Great is the Mystery of Godliness

Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 3:16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/29/2017 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Timothy 3:16

“Great is the Mystery of Godliness”

Great is the mystery of godliness! Without controversy, great is this mystery! Great is what we confess here today! Remember last week we said that Paul was summing up why he had written this letter. He said it was because we as the church have become the house of the living God. He said that as the house of the living God we not need to know how to conduct ourselves in this house. He also said that as that house we are a pillar and support of the truth in this world. And so then in verse 16 he emphatically drives home this truth with this grand confession of the faith. Here in verse 16 we have a poetic statement of the Christian faith. Many scholars believe this was an early Christian hymn. Whether it was sung, chanted or recited, it a wonderful example of how poetry and truth can be of great use to the church. We too will make use of this beautiful piece of our Christian heritage today for our growth and for God’s glory. And so, to make sure we are all on the same page here, I’m going to be focusing today on the second half of verse 16, the part after the word “godliness”. In the pew Bibles, this second half of verse 16 is set apart on its own to denote that it was poetry. We’ll be studying today this early Christian poetry.

Let’s begin by looking at the overall structure of this poetic truth. Back then, poetry typically involved language that was artistically arranged and structured. Such language might often be rather compactly stated but rich in meaning for dramatic effect. Following what we see in many of the Psalms, parallelism of different sorts is often used in the structuring of such poetry. We see these things here in verse 16.

And so, when we look at the structure of this poetic verse, we can see at least two different ways to describe the structure. But I think that is actually part of the artistry here. The best of such poetry has multiple structures that all work at the same time. It’s part of the beauty and artistry here. So, the first structure here is to see three sections each with two lines that have contrasting parallelism. The first section involves the two lines that contrast the flesh versus the Spirit. This contrast gets us to think us the difference between the human and the divine. We might even refer to this as the mode of Jesus ministry, one involving both the human flesh and the other the divine Holy Spirit. The second section involves the two lines that contrast the angels versus the Gentiles (aka the nations). This contrast is one of person, either angelic or human persons. It involves those who saw or received testimony about Jesus. The third section involves two lines that contrast the world versus glory (aka heaven). This contrast is one of place. It gets us to think about location and arena: this earth versus heaven. Jesus has left his mark in both places. So, this first structure is to see three sections of two contrasting lines each, dealing with mode, person, and place, related to Jesus and his ministry.

The second structuring we can see in verse 16 involves an elaborate inclusio. What am I talking about? Well, an inclusio is a literary device where you have a similar idea bracketing or surrounding other material. The inclusio is like the two pieces of bread on a sandwich, and then you have the meat inside the bread. In this case the inclusio is a logical one and one that reverses itself. So, we see at the start there is the idea of Jesus going down from heaven and coming to earth. That’s when it says he was manifested in the flesh. Then at the end it talks about Jesus being received up in glory. There is the idea of Jesus leaving earth and going back up to heaven. So, the bracketing here is logical and directional here. From heaven to earth and then from earth to heaven. That’s the start and end that brackets this poetry. Then in the middle layers we see that what remains are two sections of complementary parallelism. The first inner section is the part that references the Spirit and angels. The second inner section is the part that references the Gentiles (aka the nations) and the world. So, the first inner section draws us to heavenly things, the Spirit and the angels. Then, the second inner section draws us to earthly things, the nations and the world. Thus, this second structure that can be seen here really draws our attention to the difference between the heavenly and the earthly and how they interact with each other.

Both of these two structures are here in this poetic confession of faith. The first structure especially emphasizes the different aspects of Jesus’ person and ministry. The second structure especially emphasizes the contact and connection between the heavenly and the earthly. Taken together we see that Jesus Christ is the connection between the heavenly and the earthly. It is how we earthly humans have a connection with the heavenly and the divine. It’s in Christ. How great is this mystery of godliness! And now as we turn to dig into the specific details of each line in this poem, we will get to see more of Christ and how we are connected with the heavenly through him.

So then, we’ll take this now line by line and meditate on each for a few moments. The first line, speaking of Jesus, says that he “was manifested in the flesh.” Here the Greek word for “manifested” is about being revealed or made known. This is similar to the idea in Titus 2:11 which speaks of Christ appearing in this world. This is a wonderful line because it speaks of the incarnation. What is implied here is that the eternal Son of God was previously existing outside of human flesh. But at the incarnation, it was the eternal Son of God taking on human flesh. Jesus previously was in heaven, fully divine, not yet human. But then he came to this world and took on a human nature. That’s a great mystery right there. If this poem said nothing else, the would be enough to declare that this is a great mystery. Jesus the eternal God was manifested in the flesh! Praise the Lord! And of course, this is why we can know God so well. Because God has come to us in the flesh. Remember, that Jesus said to his disciples, that if you’ve seen him, then you’ve seen God, John 14:9. The things of heaven and the things of the divine have been revealed to us humans chiefly by the incarnation. God took on humanity in order to better connect with us. In the past God had spoke through prophets, but in these latter days he revealed himself to us by his Son, Hebrews 1:1-2.

The next line is that Jesus was “justified in the Spirit.” Remember that in the original Greek, humans had not yet invented lower case letters. Everything was written in capital letters. So, when you see the word “Spirit” here capitalized, that’s inherently an interpretation. But I believe it is the right interpretation. Surely this is not a reference to Jesus’ human spirit. Surely it is a reference to the divine Holy Spirit. Jesus was justified by and in the Holy Spirit. What does this refer to? Well, in Jesus’ earthly ministry we can think of several places where the Holy Spirit’s role is prominent. Where do we see then in the Bible that Jesus was justified in or by the Holy Spirit? Well, remember what the word justification means. It means to declare or show forth someone’s righteousness. Similarly, sometimes it can be used in the sense of vindication, that it proves that someone is right before God. Well, with that understanding, there are a few instances where we see Jesus’ justified by the Spirit. First, we see it at his baptism. That is when the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form while at the same time the Father declared “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That is surely justification language, and was intimately connected with the Spirit at that scene. Second, we see this during the miracles of Jesus. Take for example in Matthew 12 when the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus denied that charge and instead says he casts out demons by the Spirit of God. And Jesus told them that this demonstrated that the kingdom of God had come upon them. In other words, Jesus accomplished miracles in his human flesh because of the Holy Spirit. Those Spirit wrought miracles showed that Jesus was right before God before all who witnessed those miracles, including his critics. Third, and especially, we see that Jesus was justified in the resurrection. Romans 1:3 says that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead. 1 Peter 3:18 specifically attributes Jesus’ resurrection to the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit raised up Jesus from the dead it declared that he was not guilty of the charges that had been brought against him. It also showed his victory over death that he won even for his saints. And so, in all this, Jesus was justified wonderfully by the Spirit. And that is good news for us, because the whole point of the gospel is that we too can be justified if we are in Christ by faith. As we put our faith in Christ, we are justified because he is justified. And this justification is not of human or earthly origin. It is heaven declaring the justification, through the Holy Spirit! How great is this mystery of godliness!

The third line in this poem is “seen by angels.” Here we ask, what does this refer to? There are a number of times when Jesus was seen by angels. Of course, both before the incarnation and after the incarnation, Jesus was seen by angels. Revelation 5 even speaks of them worshipping Jesus after his ascension. But where this is at in the poem draws me to consider how Jesus was seen by angels during his earthly ministry. In fact, he was, several times. At his birth, they heralded his coming. After he went through the probation of the wilderness testing after his baptism, there angels ministered to him. At the Garden of Gethsemane, during his final hour of temptation to forgo the cross, he went to God in prayer for help, and there again, an angel appeared to strengthen him. But surely this line, “seen by angels” also has in view the resurrection. Remember, who was there at the empty tomb. There were angels there. They were the first to bear witness to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. That eye-witness testimony of angels began what has continued on today through many humans. Angels testify to the risen Lord Jesus! How great is this mystery of godliness!

The fourth line of the poem is “preached among the Gentiles.” And so here it describes how Jesus has been proclaimed to the nations. Remember, that’s what the word “Gentiles” means. It’s referring to all the different nations and kinds of peoples throughout the world. The Greek word is the word ethnos from where we get the English word ethnicity. And so, this wonderful line infers the Gentile inclusion in the church. In the Old Testament, the revelation of God largely came to a single nation, the Israelites. Yes, there were some exceptions to that. And yes, the Old Testament prophesied how one day God’s truth would go out to the ends of the earth. But that has now begun to be realized with the coming of Jesus Christ. This revelation of God in human flesh, has been proclaimed to the nations. This Jesus who was declared righteous and vindicated by the Holy Spirit, has been preached to all the peoples. The risen Jesus whose resurrection was witnessed by both men and angels, is being testified to everyone. This is in fact what Jesus commanded his disciples to be doing. He sent them out to the world with his gospel truth. He told them and therefore us to be making disciples of all the nations. He sent them to the ends of the earth. Jesus even said in Matthew 24 that he won’t be coming back until the gospel has been proclaimed throughout the world. And that is what is happening. That is what we continue to do even here today. This wonderful poem continues to be proven true even this very moment. How great is this mystery of godliness!

The fifth line of the poem is “believed on in the world.” This is a wonderful complement to the last line. Not only is Jesus being proclaimed to everyone. People are coming to believe in him everywhere! This is encouraging because we also know how the Bible talks about how so many in this world reject him and won’t believe in him. Yet, despite this, many have believed. Paul rejoices in Colossians 1:6 how the gospel was bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world. And in Revelation 7:9 we have that wonderful picture of what heaven will look like when we get there. There will be a great multitude beyond number from every tongue, tribe, and nation praising God and his Christ. They’ll be saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”. That will be amazing to see and to be a part of! How great is this mystery of godliness!

The last line of the poem is “received up in glory.” This has in mind Jesus’ ascension up into heaven after the resurrection. Shortly before going to the cross, Jesus had prayed that the Father would glorify him with the glory that he had with the Father before the world existed. Jesus was obviously looking ahead to the ascension when he would return to heaven and be at the right hand of the Father. There, indeed, is great glory for Jesus. In Acts 5:31, Peter declares that God has now exalted Jesus to God’s right hand. I can only imagine the glory in heaven in receiving back the risen and exalted Lord Jesus. In our VBS that we are planning for this summer, the theme is “The King is Coming.” I’m anticipating doing a lot of excited chanting along those lines, that the King is coming! Well, can you imagine heaven when Christ returned? When he went out, he went out as the Eternal Son of God, only divine, with a mission to accomplish, a mission of the ages, a mission to save a people unto God for all eternity. And then when he returns he comes back now as the God-man. He comes back as the victor over sin and death. He comes back in glory not just with that glory that is due to him as the Son of God. But he comes in the glory that he won as the Messiah, as the King of God’s people who conquered Satan and purchased a people with his own blood. Think of the homecoming when Jesus went to heaven in such glory to go such glory.

And if all that is not wonderful enough, then think of our connection in this. Colossians 3 in one breath says that Christ is in heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, and then in another breath says that our life right now is hidden with Christ. In other words, it’s saying that there is a sense in which we are there with Jesus right now in glory. Ephesians 1:20 similarly says that right now we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Because of our union with Christ, since Christ has been received up in glory, we have been received up in glory. Right now, we only partake of this glory by faith. But there is coming a day when Christ will return to bring us to glory in bodies made anew, bodies and souls fit for glory. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. And so, the fact that Christ has already been received up in glory, reminds us of our own hope of glory that we have in Christ. How great is this mystery of godliness!

Saints of God, let us confess with great excitement again today this glorious truth. How great indeed is this mystery of godliness! As Paul says, without controversy we confess how great this is! Without question. Without a doubt. This is so great, wonderful, so amazing, so marvelous! Look to Christ again today. Jesus Christ for us is heaven come to earth to bring us up to heaven. Heaven and earth are brought together in Jesus Christ. That’s what this song sings to us today! Jesus “was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory.” See Christ in this song, and so see yourself in it as well!

In conclusion, I leave us with a rather practical application. Given how verse 16 was surely used back then, and how it continues to be used today, I would say this. This short but beautiful poetry reminds us of the value of memorizing Scripture and song. Of course, I refer to worthy songs, scriptural songs, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that are rich in the teachings of God’s word. See the value in memorizing Scripture and song. And when you memorize them, then speak them and sing them, both to yourself and to others. And to bring this back full circle to the context of this passage: See that as you memorize such Scripture and song, that you’ll be more equipped to support the cause of truth in this world. And you will also know better how to conduct yourself in the household of God. Praise be to the Lord. Amen.

Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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