The Response to Grace
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1:17)
Having begun the passage with thanksgiving, Paul now closes it with a doxology. Eternal literally means “of the ages.” It refers to the two ages in Jewish thought, the present age, and the age to come. God had no beginning and will have no end. He exists outside of time, though He acts in it. He is immortal, imperishable, and incorruptible. He will never know death, decay, or loss of strength. Because God is invisible, He can be known only by His self-revelation. That He is the only God is a fundamental truth of Scripture (cf. Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; Isa. 43:10; 44:6; 45:5–6, 21–22; 46:9; 1 Cor. 8:4, 6; 1 Tim. 2:5). He alone is worthy of all honor and glory forever and ever. The doxology closes with the emphatic Amen, meaning “let it be said.”
In contrast to the false gospel of the errorists, Paul emphasizes the true gospel and his participation in it by God’s grace. That grace is available to the worst sinner who comes to the Lord Jesus Christ in humble faith and repentance.
17 Paul concludes this section with a brief prayer or doxology, consisting of the following elements: (1) specification of the recipient (“to the King eternal [King of the ages] … the only God”); (2) ascription of praiseworthy attributes (“be honor and glory”); and (3) a solemn affirmation of the truth of the statement (“for ever and ever. Amen”; cf. Rev 1:6; 4:11; 5:12–13; 7:12). The doxology has a liturgical ring to it and may reflect Diaspora synagogue worship (cf. Tob 13:7, 11).
God’s eternal kingship is commonly acknowledged in the OT (esp. Jer 10:10; cf. Pss 10:16; 74:12). The term “immortal” is a Jewish import from Greek philosophy (Wis 12:1; Philo). “Invisible” casts God as incapable of being depicted in visual images (Ex 20:4–5; Col 1:15; Heb 11:27; cf. Jn 1:18; 5:37; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:20). Note that both characteristics, “immortal” and “invisible,” as well as “only,” resurface in the doxology at the end of the letter (6:15–16).
“Only God” (see Jude 25; cf. Jn 5:44) reflects the monotheism characteristic of both Judaism and Christianity (cf. Dt 6:4; Ro 3:29–30; 16:27; 1 Co 8:4–5; Gal 3:20; Eph 4:5–6). This contrasts sharply with the polytheism of the Greco-Roman world. With Paul, one may legitimately marvel that the transcendent, glorious God has in Christ Jesus come into the world to save sinners.
17 It is not exaggerating to say that Paul regarded his ministry as the fulfillment of God’s promises to save the nations. It was for this reason that he was shown mercy, converted and entrusted with the gospel. And the closing statement of v. 16 depicts both the power and success already evident in his gospel. It is for this reason that the section closes with a doxology in praise to God. Not only does the shift of focus to God establish a balance with the heavily christocentric testimony just concluded, but it also reveals Paul’s deeply theological presuppositions about salvation in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5:19; Romans 9–11). The need Paul felt to emphasize the humanity of Christ in the salvation plan does not diminish his belief in God as the author of salvation (2:3–4; 4:10).
Paul’s reflection on God’s power and grace in salvation and on his own place within this redemptive plan often welled up in thanksgiving and praise expressed in the form of a doxology (esp. Rom 11:36; 16:27; Gal 1:5; Eph 3:20–21; cf. Phil 4:20). The device goes back to Hellenistic Judaism (Tob 13:7, 11), where, as here, the writer, or speaker in a communal setting, expresses high praise in a way that induces all to join in.
Paul strings together four descriptions of God. “The King eternal” is a traditional Jewish appellation of God that is limited in Paul to doxological expressions in this letter (6:15). Human rulers were also called “king” (2:2; 2 Cor 11:32), so the addition of the adjectival expression, “eternal,” seeks the appropriate distinction between human and divine power. Whether this intends a further explicit challenge to the claims of the Emperor is harder to determine; but trumping such counter-claims of pagan rulers had become a common part of Hellenistic Jewish liturgical expression and was probably also a common function of the early church’s doxological expression.68 This is to say, some degree of polemics is an inevitable part of the dialogue with the pagan world that the church sustained through its proclamation and expressions of worship (cf. 1 Cor 1:26–29).
