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.
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).
16 This powerful combination of ideas is followed by an equally powerful confession of faith. The Christ hymn (v. 16b) now introduced is the rhetorical and Christological high point of the letter. It expresses a very strongly missiological interpretation of Christian existence that draws its meaning from a Christology that stresses the humanity of Christ. Both these dimensions are perfectly consonant with the Christological and missiological themes of the letter already under construction (1:15; 2:1–7). These themes both point to and emanate from this central confession of “the mystery of godliness.”
While the confession, with its capsule summary of the gospel, appears to expand upon the notion of “the truth” (= gospel) that concluded the description of the church, the opening call to acknowledge the greatness of the mystery releases the confession to stand as a more independent conclusion to the entire description of the church and the call to appropriate conduct of v. 15.
The opening word, translated in various ways (“assuredly, indubitably”), serves as a call for affirmation. In this context of church-related teaching (2:1–3:15), the liturgical tone of a call to confession should be retained. All in Ephesus are called to acknowledge the truth of the confession.
The confession itself follows in two parts, first prose and then poetry. The first part is the acclamation of greatness, which I translate according to Greek word order: “Great is the mystery of godliness.” “Great” (6:6; 2 Tim 2:20; Titus 2:13), here, is a measurement of superior quality, but may also have a specific religious connotation (see below). As a way of describing the following “mystery”-event, the adjective places the mystery into a (divine) class of its own. “Mystery” recalls the statement just made concerning the deacons who must adhere to the “mystery of the faith” (see 3:9 discussion). In each case “mystery” is descriptive of the unveiled (previously hidden) plan of God, and the two phrases are not far apart in meaning. But “godliness” is the term Paul uses in these letters to coworkers to describe the wholeness of Christian existence as the integration of faith and behavior, and the choice of the term “godliness” in this case (see 2:2 Excursus) is determined by the broader focus on a kind of life suitable to God’s household (and as descriptive of all that is dealt with in 2:1–3:13), whereas the concern in the case of the deacons is more specifically fidelity to the apostolic faith. Consequently, the “mystery of godliness” means the revelation of Jesus Christ in which Christian existence has its origin.
Given the Ephesian setting, whether or not the famous riot associated with Paul’s ministry (Acts 19) was still fresh in mind, it is impossible not to hear in Paul’s statement a subversive echo of the city’s bold claim, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:28, 34; cf. 19:27, 35). And in calling the church to confess so extensive a claim—“Great is the mystery of godliness”—it would be quite appropriate for Paul to intentionally hijack the pagan rhetoric to rewrite this bit of the local religious story in terms of the gospel-promise of a new mode of existence, in Christ.
Now the mystery is spelled out in the theological and historical terms of the hymn—at least most scholars describe the genre of the subsequent material in this way. Unfortunately, despite the generous amounts of attention given to the source and background of this piece, nothing can be said for certain about its origins or structure. Its hymn-like or poetic character is clear from the structural consistency of the clauses (passive verb followed by prepositional phrases employing the preposition en plus an anarthrous dative object; only the third line breaks the pattern omitting the preposition), as well as by the assonance created by the presence in each line of the passive verb ending, –thē.
Attempts to organize the lines further generally divide them into either two strophes of three lines each, or three strophes of two lines each.32 In the former case, each half consists of two lines of opposing nouns (flesh/Spirit, world/glory), with the third line of each half serving as a kind of refrain. In this way the hymn describes salvation history: gospel-creating events of Christ’s death and resurrection/vindication being followed by gospel-preaching events. While this arrangement allows for the parallelism between lines 4 and 5 (“preached among the nations”/“believed on in the world”) to have full weight, it perhaps pays too little attention to other noun pairings. In the latter case, more attention is given to the three contrasting pairs of nouns: flesh/Spirit, angels/nations, world/glory. While the pairs seem obvious enough, there is no overarching meaning-frame to explain them. In the end we are left with the unsatisfying conclusion that while clearly being a poetic piece, in its present state, the organization of its six lines cannot be reduced to either of the most popular schemes. But this need not hinder an effective reading of the hymn. The interests in salvation history, mission and gospel are all detectable no matter how the lines are arranged.
More significant is the fact that each line views these interests through a Christological lens, forcing the whole of salvation history, as well as the preceding “mystery of godliness,” to be understood christocentrically. The hymn accomplishes this by leading off with the masculine relative pronoun, “who” (“he”; TNIV)33 which, in reference to Christ becomes the subject of each of the six verbs of the hymn. Technically, given its neuter antecedent, “mystery,” the relative pronoun should be neuter as well, and this causes some syntactical awkwardness in the transition from “the mystery” to the hymn. Since, however, Paul’s point is that “the mystery” is a person (which the hymn verifies), the masculine pronoun creates the better sense.35
After the relative pronoun, the first line of the hymn describes Jesus’ manifestation as a human being (or among humankind). The passive verb, “was manifested” (implying God is the actor), bears some attraction to the theme of “mystery” just announced (Rom 16:26; Col 1:26). What emerges by connecting the two concepts is that authentic Christian existence (“godliness”) is linked to the divine unveiling of Christ “in flesh.” The verb of revelation, rare outside the NT, has a number of uses in relation to God, Christ (John 2:11; 9:3; Rom 1:19), of things they have revealed (Titus 1:3; 2 Tim 1:10), and of the gospel/mystery (Col 1:26; Rom 16:26). A dominant use of the term portrays Christ’s human history as a divine manifestation (John 1:31; Heb 9:26; 1 Pet 1:20; 1 John 1:2; 3:5, 8). And this is its function here. As the broad salvation historical thrust of the hymn suggests, the interest in this line is not on his entrance in human history per se (i.e. incarnation as birth), but on the fact of his humanity and the arena of humanity as the place in which he did his work.
The phrase “in flesh” delimits the manifestation. The question is, how? “Flesh” in numerous cases denotes Christ’s pre-resurrection humanity in one sense or another. One only has to compare Rom 1:3–4, which introduces the similar flesh/spirit contrast as lines 1–2 of this hymn, to appreciate the general way in which the category functions. There is little data here to suggest “in flesh” might focus more precisely on a particular point in Christ’s life, though attempts at greater precision have been made.40 The phrase can be understood to indicate either the mode (as a human being; “in a body” [TNIV] blurs the distinction intended by the flesh/Spirit antithesis)41 or the local sphere (among humankind) of Jesus’ historical manifestation. The former seems more in keeping with the stress on Jesus’ humanity already evident in 1:15 and 2:5, as well as with the reference to his Spirit-stage of existence about to be made (see below). Thus the most obvious sense of the line is as a celebration of the fact of Jesus’ incarnation. As elsewhere in the NT (Rom 8:3; Phil 2:7–8), it will be understood that the crucifixion was the ultimate purpose and climax of this stage of existence, and it forms the natural line of demarcation between the images projected in lines 1 and 2.
Whatever is decided about the structure of this piece, line 2 is a response and a completion of the events encapsulated in line 1. It is a response in that within this salvation-historical profile of the Christ event and the gospel, it portrays Jesus’ vindication, God’s response to the crucifixion. It is a completion in that the affirmation of line 2 completes the portrait of Christ’s existence by depicting its second stage.
The verb of line 2 is correctly translated “was vindicated” (Titus 3:7), against the OT background of the term, and indicates God’s demonstration of Jesus’ innocence. The early church consistently regarded the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus to be the historical event in which God demonstrated his son’s vindication.45 But a fuller story is implied in the prepositional phrase that follows.
TNIV translates “by the Spirit,” which understands the prepositional phrase to be identifying the Holy Spirit as the agency of the vindication/resurrection (GNB; cf. Rom 8:11). However, this does not account satisfactorily for the antithesis created in lines 1 and 2 by the phrases “in flesh” and “in Spirit.” The antithesis occurs widely in the NT and tends to stress a distinction between human and supernatural modes or spheres of existence, the latter of which is characterized by the presence and power of the Spirit.47 With this in mind, “in [the] Spirit” better expresses the second stage of Jesus’ human existence, which he entered by means of the resurrection. This is not to say that the Spirit was not fully operative in Jesus’ earthly ministry; rather, it stresses his complete entrance into a final stage of existence for which all believers are destined.
The fuller story alluded to above is simply this: Jesus’ human existence cannot be understood solely on the basis of line 1, which ends in death. Line 2 is God’s response not only to Jesus’ weakness and death, in the sense of a reprieve; it is all the more the completion of Jesus’ humanity, as through resurrection the limited authority of death is overcome by resurrection power and the destined Spirit-abode of humanity is entered. What the tradition goes on to declare is that the Christ event was both a pattern for believing humanity (thus it forms the “mystery of godliness=Christian existence), and the content of the gospel by which people enter into that pattern. The humanity of Christ in its two stages is the means by which God’s salvation mystery is revealed.
TNIV’s “seen by angels” (NRSV; TEV; CEV) regards line 3 as a passive experience of Christ. However, the passive verb employed frequently depicts an active exhibition of the one so described, which recommends the translation, “who appeared to angels.” While it is possible to take “angels”50 as a reference to human witnesses of the resurrection, this is a far more likely reference to the rich tradition of Christ’s resurrection appearance(s) before angelic powers. Beyond this, it is impossible to be completely precise. The NT contains the tradition of Jesus’ display of victory before fallen powers. But a more general and positive tradition commemorates Christ’s triumphant exaltation to the heavenly realm and his display of victory there,53 and this background coincides better with the tone of the hymn.
In continuing the theme of vindication (implicitly), line 3 extends the thought of line 2 by displaying the meaning of resurrection for heavenly powers. It may even be regarded as continuing the historical sequence of salvation historical moments (human life/death; resurrection; manifestation to angelic powers). At the same time, the emphasis on display, exhibition or communication reveals a link with the next line, as the implications of the Christ event are proclaimed in the human sphere.
Lines 4 and 5 shift the hymn’s focus to the effects of “the mystery” among humankind. Christology develops naturally into missiology. The shift is hardly unexpected, especially within a Pauline rendition of redemption, for the proclamation of the gospel “among the nations” represents the fulfillment of God’s OT promises and the purpose of the Pauline mission—a theme already encountered (2:1–7, 8). “Preached among the nations” regards the human experience of Christ (still the subject of the passive verb) more obliquely as the content of the gospel, with lines 1–2 providing a rough version of the gospel. The aorist passive verb, “preached, proclaimed,” intends to summarize the execution of the church’s evangelistic mission to this point. The prepositional phrase that follows (“among the nations”) explicitly emphasizes the universal scope of the gospel and (with the verb) the prophetic fact of the gospel’s penetration into the Gentile world.55 Thus the hymn sounds the very Pauline theme of the fulfillment of the divine promise to reach the whole world with the gospel (2:1; 7, 8). It may be true that the language of “nations” or “Gentiles” “does not necessarily exclude Jews,” for the Pauline mission was always directed to Jews and Gentiles.57 Nevertheless, as a salvation historical benchmark, the phrase “among the Gentiles” intends to make another eschatological point. In the Pauline mission, the gospel has begun to achieve the universal proportions for which it was designed, and “among the Gentiles” echoes the promise of “the fullness of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25–26). Final achievement of this is the condition of the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes; it requires the continuation of this universal mission, and the church’s full involvement in it (2:1–7).
“Was believed on in the world” parallels the preceding line, adding to the hymn the necessary stress on the effectiveness of the Christian mission. Christ as the content of the proclamation is now the one in whom “belief” is placed. The arena of this mission fruitfulness, “in the world,” also stands parallel with “the nations” in line 4. “World” here means the community of humankind in need of God (1:15); the fact that Christ has entered this world underlines the church’s continued responsibility to be active in ministry within it. Together, lines 4–5 create the missiological necessity emerging from the Christ event: just as “belief” is the human response to the Christ-event, proclamation is the Christian responsibility. While the hymn indicates success and progress in both the breadth and results of proclamation, it stops short of announcing the completion of God’s redemptive plan.
The hymn ends on the note of Christ’s exaltation: “taken up in glory.” The verb suggests an allusion to Christ’s ascension. But the stress is certainly not on the event as a chronological terminus; for if chronology were the organizing theme of the poem, we would expect a line dedicated in some explicit way to the hope in the Parousia (cf. Acts 1:11). Rather, it is the symbolic value of the historical event that predominates: it represents the exaltation of Christ. “In glory” might refer to the destination to which Jesus was exalted (“the heavenly sphere, God’s right hand”), but it is a more likely description of the status of “glorification” conferred in and through exaltation.62 While the allusion frustrates a neat chronological sequence of the events depicted in the hymn, this last allusion to Christ’s exaltation, via the ascension, reinforces the link between the present exalted status of the Lord and the vindication of his humanity.
How then does the hymn function? The first mistake to avoid in answering this question is that of attempting to read the six lines as a discrete piece of dogma. This is a temptation caused not only by the fact of its neat poetic structure (and naming it a “hymn”), which causes it to stand out from the surrounding discourse, but also by tradition- and literary-critical attempts to discern its source and internal structure. These disciplines might indeed shed some light on the meaning of the lines and their interrelation, but all too often they give the impression that the piece, as employed here, has a life of its own.
In fact, the function and message of the hymn must be sought in its relation especially to what has preceded it. This means, first of all, it serves as the climax of the whole concluding section, 3:14–16. As such, it takes its cue from 3:15, which underscores the present behavior of believers as members of God’s household. Secondly, in serving this purpose, it also concludes the entire section beginning (at least) at 2:1—a long section taken up with the aspects of present Christian living that 3:15 intends to summarize as conduct appropriate to God’s household. But what can the Christ-hymn say to this?
As we have seen at 1:15 and 2:5–6, Christ’s humanity is a theme of importance in this letter. It has sometimes been suggested that the Christology that emerges from these statements was calculated to correct some form of Docetism (a denial of the humanity of Christ) being taught by the heretics. While there is really no way to prove or disprove this assertion, it seems on the whole unlikely, since we might have expected a stronger reaction by Paul. I would suggest that the emphasis on the humanity of Jesus Christ, especially as Paul has anchored the gospel precisely in the Messiah’s human experience, intended rather (1) to revive the church’s interest in gospel ministry in the world, outside of the Christian community (see esp. discussion at 2:1–6), and (2) to counteract the anti-flesh views of the opponents (4:1–5) that may well have influenced the church’s theology.
The hymn can be seen to gather together these concerns. First, it continues the theme of the humanity of Christ, re-emphasizing his full participation in the human weakness (line 1). But secondly, the ground of Christian hope, which has thus far in the letter been left as an unnamed assumption, is now more fully expressed—that is, vindication of Christ through resurrection (lines 2–3). In these 2 or 3 lines it emerges that human experience does not end in weakness, suffering and death, but on the contrary in life and vindication. But this dimension of Christ’s existence remains for the church in the present an aspect of hope. Without it, present struggle has little purpose; with it, present struggle is the “suffering with him” (2 Tim 2:11–12) that carries great hope. The real clue that this hymn is about Christian existence, and not just about Christ’s existence—that it truly does explicate “the mystery of godliness” and provide a christological foundation for “conduct in God’s household”—can be seen in lines 4–5. These lines fully implicate human beings in the salvation plan of God, not just as undeserving recipients of God’s grace (line 5), but firstly as messengers who announce the truth en-fleshed in the Messiah. The aorist tenses are not to be read as signaling completion, but rather fact. In God’s salvation drama, Paul (and the church) has proclaimed the gospel, and the mission has produced results. But the ministry and results are characteristic of the church’s present age—as the age continues towards the end, so must the activity.
The hymn establishes a balance that rightly begins with the fundamental Christ event. But the central place of human response and responsibility in mission is essential to the salvation plan of God. It is actually almost a misnomer to call this piece a “Christ hymn,” for its solemn purpose is to reiterate in the present context the intimate connection that exists between Creator and creation—a connection that God has reestablished through the incarnation and death of his son (see further 4:1–5). It is thus a hymn about restoration and wholeness—the reconciliation of the divine and the human into a unified relationship through the human experience of Christ. At present, the church is to identify with the experience of Christ in suffering and witness (line 1, 4), its hope made sure and purpose for doing so grounded in the fact of his resurrection, vindication and glorious exaltation.
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.
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.
A Hymn Of The Church
1 Timothy 3:16
As everyone must confess, great is the secret which God has revealed to us in our religion:
He who was manifested in the flesh:
He who was vindicated by the Spirit:
He who was seen by angels:
He who has been preached among the nations:
He in whom men have believed all over the world:
He who was taken up into glory.
The great interest of this passage is that here we have a fragment of one of the hymns of the early Church. It is a setting of belief in Christ to poetry and to music, a hymn in which men and women sang their creed. We cannot expect from poetry the precision of statement for which we would look in a creed; but we must try to see what each line in this hymn is saying to us.
(1) He who was manifested in the flesh. Right at the beginning, it stresses the real humanity of Jesus. It says: ‘Look at Jesus, and you will see the mind and the heart and the action of God, in a form that everyone can understand.’
(2) He who was vindicated by the Spirit. This is a difficult line. There are three things it may mean.
(a) It may mean that all through his earthly days Jesus was kept sinless by the power of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who gives us guidance; our error is that we so often refuse the Spirit’s guidance. It was Jesus’ perfect submission to the Spirit of God which kept him without sin.
(b) It may mean that Jesus’ claims were justified by the action of the Spirit who dwelt in him. When Jesus was accused by the scribes and Pharisees of bringing about cures by the power of the devil, his answer was: ‘If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you’ (Matthew 12:28). The power that was in Jesus was the power of the Spirit, and the mighty acts which he performed were the evidence of the tremendous claims which he made.
(c) It may be that this is a reference to the resurrection. Jesus was taken and crucified as a criminal upon a cross, but through the power of the Spirit he rose again; the verdict of those who killed him was demonstrated to be false, and he was vindicated. No matter how we take this line, its meaning is that the Spirit is the power who proved Jesus to be what he claimed to be.
(3) He who was seen by angels. Again, there are three possible meanings.
(a) It may be a reference to Jesus’ life before he came to earth.
(b) It may be a reference to his life on earth. Even on earth, the hosts of heaven were looking on at his tremendous contest with evil.
(c) It may connect with the belief of everyone in the time of Jesus that the air was full of demonic and angelic powers. Many of these powers were hostile to God and to human beings, and set on the destruction of Jesus. Paul at least once argued that they were intent on the destruction of Jesus through ignorance, and that Jesus brought to them and to men and women the wisdom which had been hidden since the world began (1 Corinthians 2:7–8). This phrase may mean that Jesus brought the truth even to the angelic and demonic powers who had never known it. However we take it, it means that the work of Jesus is so tremendous that it includes both heaven and earth.
(4) He who has been preached among the nations. Here we have the great truth that Jesus was not the exclusive possession of a particular race or nation. He was not the Messiah who had come to raise the Jews to earthly greatness, but the Saviour of the whole wide world.
(5) He in whom men have believed all over the world. Here is an almost miraculous truth stated with utter simplicity. After Jesus had died and risen again and ascended to his glory, the number of his followers was 120 (Acts 1:15). All that his followers had to offer was the story of a Galilaean carpenter who had been crucified on a hilltop in Palestine as a criminal. And yet, before seventy years had passed, that story had gone out to the ends of the earth, and men and women of every nation accepted this crucified Jesus as Saviour and Lord. In this simple phrase, there is the whole wonder of the expansion of the Church, an expansion which by any human standards is incredible.
(6) He who was taken up into glory. This is a reference to the ascension. The story of Jesus begins in heaven and ends in heaven. He lived as a servant; he was branded as a criminal; he was crucified on a cross; he rose with the nailprints still upon him; but the end is glory.
3:16. As all agree, the mystery of godliness is great:
he was revealed in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed in the world,
taken up in glory.
Paul ends this section, and the first half of this letter, by quoting what was probably a common confession in the church. The phrase, ‘as all agree’, seems to indicate that what follows in the latter part of this verse is a common confession among Christians, a creed that the early church recited together. ‘Mystery’, as we have already seen (3:9), refers to God’s revelation that has previously been hidden but now has been revealed. Interestingly, Paul refers to this as ‘the mystery of godliness’. The term ‘godliness,’ which the apostle has earlier used in 2:2, usually refers to conduct or duty that is fitting for worshippers of God. But the ‘mystery’ that follows is a doctrinal formulation. As we have just seen in verse 15, as in the rest of the Pastoral Epistles, theology and ethics, what we believe and how we act, are closely tied to one another.
The six clauses that end this verse are generally recognized to have a rhythmic structure. All the Greek verbs here have the same ending, and all the clauses except the third have the same preposition (en, ‘in’ or ‘by’) and are roughly the same length. The main question of interpretation is how these six clauses fit together and are related to one another. Some see this ‘confession’ as being in two parts. The first three clauses refer to the earthly work of Christ—his incarnation, resurrection and ascension. The last three would then refer to the work of Christ through the church (‘preached’, ‘believed’, ‘taken up’). The problem with this interpretation is that the last clause, ‘taken up in glory’, more naturally refers to Christ’s ascension.
It seems preferable to see these six clauses as comprising three contrasting pairs—flesh / spirit, angels / nations, world / glory. These pairs summarize the totality of Christ’s redemptive work.
