Comparative Commentary on 1 Timothy                             Return to Home 

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.  © 2020


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These Instructions Are So Important that

Paul Wishes to Share Them Immediately

Rather than Wait Until His Arrival



TCNT:  14 I am writing this to you, though I hope that I shall come to see you before long; 15 but in case I should be delayed, I want you to know what your conduct ought to be in the Household of God, which is the Church of the Living God—the pillar and stay of the Truth. 

16 Yes, and confessedly wonderful are the deep truths of our religion; for—“He was revealed in our nature, Pronounced righteous in spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Taken up into glory.”



            The reason for writing:  “These things I write to you . . . that you may know how to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church. . . .”  Although logically applicable to the entire epistle, coming immediately after the qualification lists for church officers, “these things” almost have to refer to either leadership prerequisites or matters concerning the church leadership in both its establishment and its function.  In some ways this is surprising.

            For by now the existence of church officers is a well established phenomena.  To use one suggested Acts chronology:


                        *  We read of elders in the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:27-30) in 43 A.D.

                        *  Of how elders were appointed by Paul “in every church” (Acts 14:23) in

            the region of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch (verse 21) in 48 A.D.

                        *  Of elders in Jerusalem being envolved in the Jerusalem Council

            discussing whether circumcision was mandatory on Gentiles (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22,

            23; 16:4) in 51 A.D.

                        *  Of elders already existing in Ephesus (Acts 20:17) in 54 A.D.


            If we date Timothy in 63 A.D. or thereabout they have already known of the requirements for up to nearly a decade!  Hence there has to be a “back story” that Paul has not shared with us but which would have been known to the Ephesians. 

            Paul warned in his address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 that “after my departure” there would be divisive faction leaders who would say anything and everything they needed to cement loyalty to themselves rather than the message Paul had taught (20:29-31).

            If the “departure” refers not to his death but his departure from their region then that situation may well have already occurred.  One of their targets would have to be the existing eldership for they were the existing “power structure” and they wished to cement loyalty to themselves instead. 

            Elders may have been deposed--partially or totally.  Or the legitimacy of their position severely undermined. 

            If the former, then Paul is given instruction as to the criteria their replacements should meet and the standards clearly rule out the divisive behavior that the faction leaders had manifested!  If the elders remained more or less in control, Paul’s laying down the criteria for qualified men would confirm their status as having met the apostolic standards for office holding.  The reminder of once accepted truths would have functioned to undermine the efforts of trouble makers to gain stature at the cost of the truth.       


            It will not always be possible for our future plans to be carried out; hence Paul took the precaution of writing to them:  Paul’s optimistic mind frame was that he looked forward to rejoining Timothy in the near future--“to come to you shortly” (3:14).  That could be as little as a few weeks[1] or months.

The apostle makes passing allusions to rough plans for the future in other texts as well.  He hoped to see Philemon, for example (verse 22).  Though the nearness is not specified he is confident that the time will be close enough that Philemon should soon go ahead and “prepare a guest room for me.”

            Here he concedes his plans may not work out as quickly as he desires.  Hence “if I am delayed” this epistle is designed to give Timothy needed instructions immediately (3:15).  Paul was delayed on other occasions.  In 1 Thessalonians 2:18 he speaks of how “we wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us.” 

            Note that the cause of not meeting his hoped for schedule would be because of being “delayed”--not the danger of arrest or execution.  This argues against the scenario that “his death was not far away.”[2]  Although dating this epistle late in his ministry makes the fact of approaching death a certainty--from our post event standpoint--that is not the concern that is in his mind.  Indeed from the way the Greek sentence is structured, it has been argued that Paul apparently regards the chance of an abrupt change in his plans actually happening as modest at the most.[3]     


            Paul’s teaching is not suggestive, it is obligatory.  Because Paul’s short-term plans conceivably could still go awry in spite of his expectations he wrote this epistle.  This was “so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God” (3:15).  

Whether likely to occur or not, they still had Paul’s instructions that would be applicable in both situations.  Either way Timothy would still know how he “ought to conduct yourself.”  “Ought” rises far above the level of hints or suggestions and carries the unspoken freight of duty, responsibility, and obligation.  Most translations retain “ought” in their renderings but a few try to bring out this overtone:  The GW speaks of “must live” and Weymouth “so that you may have rules to guide you.” 

Several translations outside our core comparative texts sometimes opt for the synonym “should:  For example, the Common English Bible, the Complete Jewish Bible, the Good News Translation.


            The right to definitively bind in this manner grows out of Paul’s being inspired and of being an apostle.  Either, alone, made his word on these matters obligatory.  Combined, they make it even more so. 

As Paul pungently expresses it in 1 Corinthians 14:37, “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge [recognize, Holman, NASB, WEB, Weymouth] that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord.”  Although he was the speaker or writer, he was serving as the human intermediary between the supernatural world and mankind, “For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).  No wonder the apostle Peter could recognize that what Paul wrote counted as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16)!


