First Timothy 3:15-16 introduces a hymn which is older than the New Testament! Believers began singing shortly after Jesus rose from the dead and it quickly spread throughout the churches as a declaration of their faith in the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. But before Paul quoted the lyrics, he tells us what really concerned him. Paul wasn’t interested in whether that hymn had a catchy tune or not. His key concerns were: belief and behavior—the church is the “pillar and support of the truth”, and he wrote Timothy these things so that folks would conduct themselves properly in the church, which is God’s household.
I am writing these things to you…so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. By common confession great is the mystery of godliness: Christ was displayed in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit. Seen by angels, proclaimed among pagans. Believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
Paul said this was a “common confession”, the truths in this ancient hymn were agreed upon by all true believers everywhere by about the year 50AD. In Paul’s day, and in many places around the world today, confession of Christ as the risen savior of the world could get you killed (1 Timothy 6:12- 13). Persecution gives us opportunity for confessing our faith, and we in America increasingly are going to get opportunities to bring glory to God by confessing Christ to our persecutors. Paul said that this common confession “is the great mystery of godliness”. Biblically speaking, a “mystery” is information which is outside the range of unassisted natural intelligence. It must be made known by divine revelation. In the ordinary sense a “mystery” implies knowledge withheld. This hymn is about truth which produces behavior which is pleasing to God. Today, songs are written to entertain us, but this hymn was written to edify us.
Christ was displayed in the flesh: To be “displayed” is more than merely to “appear.” A person can “appear” but not be recognized for who he truly is. Most of the people who came in contact with Jesus didn’t recognize his true character as the eternal Son of God, the one true God-Man (John 1:10-14). To many he looked like a common man. His enemies called him a “deceiver” and a “blasphemer” when he claimed to be God’s Son (Colossians 1:26-27 & 2 Corinthians 4:3-6). That conclusion about Jesus didn’t have the power to make you godly. But when you choose to believe that Jesus truly is the unique, sinless God-Man, then you’re on your way to godliness! The Bible teaches that there is one God, who eternally has existed in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Spirit (“trinity”). The Father is God. The Son is God. The Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son is not the Father or the Spirit. And the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Confusing? Sure—it’s a mystery! God is not simple, like us. He’s awesome and mind-boggling. But this is what the Bible teaches about our God. This is our common confession.
God’s Son was displayed in the flesh, but he also was vindicated in the Spirit. The Greek word translated “vindicated” denotes “the act of pronouncing righteous, justified, acquitted.” The Holy Spirit did this for Jesus several times during Jesus’ earthly life (Matthew 3:16-17). But God does not force people to believe the Spirit’s vindication of Jesus. He gives us ample evidence, but he does not compel us to believe (John 12:28-29). Believing these truths causes us to be born again, and as a result, God changes our behavior, making us godly. Personally receiving complete forgiveness obligates us to forgive in the same way. Seeing Jesus’ sacrifice teaches us that no sacrifice done for for God is too great. It compels us likewise to live for God and to serve others. Seeing Jesus’ response to insults, betrayals, abuse, abandonment, false accusation, and physical harm gives us courage. Jesus really understands the pain. He shows us that suffering for God is never senseless or purposeless. Jesus stands ready to help us respond as he did. Seeing Jesus gives us a human picture of what God is like.
Christ was seen by angels (1 Peter 1:10-12). Angels got to look upon the divine Son of God when he began his public ministry thirty years later. Angels served Jesus when he was fasting for forty days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry. At the end of his earthly ministry, when he was suffering in the garden of Gethsemene, an angel strengthened him. But not only did angelic beings see him, Christ was proclaimed among pagans. At first glance, this might not seem so amazing. But here’s the point: after Jesus bled and died to purchase salvation, the critical task of proclaiming that redemption now is available was not entrusted to mighty angels. Mighty, holy angels don’t get that privilege. Instead we frail humans do. We musn’t blow it! (Romans 10:13-14; Mark 16:15-20).
Our last verse tells us that Christ was believed on in the world. All around the globe, Christ is trusted as Savior. Many people think of Christianity as a western religion, but Jesus is the Savior of the world (1 John 4:14). Christianity truly is a world religion. There are an estimated 2.18 billion Christians around the world, representing nearly a third of the global population. Christians are so geographically widespread that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity. Far from being a western or first-world religion, there now are more believers in the “two-thirds” world than in the West. There may be 100 million believers in China alone!
But this world is not Jesus’ home, so the last line of our hymn affirms that he was taken up in glory. This, of course, refers to his ascension into heaven (Luke 24:46-51; Hebrews 1:3; Ephesians 1:20- 21). Jesus is not “one god among many”. He is the Savior of the world; there is salvation in no other name. This is what the church believes. This is the church’s common confession. This is the truth for which the church is the pillar and support. When we confess this “mega mystery of godliness”, we are saved and God changes us. So we need to make sure that we believe it, that this is our common confession.
Application / Challenge
- If you don’t understand or believe this confession of faith, or if you want to understand it better, please contact us here. See the check box at the bottom of this form. Or, please get in touch with your pastors, elders, or your community group leader. If you are a Community Group Leader and you want to be able to help others understand it better, talk to us. We can recommend some resources. Feel free to contact us here, too: use this form and in the “Ministry Information Section” check “Growing My Faith” and we’ll get back in touch.
- Check out our semi-annual discipleship conference where we explore more biblical truths about our remarkable God: Cool Summer Nights, August 16-18, 2015.
- If you already understand and believe this, allow it to change you. That’s the subject of the next message in this series: Because of the Cross – Part 2 of 2: The Mega Mystery of Godliness
- If you believe this, then confess it! Confess it before believers who are misinformed; before your children; before co-workers and neighbors…ultimately even, before your persecutors. This is what the church has done for twenty centuries.