The first clause, ‘he was revealed in the flesh’, refers to Christ’s incarnation. The revelation of Christ in the flesh implies his pre-existence. To use John’s language, the eternal Word, God himself, became flesh (John 1:1, 14). Christ was also ‘vindicated in [or, ‘by’] the Spirit’. This is most likely a reference to his resurrection. Paul elsewhere links the Spirit to Christ’s resurrection. He says in Romans 1:4 that Christ was ‘declared [or appointed] Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead’. For the Jews, the crucifixion would have been a sign that Jesus was rejected, even accursed, by God (Deut. 21:23). But for the early Christians, the resurrection was the vindication that Jesus was who he said he was.
The following clause, stating that he was ‘seen by angels’, is difficult to interpret with certainty. Angels were present both at the resurrection of Christ (Mark 16:5–7) and at his ascension (Acts 1:9–11). But angels also would have been part of that heavenly host that gave Christ worship after his ascension (Phil. 2:9–10). The precise event is difficult to pin down (perhaps all of the above are included). Yet George Knight is probably correct in stating the purpose of this clause: ‘Angels are referred to here apparently to emphasize the cosmic nature of Christ’s work and its significance.’ The mention of angels, then, sets up the contrast with the clause that follows—‘preached among the nations’. This is a clear reference to the evangelistic activity of the church, in fulfilment of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). The fact that the proclamation of Christ among the nations is part of this early Christian confession reveals how evangelistically-minded the early church was.
Not only was Christ preached among the nations, but he was also ‘believed in the world’. The proclamation bore fruit. Many came to saving faith. This earthly activity is not without its heavenly counterpart—Christ was ‘taken up in glory’. This final clause refers to Christ’s ascension, but it does more than that. It tells us that he is in the realm of glory, enthroned in the place of power and authority (cf. Phil. 2:9–11). There he rules over the nations. It is because Christ is seated at the right hand of God that the gospel can be effective and the church can complete her work.
The church needs to take seriously its role as the ‘pillar and foundation of the truth’. The evangelical church today largely lacks the sense of urgency in guarding and defending the truth that marked previous generations of Christians. This is partly due to abuses of the past, and the angry and bellicose spirit that has characterized certain defenders of the faith. Certainly the church must be characterized by a joyful and winsome spirit. But much of our failure in this area is due to the ‘spirit of the age’, not the leading of the Holy Spirit. Our world tells us that there is no absolute truth. Many American evangelicals agree. Those who don’t agree often reflect the modern attitude by asserting that, while there is absolute truth, none of us has the whole truth. Admittedly none of us can claim to have infallible knowledge of the totality of biblical doctrine, but statements of this type often reflect a laissez-faire attitude with regard to the defence of the truth. Not only does the Bible teach that absolute truth exists, it teaches that the church is the pillar and foundation of that truth, its guardian and defender. The world, compounded by our own sinfulness, has robbed the church of its strength.
This is true not only with regard to doctrine, but also with regard to conduct. As we have seen, these two go hand in hand. The failure to uphold standards in one area will soon lead to lowered standards in the other. The very nature of the church, as the household of God, as the pillar and foundation of the truth, means that the church needs to live by, and promote, biblical standards of behaviour. We need to do things God’s way, not man’s way. Francis Schaeffer has observed, ‘Show me what the world is saying today and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying in seven years.’ Sadly, this seems to be all too true.
The evangelism of the nations, an important ‘pillar’ of the early church’s confession, unfortunately suffers when the church fails to uphold biblical truth. It suffers when we believe the world when it tells us that all religions have truth and that there are many ways to God. In fact, many interpreters of the Bible have stripped Jesus’ words, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me,’ of their meaning and import. Evangelism loses its urgency when we are told that there is no hell, that there is no eternal torment for those who do not trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Evangelism loses its edge when the evangelical church compromises on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the doctrine by which, as Martin Luther said, the church stands or falls.
The reverse side of the coin is that other Christians are so intent on splitting theological hairs over issues of little or no consequence that they fail to get on with the task of evangelizing the nations. Somehow we need both to uphold doctrinal purity and to make Christ known to the lost. Paul teaches us in this passage that the church can do no less.
A final comment on this passage and the larger section. Beginning in 2:1, Paul has laid out the proper conduct for the household of God. In chapter 2, he stressed the necessity of prayer in the public assembly of God’s people. He has ended this section with a credal statement that was evidently used in the early church. The evangelical church today generally recognizes the importance of prayer. It has lost a sense of the importance and value of creeds and confessions. But creeds are an important way of establishing God’s people in the truth of Scripture. They can be an important means of ‘godliness’ (3:16). May God give to the church a renewed understanding of the value of creeds and confessions in its public worship.
16. What a rich cluster of mysteries is here! All blessedly hanging together, like some large bunch of the richest grapes, on the most luxuriant Vine! The mystery begins with, God manifest in the flesh: and the verse ends with, Christ received up into glory. God the Son, tabernacling in a body of flesh! Justified in the Spirit; both in the formation of that pure portion of human nature, wrought by his miraculous impregnation, in the womb of the Virgin, in testifying at Christ’s baptism, in all his miracles, when he offered himself through the eternal Spirit on the cross; when risen from the dead, when returned to glory; and when, in exact conformity to the Lord’s most sure promise, God the Holy Ghost came down at Pentecost, in an open display of his Person, and Offices; and now in a private manifestation in the hearts of all Christ’s seed, from the first moment of regeneration, until grace is finished in glory. In all these, and numberless other instances, Christ is justified in the Spirit, when he takes of Christ, and shews to the people. And seen of angels, who saw him at his birth, attended him in his temptations in the wilderness, in his agonies in the garden, at his resurrection, ascension, and return to glory. Preached to the Gentiles. And this became a mystery to the Jewish Church, that God should also to the Gentiles, grant repentance unto life. Acts 11:18. And what was yet, and is now, and ever must be, a greater mystery still, that Christ should be believed on in the world. For such is the natural enmity of every man’s mind by the fall; that nothing short of sovereign grace can gain acceptance for Christ, in a single heart. And there must be the concurring operation of all the Persons of the Godhead, in the drawings of the Father, John 6:44, the manifestations of the Son, 1 John 5:20 and the quickenings of the Holy Ghost, to induce belief in the soul. Ephes. 2:1. And the Lord’s being received up into glory, closeth the wonderful account, in this precious mystery of godliness, which, without controversy, must be acknowledged great! Reader! what a mercy is your’s, and mine, if through grace, we can both subscribe to the blessed contents? Great as the mystery of godliness is, God hath revealed the truth of the whole to our spirit. 1 Cor. 2:10.
16.—He who for God, A.V. and T.R.; manifested for manifest, A.V. among the nations for unto the Gentiles, A.V. in for into, A.V. Without controversy (ὁμολογουμένως); only here in the New Testament, but used in the same sense in the LXX and in classical Greek, “confessedly,” by common confession. Great is the mystery of godliness. This is said to enhance the glory of the Church just spoken of, to whom this mystery has been entrusted, and so still further to impress upon Timothy the vital necessity of a wise and holy walk in the Church. The mystery of godliness is all that truth which “in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Godliness (τῆς εὐσεβείας); i.e. “the Christian faith;” what in ch. 6:3 is called “The words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the doctrine which is according to godliness (τῇ κατ᾽ εὐσεβείαν διδασκαλὶᾳ),” and in 2 Tim. 1:1, “The truth which is according to godliness.” In ver. 9 it is “the mystery of the faith,” where ἠ πίστις, is equivalent to ἡ εὐσεβεία. Bishop Ellicott, however, does not admit this objective sense of ἡ πίστις, or ἡ εὐσεβεία, but explains the genitive as “a pure possessive genitive;” the mystery appertaining; to, or the property of, subjective faith and godliness; but this is a use not borne out by any passage in which the word “mystery” occurs. It is always mysteries (or mystery) of the king dom of God, of Christ, of God, of the gospel, and the like. In the following passages the objective sense of ἠ πίστις, is either necessary or by far the most natural: Acts 3:7; 13:8; 14:22; 16:5; Gal. 1:23; Eph. 4:5; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:23; 2:7; ch. 1:19; 5:8; 6:10, 21; 2 Tim. 4:7; Titus 1:13; Jas. 2:1; Jude 3. Haying thus exalted the “mystery of godliness,” St. Paul goes on to expound it. He who (ὅς). This is generally adopted now as the true reading, instead of Θεός, (ΟΣ, instead of ΘΣ). Bishop Ellicott satisfied himself, by most careful personal examination, that the original reading of the Cod. Alex. was ΟΣ, and that it had been altered by a later hand to ΘΣ. The Cod. Sinait. certainly has ὅς,, and to this all the older versions agree. The Vulgate has quod, agreeing with sacramentutu and representing the Greek ὁ Accepting this, then, as the true reading, we proceed to explain it. Ὄς, who, is a relative, and must, therefore, have an antecedent. But there is no expressed antecedent of the masculine gender for it to agree with. The antecedent, therefore, must be understood, and gathered from the preceding words, τὸ μυστήριον τῆς εὐσεβείας, It can only be Christ. The mystery of the whole Old Testament, that which was wrapped in types and bidden under veils, was Christ (Col. 1:27). Moses spake of him, the Psalms speak of him, the prophets speak of him; but all of them spake darkly. But in the gospel “the mystery of Christ” (Col. 4:3) is revealed. Christ is the Mystery of Christianity. It is, therefore, no difficult step to pass from “the mystery” to “Christ,” and to supply the word “Christ” as the antecedent to “who.” Was manifested (ἐφανερώθη); a word frequently applied to Christ (John 1:31; 1 John 1:2; 3:5, 8, etc.). The idea is the same in John 1:14. Justified in the spirit. This is rather an obscure expression. But it seems to describe our Lord’s spotless righteousness, perhaps with special reference to the declaration of it at his baptism, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” We have the same contrast between the flesh and the Spirit of Christ in 1 Pet. 3:18. And between the flesh and the spirit of a Christian man in Rom. 8:10, “The body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is life because of righteousness.” To this clause apparently the remark of Chrysostom applies, “God became man, and man became God.” “The spirit” seems to mean the moral nature—the inner man. Seen of angels. Perhaps the multitude of the heavenly host who welcomed the birth of Christ were permitted to see the new-born Babe, as he seems to have done who described him to the shepherds as “wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:12–14). Angels ministered unto him after the temptation (Mark 1:13), and in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 22:43, where the word ὤφθη, is used), and at his resurrection (Matt. 28:2). The special interest of angels in the “great mystery” is referred to in 1 Pet. 1:12; Heb. 1:6. Preached among the nations (ἐκηρύχθη ἐν ἔθνεσιν). It would have been better to keep the rendering “Gentiles” here, to mark the identity of thought with Eph. 3:6, 8, where, in the apostle’s view, the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, that they might be fellow-heirs with the Jews of the promises of God, is one main feature of the mystery (comp. ch. 2:7). Believed on in the world. The next step in this ascending scale is the acceptance of Christ in the world as the Saviour thereof. The language here is not stronger than that of Col. 1:5, 6, “The word of the truth of the gospel, which is come unto you; even as it is also in all the world, and beareth fruit.” And in Col. 1:23, “The gospel which was preached in all creation under heaven” (comp. Rom. 1:8). The statement in Mark 16:15–20 might almost have been in St. Paul’s mind. Note the use there of the words κηρύξατε, ἐκηρύξαν, τὸν κόσμον, ὀ πιστεύσας, πιστεύσασι, ἀνελήφρη, Received up in glory. The change of “into” (A.V.) into “in” is of very doubtful propriety. In New Testament Greek ἐν, frequently follows verbs of motion, and means the same as εἰς, like the Hebrew בְּ. Our Lord is not said to have ascended in glory (as he appeared at the Transfiguration), but, as St. Mark has it, “He was received up into heaven, and [there] sat down at the right hand of God,” fulfilling John 17:5. This grand burst of dogmatic teaching is somewhat like that in ch. 2:5–7. There is no adequate evidence of its being, as many commentators have thought, a portion of a hymn or creed used in the Church. It rather implies the same tension in the apostle’s mind which is apparent in other parts of the Epistle (comp. ch. 6:11 and following verses).
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 Christian hymn contained in this verse is introduced by a formula intended to intimate something of the grandeur to follow. The adverb translated Beyond all question (homologoumenōs) means by common consent, which draws attention to what all Christians hold. There is no room for manoeuvre regarding the basic facts of the faith. Some comment is needed on the expression the mystery of godliness, since this occurs nowhere else. The word mystery has already been met in verse 9 in the phrase the deep truths of faith, but here it is qualified by a word which in 2:2 appears to denote religion in general, although clearly the Christian religion is in view. But why does Paul use this unusual expression here? Perhaps the answer may be found in the implied comparison between the practical godliness previously enjoined on church officers and the inner character of its revealed secret described here.
The av, based on the Received Text, reads ‘God was manifest in the flesh’, but modern editors reject this reading in favour of ‘Who was manifest’. niv translates He appeared in a body, based on the second reading. In this reading the masculine relative is taken to refer to Christ. This is most probable. It has been suggested that Christ may have been mentioned in an earlier part of the hymn which has not been preserved in the citation. It was evidently well known and the reference would be beyond dispute.
Much of the lyrical quality of this hymn is missed in the English translation, but it is most impressive in the Greek. The first phrase celebrates the incarnation and presupposes the pre-existence of Christ, a magnificently succinct statement of a profound Christian truth. The mystery has been made known, yet how incomprehensible we discover it to be! The next line, was vindicated by the Spirit, may be regarded as parallel to the previous phrase. In that case, as the phrase en sarki (in a body) denotes the sphere of operation of the verb appeared, so en pneumati (in the Spirit) denotes the sphere of the verb vindicated. By translating the preposition en as ‘by’, niv does not follow this parallelism. If, however, the parallelism is correct, ‘spirit’ could refer to Christ’s human spirit (as in Rom. 1:4), in which case the meaning would be that God had vindicated Christ in the spiritual realm, i.e. when he declared him to be his son. If the parallelism is not enforced, the Greek preposition en could be understood instrumentally (as niv), in which case the Holy Spirit would be declared as agent in vindicating the cause of the crucified, rejected Messiah, and this idea would connect well with the first phrase. But the former interpretation on the whole seems preferable, especially in view of the repetition of the preposition en throughout the hymn.
The next phrase, was seen by angels, is obscure, for it is not certain in what sense the word angels is to be understood. If the reference is to the principalities and powers believed to rule the unseen world (cf. the word ‘elements’ used in Gal. 4:3, 9 and Col. 2:8, 20 and cf. also Col. 2:15 and Eph. 6:12), the idea would be that the triumphant Christ showed himself to his spiritual enemies. But the words may also be taken as a reference to the hosts of unfallen angels, which seems to be supported by such statements as 1 Peter 1:12 and Ephesians 3:10. The hosts of heaven are depicted as eager to receive back the exalted Son of God, but this latter thought is more clearly gathered up in the sixth phrase. At the same time the idea of angelic worshippers of the Son was a popular theme among early Christians as the book of Revelation shows. It has been suggested that an emphatic antithesis exists between the third and fourth phrases, between the revelation to angels and to the nations, both together indicating the extent of Messiah’s manifestations (cf. Bernard). But it is probably better to link the fourth and fifth phrases as parallel. The universalism of the gospel is classed next among the wonders of this mystery, and this factor would have special point for Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. It must never be forgotten that a Hebrew Christ had become a Christ for the nations. As this expression focuses on earth, so does the next, which celebrates the response to the preaching in the world. Some understand the words to mean ‘throughout the world’ and take them as indicating the consummation of gospel preaching as the previous phrase shows its commencement. But they may indicate no more than the fact that the proclaimed Messiah is received by faith in the sphere of the world (here used without moral connotations) as contrasted with the ascension in glory with which the hymn concludes.
The refrain was taken up in glory in line 6 may be regarded as parallel to was seen by angels in line 3. But if the latter phrase is understood to refer to hostile agencies, the former refrain with its triumphal allusion to the ascension would form a fitting conclusion to the whole hymn. In any case there seems to be some thread of thought linking the fifth and sixth phrases, for Christ’s triumph on earth (in the faith of his people) is concluded by his triumph in glory. The hymn could not close more suitably than with the humiliated Messiah’s exalted entry into the heavenly sphere. It is noticeable that nowhere in the hymn is the death or resurrection of Christ mentioned, a surprising thing if this letter is Paul’s own work. But if he is citing a current hymn and citing only a part, it is at least possible that the part not cited contained these great truths. The part preserved can hardly represent a complete Christian creed, and indeed is not intelligible apart from some doctrine of the cross and resurrection being assumed.
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).
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).
Ver. 16. And without doubt great is the mystery of godliness.—
Mystery:—I shall deliver the nature of the thing itself in this definition, viz., that a mystery is truth revealed by God above the power of natural reason to find out or comprehend. 1. That it is a truth. By which we exclude everything from being a mystery that is absurd and contradictious, since a truth can by no means be so. 2. That it be revealed by God, viz., as to its existence, that there is such a thing. For otherwise, as to the nature of the thing itself, and several other respects in which it may be known, the revelation of it is not supposed to extend so far. 3. That it surpasses all the power of natural reason to discover or find it out. 4. That it be such a thing as bare natural reason (even after it is discovered) cannot comprehend. I say comprehend, that is, know it perfectly, and as far as it is capable of being known (1 Cor. 13:12). That the mysteriousness of those matters of faith is most subservient to the great important ends of Religion, and that upon these following accounts.
- Because religion, in the prime institution of it, was designed to make impressions of awe and reverential fear upon men’s minds. Distance preserves respect, and we still imagine some transcendent worth in things above our reach. Moses was never more reverenced than when he wore his veil. Nay, the very sanctum sanctorum would not have had such veneration from the Jews had they been permitted to enter into it, and to gaze and stare upon it as often as they did upon the other parts of the Temple. The high priest himself, who alone was suffered to enter into it, yet was to do so but once a year, lest the frequency of the sight might insensibly lessen that adoration which so sacred a thing was still to maintain upon his thoughts. In all great respect, or honour shown, there is something of wonder; but a thing often seen (we know), be it never so excellent, yet ceasing thereby to be new, it ceases also to be wondered at. Forasmuch as it is not the worth or excellency, but the strangeness of the thing, which draws the eyes and admiration of men after it. For can anything in nature be imagined more glorious and beautiful than the sun shining in his full might? and yet how many more spectators and wonderers does the same sun find under an eclipse? But to pursue this notion and observation yet farther, I conceive it will not be amiss to consider how it has been the custom of all sober and wise nations of the world still to reserve the great rites of their religion in occulto. Thus how studiously did the Egyptians, those great masters of all learning, lock up their sacred things from all access and knowledge of the vulgar!
- A second ground of the mysteriousness of religion (as it is delivered by God to mankind) is His most wise purpose thereby to humble the pride and haughtiness of man’s reason. In short, man would be like God in knowledge, and so he fell; and now, if he will be like Him in happiness too, God will effect it in such a way as shall convince him to his face that he knows nothing. The whole course of his salvation shall be all riddle and mystery to him; he shall (as I may so express it) be carried up to heaven in a cloud. Instead of evidence springing from things themselves, and clear knowledge growing from such an evidence, his understanding must now be contented with the poor, dim light of faith, which guides only in the strength and light of another’s knowledge, and is properly a seeing with another’s eyes, as being otherwise wholly unable to inform us about the great things of our peace, by any immediate inspection of those things themselves. For as the primitive effect of knowledge was first to put up and then to throw down, so the contrary method of grace and faith is first to depress and then to advance. The difficulty and strangeness of some of the chief articles of our religion are notable instruments in the hand of God to keep the soul low and humble, and to check those self-complacencies which it is apt to grow into by an over-weening conceit of its own opinions more than by any other thing whatsoever. For man naturally is scarce so fond of the offspring of his body as of that of his soul. His notions are his darlings; so that neither children nor self are half so dear to him as the only begotten of his mind. And therefore in the dispensations of religion God will have this only begotten, this best beloved, this Isaac of our souls (above all other offerings that a man can bring Him) to be sacrificed and given up to Him.
III. God has been pleased to put a mysteriousness into the greatest articles of our religion, thereby to engage us in a closer and more diligent search into them. He would have them the objects of our study, and for that purpose has rendered them hard and difficult. For no man studies things plain and evident, and such as by their native clearness do even prevent our search, and of their own accord offer themselves to our understandings. The foundation of all inquiry is the obscurity as well as worth of the thing inquired after. And God has thought good to make the constitution and complexion of our religion such as may fit it to be our business and our task; to require and take up all our intellectual strength, and, in a word, to try the force of our best, our noblest, and most active faculties. For no man can outlive the reasons of inquiry so long as he carries any thing of ignorance about him. And that every man must, and shall do, while he is in this state of mortality. For he, who himself is but a part of nature, shall never compass or comprehend it all. Truth (we are told) dwells low, and in a bottom; and the most valued things of the creation are concealed and hidden by the great Creator of them, from the common view of the world. God and diamonds, with the most precious stones and metals, are couched and covered in the bowels of the earth; the very condition of their being giving them their burial too. So that violence must be done to nature before she will produce and bring them forth. And then, as to what concerns the mind of man, God has in His wise Providence cast things so as to make the business of men in this world improvement; that so the very work of their condition may still remind them of the imperfection of it. (R. South.)
The mystery of godliness:—
- That the scheme of godliness is greatly mysterious with regard to its contrivance. Thus, how the case of man’s fall was to be met, and how his salvation was to be wrought out in perfect harmony with all the Divine attributes, remained a profound secret, until God Himself was pleased to announce it to the world. Even angelic intelligence was inadequate to its contrivance.
