If you would open your Bible to 1 Timothy chapter 3. I’m going to read that passage to you as the setting for the message this morning - 1 Timothy chapter 3, and verses 14, 15 and 16. “I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write 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: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
I want to focus, in particular, on those words that you see in verse 16, which most scholars would affirm is a hymn from the earliest life of the church. We see that as a hymn because of its unique structure. All the verbs are very much the same; they’re forms that are identical. There is in that verbal unity a kind of rhythm that fits poetry. And then you have parallels here: flesh and Spirit; nation, angels; world, glory; human, divine; heavenly, earthly; above and below. This is beautifully expressed theological poetry that I believe was once sung and could well be sung again by those who love the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now in the big scheme of things, Paul is writing a letter to Timothy. Timothy is the pastor at the time of the church in Ephesus. It’s a great church; it’s a powerful church, influential church that basically established all the other churches in Asia Minor. We have letters to those churches, all of them in Revelation 2 and 3 from the Lord Himself.
But Timothy was serving in that church, and Paul gives him this letter for a very clear purpose. Go back to verse 15: “that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God.” This particular letter is about life in the church, conduct in the church. And that really is – the whole letter is directed in that way. In chapter 1, the church is instructed to avoid myths and endless genealogies and speculation and all of that. Avoid those who are straying from the truth, false teachers. Stay away from immoral men, homosexuals, others who are unholy, who are violators of the law. Affirm the gospel. All these kinds of things: they’re warnings about false teachers, affirmations of the truth; and a great, sort of doxology comes toward the end of chapter 1.
Chapter 2 is a call to prayer. Women are instructed as to how they should behave. Chapter 3, elders, pastors, deacons are instructed as to their behavior. Chapter 4, a warning about false teachers and apostates. There are very important words given to the pastor himself at the end of chapter 4. Chapter 5 deals with widows and roles that they are to play in the life of the church. Deals with the issue of elders and how they are to be confronted. And then in chapter 6, there are instructions, important instructions, for those who have responsibility to carry the Word of God and need to, of all things of course, flee from the love of money. Closes with some instruction to Timothy to guard the treasure, guard the truth, guard the revelation of God.
So, it’s instruction for the life of the church. And that is summed up in what I just read you in verse 15 where the apostle Paul says, “This is written that you may know how to conduct yourself in the household of God.” “The household of God” simply sees the church as the Lord’s family. We are children of the Lord. We’re brothers and sisters in Christ. Our Father is the Lord Himself. Our true and eternal brother is Christ, who’s not ashamed to call us brothers. We are a new humanity. This is the church of Jesus Christ. We need instruction as to how we are to conduct ourselves.
Now I want you to notice that the household of God is a familiar title, I think, if we understand the church as the family of God and we are children of God. That’s pretty common in the New Testament. The next statement about the church is unique: “The church of the living God.” “The living God” is an Old Testament term; it appears a number of times in the Old Testament. God is “the living God”; and, of course, the reason that God is called “the living God” is not only because He is alive and because He is the source of life and giver of life, but because all other gods are dead, all other gods are fabrications, all other gods are nonexistent, so all other gods are dead. The whole world of idolatry worship, no gods – gods that they made of their own imagination and their own craftsmanship.
But there is one true, living God, and “the living God” is mentioned again in chapter 4, verse 10, “Our hope is on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” So the one, true, living God is the Savior of all men. So if you have salvation, it is salvation given to you by the one and only living God.
Actually, in the original language, this is what we would call an anarthrous construction. There’s not a definite article there, so it really would read, “The living God’s church. The living God’s church.” So “God” here is in the form of a possessive. It’s God’s church; it’s the living God’s church. You go back to Acts 20:28, it says, “He purchased it with His own blood.” God purchased the church with His own blood, which is to say God was in Christ then, incarnate, purchasing the church with His own blood. So in every sense, it is the living God’s church.