            The local congregation is either equated with or described as part of “the house of God, which is the church of the living God” (3:15).  In regard to appointing elders and deacons, Paul is clearly indicating the guidelines to be followed in whatever congregation Timothy worked with in the future.  We can read the text as indicating that each congregation is the house/church or all congregations are such when considered collectively.  Either way, the language argues that the local congregation is to be treated with extreme respect.  It is not a casual group of individuals, loosely gathered together.  It is a group dedicated to the cultivation of spiritual values and the faithful service of the God they worship.

            He repeatedly invokes the language of a house/household or family in his various writings.  Scott Lindsay alludes to a number of them:[4]


                        If you have been paying attention, you will have noticed how in this letter,

            and in others, Paul has consistently described God’s people as a family, referring

            to the men and women in the church as brothers and sisters.  Further he has shown

            a consistent parental concern for them, sometimes calling them his children. 

            Later on in this letter he will say that young men should learn to speak to older

            Christian men as if they were their fathers.  He will say that older Christian

            women should be treated as your own mother.  He speaks about those who work

            among the people of God as being stewards--a steward, as you know, being

            someone who was placed in charge of certain household responsibilities. And . . .

            Paul draws some strong parallels between managing a household and managing a

            church in his description of elders’ qualifications.  And all of these things are

            because of this idea, you see, that the church is God’s household.  And we are



            David Guzik suggests five reasons why the apostle invokes the house(hold) language he utilizes:  The Church is God’s house because (1)  He is the Architect.  (2)  He is the Builder.  (3)  He lives there.  (4)  He provides for it.  (5)  He is honored there, and He rules there.”[5]  Other reasons could, quite likely, be added to the list as well. 

            If the church is indeed God’s “house” one can easily see why He insists--as He does through Paul in this epistle--that it be organized in an orderly and prescribed manner.[6]  The vast bulk of people realize this is desirable if not absolutely essential in our own homes.  How can we expect that the Creator of an orderly universe would expect anything less for the place where He is worshipped and honored?

            Paul’s language requires that God be recognized as in charge and not we ourselves—it is His “house” and His “church.”  We are mere caretakers responsible that it function properly and in a manner in accord with what He has revealed through the scriptures.   


            “The living God” is an interesting expression.  In its original Old Testament usage it emphasized the contrast between the pagan gods and Jehovah.  They were imaginary; He was real.  Whatever “reality” they had was only found in their carved images because there wasn’t anything actually in existence that was being represented. 

            It has been suggested that in the New Testament usage of the expression that—since monotheism was as close to a Jewish “universal” as it could become—the meaning shifted to include and emphasize that God does what a “living” being always does:  He is active and intervening in this world.[7]  Indeed since it is “the church of the living God,” the text is specifying the “locale” of God’s special intervention. 

            Not that He’s unconcerned with the broader world, but these are His people who have made their “vow of loyalty” through their conversion.  They are His spiritual army.  Therefore He has a special vested interest in their well-being and prosperity even though He is far from unconcerned with the outside world.  We often use the adage “charity begins at home;” as God’s home, His interest begins with those who are “in” that home.


            Additional reasons can be given for Jehovah being described as “the living God” as well.  For example, He must be such because He can create anything up to and including human life and the cosmos of the surrounding universe (Genesis 1-2).  Life creates life; non-life creates nothing.  (Perhaps living intelligence can one day create an “electronic” entity that can create life.  Today that is merely entertaining science fiction; if it ever becomes reality, it will only be because intelligent, functional, living entities gave it the capacity.)

            Jehovah is “the living God” because He speaks and reveals.  Without life there is no speaker to speak.  Without this capacity there would be no such thing as Divine revelation.

            Because He is “living,” He can see what is really happening.  Hence He has the factual “input” from the world around Him so He can separate pretense and reality.  He is observant; He is all knowing; He can’t be deceived.  None of this would be possible if He were anything else than living.  It is what makes possible His fair and honest judgment as to what we have done and how we should be dealt with. 

            Because He is “living,” He can rescue us from our sins and prepare a home for us in eternity.  Without that capacity He couldn’t do either.  The only existence He would have would be fictional and imaginative; His real world capacity would be non-existent.

            To return to the point where we began, because He is “living” He can intervene in the world at the time, place, and in the manner of His choosing.  In turn this means He can alter what is happening on our earth at His leisure.  It also means that He can ultimately bring our planetary cosmos to an end--on the schedule He prefers rather than what would happen purely because of “natural” phenomena.

