14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
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.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Ti 3:14–16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
The Message of the Church
And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Beheld by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory. (3:16)
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.
The Great Mystery of Godliness
1 Timothy 3:14–16
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 Tim. 3:16)
The truth is not as true as it used to be. Sometimes it may even be falsehood. During one White House scandal, a prominent lawyer was asked if his client was telling the truth. “Tell us what the truth is,” the reporter demanded. “The truth is what is in that deposition,” answered the lawyer, “unless we make a deal with the prosecutor and say something else.” In other words, “the truth” is something that may or may not actually be true. It is something to manipulate for personal gain.
Sadly, lawyers and politicians are not the only ones who do not know the difference between truth and falsehood. In his book No Place for Truth, or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? David Wells argues that the church is weak because it has “exchanged the sensibilities of modern culture for the truth of Christ.” If Wells is right, then the church is no longer the church. For in the process of explaining his purpose for writing to Timothy, the apostle Paul defines the church by its relationship to the truth: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim. 3:14–15).
Order in the House
Paul was planning to visit Ephesus before long. But in case he was detained—by an arrest, perhaps, or yet another shipwreck—he wanted Timothy to know how to carry out his pastoral duties in the meantime. Since 1 Timothy was a public letter, it seems he also wanted to remind the Ephesians to support their pastor by behaving themselves in the household of God. From what we have seen in 1 Timothy so far, the kind of conduct the apostle has in mind includes proper doctrine (1 Tim. 1:1–20), proper gender relations (1 Tim. 2:1–15), and proper spiritual leadership (1 Tim. 3:1–13) in the church.
It is not certain precisely how this letter fits with Paul’s itinerary in the book of Acts. Nor is it known if his travels ever brought him back through Ephesus after all. But in the providence of God, Paul’s uncertainty led him to write this letter, and the Holy Spirit has used it ever since to tell Christians all over the world “what kind of conduct befits a member of God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15 nab). “Household” is an image that comes up repeatedly in 1 Timothy and throughout the New Testament (e.g. Gal. 3:26–4:7; 1 Tim. 3:4–5). The members of the true church are sons and daughters of God the Father. Having been born again through faith in God’s Son, we have been adopted into his family by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Each and every one of us has a place of fellowship and service in God’s household.
Second, the church is God’s residence—what Paul calls “the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15; cf. Josh. 3:10). In other words, the church is not simply God’s household; it is also his house. “There are good reasons why God should call the Church His House,” writes Calvin, “for not only has He received us as His sons by the grace of adoption, but He Himself dwells in the midst of us.” Here Paul may well have been reminding the Ephesians what he told them in an earlier letter: “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22; cf. 2 Cor. 6:16). The church is the house that God built.
The promise that God makes his home in his church must have been of special encouragement to the Ephesians, who worshiped within the shadow of the temple of the goddess Diana. Diana’s temple in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But however impressive it seemed from the outside, it was utterly devoid of life. The goddess in the temple was nothing more than a dead idol. By contrast, Paul wanted to remind the Ephesians that the church of Jesus Christ is the real temple. The living God does not dwell in temples built by human hands (cf. Acts 17:24). He lives among his people, especially in their public worship. Whenever Christians gather for prayer and praise, for Word and sacrament, God takes up residence among them. To put it in the vernacular, God is in the house.
This is why Christian worship properly begins with a prayer of invocation. In the invocation, a church invites the Holy Spirit to enter its house of worship with power. If the church is true to God’s Word, the Spirit will always make his presence known. Whenever visitors enter a church where the Spirit of God is present with the people of God in worship, they say, “Surely God is in this place!”
The Pillar of Truth
The church is not only a home for God and for his people; it is also a home for God’s truth. Paul continues his temple imagery with a third definition of the church: it is “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Roman Catholic theologians often use this verse to argue against the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. “See,” they say, “the church is the foundation for the truth. Therefore, Scripture is not the only rule of faith and practice, as Protestants say. We must obey church tradition as well as the Bible. The truth rests upon the church, and not the other way around.”
One problem with the Catholic view of this verse is that it forgets Paul’s previous letter to the Ephesians: “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20). The ultimate bedrock foundation of the church is the Word of God spoken by the prophets of the Old Testament, written by the apostles of the New Testament, and made incarnate by God’s own Son. How can the church be the foundation of the truth if the truth is the foundation of the church?
Notice further that one of the words Paul uses to describe the church in 1 Timothy 3:15 is the word “buttress” (hedraiōma). A buttress is not a building’s foundation, but part of its supporting structure. To be specific, a buttress helps to stabilize the walls and pillars of a large building. In the same way, the church of Jesus Christ helps to hold the truth steady. The people of God are people of the truth. In opposition to every form of false teaching, they support truth in the world.
The other word Paul uses to describe the relationship between the church and orthodoxy is the word “pillar” (stylos). The architectural function of pillars is well known: they hold up the roof. So to say that the church is the pillar (and buttress) of the truth is to say that it lifts up the truth for all the world to see. As John Stott says, “The purpose of pillars is not only to hold the roof firm, but to thrust it high so that it can be clearly seen even from a distance.… Just so, the church holds the truth aloft, so that it is seen and admired by the world. Indeed, as pillars lift a building high while remaining themselves unseen, so the church’s function is not to advertise itself but to advertise and display the truth.” Thus the truth that the church is a “pillar of the truth” is not so much a doctrinal truth as it is a practical truth.4 Over against the Roman Catholic view that the church determines the truth, the Bible teaches that the church displays the truth.
It may be significant that the Greek omits the definite article: verse 15 reads “a pillar” rather than “the pillar.” Every Christian congregation is one pillar of truth. The Ephesians were reminded of this every time they saw the temple of Diana, which had more than one hundred Ionic columns in all, each six stories high. So many pillars were needed because the entire roof was made of marble. Without all of these pillars the temple would collapse, rather than remaining visible for miles around. Similarly, every church is a pillar that helps to bolster the truth of Jesus Christ by holding it up for the world.
