10 August 2013

1 Timothy 3:16

"Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory." (v. 16)


A mystery could be a case for Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. It could be something that will remain unanswered for a long time. Or it could, in a religious sense, be a secret revealed only to a select few; a new level of understanding reserved for the elite. At least, that was the sort of mystery that was sought after in the Greek and Roman cultures of the first century. In this personal letter to one of his dearest friends and protégés, Paul writes to Timothy to encourage him as a young leader in the Church, and he includes this strange verse on "the mystery of our religion" (or "the mystery of godliness"). Timothy may have been ministering in Ephesus at the time, and that was a hotbed of religious ideas and cults, where 'mysteries' that could enhance your life were valuable commodities. In that context, what does the Christian faith have to offer so many opposing and varied views?

Paul presents this in the form of a "mystery": a secret code or riddle where the true meaning will be known only to insiders. It's deliberately not as explicit or comprehensible as many of the great statements of faith. And yet, for all it is presented as a mystery, the answer and the life-giving truth within it are meant to be shared with everyone! This verse would, in times that followed, be memorised like a chorus, creed, or prayerful mantra by the growing church, reflecting on these words in the context of a new life of faith, following Jesus.

Six lines. Three pairs of lines relating to each other. Like an ancient game of Top Trumps, each line reveals how Jesus the Messiah beats anything else the Greek or Roman world had to offer, building up the theological layers as we go. Jesus isn't mentioned by name, but there's only one person in history this could refer to.

First, "he was revealed in flesh". Sent by God, not only appearing on earth, but manifested as a genuine human being. Christians meditating on this passage would also reflect that this human life, also led to a very human death. So the second line answers that: "he was vindicated in the Spirit". The Spirit that created the world showed Christ to be justified by raising him from death. In Christ, God enters first into creation, and then initiates 'new creation'.

The next pair is even more enigmatic! He was "seen by angels". This most likely refers to Christ's ascension to the heavenly realm, appearing before the angels as the risen Son of God. But, it's important to understand that his kingdom is now extending beyond heaven: and so he was "proclaimed among the Gentiles" (ie the nations of the world) and still is today. Part of the work of God's kingdom is to bring into effect in all places the rule of Christ. And so he is proclaimed to the Gentiles as Lord - like the announcement of a new emperor claiming the allegiance of the people. This would be powerful and controversial stuff in the Roman Empire (where religion and politics were never separate). It should be powerful stuff today.

Finally, he was "believed throughout the world", and "taken up in glory". Again we are shown both the heavenly and earthly realities side-by-side. Jesus is not just 'announced', he is being accepted. People are accepting his claim on their lives, and putting their faith and trust in him. This is the life-changing part. When this happens, the unseen reality that Jesus the Lord of all is glorified in heaven rightly becomes the focus of our worship.

This little song, and the truths hidden within it, deserves much more thought and meditation than we've given it over the years. And, like all the songs of salvation this week, it invites us to lift our hearts and our lives to the great and wonderful things God has done for us in Christ, and is doing, and will do when all things are brought together in his love.

To Ponder

  • If you had to write it on a Post-It note, how would you express your faith in just six short lines?
  • To what extent do we sometimes accept parts of our faith as 'mystery' (ie that will never be explained) without seeking to explore them further?
  • How can we spread the liberating message of Christ's lordship and love to a world of so many mixed messages? How can we enable people not just to hear our proclamation, but to actually put their faith in the Lord we preach?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Murphy

Andrew Murphy is married to Emily and they have two children, Phoebe (aged 4) and Benjamin (aged 18 months). Andy is the superintendent minister of the Market Harborough Circuit (a small circuit in the south of Leicestershire, and over the border into Northants). Previously, Andy’s ministry was based in Barwell in the Hinckley Circuit for eight years. And before that, he trained at the Wesley Study Centre in Durham, close to his home-town of Consett. Andy has a passion to help God’s people grow in faith, and occasionally writes hymns, sketches and songs. Spare time includes trips to play parks, watching Disney films or Postman Pat, reading Mr Men books, visiting Middle Earth, and reminiscing over the good old days of supporting Newcastle United. In the picture, Andy is the one in blue (and the snowman’s name is Olaf)!