            Quite possibly there are other reasons the fact that He is an alive and intelligent Being can be stressed as well.  The Bible provides us with the “Reader’s Digest shorthand” in that single word living--a term that covers ever so much![8]   


            The church local or the church universal must be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (3:15).  Worded the first way the church universal is such because the local churches function this way; worded the other way, the church local is such because it imitates all other faithful churches in following this pattern.  It all comes down to pretty much the same result—a “chicken and egg” situation.  You can’t have the chicken without having the egg and you can’t have the egg without having the chicken either.  The demanded pattern of conduct flows in both directions.  It is to be all encompassing, of all individual congregations.  To the extent a local congregation abandons this role it starts to cut itself off from the church universal.


            As “the pillar . . . of the truth,” the church holds up the truth for the world to see.  Just as a physical pillar holds up a building.  All of our translations retain this wording (ESV, GW, Holman, ISV, NASB, NIV, WEB, Weymouth) except for NET which prefers “support”—though that presents the same imagery of something that upholds the truth. 

In the Greek, both “pillar” and “ground” refer to parts of the building structure: “Both stylos [= pillar] and hedraioma [= ground] are architectural terms for ‘supports, stays, or pillars.’ ”[9]  Speaking of the first term in particular, one scholar notes that “ ‘pillar’ refer[s] to the vertical support in the building, holding up the roof.”[10]  In this imagery it supports the “roof” of the church, making the church the entity that shelters the truth within, which “upholds” it,  and in which it can safely exist and be protected from external danger. 

Stylos is used in Galatians 2:9 of those who were respected as outstanding supporters and advancers of the truth:  “And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”  In a similar fashion, the entire Ephesian church where Timothy labored was to strive at being—collectively—a similar stout bulwark of the faith in the metropolis where they were located.


The church is the “ground of the truth” as well.  Hence that is where one should be able to find truth if nowhere else.  Although WEB continues with this image, the majority prefer either “foundation” (Holman, GW, ISV, NIV) or “foundation-stone” (Weymouth).  NASB opts for what initially seems almost a synonym for “pillar” when it selects “support” for its translation.

The imagery it intends is surely that behind the ESV’s “buttress,” which carries the conventional definition of “a projecting support of stone or brick built against a wall” or “a source of defense or support.”  The NET’s “bulwark” carries the conventional English definition of “a defensive wall.”  Neither of these two fit well with the image of “foundation” or “ground” at least in the way we typically use the modern English language.  They sound more like a synonym for “pillar”--that which is built on that foundation rather than stressing the foundation itself.

Indeed Arichea and Hatton seem to concede that possibility when they write that there are three meanings possible:  “the Greek word can mean ‘support,’ ‘foundation,’ ‘firm base.’   The first is a quite natural synonym for “pillar.”  They add, however, that in their best judgment the term here “refers to a horizontal support at the bottom (the foundation).”[11]  The “foundational” image is the most appealing choice because it complements perfectly the “support” image of the church being a “pillar.”  Pillar and foundation--the two fit together perfectly.  


            The key word in all this is “truth”--revealed truth.  Not our own well-intended but human intellectually limited best intentions or surmises.  As mere flesh and blood creatures, it is easy enough for us to go wrong.  God does not.  Arichea and Hatton fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of the New Testament church when they argue that the expression means that “the church is the guarantor of the truth in the midst of conflicting claims and erroneous teachings.”[12] 

Maybe they have not expressed well what they truly intended.  But, as written, doesn’t this translate into:  If the church says it, it must be true and believed?  But Paul’s point is that the church is where one should find the truth enthusiastically embraced and advocated—not that because the church teaches something we must hold to it as truth.  The criteria for truth is transferred from loyalty to God’s revealed word to loyalty to the church as an institution.  This is as much wrong when non-Catholic churches do it as when the Roman Catholic Church does it.

The idea of loyalty to the Divinely revealed definition of truth is especially relevant today when even the most brazen sin has been “normalized” and the criticism of it severely rebuked and denounced as bigoted.[13]  The person in the wrong is not the one doing the misconduct, but the one who refuses to endorse it as virtuous and praiseworthy.  We have so twisted the concept of toleration that “the greatest sin some people can imagine is saying someone else is wrong!”[14]

 At the worst extreme, even staying quiet and declining to comment or get envolved is viewed as unacceptable; you must explicitly and enthusiastically endorse the behavior rather than simply “accepting” it as another manifestation of the foolishness that happens in human life.  The only “tolerance” such folk want is enthusiastic embracement.  Skepticism is unacceptable to such bigots--for that is what they are.      


            There was no legitimate way to deny that the facts Paul is about to present are valid:  “without controversy great is the mystery of godliness,” which he then goes on to detail in the remainder of the verse (3:16).  “Without controversy” these truths are so clear cut that no one either has or successfully can challenge them. 

The emphasis on the “clear cut-ness” of the teaching being “without controversy”--and the lack of any hint that they had been challenged—powerfully argues that the following words reflect the current consensus of the first century church . . . and was so pervasive that it would be hard to find anyone denying any of it.  It is something everyone could--and did--agree upon.[15]  Hence Paul sees these truths as reflecting both what is believed and what can not be successfully denied even if one had the inclination to do so.