- That the scheme of godliness is greatly mysterious with regard to its mode of development. That, in fact, its main and most important truths should have been so long concealed from the world, or only be darkly shadowed forth by types and figures; that their revelation should have been so gradual, and so late in reaching its consummation may well be reckoned a mystery. Why did He suffer so many millions of the race for whose benefit it was designed, and for whose salvation a knowledge of it seems necessary, to die without even having heard of it?
III. That the scheme of godliness is greatly mysterious with regard to the nature and mode of its operations. We gather from the words of our Lord, that the operations by which the Holy Spirit regenerates men through the system of evangelical truth would be inscrutable. “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” &c. How, for instance, does this system of truth illuminate the mind, convey conviction to the judgment, awaken and alarm the conscience, gain the assent of the understanding, fill the sinner with penitence and godly sorrow, win his affections, subdue his whole soul to God, and transform him, a guilty and polluted spirit, into a new creature in Christ Jesus? What is the nature of those unseen, impalpable operations by which man is enlightened, pardoned, and born again? How is celestial light produced in the sin-darkened mind?
- That the scheme of godliness is greatly mysterious with regard to its triumphs. The external means and agency by which these triumphs are secured may be plain and obvious enough as facts; but then they seem altogether inadequate to achieve them.
- That the scheme of godliness is greatly mysterious with regard to its consummation. Its character is thus uniform from the beginning to the end. This grand drama of truth and mercy was opened by the most mysterious resolutions and stupendous acts; it is sustained and carried on by the sublimest evolutions and agency; and it will close amid the most transcendent and ineffable scenes of grandeur and bliss. All the dead are to be raised. Men and devils are all to be arraigned before the judgment-seat of Christ. The old heavens and earth are to pass away. A new heaven and earth of surpassing beauty and holiness are to be created for the reception of the redeemed. 1. This subject teaches us the necessity of implicit faith in all the truths and doctrines which God has revealed in His Word. This, indeed, we shall often find to be necessary. Mysterious facts which baffle our reason, demand our faith. In His darkest utterances, God must be implicitly credited. 2. This subject teaches us the necessity of cherishing the spirit of patience and humility. This, too, we shall find to be all-important. We cannot anticipate the end, nor rush to its disclosures before the time appointed by the Father. 3. This subject teaches us that we ought most gratefully to receive the unspeakable and eternal benefits which this grand and mysterious scheme of godliness was designed to confer on redeemed men. To refuse them, or even to be unconcerned about them, is surely the blackest and most hateful ingratitude, and must form the very climax of rebellion and guilt! (S. Lucas.)
The mystery of godliness:—
- A mystery is something kept secret, locked up from the view of men. This sense of it agrees to the doctrines of Christianity upon a threefold account. 1. As they were concealed from former ages. 2. As they are yet so from the greatest part of the world. 3. As they continue so in some degree to God’s own people. The temple of God is not to be opened till we get to heaven, and there we shall see the ark of His covenant. Upon these accounts it may be said our gospel is hid; it was so to the Jews, it is so to those that are lost; and, in part, it is so to the believer himself; and therefore it may be called a mystery. 1. It is called a mystery from its importance. 2. It is called a mystery because it never could have been known but by revelation. 3. A mystery is something above the comprehension of our reason. The things of God knows no man, but the Spirit of God. And this leads me to—
- Show that the mystery of any doctrine does not hinder it from being true. 1. The difficulty or easiness of a doctrine does not make it the matter of our faith, but we go entirely upon the sufficiency of the evidence. 2. This obtains in every part of life, and it is strange we should exclude it from religion. 3. It is no way unaccountable that the nature and the designs of God should be incomprehensible to us. 4. It is necessary that our understanding should honour the revelation of God by a subjection, as well as our wills by a compliance. 5. These are not mysteries of man’s forging, but we have them in the Book of God. 6. They are not concealed by any party or tribe among us, but lie open to be seen and read of all men. Therefore—7. The design of preaching them is not to set up the tyranny of priests, but to lead people to a veneration for their God, a dependence upon Him, and an application to Him.
III. What is the benefit of having mysteries in the Christian religion? Why could not our lawgiver have done as others did, only laid before us a set of rules, and distributed them under the several heads of practice, without ever engaging our faith in any speculations at all? When the law is established by faith, it gets a firmness and an influence that it could never have had any other way. 1. By the mysteries of the gospel we are led to an esteem for the salvation itself that God has given us, because thus we see that it was the contrivance of infinite wisdom. 2. We have the best arguments for our duty from the incarnation, satisfaction, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 3. We have the noblest example of all practical holiness from God’s being manifest in the flesh. 4. We are in particular inclined and encouraged to the duty of prayer, by this new and living way that is consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say, His flesh. (Heb. 10:20). 5. We have the best hope of succeeding in the whole work of our duty, from the redemption that is now established. 6. By these mysteries the principles of all practical religion are enlarged and encouraged. It is in a meditation upon these that we stir up the grace of God that is in us. 7. We are by this means kept low in our own eyes; as we find there are things above the reach of nature, and beyond the comprehension of faith. 8. This shows us the necessity of depending upon the Spirit for illumination, as well as upon Christ for acceptance. 9. This teaches a greater value for the revelation God has made of Himself. 10. This draws out our desires towards heaven, without which there can be neither the purity nor the comfort of religion. We long to be where the veil is taken off from the object, and the fetters from the faculty.
- When the apostle calls this a great mystery, I suppose he does it in a way of pre-eminence to what is contained in other religions, more especially these two. 1. The mysteries of the heathen. 2. There were mysteries in the Jewish religion. (Psa. 111:4; Psa. 48:9), in the midst of His temple, and He was terrible out of His holy places. (1) The mystery of godliness is in this respect greater than any among the heathen in that we learn it at once. Here are no years thrown away in a tedious preparation. There is no keeping of people in a preparatory dulness. (2) This mystery is about matters of more importance to our final happiness. This is life eternal, to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. (John 17:3). (3) These mysteries were given us by God Himself. (4) These mysteries are to be diffused and made known. 2. There were undeniable mysteries among the Jews. (1) Our mysteries are distinguished from those that God gave to the Jews by their continuance. (2) Our mysteries refer us to themselves. The Jews had a respect to something else. (3) Our mysteries come in a nobler way, in a method more agreeable to the lofty nature of a rational soul. (4) This mystery is attended with a greater influence, both as to purity and peace. It is further said that this mystery is great without controversy. 1. It does not mean there should be no dispute about it. The natural man never did, and never will receive the things of the Spirit of God; they are foolishness to him. 2. This mystery is without controversy to all the ages of God’s people. 3. This mystery is without controversy to those whom the grace of God has brought from the darkness of infidelity. 4. This is a mystery without controversy, because it still continues to be a mystery after all the ways that men have taken to explain it. A few practical directions about the use that should be made of mysteries in religion. 1. If you would treat Christianity or any particular article as a mystery, be careful to separate the doctrine from all the mixtures that curiosity or superstition have brought into it. 2. Read the Scriptures diligently, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 3. Attend the ordinances of the gospel. He that walks with wise men shall be wise. 4. Pray for the Spirit. 5. Take care of quarrelling about these mysteries, and becoming vain in your imaginations. 6. Be more concerned about the improving of a mystery than the explaining it. (T. Bradbury.)
The mystery of godliness:—
- Let us inquire what are the features of mystery which belong to the scheme of redemption. 1. It is a mystery if we consider the subjects of that redemption. 2. There is mystery in the mode of this redemption. 3. There is mystery in the magnitude of the accruing consequence of this redemption. The feud between heaven and earth has been adjusted by it. 4. It is a mystery, because no human wisdom could ever have devised it. It is a gem of grace dug from the deepest mine of the Divine intelligence, and lifted from the profoundest recess of the Divine compassion. 5. It was a mystery which baffled the malignant wit of devils to explain. 6. And if it passed the understandings of the dark confederacy of hell, it equally exceeded the capacity of angels to unravel its intent. 7. It is a mystery which will need eternity to explore it.
- Observe the appropriateness of the phrase—“the mystery of godliness.” 1. It is so, because it reveals the only basis of godliness. 2. By a belief in this we become entitled to all the blessings of godliness. 3. By its influence on heart and life it leads to the practice of godliness. 4. Because the whole redounds to the honour and glory of God. From this mystery we may learn to raise our appreciation of the greatness and sublimity of the Christian revelation. (A. Mursell.)
The mystery of godliness:—
- The mystery of godliness itself. 1. The fact that God was manifest in the flesh. (1) The manifestation affirmed is the manifestation of God. It is the manifestation of Jehovah—of the Creator, Preserver, and Lord of all—of Him to whom all worship is due, and all dominion and glory belong. This much lies upon the very surface of the text. Is there nothing more to tell? There is more. God is One. But the Persons of the Godhead are three. And this is not the manifestation of the First, or of the Third, Person of the Godhead, but of the Second. It is the manifestation of God the Son. (2) As to the other question—the nature of this manifestation—we remark that it was personal. There are many manifestations of God—manifestations of Him in the world and in the Church, in His works, and in His Word. But these are manifestations of character and perfections. A manifestation of the Divine wisdom, and power, and holiness, and love, is a manifestation of God; but it is not a personal manifestation. It is a manifestation of the attributes and glory of God, and of the attributes and glory of the Persons in the Godhead; but it is not a manifestation of the Persons themselves. There is a manifestation of the Father in those who are His children; there is a manifestation of the Son in those whom He is not ashamed to call His brethren; and there is a manifestation of the Spirit in all whom He regenerates and sanctifies. Yea, doubtless, the Divine Persons are thus manifested. But, though the manifestation be a manifestation of Persons, it is not a personal manifestation of them. They are manifested mediately, not immediately—as the worker is manifested by his work. There is no immediate personal manifestation of God, which has been afforded to man, except that manifestation of Him which constitutes the mystery of godliness. We do not overlook the manifestations of God that were enjoyed by the patriarchs—such as that which Abraham had in the plains of Mamre, and that which Jacob had at Peniel. These were foreshadowings of that mystery of godliness which the fulness of time disclosed. The personal manifestation of God is highly to be prized. We may judge of it by the desire which is felt to see the sage or philosopher who has enriched the stores of our knowledge by his speculations and discoveries. We may have read the great man’s history again and again; we may be familiar with what he has achieved; we may have seen the fruits of his genius, his toil, his valour; we may possess his portrait too; but the effect of it all will be, not to diminish, but to increase, the desire to behold his person, and to see himself. Just so it is in the case before us. The knowledge of God’s ways and doings, the light cast upon His character and glorious perfections by the teachings of Scripture and the experience of the Church, will never quench the desire for the vision of God Himself. We must further remark, with respect to the nature of this manifestation of God, that it was a manifestation “in the flesh.” “God was manifest in the flesh.” We read of the Holy Ghost coming down in a bodily form, like a dove. But the Holy Ghost was not a dove. He took, for the occasion, the visible form of a dove; but there was no real dove in the case, any more than there is in the image or likeness of a dove which the pencil of the artist may create. God the Son, however, was man. He was Man as truly and really as He was God. Had He come with no more than the figure or likeness of a man—that likeness being temporarily assumed—it could not so well be said that God was manifested. It may serve to open up still farther this manifestation of God in the flesh, if we explain a little, as we can, and as Scripture enables us, how the manifestation was brought about. This much we are in a condition to say—that God was manifested in the flesh by the assumption into His Person, on the part of the Son, of the human nature, as consisting of a true body and a reasonable soul. The Son assumed human nature into His Person. He assumed it into His Person so that God the Son and the man Christ Jesus were not two Persons, but one. It was not that a new Person was constituted out of two Persons previously existing. His human nature never existed by itself, or as a person; and the Person of the Son was eternal. Into that Person the human nature was taken, or assumed, as has been said—the identity of the Person remaining unchanged. There was no conversion of the Divine into the human nature. Had that been the case, He must have ceased to be God by becoming man. Nor was there any mixture of the natures. The two natures did not become one nature, combining their attributes. There was a union, however, between the two natures. But this union was not like other unions with which we may be acquainted. It was unlike the union between the soul and body of man. It was unlike it in this—that body and soul make but one nature between them. It was unlike the union between Christ and believers; for that is a union where distinct personality is preserved. And it was unlike the union among the Persons in the Godhead. The cases, indeed, are completely in contrast. There, we find distinct Persons, and one nature. Here, we find one Person, and distinct natures. 2. Passing now from the fact declared, that God was manifest in the flesh, we come to the reason of it. The reason was no other than the salvation of sinful man. A created nature was necessary, because a created nature alone could suffer, and on a created nature alone the stroke of wrath could fall. He took not, however, the nature of angels. The human nature was necessary, to connect Him more closely with our broken covenant, on the one hand, and with us who broke it, on the other. It was flesh that He took, because He was to be the second man, the last Adam; and, in that capacity, to magnify the law and make it honourable, and bruise the serpent’s head. But a finite nature must have failed by itself. It need not have failed in purpose, or for want of will; but it must have failed in sufficiency, and for want of strength.
- The circumstances that commend the mystery of godliness to our faith and admiration. (A. Gray.) God was manifest in the flesh.—
The important mystery of the Incarnation:—
- I am to illustrate the doctrine of God manifest in the flesh. It is an undoubted truth, that the perfections and glory of God the Father were manifested in the Incarnation, life and death of His only begotten Son. If these, in one respect, veiled the Divine glory, they gave, in another, a new and fuller view of its brightness. The Scripture conceals not the reasons why God was thus manifest in the flesh. Perhaps, some may inquire, how can it be said that God was manifest in the flesh? Did not the nature He assumed, and the purposes of humiliation and suffering for which He assumed it, obscure, rather than manifest, His Deity? If, however, some circumstances of Christ’s incarnation indicated meanness and abasement; in others, Divine majesty and greatness were manifested. Heaven and earth, angels and devils, kings and subjects, friends and enemies, unite to do honour to His birth. Let me now direct your attention to the practical improvement of this subject. Judge not the opinions or character of any man, or society of men, by their outward circumstances. Despise not, for His birth, His poverty, or mean appearance, the man who teaches an excellent doctrine, or who exhibits an eminently virtuous example. Just ideas, and a correspondent behaviour, not wealth or indigence, are the true tests of worth. Think how wretched and forlorn thy circumstances, which required so great and astonishing means of deliverance. Admire and improve this amazing condescension. Let the warmest gratitude inflame every breast while contemplating the love which gave rise to this condescension. Labour that He who was manifested in your nature may also be manifested in your persons: or, as Paul expresses it, “That the life of Jesus may be made manifest in your body” (2 Cor. 4:10). Reflect how highly human nature is dignified and ennobled by the incarnation of the Son of God. Improve and exult in the foundation laid, by God manifest in the flesh, for the encouragement of faith. Sink not under thy doubts and fears; for to rescue sinners from destruction He, who was in the bosom of the Father, pledged His heart as their ransom that, as their Advocate, He might approach to God and successfully plead their cause.
- Paul describes this doctrine as a mystery. The word “mystery” is borrowed from the secret religious rites and exercises among the heathen, to which only a few, after trial of their secrecy, were admitted by the Hierophant or Mystagogue. Hence, it is transferred to the incarnation of Christ, and its important causes and consequences, which could be discovered only by the Spirit, not by our senses, imagination, or intellectual powers. To men, who have no other guide than nature’s light, the wonders of redeeming love were wholly unknown: and unknown they must have for ever remained, had not the first stewards of the mysteries of God learned them by inspiration, and been authorized to teach them. Under the Old Testament the Jews had only dark types and obscure prophecies of those good things to come. The wisdom of God in a mystery was a hidden wisdom, which none of the princes of this world knew; for, had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. Again, the gospel is a mystery; for to few who enjoy the external dispensation of the gospel is its native beauty and Divine energy inwardly revealed. Saints alone are divinely enlightened to perceive its certainty and glory.
III. The doctrine of our Lord’s Incarnation, and of its causes and consequences, is, without controversy, a great mystery. It has not only been confirmed by the fullest evidence; but it is without controversy to all to whom Jesus hath manifested the Father’s name. Well, too, may this doctrine be termed great. It exhibits truths in their own nature transcendently excellent. All this, however, will not excuse our stumbling at this wisdom of God in a mystery, or these deep things of God.
- The doctrine of our Lord’s Incarnation is a mystery of godliness. It is allowed that truths altogether unknown, and doctrines perfectly unintelligible, can be no motives to piety. But, notwithstanding this, motives to piety may be derived from that, in a mystery, which is known and understood. Though I cannot comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity, or the Divinity and Sonship of Christ, I may understand enough of the love of the Father, in sending His Son to be the Saviour of the world, and of redemption being purchased by His blood, to influence my temper and conduct. Articles of natural religion deeply affect us which yet are obscurely and imperfectly known. Now, all this was revealed that we might be sanctified through the truth. The view which it exhibits, both of the justice and goodness of God, affords the strongest motives to reverence of God’s authority, value for His favour, trust in His mercy and obedience to His laws.
- The doctrine of the Incarnation is the pillar and ground of the truth: not of truth, or even religious truth in general, but of the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation, in which that plan of redemption is published, which reason could never have discovered. The original word, rendered ground, occurs nowhere else in the sacred writings. But it evidently signifies that upon which anything firmly rests. Here, therefore, where it relates to a building, and is joined to the word “pillar,” it means foundation. A pillar only supports part of a fabric. A foundation bears the weight of the whole building. The metaphor intimates that the doctrine of the Person and Incarnation of Jesus is necessary to the support of the whole doctrine of redemption; and that, if the doctrine of the Incarnation were taken away, the whole doctrine of redemption would fall to the ground. Every other article of faith rests upon, and derives stability from, its connection with this. If the Son of God did not assume a true body and a reasonable soul, He was not the “Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.” The first thing in a building is the laying the foundation; and the first thing peculiar to Christianity which the apostles taught was the incarnation of Jesus, and His redeeming us to God through His blood: though to pave the way for this truth being received, they also inculcated the principles and obligations of natural religion, and the evidences of Christianity, from prophecy and miracles (1 Cor. 15:1–3). And now, what is the conclusion of the whole matter? Think it not strange that the gospel often meets with bad entertainment, that some pronounce the mysteries of its foolishness, and others account the godliness these mysteries tend to produce an insupportable yoke. Learn from this subject to distinguish true religion and genuine piety from counterfeit appearances. Heathenism and popery have their mysteries; but they are mysteries of iniquity. Entertain this doctrine in a manner suitable to its nature. It is a mystery. Affect not to be wise above what is written. Admire and adore what thou canst not fully comprehend. It is a mystery of godliness. By indulging ease and security, while profligate and immoral, act not as if it were a mystery of iniquity. Remember that mere speculative knowledge will condemn, not save thee. It is the pillar and ground of truth. Prize that gospel which has published to thee a doctrine so transcendently glorious and important. (J. Erskine, D.D.)
The mystery of godliness:—The greatness and importance of the truth which the Church was to maintain is given as a motive to fidelity on the part of Christians.
- The contrast between flesh and spirit. “He was manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit.” For it is not what appeals to our natural observation, to our sensuous nature, or to our purely intellectual faculties, which awakens the conviction that He is our Lord, but it is His Divine touch, felt upon heart and conscience, which leads us, like Thomas, to fall at His feet and say, “My Lord and my God.”
- The second suggested contrast is between the angels and the nations. “He was seen of angels and preached unto the Gentiles.” These are again natural opposites. Angels are the blessed inhabitants of a higher sphere; Gentiles are the most corrupt and debased inhabitants of this lower world. And it is His glory that His claims have been admitted by opposing and divergent nationalities, by the most varied types of men, as rightful King of all the world.
III. The last contrast drawn here is between the earthly and the heavenly. “He was believed on in the world, received up into glory.” What a contrast between the celestial brightness and purity in which He is enshrined, and the disease, the death, and the sin prevailing in the world. I know not how we Christians could still work hopefully if it were not that Jesus, the Almighty purifier, the one Saviour, can be believed on, and is believed on by us in the world—as One able and willing to bring salvation to the lost and degraded. (A. Rowland, LL.B.)