The next three terms owe their place within Jewish doxological expressions to the Jewish-pagan dialogue. “Immortal,” borrowed from Greek categories by late Jewish writers, in the NT describes God directly only here and in Rom 1:23, where it is clearly shown to be a quality proper to God alone. The “invisibility” of God (Col 1:15; Heb 11:27) is more widely affirmed in the NT in various constructions. As a quality of God it emerged especially in the polemic of Hellenistic Judaism against the materialistic views of gods in pagan idolatry. Equally, the phrase “the only God” (6:16; cf. 2:5) represents a fundamental affirmation of belief that goes back to the Shema of Deut 6:4 (“Hear, O Israel … the Lord is one”) and became standard theology in the early church. The original affirmation contested pagan polytheism, which in Deuteronomy was symbolized in Egyptian idolatry, and was later developed and used widely in the running debate with paganism.73 In a purely worship setting, the epithet would draw attention to the supremacy of God.
The expression of praise in the doxology comes in the dual phrase “honor and glory” that has become standard in the NT.75 Greek culture had elevated the importance of these elements of good reputation to the highest degree, with the ruler being the epitome of one worthy of such an acclamation. “Honor” is a public acknowledgement of worth. “Glory,” in this context, refers similarly to the recognition of honor that is owed to a deserving person of high repute.77 In the set combination, the terms function together to elevate the esteem that is rightly owed to God. Accentuating the immensity of honor even more is the prepositional phrase “for ever and ever”79 that forms the standard conclusion to doxologies. Neither the plural form (lit. “for the ages of the ages”) nor the repetition in this longer form reflect precise measurements of time. Rather, the Hebrew idiom functions to stretch the praise of the doxology beyond all limits to eternity.81 In the concluding “amen” (6:16; 2 Tim 4:18) the invitation is given to Timothy and the church to join in the acknowledgement.
It is here that we too enter this story Paul told around Christ and himself. His apostleship and experience of mercy are the fruits of the work of the Messiah who lived as a human, and this fact must remain central to an understanding of the gospel. Paul’s own experience is drawn on to assure Timothy of Christ’s human relevance. Whatever else Christology so shaped might mean, it certainly requires that gospel ministry be carried out in the present sinful world and expects that salvation will have its effect in changing this world from within. The overall profile of the false teaching includes a tendency towards elitism or self-absorption that must have posed a threat to the mission as Paul understood it. But built into the gospel message, rooted as it is in the OT promises to call in the whole world, is the centrifugal thrust that reaches beyond the church. We today are invited to view the Pauline “pattern” and to replicate it. Our own experiences of conversion and calling contain promises for those around us who do not yet know Christ’s mercy. Yet they will only come to know it if the gospel is communicated meaningfully to them—if we resist our own tendencies to become absorbed in what we already have, instead of reaching out with what others need to have.
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
1 Timothy 1:17
To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim. 1:17)
Demetrius was right to be worried. The Ephesian silversmith made shrines for the goddess Artemis, and what kept him up at night—worrying about his job security—was the rapid growth of Christianity in his city.
Up until a missionary named Paul arrived, the silver trade in Ephesus had been rather lucrative. The worship of Artemis “brought no little business to the craftsmen” (Acts 19:24). But Christianity meant the end of idolatry, and this posed a threat to their livelihood. So Demetrius called the silversmiths together and said:
Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship. (Acts 19:25–27)
The silversmiths wanted to defend the honor and majesty of their queen. More importantly, they wanted to keep their jobs. So “when they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’ So the city was filled with the confusion” (Acts 19:28–29). A massive protest was held in the giant theater of Ephesus. For two straight hours, as many as twenty thousand people shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34).
