The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is full of secret ceremonies essential to one’s salvation. “Sealed” portions of the Temple are open only to members of the LDS Church who can produce a Temple-recommendation card noting their good standing. Once inside, for example, men bestow upon other men the title “elder,” couples are sealed in marriage for “time and eternity,” and priesthood holders learn “keys” necessary to attain the highest degree of glory. Brigham Young1 puts it this way:
Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation.
Furthermore, these ceremonies invoke violent retribution upon any who reveal what happens inside. And all of this is done under the notion that such covenants were forfeited in the Great Apostasy but restored through the prophet Joseph Smith.
The Mystery of Christianity
The trouble with such ceremonies is that they stand in grave contradiction to New Testament Christianity.2 To see this contrast, we need to understand the concept of “mystery” in the New Testament.
“Mystery” [pronounced musterion in Greek] was a favorite word of the Apostle Paul. But by it, he doesn’t mean an ongoing uncertainty: “What exactly happened to the ark of the covenant is a complete mystery!” No, he means something more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery. If you just keep reading, you’ll find out exactly how Moriarty pulled it off. A New Testament mystery is doctrine once veiled, but brought to light by the person and work of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Colossians 1:26–27 gives a decent working definition of mystery: “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
The Language of Mystery
One might wonder why the Apostle Paul chose the word mystery to begin with. Why couldn’t he have chosen a word less, well, mysterious?
Paul wanted to contrast Christian mystery with pagan mystery, which was a chief feature of 1st century Greek and Roman religion. These cults boasted of elaborate mystery ceremonies wherein the initiated learned secret phrases, experienced “safe” psychological trauma (like people nowadays who subject themselves to the terrors of a haunted house), or received some hidden meaning behind commonly used symbols. These ceremonies were voluntary, costly, and held in the strictest secrecy. If the secret got out, potential converts might think twice before paying for something already known.
The Focus of a Biblical Mystery
Christian mystery, on the other hand, focuses on the known rather than the unknown. Paul says he received this mystery by revelation of God (Ephesians 3:3) and now proclaims it the world over (Romans 16:25-26). God, through the cross-work of Jesus Christ, makes known the mystery hidden in ages past (Ephesians 1:7-9).
In fact, Paul says that his specific role in the apostolic band was to make known God’s mystery to everyone, everywhere – no exceptions (Ephesians 3:9). Indeed, the mystery of godliness in Christ is plain to all: “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).
God’s mystery, though hinted at in passages like Genesis 12:2-3, Psalm 67:4, and Isaiah 2:2, is fully revealed as Jesus saves gentile people and makes them co-heirs of promise. This mystery, that gentile people could be grafted into the family of God, was proclaimed with reckless abandon by the first church and continues as her anthem today.
The Mystery of Grace for All
You see, biblical Christianity has no secrets. The mystery of Christianity is that every man, woman, and child regardless of race, class, education, wealth, or any other distinction can know that they have redemption, forgiveness, and a home in heaven. There are no secret passwords, keys, signals, or handshakes.
Paul’s point of using the word “mystery” is that Christianity is altogether different from the religions that surrounded his culture. Those false religions speak of ceremonial secrets, sacred knowledge for only the initiated, and the need to keep outsiders outside.
Biblical Christianity is a worldwide proclamation of Christ’s exclusive and sufficient work to save us from our sins and secure our place in heaven (John 14:1-6). He invites you today to accept His work of redemption on your behalf.
Committed latter-day saints may argue from 1 Nephi 13 that “plain and precious promises” were removed from the New Testament by the apostate church. This church, they argue, combed through the pages of the New Testament and meticulously removed references to these secret ceremonies. This line of argumentation, however, does not hold up because removal and contradiction are two different things. Imagine we learned that portions of the Gettysburg address were lost. But an ambitious, young historian comes along and claims to have recovered the lost portions. He says the restored section reads as follows: “this nation, under Reason, shall have a new birth of tyranny – and that government of a King, by the King, for the King, shall not perish from the earth.” We would reject this preposterous claim immediately because the “restored” words stand in direction contradiction to what we do have, which is Lincoln’s famous climax: “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Even if for argument’s sake we grant that some portions of the Bible are lost, the restored portions could not so egregiously contradict what remains and retain any level of continuity. ↩