A Great Mystery
If the church is a pillar and buttress of the truth, it needs to know what the truth is, and the truth is a great mystery: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16). When the Bible uses the word “mystery” it is not referring to something that is unsolved, but to something long hidden that has now been revealed (cf. Rom. 16:25–26; 1 Tim. 3:9). In the Bible, a mystery is the secret plan of redemption which is no longer secret because God has divulged it.
The mysteries concerning Jesus Christ are profound; they are “great beyond all question” (1 Tim. 3:16 reb). The greatness of the mysteries of the gospel is demonstrable and “undeniable.” There is no doubt about it. The mysteries of the gospel are great by common consent. Almost certainly, this was another attack on the goddess Diana. During Paul’s first visit to Ephesus, the silversmiths felt threatened by his missionary work, so they sent the city into an uproar. As many as twenty thousand people crowded into the theater at Ephesus, where “they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ ” (Acts 19:34). They shouted this slogan so long and so loud that their words were still ringing in Paul’s ears when he wrote this letter. Paul knew the meaning of true greatness, however, so he wrote: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16). His very phrasing helps convey the glory and grandeur of the gospel, for the mystery is Jesus himself. This is the truth that the church is called to uphold in the world: the saving mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The mystery of Jesus Christ is described in six lines that sound like part of an early creed, confession, or catechism. Because the lines are rhythmic, and because their first words all rhyme, it is often thought that this verse formed part of an early Christian hymn:
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 Tim. 3:16)
In order to capture their liturgical quality, Walter Lock has put these lines into English verse:
In flesh unveiled to mortals’ sight,
Kept righteous by the Spirit’s might,
While angels watched him from the sky:
His heralds sped from shore to shore,
And men believed, the wide world o’er,
When he in glory passed on high.
These lines deserve careful study, especially since scholars disagree about how they should be divided. One suggestion is to separate the creed into two stanzas, each three lines long. The first stanza refers to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ (he was “manifested,” “vindicated,” and “seen”), while the second stanza refers to the work of Jesus Christ after his ascension (he was “proclaimed,” “believed on,” and “taken up”).
Walter Lock, who follows this two-part structure, calls the first stanza “The Life of the Incarnate Lord” (“as seen on earth, as watched from heaven”) and the second stanza “The Life of the Ascended Lord” (“as preached on earth, as lived in heaven”). Gordon Fee describes the difference between them like this: “The first stanza sings Christ’s earthly ministry, concluding with a word of triumph and glorification. Similarly, the second stanza sings the ongoing ministry of Christ through his church, concluding again with the theme of glorification. In a certain sense both stanzas reflect the theme of humiliation and exaltation.”
Other scholars point out that the lines come in pairs or couplets. In each case, there is a contrast between earth and heaven: “flesh” and “Spirit,” “angels” and “nations,” “world” and “glory.” This suggestion may also have some merit, although the contrast between “angels” and “nations” seems somewhat forced.
Since it is not certain how to subdivide the verse, perhaps it is better not to try. This hymn—if it is a hymn—is a short history of Jesus Christ. It contains the gospel truth about his work of salvation in outline form. Each line describes a different period or event in his life and ministry. Therefore, it seems best to understand these statements in chronological order.
He Appeared in a Body
Paul begins by saying, “He was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16; cf. 2 Tim. 1:10). The best and oldest manuscripts say “Who” rather than “He,” but the meaning of the verse is the same in either case: God was manifested in physical form.
God the Son had lived in all the splendor of his deity from eternity past (cf. Phil. 2:6–8). Then he became a man, identical to us in his physical body. This is the mystery of the incarnation: God the Son became the God-man. By taking upon himself human flesh and blood, he became one person with two natures: a divine nature and a human nature. Calvin described his epiphany like this:
Thus is Jesus Christ true God, in so much as he was the wisdom of God before the world was made, and before all everlastingness. Now it is said, that he was made manifest in the flesh. By this word flesh, Saint Paul giveth us to understand that he was true man, and put upon him our nature. But yet he showeth by this word, manifested, that there are two natures in him. And yet we may not imagine, that there is one Jesus Christ which is God, and another Jesus Christ which is man: but we must know him only God and man.
Since God the Son appeared as a man, everything he did on this earth he did in a real human body. The events of the passion of Jesus Christ were physical events. His cheek was kissed by his betrayer. His face was spit upon. His body was struck and slapped. His back was flogged. His brow was pierced by thorns. His head was struck with a staff. As the Scripture says, “Christ suffered in the flesh” (1 Peter 4:1).
Christ even died in the flesh. It was a real body that was nailed with real nails to a cross of real wood. It was a real body that was punished for sin: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). Then it was a real body—a corpse—that was taken down from the cross, wrapped in linen, and laid in a tomb. God the Son did not just appear in a body; the body in which he appeared was crucified, dead, and buried.
Vindicated by the Spirit
God the Son did not remain in the grave, however; he was “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Tim. 3:16). In other words, the Holy Spirit confirmed and proved that Jesus Christ is God’s own Son and the Savior of the world by raising him from the dead.
Some scholars think that this part of the creed refers again to the incarnation. In that case, the word “spirit” would refer to the human spirit of Jesus. However, although it is true that Jesus Christ had a spirit as well as a body, what is emphasized here is that he was vindicated by the Spirit.
When was Jesus vindicated? The Holy Spirit proved Jesus was who he claimed to be throughout his earthly ministry. The Spirit proved it at Jesus’ baptism, when he descended upon him from heaven like a dove (Matt. 3:16). He proved it by preserving Jesus from sin throughout his earthly ministry. He proved it whenever he performed miracles, especially when he drove out demons. “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons,” Jesus said, “then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28).
The Spirit vindicated the Son in all these ways, but most of all he did it through the resurrection. When Christians think about the resurrection, we usually think first of God the Son, who was raised up from the grave. We may even remember that it was God the Father who raised him. But Easter Sunday is also a day to praise God the Holy Spirit. The resurrection was such an important event that it required the work of each and every member of the Trinity. God the Father raised God the Son from the dead by the power of God the Holy Spirit: “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18 niv; cf. Rom. 8:11). Although Jesus laid down his life to take it up again (see John 10:18), he did not raise himself by himself. He was raised from the dead by his Father (e.g. Acts 2:24; Rom. 10:9), but this was done through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit was the one who gave life and glory to the dead body of Jesus Christ.