The fountain opened; or, the mystery of godliness revealed:—1. Godliness is either the principles of Christian religion, or the inward disposition of the soul towards them, the inward holy affection of the soul. The word implieth both: for godliness is not only the naked principles of religion, but likewise the Christian affection, the inward bent of the soul, suitable to Divine principles. There must be a godly disposition, carrying us to godly truths. These blessed truths of the gospel, they require and breed a godly disposition; the end of them is godliness; they frame the soul to godliness. Thus we see the truths themselves are godliness, carrying us to God and holiness. Hence follows these other truths briefly. 1. First of all, that no truth breeds godliness and piety of life but Divine truths; for that is called “godliness,” because it breeds godliness. All the devices of men in the world cannot breed godliness. 2. Again, hence, in that Divine truth is called godliness, it shows us, if we would be godly we must be so from reasons of Christianity; not, as I said, by framing devices of our own, as graceless foolish men do. But if we will be godly, it must be by reasons and motives from Divine truth. That breeds godliness. 3. Again, hence we may fetch a rule of discerning when we are godly. What makes a true Christian? When he nakedly believes the grounds of Divine truth, the articles of the faith, when he can patter them over—doth that make a true Christian? No. But when these truths breed and work “godliness.” For religion is a truth “according to godliness,” not according to speculation only, and notion. Religious evangelical truth is “wisdom”; and wisdom is a knowledge of things directing to practice. A man is a wise man when he knows so as to practise what he knows. The gospel is a Divine wisdom, teaching practice as well as knowledge. It works godliness, or else a man hath but a human knowledge of Divine things. Therefore a Christian hath godly principles out of the gospel, and a godly carriage suitable to those principles. Now this godliness is “a mystery.” What is a mystery? The word signifies a hidden thing. 1. A mystery is a secret, not only for the present, but that it was a secret, though it be now revealed; for the gospel is now discovered. It is called a mystery, not so much that it is secret, but that it was so before it was revealed. 2. In the second place, that is called a mystery in the Scripture which, howsoever it be clear for the manifestation of it, yet the reasons of it are hid. As the conversion of the Gentiles, that there should be such a thing, why God should be so merciful to them, it is called a mystery. 3. In the third place, a mystery in Scripture is taken for that that is a truth hid, and is conveyed by some outward thing. Marriage is a mystery, because it conveys the hidden spiritual marriage between Christ and His Church. So, then, the whole evangelical truth is a mystery. For these reasons:—1. First of all, because it was hid and concealed from all men, till God brought it out of His own bosom: first to Adam in paradise, after the Fall; and still more clearly afterwards to the Jews; and in Christ’s time more fully to Jews and Gentiles. It was hid in the breast of God. It was not a thing framed by angels or men. Christ brought it out of the bosom of His Father. 2. Again, it is a mystery; because when it was revealed, it was revealed but to few. It was revealed at the first but to the Jews—“God is known in Jewry,” &c. (Psa. 48:3). It was wrapped in ceremonies and types, and in general promises, to them. It was quite hid from most part of the world. 3. Again, when Christ came, and was discovered to the Gentiles, yet it is a mystery even in the Church, to carnal men, that hear the gospel, and yet do not understand it, that have the veil over their hearts. It is “hid to them that perish” (2 Cor. 4:3). 4. In the fourth place, it is a mystery, because though we see some part and parcel of it yet we see not the whole gospel. We see not all, nor wholly. “We see but in part, and know but in part.” (1 Cor. 8:9.) 5. Yea, and it is mystery in regard of what we do not know, but shall hereafter know. But is the doctrine of the gospel itself only a mystery? No. All the graces are mysteries, every grace. Let a man once know it, and he shall find that there is a mystery in faith; that the earthly soul of man should be carried above itself, to believe supernatural truths, and to depend upon that he sees not, to sway the life by reasons spiritual; that the heart of man should believe; that a man in trouble should carry himself quietly and patiently, from supernatural supports and grounds, it is a mystery. That the carriage of the soul should be turned universally another way; that the judgment and affections should be turned backward, as it were; that he that was proud before should now be humble; that he that was ambitious before should now despise the vain world; that he that was given to his lusts and vanities before should now, on the contrary, be serious and heavenly minded: here is a mystery indeed when all is turned backward. In Christ all is mystery: two natures, God and man, in one Person; mortal and immortal; greatness and baseness; infiniteness and finiteness, in one Person. The Church itself is a mystical thing. For under baseness, under the scorn of the world, what is hid? A glorious people. 1. Is it so that religion is a mystery? Then, first of all, do not wonder that it is not known in the world: and that it is not only not known, but persecuted and hated. Alas! it is a hidden thing. Men know not the excellency of it. 2. Again, if it be a mystery, then it should teach us to carry ourselves suitable to it. Nature taught even the heathens to carry themselves reverently in their mysteries; Procul este profani, “Away begone all profane.” Let us carry ourselves therefore reverently toward the truth of God, towards all truths, though they be never so contrary to our reason. 3. Again, are these things mysteries, great mysteries? Let us bless God, that hath revealed them to us, for the glorious gospel. Oh, how doth St. Paul, in every Epistle, stir up people to be thankful for revealing these mysteries! 4. Again, it is a mystery, Therefore it should teach us likewise not to set upon the knowledge of it with any wits or parts of our own, to think to search into it merely by strength of wit and study of books, and all human helps that can be. It is a mystery, and it must be unveiled by God Himself, by His Spirit. We must not struggle with the difficulties of religion with natural parts. It is a mystery. Now, therefore it must have a double veil took off: a veil from the thing, and the veil from our eyes. It is a mystery in regard of the things themselves, and in regard of us. It is not sufficient that the things be lightsome that are now revealed by the gospel, but there must be that taken from our hearts that hinders our sight. 5. Again, being a mystery, it cannot be raised out of the principles of nature, it cannot be raised from reasons. But hath reason no use, then, in the gospel? Yes. Sanctified reason hath to draw sanctified conclusions from sanctified principles. Thus far reason is of use in these mysteries, to show that they are not opposite to reason, They are above reason, but they are not contrary to it, even as the light of the sun it is above the light of a candle, but it is not contrary to it. Here it is the greatest reason to yield reason to faith. Faith is the reason of reasons in these things, and the greatest reason is to yield to God that hath revealed them. Is not here the greatest reason in the world, to believe Him that is truth itself? 6. Again, seeing it is a mystery, let no man despair. It is not the pregnancy of the scholar here that carries it away. It is the excellency of the teacher. If God’s Spirit be the teacher, it is no matter how dull the scholar is. 7. It is a mystery, therefore take heed of slighting of Divine truths. The empty shallow heads of the world make great matters of trifles, and stand amazed at baubles and vanities, and think it a grace to slight Divine things. This great mystery of godliness they despise. How shall we come to know this mystery as we should, and to carry ourselves answerable? We must desire God to open our eyes, that as the light hath shined, as the apostle saith, “The grace of God hath shined” (Titus 2:11); as there is a lightsomeness in the mysteries, so there may be in our eye. Now, the Spirit doth not only teach the truths of the gospel, but the application of those truths, that they are ours. 1. Again, if we would understand these mysteries, let us labour for humble spirits; for the Spirit works that disposition in the first place. 2. And bring withal a serious desire to know with a purpose to be moulded to what we know; to be delivered to the obedience of what we know; for then God will discover it to us. Wisdom is easy to him that will. Together with prayer and humility, let us but bring a purpose and desire to be taught, and we shall find Divine wisdom easy to him that will. None ever miscarry in the Church but those that have false hearts. 3. And take heed of passion and prejudice, of carnal affections that stir up passion; for they will make the soul that it cannot see mysteries that are plain in themselves. As we are strong in any passion, so we judge; and the heart, when it is given up to passion, it transforms the truth to its own self, as it were. Even as where there is a suffusion of the eye, as in the jaundice, or the like, it apprehends colours like itself; so when the taste is vitiated, it tastes things, not as they are in themselves, but as itself is. So the corrupt heart transforms this sacred mystery to its own self, and oft-times forceth Scripture to defend its own sin, and the corrupt state it is in. It will believe what it list. Therefore it is of great consequence to come with clean hearts and minds to the mysteries of God. “Great mystery.” 1. That is the adjunct. It is a “great mystery.” And here I might be endless; for it is not only great as a mystery—that is, there is much of it concealed—but it is a great and excellent mystery, if we regard whence it came, from the bosom of God, from the wisdom of God. 2. If we regard the end of it, to bring together God and man—man that was fallen, to bring him back again to God, to bring him from the depth of misery to the height of all happiness; a “great mystery” in this respect. 3. Again, it is “great,” for the manifold wisdom that God discovered in the publishing of it, by certain degrees: first, in types, then after he came to truths; first, in promises, and then performances. 4. Again it is a great mystery, for that it works. For it is such a mystery as is not only a discovery of secrets, but it transforms those that know it and believe it. We are transformed by it to the likeness of Christ, of whom it is a mystery; to be as He is, full of grace. It hath a transforming, changing power. 5. If we consider any part of it—Christ, or His Church, or anything—it is a mystery, and “a great mystery.” It must needs be great, that the very angels desire to pry into (1 Pet. 1:12). 6. If we regard those that could not pry into it; as it is 1 Cor. 2:6, 8 that the wise men of the world understood nothing of it. 7. Again, it is a great mystery, because it makes us great. It makes times great, and the persons great that live in those times. What made John Baptist greater than all the prophets and others in those times? Because he saw Christ come in the flesh. Let us take heed, therefore, that we set a higher price on religion. It is a mystery, and a great mystery; therefore it must have great esteem. It brings great comfort and great privileges. 8. Again, it is a great mystery, if compared to all other mysteries. Creation was a great mystery for all things to be made out of nothing, order out of confusion; for God to make man a glorious creature of the dust of the earth, it was a great matter. But what is this in comparison for God to be made man? 1. First of all, learn hence from blessed St. Paul how to be affected when we speak and think of the glorious truth of God; that we should work upon our hearts, to have large thoughts and large expressions of it. St. Paul thought it not sufficient to call it a mystery, but a great mystery. He doth not only call it riches,” but unsearchable riches. Out of the riches and treasure of the heart the mouth will speak. (1) And that we may the better do this, let us labour to have as deep conceits in our understandings as we can of that mystery of sinfulness that is in us, and that mystery of misery. (2) Again, if we would have large and sensible thoughts and apprehensions of these things, such as the blessed apostle, let us set some time apart to meditate of these things, till the heart be warmed; let us labour to fasten our thoughts, as much as we can, on them every day; to consider the excellency of this mystery of religion in itself, and the fruit of it in this world and in the world to come. It is a good employment; for from thence we shall wonder at nothing in the world besides. What is the reason that men are taken up with admiration of petty mysteries, of poor things? Because their thoughts were never raised up to higher considerations. 2. Let us bring great endeavours to learn it, and great respect towards it, and great love to God for it. Let everything in us be answerable to this “great mystery,” which is a “great mystery.” “Without controversy.” It is so under the broad seal of public confession, as the word in the general signifies; by the confession of all, it is “great.” It is a confessed truth, that the “mystery of godliness is great.” As if the apostle had said, I need not give you greater confirmation; it is, without question or controversy, a great mystery. (1) First, in itself, it is not to be doubted of. It is a great grounded truth, as lightsome and clear as if the gospel were written with a sunbeam, as one saith. There is nothing clearer and more out of controversy than sacred evangelical truths. (2) And as they are clear and lightsome in themselves, so they are apprehended of all God’s people. However it be controverted by others, yet they are not considerable. All that are the children of the Church, that have their eyes open, they confess it to be so, and wonder at it as “a great mystery.” They without all doubt and controversy embrace it. Things are not so clear in the gospel that all that are sinful and rebellious may see whether they will or no. 1. I will only make that use of it that a great scholar in his time once did upon the point, a noble earl of Mirandula. If there be no calling these things into question, if they have been confirmed by so many miracles, as they have been in a strict sense, why then, how is it that men live as if they made no question of the falsehood of them? What kind of men are those that live as if it were “without controversy,” that Christian truths had no truth at all in them? Men live so carelessly and profanely, and slight and scorn these great mysteries, as if they made no question but they are false. 2. Again, in that he saith, “without controversy,” or confessedly, “great is the mystery of godliness”: here we may know, then, what truths are to be entertained as catholic universal truths, those that without question are received. Now we come to the particulars of this great mystery. “God manifested in the flesh.” This, and the other branches that follow, they are all spoken of Christ. Indeed, the “mystery of godliness” is nothing but Christ, and that which Christ did. Christ was “manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached to the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.” So that from the general we may observe this, that “Christ is the scope of the Scripture.” Christ is the pearl of that ring; Christ is the main, the centre wherein all those lines end. He begins here with this, “God manifested in the flesh”; not God taken essentially, but taken personally. God in the Second Person, was manifested. All actions are of persons. The Second Person was incarnate. The Three Persons are all God; yet they were not all incarnate, because it was a personal action of the Second Person. And why in that Person? 1. Because He was the image of God. And none but the image of God could restore us to that image. He was the Son of God, and none but the natural Son could make us sons. By “flesh,” here, is meant human nature; the property of human nature, both body and soul. And by “flesh” also is usually understood the infirmities and weakness of man, the miserable condition of man. In that God, the Second Person, appeared in our nature, in our weak and tainted disgraced nature after the Fall; from hence comes—1. First of all, the enriching of our nature with all graces in Christ, as it is in Col. 2:3. 2. The ennobling of our nature. In that God appeared in our nature it is much ennobled. 3. In the third place, hence comes the enabling of our nature to the work of salvation that was wrought in our nature. It came from hence, “God was in the flesh.” 4. And hence comes this likewise, that whatsoever Christ did in our nature, God did it, for God appeared in our nature. He took not upon Him the person of any man, but the nature. 5. Hence comes also the union between Christ and us. Whence is it that we are “sons of God”? Because He was the “Son of Man,” “God in our flesh.” There are three unions: the union of natures, God to become man; the union of grace, that we are one with Christ; and the union of glory. 6. Hence likewise comes the sympathy between Christ and us; for Christ is said to suffer with us. 7. Hence likewise comes the efficacy of what Christ did, that the dying of one man should be sufficient for the whole world. It was, that “God was in the flesh.” The apostle may well call this, “God manifest in the flesh,” a “mystery,” and place it in the first rank. 1. And shall we think that so great a mystery as this was for small purpose? that the great God should take upon Him a piece of earth? Oh what boldness have we now to go to “God in our flesh”! 2. Again, from this, that God was “manifest in our flesh,” let us take heed that we defile not this flesh of ours, this nature of ours. What! Is this “flesh” of mine taken into unity with the Second Person? Is this “flesh” of mine now in heaven, “sitting at the right hand of God?” 3. Likewise, it should teach us to stoop to any service of Christ or our brethren. What! Did the love of God draw him into the womb of the virgin? Did it draw Him to take my nature and flesh on Him? Take heed of pride. God Himself emptied Himself, and wilt thou be full of pride? He became of “no reputation” (Philip. 2:7), and wilt thou stand upon terms of credit? 4. Lastly, let us labour that Christ may be manifested in our particular flesh, in our persons. As He was God manifest in the flesh in regard of that blessed mass He took upon Him, so we would every one labour to have God “manifest in our flesh.” How is that? We must have Christ as it were born in us, “formed in us,” as the apostle speaks (Col. 1:27). (R. Sibbes.)
The mystery of the incarnate God:—The Christian system is a great and holy mystery, presenting an important function for the maintenance of Divine truth. Mystery may only be a secret, and comprise nothing difficult in itself. When broken the secret may be the plainest thing. The calling of the Gentiles was such a concealment. But there are many who deride this view, who speak of mystery as incompatible with the purport of a revelation. Now this objection surely goes too far and urges too much. For it would then be inconsistent for any religion to pretend a Divine authority. Religion must, in addressing us, though its information be most scant, tell us of Deity, insisting on spiritual relations and eternal issues. The poorest pretext of any religion must be a theism. “Who can by searching find out God?” So vainly empty is the adage, Where mystery begins, religion ends! Nor less light is the remark, that ere a proposition be believed all its terms must be appreciated. There is something in every term of knowledge which defies this rigid perception. Others diversify the objection by taking for granted that revelation can only be an appeal to our reason, and that it will therefore contain no mystery; nothing but what is intelligible to reason. We cheerfully subscribe that reason must judge its evidence, that reason must ascertain its scope. The mystery is no object of our faith apart from the testimony which avouches it, and from the fact in which it consists. The proper notion for us to form of a revelation is that its essentials shall entirely exceed our powers of discovery. The light of reason has become so common a phrase that it may seem hazardous to call its correctness in question. But it is unmeaning. Reason can boast no light. It is only a capacity to judge upon any subject presented to it. It finds a general analogy of its function in the bodily eye. That does not impart the elemental light, but receives it, together with the impression of those images which it unveils. It is nothing more than an organ to be exercised upon things without. Reason is no more the source of knowledge than corporeal vision is that of day. A moral sun and a spiritual world are as much needed by the one as the physical sun and material world are for the other. 1. The ancient mysteries were only affectations of the wonderfulness ascribed to them. They surrounded themselves with a purposed reserve. They included nothing which might not readily be apprehended. If there was difficulty, they contrived it. If the course of revelation was slow, they made it slow. If the curtain was laboriously raised, they had hung it heavily that so it might be raised. All was intended to excite curiosity, to produce impression, to strike the aspirant with artistic effects. It was the scenery of a theatre. Unlike this wilful perplexity, this ample drapery to cover nothing, the mystery of godliness was really transcendent. It muffled itself in no fold, it was abhorrent from all disguise. It spoke in no swelling words of vanity. It encircled itself with no seeming of doubt and amazement. The cloud which was upon it was of its own glory. 2. The effect which initiation in the ancient mysteries wrought upon the mind of the candidate was generally that of disappointment and aversion. The man of intelligence, though he came to them a believer, could not go forth from them with any assurance. Indignation at the banded impostors was his first feeling. Contempt of the mummeries, however splendid, practised upon him would quickly follow. They had spoken “lies in hypocrisy.” Their “deceit was falsehood.” If any particle of the truth was in their possession, they had “held it in unrighteousness.” But they who have “knowledge in the mystery of Christ” rise in every sentiment of gratitude and satisfaction with every step of that knowledge. Nothing has failed of their expectation. Nothing has sunk in their esteem. It is marvellous in our eyes! 3. Much delay attended the probation of those who sought enrolment among the enlightened in the ancient mysteries. Their trials were protracted. Before the profession was attained there was every harassing and tedious ceremonial. Lustration followed lustration, each power of endurance was tasked to the utmost, subterranean chambers reverberated to each other, there was a prison-house and escape from its horrors was not sure, panic congealed the stoutest frame, all extremes of sensation were combined, and the whole service was fenced round with every caution against eager impatience or inquisitive haste. But the mystery of godliness knows no such suspicious restrictions. “Learn of Me” is the language of its Founder. A docile temper is the exclusive condition. We haste and delay not. 4. The most awful vows of secrecy were exacted of those who received the supposed purgation of these mysteries. A universal execration fell on the betrayer. “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak.” “To make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery.” They “used great plainness of speech.” 5. The whole arrangement of this singular discipline was invidious. It looked unfavourably on the great mass of our race. Selfish in its aims, destitute of any noble philanthropy, it intended the perpetual thraldom of the multitude in ignorance and degradation. It was the most cruel and potent auxiliary of priestly device and political despotism. In contradistinction to this haughty insolence, this vile contempt, with which the Mystagogues spurned and branded the species, Christianity surveys our nature in its broadest features, its truest intimacies, its grandest generalities. If it be marked by a partiality, it is toward the poor. It says: “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” It says: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted!” Among its brightest evidences, crowning all its miracles, is this attestation: “To the poor is the gospel preached.” Its mercies are unto all. We may suppose that the inspired writer of the text, in styling the mystery of God indubitably great, bore in mind the common separation of the less and the greater ceremonies through which the respective postulants were called to pass. These were deemed alone worthy of the epithet, and alone capable of justifying it. Now the greater mysteries of the Pagan world pretended to solve religious difficulty. They promised that a great portion of the popular credulity might be simplified. They construed facts into allegories. They stripped the fable of its accessories, and exposed the moral which was couched in it. But the mystery of godliness was a grand interpretation. It was a key to cyphers. It was the substance of shadows. It was the fulfilment of visions. It gave light and meaning to “the dark sayings of old.” Those greater mysteries boasted of a predominant doctrine. We do not with certainty know what that was. Whether the unity of the Divine nature or the immortality of the soul has been questioned, we think that we may conclude, with perfect confidence, that it was neither the one nor the other. Now, the mystery of godliness has its cardinal truth. It is the Incarnate Word. All connected with this manifestation is like itself. It is sin-offering and propitiatory sacrifice. We receive the atonement. A form of doctrine is declared to us. It is the glorious gospel of Christ. Those greater mysteries commanded a powerful influence. The chambers of imagery would not be soon forgotten, even if its import was explained. Terror sometimes prevailed, or it yielded to joy and repose. Some felt an immitigable dread, others a calm relief. The mystery of godliness is power. Christ dwells in the heart by faith. All the springs of our being are moved. His love constraineth us. Those greater mysteries claimed to impart an inward life. The spirit was supposed to emerge from a mystic death, to acquire new powers, and to occupy new relations. The regimen of its noviciate was called its birth. The man who had passed through these exercises was publicly hailed as endued with an existence higher than intellectual. He was of a privileged class. This new birth is to holiness. It is regeneration, a making of us again. It is renewing, a making of us afresh. With a marked description is this mystery announced; it is the mystery of godliness. This mystery is characterised by its attributes of purity and pious excellence. They belong to it. It has a tendency to inspire them. They are its ever-present glories and its invariable emanations. But here rebuke is dealt. Those arcana to which the mystery of holiness is opposed, were the scandal of the ages through which they survived. They were “works of darkness.” But the proposition of the text is not exhausted. It asserts a particular use which the mystery of godliness subserves in relation to the truth. How is the mystery of the Incarnation the pillar and ground of the gospel? Its importance to the whole scheme of redeeming mercy is thus declared, and that importance is easily vindicated. (R. W. Hamilton, D.D.)
