The Great Mystery of Godliness
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul declared that one of his reasons for writing the epistle was that men might know how to behave themselves in the house (family) of God, which is the church of the living God (3:15).
Further, he affirms that it is the responsibility of those in the church to be the pillar and support of the truth. The great truth, so worthy of Christian support, has to do with the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, which the apostle summarizes in the following fashion:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness; He who was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the spirit, Seen of angels, Preached among the nations, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory (v. 16, ASV).
In this study, some of the thrilling gems of this context will be considered.
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.
Next, the apostle speaks of the great “mystery of godliness.” “Mystery” is a rendition of the Greek word musterion. The term does not, as many suppose, refer to that which is mysterious, hence, incapable of being understood. Rather, in Bible parlance, the word denotes that which was formerly obscured, but which has now been announced through the gospel of Christ. It has to do with the unfolding of the heavenly scheme of salvation. Compare the expression “the mystery of the faith” in verse nine of this same chapter.
Perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of this matter is to be found in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, where the apostle declares that the “mystery,” which in former generations was unknown to men, has now been revealed through Spirit-inspired apostles and prophets, so that those who read the New Testament record can perceive the heavenly plan which is fulfilled in the work of Christ (cf. 3:1-12).
The word “godliness” in the Greek Testament is the noun eusebia. This term, along with its various cognate forms, suggests piety, devotion, religion, or a disposition of God-towardness.
One version renders the phrase, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion” (RSV). A fair paraphrase might be, “Undeniably, great is the strategy of the divine plan of salvation.”
Subsequently, Paul lists six magnificent propositions which form a miniature outline of the life of Christ. They are as follows:
“He [Christ] who was manifested in the flesh”
Though the King James Version has it, “God was manifest in the flesh,” the better manuscript evidence supports the rendition “He who” (cf. Metzger 1971, 641). Be that as it may, the text certainly argues for the incarnation of Christ, hence, his deity. It postulates the mission of one who was existing in a pre-fleshly condition, but who appeared in human form.
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 qualified 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 realized ultimately at the time of his second coming.
“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, raising him from the dead. Thus was the Master “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.” Roy Lanier Sr. 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” (n.d., 56).
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 Savior was vindicated.
The ASV does not capitalize “spirit,” thus reflecting the opinion that the allusion is to the Lord’s human spirit. This could also be a reference, however, to the resurrection of Christ, at which point the Savior’s spirit re-entered his body.
In 1 Peter 3:18 the apostle states that Jesus “was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” Roy Deaver has effectively argued that Jesus was raised by the re-energizing of his body through his spirit (1974, 11-13), though some also see “spirit” as a reference to the Holy Spirit in this passage (Kistemaker 1987, 140).
“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).
“Preached among the nations [Gentiles – KJV]”
This, of course, suggests the universal scope of the Savior’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 (cf. Discipline of the Methodist Church 1939, Article IX; Hiscox 1890, 62). 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. To this end let us dedicate ourselves.
- Deaver, Roy. 1974. The Spiritual Sword, October.
- Discipline of the Methodist Church. 1939. New York, NY: The Methodist Book Concern.
- Hiscox, Edward T. 1890. The Standard Manual for Baptist Churches. Philadelphia, PA: The Baptist Publication Society.
- Kistemaker, S. J. 1987. Peter and Jude. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Lanier, Roy, Sr. n.d. Class Notes on Romans. Denver, Co: Privately published.
- Metzger, Bruce. 1971. Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. London, England: United Bible Societies.