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New Horizons

The Mystery of Godliness

Neil Tolsma

Great is the mystery of godliness (1 Tim. 3:16). The first Christians recognized this mystery as being of paramount significance. They were agreed on this truth. But what is "the mystery of godliness"?

Paul defines the mystery of godliness by quoting what many scholars believe is a hymn that the early church sang as it confessed and celebrated this wonderful truth. In remarkable poetry, it describes the mission accomplished by Jesus Christ:

He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16)

Discovering True Godliness

Paul prefaces the hymn by giving his reason for writing: "I am writing you these instructions so that ... you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (3:14-15). At the heart of Paul's pastoral advice, we find the hymn describing the mystery of godliness.

It comes as something of a surprise—this sudden talk about a mystery. It looks like an abrupt switch in thought. Paul plugs in this hymn, and then he goes back to practical advice.

It looks to us like finding a diamond among the everyday tools of your trade: hammer, screwdriver, diamond ring, wrench. A deacon should be the husband of one wife. Great is the mystery of godliness. False teachers are going to come.

In truth, this hymn fits in beautifully. Think of it this way: hammer, screwdriver, blueprint, wrench. The objective of Paul's advice is that Timothy's people live "peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" in this world (2:2)—a godliness shaped by the truth celebrated in the hymn.

What Is Godliness?

Godliness can be thought of as piety or devotion. The language of the covenant comes to mind: being holy as the Lord our God is holy. Paul urges the pursuit of godliness since it has "value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (4:7-8). Godliness is crucial to Christian life and sanctification.

Go into a Christian church today and ask, "What does it mean to be godly?" You often will hear: "It means to read your Bible, pray, and go to church regularly."

But as important as these things may be, they are not the measure of true godliness. Instead, Paul points to the life of Jesus.

Why Call It a Mystery?

When we ordinarily use the word mystery, we might say, "It is a mystery to me. I don't know anything about it."

The New Testament gives the word a different twist. A Bible mystery is something that we could not figure out ourselves. Once hidden, it has been made known to us by God with the coming of Jesus (Rom. 16:25-26; Col. 2:2). It is a secret that has been made public. Jesus insisted: "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 13:11 NASB).

Paul explains that God has given us a remarkable revelation regarding godliness. The ultimate reference and sure ground of what we are and how we are to live is found in our Savior's godliness. Therefore, Christ stands central in the confession of the church. His godliness is honored by the adoring angels in heaven and followed by believers on earth.

The Message of the Hymn

There is a progression in this hymn. We move by way of contrast and comparison between two worlds, this world and the next, this age and the one to come. The poet takes us from the earthly realm to the heavenly, then from the heavenly back to the earthly, and finally from earthly to heavenly. This marks the sequence from our Lord's humiliation in the first line to his exaltation in the last line.

The first stanza of two lines encapsulated the Jesus event. In a sense, it outlines the message of the poem.

He appeared in a body—or, was revealed in the flesh (NASB). "Flesh" points to our human situation, to this world and life in it. The flesh is weak and temporary. Psalm 90:6 comes to mind: "Though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered."

True godliness finds its beginning in the Son of God incarnate. Jesus came "in the likeness of sinful man" (Rom. 8:3). In the flesh, he humbled himself, was crucified, and died. We went to the grave condemned for our guilt. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us" (2 Cor. 5:21).

He was vindicated (justified) by the Spirit. The grave could not hold him.

Christ arose! Here the heavenly verdict is declared. He was recognized by God himself as the innocent one who paid the price of sin. He is the justified one, alive in the realm of the Spirit. His humiliation was not a matter of disgrace, but a matter of obedience to the Father's will.

The proclamation of the Jesus event is covered in the second stanza of two lines.

He was seen by angels. Our Lord's self-giving love provoked cosmic interest. Even angels were captivated by the suffering and consequent glory of Christ (1 Pet. 1:11-12).

On the other hand: He was preached among the nations. The ministry of Jesus was not only witnessed by angels, but was publicly declared among the nations. In this world, he has been made known as the Savior who was exalted by the Father after he humbled himself unto death for his people.

The final couplet outlines the response to the Jesus event.

He was believed on in the world. In this present age, many have come to believe in him. His life of self-denial did not adversely impact his being received by faith by many. Indeed, their boast is in the cross of Christ, through which the world has been crucified to them, and they to the world.

The concluding line: He was taken up in glory. "Let all God's angels worship him" (Heb. 1:6). Jesus' triumph on earth is linked to his triumph in heaven. God recognized the achievement of the humble Savior and highly exalted him. The angels respond to him who is the victorious Lord of glory seated at the Father's right hand: "Worthy is the Lamb" (Rev. 5:12).

There you have the heart of godliness. In the mission of Jesus our Savior, true godliness was made known in this world and the next. His life of condescending love, in humbly giving of himself for his people in obedience to the Father, is the epitome of godliness. Hid in Christ, we are made able and seek to live according to his example.

The Poem's Significance

The secret to godliness is revealed in Jesus' life and also in his teaching. He taught self-denial with the assurance of heavenly blessing: "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 10:39). This theme is found in all four gospels. It is not a casual idea.

Paul did not treat it casually. He emphasized Jesus' message in his own teaching. As we look at the significance of the hymn, we will want to consult the more detailed parallel hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. Here Paul directly connects Jesus' godliness to our own: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" (vss. 3-5).

He concludes that we ought to "do everything without complaining or arguing" (2:14). Therefore, he instructs two women to cease their arguing and "agree with each other in the Lord" (4:2). Godliness is two women in Philippi being reconciled as they humbly think of the other as better than themselves.

The life of Jesus provides the pattern for godliness. In order to reproduce Christ's godliness in your own life, you are not required to be like the marine who throws himself on the live grenade to save the lives of his buddies. The better example is our Savior stooping to wash his disciples' dirty feet (John 13:15).

Peter considered the example of the suffering Christ and concluded: "Live in harmony with each other; ... be compassionate and humble ... because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing" (1 Pet. 3:8-9).

We can deny ourselves without fear of losing the advantage. As you humbly live for others in the rough and tumble of everyday life, be assured that the Father who sustained and exalted Jesus will sustain and honor you. You are secure in Christ.

This is the wonder of the mystery of godliness. Two worlds are set before us: this world of humble service and the new creation of eternal blessing. "We share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" (Rom. 8:17). Celebrate it in deeds and song.

The author is a retired OP pastor. Unless otherwise indicated, he quotes the NIV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2008.

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