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.
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.
Oh! Lord the Spirit! do thou in mercy to the Church, ordain Pastors after thine own heart: and make all such, as thou hast called to the ministry, however known, or distinguished among men, more anxious to win souls, than to gain kingdoms.
Precious Jesus! let the mystery of thine incarnation be the constant, unceasing subject of my meditation! Oh! the love of Christ which passeth knowledge! Didst thou, dear Lord, who when rich beyond all the calculation of riches, condescend for our sakes to be made poor, that we through thy poverty might be made rich! And, oh! the sweet testimony of God the Spirit, in justifying all the works of Christ, both to the Person of Christ, and in the heart of his people, in his finished salvation. Angels, behold; Gentiles, believe; yea, my poor blind and stony heart is made willing in the day of God’s power. And God the Father hath given assurance unto all men of the mystery of godliness, in having raised Christ from the dead, and received him up into glory. Blessed, blessed for ever, be God for Jesus Christ!
Ver. 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.
|“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.
 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.
 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.
 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.