Eventually the city clerk was able to quiet the crowd. He said: “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky?” (Acts 19:35). Yes, the whole world did know this, for the temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was 425 feet long and 220 feet broad, with 127 columns of white marble, each 60 feet high. It took two centuries to build it. Edwin Yamauchi calls it “the largest structure in the Hellenistic world and the first of such monumental proportions to be built entirely of marble.” Inside stood the ancient and enormous statue of Artemis herself.
The goddess seemed immortal, but Demetrius was right to be worried. The coming of Christ meant the end of Artemis. She has now been tossed on the scrap heap of history. With the exception of a few scattered columns on a plain near ancient Ephesus, the last fragments of her temple—a handful of coins and a few broken columns—are now on display in the basement of the British Museum in London.
A Hymn of Triumph
The death of Artemis has turned Paul’s doxology into a hymn of triumph: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:17). Paul addressed these words to Timothy in Ephesus, the guardian city of Artemis. The contrast between God and the goddess could not be more absolute. God is a King; Artemis was a queen. He is immortal; she proved to be mortal. He is invisible; she was a statue. He is unique; she was mass-produced. While he will be honored and glorified forever, her praise and worship have ceased.
Christians have long sung this verse as a hymn of praise to God and triumph over every false god. It forms the basis for the opening stanza of the well-known hymn by Walter Chalmers Smith:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
Paul may have sung nearly the same words to a different tune, for his doxology sounds like part of a Christian hymn. Since the language is Jewish, it may have been a song which was carried over from the synagogue into the early church.
But why does Paul sing the doxology here? The apostle has just given his Christian testimony. He has testified how God rescued him from a life of violence and blasphemy and gave him the grace, faith, and love which are in Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 1:13–14). He has confessed that Christ Jesus came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). And he has explained how the mercy of God was shown to him, the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:16).
It is easy for a personal testimony to become self-centered, however, so Paul ends his spiritual autobiography by glorifying God. Having explained the one true gospel, he worships the one true God. According to Calvin, the apostle thereby “admonishes us all by his example, that we should never think of the grace shown in God’s calling without being lost in wondering admiration. This sublime praise of God’s grace swallows up all the memory of his former life. How great and deep is the glory of God!” To put this another way, there comes a time to leave off praising God for what he has done in your life and simply to praise him for who he is in himself.
Now unto the King Eternal
Who is this God we praise? Why should we praise him, and for how long?
The Scripture begins with God’s kingship: “To the King of ages.” God is praised first for his sovereign rule over the universe. Here the title of “King” is given to God the Father rather than to God the Son. Some scholars have found this puzzling because the New Testament usually identifies Jesus Christ as King. And so he is. Jesus entered Jerusalem in royal pomp before ushering in the kingdom of God. He is “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14). But Paul also knew the Old Testament passages where God the Father is identified as King: “The Lord is king forever and ever” (Ps. 10:16); “The Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King” (Jer. 10:10); and so forth.
It is appropriate to speak about both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Christ. The Father and the Son exercise a co-regency: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). The Father and the Son reign together. There is no rivalry between them. The joint-kingship of the Father and the Son makes it natural for Paul to go from praising Christ to praising God as King. John Chrysostom preached that “the Father is most glorified, when the Son hath done great things. For the glory of the Son is referred again to Him.” The work of the Son is to glorify the Father. Glory to the Son is glory to the Father.
Here Paul especially emphasizes the duration of God’s reign. God is the “King of the ages.” This title is found nowhere else in Scripture, although it appears in ancient Jewish literature. It refers, not so much to God himself, but to his rule. God’s kingship is everlasting. His reign will never come to an end.
God is the King of ages past. He ruled over the deeps when they were formless and void. He governed the galaxies when they were brought into being. He was King over the dinosaurs when they walked the earth. He was God and King to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Moses and all the prophets. He was the King of all the kings of Israel.
God is also the King of the present age, which commenced with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God is sovereign over the church in this gospel age. He rules over the worldwide expansion of his kingdom, right up to the present moment.
