…God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
1 TIMOTHY 3:16
For mankind, the earth has become the symbol of death and mortality, but in the very face of this, the Christian still knows for certain that God has not forgotten him. Man who was made in the image of God has not been forsaken—God promised a plan to restore that which had been made in His image.
Only that creature whom He called “man” did God make in His own image and likeness. So, when man failed and sinned and fell, God said, “I will go down now.”
God came down to visit us in the form of a man, for in Christ Jesus we have the incarnation, “God manifest in the flesh.” God Himself came down to this earthly island of man’s grief and assumed our loss and took upon Himself our demerits, and in so doing, redeemed us back unto Himself. Jesus Christ, the King of glory, the everlasting Son of the Father, in His victory over sin and death opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers!
Beyond His death and resurrection and ascension, the present work of Jesus Christ is twofold. It is to be an advocate above—a risen Saviour with high priestly office at the throne of God; and the ministry of preparing a place for His people in the house of His Father and our Father, as well.
That is what the Bible teaches. That is what the Christian church believes. It is the essence of the doctrines of the Christian church relating to atonement and salvation!
The Word of God is a vast, inexhaustible storehouse of spiritual truth. Out of all that truth, what is most essential for the church to uphold and proclaim? Paul gives the answer in verse 16: The message of Jesus Christ. That is the core of what we teach and preach. In Luke 24:46–47, Jesus said to the disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” That became the theme of apostolic preaching. In Acts 10:37–43 Peter said,
You yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him. And we are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He should become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.
Paul, too, made Jesus Christ the central theme in his preaching. To the Corinthians he wrote, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23), and, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). In his second epistle to them he added, “For the Son of God, Christ Jesus, who was preached among you by us—by me and Silvanus and Timothy—was not yes and no, but is yes in Him” (2 Cor. 1:19), and “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). In Galatians 6:14 he said, “May it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Even when Christ was preached from wrong motives, he rejoiced (Phil. 1:18).
Because Paul emphasizes the person and work of Christ in 1 Timothy (cf.. 1:1; 2:5–6; 6:15–16), that truth may well have been under attack in Ephesus. In this magnificent six-line hymn, Paul rehearses in familiar terms the central truths about Jesus Christ.
Common confession comes from homologeō, which means “to say the same thing.” This is a truth upon which everyone agrees; it is the unanimous conviction of all believers that great is the mystery of godliness. That phrase may be a parallel to the common confession of the pagan worshipers in Ephesus, “Great is Artemis [Diana] of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28).
As already noted, a mystery was a hidden, sacred truth that is revealed in the New Testament. The mystery of godliness parallels the “mystery of the faith” (v. 9). It refers to the great truth of salvation and righteousness through Christ, which produces godliness (eusebeia) in those who believe. It is also possible to understand the mystery of godliness as a reference to Jesus, who was the very revelation of true and perfect “godlikeness,” since He was God. Godliness, then, first refers to the incarnation and secondly to those who are saved and become the godly in Christ.
As already noted, the lines that follow are undoubtedly from an early church hymn. That is evident from its uniformity (The six verbs are all third person singular aorists), rhythm, and parallelism. The first parallel is between the flesh and the Spirit, the second between angels and nations (Men), and the third between the world and glory, or earth and heaven.
The Authorized Version opens the hymn with “God.” The earliest and best manuscripts, however, read hos (He who), not theos (“God”). (For a discussion of the textual issue see Bruce M. Metzger,A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [New York: United Bible Societies, 1975], 641.) Although no antecedent for hos is given, the hymn can only be describing Jesus Christ, who is the purest mystery of godliness—the hidden God revealed perfectly. This marvelous hymn gives us six truths about our Lord.
First, Jesus Christ was revealed in the flesh. God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Phaneroō (revealed) does not mean “to bring into existence,” or “to create,” but “to make visible.” It thus affirms Christ’s preexistence (cf.. John 8:58; 17:5). At the Incarnation, Jesus “although He existed in the form of God … emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and [was] made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–7). Our Lord Jesus Christ made the invisible God visible to human eyes (cf.. 1:17; 6:16; John 14:9; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3).