Looking at it from the human side, it is the family of God. We are members of the family of God. Looking at it from the divine side, it is the living God’s church. This belongs to Him, which lays upon us a very, very heavy responsibility to make sure we conduct ourselves in the living God’s church in a way that brings honor and glory to our living God. This is not something that you can design to fit your own impulses or your own whims or your own desires or the desires of the world around you. This is the living God’s church, and the living God has revealed in His Word how He is to be served and worshiped in His church.
Now beyond that, there’s a phrase that is given at the end of verse 15, which further designs our clarity in looking at the church. The church, which is the household of God – from our perspective, we’re members of the family of God, which is the living God’s church, from His perspective. He possesses it because He bought it with His blood. But the church then is described as “the pillar and support of the truth.” That is the bottom-line reality in the church. We hold up the truth.
“Pillar,” the word stulos, simply defines whatever holds up the roof. The other term here, “the support,” looks down, hedraiōma, to the foundation. So the whole goal of the church in its foundation and all its pillars is to hold up the truth. It supports the truth. This is the most defining reality about the church. You should walk into any church, anytime, and hear divine truth. That’s the church’s function.
Why does he use this kind of language? Because in the city of Ephesus there was a massive, massive temple. It was a temple to Artemis or Diana. Many of the gods of the ancients were androgynous or shifted from male to female. This particular city had a temple to Diana or Artemis which had 127 pillars. Had a massive foundation, then 127 pillars. Those pillars were made out of stone; then they were overlaid with marble; then they were overlaid with gold; and then they were studded with precious stones, precious jewels. So we also learn from history that each of these pillars was supposedly a gift from a king who wanted a good relationship with Ephesus, and so made a contribution to this massive pagan temple to idols.
The church, in contrast to that kind of structure that held up lies and deception and falsehood and represented the kingdom of darkness and Satan himself, the church is “the pillar and support of the truth,” the foundation of the truth. Most precious thing in the world is divine truth. It is the most precious thing. It is the only thing that saves, sanctifies, edifies, empowers, gives promise of eternal life. That is a very, very far-reaching and sweeping statement. And by the truth, we mean the truth that comes from the living God, that is consistent with the living God. So it upholds the truth of the living God, which truth we know to be revealed on the pages of Holy Scripture.
But what truth? What truth is he talking about? Well, all the truth that is revealed from God, of course, falls into the category of truth. But there’s one particular truth that is essential to the church, and that comes in verse 16. Here is where it all begins in the church: “by common confession.” That is to say all who are in the church confess this. This is uniform. And some translations even say, “without controversy,” kind of adding that to say that it isn’t even controversial; it isn’t even open to discussion. This is the common confession of all who are in the living God’s church, who are members of “the household of God,” who are part of that edifice which holds up divine truth.
Here is that common confession: “Great is the mystery of godliness.” That’s almost a cheer. It’s almost a cheer. Great, mega, is the mystery of godliness. Now why would Christians be shouting that as a cheer? It’s their “common confession.”
While there’s essentially a contrast here again with the temple of Diana, you can read in Acts 19 a couple of times – once in verse 28 and once in verse 34 – that when the pagans gathered to the temple of Diana and Artemis, they all shouted, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians! Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” It was their pagan cheer.
Well, Christians have a cheer as well. Ours is, “Great is the mystery of godliness!” What do you mean, “the mystery”? Well, “the mystery” is in the New Testament, something hidden that is now revealed; something hidden in the past, now revealed.
“The mystery of godliness” or godlikeness is this: “There is now revealed one who is godly, one who is godly.” Or even more specifically: “There is the revelation of God.” This is the common confession of all believers in the living God’s church. We don’t say, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” We don’t even say, “Great is the pastor.” We say, “Great is the godly One who is now revealed.”
And who is that? He is described in this song: “He was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” Who is that? It’s Jesus Christ. It’s Jesus Christ.
Here is our great confession, that, “The eternal God has been revealed in human flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, and taken up in glory.” This is the foundational confession of truth in the true church; and it is, in a sense, just to be stated, the fact that Jesus is God, the fact that Jesus is God - God revealed in the flesh. And then affirmed as God by the Spirit, by the angels, by the apostles, by those who believe, and by the Father who received Him back into glory. This is a Christological hymn. Six verbs flow through the chronology of the life of God revealed in human flesh.