God is King of both this age and the age to come. He will rule over every subsequent era of human history, however long it may last. In short, “God is the supreme king who governs all the ages from the creation of the world, including the age of the Messiah himself, until the end of time.” Then, at the second coming of Jesus Christ, he will be enthroned over the new heavens and the new earth. He will rule forever and forever. God was the King, he is the King, and he will be the King forever.
What other king can make the same claim? Every earthly monarchy is temporary. Kings are born, they ascend to the throne, they rule, and then they die. Even the greatest of royal dynasties must come to an end. It happened to the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Caesars of Rome, and the emperors of China. It will happen to every president, premier, and prime minister who is presently in power. But God is the King of the ages. There will never be an interregnum in the kingship of almighty God. He is the once and future King. He ruled in the past, he rules in the present, and he will rule forever.
This raises the most practical of all spiritual questions: Will you let God be King? Will you submit to his rule in your own life and heart?
One popular Christian bumper sticker reads: “GOD IS MY CO-PILOT.” This is the kind of relationship many Christians want to maintain with God. They want to stay in the captain’s chair. They are willing to turn over the controls only when there is an emergency. But anyone who relegates God to co-pilot is headed for turbulence! It is much safer to leave the cockpit altogether and go find a seat somewhere in coach class. God is the King, not a co-pilot.
So will you let God rule your life? Will you let him govern your moral behavior? Will you let him control your work situation? Your family? Your finances? Your conduct and your crises are best left in God’s hands. This is what it means to be a servant of the King. A true king does not take orders; he gives them. If God is the King eternal, he needs to be trusted and obeyed.
The King Immortal
God is also immortal. In Paul’s doxology, eternity refers to God’s kingship, whereas immortality refers to God himself, to his being and essence. The word “immortal” (aphthartos) is perhaps better translated as incorruptible. It means that God, unlike the milk in the refrigerator, does not have a use-by date. He is imperishable. He cannot decay.
This makes God different from everything else in his world. The natural world is changeable, corruptible. Pine trees enter the forest and drive out the aspens. Rivers alter their courses. Mountains erode. Entire galaxies collide and stars collapse into black holes. If the scientists are right, the cosmos itself is in gradual decline. This is explained by the scientific principle known as entropy. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, entropy is a “measure of the disorganization or degradation of the universe.” Things are slowing down, cooling off, and returning to a formless void. Thermodynamic theory teaches entropy is always on the rise. In other words, the entire universe is running down.
Our bodies are also running down. Scientists are still trying to figure out a way to immortalize humanity, but the human body is corruptible. Human beings grow old and die. Only one thing can stop the aging process, and that is death itself. The older people get, the more wrinkles they get, the more aches and pains, and the less hair. The aging process goes on inside the body all the time. Cells replicate themselves again and again throughout a person’s lifetime. But eventually, chromosomes shorten beyond the point of repair. It is a little bit like having a shoelace that keeps breaking. Eventually, the lace gets so short that the shoe cannot be tied. In the same way, the ends of a chromosome gradually deteriorate until finally the entire cell shuts down.
Corruption is a fact of daily human existence. Appliances stop working. Clothing gets torn and stained. Automobiles break down. Shops and factories close. The demographics change, the population shifts, and cities go into decline. Indeed, entire civilizations are corruptible, which is one of the main lessons of the twentieth century. In the aftermath of the First World War, William Butler Yeats wrote a famous poem about the corruptibility of humanity. It is entitled “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Things fall apart. Persons, families, towns, cities, nations, empires, civilizations—they all fall down. But not God. God is not eroding. He is not cooling off or winding down. He is not growing old and wrinkled. His chromosomes are not getting shorter. He is not falling apart. Unlike everything else he has made, God is immortal. Not only will he live forever, but every one of his divine attributes will remain undiminished throughout all eternity. God does not become less powerful, less loving, less just, or less holy with the passage of time. He is every bit as powerful, loving, just, and holy as he has ever been, and always will be.
