Like many people, I enjoy a good mystery. As a teenager, I went through a detective-fiction phase, and even submitted a couple of short stories to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (alas, my daydreams of being the next Mickey Spillane were never fulfilled). My wife and I have watched every episode of Columbo we can get our hands on. When I was in seminary, Christians who didn’t own video recorders refused to attend Bible studies that met on the evening Quincy M. E. aired.
What’s so compelling about mystery stories? Writers pique our curiosity by leaving holes in the storyline. The classic form is the “whodunit” in which the identity of the murderer is hidden (as in the long-running series, Murder, She Wrote). A variant is the “whydunit,” in which the murderer is known but the motive isn’t (as in the current series Motive).
The writers of Columbo, in a twist on the “howdunit,” would show you the crime: indeed, the murderer was (almost) always the first person on the list of guest stars. But the writers invited you to match wits with the disarmingly rumpled Lt. Columbo and guess how would catch the culprit. The telltale clue was hidden in plain sight: were you observant enough to catch it? If not, you had to await the climactic moment of revelation when Columbo would spring his trap and unveil his inescapable deduction.
Mystery. In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the word to describe the wisdom of God in the gospel:
What we say is wisdom to people who are mature. It isn’t a wisdom that comes from the present day or from today’s leaders who are being reduced to nothing. We talk about God’s wisdom, which has been hidden as a secret. God determined this wisdom in advance, before time began, for our glory. It is a wisdom that none of the present-day rulers have understood, because if they did understand it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory! (1 Cor 2:6-8, CEB)
What the CEB translates as “secret” and the NIV as “mystery” is the Greek word mysterion. In Paul’s world, the word could refer to pagan cults, with their secret rituals and special knowledge. One wonders how the word would have been understood by the Corinthians themselves, given what seems to be their prideful predilection for worldly wisdom.
But Paul’s point is not that the wisdom of God is some esoteric knowledge that only the unusually wise or super-spiritual can understand. Quite the opposite, in fact: those who think themselves wise or mature by the standards of “this age” find the proclamation of a crucified Messiah to be foolish nonsense. The wisdom of the gospel, the strange message of a humiliated and murdered Savior, is a “mystery” because it’s a truth that has to be revealed to be known.
And for Paul, that revelation is a watershed moment in history. “This age,” with its own brand of wisdom, its rulers and people of influence, is passing away into nothingness. In its place, what Jesus called “the age to come” (e.g., Matt 12:32; Mark 10:30; Luke 20:35) has dawned; the cross and resurrection mark the coming of God’s kingdom and the beginning of the end. Paul has the whole scope of history in view: he reaches back “before time began”; he looks forward to our future glory. It’s all of a piece–one story of creation, sin, redemption, and restoration–held together by the eternal wisdom of God.
Whodunit? The only wise God. Howdunit? Through the crucified One whose visible shame both hid and revealed his identity as the Lord of glory. And whydunit? To his glory.
And amazingly, to ours. Thanks be to God.