“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
Godliness is no secret. Yet, Paul says the mystery of godliness is without controversy in 1 Tim 3:16.
So, what is it?
Godliness and the Law
Some say godliness comes by the commandments God gave Israel to perform. Everyone knows this sort of godliness made known by the law and prophets since the world began.
Be holy even as God is holy. The man that doeth them shall live in them (Lev 18:5; Gal 3:12). This is also called religion.
Israel was promised to be a nation of priests ministering godly judgment to the world. The world would be blessed as the holy nation exhibited godliness and glory through God’s only established religion.
The problem with human godliness is that it does not exist. Israel failed to be proven godly on their own merits and effort. Paul says regarding the law:
“Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” – Rom 3:19-20
Living according to the law is not the mystery of godliness. Men are ungodly, that is no mystery.
Living Like Jesus
Others say godliness comes from living like Jesus lived. This apple does not fall far from the old religious tree.
When Christ came to Israel, he was born under the law and lived according to it (Gal 4:4; Matt 5:17). His birth and life were filled with prophetic fulfillment, law keeping, and commandment preaching.
Trying to live like Jesus lived is the same as living under the law. In addition, trying to live like Jesus raises the bar higher than the law since Jesus was the fullness of the Godhead bodily! This is something we will never be.
There are many things we cannot, should not, or would not do as Jesus did. Some things he did would be ungodly if we did them. This is no surprise since Jesus was God manifest in the flesh and we are not.
But doesn’t Paul say the mystery of godliness is God manifest in the flesh (1 Tim 3:16)? Is not Jesus God manifest in the flesh?
Yes, God manifest in the flesh is Jesus Christ, but how can Jesus Christ be the mystery of godliness if he came to fulfill prophecy and keep the law? The answer is found in the mystery of Christ.
A Mystery about Godliness
In 1 Timothy 3:16 Paul is not talking about the ministry of Christ to the circumcision. This was no mystery, but he is talking about Christ.
The mystery of godliness concerns hidden wisdom about Christ that has now been revealed (1 Cor 2:7-11).
The Spirit has revealed the mystery ordained before the world, that we would have what he calls the mind of Christ.
“For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” – 1 Cor 2:16
The mystery concerning godliness requires the mind of Christ as he was manifest in the flesh (1 Tim 3:16). It is this mind of Christ that the carnal Corinthians failed to put to practice (1 Cor 3:1).
Philippians reveals information the Corinthians could not handle: how to live with the mind of Christ according to the mystery. Since Christ is God, you could say Philippians is a book about the mystery of godliness.
The Mind of Christ
In chapter 1, we learn the centerpiece of Christian living is Christ himself (Phil 1:20-21), just like 1 Tim 3:16 says the mystery of godliness is Christ.
In chapter 2, Paul describes the mind of Christ similarly to how 1 Timothy 3 describes the mystery of godliness: God manifest in the flesh.
The list in 1 Timothy 3:16 is not a chronology of events, but rather three pairs of contrasts exemplifying the mind of Christ. Each can be cross referenced to Philippians 2:5-11.
1. “God manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit”
God was manifest in the flesh in Christ, but his justification was not in the flesh. When he came to Israel he came in the fashion as a man (Phil 2:6-9). By all appearances he looked like any other man, except he was not. He was God. He was justified in the Spirit, as the Spirit testified who he was (John 1:29-34; Acts 2:31-33; Col 2:9; Rom 3:4).
2. “seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles”
Being God, Jesus had been seen of angels in heavenly glory, and was known even by the devils as the Holy One of God. Yet, he made himself of no reputation and was preached unto men (Phil 2:6-9). Even the Gentiles, who never had any spiritual standing with God to make himself known by the foolishness of preaching.
3. “believed on in the world, received up into glory”
He was seen of angels, but had to be believed on in the world to things on the earth where he was made lower than the angels. It was from this world after his death, that he was exalted above every name to the glory of God the father (Phil 2:9-11).
The Mystery of Godliness = Christ
In chapter 3 of Philippians, Paul says life under the law, Israel, and the circumcision was all counted as loss for Christ (Phil 3:5-7).
Apparently, godliness is no longer measured by our ability to keep the law, or our closeness to Israel.
The mystery of godliness must be what Paul counts as gain which is the knowledge of Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8-11).
This is why Paul declares the mystery of godliness to be Christ. For the Christian, Christ is the principle, pattern, goal, and sufficiency of our life (A.C Gaebelein’s outline of the book of Philippians).
All of this was a mystery until first revealed to the apostle Paul. This is why without controversy great is the mystery of godliness. Who in the church will dispute Christ as our sanctification, righteousness, wisdom, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30-31).
We can debate the behavior of men in the church, the timing of the rapture, or our relationship to angels. The one thing that should be without controversy in the church as we maintain our stand as the pillar and ground of the truth is Jesus Christ.
The great mystery in 1 Timothy 3:16 has always been about Him.