The Incarnate God vindicated:—
- The fact of a Divine incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ. The proposition is complex, and we will, in the first instance, reduce it to its parts. 1. The manhood of Messiah. 2. That Messiah always possessed the Divine nature while He has assumed our own. Though there may be none who argue from His Godhead against the reality of His Manhood, however it is to be feared that too many extenuate it, it is most common to argue from His Manhood against His Godhead. (1) Titles of Divinity and Manhood are given to Him. He is the Son of God and the Son of Man. (2) Attributes of infinity and limitation are ascribed to Him. (3) Representations of self-sufficience and dependence are assigned to Him.
- This great mystery of godliness, God the Son taking our nature, is entitled a manifestation. The light of the knowledge of the glory of God is in the face of Jesus Christ. To know the only true God is to know Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent. As we cannot understand God, who is a Spirit, God is manifest in the flesh. It is the sensible copy, the transparent mirror, by which He will be known. A manifestation is a making clear of that which is difficult and obscure. It is of frequent occurrence when the later Scriptures speak of Christ. “The life was manifested, and we have seen it, and show unto you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested unto us.” Now there were works which He was to do as well as revelations to unfold. Nor let us suppose that this manifestation was always unperceived and unappreciated. He was actually recognized. “In the beginning of miracles He manifested forth His glory, and His disciples believed on Him.” (Ibid.)
The mystery of Godliness:—1. It agrees to the main design of godliness. 2. It has a tendency to promote it. 3. It has the best influence upon it. 1. There is nothing in the mysteries of religion inconsistent with holiness to God, and beneficence to men. 2. The doctrines of Christianity have a tendency to promote all godliness. 3. The mysteries of religion have not only a tendency to promote godliness, but they give the best influence to it.
- What is the godliness here mentioned? Looking into this will give us an argument for those doctrines that promote it. 1. One article of godliness, and indeed the chief of them is, that we should bow down, and worship, before the Lord our Maker. 2. Our likeness to God. Godliness is God’s likeness. 3. Godliness consists in a communion with God, which is the exchange of love between Him and us. 4. This same godliness takes into it our expectation from God. 5. Godliness takes into it our regard to the Divine institutions. 6. Godliness takes into it our love to godly people. 7. Our usefulness to those who are yet without, is no small part of religion.
- We shall now inquire how this Godliness, as it comprehends our duty to God and our beneficence to man, is promoted by the mysteries of religion. 1. Were it not for these mysteries we could not have had an open way to the throne of grace. 2. Another principle of godliness which the mysteries of religion do improve, is a reverence of the Divine Majesty. 3. It is in the belief of these doctrines that we feel the principles of our love to God, which are but the rebound of His to us. 4. We find by experience that this makes the worship of God our delight and pleasure. 5. In this revelation we have the greatest and best examples of our duty. 6. By this they were inspired with hope. 7. This has given good people a principle of charity to those that differ from them, and the truest value for those for whom they are agreed. I will close what you have heard with a short application. 1. If these are mysteries of godliness, then you see the true spring of the opposition that is made to them, not because they are above reason, but because they are against corruption, and hide pride from man. 2. Let us improve the doctrines of religion to this purpose, to make us better as well as wiser. (T. Bradbury.)
The mystery of godliness:—
- Jesus Christ was flesh—a real Man. This has been denied. Some have said that Jesus was a mere phantasm or phantom—that men felt they saw a body like our own, but it was a spectre, a vision—the eyes with which they beheld were the eyes of imagination. Others have said He was more than an airy appearance, but not flesh; that the nature of Christ was a special material manifestation, say, a cloud acted upon by Divine power and made to appear a human body. Some have said that the flesh was heavenly substance, and not of the earth earthy; something ethereal which ultimately became absorbed in the sun. Others, again, have held that in the body of Jesus there was no common principle of life and no human soul. Jesus Christ was flesh—real man—flesh—and bones and blood spirit and soul and body.
- Jesus Christ was God manifest in flesh. In this one Being we may see real Man and true God. He is not a godly Man, but God-man. A double life—higher and lower is indicated by many circumstances. He is born of a woman and conceived by the Holy Ghost. From Bethlehem to Olivet, and from Olivet to the great white throne, God is manifest in Jesus Christ’s flesh.
III. That Jesus Christ is God manifest in flesh is a profound mystery. The fact is declared, but the explanation is withheld. The manifestation of God in Jesus is proclaimed—the mode is hidden. Christian philosophers have, through centuries, tried to penetrate this manifestation; it is mystery still.
- This mystery is great. Not a sham and a trick, not puerile and ridiculous, not useless and injurious as the mysteries of the ancient heathen and of corrupt churches, but real and magnificent, momentous, solemn, and blessed in intent. The incarnation does not exist for the mystery, but mystery necessarily enshrines the fact. And the fact, although great in wonderfulness, is equally great in wisdom and in power, in goodness and in love.
- But this great mystery is the mystery of godliness. The mysterious fact, not the mysteriousness of the fact, is God’s means of working godliness in us, and our means of working godliness to ourselves. Knowledge of God is essential to godliness; and this mystery is God manifest. The reality of God, His positive existence, His independence, His truth, His might, His wisdom, His knowledge, all the attributes that constitute Him the true God, are shown forth by Christ. The grace of God, His affection for His children, His graciousness to the penitent, these are revealed by Christ. A true and merciful God is manifested by the God-man. Faith in God is essential to godliness. Submission to God is essential to godliness; and this the mysteriousness of the incarnation secures. Love to God is essential to godliness. And to this the great mystery especially appeals. So that Jesus Christ as God manifest in flesh is a means of our knowing God, of our believing in God, and submitting to God, and loving God. This leads to devotion, entire consecration to God. This produces piety, the performance of every duty to God. The foundation of true religion is hereby laid bare, the object of religion is hereby disclosed, the nature of pure religion is hereby taught, the blessedness of godliness is hereby revealed, and godliness is hereby actually produced.
- Great is the mystery of godliness without controversy. That is, by the consent of all, God manifest in flesh is a great mystery. How many use the light of day without holding any theory as to its nature, or even knowing that theories have been formed! How many breathe the air in ignorance of its component parts and unable to comprehend the explanation which science can give! A knowledge of the chemistry of food and of the physiology of digestion is not essential to nutriment; and a man may live by his labour without having an idea of the philosophy of toil. Now here is spiritual light in which, mystery although it be, we may walk. And here is a moral atmosphere which, mystery though it be, we may breathe. And here is a sphere of godly life in which, mystery though it be, we may move and act. God manifest in flesh is the great mystery of godliness. The lessons hereby taught are these:—1. To be godly we must respond to God-manifest. God cannot be correctly and adequately known except through Christ; and knowledge of God is essential to real religion. 2. To receive God-manifest we must bow to mystery. 3. If we have received this mystery let us do our duty by it. (S. Martin.)
God manifest in the flesh:—
- The person that he speaks of is God.
- The great mystery of godliness tells us that this God was manifested. The revelation he has made of Himself is the ground of all our religion. 1. One manifestation that God has made of Himself is in a character that gives us our most early concern with Him, that He is the former of all things. 2. He is manifested as the object of universal worship. This flows from the former as a practical inference. 3. Another manifestation that we have of God, and in which the gospel exceeds all that went before, is that He is a lawgiver. 4. The gospel gives us a manifestation of the great God under the character of a judge. 5. God is manifested to us as one whom we have dishonoured; the offended party. 6. When God manifests Himself, it is as the author of our reconciliation. 7. God is manifested to us as the author or contriver of that righteousness in which we are justified. 8. God is manifest as the author and fountain of those graces by which we are wrought into his image. 9. God has manifested Himself as the great example and pattern of all our holiness. 10. Another manifestation that we have of God is, as He is the author and giver of those joys that are laid up for us in another world.
III. We are now to consider that particular manifestation of God which the text has led us to, and this is said to be in the flesh. 1. He has manifested Himself in voices: He used to speak out to the world. 2. He manifested Himself by dreams and visions of the night (Job 33:15, 16). 3. He used to manifest Himself by raising up eminent persons, either as prophets to teach His people, or as saviours to defend them. 4. He manifested Himself in miracles. 5. He manifested Himself in a written law. 6. He manifested Himself by several ordinances. 7. He also manifested Himself by appearing frequently to them. The angel of His presence saved them (Isa. 63:9). 8. The last and greatest manifestation that we have of God is in the flesh. (1) His being manifest in the flesh exceeds all the other manifestations that He gave of Himself, as it is more familiar. (2) This manifestation of God is most certain and convincing. Many times they could not tell whether it was God who spake to them or no. (3) This manifestation in the flesh is most expressive of our union to Him (Psa. 68:20). (4) This manifestation in the flesh was for the working out of a great atonement (Heb. 2:17). (5) By this manifestation in the flesh He gave the best instructions in the matter of our duty. (6) This gives us the greatest assurance of our happiness, because He has carried His body up with Him to heaven: Thither Jesus our forerunner is for us entered (Heb. 6:20). (7) This shows the goodness of God our Saviour towards men (John 3:16).
- The noble character that is here given of it, as a mystery of godliness. Under this head there are two parts. 1. That it is a mystery. (1) Is it not a mystery that He who dwells in that light to which none can approach became visible to us? (2) Another thing mysterious in this doctrine is, that He who has prepared His throne in the heavens should dwell among men. (3) Another part of the mystery is, that He who has derived no being from a man should be born of a woman. (4) He who was Lord of all takes upon Him the form of a servant. This carries the wonder a little deeper. (5) He who was eternally holy came in the likeness of sinful flesh. (6) He whose kingdom rules over all is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (7) It is another mystery, that He who is blessed for ever should become a curse for His people. (8) It is another part of this mystery that the Prince of Life should be obedient to the death of the cross.
- This is a mystery of godliness, and has a happy influence upon all practical religion. People are the better for believing it. 1. This doctrine is a great argument of our duty to God. 2. The belief of God’s being manifest in the flesh is raised upon our value for the revelation He has given us; and denying it carries the most dangerous conclusion against the best dispensation that ever a people were under. 3. This doctrine is the chief ground of our hope, and without that I am sure there can be no religion. 4. This doctrine is apparently the concern of good men, such as work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. 5. There is no practical inconvenience in believing that God was manifest in the flesh; it does no harm to our seriousness in any one article of piety or comfort. 6. It is certainly a thing very desirable, and to be wished for, that He who was manifest in the flesh should be God. (1) It will be easily owned that for a God to be manifest in the flesh is infinitely more kind and condescending than for the highest creature that ever was formed. (2) In this we have a greater proof of the satisfaction that He has made. (3) In this doctrine we have a better ground for our dependence upon Him. Application: 1. Hence we see it is quite wrong to pretend any explication of this doctrine, because that is the way to destroy all the mystery. There are two glories in the article: First, that it is true; and secondly, that it is too great for the comprehension of human reason; and I am sure it is no service to the former if we are striving to lay aside the latter. 2. If it is a mystery there is no knowing it without the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10). (T. Bradbury.)
Christ, the manifestation of God:—We have no faculty by which to obtain an immediate perception of the Great Supreme. The King eternal, immortal, invisible, is by all unseen; and in His existence, His perfections, His purposes, He is to all beings a profound secret, except as He voluntarily discloses Himself to them. With what angels may know of God, or with what devils may know of God, we are not now particularly concerned. The text speaks of a manifestation of God to man. Man was not created to eat, and drink, and die; to pass his earthly existence absorbed in carnal pursuits, and earthly cares, and transitory pleasures. He was made to have communion with God, to serve Him, to contribute to His glory. But a God unknown and unrevealed cannot be worshipped nor obeyed. “God was manifest in the flesh.” I do not feel it necessary to prove to you now that this actually took place at the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It is as plain as it can be upon the face of the passage, that this is the event to which the sacred writer refers. We wish to consider the Incarnation as a manifestation of God. It does appear as though God, whose it is to bring good out of evil, and to make the wrath of man to praise Him, had made the guilty trespass of man which needed the Incarnation in order to its atonement, the occasion of bringing Himself nearer to His creatures, and laying Himself more open to their astonished and admiring gaze, than He could have done, had not that which He abhors presented the occasion. We mean not to imply, of course, that God was wholly unknown in the world before the Incarnation, and that no other way existed or was possible than this, of arriving at a knowledge of His existence and attributes. There is a light in nature which reveals God, and there are lessons respecting Him spread out before the eyes of all men. But revelation has surpassed nature. We speak not now of its meeting those new necessities which the apostasy has introduced, and for which nature has not the semblance of a remedy; but of this one particular, which is now before us—the making known of God. Prophet and priest fulfilled each their course to teach the people knowledge; psalmists added their heaven-born strains; the Spirit of God, Himself the Author of these various lessons, taught them to the heart illumined by His grace. And here, again, if we knew not, from the actual fact, what was yet in reserve, we might be ready to ask what farther could be added to these teachings, so abundant, so comprehensive and so explicit of the Word of God, to make Jehovah better known? And yet, though the language of inspired communication may leave nothing untold which words can convey, and nothing farther to be desired, nothing even possible, in the way of description of the nature and perfections of the Most High; still it would introduce us to a nearer acquaintance with this dread Being if, instead of merely distantly hearing about Him, we should be made witnesses of His acts, and be permitted to gaze direct upon positive exhibitions of those attributes of power, and justice, and grace, of which we had been told. Here is another advance in the presentation of the knowledge of God. Thus, the fearful overthrow of Sodom, the plagues sent on hardened Pharaoh, the judgments on murmuring Israel, speak more impressively than any language, the holiness, the justice, and the dreadful vengeance of our God. So the various interpositions of God on behalf of His people, for their deliverance from danger and for their rescue from their foes, the magnificence of His descent on Sinai, the food He vouchsafed them in the desert, the guidance of the pillar of cloud and of fire, give a more vivid conception of God, and let us more into the beatings of His gracious heart, and show us more of the glory of His nature than any words can express. And now one might, with strong appearance of reason, conclude that the various modes of revealing God must be complete, and that nothing more can be imagined to be added to those already recited. And still the wisdom of God has shown us that it was not yet exhausted, that there was something yet possible, superior to them all. We would have pronounced it incredible had it not actually occurred. It is for the invisible God to make Himself visible, and assume a habitation among men, to be born, and live, and die. This, which was in appearance forbidden by His spirituality, His omni-presence, and His eternity, was nevertheless accomplished by God being manifested in the flesh. The unseen, eternal, omnipotent God dressed Himself in a human form, and gave Himself a local, temporal, tangible existence, so as to bring Himself within reach of our corporeal senses; He came down to dwell among us, not by a mere symbol of His presence, but really, personally, visibly. And thus He disclosed Himself to man, not at second hand, through the ministry of His servants, nor by occasional and momentary displays of His own dread power and magnificence, but by a life of intimate, uninterrupted converse in their midst. And now we ought, for the proper presentation of our subject, to go in some detail regarding the various perfections of the Divine nature, and show how, in respect to them all, our knowledge receives new confirmation and additional clearness by this manifestation of God in the flesh; and how, in the case of many, it receives large accessions above all that was previously known, or could, apart from the Incarnation, be known regarding them. And here be it observed, that we are not now speaking of Jesus as a teacher. The very existence of God receives new confirmation here. Indeed, some have referred to the miracles of Jesus as affording to their minds the only argument which was absolutely irrefragable, that there is an intelligible Being, the Author and the Lord of Nature. The unity of God is also freshly demonstrated both against the thousand deities of an idolatrous Paganism, and the two independent principles of good and evil of the Persian superstition, by the unlimited authority which Jesus freely exercised, commanding obedience in the kingdom of darkness as well as that of light. But we cannot delay on these and similar points. We pass to the holiness of God. This was set in a light by the Incarnation in which it never appeared before, and in which (without designing to limit the wisdom or power of God) we may say that, as far as we can judge, it could not have appeared without it. Our proof of this is drawn not from the fact, melancholy as it is, that the idea of holiness is entirely lost among the heathen, to whom God has not made Himself known. And thus it is with all the attributes of God. They all gather fresh lustre from the mystery of the Incarnation; and when they are viewed in the face of Jesus Christ, they appear with an impressiveness which they never before assumed. Where was the long-suffering of God ever so exhibited as we see it in Jesus? If He had given proofs before of His regard for the human race, what a nearness does this induce beyond anything else that is conceivable, that He should come and live among us and wear a human nature, become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, partake of our infirmities and weaknesses, that He might deliver us from them, and take our nature with Him to glory. We would like to have pointed out to you how the feelings of man’s natural heart toward God were exhibited here likewise, in their treatment of God manifest in the flesh; how perfect goodness and celestial excellence raised against Him the malice which betrayed, condemned, and crucified Him; and how it is the same enmity of the natural heart still which leads so many to side with His persecutors, and if they do not madly cry, “Away with Him!” nevertheless to show by their lives as well as by their professions, that they will not have this Man to reign over them. (W. H. Green.)
The mystery of the incarnate God:—
- In it we have distinctly announced the Redeemer’s supreme and essential Divinity. “God was manifested in the flesh.” This is affirmed of Christ, of the Son.
- These words announce the redeemer’s perfect manhood. Flesh here means our common humanity. You need not be told that it does not mean corrupt human nature; nor yet does it mean the body as distinct from the spirit; but human nature in its entireness as distinct the Divine nature. “For both He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren.” He did not merely seem man, nor merely assume the human shape, as He did when He appeared to the patriarchs and prophets previous to His Incarnation; but He was really and truly man, having flesh and blood, and body and spirit, and every element and characteristic of our common humanity.
III. The third important doctrine announced in the text is, the union of two distinct and widely dissimilar natures in one person. “God was manifest in the flesh.” The doctrine of Scripture plainly is, that He is perfect God and perfect Man in one Person. The two natures were united, not blended: the human nature could not absorb the Divine, nor did the Divine absorb the human.
- The text affirms, that this mysterious procedure resulted in a special and peculiar display of the Godhead. “God was manifested in the flesh.” It does not merely mean that Deity became incarnate in our nature; but that through this mysterious event and others which were consequent upon it, the will, nature, attributes, and character of Jehovah were especially unfolded to the world, and made palpable to human observation and intelligence. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him.” He is “the brightness of the Father’s glory, and the express image of His person.” “God was in Christ”; and Christ is manifested God. The representation is accurate, full, perfect, and, in most condescending and attractive form, supplies the identical vision of paternal Deity. “I and My Father are one.” Nor is the manifestation confined to earth. In the person and work of the God-man, Jehovah stands forth revealed to angels as well as to men. The manifestation is made on a higher stage, on a wider theatre, and before intelligence more penetrating and lofty. What a wonderful and condescending method to teach us how to look on God!
- The great objects which this mysterious event was designed to accomplish. They were doubtless such as call for these wonderful means, and as required and justified their adoption. The vast and mysterious display of condescension and love furnished by God manifest in the flesh would not be made to secure trifling ends, nor for purposes which might have been accomplished by means lest costly and extraordinary. The objects contemplated, in short, are infinitely important. “God was manifested in the flesh” to teach us the Divine will and character,—to furnish a perfect Example for our imitation; that He might die to make a full atonement for our sins; that He might make an ample provision for our pardon and sanctification; that He might become our faithful and merciful High Priest, our sympathizing Friend, and powerful Advocate with God: that He might destroy the works and power of the devil. 1. We learn from this subject, that the Saviour provided for us is pre-eminently suited to His office. 2. We learn from this subject how confidently we may commit ourselves to this Saviour, and trust in Him for acceptance and life. (S. Lucas.) Why did God become incarnate?—
- God intended thereby to reveal Himself more clearly and lovingly to man.
- That He might unite created beings to Himself by the closest tie, and give the most affecting proof of His regard to created intelligences like ourselves.
III. That He might in our nature, and as one of ourselves, give the most disinterested and decisive testimonies that He was in the right.
- That He might thereby give the strongest evidence that the dignity and happiness of creatures was not only compatible with a state of subjection, but that it really consisted in an entire conformity to the Divine will.
- That God might show more hatred to sin by pardoning the transgressor than by punishing him.
- That He might afford the fullest security of His people’s salvation. (John Hall.)
The divinity of Christ:—Like a coronation crown robbed of its jewels, so is the gospel divested of the divinity of Christ. It is true there is pure gold left in the moral teaching and the matchless precept, but gaping cavities show where once the chief glory shone. Nor is the gospel alone mutilated by denying the divinity of Jesus. The character of Jesus as a man is brought down from a calm, consistent teacher to a sincere, insane enthusiast. From divinity to insanity—that is an awful descent! But there is no alternative. Not only is the gospel and the character of Jesus mutilated by a denial of His divinity, but my relation to Him is desolated. I find that I cannot touch the divinity of Jesus without touching my respect for His person. I might respect Him if He were a prophet like Moses or Elijah, or if He were a hero like Charlemagne or Luther. But as one who made the claims that He made, as one who demands my whole heart and my adoration, I must give Him that or nothing—or at most a tear. Without Christ’s divinity my life’s light dims, my love chills, my hope fades, the sunlight dies out of the spiritual landscape, and all things lose their clearness in the universal shadow. (R. S. Barrett.)