What he is driving at is that “everyone says the same thing.  All of us agree.  There is no debate here.  There is no controversy here.  Everyone affirms this.  It is beyond all question, all discussion and all query.  The whole redeemed church confesses this is true.  It is the unanimous conviction of all believers.  Here is a truth that every [faithful] Christian on the face of the earth . . . will confidently confess.”[16]  


            Translators struggle with the best way to convey this idea.  “By common confession” (ISV, NASB) is a rather literal translation.[17]  “We all agree” (NET) walks in similar footsteps and even more pointedly stresses the “universalness” of these beliefs among faithful Christians.  As does the traditional KJV’s “without controversy” (only retained by the NKJV), “beyond all question” (NIV), “without controversy” (WEB), and “beyond controversy” (Weymouth).

            “Great indeed” (ESV) and “most certainly” (Holman) stress the truthfulness of what is said but do not provide a similar sense of pervasive agreement.  The GW’s reading of “is acknowledged” only makes sense in full context:  “The mystery that gives us our reverence for God is acknowledged to be great.”  The idea of general acceptance is there, but nowhere near as easy to get to through that rendering.


            The wording “mystery of godliness” is fully retained by four other versions (ESV, Holman, NASB, WEB).  In translations that change the last two words, the single word “mystery” is kept by the GW, NIV, and Weymouth.  True, a “mystery” does convey the idea of a “secret” (ISV), but in this context, it is a revealed secret, something previously not disclosed--something one could be certain of “only by revelation, not by speculation.”[18]  That point is brought out well by the NET which speaks of how “our religion contains amazing revelation:  (We have left the text’s colon in place.)  Those working from only an English text should remember their grammar:  a semicolon indicates a continuation of the thought that has been begun, but the colon (which is nearly always used in different renditions of this verse) argues that what comes next is an explanation of what the previously hidden “secret” contains. 

            “This word mystery doesn’t refer to something that’s mysterious. . . .  It is truth that was previously unknown.  It wasn’t revealed in the Old Testament, but has now been revealed to the apostle and to the church.”[19]  And has been shared so far and wide and universally accepted that no Christian would think of denying it.

            Alexander Plummer rightly notes that the term “mystery” was well established in pagan circles, but that Christians changed the very concept it embodied--from something virtually no one outside the group could or should know to what was to be shared in and embraced by one and all:[20]


                        On the Divine side the Gospel is a mystery, a disclosed secret.  It is a body

            of truth originally hidden from man’s knowledge, to which man by his own

            unaided reason and abilities would never be able to find the way.  In one word it

            is a revelation:  a communication by God to men of Truth which they could not

            have discovered for themselves.

                        “Mystery” is one of those words which Christianity has borrowed from

            paganism, but has consecrated to new uses by gloriously transfiguring its

            meaning.  The heathen mystery was something always kept hidden from the bulk

            of mankind; a secret to which only a privileged few were admitted.  It

            encouraged, in the very center of religion itself, selfishness and exclusiveness. 

                        The Christian mystery, on the other hand, is something once hidden, but

            now made known, not to a select few, but to all.  The term, therefore, involves a

            splendid paradox:  it is a secret revealed to every one.  In St. Paul’s own words to

            the Romans, “the revelation of the mystery which hath been kept in silence

            through times eternal, but now is manifested, and by the scriptures of the

            prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, is made known unto

            all the nations” (16:25).  He rarely uses the word mystery without combining with

            it some other word signifying to reveal, manifest, or make known.


            The mystery religions (and by the early A.D. centuries) they existed in a variety of forms and sometimes mingled and formed hybrids of already existing ones.  Core to their nature were the “secrets” available to the sufficiently initiated that were forbidden to be shared with outsiders.  Partaken of in meetings closed to nonmembers, some form of physical isolation from the world was not uncommon. 

Some were even held underground and in confined quarters.  A “creepy” atmosphere was consciously sought out, sexual excess and other super-emotional behavior was cultivated as a means of obtaining a unique and ecstatic relationship with the divine that could not be obtained by outsiders or by any other means—or so they were convinced.  However they might vary, the “insider spiritual high” was the goal of all.  As part of the spiritual elite, they got to share it and no one else.  Likewise any intellectual secrets of the true reality that others did not grasp or even suspect.

In a sermonic context, R. W. Hamilton elaborated on the kinds of behaviors that could occur and how the underlying mind frame contrasted vigorously with that of Christianity:[21]


·         Much delay attended the probation of those who sought enrolment among the enlightened in the ancient mysteries.  Their trials were protracted.  Before the profession was attained there was every harassing and tedious ceremonial.  Lustration followed lustration, each power of endurance was tasked to the utmost, subterranean chambers reverberated to each other . . . [A]ll extremes of sensation were combined, and the whole service was fenced round with every caution against eager impatience or inquisitive haste.  But the mystery of godliness knows no such suspicious restrictions. “Learn of Me” is the language of its Founder [Matthew 11:29].  A docile temper is the exclusive condition.  We haste and delay not.          