But although it flows through His life – from His incarnation, revealed in the flesh; to His ascension, taken up into glory – it focuses particularly on His resurrection, particularly on His resurrection. Anyone who denies that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh is not a Christian. Any other than a true Christology, a true identity of the nature of Christ, is heresy, damning heresy. It’s another gospel, it’s another Christ, and those who propagate that are to be cursed. We’re familiar with those who offer a Christ that is not God, all the way from Mormonism to Islam. Cults and religions will inevitably attack the nature of the One who is God in human flesh. All Christians confess this, all of us, without controversy. It is the common confession.
Let’s look at the first one: “He who was revealed in the flesh.” Now please note, this speaks of His preexistence. It doesn’t say He was created in the flesh, it said, “He was revealed in the flesh,” phaneroō, “to make visible.” “To make visible” doesn’t mean that He came into existence; it affirms that He was always in existence but invisible.
Obviously, the eternal God is invisible. This is not saying Jesus is a created being. This is saying He is an eternal being, an eternal, invisible being, who became visible in human sarx, in human form. Jesus Christ makes the invisible, eternal God visible - visible in human form.
God the Holy One appears in human flesh. This is the message obviously of the gospel of John, which begins with these words, identifying the Son of God as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life.” This is the Son of God: eternally existing, eternally equal with the Father, eternally creating, and the very source of life. In fact, in that same chapter, verse 14, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory,” and it was the same kind of glory that belongs to the Father.
This is the common confession that is the foundation of all Christian faith: Jesus is God. He is God. Romans 1 says, “He was declared to be God.” You can read this testimony to the deity of Christ all through the New Testament. It is in many, many places. Just a couple to remind you.
In Colossians 1, speaking of Christ, it says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the premier One of all who have been created.” His human part, obviously, His human nature was created; His divine nature always existed. How do we know He was always existing? “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness” - all the fullness of the Godhead – “to dwell in Him.” Hebrews chapter 1 says He is the express image of God, the exact representation of divine nature.
The line of that hymn looks at the incarnation. Divine revelation, then, offers nothing so astonishing as the truth that there is one true, living God, who became a man; one true, living God, who became a man. Yes, He is three-in-one: Father, Son and Spirit. The One who is the Son became a man. This is the mystery of godliness.
Why is it called a mystery? Not because it’s mysterious. But “mystery” is a term Paul uses to speak of things hidden in the past and now revealed. It is no longer really a mystery; God has become a man.
Philippians chapter 2 says that “He did not think it something to be grasped” - to hold on to His equality with God – “but emptied Himself, took on the form of a man,” came into the world as a man. His life is clear evidence of this incarnation. So you really go from the virgin birth, in that first line, through His entire life. His life is a manifestation of His deity. He says, “You’ve seen Me, You’ve seen the Father. If you’re wondering who I am, look at the works. If you’re wondering who I am, look at My words. My works and words are ample testimony that I have come from heaven.”
So, the common confession of all true Christians is that Jesus is the invisible Son of God, eternal in nature, made a man. Why was He made a man? So that He might die for us. He had to be a man to die for men, to take our place. “He humbled Himself to death, even the death of the cross,” Philippians 2 says.
That is our confession, that the eternal, invisible God, the second person, became a man for the purpose of dying in our place. He dies as man, for man, paying in full the penalty for all who would believe the gospel. That takes us all the way to the cross.
The second statement about Him is this: “He was vindicated in” - or by – “the Spirit.” “He was vindicated in” - or by – “the Spirit.” He is holy. He is the invisible God made visible. How do we know that? Because “He was vindicated.” It’s really a form of dikaioō, which means “to be declared righteous or holy.” He is declared to be holy by the Spirit, or in the Spirit.
In fact, in 1 John 2:1, He’s called “Jesus Christ the righteous” One. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “He knew no sin.” Hebrews 4:15 says, “He was without sin.” Hebrews 7:26 says, “He was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners.” First John 3:5, “In Him was no sin.”
