The Mystery of Godliness

By Tim Haile

One of the devil’s greatest accomplishments has been convincing such a great number of people that they are incapable of understanding the Bible. When one quotes Jesus in Mark 16:16, telling people that they must "believe and be baptized" in order to be saved, sectarians will respond, "But that is just your understanding of the passage, I have a different understanding." Many of these folks misuse 2 Peter 1:20 to make their point. It says, "No prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation…." Of course, Peter is not discussing one's ability to comprehend the scriptures. He is referring to the origin of the scriptures in this passage. Peter even told us that Paul’s "hard sayings" were understandable, as long as the student is open-minded and objective (2 Peter 3:15-18).

Peter's words in 2 Peter 1:20 aren't the only ones that are misused by those who would seek to avoid their responsibility to "listen and understand" (Matt. 15:10). Some misconstrue the word mystery in Ephesians 1:9 and 3:4 in an effort to avoid this duty. Recently, some among the Lord's people have made this argument in connection with the word "mystery" as it is used in 1 Timothy 3:16.

Paul wrote to Timothy, "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). Since the beginning of the controversy concerning the nature and person of Christ, this passage has been misused in an effort to prove that we have no business talking about this subject. Some combine this verse with Deuteronomy 29:29 to make their point. This passage is the one that speaks of the secret things, which belong to the Lord. When the subject of the nature of God arises, these brethren avoid the controversy by quickly pointing to the words of these passages. "But, it is a mystery," they proclaim, "We shouldn’t be discussing this." They think the word mystery means that the subject can neither be explained nor understood. What a strange approach to this passage! If the word mystery means we are not to discuss the subject, why did Paul immediately discuss it? If it cannot be explained, why did Paul proceed to explain it? If the subject of God’s nature is so secret, why did Paul tell us about it?

Paul even opened his comments with the expression, "And without controversy" (confessedly). Paul is making the point that the incarnation contains certain incontrovertible facts. This verb (homologeo) is used in 1 Timothy 6:12 in reference to "the good confession." This is a confession that is based upon the acknowledgement of the truth. If the word "mystery" in 1 Timothy 3:16 means that we cannot understand at least certain elements and effects of the incarnation, then Timothy's "good confession" was nothing more than an acknowledgement of ignorance! John 9:22 and 12:42 use this same word in reference to those who refused to confess Christ. The mystery of godliness is not some unfathomable concept. It is an undeniable and indisputable fact. This does not mean that God has told us everything about His nature and person (Rom. 11:33), but it does mean that He has told us some things and that those things can be understood!

What Is A "Mystery"?

In its ordinary sense the word "mystery" suggests an inexplicable matter, something that is vague and obscure. However, the Bible does not use the word in that way. W.E. Vine says the word (musterion) denotes "that which is outside the range of unassisted natural comprehension, which can be made known only by Divine revelation…" Perhaps the best definition is a simple verse of scripture. In Colossians 1:26 Paul spoke of "the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations; but has now been manifested to His saints." If the word "mystery" means that the thing is incomprehensible, then we can no more understand the plan of salvation than we can understand the mystery of godliness, for both are parts of the same gospel.

In Ephesians 3:3-5, Paul discussed the mystery of the calling of the Gentiles by the gospel. As we noted above, a mystery is simply a truth that is undiscoverable except by revelation. With the revelation and preaching of the gospel, long hidden truths were suddenly made manifest. Though it is called a mystery, that body of truth is understandable if it has been revealed. As we noted above, some say the expression "mystery of godliness" means that the subject of the mystery is not understandable. What would happen if we were to apply this argument to the mystery of Ephesians 3:3? One would be forced to conclude that the gospel is not understandable, and that people should not even try to explain it! Is this what Paul was saying? Notice that immediately after mentioning the mystery of the gospel, Paul told us that when we read that gospel we can understand it (Eph. 3:4)! The same is true of the mystery of godliness. After mentioning this mystery, Paul immediately went on to explain it to us, and we need to prepare our hearts and minds to receive his inspired comments. Let us consider the things that Paul said we could certainly know about the incarnate Christ.

"God was manifest in the flesh"

Paul did not say that a "man" was manifest in the flesh. He did not say that a "demigod" was manifest in the flesh. He did not say that the "essence minus the attributes" of God was manifest in the flesh. He did not say that a "stripped down" God was manifest in the flesh. He did not say that an ignorant and unwise God was manifest in the flesh. He did not say that a "powerless" God was manifest in the flesh. He told us that GOD was manifest in the flesh. While in the flesh, Jesus was everything that God is (Jn. 14:9; 12:45; Heb. 1:3). When one thinks of the name of Jesus Christ he should think of God, and when one thinks of the name of God, he should think of Jesus Christ. As "Immanuel," Jesus was "God with us" (Matt. 1:23). His physical bodily form housed a person of God, for "In Him dwelled all the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form" (Col. 2:9). Jesus is "our great God and Savior" (Tit. 2:13), "God blessed forever" (Rom. 9:5).

Some have argued that some internal and spiritual change occurred in Jesus as a result of the incarnation. This is not true, for the Bible uses the same terms to describe the incarnate Jesus that it uses to describe the pre-incarnate Jesus. According to John 1:1, the pre-incarnate Jesus was known as God, "The Word." Yet, according to 1 John 1:1, the incarnate Christ was still God, "The Word." Whether Jesus was in Heaven or on the earth, He was the same spiritual being. His spirit remained unchanged.

"Justified (vindicated) in the spirit"

Jesus was manifest "in flesh" (en sarki), but He was vindicated "in spirit" (en pneumati). These expressions are similarly constructed and they perfectly compliment each other. While in the flesh, Jesus was a dual-natured being. His body was human, while His spirit remained divine. That body veiled His native, essential, spiritual and divine qualities, yet glimpses of His true nature occasionally shone through. Jesus did not appear to men what He really was. At a pace consistent with an honest person's ability to comprehend, Jesus worked to reveal the true identity of His spirit to those about Him. This was accomplished by His spotless character (John 8:46), by His infallibility (Jn. 14:30; Lk. 16:17), by the manifestations of His glory (Jn. 1:14; 2:11), at His baptism and transfiguration (Matt. 3:16-17; Lk. 9:28-36), by the nature of His revelations (Jn. 3:32), by His omniscience (Mk. 2:8), by His omnipotence (Mk 2:9-11), by His works of compassion (Matt. 14:14), by His acceptance of worship (Matt. 2:11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 18:26; 28:9,17), and by His words of authority (Matt. 7:28-29; Jn. 7:46).

It is certain that all of these things pointed to the true and divine nature of Jesus Christ, but according to Paul and the prophets, the greatest manifestation of this truth was in the miracle of the resurrection. Romans 1:3-4 sets up the same contrast in the person of Jesus as does 1 Timothy 3:16. Paul tells us that Jesus was "made of the seed of David according to the flesh," but He was "declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead." Notice the contrast in the expressions: "according to the flesh," and "according to the spirit of holiness." The "spirit" of this passage is not the Holy Spirit, but the seat of Christ's divine nature. The Holy Spirit is nowhere designated by this phrase. This passage provides a clear explanation of the 1 Timothy 3:16 statement that Jesus was "vindicated in spirit." Jesus may have been "put to death in the flesh," but He was "quickened in the spirit" (1 Pet. 3:18). The deity of Jesus was mightily declared, in a striking and triumphant manner, by His resurrection from the dead. His body may have been beaten, bruised and killed, but in His spirit, He was vindicated. Jesus was manifested in the flesh, but He was not vindicated in the flesh. We are told that He was vindicated in His spirit.

"Seen of Angels"

This same verb is used in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 where Paul discusses the appearances of the risen Christ to different persons and parties. The emphasis of the expression, "seen of angels" needs to be placed upon the act of Christ's appearing to them or showing Himself to them. We read of occasions where angels appeared to Jesus (Matt. 4:11; Lk. 22:43), but this passage actually teaches that Jesus appeared unto angels. It seems likely that this statement describes what took place in Heaven after the ascension and glorification of Christ. Philippians 2:10 and Ephesians 1:20-21 teach us that even the "principalities and powers of the heavenly places" would bow their knees to the exalted Christ. Jesus had been triumphantly vindicated in His messianic work, and the angel's questions about God's eternal scheme of redemption were finally answered (1 Pet. 1:12; Eph. 3:10).

"Preached unto the Gentiles"

What a monumental fact! People who were, formerly, hopeless, godless aliens (Eph. 2:11-12), were now "fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers together of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph. 3:6). The mystery of Godliness is inseparably tied to the mystery of the gospel. The unfolding of these mysteries revealed the "many-sided wisdom of God" (Eph. 3:10). Through the intervention of God (His sinless life and perfect sacrifice), the law was fulfilled and removed (Matt. 5:17-18; Eph. 2:14-15), and the gentiles were "made nigh by the blood of Christ" (Eph. 2:13). Paul even told us that the church was purchased with the blood of God (Acts 20:28). One who rejects this sacrificial provision of the "blood of the covenant" is guilty of "trampling under foot the Son of God" (Heb. 10:29). The next verse tells us that God's vengeance will be upon such a person.

"Believed on in the World"

This statement reflects the powerful impact that the Son of God has made upon the nations of the world. First Corinthians 15 recounts the appearances of the risen Savior to literally thousands of believers, and since that time, He remains the source of hope and courage for men and women from all cultures and countries. Jesus commissioned the apostles to "go into all the world" and to "every nation" and preach the gospel (Mark. 16:15; Matt. 28:19), and that is exactly what they did (Col. 1:23; Matt. 24:14). That same gospel continues to be preached today, its facts are believed and its commands are obeyed. Why does this message continue to be believed two thousand years later? Because God personally revealed (Heb. 1:2), explained (Jn. 1:18) and exemplified (Jn. 13:15) His will to us. The timeless and boundless acceptance of the gospel testifies to the nature of the person who stands behind the message. He was fully God in the flesh, and He continues to be fully God today.

"Received Up into Glory"

Daniel told us of a vision in which [13]"one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. [14] And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him…(Dan. 7:13-14). After giving the apostles His parting charge, we are told that Jesus was "received from out of their sight" (Acts 1:9). Angels told the apostles that Jesus had returned to heaven, but that He would, one day, return from heaven in the same manner in which He left the earth (Vs. 11). Peter tells us that Jesus ascended to heaven and is presently on the "right hand of God; having angels, authorities and powers subject to Him" (1 Pet. 3:22). Eyewitnesses testified to the fact that Jesus was received up into glory. According to Daniel's prophecy, Jesus there reigns as our sovereign Lord. He will occupy this position until "the end." At that time, He will render a final blow to Satan by raising all of the dead. Conquering death will be Christ's final work before He delivers the Kingdom back to God who gave it (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The expression, "received up into glory" involves much more than just the ascension of Christ. This statement notes the perfect success of Christ in accomplishing His divine mission. Jesus came to the earth and accomplished all of the things He said He would do, then ascended back to heaven. In so doing He re-entered "glory" (Luke 24:26; Jn. 17:5). He was victorious in His mission and as a result, everything and everyone is subject to Him (1 Pet. 3:22; Eph. 1:21-23; Col. 1:18). Furthermore, His victory serves as the basis of our hope. Our "hope of glory" is Christ living in us (Col. 1:27). And He is the reason for our victory in overcoming the world (1 Jn. 4:4).


The "mystery of Godliness" is that body of truth that has been revealed about the nature and person of Christ. Let us not appeal to the word mystery in an attempt to avoid our responsibility to "know Him that is true" (1 Jn. 5:20). "Mystery" is not that which we cannot understand; it refers to that which we can and should understand (Eph. 3:3-4).

Tim Haile
7693 Russellville Rd.
Bowling Green, KY. 42101

(502) 842-5354

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