·         The most awful vows of secrecy were exacted of those who received the supposed purgation of these mysteries.  A universal execration fell orb the betrayer. [In contrast in the gospel system,] “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” [Acts 4:20].  “We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak” [2 Corinthians 4:13].  “To make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery  [Ephesians 3:9].  They “used great plainness of speech” [2 Corinthians 3:12].

·         The whole arrangement of this singular discipline was invidious.  It looked unfavourably on the great mass of our race. [It limited its “secrets” to a limited, “elite” group.]  Selfish in its aims, destitute of any noble philanthropy, it intended the perpetual thraldom of the multitude in ignorance and degradation. . . . Christianity . . . if it be marked by a partiality, it is toward the poor.  It says:  “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” [Mark 10:23; Luke 18:24]   It says: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted!” [James 1:9]  Among its brightest evidences, crowning all its miracles, is this attestation:  “To the poor is the gospel preached” [Luke 7:22].  Its mercies are unto all.



            What to do with the word “godliness” has divided translators.  There are no precedents to work from since this is the only passage in the entire New Testament where the expression “mystery of godliness” is invoked.[22]  It is common to preserve that wording (as in the ESV, Holman, NASB, WEB).  It could be interpreted as a reference to the truth of our religion or as the criteria that establishes godly morality and by which our behavior is to be judged either acceptable or unacceptable to God.

            Arichea and Hatton are convinced that “clearly the Christian faith as a religious movement is meant and many translations reflect this understanding.”  They cite the Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised English Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, and the Translator’s New Testament as examples though with out actually quoting any of them.[23]  [Aside:  the last entry is published by the British and Foreign Bible Society as a tool to assist translators rendering into new languages.]

            In our own sampling there are two examples that explicitly embrace this approach:  our religion contains amazing revelation” (NET); “the mystery of our religion” (Weymouth).  The GW may have this in mind when it speaks of “the mystery that gives us our reverence for God” (GW), though that seems a bit of a reach.  The ISV makes it a reference to our worship:   “the secret of our godly worship is great.”

            In contrast, the NIV hints at the mystery of godliness being that which motivates and justifies our behavior in general:  “the mystery from which true godliness springs.  The “other side” of this reality would surely be that true religion also springs out of this former mystery and not just righteous morality.

            The term “godliness” emphasizes not what God Himself does but what we do to reflect the attitudes and character He demands in His people--the holiness and purity that is His essence and which we are but humble imitators of.  The “mystery” of the previously hidden truths contains those instructions that obedience uses to transform us--into the human embodiments of the Divine character.  (To the extent that mere human flesh and blood can be such!)

            We are not transformed by being lawless rebels that yield to no authoritative standard but by being devout followers of the Divine One who has been revealed through the gospel.  As one commentator puts it:[24]


                        It not only tells of the bounty of Almighty God in revealing His eternal

            counsels to man, but it also tells of man’s obligations in consequence of being

            initiated.  It is a mystery, not “of lawlessness” (2 Thessalonians 2:7), but “of

            godliness.”  Those who accept it “profess godliness;” profess reverence to the

            God who has made it known to them.  It teaches plainly on what principle we are

            to regulate “how men ought to behave themselves in the household of God.”  The

            Gospel is a mystery of piety, a mystery of reverence and of religious life.  Holy

            itself, and proceeding from the Holy One, it bids its recipients be holy, even as He

            is Holy Who gives it.



            Paul defines what “mystery” means in its New Testament usage.  Paul refers to “the mystery of godliness” and then spells out what it contains in the remainder of the verse.  To return to a point already raised, this again shows “the mystery of godliness” is not mysterious—we can tell you what it contains.  It shows that is no longer a secret or hidden—we can point to its constituent parts.  And those are embodied in Jesus--His nature, His relationships with the supernatural world, and His triumphs.  It is these things that make possible His redemption of our souls and the transformation of our very nature.  


            Is the remainder of verse 16 an early Christian hymn?  To folks who are not musically inclined—such as myself—we recognize that a thing is a hymn either because we hear it being sung or because it is in a song book.  To recognize a hymn that blends out of . . . and back into . . . a prose discussion is the proverbial “horse of a different color.”  It may indeed be there, but we don’t quite grasp why that is the case.

