1 Timothy 3:16
Great Is the Mystery of Godliness
And now that Paul has informed Timothy of the necessity of a church to protect and cherish the gospel of Jesus Christ from compromise with the world—indeed, it’s very pillar and bulwark—Paul now crystallizes exactly what that gospel is. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not something we may change, nor it is not something which we may “make relevant” to contemporary ears. It is not a “narrative” for me to appropriate in some personal way that speaks to me and my situation. The gospel of Jesus Christ has a definite content, and in these few verses, the Apostle tells us plainly what it is. Scholars think for good reason that Paul is actually reciting a hymn. If so, it is one of the earliest examples of a church hymn we have. (Paul is writing this letter in the early 60s, and so the date of the hymn would be earlier.) And (Wow!) could those early believers write hymns! And so what is the gospel:
1) “He was manifested in the flesh.” This speaks to our Lord’s Incarnation—that the Son of God came down from heaven at a specific moment in time and assumed the humanity of an unborn child in Mary’s womb prepared by the operation of the Holy Spirit upon her. This was so that he could be the spotless and sinless Lamb who would be our substitute taking the wrath of God upon Himself.
2) “Vindicated by the Spirit.” This speaks to his resurrection as the one who conquered death and the grave. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and he had not sinned. Thus, he was unjustly condemned and so must be justly vindicated. His resurrection does just that.
3) “Seen by angels.” Though more difficult to interpret this seems to suggest his ascension forty days after his resurrection. Of course, he was seen by angels throughout his ministry (e.g., Mark 1:13), but such an occasion as his enthronement at the Father’s right hand would no doubt demand the attendance of the entire heavenly court. To understand this line as referring to his ascension also follows chronologically from the first two.
These three events (Incarnation, resurrection, ascension) are the hinges upon which the gospel and all Christian theology turn. They are understood as historical events in Scripture and must be so understood by us as well. And even Paul would say that without them, what happened on that road to Damascus was a mirage (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).