phrase “the riches of glory” (Colossians 1:27) shows that we can share in the benefit and the rewards of Christ, because Christ lives in us. The “glory” of this mystery is the revealing of it. What was formerly hidden is now visible. The word “glory” is translated from the Greek “doxa,” which means the observation of a thing’s essence—what it really is. 

What Paul was telling his Colossian readers was that this amazing mystery which has been revealed to the Gentiles, something they can understand and believe, is a way to gain immense riches and great benefit for themselves.

God revealed His Word (His Son, Jesus) to the entire world in an explicit revelation: the mystery is Christ! Christ in us (Colossians 1:27). He is the hope of future glory and reward. Our hope, all hope, is in the revealed essence of Christ in how we choose to live. If we obey Christ who is in us, and allow the resurrection power of Jesus to flow through our lives into the world around us by loving and serving one another, we can share not only the sufferings of Christ, but also His glory.

The author of Hebrews describes this destiny that God has purposed for us, that we will be crowned with glory and honor along with Christ if we live out Christ within us. This is what Jesus desires to accomplish through and with us:

“…Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.”
(Hebrews 2:9-10)

Jesus wants to bring “many sons to glory,” meaning us, who can share in the reward of His throne “through sufferings,” “if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17).

That Jesus has been “crowned with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:9) refers back to Psalm 8, which describes humankind as having been crowned with glory and honor by appointment by God to rule the earth. But we fell from that appointment when Adam and Eve sinned. Christ has now been appointed to the place God originally prepared for humans, so if we join Jesus through following Him in faithful obedience, we can share in His glory (2 Timothy 2:12, Revelation 3:21). But it is Christ in us that accomplishes that. This is one of the mysteries of the Gospel, that it is all Christ, and all we must do is submit and let Him live through us. 

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