The incarnation of God:—Paganism is misplaced incarnation. Some of these fancied incarnations are very revolting, and some of them are really sublime. The Egyptian’s cat and crocodile are gross forms for God to take. The horrid fetiches of the Dark Continent are even worse. The Greek mythologies are classic and beautiful. There is something imposing in the fire-worship of the Parsees, and the Indian’s river-god moving in majesty. But when God did really come to dwell among us, He came as a human child, an infant in its mother’s arms. This is at once the most mysterious, the most beautiful, and the most universal form God could take, as far as we can think. The most mysterious, because Darwin and Huxley acknowledge no more baffling mystery than that of mother and child. The most beautiful, because Raphael and Murillo attempted to paint nothing more beautiful than a child in its mother’s arms. The most universal, because the traveller who encircles the earth hears no voice which declares the brotherhood of man like the voice of an infant. It is a universal language, always the same, whether the plaintive cry come from the Indian papoose hanging from the bending bow, or from the Italian bambino among the sunny hills of Tuscany. The same one touch of nature, whether coming from Laplander’s furs, or Hottentot’s booth, or Hindoo’s bungalow, or Turk’s kiosk, or Arab’s tent, or the silken curtains of a palace, or the squalid poverty of a garret. Mysterious! Beautiful! Universal! (Ibid.)
Of Christ’s humiliation in His Incarnation:—Why was Jesus Christ made flesh? 1. The especial and impulsive cause was free grace; it was love in God the Father to send Christ, and love in Christ that He came to be incarnate. Love was the intrinsical motive. 2. Christ took our flesh upon Him that He might take our sins upon Him. He took our flesh that He might take our sins, and so appease God’s wrath. 3. Christ took our flesh that He might make the human nature appear lovely to God, and the Divine nature appear lovely to man. As when the sun shines on the glass it casts a bright lustre, so Christ, being clad with our flesh, makes the human nature shine and appear amiable in God’s eyes. As Christ, being clothed with our flesh, makes the human nature appear lovely to God, so He makes the Divine nature appear lovely to man. Now we need not be afraid to look upon God, seeing Him through Christ’s human nature. It was a custom of old among the shepherds, they were wont to clothe themselves with sheep-skins to be more pleasing to the sheep; so Christ clothed himself with our flesh that the Divine nature may be more pleasing to us. 4. Jesus Christ united Himself to man “that man might be drawn nearer to God.” God before was an enemy to us by reason of sin; but Christ taking our flesh doth mediate for us, and bring us into favour with God. If Solomon did so wonder that God should dwell in the temple, which was enriched and hung with gold, how may we wonder that God should dwell in man’s weak and frail nature? Behold here a secret riddle or paradox, “God manifest in the flesh.” The text calls it a mystery. That man should be made in God’s image was a wonder; but that God should be made in man’s image is a greater wonder. From hence, “God manifest in the flesh, Christ born of a virgin,” a thing not only strange in nature, but impossible, learn that there are no impossibilities with God. He would not be our God if He could not do more than we can think. He can reconcile contraries. How apt are we to be discouraged with seeming impossibilities! How do our hearts die within us when things go cross to our sense and reason! What will it profit us, that Christ was born into the world, unless He be born into our hearts: that He was united to our nature, unless He be united to our persons? Be like Christ in grace. He was like us in having our flesh, let us be like Him in having His grace. (T. Watson.) Justified in the spirit.
The Incarnate God vindicated:—Flesh and spirit are opposed to each other as terms. The spirit is not made to stand for the human soul, for that is included in the word flesh; signifying all the constituents of humanity. Nor does the spirit intend the Third Person of the Trinity, for there is antithesis, and the contrast must be found in the same person respecting whom it is affirmed. God was manifest in the flesh, in His flesh: was justified in the spirit, in His spirit. Now, then, we proceed to inquire, Is the assurance of our Lord’s Divinity, its perfect evidence, the justification of all His acts and undertakings during His manifestation in flesh amongst us? 1. A manner of very original dignity and pre-eminent authority was assumed by Jesus Christ. 2. Jesus Christ was punished with death under the accusation of blasphemy. 3. Imposture was laid to the charge of Jesus Christ. 4. Jesus Christ undertook mediatorial suretyship and representation. 5. Jesus Christ bore the Imputation, and was subjected to the stigma, of human guilt. 6. The methods which the Saviour pursued for the accomplishment of His ends seemed unlikely and ineffective. 7. Certain promises were made by the Son of God to His people, which must always have tested His power to fulfil them. 8. The dispositions and exercises of mind which the Redeemer inculcated on His disciples in respect of Himself, may create a strange suspense. (R. W. Hamilton, D.D.)
Justified in the spirit:—These words are added to answer an objection that may rise from the former. He was “God manifest in the flesh.” He veiled Himself. He could not have suffered else. He appeared to be nothing but a poor man, a debased, dejected man: a persecuted, slandered, disgraced man in the world. He was thought to be a trespasser. It is no matter what He appeared, when He was veiled with our flesh; He was “justified in the spirit,” to be the true Messiah; to be God as well as man. “Justified.” It implies two things in the phrase of Scripture: a freedom and clearing from false conceits and imputations, and declared to be truly what He was; to be otherwise than He was thought to be of the wicked world. “In the spirit.” That is, in His Godhead: that did show itself in His life and death, in His resurrection and ascension. He was “justified” in a double regard. 1. In regard of God, He was justified and cleared from our sins that He took upon Him. He “bore our sins upon the tree,” and bore them away, that they should never appear again to our discomfort. Now, the Spirit raising Him from the dead, showed that the debt was fully discharged, because our Surety was out of prison. All things are first in Christ and then in us. He was acquitted and justified from our sins, and then we. 2. And then He was justified by the Spirit from all imputations of men, from the misconceits that the world had of Him. They thought Him to be a mere man, or a sinful man. No. He was more than a mere man; nay, more than a holy man; He was God-man. The reason why He justified Himself to be so. 1. It was the more to strengthen our faith. All His miracles were but so many sparkles of His Divine nature, so many expressions of His Divine power; and—2. To stop the mouths of all impudent rebellious persons. “Justified in the spirit.” Then first of all—1. Christ will at length justify Himself. This is a ground of faith. However He be now as a sign set up that many speak against and contradict, yet the time will come when He will gloriously justify Himself to all the world. That is our comfort. Now, as it were, His offices are darkened: His kingly office is darkened and His prophetical office is darkened; but at length it will appear that He is King of the Church, and all kingdoms will be Christ’s. There are glorious times coming, especially the glorious day of the resurrection. Christ at length will be cleared, He will be justified. The sun at length will scatter all the clouds. Again, as Christ will justify Himself, so He will justify His Church and children, first or last, by His Spirit. His children are now accounted the offscouring of the world. Therefore in our eclipses and disgraces let us all comfort ourselves in this. How do we justify Christ? (1) We justify Christ when, from an inward work of the Spirit, we feel and acknowledge Him to be such an one as He is: Christ is God. (2) Those that have Christ illuminating their understandings, to conceive the mysteries of religion, they justify Christ to be the Prophet of His Church; because they feel Him enlightening their understandings. (3) Those that find their consciences pacified, by the obedience and sacrifice of Christ, they justify Him to be their Priest; for they can oppose the blood of Christ sprinkled on their hearts, to all the temptations of Satan, and to the risings of their own doubting conscience. (4) In a word, we justify and declare and make good that He is our King, and put a kingly crown upon His head, when we suffer Him to rule us and to subdue our spirits and our rebellions; when we cherish no contrary motions to His Spirit; when we rest in His word and not traditions, but stoop to the sceptre of Christ’s Word. In particular, we justify Him, that “He rose from the dead,” when we believe that we are freed from our sins, our Surety being out of prison. In the next place, for our direction; as Christ justified Himself by His Spirit, by His Divine power, so let us know that it is our duty to justify ourselves, to justify our profession, justify all Divine truth. Let us make it good that we are the sons of God, that we are Christians indeed; not only to have the name, but the anointing of Christ; that we may clear our religion from false imputations; or else, instead of justifying our profession, we justify the slanders that are against it. How shall this be? The text saith, “by the Spirit.” For as Christ “justified” Himself, that is, declared Himself to be as He was “by His Spirit,” so every Christian hath the “Spirit of Christ, or else He is none of His” (Rom. 8:9). (R. Sibbes.)
Justified in the spirit:—There is in the words a twofold antithesis, or distinction from what went before. 1. The first is in the nature or kind of the revelation; in the flesh He was manifest, in the spirit He is justified. The former does not carry the discovery far enough for His whole glory; many saw that who were strangers to the latter. 2. The other distinction here is about the manner of the discovery. He was manifest in the flesh, He is justified in the spirit; which may be understood these three ways. (1) He was justified in the spirit, i.e., the seat of this justification, the place where it is fixed, is the soul of man. That He was manifest in the flesh we could see with our eyes; but when He is justified, that lies all within; there the mind, the conscience, the affections, take in the argument. And this is the great work of the Holy Spirit; the thing that He has in charge. (2) The nature of this justification is all spiritual. As it is delivered to the mind and conscience, so it impresses these in a way suitable to the spirit of man. His manifestation was in the flesh, by miracles, signs, and wonders, to show His power; by meekness, humility, and patience, to show his purity; by trouble, shame, and death, to declare His merit. These were external, the facts upon which He sustained His character were seen abroad, the thing was not done in a corner; but the manner of conveying this to the soul is different. The things of the Spirit of God are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). (3) That the Spirit is the Author of this justification; it is He that works upon our souls in the manner that I have been describing.
- We shall inquire into the sense of the words, that Christ Jesus was justified. 1. He had a Divine approbation, both to His character and to His actions. That He was the Messiah, the anointed of the Lord; and that what He did was right and good (John 8:29). 2. He was also praised and admired as another part of His justification (Rom. 3:4).
- On what heads is Christ thus justified? 1. As to His mission, that He was sent of God. 2. As to His personal glory. 3. As to His fitness for the undertaking. 4. As to the propriety of those methods that He used. 5. As to His claim of the great reward above. 6. As to His actual possession of it.
III. The Scripture has furnished us with several particulars. Christ was justified in the spirit. 1. By the prophetical warnings that were given of Him. 2. By His personal furniture. 3. At the hour of His death and suffering. 4. More especially at His resurrection. 5. At the day of Pentecost. 6. In the conviction of sinners. 7. In the consolation of believers.
- He who is thus justified in the spirit is no other than the Most High God.
- That it is a mystery of godliness. 1. It is a thing mysterious in its own nature, that He who was manifest in the flesh should be justified in the spirit. (1) One testimony given to our blessed Lord was concerning His death; and you may look upon it as a mystery that He should take such a way to carry on His design, as all mankind imagined would be fatal to it (1 Cor. 1:25). (2) It is a mystery that He should be owned by the Father at the same time that He thought Himself forsaken. (3) Another mystery is this, that the very thing which seemed to hinder the faith of men should afterwards encourage it. I mean the death of our blessed Lord. (4) It is still further a mystery that He who appeared at His death, as if He was entirely in the enemies hands, should soon after declare His own power at the resurrection. (5) The manner of the Spirit’s justifying Christ in a soul that was filled with prejudice against Him is very mysterious. Application: 1. If the justification of Christ in the Spirit is such a mystery, it is no wonder that the honour of our Lord is so much struck at. 2. This shows us how vain all the ways of promoting the knowledge of Christ will be that are not agreeable to the Spirit.
- You will see that it is a mystery of godliness, by considering the influence it has upon the following principles. 1. By this we learn to approach with reverence to Him with whom we have to do. 2. If God is justified in our spirits it will fill us with a care to please Him. 3. This gives us humble thoughts of ourselves. 4. This inspires us with charity to others. 5. Another principle that the testimony of the Spirit has an influence upon is, that peace and hope that runs through the lives of believers. 6. It prepares him for a dying hour; he dare trust his soul to the care of a Redeemer at last. Lord Jesus receive my spirit. (T. Bradbury.)
Jesus justified in the spirit:—
- Justifying is the absolving from a charge and pronouncing innocent. Thus, wisdom is justified of her children. They clear her from the accusations of her enemies, and declare their sentiments of her as excellent and lovely. But from what charge was He justified? It is an important truth that, by His glorious resurrection, and the consequent effusion of the Spirit, He was declared absolved from the sins which were laid upon Him as our Surety and Substitute. 1. He was justified by His Divine nature, or by those beams of Divinity which often broke forth, and brightly shone, in His darkest nights of humiliation and suffering. He did not display His royalty by a splendid equipage, by sumptuous entertainments, or by advancing His followers to worldly honours. But He displayed it more gloriously by giving, what no earthly prince could give, health to the diseased, life to the dead, virtue to the profligate, and pardon to the guilty. When He discovered the signs of human infirmity He also discovered the attributes of Divine glory and power. 2. Jesus was justified; and the charges of enthusiasm or imposture, which ignorance or malice brought against Him, were confuted by the Holy Ghost. The character of the Messiah, which inspired prophets had delineated, fully proved that Jesus was indeed the Christ. His Spirit that was in them testified, long before His appearance, the time, place, and manner of His birth; the circumstances of His life and death, His deep humiliation and abasement; and the glory which should follow. John, who was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb, pointed Him out as the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. In the meantime, let your temper and conduct justify those claims of Jesus, which others reject and condemn. Justify His claim of divinity. Did Jesus, by the Spirit, justify His claims? Under the influence of the Spirit, justify your pretensions to the character of Christians, and display the excellency of that character. (J. Erskine, D.D.)
The vindicated Saviour:—
- The Spirit vindicated the Saviour by demonstrating the Godhead which He professed. The evidence is spread over a wide field, but it is clear and decisive. The Spirit testified of Him in the prophets, foretelling His Divine character, as well as sufferings and subsequent glory. Amid His lowest forms of abasement and reproach the prophet seers recognise in Him the full majesty of the Godhead, and all the prerogatives of the Infinite. Not less clear and decisive are the inspired statements of the New Testament. His Godhead is announced without faltering or hesitation. And that nothing might be wanting to the demonstration, the Spirit raised Him from the dead.
- The Spirit vindicated the Saviour by attesting His right to the claims which He put forth. These claims were of the most lofty character, embracing, in fact, the office of the Messiah, and all the prerogatives and perfections of the Most High God. He claimed to be the Light and Life of the world, the authorized Teacher of the will of God, the Head and Sovereign of the Church, and the Creator, Ruler, and Judge of all men. He challenged as His right the government and homage of the universe. These lofty claims the Spirit solemnly attested and justified.
III. The Spirit vindicated the Saviour by clearing Him from all the aspersions with which His enemies caluminiated His person and character.
- The Spirit vindicated the Saviour by completing the revelation which He Himself commenced. By new or fuller revelations He finished the Divine system of truth which had already been largely unfolded by the personal teaching and history of Christ.
- The Spirit has vindicated the Saviour by bestowing the blessings which He professed to have purchased. He not only revealed the truth which Christ left partially or wholly unrevealed: but also communicated the blessings which He claimed to have procured for man by His sufferings and death.
- The Spirit vindicated the Saviour by displaying His glory. He has lifted and removed the veil which shrouded him, and shown us the awful splendour of the August One who tabernacled in the likeness of sinful flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. To unfold the Redeemer’s mantled glory was one great object of the revelation which the Spirit inspired. It illuminated the deepest depths of His humiliation and reproach, and shone through the darkest eclipse of His Divinity. The prophets saw the Redeemer as Jehovah of hosts, with His train of ineffable glory filling the temple, and shining through heaven and earth. The Spirit, in short, led them to a height of vision whence they saw eternity and immensity filled with the majesty of His infinite Being, and flaming with the brightness of His immeasurable perfections. Then again, how did the Spirit display the Redeemer’s glory through the stupendous miracles which He wrought! (S. Lucas.) Seen of angels.—
Jesus seen of angels:—
- For explaining this subject, I observe—1. Angels were witnesses of the most important events which concerned the Redeemer. 2. The angels, who beheld this amazing scene, were honoured to minister to Jesus in these His sufferings. Thus, after our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness, we read, “Then the devil leaveth Him, and behold angels come and minister unto Him” (Matt. 4:11). 3. Angels behold and pry into the grand designs, for which Infinite Wisdom ordained all this scene of condescension and suffering. They not only saw God manifest in the flesh, but they saw the purposes for which He was thus manifest, for which He lived, for which He died. 4. While beholding the love which prompted the Son of God thus to condescend and thus to suffer, angels learn to love, and willingly to attend upon, and minister to the meanest of those whom the Lord of angels loved, and for whose salvation He stooped so low. 5. Angels, who saw God manifest in the flesh, were the first publishers to man of some of the most important events which they witnessed. An angel acquainted Daniel that the Messiah should be cut off, though not for Himself. An angel was the first publisher of the Saviour’s birth.
- And now to conclude with a few practical reflections. (1) How shocking the folly and ingratitude of many! Angels desire to look into the mysteries of grace: and men, more nearly concerned in them, esteem it a disparagement to bestow upon them one serious thought. They shut their eyes, despise and scoff, while angels gaze, and wonder, and adore. (2) Imitate angels. The sufferings and glory of the Redeemer are their favourite meditation. Let them also be yours. Count all things loss and dung for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ. (3) Rejoice that He who was seen of angels was manifest in the flesh. Triumph, oh Christian, in that name Immanuel, God with us. In creation man was made a little lower than the angels. In redemption, the Son of God, by assuming our nature, has done infinitely greater honour to us than to them. (4) Ask your hearts, Have we ever seen the Lord? You have heard of Him with the hearing of the ear. Have you, by the eye of faith, so seen Him as to abhor yourselves, and repent in dust and ashes? Doth beholding His glory remove prejudice against Him, captivate your hearts, and transform you to His image? (J. Erskine, D.D.)
Seen of angels:—The word is not altogether so fitly translated, for it is more pregnant than it is here rendered, “He was seen.” It is true. But He was seen with admiration and wonderment of angels. 1. They saw Him with wonderment. For was it not a wonder that God should stoop so low as to be shut up in the straits of a virgins’ womb? It was matter of admiration to the angels to see the great God stoop so low, to be clothed in such a poor nature as man’s, that is meaner than their own. 2. And because He was their Head, as the Second Person, and they were creatures to attend upon Christ, their sight and wonderment must tend to some practice suitable to their condition. Therefore they so see and wondered at Him, as that they attended upon Christ in all the passages of His humiliation and exultation—in His life, in His death, in His resurrection and ascension. 3. They saw Him so as they were witnesses of Him to men. They gave testimony and witness of Him. (1) Shall angels see and wonder at these things? at the love and mercy and wisdom of God in governing His Church, in joining together things irreconcilable to man’s comprehension, infinite justice with infinite mercy in Christ, that God’s wrath and justice should be satisfied in Christ, and thereby infinite mercy showed to us? Shall they wonder at it, and joy and delight in it, and shall we slight those things that are the wonderment of angels? There are a company of profane spirits—I would there were not too many among us—that will scarce vouchsafe to look into these things, that have scarcely the book of God in their houses. They can wonder at a story, or a poem, or some frothy device; at base things not worthy to be reckoned of. (2) Again, from hence, that Christ was seen and attended on and admired by angels, there is a great deal of comfort issueth to us. So we have a derivative comfort from the attendance of angels upon Christ. But surely, whatsoever they did to Him they do to us, because there is the same respect to Head and members. And hence we have the ground of the perpetuity of it, that they will for ever be attendants to us; because their love and respect to us is founded upon their love and respect to Christ. Likewise, it may comfort us in all our extremities whatsoever, in all our desertions. The time may come, beloved, that we may be deserted of the world, and deserted of our friends; we may be in such straits as we may have nobody in the world near us. Oh! but if a man be a true Christian, he hath God and angels about him alway. A Christian is a king; he is never without his guard, that invisible guard of angels. (R. Sibbes.)
God manifested to angels by the scheme of human redemption:—
- In the depth of His condescension. It is probable that even angels cannot directly see God in the Person of the Father, and in His infinite essence. They see Him only in the displays of His glory. His condescension reaches to the lowest depth. They see Him reigning with the Father amid the ineffable glories of heaven, “making Himself of no reputation, and taking upon Him the form of a servant, and humbling Himself to become obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.” II. In the scheme of godliness, God was seen of angels in the mystery of His incarnation. This event, so strange and unparalleled in its character, would awaken their deepest interest, and largely engage their attention. They would learn something of it from the first promise, although it doubtless involved much more than they at first perceived. We are not to suppose, however, that the whole mystery of His incarnation was then made known to angels.
III. In the scheme of godliness God was seen of angels in the supreme wisdom of His councils. In its contrivance and execution, they saw a display of intelligence which had never before impressed them.
- In the scheme of godliness, God was seen of angels in the solemn majesty of His justice. Never had they seen this attribute stand out in such tremendous manifestation, as when they saw Christ made “a propitiation to declare the righteousness of God for the remission of sins that are past.”
- In the scheme of godliness, God was seen of angels in the immense achievements of His power. They saw all power in heaven and in earth committed to the incarnate Son, and omnipotently wielded for the rescue of man, and for the overthrow of his enemies.
- In the scheme of godliness, God was seen of angels in the infinite tenderness of His love. Here they saw the fullest manifestation of this attribute, and gathered their loftiest conceptions of its depth and height. Here they first saw its peculiar mode, mercy. They had seen it developed as goodness, as infinite benignity before, but not its peculiar form, mercy. They required no sacrifice.
VII. In the mystery of godliness, God was seen of angels in the perfect harmony of His attributes.
VIII. In the scheme of godliness, God was seen of angels in the grandeur of His ultimate purposes. What a host of unparalleled events rush on their brightening view! Earth redeemed!—devils vanquished!—death destroyed!—angels established!—the universe conserved!—sin and ruin all confined to hell!—man saved!—Messiah enthroned, and crowned with all power and glory!—the whole Godhead illustrated!—the Father glorified!—and all the faithful host of God united into one great and rejoicing family for ever! What purposes are unfolded here! We thus learn that the scheme of our redemption deeply interests the whole universe. (S. Lucas.)
