The Old Testament’s Mysterious Witness to the Gospel: Romans 16:25–27

25 Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith—27 to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.—Rom 16:25–27

Here I want to raise a problem and do away with a potential solution. First, the problem. Put simply: If Paul’s gospel is revealed through the prophetic writings, then how can Paul say that his gospel was hidden before Christ’s advent (“now revealed”). After all,  weren’t the prophetic writings around before Christ came? How could the same Scriptures contribute to the gospel’s hiddenness (or, at the least, be an accomplice to it) and, at the same time, be part of its manifestation? (One recent commentator—Jewett—thinks that if Paul refers to the OT here, he’s flatly contradicted himself—all in the space of a few words.) In short, all this would suggest that with Christ’s advent the prophetic writings reveal new meaning, revelation that could not have been perceived until the gospel’s events transpired (“at the command of the eternal God”). Otherwise Paul couldn’t say it was previously hidden. Second, the solution. The solution I’d like to do away with is the suggestion that the prophetic writings refer to the literary output of NT prophets. This would provide a nice detour around the hazards I’ve just sketched. It would suggest that the new revelation was simply new revelation, given to prophets of the new era—which is, of course, a whole lot more straightforward than suggesting that the new revelation is somehow made known through revelation that had already been given. The trouble with this reading, however, is that isn’t supported by the text. Let me offer fives reasons why.

1. Inclusion. Paul’s concluding doxology in Rom 16:27–27 is parallel with his introduction in Rom 1:1–17. This isn’t all that surprising, since conclusions often work this way. Some of the key points of correspondence include . . .

  • the description of Paul’s task: proclaiming the gospel (1:1 [ἀφωρισμένος εἰς εὐαγγέλιον θεου]; 16:25 [κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου = τὸ κήρυγμα Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ]
  • the penultimate purpose of Paul’s task: for the obedience of faith among the Gentiles (1:5; 16:26)
  • the ultimate purpose of Paul’s task: for the glory of God and of Jesus Christ (1:5 [ὑπὲρ τοῦ ὀνόματος αὐτοῦ]; 16:27 [διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ᾧ (θεῷ) ἡ δόξα]).

In addition, Paul refers in both places to Scripture (γραφή). In 1:2 the reference is undoubtedly to the Old Testament. There he says that the gospel he preached was promised beforehand through (διὰ) God’s prophets in the Holy Scriptures. The point about Jesus’ davidic lineage in 1:3 only underscores this connection between Paul’s gospel and the Old Testament’s promise. In 16:25–26, Paul says his gospel (= the now-revealed mystery), was revealed and made known through (διά) the prophetic writings, which the parallel with 1:2 suggests is likely a reference to the Old Testament.

2. Usage. Besides its use in Rom 1:2 and 16:26, Paul uses the noun “Scripture” (γραφή) five other times in Romans (4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 11:2; 15:4). In each case the referent is the Old Testament Scriptures. In fact, in every case but 1:2, 15:4 and 16:26, the reference is followed by an explicit citation from the OT  (see Gen 15:6 in Rom 4:3; Exod 9:16 in Rom 9:17; Isa 28:16 in Rom 10:11; and 1 Kgs 19:10, 14 in Rom 11:3). Much the same could be said for Paul’s use of the noun “prophet” (προφήτης), from which the adjective “prophetic” (προφητικός) is derived in Rom 16:26. It is used to refer to OT writing prophets in 1:2 and 3:21. In 11:3 the referent is a bit more expansive, but OT prophets are still very much in view. Its use in Rom 16:26, therefore, likely follows suit. (Cf., however, its use in 12:6 for NT prophecy [προφητεία].)

3. Mystery. If Rom 16:26 refers to the revelation of a mystery through the already-given OT revelation, then this would correspond with the way mystery is used in early Jewish literature. For example, at Qumran the revelation of mysteries was equated with divinely-given insight into the OT (see 1QpHab VII, 4–5; see also Sir 39:1–11).

4. Parallel-concept. If Rom 16:26 refers to the revelation of a formerly-hidden secret through already-given OT revelation, then this would also be similar to the way Paul describes the newly-revealed “righteousness of God” in Rom 3:21. There he says that this righteousness has “now [νῦν; cf. Rom 16:26] been revealed [φανερόω; cf. Rom 16:26] apart from the law [= Mosaic law-covenant],” even though, he adds, “the Law and Prophets [= entire OT] testify to it.” In other words, God’s new revelation is both discontinuous with his previous revelation (i.e., “apart from the law”) and simultaneously and mysteriously continuous with it (i.e., “the Law and the Prophets testify to it”). Is it any wonder that Paul immediately responds to all this by praising God’s wisdom (see, e.g., Rom 16:27)?

5. Pauline. Many who argue that the “prophetic writings” refer to NT prophetic writings do so because they think Rom 16:25–27 is not authentically-Pauline. Instead, they see this concluding doxology as a later, non-Pauline addition to Romans (see, e.g., Kӓsemann, Romans, 426; also 427, 428). After all, Paul nowhere else refers to his own writings as prophecy (much less as Scripture), which this suggestion would almost certainly require. Thus, if the doxology is Pauline—and there are good reasons for thinking it is—then it more likely refers to OT prophetic writings, considering the implausibility of the alternative.

In sum, Paul says that his gospel was both hidden during the era when the OT was written and, now, revealed through that same OT. The tension is, of course, obvious and, as I’ve tried to show, it’s also unavoidable. As Schreiner puts it,

If the OT wholly conceals what is to come, then only a gnostic exegesis could claim that the gospel of Christ brings to completion what was promised in the OT. Conversely, one should not posit a simplistic and patently obvious continuity between the old covenant and the new. If the lines of continuity were so easily discernible, the language of mystery and concealment would be superfluous. A simple either-or is not the way forward here. One must accept the tension (Romans, 814).

Note: For a similar post, see my earlier reflection on Paul’s use of mystery in Col 1:25–26 here.

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2 thoughts on “The Old Testament’s Mysterious Witness to the Gospel: Romans 16:25–27

  1. Also, the concept of the gospel in the OT is not isolated to this passage as this parallels with what Christ said concerning what the prophets had spoken in Luke 24:25-26, what Peter said concerning grace and salvation in I Peter 1:10-12, and undergirds what Paul said concerning his ministry to the Gentiles in Ephesians 3:1-12.

  2. Scott Randolph says:

    What is “hidden” in the OT, being now “new” after Christ’s death and resurrection seems to explain the understanding of the two on the road to Emmaus. Christ opened the “mysteries” to them.
    Thank you for this thought-provoking blog!