            John MacArthur argues that there are actually a number of hymn or hymn fragments in the New Testament that we easily overlook being such:[25]


                        For example, some of the doxologies, such as Romans 11:33 to 36, are

             really hymns.  It’s very likely that those doxologies, those paeans of praise and

            worship, were set to tunes and were actually sung by the people of God.  There

            are many who believe that the first chapter of Ephesians, that great long sentence

            from verse 3 to verse 14 which sweeps through the glories of God’s redemptive

            purpose in Christ, was really a hymn and that it was suitable to be sung in some


                        Later in the book of Ephesians, in chapter 5 verse 14, there’s a little three-

            line fragment of a hymn.  In fact, in your Bible it’s set apart from the normal

            prose format to demonstrate that it’s poetic, very likely was a refrain or a piece of

            a hymn familiar to the early church and sung by them.

                        There appear to be songs even in the book of Colossians, chapter 1 verse

            15.  In Philippians there are many who believe that Philippians 2:6 through 11,

            that great celebration of the incarnation and exaltation of Christ, really was sung. 

            It has the components or the elements of a song.

                        In 2 Timothy, it appears that there are several refrains or components or

            fragments of hymns that were known to the early church to which the writer, Paul,

            alludes because they would be so familiar to the people.  There are some who

            believe that Titus chapter 3 verses 4 to 7 has all the earmarks of – of a hymn, or a

            part of a hymn that could easily be sung.  And there are more.                           


            Robert J. Karris provides a useful concise summary that 1 Timothy 3:16 is both intended as poetry and is the text of an early Christian hymn, basing his argument on the Roman Catholic New American Bible translation adapted to stress the emphases he regards as most important:[26]


                        Undeniably great is the mystery of our Christian existence.

                                    Who was manifestED in the flesh, (line 1)

                                    vindicatED in the spirit, (line 2)

                                    revealED to the angels, (line 3)

                                    proclaimED in Gentile groups, (line 4)      

                                    believED in the world, (line 5)

                                    liftED up in glory (line 6) [NAB adapted].


I have adapted the NAB translation to bring out the eloquence of the hymn’s Greek formulation of praise to the exalted figure, Jesus.  Each past tense Greek verb in the six lines ends in –ed.  I have tried to express this bit of literary artistry, called homoeoteleuton, by capitalizing the endings of the English verbs.

In five of the six lines the author uses the same Greek preposition en.  In my translation I have tried to convey this phenomenon by using “in” in each instance and italicizing each.  While my translation of “in” captures one dimension of the composer’s artistry, it fails to do justice to the composer’s ability in Greek to use one preposition which has many meanings.  Thus line four is accurately translated as “preached among the Gentiles,” and line five is rendered correctly as “believed in throughout the world.” . . .
            At the risk of overwhelming readers who may have little or no understanding of Greek, I mention another instance of the composer’s cleverness with the Greek language.  In creating the hymn in 1 Timothy 3:16, the composer has manifested considerable ingenuity in selecting six aorist verbs.  This verb tense may be used in different ways to indicate that something is past. 

For example, in the events in lines one through three are past and completed.  In lines four and five, however, the composer has used the aorist to signal the first phase of a past action.  Thus one could justifiably translate line four as “has begun to be proclaimed to the Gentiles” and line five as “has begun to be believed in throughout the world.”  It seems to me that the composer took great delight in wordsmithing.  


            Although I notice at least a minor interest in one verse hymns in the 2010s, I immediately wonder, “Where is the rest of it?  Hymns are traditionally far longer!”  Why is it only provided in part?  For them to recognize this as a poetic hymn rather than just a powerful “play on words,” what is there unique that would make them think it is such?  Were they so astute to the different sounding wording that Karris points out, that they would automatically consider it part of a hymn? 

The most obvious reason they would regard this as a hymnic poem would be if it were one that had originated among the Ephesian readers or one which had gained widespread acceptance throughout the churches.  But shouldn’t there be at least some hint of either scenario--something along the lines of, “As it is often sung” and then the words given?  How were those not familiar with its usage as song to recognize its “true” nature and intent? 

On the other hand, its poetic style is reasonably obvious.  I’m tempted to say, “If it wasn’t a hymn it should have been one.”  If it seems that obvious a connection, perhaps that is the strongest argument for it either being a hymn already or “poetry” that was soon made into one among the recipients.  James B. Coffman has been on both sides of this question through the years, ultimately deciding against the hymn scenario.  He concludes that “even if it is a hymn, the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the proposition that Paul himself was the author of it.”[27]


The internal structure of the text.  It is not uncommon to see this section as a kind of chronological account of Jesus, from birth to His ascension.  The last line, “received up in glory” certainly fits the idea of the ascension.  

The first line similarly can be read as referring to the incarnation of Jesus into a fleshly body at His birth:  “manifested in the flesh” certainly argues that a visible, tangible expression of His being that did not previously exist was begun.  That aspect is made even more clear in the GW, which speaks of how “He appeared in his human nature” and Weymouth which speaks of how He “appeared in human form.” 

The obvious problem is how He can be described as “preached among the Gentiles” before His ascension.  One can argue that Gentiles occasionally pop up in the narrative but they certainly weren’t the main target of either Him or His apostles at that time.  Unquestionably the preaching of Jesus began to be done--preaching that later was extended to the Gentiles.  But the emphasis on Gentiles seems odd, indeed, if a strict chronological approach is intended.  