God’s incorruptibility is beautifully represented in the artwork of Mako Fujimura, a Christian artist who lives and works in New York City. Fujimura gives honor to his ethnic heritage by using traditional Japanese mineral pigments, each of which has symbolic significance. In Fujimura’s paintings, God is represented by gold. Wherever gold appears, it is a symbol of things eternal. Humanity, by contrast, is represented by silver. Partly this shows the value of human beings. But it also shows the corruption of humanity because silver will tarnish and blacken with age. As the years pass, the paintings will become visual testimonies of the incorruptibility of God. Mortal silver will darken, while the gold of immortality continues to shine.
The best place to see God’s immortality is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. King David made this prediction about the Messiah: “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Ps. 16:10). This was a prophecy about Jesus of Nazareth. He died, and was buried, but he did not perish in the grave. He was raised on the third day in an incorruptible body.
By raising Jesus from the dead, God gave immortality to mortals. Jesus Christ was the first to be raised with an everlasting body, but only the first. Part of his work is to give his people immortal, incorruptible bodies. As the Scripture says, “What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.… For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:42, 53). Because God himself is immortal, he can guarantee eternal life to mortal flesh (see 1 Tim. 1:16).
The King Invisible
The eternal, immortal God cannot be seen. God is invisible. This fact comes up again in chapter 6, where we read that God is the immortal King “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16).
What about Moses? Didn’t he see God? No, not in his divine essence:
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Ex. 33:18–23)
Elisha saw the chariots and horsemen of Israel (2 Kings 2:11–12), but not the God of Israel. Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1), but he must have seen a theophany of the pre-incarnate Christ, as the apostle John confirms (see John 1:2–4), because the Scripture is emphatic: no one has ever seen God—meaning God the Father—nor can anyone see God. The most that anyone has ever seen is the glorious light within which God himself remains hidden—the outward refulgence of his inner majesty.
The invisibility of God is sometimes considered a disadvantage. The skeptic says, “If God is so real, why can’t I see him? If only he would come down from heaven and reveal himself to me, then I would believe in him. So where is he?” The answer is that God is invisible. This is one of the first things little people learn in the Children’s Catechism (Q & A 11): “Can you see God?” “No, I cannot see God, but he always sees me.” By his very nature, God is invisible. We can no more see God than we can see gravity.
That God is invisible does not mean that he is unknowable, however. Also like gravity, there is abundant evidence for his existence. He has revealed something of himself in everything he has made: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). We can see the things that God has created, and when we see them, our thoughts and desires are lifted from the seen to the unseen. The visible creation draws us to praise the invisible God.
For some, the invisibility of God may come as something of a disappointment. Human beings have a natural curiosity. We want to uncover what is hidden and gaze upon what is unseen. But we cannot lift the curtain on God. Invisibility is of the essence of his deity.
Therefore, God is to be praised for his invisibility. This may be one of God’s most underrated attributes. Which is more worthy of worship, a visible God or an invisible God? The fact that God cannot be seen shows that there are aspects of his divine being which are not subject to our scrutiny. God is without limits and without boundaries. He cannot be probed and dissected. We must accept that there are some divine mysteries which the human mind cannot penetrate. There are some things about God—like his invisibility—which are so great and so far beyond our comprehension that they are known only to God. Otherwise, God would not be God.
There is one thing we can see, however, and that is God’s incarnate Son. God has made himself visible in Jesus Christ, who is both human and divine. Jesus Christ is God in the form of a human being; therefore, in Christ the unseen God can be seen by human eyes. This is what Scripture means when it says that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
God knows that his invisibility makes him inaccessible, so he made himself visible in and through Jesus Christ. The apostle John knew that when he saw God the Son he was looking at God the Father: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.… No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:14, 18). To see Jesus in all his majesty is to see the glory of God. As Calvin preached, “God can be known by no other means, but by beholding him in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The hope of every Christian is to see Jesus face to face, and in seeing Jesus, to see the image of the invisible God. King David desperately longed to gaze upon the beautiful face of the Messiah. He wrote, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). The beauty of the Lord—this is what Moses was asking to see when God showed him his goodness (Ex. 33:18).