When the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, he confirmed that everything Jesus ever said or did was true. Although Jesus Christ was rejected by the world, he was approved by the Spirit. The Spirit vindicated the Son by raising him from the dead. The word for “vindication” is also the word for “justification,” which is why the King James Version says Jesus was “justified in the Spirit” (1 Tim. 3:16). Justification is a legal declaration. In this case, it means that by his resurrection Jesus was declared to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world. As the apostle Paul explained on another occasion, Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection was the Holy Spirit’s verification that Jesus is the Christ.
Seen by Angels
After Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit” he was “seen by angels” (1 Tim. 3:16). The word “angels” (angelos) usually means what it says. It refers to the principalities and powers of the unseen world, especially those glorious, supernatural creatures who worship God in heaven and serve him on earth—the angels.
We know from the Gospels that some of the angels were witnesses of the incarnate Christ. Angels sang at his birth (Luke 2:13–14). They attended to him in the wilderness (Mark 1:12–13). An angel even appeared in the Garden of Gethsemane to strengthen Jesus for the work of the cross (Luke 22:43). But the angels were also witnesses of the risen Christ. They were the first to tell the disciples that Jesus was alive (Matt. 28:1–7; cf. Luke 24:23), but how could they give such testimony unless they had seen his resurrection body for themselves? Then, finally, angels witnessed the ascension of Jesus into heaven (Acts 1:9–11). To summarize, “These ministering spirits sang at his birth, ministered in the hour of his temptation, guarded his sepulcher, attested his ascension, and expected his return.”
The reason for mentioning the angels here is to show that the mystery of godliness is known in heaven as well as on earth. Although the angels themselves are not saved by grace, they glorify God for our salvation, as they are doing this very moment. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22).
There is, however, another possible meaning for this line of Paul’s hymn. The word “angel” simply means “messenger,” which makes it an appropriate word for God’s heavenly messengers. But it can also refer to his earthly messengers, meaning the apostles. What Paul says about these messengers in 1 Timothy 3:16 was certainly true of the apostles: they saw Jesus. The apostles were eyewitnesses of his life and work, and especially of his resurrection. In fact, the Greek word Paul uses here for seeing (ōphthē) is the same word he uses when he tells the Corinthians that the risen Christ “appeared” to Peter and the rest of the apostles, including Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:5–7).
When the first Christians confessed that Jesus was seen by messengers, therefore, they may have been referring to the apostles. This possibility has been dismissed by many commentators, but without sufficient reason, because it is in keeping with the logic of the hymn. The next thing Jesus did after he appeared in a body and was vindicated by the Spirit was to show himself to Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples, including Thomas. Here is the sequence of Paul’s hymn: first, the incarnation; second, the resurrection; third, the presentation.
The postresurrection appearances of Jesus were essential to the plan of salvation. In order for the apostles to know that Jesus was the Christ, they had to see his glorious resurrection body. Otherwise, they would not have been able to testify that he had won the victory over the grave. Without their eyewitness testimony, we ourselves would never believe in the resurrection, and the church of the living God would not be able to stand as a pillar and buttress to the gospel truth. The same cannot be said of the angels and their testimony. They glorified God when they saw the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But our faith rests upon Jesus’ presentation to the apostles, not to the angels.
Preached among the Nations
There is another reason for thinking that “messengers” may refer to the apostles. Notice what comes next: Jesus was “proclaimed among the nations,” meaning all the Gentile peoples of the world. This clearly refers to the apostolic preaching of the gospel. After the presentation came the proclamation. Having seen the risen Christ, the apostles preached the risen Christ.
The apostles received the commission to do this from Jesus himself. Before he ascended into heaven, he said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18–20). The apostles began to fulfill this commission at Pentecost. While they waited in Jerusalem, they were anointed by the Holy Spirit and began to speak in foreign tongues. The Bible emphasizes that the people who heard them were “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). When Peter stood up and addressed the crowd that day, he was preaching Jesus Christ among the nations.
Pentecost was only the beginning of the worldwide work of the gospel. Jesus Christ was preached, not only in Jerusalem, but in Judea, and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Paul himself preached Christ in Ephesus (Acts 19), and once they came to Christ, the Ephesians began to take the gospel to the nations, especially by praying for missions (see 1 Tim. 2:1–4). Jesus is preached among the nations to this very day. This is part of the great mystery of godliness. What the church is doing at this moment in history is essential to God’s plan for the redemption of the world. The gospel is going to the nations as the good news about Jesus Christ is proclaimed to every tribe, people, and language.
Believed On in the World
Wherever Jesus Christ is proclaimed, he is “believed on in the world” (1 Tim. 3:16). The first to believe were the first eyewitnesses of the resurrection. John believed even before he saw the risen Christ. When he heard the tomb was (almost) empty, he “outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen clothes lying there, but he did not go in” (John 20:4–5). As John stood in the doorway, he saw the burial cloth, still intact, and tried to figure out what it all meant. Finally, he went inside, where “he saw and believed” (John 20:8). On the evidence of the burial clothes, he believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
John was only the first to believe. Mary Magdalene believed and told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). They were afraid at first, and some doubted, but when Jesus appeared to them, they also believed (Matt. 28:17). Eventually, even Thomas believed, in spite of all his initial doubts (John 20:24–29).
As soon as the apostles began to preach the gospel to the nations, others began to believe as well. Nearly three thousand people believed on the day of Pentecost alone (see Acts 2:41). As the first church in Jerusalem continued to preach the gospel, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). It has been that way ever since. It is doubtful whether a single day has gone by since the day Jesus rose from the tomb without people coming to him in faith, giving their lives to him.
