The Mystery of Godliness – 1 Timothy 3:16
On Sunday mornings we have been studying through the Book of 1st Timothy. At the end of the 3rd chapter, after emphasising the importance of sound doctrine and order in the church, Paul states to Timothy:
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory”.
Paul used the word mystery 21 times in his epistles: the mystery of God (Colossians 2:2), the mystery of faith (1 Timothy 3:9), the mystery of iniquity (2 Thessalonians 2:7), etc. In each case, the “mystery” involved a declaration of spiritual truth, revealed by God to Paul through divine inspiration
The Greek word musterion (“mystery”), when used in the New Testament, refers to the things of God that were once hidden but were later revealed through Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). A mystery is that which can only be known through the revelation of God (Romans 16:25–26; Colossians 1:26–27). It is something that in times past had been hidden but is now revealed to God’s people.
Summary of the Mysteries revealed to Paul
- Mystery of the Kingdom of God
- Luke 8:10; Mark 4:11;
- Mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven
- Matt 13:11
- Mystery of Manifestation in the Flesh
- 1 Tim 3:16
- Mystery of Salvation by Faith
- Eph 3:19; Rom 16:25,26; 1 Tim 3:9
- Mystery of the Will of God
- Eph 1:9
- Mystery of Gentiles in same Body
- Rom 16:25; Eph 3:3
- Mystery of the Bride of Christ
- Eph 5:10; Eph 2:6; 1 Cor 6:17
- Col 1:26,27; 2:2; 4:3
- The Mystery of the Harpazo
- 1 Cor 15:51; 1 Thes 4:12-18
- OT: Isa 26:19-21; Ps 27:5; Zep 2:3
- The Mystery of Iniquity
- 2 Thes 2:6-12
- Mystery of the Seven Churches
- Rev 1:20
- Mystery of Israel’s Blindness
- Luke 19:42-44; Rom 11:25
- Mystery Babylon (Counterfeit Kingdom)
- Re 17, 18 (Cf Gen 10:10, 1st mention)
And without controversy…
The expression “without controversy” translates the Greek term homologoumenos, which literally denotes ‘that which one confesses’, hence, it might be rendered “confessedly,” “undeniably,” “most certainly.” It is a declaration of absolute confidence.
great is the mystery of godliness…
The word “godliness” in Greek is the noun eusebia. This term, along with its various cognate forms, suggests piety, devotion, religion, or a disposition of God-towardness.
It could be considered ‘God-like-ness’, and the explanation that Paul himself gives in the rest of this verse speaks of the completed work of Christ – who, though a man, was more God-like than any other man. Christ’s ‘Godliness’ is not simply because He was God in the Flesh, but also because he was completely in the will of His Father. The mystery of Godliness has much to do with obedience.
One commentator phrased it, “Undeniably, great is the strategy of the divine plan of salvation” and indeed the whole of God’s incredible plan is encapsulated in this verse!
Paul now lists six magnificent statements that take us from before the foundation of the world to God’s conclusion of all things.
“God was manifest in the flesh”
This is a clear statement of Christ’s Deity. It speaks of that which the whole of the Old Testament alludes to, from the Seed of the Woman in Genesis 3:15 to the Ark in Genesis 6-7; from a father offering up his only son in Genesis 22 to a suffering servant in Isaiah 53.
Although we have a number of ‘pre-incarnate’ appearances of Jesus in the Old Testament (a physical manifestation of God), the concept that God – the Creator & Sustainer of all things would willingly take on human form to reach out to His own creation is truly staggering thought!
John wrote: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This affirmation was in direct conflict with certain gnostic ideas of antiquity which asserted that Christ could not have possessed a body of flesh, since flesh was intrinsically evil—a concept which John labels as the spirit of the anti-christ (1 John 4:2, 3).