Job wanted to see the same thing. Even after he had lost everything else, he never let go of the hope that he would meet his Savior face to face: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” (Job 19:25–27). Job could hardly contain himself. By faith, the resurrection was as certain to him as death, and the prospect of seeing the invisible God filled him with inexpressible joy.
The Puritans often wrote about studying divinity in the face of Jesus Christ. Many old New England gravestones depict a simple human face with lidless eyes staring wide open. The artwork was to show that the Christian was ready to behold the risen Christ on the day of resurrection. As the Puritan poet Edward Taylor once prayed, “Oh! Glorious Body! Pull my eye lids open: Make my quick Eye, Lord, thy brisk Glory greet.”
The desire of all these saints will be satisfied: “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In the beautiful face of Jesus Christ, the invisible God will be made visible. If you know God through faith in Jesus Christ, then one day you will get to see this for yourself. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus promised, “for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
The Only King
God is not only immortal and invisible, but he is also incomparable. The last divine attribute Paul mentions is God’s uniqueness. He is “the only God” (the King James Version famously calls him “the only wise God,” but the word for wisdom is not found in the best and oldest manuscripts). God has no rivals. There is no other being in the universe who shares his attributes. He alone is King of the ages. Although God has given us eternal life, he alone is immortal in his very nature. And he alone is invisible.
The fact that the eternal, immortal, invisible God is also “the only God” (1 Tim. 1:17) opens up the mystery of the Trinity. It is sometimes pointed out, especially by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible. On this basis, they proceed to argue that there is only one person in the Godhead, not three.
The truth is that the doctrine of the Trinity finds abundant support throughout the New Testament. Paul’s first letter to Timothy is one among many places where the doctrine must be true for a Bible passage to make sense. Here we have two members of the Trinity clearly presented: God the Son, who came to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), and God the Father, who is immortal and invisible (1 Tim. 1:17). Yet we also have a strong statement of monotheism: there is only one God. What other explanation is there for this, except that the one and only God exists in more than one person?
Since the early days of the church, Christians have made this confession. As Augustine wrote in his famous treatise On the Trinity:
The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit intimate a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality; and therefore they are not three Gods, but one God: although the Father hath begotten the Son, and so He who is the Father is not the Son; and the Son is begotten by the Father, and so He who is the Son is not the Father; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but only the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, Himself also co-equal with the Father and the Son, and pertaining to the unity of the Trinity.
The Athanasian Creed stated the same doctrine rather more simply: “The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.” This definition of the Trinity represents what all Christians, everywhere, have always believed about the triune being of God.
Admittedly, the doctrine of the Trinity is easier to state than it is to explain, as every Christian parent has learned. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of the German Enlightenment, complained that “the doctrine of the Trinity, taken literally, has no practical relevance at all, even if we think we understand it; and it is even more clearly irrelevant if we realize that it transcends all our concepts.” Yet the truth is that the doctrine of the Trinity has a great deal of relevance. It is relevant for our salvation, where each person of the Trinity plays a part in redemption: the Father administrates redemption, the Son accomplished redemption, and the Spirit applies redemption. It is in the name of this Triune God that Christians are baptized. But even apart from the plan of salvation, knowing that the one and only God exists in three persons is relevant to our worship, which makes it relevant enough! This is how God has told us to address him: as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even if we never unravel all the mysteries of the Trinity, we can praise God for the mystery.
Many of the most profound Christian hymns simply praise God for his triune being. There is an echo of the Trinity in the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The thrice-holy God is the thrice-personal God: “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” God’s triune name also comes at the beginning of the Gloria Patri: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.” It comes at the end of the doxology: “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” It comes, too, in the glorious final stanza of a Latin hymn from the seventh century: “Laud and honor to the Father, laud and honor to the Son, laud and honor to the Spirit, ever Three and ever One, One in might, and One in glory, while unending ages run.” God can receive no higher praise than to be addressed and adored as one God in three Persons, both in our private and in our public worship.