The global mission of Jesus Christ is a global success. He is still believed on in the world. The week that I write this I have received news of dozens of conversions. The mother of a church member—an eighty-eight-year-old Jewish woman—prayed to receive Jesus as her Messiah. A boy in a neighborhood Bible club asked how he could pray to receive Jesus into his heart. A former church member wrote to say that his daughter started a Good News club for her friends; all nine of them have made a commitment to Christ. Then there was the news from overseas. The church received an e-mail from the Middle East, where missionaries reported seeing more Muslims believe the gospel and repent of their sins in recent weeks than ever before. Another report, this one from the Far East, told the story of a man who received a Bible from a missionary hospital. The next time he needed medical care he returned to the hospital. It was thirty years (!) since his previous visit, and he had been reading his Bible ever since, having long since come to faith in Jesus Christ.
The confession in 1 Timothy 3:16 makes a historical claim: “he was believed on in the world.” But this statement is for the present as well as the past because God is still making history. He will continue to bring men, women, and children to salvation in Christ until history comes to an end. In fact, if you trust in Jesus Christ for your salvation, then this verse is about you as well. You are in the world. You believe on him. Therefore, your faith is one proof that Jesus is believed on in the world.
Taken Up in Glory
The only real problem with taking Paul’s hymn about the mystery of godliness in chronological order is the last phrase: he was “taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16). This line seems to refer to the ascension. In fact, the same verb (analambanō) is used in the book of Acts to describe the way Jesus ascended to heaven. After he appeared to his disciples, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9; cf. 1:2, 22; Mark 16:19). The problem is that this seems to be out of sequence: Jesus was “taken up in glory” before he was “proclaimed among the nations” or “believed on in the world.”
One possible solution is that this last phrase refers to the second coming of Jesus Christ. When Jesus returns to this earth he will come the way he left, trailing clouds of glory, to gather all his people to himself. The reason this is put in the past tense is that it is such a certainty. Jesus has promised to come again in power and glory, and he will undoubtedly do so.
The important thing, in any case, is that Jesus has become the glorified Christ. “Glory” (doxa) is the word the Bible uses to describe “brightness, splendor, or radiance.” It “denotes in particular the glory, majesty, and sublimity of God.” By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus is exalted and enthroned. He radiates the glory of God. What better way to end a hymn than with the glorious praise of the glorious Christ? Epiphanius had this glory clearly in mind when he composed his “Second Creed”—a confession of praise that strikes a joyous chord in every believer’s soul: “The Word became flesh; the same suffered in the flesh; rose again; went up to heaven in the same body, sat down gloriously at the right hand of the Father; is coming in the same body in glory to judge the quick and the dead.”
The Godliness of the Mystery
The truth that the church holds out to the world is the mystery of the incarnation (“manifested in the flesh”), resurrection (“vindicated by the Spirit”), presentation (“seen by angels”), mission (“proclaimed among the nations”), reception (“believed on in the world”), and glorification (“taken up in glory”) of Jesus Christ. The only thing left to say about this mystery is that it is a mystery “of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16; cf. 2:2; 4:8). In other words, this hymn or confession contains practical truth. It promotes the worship of God and encourages the exercise of true religion.
John Chrysostom understood well that the mystery of Christ is for godliness. When he preached this mystery at his church in Constantinople, he brought his sermon to the point of practical application: “Great indeed was it. For God became Man, and Man became God. A Man was seen without sin! A Man was received up, was preached in the world! Together with us the Angels saw Him. This is indeed a mystery!.… But let us live in a manner worthy of the mystery.” This is good pastoral counsel. The truth about Jesus Christ demands a response.
What does it mean to live worthily of the mystery of godliness? Since Jesus “was manifested in the flesh,” let us glorify him with our bodies. Let us use our hands to help, our lips to bless, and our minds to serve. Since Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit,” let us pray that we ourselves will be vindicated on the day of judgment. Let us ask God to prove that we belong to him by giving us glorious resurrection bodies. Since Jesus was “seen by messengers,” let us join the angels and the apostles in their worship around his throne. Since Jesus was and is “proclaimed among the nations,” let us testify to his grace, declaring the gospel to everyone we love and sharing in the worldwide work of missions, so that all peoples might praise him. Since Jesus was and is “believed on in the world,” let us believe on him with all our hearts for salvation as well as for everything else we need. Last of all, since Jesus was “taken up in glory,” let us await his soon return with eager expectation, longing for the day when we will see the great mystery for ourselves.
16. Great is the mystery of godliness. Again, here is another enhancement. That the truth of God might not, through the ingratitude of men, be less esteemed than it ought, he extols its value, by stating that “great is the secret of godliness;” that is, because it does not treat of mean subjects, but of the revelation of the Son of God, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom.” (Col. 2:3.) From the greatness and importance of such matters, pastors ought to judge of their office, that they may devote themselves to the discharge of it with greater conscientiousness and deeper reverence.
God manifested in the flesh. The Vulgate translator, by leaving out the name of God, refers what follows to “the mystery,” but altogether unskilfully and inappropriately, as will clearly be seen on a bare perusal, though he has Erasmus on his side, who, however, destroys the authority of his own views, so that it is unnecessary for me to refute it. All the Greek copies undoubtedly agree in this rendering, “God manifested in the flesh.” But granting that Paul did not express the name of God, still any one who shall carefully examine the whole matter, will acknowledge that the name of Christ ought to be supplied. For my own part, I have no hesitation in following the reading which has been adopted in the Greek copies. In calling the manifestation of Christ, such as he afterwards describes it, a “great mystery,” the reason is obvious; for this is “the height, depth, and breadth of wisdom,” which he has elsewhere mentioned, (Eph. 3:18,) by which all our senses must unavoidably be overwhelmed.
Let us now examine the various clauses in their order. He could not have spoken more appropriately about the person of Christ than in these words, “God manifested in the flesh.” First, we have here an express testimony of both natures; for he declares at the same time that Christ is true God and true man. Secondly, he points out the distinction between the two natures, when, on the one hand, he calls him God, and, on the other, expresses his “manifestation in the flesh.” Thirdly, he asserts the unity of the person, when he declares, that it is one and the same who was God, and who has been manifested in the flesh.