Seen of angels:—
- What is it for that God who was manifest in the flesh and justified in the Spirit to be seen of angels? 1. We may hence collect the esteem they had for the person of our Lord. 2. The esteem the angels had for our blessed Lord appears from their care to promote the design that He came about. Christ is seen and admired of the angels in His design as well as His person because it is their care to spread the gospel.
- The next general head is to consider it as a mystery that our God should be seen of angels. Now this part of the story, that He was seen of angels, is wonderful. 1. This was a Saviour of whom they had no need, for they never sinned. 2. It farther enhances this wonder that they should pay so much regard to one who came down into a nature beneath their own.
III. I have no more to do upon this branch of the Christian religion than to show you how it is a mystery of godliness. 1. The belief of this gives life and soul to our duty. 2. Another act of our duty is a courageous profession of His name. 3. From His being seen of angels, in the way that I have described, we are encouraged in our dependence upon His grace, as that which is sufficient for us. 4. Here is an argument for your care and love to the people of a Redeemer. Preached unto the Gentiles.—
Preached to the Gentiles:—First of all, there must be a dispensation of Christ. See the equity of this even from things among men. It is not sufficient that physic be provided; but there must be an application of it. It is not sufficient that there is a treasure; but there must be a digging of it out. It is not sufficient that there be a candle or light; but there must be a holding out of the light for the good and use of others. It was not sufficient that there was a “brazen serpent,” but the brazen serpent must be “lifted up” that the people might see it. It is not sufficient that there be tapestry and glorious hangings, but there must be an unfolding of them. What it is to preach. 1. To preach is to open the mystery of Christ, to open whatsoever is in Christ; to break open the box that the savour may be perceived of all. To open Christ’s natures and person what it is; to open the offices of Christ. And likewise the states wherein He executed His office. First, the state of humiliation. But it is not sufficient to preach Christ, to lay open all this in the view of others; but in the opening of them there must be application of them to the use of God’s people, that they may see their interest in them; and there must be an alluring of them, for to preach is to woo. And because people are in a contrary state to Christ, “to preach Christ” is even to begin with the law, to discover to people their estate by nature. A man can never preach the gospel that makes not way for the gospel by showing and convincing people what they are out of Christ. This preaching is that whereby God dispenseth salvation and grace ordinarily. And God in wisdom sees it the fittest way to dispense His grace to men by men. Why? (1) To try our obedience to the truth itself. He would have men regard the things spoken, not for the person that speaks them, but for the excellency of the things. (2) And then God would knit man to man by bonds of love. Now there is a relation between pastor and people by this ordinance of God. (3) And then it is more suitable to our condition. We could not hear God speak, or any more excellent creatures. (4) And it is more proportionable to our weakness to have men that speak out of experience from themselves that preach the gospel, that they have felt the comfort of themselves. It works the more upon us. Let us therefore set a price upon God’s ordinance. There must be this dispensation. Christ must be “preached.” Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ up and down the world. But then, in the next place, this preaching it must be of Christ; Christ must be “preached.” But must nothing be preached but Christ? I answer, Nothing but Christ, or that that tends to Christ. The foundation of all these duties must be from Christ. The graces for these duties must be fetched from Christ; and the reasons and motives of a Christian’s conversation must be from Christ, and from the state that Christ hath advanced us unto. The prevailing reasons of a holy life are fetched from Christ. Now Christ must be preached wholly and only. We must not take anything from Christ, nor join anything to Christ. Christ must be preached; but to whom? “To the Gentiles.” Here lies the mystery, that Christ, who was “manifest in the flesh, justified in the spirit,” &c., should be “preached to the Gentiles.” But why did God suffer the Gentiles to “walk in their own ways”? (Acts 14:16). Why did He neglect and overlook the Gentiles, and suffer them to go on “in their own ways,” so many thousand years before Christ came? Were they not God’s creatures as well as the Jews? I answer, This is a mystery, that God should suffer those witty people, that were of excellent parts, to go on “in their own ways.” But there was matter enough in themselves. We need not call God to our bar to answer for Himself. They were malicious against the light they knew. They imprisoned the light of nature that they had, as it is Rom. 1:21. They were unfaithful in that they had. It is God’s sovereignty. We must let God do what He will. Therefore we cannot be too much thankful for that wondrous favour which we have enjoyed so long time together under the glorious sunshine of the gospel. Hence we have a ground likewise of enlarging the gospel to all people, because the Gentiles now have interest in Christ; that merchants and those that give themselves to navigation, they may with good success carry the gospel to all people. There are none shut out now since Christ in this last age of the world; and certainly there is great hope of those western people. (R. Sibbes.)
Jesus preached unto the Gentiles:—
- I am to represent in what manner Christ was preached to the Gentiles. 1. The great truths which relate to Christ were declared and explained to them. Christ, therefore, was the chief, though not the only subject of the apostle’s sermons; and everything else was preached in reference to Him. What we are told of Paul’s sermons at Corinth and Rome is equally true of the sermons of the rest of the apostles. What were the things concerning Christ which they taught it is impossible to say in one sermon. The undertaking of Christ in the covenant of redemption and the promises then made Him by the Father; His personal glory, both as the Equal and Fellow of the Almighty, and as anointed in His human nature with the Holy Ghost and with power; His fitness as God-man for redeeming lost mankind. 2. The apostles laid before their hearers sufficient evidence of the truths concerning Christ in which they were instructed. Thus Paul confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that Jesus is very Christ. At a synagogue in Thessalonica, as his manner was, he went in unto them, and three Sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures, opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered and risen again from the dead, and that Jesus is the Christ. 3. The apostles invited and commanded their hearers to believe on Christ, to receive Him, and to rest on Him alone for salvation. Christ and the blessings of His purchase were freely offered to all, and all were invited and enjoined to accept them.
- I am next to show in what respect Christ preached to the Gentiles is a mystery. It was mysterious that, for a long period, God suffered them to walk in their own ways, giving His statutes unto Jacob and His testimonies unto Israel, while He dealt not so with other nations. This, however, was a mystery of wisdom. Still, however, it remains a mystery that to the Gentiles Christ was preached when they were at the very worst. Search the inspired Epistles and tell me was Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, or Crete celebrated for sobriety, charity, justice, benevolence, and other humane and social virtues, when the apostles were sent to publish in their ears the religion of Jesus? Did they generally resemble a Socrates, an Aristides, a Fabricius, a Camillus? Alas! wisdom and goodness were far from them. What can we say to these things? How unsearchable are God’s judgments, and His ways past finding out! When offers of salvation were made in the amplest manner to a generation so enlightened and yet so profligate, does not this manifest that all, however vile and unworthy, are welcome of the Saviour? The confirmation of Christianity might be another end of this mysterious dispensation. The gospel was intended to subdue sinners to Christ. God, therefore, first sends it on that design, in an age where it was to meet with the greatest opposition, that its amazing conquests might manifest its Divine original. And this leads me to observe that the effects of the preaching of Christ to the Gentiles were mysterious and amazing. When the men of Cyprus and Cyrene spoke to the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus, the hand of the Lord was with them; and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. (J. Erskine, D.D.)
The proclaimed Saviour:—
- He was preached unto the Gentiles as the Divine Son of God.
- The incarnate God was preached unto the Gentiles as having by His death on the cross presented an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.
III. Christ was preached unto the Gentiles as the High Priest and Days-man appointed to mediate between God and man, and to reconcile man to his offended Creator.
- The incarnate God was preached unto the Gentiles as the grand centre and means of union to the whole Church of God.
- Christ was preached to the Gentiles as the supreme and universal Judge. (S. Lucas.)
Preached unto the Gentiles:—
- I am to explain the thing itself that is here said of Christ Jesus, that the God who was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, and seen of angels, is now preached unto the Gentiles. What is the import of the expression that He was preached? The word signifies the office of a herald, or, as some think, of an ambassador. 1. To preach Christ is to declare that He is the only Mediator between God and man; and when this is preached among the Gentiles, it is to turn them from the error of their way, and the vile abominations they were got into. 2. When we preach Christ, we represent Him as sufficient to answer all the danger that our souls are in. 3. Preaching Christ is telling these things in the plainest and most open way we can. 4. We preach Christ as One who is willing to seek and save that which is lost. 5. Our preaching of Christ signifies the pains we are at in persuading people to come to Him. 6. We assert His authority over the whole creation, and especially over the Churches; that He has the government upon His shoulder; that all power is given to Him in heaven and in earth. 7. In this preaching of Christ we have an eye to that state where His glory shall be seen and ours complete. II. The other part of the truth contained in this text is, that He was preached unto the Gentiles; by whom we are to understand all the rest of the world, who had been, by the providence of God, a long while distinguished from one particular people. 1. You will see, by going over some historical accounts, that until the gospel came to be preached in this last and best edition, religion confined and drew in itself by every new dispensation. As, for example—(1) When God had revealed that promise, which was the blooming gospel, that the seed of the woman should break the serpent’s head, as it was delivered to our first parents, so it equally concerned all their posterity. (2) After the flood, when our whole nature consisted of no more than what came out of the ark, Noah had three sons—Shem, Ham, and Japhet—and it is only the first of these among whom the true worship was maintained. (3) Here is still a farther narrowing of the Divine interest; for though Abraham’s whole family were taken into an external covenant during his own days, yet one-half of them are cut off afterwards. (4) Here is a farther limitation; for though Isaac had the promise renewed to him—that in his seed should all the families of the earth be blessed—yet that is only to be understood of one-half. (5) Jacob’s whole family, indeed, remain possessed of the true religion, and all the twelve tribes are brought out of Egypt; but in Jeroboam’s time ten of them fall off both from their king and their God. (6) Whether the ten tribes returned with the two or not—as to me it seems probable they did—yet you find in a little time they revive the old prejudice. The Samaritans were supposed by the Jews not to be of the stock of Israel; but it is plain they always claimed it. (7) There seems to be a yet narrower distinction; for the people who lived at some distance from the temple, though there was no dispute of their lineal descent, are accounted afar off. 2. From that period the Divine mercy entered into other measures. You may then see how religion widened in pursuance of ancient prophecies. (1) Our Saviour was a Minister of the circumcision, and only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel: but yet even then He gave a dawn of His being preached among the Gentiles. (2) Accordingly, at His death, He took away all that which had kept up the distinction between Jew and Gentile, and so laid the foundation for their having the gospel. (3) He gave orders to His disciples, soon after the resurrection, that they might be witnesses for Him in Jerusalem, Judæa, Samaria, and to the uttermost ends of the earth. (4) For this He gives them qualifications. They are endued with power from on high; the Holy Ghost came upon them. (5) He did it in accomplishment of His ancient prophecies. The Book of God is full to this purpose. Promises are made to those people who seemed the farthest off from mercy.
- He who thus distinguished Himself by an honour that had not been known for many ages could be no other than the Most High God. Jehovah is to be King over all the earth; and in that day there shall be one Lord, and His name one. 1. We can preach no person to the Gentiles as the only Mediator between God and man, but one that is God as well as man. 2. In preaching Christ Jesus, we represent Him to the world as sufficient to answer all the necessities of their souls, both by way of atonement for them and of conquest over them; that He paid a full price, and that He is possessed of a complete fund. We durst not say of a creature, let him be never so glorious, that by one offering he has for ever perfected them that are sanctified. 3. I told you that in preaching Christ Jesus we are to make a public discovery of Him. We must not conceal His righteousness and His truth from the great congregation, and in that are to run all hazards; but this is more than we owe to a creature. 4. In preaching Christ Jesus we declare His willingness to save them that are lost. 5. Our preaching is persuading sinners to come to Him, that they may have life. 6. We proclaim Him as the great Head over all things unto His Church. III. We are to consider this branch of our religion as a mystery. 1. It is mysterious that the Gentiles, who were neglected for so many ages, should have Christ Jesus preached among them. 2. These Gentiles were no way prepared to receive the news of a Saviour when He came to be preached among them (Acts 14:16). 3. It is still more mysterious that the Jews should reject a Saviour who was to be preached among the Gentiles. 4. After His disgrace from the Jews, He is made the subject of our ministry. 5. That Christ should be preached to the Gentiles is what He Himself put a bar in the way of. He acted all along as a Jew, as a minister of the circumcision. 6. This was a thing never to be conceived of by the Jews. 7. It is what the apostles themselves came into very unwillingly; their thoughts were of a national cast as well as others; and this stuck by them a long time. 8. It is some part of the wonder that the preaching among the Gentiles should be put into such hands. “Are not these men that speak Galileans? and how is it that we hear among them in our own tongues the wonderful works of God”? 9. The persons He employed were no way prepared by education for that life of public service into which He called them (1 Cor. 1:27–29). 10. It is still farther a mystery in the way that God took to spread this gospel among the Gentiles; that He should raise up these men to run all manner of dangers, who might have lived secure and protected (1 Cor. 4:9–13). 11. The great wonder of all is, that they should be qualified with the gift of tongues. 12. He called most of them to seal this truth with their blood, which was the highest testimony that nature could give to what grace had taught. IV. I am now to show you that this branch of Christianity enjoys the same beautiful character that is given of all the rest; that it is a mystery of godliness, and promotes a pure and undefiled religion before God and our Father. 1. That minister who preaches up the Divinity of Christ, and tells the world plainly that He is no other than the Most High God, is likely to promote religion among men, because he speaks out. We see, we know what he means. 2. They who preach up Christ as the Most High God do insist upon such an object of their ministry as deserves to be so. 3. When we preach Christ as God, it answers the demand of your duty to Him. 4. This agrees to the nature of your dependence upon Him. Our gospel tells us there is salvation in no other. 5. This provides for all the comfort that we can stand in need of. The application of this is what I have but little room for; I will therefore confine myself to these three particulars. (1) If it is God whom we preach to the Gentiles—a God manifest in the flesh—then you may be very sure we have no reason to be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. (2) Let us, upon this account, recommend ourselves to your friendship and hearty prayers. (T. Bradbury.) Believed on in the world.—
Believed on in the world:—After “preached to the Gentiles,” he joins “believed on in the world,” to show that faith “comes by hearing.” Indeed, “preaching” is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ. Therefore the gospel unfolded is called “the Word of faith,” because it begets faith. God by it works faith; and it is called the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), because God by it publisheth reconciliation. As preaching goes before believing, so it is the blessed instrument, by reason of the Spirit accompanying of it, to work faith. We see the excellency and necessary use of this grace of faith. How is Christ to be believed on? 1. We must rest upon no other thing, either in ourselves or out of ourselves, but Christ only. 2. And whole Christ must be received. We see here Christ “believed on in the world”—the world that was opposite, that were enemies, that were under Satan. Who shall despair, then? Now, I shall show how this is a mystery. 1. First, if we consider what the world was, an opposite and enemy to Christ; and under His enemy, being slaves to Satan, being idolaters, in love with their own inventions, which men naturally doat on; here was the wonder of God’s love and mercy, that he should vouchsafe it to such wretches. It was a mystery that the world should believe. If we consider, besides their greatness and wisdom, the inward malicious disposition of the world, being in the strong man’s possession, for these men to believe the gospel, surely it must needs be a great mystery. 2. Again, if we consider the parties that carried the gospel, whereby the world was subdued—a company of weak men, unlearned men, none of the deepest for knowledge, only they had the Holy Ghost to teach and instruct, to strengthen and fortify them—which the world took no notice of—men of mean condition, of mean esteem, and few in number: and these men they came not with weapons, or outward defence, but merely with the Word, and with sufferings. 3. Again, if we consider the truth that they taught, being contrary to the nature of man, contrary to his affections; to enforce self-denial to men that naturally are full of self-love. 4. Again, if we consider another circumstance, it adds to the mystery; that is, the suddenness of the conquest. 5. Again, it is a wonder in respect of Christ, whom the world “believed on.” What was Christ? Indeed, He was the Son of God, but He appeared in abased flesh, in the form of a “servant.” He was crucified. And for the proud world to believe in a crucified Saviour, it was a mystery. 6. Lastly, it is a great mystery, especially in respect of faith itself, faith being so contrary to the nature of man. (R. Sibbes.)
Jesus believed on in the world:—
- The import of Christ being believed on in the world. Doubtless Paul here speaks of saving faith. What that is we are told: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God.” Yet faith, though it views Jesus in all His mediatorial characters, in its first acts chiefly beholds Him as purchasing for us salvation by His meritorious sufferings. And hence, in many scriptures the death and sacrifice of Christ is represented as the peculiar object of faith.
- The mysteriousness of Christ being believed on in the world. 1. It is a mystery that even under the most encouraging external circumstances, men savingly believe. Many are so immersed in business, or intoxicated with pleasure, that their attention is in vain courted to objects which strike not their senses. A humbled, self-condemning sinner, coming boldly to the throne of grace, for mercy to pardon, and grace to help, is indeed a wonderful spectacle. Faith is the gift of God; and no common inconsiderable gift. 2. In the apostolic age the multitude brought to believe was mysterious. (J. Erskine, D.D.)
The accepted Saviour:—
- The success of the first preachers of the gospel will appear mysterious when we consider the themes which they proclaimed.
- The success of the first preachers of the gospel appears greatly mysterious when we consider the human agency by which it was secured: an agency, humanly speaking, the most inadequate to such success, and the most unlikely to realize it.
III. The success of the first preachers of the gospel appears mysterious when we consider the numerous and formidable obstacles arrayed against them, and which they had to surmount.
- The success of the first preachers of the Gospel appears greatly mysterious when we consider the mode in which it was achieved.
- The success of the first preachers of the Gospel appears greatly mysterious when we consider its rapidity and extent. 1. We thus learn by whom all the past success of the gospel has been achieved. That success most clearly and distinctly announces the exertion of the power of God. 2. Hence we also learn from whom we are to expect all success in future. “God giveth the increase.” “Our sufficiency is of God.” “It is the Spirit that quickeneth.” God must be entirely depended upon, and must have all the glory. 3. We further learn, that no matter how weak the instruments are, if they are only called of God, and humbly depend upon Him, and plainly declare the truth as it is in Jesus, success will crown their efforts. But, we must ask, Have you believed in Christ? (S. Lucas.)
Believed on in the world:—
- What it is for any people to believe on Christ. 1. I begin with that which seems to be the lowest act of faith: and that is receiving the testimony He has given of Himself; believing that His doctrine is of God, that it came from above. 2. They that believe on Christ look upon Him as the only Saviour of a lost world. 3. Believing in Christ is relying upon the righteousness, that He has brought in for our acceptance with God. 4. Believing in Christ is deriving from His fulness the principles of a new life. The satisfaction that He has made was with a view to this. 5. Believing in Christ is growing in the spiritual life. 6. When we believe in Christ, we regard Him as our great Comforter in every time of need. 7. They that believe in Christ are obedient to Him in all manner of conversation. 8. In particular, they that believe in Christ, live in the acts of religious worship to Him. 9. Believing in Christ is trusting Him for protection to the end of life. 10. Believing in Christ is looking to Him as the finisher of our faith; as one that is to give the completing stroke to His own work.
- I am now to open this account that is given of Him, as an argument of His Divinity; that He in whom the world are to believe, can be no other than the Most High God. In believing we look upon Him as the only Saviour of the world; and this cannot be affirmed of one that is not God.
III. As it is a Mystery. The nature of the work. 1. Believing itself is a mystery; as it is acting without the direction of sense and reason, and very often against them, and therefore in opposition to the example and practice of others. So that it must proceed from something that we feel only in ourselves. (1) Believing is acting without the direction of sense and reason; it is depending upon what we do not see, and admiring what we cannot understand. (2) Believing is oftentimes acting against these two principles, by which we are to be conducted in other things. (3) Believing is acting in opposition to the practice and example of others; and it is no easy matter to get thus high. (4) This proceeds from something within ourselves. IV. To what is said of believing in general, we may add the circumstance of place where men are to look for it, which leads us farther into the mystery. 1. You will observe the mystery of believing in Christ, if you regard it as a thing to be met with in this world, and not in heaven. Had it been said of Him now, that He is received up with glory, we could easily come into the report, because there He is revealed with a brightness unconfined: there is no veil upon His face, no limitation to their eyes. 2. It is mysterious that He is believed on in a world where He had been refused. 3. To this you may add another consideration, which heightens the wonder, that He is believed on in a world where the greatest evidence has already proved in vain (John 3:32). 4. He is thus believed on in a world where He appears no longer. 5. He is thus believed on in a world possessed of the greatest prejudice against Him (John 15:18). 6. It is farther strange that He is believed on in a world that is under the power of His most obstinate enemy. 7. It is strange that people should believe on Christ in a world when nothing is to be got by it. I do not affirm this in the strict sense of the words, for you know godliness has the promise of all things; but my meaning is, that the soul, in the recumbence of his faith upon Christ Jesus, looks above all riches, honours, and every endearment of life.