But how was that sinlessness validated? How was that sinlessness vindicated when He died under such a cloud of guilt? As far as the Jews were concerned, He was a blasphemer, and He was, by them, sent to death for blasphemy, the worst of all transgressions. As far as the Romans were concerned, He was a rebel, He was an insurrectionist. He was a threat to the Roman peace; He was a rival to Caesar. So on every level, when Jesus went to the cross, the world had judged Him anything but holy, anything but righteous. And that was the verdict for three days: He got what He deserved. But on the third day, He rose from the dead.
I want you to hear the words of the apostle Paul as he begins the book of Romans: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the Holy Scripture, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh,” – yes, He was in the line of David in His human family – “but who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness.”
What does it mean that He was “vindicated in the Spirit,” or justified in the Spirit, or declared righteous by the Spirit? It means that the Spirit raised Him from the dead to validate His perfect holiness. The verdict of the Jews was dead wrong; He was not a blasphemer. The verdict of the Romans was equally wrong; He was not an insurrectionist. In fact, it was said at His very baptism back in Matthew 3 from the Father in heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” By the time you come to the end of His life, as far as the world can see, He is a sinner. That only lasts until Sunday. And the Spirit of God under the will of the Father raises Him from the dead, and in that resurrection – Paul’s language is clear – He is “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” by the Holy Spirit.
The word “declared” very interesting. It’s the Greek verb horizō, from which we get “horizon.” Horizon is a clear boundary between earth and sky. It marks a reality. So in the Spirit’s raising Jesus from the dead there is irrefutable evidence clearly marking out and distinguishing Him from every other human life. He is the divine mystery of godliness revealed. And whatever the verdict of Jew or Gentile was, the Spirit of God raises Him from the dead to declare His righteousness.
Back in 1800, a lady wrote, “We doubted our God in secret, we scoffed in the marketplace, we held our hearts from His keeping, we held our eyes from His face; we looked to the ways of our fathers, denying where they denied, and we said as He passed, ‘He is still at last just a man who is crucified.’
“But now I give you certain news to bid a world rejoice: you may crush truth to silence, you may cry above His voice, you may close your ears before Him, lest you tremble at the word, but late or soon by night or noon, the living truth is heard.
“We buried our God in darkness, in secret and all affright; we crept on a path of silence, fearful things in the night; we buried our God in terror, after the fashion of men; as we said each one, ‘The deed is done, the grave is closed again.’
“But now I give you certain news to spread by land and sea: you may scourge Truth naked, you may nail Him to the tree, you may roll the stone above Him, and seal it soldier-wise, but against the morn, unmaimed, newborn, the living Truth shall rise!”
Spirit raised Him from the dead to validate His holiness. We affirm the incarnation of the second member of the Trinity, the Son of God in human flesh. We affirm His sinless life by the vindication and justification that came through the power of the Holy Spirit at His resurrection. The testimony of the Spirit is followed then by the testimony of angels. The next line, “seen by angels” – horaō in the Greek, “observed” – not a passing glance, but “observed.” Observed by angels. Talking about holy angels here, holy angels, holy angels who are around the throne of God all the time, holy angels who know the Son of God and have known Him since they were created. They watched Him.
Holy angels observed Him. They were there at His birth, were they not? They were there out on the hillsides announcing His arrival. But then, beyond that, we don’t see them. In fact, He was willing to live His life all the way to the cross virtually without angelic intervention, except on two occasions. One was at His temptation when the angels came and ministered to Him, and the other was in the agony of the garden when the angels came and ministered to Him. But apart from those two times in the throes of horrific temptation and in the horrors of the agony of the garden, the angels came. Other than that, He lived His life without angelic intervention - part of His humiliation. He did say in Matthew 26 if He wanted to He could have called twelve legions of angels. “Seen by angels.”
The greatest display of angelic activity around the person of Christ came at His resurrection. Were they watching His life? Sure. Peter says in 1 Peter 1:12 all that was going on in the life of Christ was a work that angels desired to look into.