Thus, by this single passage, the true and orthodox faith is powerfully defended against Arius, Marcion, Nestorius, and Eutyches. There is also great emphasis in the contrast of the two words, God in flesh. How wide is the difference between God and man! And yet in Christ we behold the infinite glory of God united to our polluted flesh in such a manner that they become one.
Justified in the Spirit. As the Son of God “emptied himself,” (Philip. 2:7,) by taking upon him our flesh, so there was displayed in him a spiritual power which testified that he is God. This passage has received various interpretations; but, for my own part, satisfied with having explained the Apostle’s real meaning, as far as I understand it, I shall add nothing more. First, justification here denotes an acknowledgment of divine power; as in Ps. 19:9, where it is said, that “the judgments of God are justified,” that is, are wonderfully and absolutely perfect; and in Ps. 51:5, that “God is justified,” meaning that the praise of his justice is illustriously displayed. So also, (Matt. 11:19, and Luke 7:35,) when Christ says, that “Wisdom hath been justified by her children,” he means that they have given honour unto her; and when Luke (7:29) relates that the publicans “justified God,” he means that they acknowledged, with due reverence and gratitude, the grace of God which they beheld in Christ. What we read here has, therefore, the same meaning as if Paul had said, that he who appeared clothed with human flesh was, at the same time, declared to be the Son of God, so that the weakness of the flesh made no diminution of his glory.
Under the word Spirit, he includes everything in Christ that was divine and superior to man; and he does so for two reasons: First, because he had been humbled in “the flesh,” the Apostle now, by exhibiting the illustration of his glory, contrasts “the Spirit” with “the flesh.” Secondly, that glory, worthy of the only-begotten Son of God, which John affirms to have been seen in Christ, (John 1:14,) did not consist in outward display, or in earthly splendour, but was almost wholly spiritual. The same form of expression is used by him, (Rom. 1:3, 4,) “Who was made of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared by the power of the Spirit to be the Son of God;” but with this difference, that in that passage he mentions one kind of manifestation, namely, the resurrection.
Seen by angels, preached to the Gentiles. All these statements are wonderful and astonishing; that God deigned to bestow on the Gentiles, who had hitherto wandered in the blindness of their minds, a revelation of his Son, which had been unknown even to the angels in heaven. When the Apostle says, that he was “seen by angels,” he means that the sight was such as drew the attention of angels, both by its novelty and by its excellence. How uncommon and extraordinary the calling of the Gentiles was, we have stated in the exposition of the second chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Nor is it wonderful that it was a new spectacle to angels, who, though they knew about the redemption of mankind, yet did not at first understand the means by which it should be accomplished, and from whom it must have been concealed, in order that this remarkable display of the goodness of God might be beheld by them with greater admiration.
Obtained belief in the world. It was above all things astonishing that God made the Gentiles, who were heathens, and the angels, who held uninterrupted possession of his kingdom, to be equally partakers of the same revelation. But this great efficacy of the preached gospel was no ordinary miracle, when Christ, overcoming all obstacles, subdued to the obedience of faith those who seemed to be altogether incapable of being tamed. Certainly nothing appeared to be less probable—so completely was every entrance closed and shut up. Yet faith vanquished, but by an incredible kind of victory.
Lastly, he says that he was received into glory; that is, from this mortal and wretched life. Accordingly, as in the world, so far as related to the obedience of faith, so also in the person of Christ, the change was wonderful, when, from the mean condition of a servant, he was exalted to the right hand of the Father, that every knee may bow to him.
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).
Gearing up for godliness
I was always nervous when my school report was about to be handed to my parents. Invariably there were comments about the amount of time I spent talking when I should have been working. However, the observation that I ‘could do better’ was always the one that caused me the most difficulty because it was saying that I was not fulfilling my potential.
If we were to write a report on the church in Ephesus, it would say something similar. They could do much better! These verses set out the standards at which they should have been aiming. This was ‘the church of the living God’ and he had given it the responsibility of spreading the good news and living according to his Word in a pagan environment. But these Christians had allowed themselves to be side-tracked by false teaching, divided by arguments, and distracted by rules and regulations introduced by their new teachers.
Throughout the letter Paul has been urging them to live consistently with the fact that they are God’s people. They should be leading ‘peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness’ (2:2, NIV); the men should be able to pray, ‘lifting holy hands without anger or quarrelling’ (2:8); the women should adorn themselves ‘with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God’ (2:10, NIV); the overseers should be ‘above reproach’ (3:2); and the deacons should ‘live with a clear conscience’ (3:9, New Living Translation). Also Paul tells Timothy that he must train himself to be godly (4:7) and that ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ (6:6, NIV).
The new teachers, who were at the root of many of the problems in Ephesus, would have cited godliness as their main aim. Their thinking seems to have been similar to that of the Pharisees and Sadducees (the religious leaders of Jesus’ day) which was: the more rules and regulations there are to follow, the more godly one will become. But this is not the genuine article. Real godliness is about doing the things which please God and sharing his passion to see people come to salvation and grow in the faith.
Put your house in order!
A lot of people consider this letter to be a set of instructions on how to organize the local church. But they couldn’t be more wrong. It is a passionate plea for Timothy and the Christians in Ephesus to address an urgent situation. Paul intends to visit the church himself but the needs are too urgent to wait until then. ‘I hope to come to you soon,’ he tells Timothy in verses 14 and 15, ‘but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.’ The word translated ‘know’ carries the idea of practical knowledge that will enable the church to take the steps necessary to put things right, whereas ‘conduct’ describes a consistent pattern of life. In other words, the contents of this letter are designed to enable these Christians to live in a way that is consistent with the good news.
Three powerful pictures
Paul talks about the local church in three ways:
- it is ‘god’s household’, which portrays her as a family.
- it is ‘the church of the living god’ or literally, ‘the living God’s church’. We often think of the ‘church’ as being a building, but the word used here describes people who have been called out of the world and brought together by God.