Flesh does not refer here to sinful, fallen human nature, as it does in Romans 7. Rather it refers merely to humanness (cf.. John 1:14; Rom. 1:3; Gal. 4:4). Jesus was “made in the likeness of men … and … found in appearance as a man” (Phil. 2:7–8). “Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same” (Heb. 2:14), and therefore “is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb. 2:11). That does not mean He was sinful, but that He was fully human. “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
It is at precisely this point that the cults and false religions of the world deceive. Satan invariably attacks the Person of Christ, denying that He is the living, eternal God in human flesh.
Second, Jesus Christ was vindicated in the Spirit. Dikaioō (vindicated) means “to justify,” or “to declare righteous.” Though the translators decided to capitalize Spirit, making it refer to the third member of the Trinity, it could also refer to Jesus. That would mean that Jesus Christ was vindicated—declared to be righteous—with respect to His spiritual nature. This reality is why the Father said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17). First John 2:1 calls Him “Jesus Christ the righteous.” He was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Hebrews 5:9 relates that “having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,” while Hebrews 7:26 describes Him as “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens.”
Jesus Christ was a sinless sacrifice on our behalf: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14)? “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:21–22).
Our Lord was the God-Man. In His human nature, He was fully man, in His divine nature, He was fully God.
It is also possible that the translation of Spirit in the upper case is correct and is referring to Christ’s vindication by the Holy Spirit. In Romans 1:4 Paul tells us that Jesus Christ “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the spirit of holiness.” His resurrection by the Spirit proved His sinlessness. If He had any sin of His own, He would have stayed dead as the penalty for that sin. The affirmation of His perfect righteousness came when the Holy Spirit raised Him from the dead.
It may well be that Paul here encompasses both realities. Jesus Christ was vindicated both by His sinless life of obedience to God which declared His righteousness, and by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, who affirmed His righteousness again by raising Him from the dead.
Third, Jesus Christ was beheld by angels. Horaō (beheld means “to see,” “to visit,” “to observe,” or “to be attendant to.” Throughout our Lord’s earthly ministry, the angels observed Him, and attended to Him. They were there at His birth, announcing it to Joseph and the shepherds. They ministered to Him at His temptation, and strengthened Him in Gethsamane. At His death and resurrection, which is the focal point of this passage, angels observed Him. The fallen angels saw Him. First Peter 3:18–20 describes that event:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah.
After His death on the cross, our Lord visited the place where certain demons are kept imprisoned, and proclaimed His triumph over them (cf.. Col. 2:15).
The holy angels also were involved. An angel rolled away the stone at the door of His tomb (Matt. 28:2). Angels appeared to the women, affirming that Jesus had risen (Luke 24:4–7). Finally, two angels attended Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:10–11). Angels were involved in our Lord’s earthly life from beginning to end. That, too, signified divine approval of the incarnate Messiah.
Fourth, Jesus Christ was proclaimed among the nations. Before His ascension, He commanded the disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20). In Acts 1:8 He told them, “you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” There was to be no nation left without the gospel message. Jesus Christ is the Savior of the whole world (cf.. John 3:16; 4:42; 2 Cor. 5:19–20; 1 John 2:2; 4:14).
Fifth, Jesus Christ was believed on in the world. The plan of God was fulfilled as the apostles’ proclamation resulted in saving faith in many lives. At the first public preaching of the gospel after Christ’s resurrection, 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2:41). In the days that followed, thousands more believed on Him. The gospel was preached throughout Judea, then to the Samaritans, to an Ethiopian eunuch, to Cornelius the Gentile, and ultimately across the Gentile world by Paul and his associates.
Finally, Jesus Christ was taken up in glory. Acts 1:9–10 describes the event:
After He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”
“When He had made purification of sins,” Hebrews 1:3 says, “He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” To the Philippians Paul wrote,
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:8–11).
Jesus’ ascension showed that the Father was pleased with Him and accepted His work.
In six short stanzas, this hymn summarizes the gospel. God became man, died for our sins, triumphed over death, was honored by angels and feared by demons, and ascended into heaven. This message was preached all over the world and many believed and were saved. That is the heart of the message it is our mission to proclaim to the world.
There once was an old church in England. A sign on the front of the building read “We preach Christ crucified.” After a time, ivy grew up and obscured the last word. The motto now read, “We preach Christ.” The ivy grew some more, and the motto read, “We preach.” Finally, ivy covered the entire sign, and the church died. Such is the fate of any church that fails to carry out its mission in the world.
