By the grace of God, I have been given the opportunity to study the Bible in its original languages. I do not take this gift lightly. I covet the insights gained through the understanding of nuances of the original languages and I praise God for the incredible opportunity to learn them. Today, we are going to look at the Greek understanding of the original languages used in this passage from Matthew 13:11-16:
11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
This passage has often given me trouble in what it means that Jesus would teach some clearly, but teach other in such a way as to hide understanding. Studying the Greek has given me some new insights, and I hope it might clear some things up for you as well. The key to these words of Jesus, repeated also in Mark 4:11 and Luke 8:10, is held in the Greek word for “secrets:” μυστηριον “mysterion.”
Often, when we think of mystery, it’s accompanied by thoughts of intrigue, crime solving, or puzzles. In the Greco-Roman world, however, it was something else entirely.
In the ancient Hellenistic world, the μυστηριον were cultic rites in which the destinies of a god were portrayed by sacred actions before the devotees in such a way as to give them a part in the fate of the god. Integral to this revealing and participation of the future fate was the initiation of the devotee. Select few were allowed to be initiated. With this initiation ceremony, one participated with any number of offerings and purifications. All μυστηριον promised salvation, to join with the god in eternal life, and that one would be made like the god. Intrinsic to all μυστηριον was a vow of silence to the uninitiated; those who were not initiated could know nothing of the μυστηριον of the cult. (TDNT Volume 4, Page 803).
The disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables. His response used a term which all first-century people would have understood: μυστηριον: he proclaimed them initiated into God’s μυστηριον and that they had been given the ability to know the secrets of God’s kingdom. The initiation becomes clear in v16, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” Seeing eyes and hearing ears were the requirement. This is a Hebraic metaphoric for comprehension of God and his kingdom and obedience to his will. The rite to initiation into the μυστηριον was the offering of a lifetime of service to God as his loyal subject, the purification was to be baptized into death of sin and raised to new life of righteousness and holiness. “Be holy for the LORD your God is holy…”
Though culture, time, customs, language, and so many more things present barriers to us from fully understanding the narratives held within the Bible, Jesus used things that were familiar to his audience to describe the kingdom of God. In no way was the kingdom of God like the mythological cults of the Greco-Roman cultures, but Jesus used words they knew and understood to describe the ways of God. Much like the need for sunglasses to observe full sunshine, this Greek description was a mere human attempt to comprehend the brilliance of God.
Not only did Jesus proclaim his disciples “initiated,” but with that initiation came the ability to take part in the work of God’s kingdom and the immense blessings given to the devotee by God. No longer would they be mere spectators, but they would soon have their own parts to play in the kingdom of God. They would be promised eternal life and spiritual transformation into God’s likeness, exemplified in the fully-God, fully-human form of Jesus.
However, those whose hearts did not belong to God – the “uninitiated” – had no ability to know or understand the secrets of the kingdom nor were they able to partake in its work or its blessings.
Like the disciples, when we open our eyes to see God, to love him as our Lord and Savior and choose to give our lives as offerings to Him, we are given spiritual understanding to know the secrets of the kingdom, to take part in its work, and to receive its many blessings.
How very humbling.
May you live in the μυστηριον of God, thriving in his image and working diligently to achieve the will of God in our lives.