“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” – 1 Timothy 3:16
Paul says that the greatness of the mystery of godliness is without controversy. Apparently, certain men see this as a challenge.
1 Timothy 3:16 is one of the clearest statements in the Bible of the deity of Jesus Christ. It straightforwardly states, “God was manifest in the flesh”, and so Christians teach that God was manifest and only manifest in the flesh in the Lord Jesus Christ.
For this reason, 1 Timothy 3:16 is contested by Muslims, Bible skeptics, and other anti-Christians.
The controversy surrounds whether the Bible words can be trusted in this verse, and whether the verse is talking about Christ at all.
On both issues, Bible believers stand certain that the Bible is without error, perfectly preserved through history, and that the plain reading is the best reading.
This position is justified by other passages that teach the same doctrine (e.g Col 2:9, John 1:14). The clear and plain meaning of the text is that God was manifest in the flesh in Christ Jesus. The mystery of godliness is that we no longer preach God’s law for righteousness and perfection, but Jesus Christ.
Replacing God with Men
Would you believe that Christians dispute this passage?
Departing from the preserved historical text of the King James Bible, it has been the fashion of Bible translators, scholars, and Bible teachers to remove the word “God” from the verse, because they do not trust the preservation of the historical Bible at this place.
They replace “God” in this passage with “He”, which could be anyone. This blatant correction of God’s words removes the teaching of the deity of Christ from the verse and opens the door to strange interpretations.
One such interpretation was taught by brother C.R. Stam, known to many who read this website, who also corrected the Bible text liberally, and whose teaching on this passage is still taught in grace circles.
Brother Stam taught that the passage is not talking about Christ, but about believers walking in godliness in the church . The teaching goes like this: God is manifest in the flesh of every believer; and believers are the ones justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up into glory.
At the very least, this is a bizarre spiritual interpretation, but at most, it is heresy of the highest order replacing God with men, and making men the same as Christ. In either case, it requires correcting the Bible which is entirely unacceptable.
God Manifest in the Flesh
Our old man is dead, Jesus died in our stead, and now our life is lived by faith of the Son of God (Gal 2:20). This does not make us God manifest in the flesh.
God manifest in the flesh is Jesus Christ, not us. He is and ever was fully capable of exercising every deity attribute. We are not.
He is the fullness of the Godhead bodily, one with the Father and Spirit. We are mere created men, that God by his grace blesses with a life in Christ. We receive glory, but not deity.
God is not manifest in our flesh to others. No matter how godly we live, we will never be God. When we are baptized into Christ, we are not made a new member of the Godhead. When we trust the gospel, no one sees Christ living in us which is why we must walk by faith and not sight (Gal 2:20; 2 Cor 5:7). Christ does not live in us by our works, but by faith in the gospel.
When people see us growing in godliness and Christ being magnified in us, what they see is not God, but God’s workmanship in Christ (Eph 2:10). When people look at me they are not looking at God no matter how well I behave.
We live in the flesh by faith, but we are not God manifest in the flesh, and do not become God when we believe. We are never fit in ourselves to be the foundation of the church, and the mystery of godliness in 1 Timothy 3:15-16.
Justified in the Spirit
The phrase “justified in the Spirit” in 1 Timothy 3:16 is used in defense of the view that God manifest in the flesh is the church and not Christ. They say, “God does not need justified!”
Indeed, God is not a sinner nor ungodly, that he needs to be justified by some sort of grace. However, justification simply means to declare right. Without God’s grace, justification can only be for righteous ones. God is the only who is righteous.
God is perfectly righteous. Jesus Christ was God, and he was perfectly righteous. Whereas, we are justified by God’s grace, God is justified by his own righteousness.
God can also be justified by his sayings, and by his actions (Rom 3:4). Sinners “justified God” in Christ in Luke 7:29. They were not relieving God of sins, nor making God righteous. They simply acknowledged him to be right through what Christ said, which he truly was.
The most important justification of Christ being the Son of God was by his resurrection where Paul says:
“And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead:” – Romans 1:4
Yes, God was manifest in the flesh in Jesus Christ, and God was in Christ justified in the Spirit.
Preached Unto the Gentiles
Furthermore, if God manifest in the flesh is the church, then why is the church preached unto the Gentiles, and believed on in the world?
It would be absurd to say, the church is preached unto the world, no matter how godly we behave. We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus (2 Cor 4:5)!
Contrary to the thought of many pious religionists who want to elevate the church to the level of Christ’s sinless life testimony, our testimony to the world is not good behavior and appearances, it is the godliness found only by faith in Christ Jesus.
The church is not preached unto the Gentiles, nor are we the object of men’s belief.
1 Timothy 3:16 is not giving a chronological order of events, but six descriptions of what God was doing in Christ, ending with the most significant for identifying Christ, and for hope in the church. God manifest in the flesh did not remain on this earth, but was received up into glory.
It is true that the church will also be “received up into glory”, but that is as a consequence of Christ who was resurrected first to give us the hope of glory (1 COr 15:20; 2 Tim 2:8; Rom 4:25).
Christ alone is the foundation upon which we build the church (1 Cor 3:11). Do not make our foundation the church, or godly behavior. Maintain the truth of the Bible pure and uncorrected that God was manifest in the flesh is only found in Jesus Christ.
Mystery of Godliness
Our old man is dead. Jesus died in our stead, and now our life is lived by faith in the Son of God, who is the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone was God manifest in the flesh, and fully capable of exercising every deity attribute.
We live in the flesh by faith, but we are not God manifest in the flesh and do not become God when we believe. God manifest in the flesh is Jesus Christ, not us. We are not God manifest in the flesh, nor should we claim ourselves as the foundation of the church and the mystery of godliness in 1 Timothy 3:15-16.
Nevertheless, truly, great is the mystery of godliness.
For godliness no longer comes by our obedience to the law, but from our obedience of faith toward the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the foundation of the church, the preaching of Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, received up into glory, which is according to the revelation of the mystery.
1 – Pastor Stam’s Bible Time teaching can be found on the Berean Bible Society’s website here. His teaching can also be found in his commentary on this passage in the book Pastoral Epistles. Though he was not the origin of this teaching, nor is he the only one that has taught it, he may be the source for many in grace circles.