1 Timothy 3:16
Great Is the Mystery of Godliness
I was so concerned yesterday to make sure that we all knew that the gospel is something that is not subject to our personal experience but is something in and of itself and which has a definite content and meaning (and I did this because we live in a day when people so naturally measure the value of things by their own personal experiences) that I forgot to deal with the first line: “Great, indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness,” which Paul then explains by reciting the hymn, the first part of which we took up yesterday.
Now I have said elsewhere that “mystery” in the Bible does not mean what we are accustomed to thinking today. A mystery in the Bible is something that has been (at least partially) revealed. In another place, Paul defines this mystery as “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). So the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “mystery of godliness,” and as we said yesterday, that mystery is encapsulated in our Lord’s Incarnation (including his sinless life and death), resurrection, and ascension. This is the mystery of godliness, and it is the way which leads to godliness for those who receive it. Yesterday, we took up the first three lines of the hymn which spoke to those three events of our Lord’s life; today we take up the last three lines of the hymn which speak to what has happened in the world as a result of our Lord’s Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension. He was:
“Proclaimed among the nations.” The nation of Israel was founded by God to be a light to the nations. This was prophesied by Isaiah (60:3) and the entire account of Jonah preaches it; that is, that the gospel is to be proclaimed to all the nations. And through the Church, it has.
“Believed on in the world.” This was also part of the mystery, that the gentiles would also believe and come to the knowledge of the truth (Colossians 1:27). This was the promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) which will one day have its ultimate fulfillment (Romans 11:25-32).
“Taken up in glory.” The natural interpretation is again that this refers to the ascension of our Lord as did line three. So why the repetition? Coming after the proclamation of the gospel and its acceptance among the nations, perhaps this “taken up in glory” is more inclusive—one that includes us as well at the end of time. At any rate, the primary focus of the hymn remains on Christ from the first line to last, for he is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). Great, indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness!
It is not my intention to bore people with literary lessons of which I am barely an amateur, but I would like to call believers’ attention to the beauty of, not just what the Bible says, but how it says it.
If you have a Bible that gathers verses into paragraphs, then yours also probably sets this hymn off in a different way, indicating that it should be understood as a unit, but different from the rest of the letter. Perhaps it is set off like this:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
Such an arrangement by the editors reveals that they believe that the first three lines (stanza) are one part while the second three lines (stanza) are another. The original Greek did not set the lines off this way; scholars make such determinations based upon syntax, rhythmical structure, meter, etc.
What I would like to alert you to, however, is the literary device Paul was using known as “parallelism.” It is found in many places in the Bible, especially in Psalms and Proverbs where the Hebrews used the device to great effect. Why? Because such devices make memorization easier in oral cultures than using just plain prose. The question is, “What lines are parallel to one another?” If we letter the lines a-f, a and d make a nice couplet (manifested and then proclaimed), b and e make a nice couplet (vindicated and then believed on), and c and f make a nice couplet (seen by angels and taken up in glory). So you have an a/d, b/e, c/f arrangement.
But what if it is abc-cba, what is sometimes called a “chiasm.” In such an arrangement, a (revealed in the flesh) goes with -a (taken up in glory), b (vindicated by the Spirit) with -b (believed in the world), and c (was seen by angels) with -c (preached among the nations). This arrangement is more “antithetical,” that is, each couplet is grouped according to its opposite.
It could be either, both, or something else. The point is to show that the biblical writers didn’t just write any ole way they would; the Holy Spirit moved them not only to write God’s word but to write it well—in a way that would be beautiful and pleasing to read. Our God is Goodness itself, Truth itself, and Beauty itself—the quintessence of all three. Never forget that.