- it is ‘a pillar and buttress of truth’ This would have been a powerful image for Timothy and the church he cared for because the temple of Diana was in Ephesus. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, with one hundred huge pillars, each over eighteen metres high, lifting its massive marble roof. As well as supporting the roof, the pillars also served to hold it high so that it could be seen from a distance. While Paul is not endorsing the kind of worship that went on in such a temple or comparing its objectives with the purpose God has given to the church, he uses this building to illustrate his point. John Stott says, ‘Just as those pillars held up that massive roof, so the church holds the truth aloft, so that it is seen and admired by the world … the church’s function is to display the truth.’ Beneath the pillar lies a ‘buttress’, which is a solid wall-like structure that is constructed to protect a building. When the parts of this image are put together, it is evident that the church exists to guard the truth by proclaiming it.
An open secret
After giving us these three powerful images of the church Paul says, ‘Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness’ (v. 16). The mystery Paul announces here is an open secret, something which would never have been known had it not been revealed. The majority of people reading this book will not know me, so if I tell you that I have a sister by the name of Nikki, you will have discovered something that you otherwise would not have known. It used to be hidden from you but now it is revealed. Verses 9 and 16 remind us of three fundamental truths that God has revealed to his church.
- christ ‘was manifested in the flesh’. The Son of God became a real human being. He was like us in every way, except for our sin.
- he was ‘vindicated by the spirit’ This could be referring to Jesus’ resurrection or the way in which the Holy Spirit came upon him during his ministry on earth. But the point being made is that true spirituality is patterned by Christ.
- he was ‘seen by angels’ and ‘proclaimed among the nations’. The angels were at the empty tomb, telling the disciples that Jesus was no longer there because he had been raised from the dead. The good news is spread because of Christ’s resurrection.
- he was ‘believed on in the world’ and ‘taken up in glory’. This echoes Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ascension:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’
When believers have their sights set on the risen, ascended Jesus, they are filled with a sense of purpose and fuelled by a passion to tell others about him. This will make us godly people.
3:16 / The mention of the truth (“of the gospel” always being implied by this word) leads Paul to the exclamation: Beyond all question, the mystery (“revealed truth,” as in 3:9) of godliness is great. The word godliness (eusebeia), a favorite in 1 Timothy (see disc. on 2:2), ordinarily refers to “the duty which people owe to God.” But here, as often with “faith” in these letters, it is not referring to the quality of “godliness” as such but “the godliness,” thought of in a more objective way as the content or basis of Christianity.
What follows is an expression of some of the content of the “revealed truth” of the godliness entrusted to God’s people. The passage itself is almost certainly a hymn, or hymn fragment, in six rhythmic lines. Each line has two members, a verb standing in first position, each in the aorist (past) tense, passive voice in Greek, ending with the rhythmic –thē, followed by a prepositional phrase (Gk., en, “in” or “by”). The implied subject of each verb is Christ.
On that much all modern interpreters are agreed; but on the structure itself, the meaning of a couple of the lines, and the meaning of the whole, there has been considerable debate, with nothing like a consensus. It has been viewed as a single stanza of six consecutive lines (see the jb), as two stanzas with three lines each (but in a variety of patterns [cf., e.g., the gnb with the rsv]), as three stanzas with two lines each (cf. niv), or in other, not easily classified combinations. Moreover, three of the lines (2, 3, and 6) are not perfectly clear as to their meaning, a difficulty raised in part by some apparent parallels and/or antitheses between the lines and in part because the whole seems to have a degree of chronology, moving from the Incarnation to further aspects of Christ’s life and ministry, yet breaking down in line 6. In view of so many difficulties and disagreements, one offers an interpretation with some reservation.
Let us begin with what appears to be somewhat certain. Line 1, he appeared in a body (lit. “he was manifested in the flesh”), has been universally recognized as an affirmation of the Incarnation, comparable to John 1:14 or Romans 1:3. Even more than in 1:15, such language implies pre-existence. In Christ, God himself has appeared “in flesh.”
Line 4, was preached among the nations (or “Gentiles”), is likewise generally recognized to refer to the period of early apostolic history when the gospel was proclaimed throughout the nations of the known world.
Line 5, was believed on in the world, seems to accompany line 4 as a word about the response to the proclamation of the gospel.
The content of these lines, therefore, which begin with Christ’s own entry into the world and in 4 and 5 take up the apostolic witness to Christ, has caused most interpreters to view it as some form of heilgeschichtliche hymn, that is, a hymn that tells the story of salvation (cf. J. Wilbur Chapman’s “One Day,” or Fanny Crosby’s “Tell Me the Story of Jesus”). If these observations are correct, then the problem that remains has to do with the meaning of the other three lines and how they all relate to one another.
Let us turn, then, to what is less certain. Line 2, he was vindicated by the Spirit, presents considerable difficulties. Literally, it says “he was justified in spirit [or Spirit].” In the Greek there seems to be a parallel between “in flesh” in line 1 and “in spirit” in line 2. But does it refer to the Holy Spirit or (more likely, given the parallel) to his spiritual nature? If the latter, then the point of this line, with some poetic license, is at least “vindication,” perhaps “exaltation,” referring to Christ’s resurrection. Thus the first two lines hymn Christ’s humiliation and exaltation (incarnation and resurrection) in a manner similar to the splendid prose of Romans 1:3 and 4 (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18).
Line 3, he was seen by angels, is likewise puzzling. This is the only line without the Greek preposition en (“in” or “by”). This verb (was seen by or “appeared to”), with the person(s) to whom he appeared in the Greek dative case (as here), is the regular formula in the nt for resurrection appearances (Luke 24:23; Acts 9:17; 1 Cor. 15:5–8). In this case, however, it more likely refers to the worship given by angels to the ascended, glorified Christ. If so, then the first three lines sing Christ’s incarnation, resurrection, and glorification and form a stanza about Christ himself, as he is seen “from glory to glory.”
In such a scheme, the next two lines (4 and 5) offer a similar parallel to lines 1 and 2, but now sing the ongoing ministry of Christ through his church. But the problem arises at line 6, he was taken up in glory. The word was taken up elsewhere in the nt refers to the Ascension (Luke 9:51; Acts 1:2, 11, 22; cf. Mark 16:19). How, then, does the Ascension follow the apostolic ministry? The answer seems to lie with the phrase in glory, which less likely refers to the place of his exaltation as to its manner, that is, it was “glorious” or “accompanied with glory.” Like line 3, then, this line also emphasizes his triumph and glorification more than the actual event of the Ascension itself, chronologically understood. Indeed, in this view, line 6 is the glorious climax of the whole that begins in line 1 with the humiliation of Incarnation.