Others make it chronological by making the incarnation the beginning point but the “received up in glory” refer to Jesus’ post Second Coming return to heaven with the saints.  This allows “preached among the Gentiles” and “believed on in the world” to be chronological because the ending point has so dramatically been shifted.   


Mark M. Yarbrough seems receptive to a much different approach—one that, though often viewed as relatively new, he notes actually first appeared way back in the 1870s in the Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown commentary.[28]  As he lays it out, what is important is not whether the text provides an ongoing chronological discussion of Jesus’ life but how it repeatedly contrasts the flesh and the spiritual:[29]


Lines one and two contrast “flesh” and “Spirit,” lines three and four contrast “angels” and “nations,” and lines five and six contrast “world” and “glory.”  Because the pattern alternates between a physical and spiritual inference, the continuity of the hymn presents an intriguing (AB / BA / AB) structure.  Using the NIV, the pattern can be displayed in this way:

                        A (physical)      He appeared in a body,

Strophe one
                        B (spiritual) was vindicated by the Spirit,

                        B (spiritual) was seen by angels,

Strophe two

                        A (physical) was preached among the nations,

                        A (physical) was believed on in the world,

Strophe three

                        B (spiritual) was taken up in glory.



In other words, Paul is driving home certain spiritual truths and that exact chronology is virtually irrelevant to these truths.  


            The now revealed “mystery of godliness” tells us of at least six facts about Jesus of Nazareth:


            First element of the once hidden mystery of godliness:  “God was manifested in the flesh.”  The textual question:  Is it “God” or the vaguer “He” who is manifested?  One of the few that retain “God” is the WEB, while the bulk now go with “He” (ESV, Holman, GW, ISV, NASB, NET, NIV), and one goes as far as to identify the “He” as “Christ appeared in human form” (Weymouth).


In the nineteen century, there was a major intellectual battle against adopting “He” out of concern that it intentionally or unintentionally represented an effort to strip Christ of His fully supernaturalness.[30]  Philip W. Comfort, in effect, argues the ancient Greek text was originally modified by adding “God” to simply make explicit what was already implicit, “In the original text, the subject of the verse is simply ‘who’—which most translators render as ‘he’ and which most commentators identify as Christ.  Christ, the God-man, manifested His deity in and through His humanity.  All English versions since the ASV (and ERV, its British predecessor) have reflected the superior text, and most show the variant(s) in marginal notes.”[31]

The late 19th century commentator A. E. Humphrey provides this concise summary of the evidence for “God” versus “He”--or, more properly “who”--and the varied lines of reasoning supporting “He” as the far more likely reading:[32]


The controversy is well known which has so long prevailed as to the original reading; whether the passage should begin ‘God’ or ‘who’:  the Greek abbreviated form of writing ‘God’ being very like the Greek for ‘who,’ ΘΣ and οσ.

Since the minute inspection of the Alexandrine ms. by Bishops Lightfoot, Ellicott, and others, there is no doubt of its original reading being ‘who,’ as is also the reading of א, and all the Versions older than the 7th century, of Origen, Epiphanius, Jerome, Theodore, and Cyril.  The neuter relative is indeed found in one uncial ms. (D1) in the Italian and Vulgate and in all the Latin Fathers except Jerome, a correction apparently to make it agree with the neuter word mustêrion.

The support of manuscripts, Versions and Fathers is comparatively weak for ‘God’:  while ‘it is a most significant fact that in the Arian controversy, no one of the Catholic champions except Gregory of Nyssa produces this passage, though it would have been their strong weapon.’  All the evidence preponderates in favor of a relative masc. or neut., and it seems incredible that θσ should have been altered into οσ because of the difficulty of the reading.  Moreover it is difficult to understand how it could be said that God was justified in spirit or seen of angels or received up in glory.

We take the reading ‘who’ unhesitatingly, and refer it to ‘an omitted though easily recognized antecedent, viz. Christ.’  The Person is implied in the Mystery.  In Colossians 1:27, He is expressly called ‘this mystery among the Gentiles.’  In order to bring out the personal reference contained in the word ‘mystery’ as followed by the masculine relative, we must render in English with Revised Version, ‘the mystery of godliness; He who.’



            S. Lewis Johnson effectively argues in one of his sermons that even if the proper reading is “He,” that there are only a few “he’s” that it could refer to and the only one that makes sense is Deity:[33]


                        Now you can see that if the Theos is genuine, “God was manifest in the

            flesh,” this is one of the great texts of the New Testament on the deity of Christ. 

            And at least we would have to say that this text teaches the deity of Christ.  But if

            we can argue that the text doesn’t say, “God was manifest in the flesh,” but “He

            who was manifest in the flesh,” then it is the opinion of some that we have

            weakened the testimony to the deity of Christ.  I’d like to show that that’s not

            necessarily true.

