Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. (verse 16)
Paul has been reminding Timothy of his task in the church at Ephesus, namely to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1 Timothy 1:3). He has then addressed issues of appropriate conduct in worship and standards for church leadership, likely as further safeguards against false teaching.
But now he pauses, turning his sights – and ours – to Jesus himself. Christ’s whole life and ministry is contained in these six short lines, probably taken from one of the early church’s own hymns. It’s the pause that refreshes (as an old advertising campaign claimed for a certain soft drink). We’re meant to have eyes on Jesus.
But it does something more. In contrast to the false teachers, this hymn anchors us in the central truth of the Gospel. Paul calls it “the mystery of godliness.” “Mystery” refers to “revealed truth” – although hidden in the past (in Old Testament times) it has now been made known in the Person of Jesus himself.
Here are the elements:
“He appeared in a body.” This is the wonder of Christmas! The theological term is “incarnation” – Jesus, the Word, became flesh, entered our experience, allowing us to see the glory of God. Beyond anything we could ever expect, he who was God laid aside his glory and came down. He humbled himself and took on human likeness. Amazing.
He “was vindicated by the Spirit.” He came down, yes – he embraced humiliation. But now Jesus is vindicated. It happened, of course, in the resurrection. Paul expands these first two lines elsewhere when, speaking of Jesus, he says: “as to his human nature (he) was a descendant of David, and … through the Spirit of holiness (he) was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3-4). What vindication, indeed!
He “was seen by angels.” Jesus’ exaltation was completed in his Ascension. The picture here is of the hosts of heaven joyously welcoming him back into glory.
He “was preached among the nations.” Specifically, the message was delivered to Gentiles, those who could not have expected it. This is the ongoing ministry of the church, furthering the ministry of the exalted Jesus himself to all people.
He “was believed on in the world.” The message – preached everywhere – enters receptive hearts. The ministry of the Gospel continues. Salvation in Jesus’ name comes to people everywhere.
He “was taken up in glory.” Again, we’re invited to look up. Jesus’ Ascension exalts him to the highest place – he has the name above all names, the name at which every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. Glory!
This is our Saviour. May our eyes fix on him. May we hold tightly to the glorious truth of the Gospel, never letting it go. May we share its goodness at every opportunity, that more and more may find salvation in Jesus.
Exalted Lord. Jesus my Saviour. I honour you, adore you, and give my life into your hands. Keep my sights fixed on you. May I never let go of the truth of your Gospel. May I rejoice in it always. Use me in your kingdom purposes. To your glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Reflect: Pause several times today and lift your sights to the exalted Lord. Praise him for the truths of this hymn: The Incarnation. The Resurrection (together with the Crucifixion, which is implied). The Ascension.
Commit yourself afresh to the ongoing spread of the Good News. To his glory.