Andrew B. Perrin
There is no shortage of books and movies claiming that the early church shrouded the identity and teachings of Jesus in secret. Usually, a little historical leg-work debunks these fictional thrillers, but what about Luke 8:10 where Jesus tells his disciples behind closed doors, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God” (ESV)? Was Jesus sharing “special knowledge” with the twelve while keeping the general public in the dark? To find out we must explore the meaning of the Greek word translated as ‘secrets’ in Luke 8:10.
1. Isolate the Word and Establish a Working Definition
The quickest way to zero in on the Greek word in question is to use The ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament. Note the word mystērion (μυστήριον) and the Strong’s number 3466 below the English translation ‘secrets.’ Using the Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary appended to Strong’s, look up the word. Or using Bible software, jump over to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) by right-clicking the word. BDAG says that mystērion in Luke 8:10 refers to “the unmanifested or private counsel of God” or “God’s secret.”
2. Briefly Track the Word through the Greek World
Using the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume (TDNTA), we find that Greek authors used mystērion in three senses. First, the term described the secret portrayal of the destinies bestowed by the gods in ancient mystery religions. During religious ceremonies, an inner circle of devotees were granted salvation or guaranteed an afterlife. They then took a vow of silence regarding the divine ‘secrets’ revealed to them.
Mystērion was also a prominent theme in Gnostic movements that stressed salvation through esoteric knowledge. Claiming to have understood the mystērion of the world’s origins, Gnostics believed they could break free from this world and return to the “Kingdom of Light.”
Things that should be kept in confidence were also mystērion. The Wisdom of Ben Sira, a book of Jewish sayings written in the 3rd century BC, cautions against betraying friends by exposing their ‘secrets,’ their mystērion (Ben Sira 27:16, 17, 21).
With these three images in the background, we can return to our investigation of mystērion in the New Testament.
3. Explore the Usage of the Word in the New Testament
Mystērion occurs 28 times in the New Testament. By looking up these occurrences, we discover that the scene in Luke 8:10 also is recorded in Matt 13:11 and Mark 4:11. All three gospels record Jesus’ statement about the “secret(s) of the Kingdom of God.” This suggests He played a vital role in revealing this mystērion.
Beyond the gospels, Paul uses mystērion 21 times. Paul speaks of the mystērion of God’s wisdom and plan, which was established before the ages—suggesting it will be revealed at the appropriate time (Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 2:7; Eph 3:5, 9). He boldly states that the mystērion of God is not a private knowledge, but someone to behold: Jesus is the manifested mystērion of God (Col 1:27; 2:2; 1 Tim 3:16).
Let’s revisit Luke 8:10 with this in mind: Is Jesus really hiding something?
4. Revisit the Passage to Determine the Meaning of the Word in Context
As with mystery religions, Jesus at times only addressed a select group of followers. He even commanded spirits and people to keep the ‘secret’ of his true identity under wraps (Luke 4:41; 9:20–21). However, unlike mystery or Gnostic religions—which kept their secrets under lock and key—the secret did not remain hidden, as Paul states. After Jesus’ resurrection, everything changes. But the question remains, what was the mystērion? The mystērion (μυστήριον) identified by Jesus in Luke 8:10 was progressively revealed throughout the gospel: Jesus’ own life and actions—which ushered in the Kingdom of God—were the mystērion.