Did they watch? Did they witness? Yes. But we don’t see them really appear in any collection or any flurry of angelic activity until we get to the grave. And then Matthew talks about angels, and Mark talks about angels, and Luke talks about angels, and John talks about angels. And there’s an angel that rolls the stone. There are angels sitting on the inside. The angels are talking to the women. There are angels all over the place. There’s a flurry of angelic involvement. Why? Because all of that angelic testimony is affirming that this is the Son of God.
When the holy angels all show up and are part of the resurrection, you know it’s the Son of God. They knew the work of God; they witnessed the creation. After they were created, it says they witnessed the rest of it, the morning stars - the angels together at the creation. They witnessed the giving of God’s law on Mount Sinai. They witnessed the birth of Christ. They are going to come en masse at the return of Christ. And they were at the resurrection. Holy creatures, devoted totally to God confirming the resurrection of the Son of God.
One of my favorite hymns is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” I regret that we only sing it at Christmas. This is from that hymn: “Hail! the heaven-born Prince of peace! Hail! the Son of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings, mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die: risen to raise the sons of earth, risen to give them second birth. Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the risen King!’”
No wonder this is our common confession: “It is attested to in His birth, the virgin birth, attested to in the work of the Spirit who raised Him from the dead, attested to in the worship of angels at that very resurrection.”
There’s a fourth line in this hymn: “Proclaimed among the nations.” After His resurrection He revealed Himself to those who believed in Him, right? The night of His resurrection He appeared to the apostles. Eight days later, He appeared to them again. They were sad, weak, beleaguered, unfaithful, cowardly, helpless, weaklings, left with severe doubts, and mumbling on the road to Emmaus, “We thought He would have been the promised One.” But soon after that, they became powerful preachers. When it says, “Proclaimed among the nations,” it’s talking about apostolic preaching.
What changed them? What transformed them? The resurrection, when they saw He was alive, when they could say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” when they gathered with Him on the mount and He gave them the Great Commission, when He taught them the significance of the Old Testament fulfilled in Him in Luke 24. They went out, not weak, not cowardly, not fearful, not doubting, strong and bold, and they preached the gospel to the death. Cost them their life. But they preached the gospel with unflinching faithfulness. People don’t die for a lie.
People say, “Well, they stole His body.” That’s absurd. Nobody’s going to steal the body, create a hoax, and then go die as a martyr for a hoax. The fact that they proclaimed Christ to the death is evidence that they had seen Him after His resurrection. He is the risen Christ, and that is what transformed those apostles into preachers who proclaimed Him among the nations. They were scattered, and their disciples were scattered - and theirs, and theirs, and theirs, and it goes on even today.
The next confirmation of the mystery of godliness is “believed on in the world.” The proof that Jesus Christ is God is the Christian church. The gospel has been believed on. The day of Pentecost in Acts 2:40-47, three thousand people believed. A few days later, five thousand people believed, and the rest is history. Millions upon millions upon millions of people have embraced the Lord Jesus Christ and are living in the transforming power that has been brought to them by His presence. The living church across the world through its 2,000 years of history is testimony to the truth of our confession that this One is God in human flesh. People are still believing it. You believe it; and more will believe it until He returns.
And a final word. We have testimony from the Holy Spirit in raising Him from the dead, testimony from the angels showing up at the resurrection, testimony from the apostles having been transformed into those who preached across the world the truth of His resurrection, testimony of all who’ve believed through human history. And, finally, the highest level of testimony you might say, “Taken up in glory.” That’s the testimony of the Father who took Him to glory and sat Him at His right hand. “God has exalted Him,” Philippians 2, “and given Him a name above every name” - seated Him at His right hand and given Him that name Lord. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”
This is the truth that the church holds up. This is the truth, the truth concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, being God in human flesh. His incarnate life confirms it. His resurrection by the Spirit confirms it. His worship by angels confirms it. The preaching of the apostles confirms it. The belief of people all through human history confirms it. And the coronation by the Father confirms it. This truth is what the church holds up in the world. It is Christ who is the mystery of godliness.
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