Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 01/21/2001
"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."
We come today to the climax of 1 Timothy. Everything either prepares for or looks back to this. Therefore I want first to explain it in detail and then suggest some practical implications.
This verse flows immediately from v. 14. If the Church is the pillar and support of the Truth, then this is the Truth in question, the Truth with which she has been intrusted. "Mystery" in the NT is not something necessarily incomprehensible but rather something previously hidden which has now been revealed (see 1 Cor. 2:7-10, Eph. 3:4-6, 8-10). "Godliness" is "eusebeia," piety or practical religion--how to please God and be in right relation to Him, in other words. So we could paraphrase the first part of the verse this way: "Formerly, the secret of pleasing God was not fully revealed, but now it has been made known: and it is not a formula, a work, or a ritual, but a PERSON: the person of Jesus Christ."
The essence of that Person is then expounded in a series of phrases thought to be either an early hymn Paul was quoting or one he composed. It is clearly poetry in any case, more obviously so in Greek than in English. Not only do you get the parallel ideas of Hebrew poetry but parallel grammatical structures, balanced and matched rythmic patterns, heavy use of internal rhyme, etc. You should learn Greek just so you could enjoy it!
First, Christ was Revealed in the Flesh. John hammers the importance of this in his first epistle (1 Jn. 4:23, 1:1-3, etc.). He was the invisible God made visible, the inscrutable God made known. But more than that, his sacrifice for sin required him to take on our nature. All that makes Christ the answer to the question of how to please God is bound up in the incarnation, the revelation of God in the flesh.
He was Vindicated in the Spirit. This is parallel to "revealed in the flesh," so is probably not directly a reference to the Holy Spirit, though of course He was involved. The idea is that Christ's physical manifestation had a spiritual significance, revealed only to the spirit by the Spirit, for the natural man does not receive such things (1 Cor. 2:14). When the objective fact of Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection is applied to the spirit by the Spirit, resulting in faith, the Christ does indeed become the mystery of godliness to us, both erasing past guilt and enabling new life as He lives though us.
He was Beheld by Angels. What have they got to do with it? Well, their interest is clear from 1 Pet. 1:12, and their stake from Eph. 3:10. They look at Christ's work for and in and through us to understand something of the wisdom, grace, and majesty of God which would have been hidden from them otherwise. Salvation is not just about us, but has cosmic implications.
He was Proclaimed among the Nations. "Nations" is "ethne," a reference to the Gentiles. John Calvin's comment on this phrase hits the nail on the head: "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 angels in heaven . . . 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."
He was Believed on in the World. In the light of the resistance of the natural man (1 Cor. 2:14), this is a grand miracle in its own right, a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit's role in vindication and proclamation.
He was Received in Glory: He ascended in to heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father almighty, where he makes intercession for us, and from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
What then are the implications of these truths for the Christian life? There are at least three:
Christianity is not just a series of statements about him (though they are indispensible); it is not just admiration for his ethical teachings (though that follows); it is not just the attempt to imitate his life, to follow his example (though that is involved); it is not just the taking of his Name (though it is a badge we wear forthrightly). Christianity is the Person of Christ himself, the mystery of godliness, revealed to us, dying and raised for us, worshipped by us, living in and through us for the glory of God, coming to take us to himself, where we will ever be with the Lord, world without end, amen.
In her wonderful series of plays on the life of Christ, "The Man Born to Be King," Dorothy L. Sayers has Baruch the Zealot, one of Jesus' enemies, object to him in words that contain ironic insight: "What he is preaching is simply himself, and a fanatical devotion to his own person. If he sets up anything, it will be an idolatrous cult of Jesus. Do you want to see temples dedicated to Jesus bar Joseph?" Well, now that you mention it, yes, we do. In fact, we want to BE those temples, thank you very much.
When we consider who was revealed, how he was vindicated, with what intense interest he is beheld by angels, through what difficulties and hardships he is being proclaimed in the nations, with what joy he is believed on in the face of persecution, with what triumph he entered heaven until he returns for us, what else can we do but bow down and worship him, saying, "By common consent, GREAT is the mystery of godliness!
His being revealed, vindicated, beheld, proclaimed, presents us with a decision: to believe in him, to accept him, or to reject him. Do I take him as my savior and Lord, his death for my sins as my only ground of forgiveness and acceptance with God, his resurrection and his promise as my only hope of eternal life, his life in me as my only hope of victorious and joyful living in the present? Or do I continue trying to make it on my own? Even after we have accepted Christ, we must face this decision afresh moment by moment. For even while we mouth the right answers, we find ourselves subtly edging ourselves back into the center, where only He belongs.
Great is the mystery of godliness given
To men, in man's very flesh manifested:
Deftly the wing of Dove descending
On Voice from vaulted Heaven riven
Vouched for his virtue, tried and tested;
Many a mighty messenger, wending
Far from the hallowed halls of Heaven
Watched the saints from Satan wrested;
Soon the Sword, asunder rending
Flesh and spirit, flashed, driven
Into joint and marrow, bested
Unbelief and evil, ending
Devil's darkness. Dare the frame
Of mortal man, albeit mending,
Stand before the fearsome Name
Of glory given to him who came?
He came befriending.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams