By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness:
He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory. – 1 Tim. 3:16
This is the fourth post in a series in which we are looking at Paul’s first letter to Timothy, and how this epistle can help us be more effective in sharing the gospel. In particular, we are exploring what we can learn from this letter about how our speech and conduct affects our witness and the church’s overall mission.
Every now and then I live out a moment that gives meaning to the term “right under your nose.” Such moments can be almost embarrassing in their naivety, such as when I find myself frantically searching for my cellphone only to realize I was actually holding it the whole time (yes that has happened). Or they can be more subtle, like struggling to find the hidden meaning in a phrase or expression that has no hidden meaning. Or better yet, finding the hidden meaning in something I had not seen before.
In my journey through 1 Timothy, I stumbled across one of these “right under my nose” moments when I arrived at 1 Tim. 3:16. There are quite a few significant 3:16’s in the Bible; verses like John 3:16, 2 Tim. 3:16 and Rev. 3:16, which we find particularly worthy of note and even memorization. But if you haven’t already, I would invite you to add 1 Tim 3:16 to the list. It not only is a beautiful confession Paul has given us; it also is a great way to share the joy of what we believe. So let’s dig into it a little deeper.
The mystery of godliness
Paul begins with the statement “great is the mystery of godliness.” But what does he mean by this? The Greek word translated mystery here, much like its English counterpart, speaks of a secret, such as a secret teaching or rite. The godliness Paul refers to is unrevealed to the spiritually blind; beyond comprehension to those who don’t know Christ. True godliness is a deep, divine enigma that cannot be revealed but through the prism of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet as deep as the mystery is, Paul sets forth a simple confession that, if we accept it, solves the mystery.
Commenters have noted the parallels Paul draws in the confession between matters of earth and those of heaven. The first couplet, for instance, draws a link between flesh (worldly) and Spirit (heavenly), the second between angels (heavenly) and nations (worldly), and the third between human belief (worldly) and resurrection (heavenly). Thus, we see a literary technique referred to as chiasm (ab/ba/ab). This structure brings doctrinal belief to life. Through it we experience the love of God through the jaw-dropping measures He took to redeem us, which was the ministry of Jesus.
He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit
Jesus began His ministry by emptying Himself of glory (Phil 2:2-7); by meeting us where we are (on earth) and in the same condition (human) we are in. He became both fully God and fully man, bound by flesh but never by sin. I can’t fathom the experience of being the uncreated God who voluntarily becomes as though He was created – that is physically present in created form. Apparently, it was equally unimaginable to the people Jesus revealed Himself to. Thus, He was “vindicated in the Spirit”; empowered through the Holy Spirit to perform miracles that only God could perform.
Through His earthly ministry, Jesus became as a man, but was proven as God. This presents a few questions all people must consider: (1) Do you believe this? (2) If you do not, on what basis to you consider it untrue? Who do you believe Jesus was? (3) If you do believe, are you reaching those who don’t? The next couplet addresses both question 2 and 3.
Seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations
Do you believe in angels? Do you believe angels? If so, Paul reminds us that you have all the testimony you need to accept the deity of Christ.
We may tend to overlook it, but it is remarkable how many times angels appeared to either testify about or minister to Jesus in the gospels. They appeared to Joseph (Mt. 1:20-24; 2:13-15; 2:19-20). They appeared to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). They appeared to the shepherds in the field (Luke 2:8-15). They appeared to the women with Jesus in His ministry (Mt. 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 24:1-7; John 20:11-13). And, of course, they appeared to and ministered to Jesus Himself (Mt. 4:11; Mark 1:13; Luke 22:43). If angels are your eyewitnesses, I would say you have a pretty strong case!
But Paul here not only reminds us of the angelic witness regarding Christ, he also reminds us why Christ came. He didn’t come to be seen by angels. He came to be seen by (and proclaimed to) the world. The Greek world for “nations” can be translated as any body of people that are united by kinship or culture. More specifically, however, it refers to Gentile nations – or those outside of the people of Israel. In other words, it refers to those separated from God. Christ came to be proclaimed as the one true hope of the nations. He came to be seen not by the divine community of heaven, but the lost community on earth. His story, the Gospel, has been proclaimed ever since, and will be proclaimed until every nation has heard (Mark 13:10).
Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory
Finally, Paul’s confession reminds us of the absolute, divine goodness of the news we have been given. First, that there went before us a legion of saints – the apostles, their followers, and the church they founded – who not only embraced the gospel, but made sure we heard it. Second, that Jesus, having been accepted as our Redeemer, was proven through His resurrection. He was taken up to heaven and received in glory (Acts 1:9). In these verses we see the core of our purpose; that we are to take the gospel to the nations (Mt. 28:19-20). And we see the core of our hope and joy, that like Jesus and because of Jesus we too will someday be taken up in glory.
It’s a brief but powerful confession Paul gives us. It is a great daily reminder of both the hope we have and the news we have to share. Praise God.
 Andreas Köstenberger, “1 Timothy,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition), ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 531.