On this understanding, then, the hymn has two stanzas of three lines each. The first stanza sings Christ’s earthly ministry, concluding with a word of triumph and glorification. Similarly, the second stanza sings the ongoing ministry of Christ through his church, concluding again with the theme of glorification. In a certain sense both stanzas reflect the theme of humiliation and exaltation.
Thus the great mystery of the godliness we believe in, Paul sings, has to do with Christ’s own humiliation and exaltation and the church’s ongoing witness to him who is now the exalted, glorified one. This double focus, especially the emphasis on the ongoing ministry to the nations, returns to a theme sounded earlier in the creedal words of 1:15 and 2:4–6.
But the question still remains: Why this hymn with these emphases at this point in the letter? The answer to that is not easy, but two possibilities commend themselves (perhaps it is a combination of both): First, the double emphasis on humiliation/exaltation, focusing on the present, triumphant glory of Christ, probably stands in some kind of contrast to the Christology of the false teachers. This is especially so, if, as we have argued in the Introduction (pp. 7–10), there are some affinities between what is going on in Ephesus and what had earlier been afoot in Colossae and Laodicea. Second, Paul is about to return to a censure of the false teachers, with an exhortation to Timothy to stand in sharp contrast to them. This hymn prepares for that censure by boldly expressing what the truth is all about, as a contrast to their demonic errors.
The church (3:14–16)
From the qualifications for the pastorate Paul turns to the church in which pastors serve. For the nature of the ministry is determined by the nature of the church.
Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, 15if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. 16Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
Here is Paul’s self-conscious apostolic authority. He is planning to visit Timothy in Ephesus. He says so twice (3:14 and 4:13). And when he comes he will personally regulate the affairs of the church. But he senses that he may be delayed. So he writes his instructions for the interim period. Thus by a deliberate providence of God the New Testament letters came to be written and have been preserved for the edification of the church in subsequent generations. If the apostles’ directions regarding the doctrine, ethics, unity and mission of the church had been given only in oral form, the church would have been like a mapless traveller and a rudderless ship. But because the apostolic instructions were written down, we know what we would not otherwise have known, namely how people ought to conduct themselves in the church.
Paul uses three descriptive expressions of the church, each of which illustrates a different aspect of it, namely God’s household or family, the church of the living God, and the pillar and foundation of the truth (15).
- God’s household
The word oikos can mean either a house (the building) or a household (the family that occupies the building). And Scripture tells us that the church is both God’s house and God’s household.59 The two concepts are sometimes brought together. But since in this chapter oikos has already been used three times of a household (verses 4, 5, 12), it seems likely that it has the same connotation in verse 15.
By new birth of the Spirit we become members of the family of God, related to him as our Father and to all fellow believers as our sisters and brothers. Although Paul does not here draw out the implications of our being God’s household or family, he does elsewhere. He emphasizes that as God’s children we have an equal dignity before him, irrespective of age, sex, race or culture; and that as sisters and brothers we are called to love, forbear and support one another, enjoying in fact the rich ‘one anotherness’ or reciprocity of the Christian fellowship.63
- The church of the living God
On a number of occasions in the Old Testament Yahweh is named ‘the living God’ in deliberate contrast to the lifeless idols of the heathen. Indeed, still today Christian conversion involves turning ‘to God from idols to serve the living and true God’. But where does the living God live? Joshua answered this question succinctly: ‘The living God is among you.’65 For this was the essence of God’s covenant promise to Israel: ‘I will dwell among you and be your God, and you shall be my people.’ Israel’s consciousness that the living God lived among them profoundly affected their community life. Even an elementary lesson in personal hygiene was based on the fact that the Lord God walked among them and must not see anything indecent. And they were incensed when the heathen presumed to ‘defy’, ‘insult’ or ‘ridicule’ the living God.68
An even more vivid consciousness of the presence of the living God should characterize the Christian church today. For we are ‘the temple of the living God’, ‘a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit’.70 When the members of the congregation are scattered during most of the week it is difficult to remain aware of this reality. But when we come together as the church (ekklēsia, ‘assembly’) of the living God, every aspect of our common life is enriched by the knowledge of his presence in our midst. In our worship we bow down before the living God. Through the reading and exposition of his Word we hear his voice addressing us. We meet him at his table, when he makes himself known to us through the breaking of bread. In our fellowship we love each other as he has loved us. And our witness becomes bolder and more urgent. Indeed, unbelievers coming in may confess that ‘God is really among you’.
- The pillar and foundation of the truth
Having considered our duty to each other as the household of God, and to God as his dwelling-place, we come to our duty to the truth as its pillar and foundation.
The hedraiōma of a building is its mainstay. It may refer either to its foundation or to a buttress or bulwark which supports it. In either case the hedraiōma stabilizes the building. Just so, the church is responsible to hold the truth steady against the storms of heresy and unbelief.
The word stylos, however, means a pillar or column. The purpose of pillars is not only to hold the roof firm, but to thrust it high so that it can be clearly seen even from a distance. The inhabitants of Ephesus had a vivid illustration of this in their temple of Diana or Artemis. Regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world, it boasted 100 Ionic columns, each over 18 metres high, which together lifted its massive, shining, marble roof. Just so, the church holds the truth aloft, so that it is seen and admired by the world. Indeed, as pillars lift a building high while remaining themselves unseen, so the church’s function is not to advertise itself but to advertise and display the truth.
Here then is the double responsibility of the church vis-à-vis the truth. First, as its foundation it is to hold it firm, so that it does not collapse under the weight of false teaching. Secondly, as its pillar it is to hold it high, so that it is not hidden from the world. To hold the truth firm is the defence and confirmation of the gospel; to hold it high is the proclamation of the gospel. The church is called to both these ministries.