True Christian worship is always trinitarian worship. To worship God as Trinity is to enter into the joy expressed by the great fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus:
I cannot think of the One without immediately being surrounded by the radiance of the Three; nor can I discern the Three without at once being carried back to the One.… When I think of any One of the Three I think of him as a whole, and my vision is filled, and the greater part of what I conceive escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the others. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one luminary, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.
Honor and Glory, Forever and Ever, Amen
All that is left to do is to praise God, giving him “honor and glory forever and ever” (1 Tim. 1:17). The apostle Paul is not simply listing God’s attributes; he is praising God for them. He is giving honor and glory to God for his kingship, his eternity, his immortality, his invisibility, and his uniqueness.
To give “honor” is to give God his due. It is to show him the respect and reverence his kingship deserves (to give him his worth, which is what worship truly means: “worth-ship”). “Glory” refers to the radiant and luminous manifestation of God’s majestic being. To give God the glory is simply to testify that he is glorious. The English word “doxology” is derived from the Greek word for “glory” (doxa). Our praise cannot add anything to God’s glory because he is completely glorious in himself. But we can at least acknowledge God’s splendor and majesty for what it is.
We do this with our songs and praises. We also do it with our lives. Chrysostom suggested that “honor and glory are not mere words; and since He has honored us not by words only, but by what He has done for us, so let us honor Him by works and deeds.” And let us do so forever. If God is the King of the ages, then he deserves to be praised for all eternity. The destiny of every child of God is to be wrapped up in the adoration of God throughout the endless ages.
To this we can only say, “Amen,” as Paul does. “Amen” is not an afterthought; it is a word of agreement and affirmation. It means “truly,” “so let it be,” or “may this be the case.” When Christians say “Amen” at the end of a hymn or a prayer, they are making that hymn or prayer their own. In effect, they are saying, “Yes, Lord, I give you from my heart all the praise I have just uttered with my lips.”
The “Amen” at the end of Paul’s doxology invites a personal response. When Timothy first read this letter aloud to the church at Ephesus, he undoubtedly paused when he came to the end of this verse, so that all the people could say “Amen.”
Down through the centuries many other Christians have added their own “Amen” to Paul’s doxology. In his “Personal Narrative,” Jonathan Edwards records his life-changing experience of reading 1 Timothy 1:17 as a young man: “The first instance that I remember of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading the words ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever’ (1 Tim. 1:17).” America’s greatest theologian went on to describe the impression these words made on his soul:
As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever! I kept saying, and as it were singing over these words of Scripture to myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy him, and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do; with a new sort of affection.… An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him.
Paul’s words will make a similar impression on all those who believe in the God they praise: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.” Everyone who believes this doxology will want to add his or her own personal expression of affirmation, and in doing so to make a personal confession of faith in the one true God of the Bible: “Amen!”
1:17 / What began as thanksgiving and then moved on to testimony of God’s abundant grace now concludes with doxology. How else? Reflecting on God’s grace often does that to Paul (e.g., Gal. 1:5; Eph. 3:21; Phil. 4:20). A similar doxology appears at 6:15–16. What marks off these two from earlier doxologies is their emphasis on God’s “otherness” and eternity. Both have a decidedly liturgical ring to them, being deeply rooted in Hellenistic Jewish piety. They probably reflect doxologies from the Diaspora synagogue, where Paul had his own roots as well as where he began his missionary endeavors.
The King eternal (lit., “the King of the ages”) picks up the theme of eternal life in verse 16. God is eternal in that he rules in/over all the ages. God is likewise the immortal (lit., “incorruptible,” a term from Hellenistic Judaism), invisible (a recurrent ot motif; cf. Rom. 1:20; Col. 1:15), and only (the primary ot motif) God. Therefore all honor and glory (cf. Rev. 4:9, 11; 5:12, 13; 7:12) are due him for ever and ever. The amen pronounced in the synagogues in assent to doxologies and benedictions had already passed into Christian worship (see esp. 1 Cor. 14:16) and often concludes the nt doxologies as well (e.g., Gal. 1:5; Rom. 16:27).