The New Testament reveals that Jesus was manifest in the flesh for the following reasons:
(1) He became flesh so that men might see, in visible form, a commentary on Deity. John affirmed that Christ came to “declare” (exegesato—to give an exegesis of) the Father (1:18). Thus, to view the Lord was to comprehend something of the nature of his heavenly Father (John 14:9).
(2) He became flesh to identify with us (Hebrews 5:1-10). Having lived in human form, and thus been subjected to temptation (Hebrews 4:15), he is able to effectively function as our high priest, hence, come to our aid when we are tempted (Hebrews 2:17, 18).
(3) He was manifested as man to provide us with a model for living (1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6).
(4) Since it is impossible for Deity, as a spirit being, to die (cf. 1 Timothy 6:16), Christ became flesh so that he might be subjected to death (Hebrews 2:9, 14), hence ‘legally’ qualified to become a direct and exact substitute for man in order to put away sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 John 3:5).
(5) Finally, the Lord was manifested that “he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), which, of course, will be realised ultimately at the time of his second coming when He will wrest the control of this world from Satan and reclaim as the Second Adam what the first Adam lost – the title to this world – again as a man bearing the legal right to reclaim the earth as a kinsman of Adam.
“Justified in the spirit”
First, we must note that the word “justified” does not suggest that Christ at one time was sinful, hence, at some point, was pardoned or justified from sin. That cannot be the meaning (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22).
The term denotes a vindication. Though Jesus was manifested in the flesh, and “put to death in the flesh” by his enemies (1 Peter 3:18), God Almighty vindicated the Lord Jesus, raising him from the dead. Thus God the Father by raising Christ from the dead set His seal of approval and acceptance on His completed work. Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
But what does the phrase “in the spirit” signify? There are several possibilities, both grammatically and contextually.
Most translations capitalize the term “Spirit,” suggesting that there is an allusion to the Holy Spirit. If that is the meaning, the phrase could be a reference to the Spirit’s operation at the time of the Lord’s bodily resurrection.
In Romans 8:11 Paul wrote: “But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he that raised up Christ Jesus from the dead shall give life also to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you.” One commentator observed that “the word ‘also’ suggests the Holy Spirit not only will raise our bodies, but ‘also’ was the agent of the Father in raising Christ”.
Others think that “Spirit” in 1 Timothy 3:16 is a general reference to the Spirit’s operation in the life of Christ. The Lord’s miracles, message, etc., climaxing with his resurrection, demonstrated his deity, hence, in spite of his death at the hands of cruel men, the Saviour was vindicated.
In 1 Peter 3:18 the apostle states that Jesus “was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” It has been suggested that Jesus was raised by the re-energising of his body through his spirit, though some also see “spirit” as a reference to the Holy Spirit in this passage.
All that Christ did He did in and through the power of the Holy Spirit – He did everything ‘right’, there was no fault found in Him. He was justified in his actions and decision to come to this world as a baby, to live and die for mankind, and to rise from the dead to become LORD of all for all eternity.
“Seen of angels”
Angels were intimately involved with the work of our Lord. Note the following:
(1) Angels were associates of the preincarnate Word (cf. John 1:1, 14). When Abraham was visited by “three men” at the oaks of Mamre, two of them are identified as angels (Genesis 19:1) while the other is a divine person who subsequently rains “upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Jehovah out of heaven” (19:24; cf. 18:1, 21).
(2) Angels heralded the impending birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:26) and praised God when Mary brought forth her child (Luke 2:13).
(3) After Christ concluded his temptation ordeal in the wilderness, “angels came and ministered unto him” (Matthew 4:11).
(4) When the Lord experienced great agony of soul just prior to his death, “there appeared unto him an angel from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43), and had he so chosen, he might have summoned thousands of angels to deliver him from the curse of Calvary (cf. Matthew 26:53).
(5) Angels were present at the time of Christ’s resurrection from the grave (Matthew 28:2ff; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; John 20:12) and at his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:10).