Some Christians, however, are confused about the relation between the church and the truth. Is it really so that the church is the foundation of the truth? Is it not rather the case that the truth is the foundation of the church? It was probably this concern which led Chrysostom to make a slip of the tongue and say ‘for the truth is the pillar and ground of the church’. Besides, Paul himself had earlier described the church as ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets [sc. their teaching], with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone’. So is the truth the foundation of the church, or is the church the foundation of the truth? The answer is ‘Both’. When Paul taught that the truth is the foundation of the church,75 he was referring to the church’s life and health: the church rests on the truth, depends on it, cannot exist without it. But when he taught that the church is the foundation of the truth (3:15), he was referring to the church’s mission: the church is called to serve the truth, to hold it fast and make it known. So then, the church and the truth need each other. The church depends on the truth for its existence; the truth depends on the church for its defence and proclamation.
What then is the truth which the church must both guard against every distortion and falsification, and proclaim without fear or compromise throughout the world? It concerns Jesus Christ, to whom Paul now bears witness by quoting from an early hymn or creed. He introduces it with the following words: Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great (16a). First, it is a ‘mystery’, a cluster of truths which are now known only because God has been pleased to reveal them. Secondly, it is a ‘mystery of godliness’ as he has previously called it a ‘mystery of the faith’ (9, jb). It is the latter because it stimulates faith and is faith’s object. It is the former because it stimulates our worship, our humility and reverence before God, as all truth does.76 Thirdly, this divine godliness-promoting revelation is ‘great beyond all question’ (reb) or ‘by common consent’,77 ‘undeniably’ great (BAGD) or ‘demonstrably’ great.78 And fourthly, it focuses on the person and work of Jesus Christ, since ‘the mystery’ is essentially ‘the mystery of Christ’.
Spicq sees these verses as the ‘doctrinal climax’ of the letter, even its ‘heart’, since they define the church ‘by her relation to the glorious Christ’. He also sees the credal affirmation (‘great … is the mystery of our religion’, reb) as ‘a solemn public confession in opposition to that of Diana’s devotees’ who shouted in unison for two hours, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’80
The liturgical statement Paul goes on to quote consists of six lines which, stylistically speaking, closely resemble one another. For all six begin with a verb which ends in the letters -thē, and is in the aorist tense and the passive voice. All also end with a noun in the dative, and all but one use the preposition en to link the verb with the noun. Moving from style to substance, however, what do the six statements mean, and how do they relate to one another? Three suggestions are made.
First, the six affirmations may be read chronologically, each denoting a fresh, consecutive event or stage in the career of Jesus, taking us from his first coming to his second, from his appearance in flesh to his welcome in glory. So he appeared in a body (literally, ‘in flesh’) refers to his incarnation, by which the pre-existent Son was born into the world, and lived and died in it. Next, he was vindicated by the Spirit. Although the body-spirit contrast has suggested to some commentators a reference to his human and divine natures, ‘spirit’ is more likely to refer to the Holy Spirit who vindicated Jesus first by his mighty works, and then supremely by his resurrection.83 He was seen by angels, and attended by them, throughout his life. But the chronological sequence following his incarnation and resurrection would expect this third statement to refer to his ascension. And indeed angels were present at it85 and watched the whole unfolding drama of salvation. That he was preached among the nations is a clear reference to the church’s world-wide mission in obedience to the great commission of the risen Lord, while he was believed on in the world is an equally plain allusion to the success of the gospel as people responded to it. The final statement, that he was taken up in glory, sounds like another reference to the ascension. But if the sequence is chronological, it must be the parousia which is in mind, his ascension foreshadowing his final epiphany in power and great glory. This interpretation is the more probable because otherwise ‘there is no hint of eschatology’ in this Christological hymn.
A second and more popular reconstruction is to divide the hymn into two stanzas, each consisting of a triplet, the first alluding to the life of the historical incarnate Jesus on earth (he appeared, was vindicated and seen), and the second to the life of the exalted Lord (he was preached, believed on and glorified).
The third and best suggestion, however, is that the hymn consists of three couplets, in each of which there is a deliberate antithesis: between flesh and spirit, between angels and nations, between world and glory. The first couplet speaks of the revelation of Christ (he appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit). Here are the human and divine aspects of his earthly life and ministry in Palestine. The second couplet speaks of the witnesses of Christ (was seen by angels, was preached among the nations). For now the significance of Jesus Christ is seen to extend far beyond Palestine to all the inhabitants of heaven and earth, to angels as well as humans, to the nations as well as the Jews. Then the third couplet speaks of the reception which Christ was given (was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory). For heaven and earth did more than see and hear him; they joined in giving him recognition and acclaim.
Some years ago Joachim Jeremias, in his book Jesus’ Promise to the Nations, argued that this Christological hymn was essentially a missionary statement, announcing the inclusion of the nations in consequence of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He also suggested that this credal fragment was ‘couched in the form of a hymn of three distichs, after the style of a coronation hymn’, indeed ‘the ancient coronation ritual exemplified for us in the ancient Egyptian ritual’. It consisted of the Elevation (of the king to deity), the Presentation (of the deified king to the world) and the Enthronement. This, Jeremias proposed, corresponded to the three couplets of verse 16, namely ‘the Justification by resurrection of him who has been manifested on earth, the Announcement to heaven and earth of his exaltation, and his Assumption of the kingdom on earth and in heaven’. Commentators have been intrigued by Jeremias’s suggestion, and have pronounced it ‘ingenious and attractive’,92 but have not been persuaded by it, mainly on account of the inexact nature of the parallelism. Yet the missionary emphasis is surely right. The mystery of godliness which the church proclaims, the truth of which the church is the foundation and pillar, is the historic yet cosmic Christ.
In conclusion, Paul’s perspective in this chapter is to view the presbyters and the deacons in the light of the church they are called to serve, and to view the church in the light of the truth it is called to confess. One of the surest roads to the reform and renewal of the church is to recover a grasp of its essential identity as God’s household, the church of the living God, and the pillar and foundation of the truth (15).
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (pp. 91–95). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 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.