16 The apostle goes on to cite a confession (homologoumenōs, GK 3935; NIV, “beyond all question”; NASB, “by common confession”; cf. Josephus, Ant. 1.180: “by common consent”; 2.229: “all agree”), which he calls “the mystery of godliness.” (Regarding eusebeia [GK 2354, “godliness”], see comments at 2:2; cf. 4:7, 8; 6:3, 5–6, 11.) Most likely this confession is made up of three couplets, each linking earthly and heavenly realities (flesh/spirit; angels/nations; world/glory), apparently in the form of a chiastic structure (ab-ba-ab; contra Mounce, 217–18, following Walter Lock, who sees two stanzas of three lines each; and Marshall, 502, who postulates the later insertion of lines 4 and 5). Knight, 183, writes that “the first of the three couplets presents Christ’s work accomplished, the second his work made known,and the third his work acknowledged.”
The confession makes reference to Jesus’ incarnation (“appeared in a body”; cf. Jn 1:14) and resurrection (“vindicated by the Spirit”; cf. Ro 1:4; the phrase should probably be rendered, “vindicated in the realm of the Spirit” [cf. K. Easley, “The Pauline Usage of Pneumati as a Reference to the Spirit of God,” JETS 27 (1984): 305; NASB]). In the second couplet, Jesus was “seen by angels” (resurrection appearances?) and became the object of universal proclamation (“preached among the nations”; cf. Col 1:6, 23). Finally, the faith elicited by this proclamation (“believed on in the world”) and Jesus’ ascension and exaltation (“taken up in glory”) conclude the confession. The first and last lines serve as a framing device, with lines 2–5 filling out the confession, which on all accounts is “great” (sublime as well as important; cf. Eph 5:32).
3:16 This is a difficult verse. One difficulty is in discerning just how it fits in with what has preceded. One suggestion is that here we have an epitome of the truth, of which the church is the pillar and ground (v. 15). Another is that this verse gives the example and power of godliness which Paul insists is an integral part of proper behavior in the house of God. J. N. Darby said:
This is often quoted and interpreted as if it spoke of the mystery of the Godhead, or the mystery of Christ’s Person. But it is the mystery of godliness, or the secret by which all real godliness is produced—the divine spring of all that can be called piety in man.… Godliness springs from the knowledge of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.… This is how God is known; and from abiding in this flows godliness.
When Paul says that the mystery of godliness is great, he does not mean that it is very mysterious but that the previously unknown truth concerning the Person and work of the Lord Jesus is very marvelous and wonderful.
God was manifested in the flesh refers to the Lord Jesus, and particulary to His Incarnation. True godliness was manifest in the flesh for the first time when the Savior was born as a Babe in Bethlehem’s manger.
Does justified in the Spirit mean “justified in His own human spirit”? Or does it mean “justified by the Holy Spirit”? We understand it to mean the latter. He was vindicated by the Holy Spirit of God at His baptism (Matt. 3:15–17), transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), resurrection (Rom. 1:3, 4), and ascension (John 16:10).
The Lord Jesus was seen by angels at His birth, temptation, His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, resurrection, and ascension.
From the day of Pentecost onward, He has been preached among the Gentiles. The proclamation has reached not only the Jewish people but the farthest corners of the earth.
Believed on in the world describes the fact that some from almost every tribe and nation have trusted the Lord Jesus. It does not say “believed on by the world.” Although the proclamation has been worldwide, yet its reception has been only partial.
Received up in glory is generally agreed to refer to His Ascension to heaven after the work of redemption had been completed, and to His present position there. Vincent points out that it reads “received up in (not into) glory.” It means “with attendant circumstances of pomp or majesty, as we say of a victorious general.”
Some make this list of events chronological. For instance, they say that manifested in the flesh refers to the incarnation; justified in the Spirit refers to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection; seen by angels describes His ascension into heaven; preached among the Gentiles and believed on in the world are the events that followed His ascension; and, finally, received up in glory refers to a coming day when all His redeemed are gathered, raised from the dead, and received up with Him to glory. Then, and only then, will the mystery of godliness be complete, according to this view.
However, we see no reason that the order must be chronological. Some believe we have in this verse a fragment of an early Christian hymn. If so, it is rather similar to our gospel song “One Day”:
Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever:
One day He’s coming—oh, glorious day!
—Charles H. Marsh
 Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (pp. 137–142). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Köstenberger, A. (2006). 1 Timothy. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 531–532). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 2090–2091). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.