(6) Finally, the angels of heaven are subject to him (1 Peter 3:22), and praise him saying, “Worthy is the Lamb that hath been slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and might, and honor, and glory, and blessing” (Revelation 5:11, 12).
All of this said, a strong possibility is that this has reference to ‘messengers’ – i.e. those who were the witnesses (Apostles etc.) of His life and ministry, and who then bore testimony in the Gospels and Epistles and through the early church.
“Preached among the Gentiles”
This, of course, suggests the universal scope of the Saviour’s redemptive system—a fact that was predicted in the Old Testament (Isaiah 2:2; 11:10), previewed in the earthly ministry of Christ (Matthew 4:15ff; 8:11), announced in the “great commission” (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47), and implemented by the apostles, prophets, and others, as revealed in the book of Acts.
We must note in passing that when the New Testament speaks of preaching “Christ,” such expression not only denotes the historical facts regarding the person of Jesus, but also the truths concerning his kingdom and how to gain entrance into the same (cf. Acts 8:5, 12, 35ff).
“Believed on in the world”
Though a majority in the first-century world did not believe on Christ (cf. Isaiah 53:1; John 12:37; 1:11), nevertheless, many did (Acts 2:44; 4:4; 5:14; 9:42).
It must be understood, however, that the expression “believed on” does not denote a mere “faith-only” concept as implied in some of the creeds of protestantism). Rather, “faith,” or “believing” in Bible terminology, that avails in God’s sight is that which is active in obeying the Lord, as the following evidence indicates:
(1) John declares that “whosoever believes” should not perish, but have eternal life (3:16), while the writer of Hebrews affirms that eternal salvation is given to those who “obey” the Son (5:8, 9). Obviously, therefore, believing in Christ must include obedience as a requisite to salvation.
(2) John 3:36 affirms: “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (ASV).
Note how the terms “believeth” and “obeyeth not,” as correctly reflected in the American Standard Version, stand in bold contrast. To believe is to obey!
(3) The Scriptures speak of being “obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
(4) When the jailor at Philippi heard Paul’s proclamation of the gospel, acknowledged its validity, evidenced penitence, and submitted to immersion (Acts 16:31-33), Luke sums up the entire process by saying that he, along with his family, had “believed in God” (16:34).
(5) Romans 5:1 announces: “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same inspired document, however, the apostle argues that one is “made free from sin” after he has “become obedient from the heart” to the pattern of divine instruction (6:17, 18).
Since “peace with God” and being “made free from sin” are equivalent, it necessarily follows that the “faith” of 5:1 includes the “obedience” of 6:17. Indeed, one of the major emphases of the book of Romans is the “obedience of faith” (cf. 1:5; 16:26).
(6) The author of the book of Hebrews stresses that those Israelites who perished in the wilderness were condemned because they were “disobedient,” which, in fact, was an expression of their “unbelief ’(cf. Hebrews 3:18, 19; 4:3, 6 – ASV). The terms are employed interchangeably.
(7) The discussion of James, that faith apart from works is “dead,” “barren,” etc., is too well-known to need elaboration at this point (cf. James 2:14ff).
“Received up in glory”
This refers, of course, to the Lord’s reception into heaven some forty days following his resurrection from the dead. Jesus had prophesied that he must suffer and then enter into his glory (Luke 24:26); and so, following his bodily resurrection, he was “received up into heaven” (Mark 16:19; cf. Acts 1:2).
In these latter passages, the same verb (analambano) is used as that employed by Paul in his letter to Timothy. When Jesus entered into this glorious realm, all authority was made subject to him (Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:20ff).
Thus, Paul’s great “mystery of godliness,” when unfolded, is rich indeed. It is the gospel in seed form. It is intellectually satisfying, emotionally rewarding, and practically motivating.
May the church of the living God recognize her mission to proclaim these pearls of truth in a world that languishes in darkness and has no hope apart from the mission and message of Christ.
May you be blessed and encouraged as you walk in the way!