With this doxology, Paul brings the digression to a sudden conclusion. He has indeed come a considerable distance from the opening charge to Timothy to remain in Ephesus to oppose the false teachers (vv. 3–4). But as we have seen, none of this is without purpose. Lingering just behind every word are the erring elders and their “diseased” teaching (1:11), with its emphasis on Law and speculations, which stands over against the pure gospel of grace that produces faith and love. Now it is time for him to return to the matter at hand.
“And from my smitten heart with tears,
Two wonders I confess:
The wonders of his glorious love
And my own worthlessness.”
(Elizabeth C. Clephane)
The contemplation of these “two wonders” which Paul has been discussing leads naturally to a doxology, which is all the more exuberant because in the present case the attention is riveted on Christ’s incomprehensible longsuffering exhibited not only to one sinner but to an entire procession of sinners whom Christ came to save: Paul “the foremost” and those who followed him. Through Christ, accordingly, God displays his glorious attributes in every age, for he is “the King of the ages.” This accounts for the form in which this doxology is cast: So to the King of the ages, the imperishable, invisible, only God (be) honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.
Man proposes; God disposes. Man—for instance Paul before his conversion—may try to destroy the church; God will establish it. And for that purpose he will use the very man who tried to destroy it! Hence, though man is a mere creature of time, God is the King of the ages, over-ruling evil for good; directing to its predetermined goal whatever happens throughout each era of the world’s history. His “dominion endures throughout all generations” (Ps. 145:13).
This implies that he is the eternal God, and as such “imperishable” (the best reading). His arms never become tired (Deut. 32:27). He never grows weary (Is. 40:28). Decay and death are not applicable to him (Ps. 103:15–17). He never changes (Mal. 3:6). On the contrary, he is the inexhaustible reservoir of strength, ever new, for his people (Is. 40:29–31). For the doctrine of God’s imperishability see also Rom. 1:23; and cf. the synonym immortality (see on 1 Tim. 6:16).
When one thinks of God as the imperishable, the mind inevitably turns to those objects that are perishable, for example, grass, the flowers of the field (Ps. 103:15–17), man’s body, birds, quadrupeds, creeping creatures (Rom. 1:23). These are all visible. God, being imperishable, is also invisible, “whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). It is only in his Image (Col. 1:15, 16) that man “sees Him who is invisible,” and then only by faith (Heb. 11:27), and in a finite manner. Never shall we be able to “find out the Almighty unto perfection” (Job 11:7, 8). Paul surely was not able to comprehend the grace of God which had been shown to him. Here all reasoning stops. There is room only for doxologies!
Such a God, finally, is the “only” God; not merely in the coldly abstract sense that numerically there is but one God, but in the warm, scriptural sense, namely, that this one God is “unique, incomparable, glorious, lovable” (Deut. 6:4, 5; Is. 40:12–31; Rom. 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4, 5).
Out of the wellsprings of Paul’s spontaneity issues the exclamation—it is a veritable outburst coming from a heart that has experienced what it means to have such a God as one’s own God—that “for the ages of (the) ages,” that is, “forever and ever,” honor and glory (praise and adoration) be rendered to the God who in his being and attributes is so wonderful. The doxology ends with the word of solemn assent and emphatic confirmation, “Amen” (see N.T.C. on John 1:51).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (pp. 33–34). 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, p. 507). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Towner, P. H. (2006). The Letters to Timothy and Titus (pp. 151–154). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Ryken, P. G. (2007). 1 Timothy. (R. D. Phillips, D. M. Doriani, & P. G. Ryken, Eds.) (pp. 30–43). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Fee, G. D. (2011). 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (pp. 54–55). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 4, pp. 83–84). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.