- I am now to show, that for the world to believe in Christ Jesus as God who was manifest in the flesh, is a means of promoting that religion that ever was and ever will be the ornament of any profession. It is a mystery of godliness. This will appear if you do but consider what the great business of religion is, and to what purposes it is both recommended as a practice, and promised as a blessing. I take it to consist in these four things—1. A subjection to Christ’s authority, and a conformity to His image; this may be called inward religion, and thus I shall consider it in the principle. 2. There arises from this a duty both to God and man, which is commanded in the two tables of the moral law. 3. It is a branch of this religion to make a profession of Christ, to own Him in the world, and show forth His praises. 4. The joys and satisfaction that Christ gives to His people who thus wait upon Him may come into the general notion that we have of godliness. Now all these are begun, advanced, and extended by the belief of those mysteries that we meet with in the faith, and in particular that He is a God who was manifest in the flesh. Application: If it is part of the mystery of godliness that Christ is believed on in the world, then—1. You see how both ministers and people do best fall in with the design of Christianity; the one by preaching up this faith, and the other by receiving it. 2. If that is one branch of religion, that Christ is believed on in the world, no wonder that Satan sets himself in opposition to it (2 Cor. 4:4, 5). 3. How great a wickedness must theirs be who would hinder the faith of Jesus in the world! 4. What need have we to be very earnest for that faith which is of the operation of God? 5. See that this end is answered upon your souls (Col. 1:28). 6. Be sure that in believing on Him you regard all His perfections. (T. Bradbury.) Received up to glory.—
Received up to glory:—Glory implies three things. It is an exemption from that which is opposite, and a conquering over the contrary base condition. But where these three are—an exemption and freedom from all baseness, and all that may diminish reckoning and estimation, and when there is a foundation of true excellency, and likewise a shining, a declaring and breaking forth of that excellency—there is glory. It will not be altogether unuseful to speak of the circumstances of Christ’s being “taken up to glory.” 1. Whence was He taken? He was taken “up to glory,” from Mount Olivet, where He used to pray, and where He sweat water and blood, where He was humbled. 2. And when was He taken “up to glory”? Not before He had finished His work, as He saith, “I have finished the work Thou gavest Me to do” (John 17:4). 3. The witnesses of this were the angels. They proclaimed His incarnation with joy; and without doubt they were much more joyful at His ascending up to glory. Now this nature of ours in Christ, it is next to the nature of God in dignity; here is a mystery. Among many other respects it is a mystery for the greatness of it. We see after His ascension, when He appeared to Paul in glory, a glimpse of it struck Paul down; he could not endure it. In this glorious condition that Christ is received into, He fulfils all His offices in a most comfortable manner. He is a glorious Prophet, to send His Spirit now to teach and open the heart. He is a glorious Priest, to appear before God in the holy of holies, in heaven for us, for ever; and He is a King there for ever. To come to some application. 1. First of all we must lay this for a ground and foundation of what follows, that Christ ascended as a public person. He must not be considered as a particular person, alone by Himself, but as the “Second Adam.” 2. In the second place, we must know that there is a wondrous nearness between Christ and us now; for before we can think of any comfort by the “glory of Christ,” we must be one with Him by faith, for He is the Saviour of His body. 3. Again, there is a causality, the force of a cause in this; because Christ, therefore we. Here is not only a priority of order, but a cause likewise; and there is great reason. 4. And then we must consider Christ not only as an efficient cause, but as a pattern and example how we shall be “glorified.” It is a comfort, in the hour of death, that we yield up our souls to Christ, who is gone before to provide a place for us. Likewise, in our sins and infirmities. When we have to deal with God the Father, whom we have offended with our sins, let us fetch comfort from hence. Christ is ascended into heaven, to appear before His Father as a Mediator for us; and, therefore, God turns away His wrath from us. Consider the wonderful love of Christ, that would suspend His glory so long. Hence, likewise, we have a ground of patience in all our sufferings from another reason, not from the order but from the certainty of glory. Shall we not patiently suffer, considering the glory that we shall certainly have? “If we suffer with Him we shall be glorified with Him.” (Rom. 8:17). Again, the mystery of Christ’s glory tends to godliness in this respect, to stir us up to heavenly-mindedness. (Col. 3:1). (R. Sibbes.)
Jesus received up into glory:—Consider the glory into which Jesus is received as Mediator. 1. He is invested with the glorious office of interceding for lost sinners, and thus procuring their reconciliation and acceptance with God. Never was there a priest or advocate so truly glorious. 2. Jesus is invested with the high and honourable office of imparting saving light and life to the world by the influences of His Spirit and grace. 3. Jesus is advanced to the glory of universal dominion. To Him whom men despised; to Him whom the nation abhorred; to a Servant of rulers dominion and glory and a kingdom are given, that all people, nations and languages should serve Him. 4. Christ is received into glory as the Forerunner of His people, and the Pattern of their approaching bliss. Conclusion: 1. Let our conversation and hearts be where our Lord is. 2. Let, O Christian, the majesty and greatness of thy Lord excite thee to a bold undisguised profession of thy regards to Him. 3. Debase not that nature which God hath thus exalted in the person of Christ. Our nature, in Him, is advanced above the angels, and is next in dignity to the nature of God. 4. How great the happiness of those who are admitted to heaven, and who there behold the glory of the Redeemer! (J. Erskine, D.D.)
Received up into glory:—
- His glory may be considered—1. As He is man, He has—(1) The imperpection of our nature. (2) Complete rest from all His labours. (3) A glory and reputation in His person. (4) His soul is satisfied with joys. (5) His body is independent on all supplies. Because it is a glorious body, it is received into an immortal life, and an eternal settlement. 2. He has the office of judge; but the greatest glory is—(1) The union of the human nature to the Divine. 3. As He is mediator, His glory appears in—(1) The stupendous union of the two natures. (2) His separation to the work of a Saviour. (3) His discharge of the trust. (4) His acquittance from the Father. (5) The union between the two natures is confirmed. (6) In this union He receives the praises of heaven. (7) He continues the mediation between God and man. 4. As He is God, He has the glories of the Deity.
- Being received into this glory may be considered with reference to—1. His human nature: A cloud received Him; angels attended Him; He abides in heaven; He has received the reward. 2. His mediatorial office in the union of natures: He is owned by the Father; recognized by saints and angels; declares His resolution to continue so; proceeds in this character through all His works, of nature, of grace, of providence; He rules the Church; He will judge the world. 3. His Divine nature; the glory of this appears in throwing off the veil that was upon it, and laying that aside for ever; a fresh exposing Himself to the worship of angels; speaking the language of a God in heaven, and thus revealing Himself on earth. 4. Therefore He will keep His glory, in His authority over the Church, in His full and proper Deity, and expects we should keep it.
III. Great is the mystery—God received into glory. 1. An account of mysteries in general, of this in particular. He who was destitute below has all fulness above. The object of God’s wrath lives in His favour. He was deserted of men and angels, and is now their head. A suffering nature is united with an eternal. 2. A vindication of this mystery.
- This is a doctrine of godliness. It promotes—1. Faith, by which we rest on the bare word of God, we make an honest profession of Him, we live with duty to Him. 2. Hope, by owning His Deity, we rest upon His righteousness, we trust Him for protection, we resign to Him at death. 3. Charity, the several senses of the word. A belief of Christ’s divinity teaches forbearance of one another. Union in the faith the foundation of charity. (T. Bradbury.)
The exalted Saviour:—
- The exaltation of Christ supplies demonstrative proof that He has finished the great work of expiation.
- The exaltation of Christ supplies the fullest proof of the complacent acceptance of His sacrifice.
III. The text expresses the actual investiture of the Redeemer with mediatorial power and glory. This it is both important and necessary to observe. Distinctions must be made. The “glory” up into which the Redeemer was received, was not, of course, the essential glory of His Godhead. This He always possessed, and could not indeed do otherwise without ceasing to be God, it being inseparable from His nature as a Divine person. We need not again remind you that, as God, the Redeemer was incapable of exaltation, or of an accession of glory. To suppose Him thus capable is to suppose Him not God, and thus implies a contradiction. But as Mediator He was, economically at least, inferior to the Father, and acted as His servant, finishing the work which He had given Him to do, and was thus capable of being honoured and glorified by Him.
- The statement includes the instalment of Christ in His intercessory office.
- The exaltation of Christ supplies the surest pledge for the full accomplishment of all Jehovah’s redeeming purposes.
- The exaltation of Christ supplies the highest guarantee for the universal spread of His kingdom. (S. Lucas.)
|“without any doubt”
|“no one can deny”
This is the Greek term usually used for one’s profession or confession of faith. It marks off the following lines as an early creedal affirmation.
© “great is the mystery of godliness” “Mystery” usually refers to the Gentile mission, which may be a key to v. 16. See note at 3:9. This introduces an early confessional statement or a Christian hymn. Another of these is found in 2 Tim. 2:11–13. The chiastic pattern might be: (1) A B C D E F (revealed truths about Christ); (2) AB, BA, AB (contrast between earth and heaven or humiliation and exaltation); or (3) ABC, ABC (revealed truths about Christ and His church).
CHIASTIC PATTERNS within the Bible are becoming more apparent to modern scholarship. The Companion Bible published by Kregel in 1990 and Kenneth E. Bailey’s Poet and Peasant use this approach extensively.
|“He who was revealed in the flesh”
|“God was manifested in the flesh”
|“He was revealed in flesh”
|“He appeared in human form”
|“He was made visible in the flesh”
This speaks of the Incarnation (birth) of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem: His life, teachings, death, and resurrection, which fully reveal the Father (cf. John 1:14–18). There is also the strong inference of His pre-existence (cf. John 1:1–5; 8:57–58; 2 Cor. 8:4; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:17). This is the central truth of the Gospels about Jesus Christ, that He was fully God and fully human (cf. John 1:14; Phil. 2:6–8; Col. 1:14–16; 1 John 4:1–6).
There is a later Greek manuscript variant in which the relative pronoun hos is changed to theos. This later change may have occurred (1) with the confusion over OC (the abbreviations in uncial Greek for who) read as H C (the abbreviation in uncial Greek for “God”) or (2) as a purposeful theological change by later scribes (cf. MSS אe, Ac, Cc, and D2) wanting to make the text more specific against the adoptionist heresies (cf. Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 77–78).
|“Was vindicated in the Spirit”
|“Justified in the Spirit”
|“vindicated in spirit”
|“was shown to be right by the Spirit”
This phrase has been understood in several ways. Does it mean vindicated or justified? Does this mean that the Holy Spirit was active in Jesus’ ministry (NASB) or that Jesus’ spirit was affirmed by the Father (cf. Matt. 3:17; 17:5) while Jesus lived as a human being (NRSV)?
Some theologians see “Spirit” as referring to Jesus’ divinity, which was vindicated by His resurrection (cf. Rom. 1:4).
© “Seen by angels” The angels longed to know what God was doing with fallen mankind (cf. 1 Cor. 4:9; Eph. 2:7; 3:10; 1 Pet. 1:12). However, it may refer to the angels’ ministering to Jesus, either at His temptation experience (cf. Matt. 4:11; Mark 1:13), in the Garden of Gethsemane (cf. Luke 22:43), or immediately after the resurrection (cf. Luke 24:4, 23; John 20:12).
This phrase is so short and ambiguous that several theories have been offered by commentators and all are merely speculation:
- angels ministering to Jesus (above)
- angels beholding His ascension (godly angels and/or fallen angels cf. 1 Pet 3:19–20, 22)
- angels beholding His exalted heavenly enthronement
© “Proclaimed among the nations” This is the worldwide preaching of the gospel which would have been extremely shocking to the Jews of the first century, but this is really the whole point (cf. Matt. 28:18–20). This is the mystery of godliness (cf. Eph. 2:11–3:13).
|“Believed on in the world”
|NRSV, TEV, NJB
|“believed in throughout the world”
Not only was it a universal message, but there was a universal response, and now the Church is made up of both Jew and Gentile. This has always been God’s plan. The one true God has fulfilled His promise of Gen. 3:15. Personal repentance and faith in the gospel now, in this life, opens heaven for “whosoever” (cf. John 1:12; 3:16; Rom. 10:9–13). See Special Topic: Paul’s Use of Kosmos at 1:16.
© “Taken up in glory” This seems to refer to His ascension. It is surprising that Jesus’ death, resurrection and return are left out, but if this was a Christian hymn, quoted possibly only in part, then it is understandable. Also, exactly which rhythmic (chiastic) pattern is followed determines one’s interpretation (cf. v. 16). This hymn/creed linked to the opening statement would powerfully refute gnosticism. The man Jesus was glorified (cf. chiastic pattern #2)! However, following the NRSV the last three lines may refer to the Church (cf. chiastic pattern #3). For a fuller note on “glory” see 1:17.
16. And confessedly great is the mystery of our devotion.
Great is the church because great is its exalted Head, Jesus Christ. That the expression “the mystery of our devotion” refers to Christ is clear from the fact that whatever follows in verse 16 refers to him. It is he who is great, and this confessedly, that is, thus acknowledged by the church in its daily witness, its preaching, and, as here, its hymns.
“The mystery of our devotion” is “the mystery of our faith” (verse 9), meaning that it pertains to our faith, to our devotion. By faith we embrace him. By means of our devotion we glorify him. The word used in the original (εὐσέβεια,—ας) occurs here in a sense slightly different from piety or godliness when this is viewed as a quality or condition of the soul. It is here used in a more active sense. It is piety in action (“operative piety,” M.M., p. 265), godly living (as in 4:7) the conscientious devotion of our lives to God in Christ, the fear of God, (cf. the German “Gottesfurcht,” and the Dutch “godsvrucht”).
Christ is called the mystery of our devotion, not only because had he not been revealed to us, we would not have known him (a “mystery” being “a revealed secret”), but also because he transcends our comprehension (Eph. 3:18, 19). The more we know him, the better will we be able to discern the mysterious, unfathomable character of his love and of all his attributes.
It is exactly this immeasurable greatness of the Christ which forms the subject of the hymn from which Paul now quotes six lines. That theme was a familiar one in the early church, as is shown by passages such as the following: Acts 2:22–36; 4:11, 12; 10:38–43; 13:26–41; Rom. 8:31–39; 1 Cor. 1:30; 15:1–20, 56, 57; Eph. 1:20–23; Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:12–20; 2 Thess. 1:7, 8; 2:8; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:1–4; 7:23–8:2; 9:24–28; 10:5–25; 12:1–3; Rev. 5:6–14; 12:10–12; 19:6–8.
Depending on an antecedent such as Logos (Word) or Christ(os), or Theos (God) the hymn continues: “who” or “he who” (ὅς) was made manifest in the flesh, etc.
The Six Lines Considered Separately
(1) “Who was manifested in the flesh.”
Into the human nature, weakened by the curse, came Christ, the Son of God. He was sent forth by God (Gal. 4:4); hence, Virgin-born. The fact that One so glorious in his pre-existence was willing to adopt the human nature in that curse-laden, weakened condition, was a manifestation of infinite, condescending love. Cf. John 1:1–14; 2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:5–11. Hence, this voluntary self-concealment was at the same time a self-revelation. From the very beginning of his coming into the flesh self-concealment and self-disclosure walked side by side in connection with this “Mystery of our devotion.” For the meaning of “flesh” see N.T.C. on John 1:14; and for the meaning of “was manifested” see N.T.C. on John 21:1, footnote 294.
(2) “Vindicated by the Spirit.”
Not everyone saw his glory. “He was despised, and rejected of men” (Is. 55:3). By his enemies his claims were denied, and he himself was cast out (Heb. 13:12). But by the Spirit he was vindicated: his own perfect righteousness and the validity of his claims were fully established.
The A.V. and the R.S.V. are entirely correct in spelling Spirit with a capital letter, as referring to the Holy Spirit. The combination “flesh” and “Spirit” has scriptural warrant. Note: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us as in a tent. And we beheld his glory, a glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth … And John testified, saying, I beheld the Spirit like a dove descending from heaven, and he remained on him” (John 1:14, 32; cf. 3:34). Having been thus anointed by the Holy Spirit (Ps. 2:2; 45:7; Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; Acts 4:27; 10:38), he was able, while in the “flesh” (the weakened human nature), to perform miracles, to cast out demons, etc. (Matt. 12:28). By means of every deed of power his justice was established, for surely the Holy Spirit would not have given this power to a sinner (John 9:31). But it was especially by means of his resurrection from the dead that the Spirit fully vindicated the claim of Jesus that he was the Son of God (Rom. 1:4).
(3) “Seen by angels.”
The greatness of Christ in his resurrection stands out in the early preaching of the apostles. That resurrection was his complete vindication. It was also in connection with that resurrection that he was “seen by angels” (Matt. 28:2–7; Mark 16:5–8; Luke 24:4–7; John 20:12, 13). To be sure, angels had shown an interest in his birth (Luke 2:9–14), and in his triumph over Satan when the latter tempted him in the desert (Matt. 4:11). Angels, moreover, addressed the disciples after his ascension (Acts 1:10, 11). Angels welcomed him back to heaven (Rev. 5:11). They were and are intensely interested in the whole program of redemption (1 Peter 1:12). But although none of these great events need be excluded from the meaning of the line “seen by angels,” the reference to Christ’s glorious resurrection, a redemptive fact which stood out in the consciousness of the early church, is clear as daylight. While the eyes of men—and women too!—were beclouded by the mist of “little faith” and, in a sense, lack of faith (Mark 16:11, 13, 14; Luke 24:10, 11; John 20:8, 9, 15, 24, 25), angels saw him clearly. They knew him as their glorious Lord.
(4) “Heralded among the nations.”
It was the resurrected Christ who, before his ascension, issued The Great Commission, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” (see Matt. 28:18–20: The Great Claim, The Great Commission, The Great Presence). And so the One who was not esteemed, the Despised One (Is. 53:3), began to be universally heralded or proclaimed (see on 2 Tim. 4:2) as The Savior of the World. Though this happened on and after Pentecost, the “great commission” was issued before the ascension!
(5) “Believed in by the world.”
This, of course, was the direct result of the pre-ascension mandate. Men from every tribe and nation begin to worship him as their Lord and Savior, as had been predicted (Ps. 72:8–11, 17; 87; cf. Gen. 12:3; Am. 9:11, 12; Mic. 4:12).
(6) “Taken up in glory.”
Having been manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, and having issued the order which resulted in the proclamation of his name among the nations and the outgathering of a spiritual harvest from the world, he “was taken up.” This is the same verb as is used in Mark 16:19 and in Acts 1:2. Luke 24:51 has “he parted from them,” and Acts 1:9, “he was lifted up.” While the echo of men’s voices, “Crucify, crucify,” had scarcely died, heaven opened wide its portals, and, upon receiving back its victorious King, resounded with the echoes of the jubilant anthem, sung by ten thousand times ten thousands and thousands of thousands, “Worthy is the Lamb.” Truly, he was taken up in glory.
How great is the church which has such an exalted Head! Let Timothy bear this in mind as he goes about his task of supervision.
Synthesis of Chapter 3
See the Outline at the beginning of the chapter.
We have here a list of requirements for office; also a statement regarding the glorious character of such work and its crowning reward. The qualifications of overseers and deacons (and in the latter connection, of deacons’ female assistants) are stated. The emphasis falls on such qualities as reliability, dignity, temperance, helpfulness, proper relationship to one’s family, and to some extent, Christian experience.
The lists reveal two facts:
On the one hand, the requirements for office are high enough so that persons with outstanding moral defects are excluded from office and in fact from any position of considerable responsibility in the church.
Yet, on the other hand, these requirements are low enough so that almost any member in good standing and of deserved reputation can qualify. Sinlessness, material riches, exceptional cultural attainment, these are not required.
Accordingly, a group of converts which displays a manifest lack of such qualities as are here mentioned is not yet ready to be organized into a congregation.
In stating his reasons for transmitting these lists in written form, Paul quotes from a beautiful early Hymn in adoration of the Christ, confessing the latter’s glory from his incarnation to his coronation. Here we have proof of the fact that there was at least a beginning of hymnody during this early period. On the subject of psalm-singing and hymn-singing in the days of the apostle see also Acts 16:25; 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; and Col. 3:16. And do not forget the Old Testament Psalter, with its many cries for rescue, songs commemorating deliverance, and anthems of praise.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1995). 1 Timothy (pp. 138–143). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Köstenberger, A. (2006). 1 Timothy. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 531–532). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Towner, P. H. (2006). The Letters to Timothy and Titus (pp. 276–285). 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. 137–151). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Robinson, S. J. (2004). Opening up 1 Timothy (pp. 62–66). Leominster: Day One Publications.
 Fee, G. D. (2011). 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (pp. 92–95). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Barclay, W. (2003). The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (3rd ed. fully rev. and updated, pp. 100–103). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.
 Barcley, W. B. (2005). A Study Commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy (pp. 122–126). Darlington, England; Webster, NY: Evangelical Press.
 Hawker, R. (2013). Poor Man’s New Testament Commentary: Philippians–Revelation (Vol. 3, pp. 139–140). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). 1 Timothy (pp. 55–56). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (pp. 91–95). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Guthrie, D. (1990). Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 14, pp. 103–105). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Stott, J. R. W. (1996). Guard the truth: the message of 1 Timothy & Titus (pp. 102–108). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Exell, J. S. (n.d.). The Biblical Illustrator: First Timothy (pp. 149–179). New York; Chicago; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell Company.
 Utley, R. J. (2000). Paul’s Fourth Missionary Journey: I Timothy, Titus, II Timothy (Vol. Volume 9, pp. 49–50). Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (Vol. 4, pp. 137–142). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.