                        Now who could be manifest in the flesh?  Well, let’s just assume for the

            sake of discussion that here is a text that says, “He who was manifest in the

            flesh,” and the possibilities are man, an angel, the devil, or God.  Well, now let’s

            read it.  Man was manifest in the flesh.  Well now in the first place, if this is a

            reference to man it would be a reference to every man.  Every man in the sense in

            which that would be understood; every man is manifest in the flesh.  So we don’t           have anything unusual about a man being manifested in the flesh.  But strictly

            speaking men are not manifested in the flesh.  Men have flesh.  They are flesh,

            but they’re not manifested in the flesh.  But I say if it does refer to man, then it

            refers to every man, and then of course it doesn’t have any meaning.

                        Well, let’s then say it refers to an angel perhaps.  “He who,” and angel,

            was manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen by angels.”  Why, of

            course, angels are seen by angels.  There’s nothing unusual about that, that an

            angel should be seen by an angel.  So, that doesn’t fit.

                        Now, let’s suppose that this is a reference to the devil.  “He, who was

            manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit.”  I hope the devil is not justified. 

            [Laughter]  You see when it comes right down to it; this text can only fit one

            person, the Lord Jesus Christ.  And when we say, “He was manifested in the

            flesh,” we are saying by the use of the term manifested, that he is absolutely

            unique and that this expression, “manifest in the flesh,” implies His preexistence

            and thus that He is more than a man and different from an angel and can only be

            God Himself.  And as you know this is the characteristic expression used of the

            Lord Jesus.  “He was manifested in the flesh,” and many times I’ve said to you

            that the two characteristic words that our Lord used to speak of himself were, “I

            have been sent,” and “I have come.”


            Accepting the probability of this being part of an early hymn, Alfred Plummer argues:  “Then the ‘Who’ with which the quotation begins will refer to something in the preceding lines which are not quoted.  How natural, then, that Paul should leave the ‘Who’ unchanged although it does not fit grammatically to his own sentence.”[34] 

            If not a hymn, then Johnson’s argument quoted above remains fully true:  Who else could the verse be referring to except Jesus?  This is reinforced by the fact that since “the living God” is referred to in verse 15, the “He” in verse 16 would most naturally be alluding to Deity as well--Deity “manifested in the flesh.”


The nature of the “manifested.”  Some modern translations remain with “manifested” (ESV, Holman) while most are divided between “appeared” (GW, NIV, Weymouth) and “revealed” (ISV, NASB, NET, WEB).  The place Christ was manifested or appeared/revealed is earth.  On its own merits that would be the case because of the specification “manifested in the flesh,” but is further backed by the reference to being “received up in glory”—that He returned to where He came from.

All this adds up to the fact that the person who had been in heaven took on a physical manifestation for His earthly ministry and afterwards return to heaven that He had left.  “This was a real manifestation of a real man in real flesh.”[35]  He thereby tears the guts out of the kind of thinking that became a fundamental principle of what ultimately became Gnosticism.  

Paul himself clearly identified Jesus Christ as God incarnated in fleshly form in other epistles as well.  The four gospels--especially that of John--lay the groundwork for this assertion.  Philippians 2:6-8, either alone or in its broader context, is especially emphatic evidence of Paul’s embracing this:

5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Here we have the elements of Christ being in a different form when in heaven and when on earth and, implicitly, returning to that earlier form after His earthly labors ended.  In Romans 8:3 Paul speaks of how God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.”  To paraphrase the point a bit, but clarifying it at the same time:  “Sending His own Son in a body like that of sinful human nature” (Weymouth); “God sent his Son to have a human nature as sinners have” (GW).  Jesus wasn’t counted as a sinner because He dwelt within a fleshly body even though you would automatically assume any person in such a body would be such.  

Instead, He overcame those fleshly limitations.  Indeed His own challenge to others was:  Which of you convicts Me of sin?” (John 8:46).  The ISV and NIV convey the challenge well by substituting the point for the “legal jargon” of “convict”--“Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?”  Now they could easily accuse, they could insult, they could even libel.  But actually prove such?  Make it credible?  No.  Would that be a safe challenge for anyone today to make?  I think not!    


The manifestation in flesh began at His birth of course.  It has been argued, with considerable justice, that the description fits His entire earthly sojourn and therefore can rightly be applied to that entire period and not only to the initial entrance into the world of earthly beings.[36]  Implicitly this would rebuke any Gnostic style scenario that Jesus abandoned that nature at some point in His earthly life.  In particular that He no longer had a fleshly-human style body at the time of His crucifixion and death on the cross.   


Second element of the once hidden mystery of godliness:  Justified in the Spirit.”  “Justified” language is strongly abandoned in other renditions, “justified in” being retained only by WEB, and the language expanded by Weymouth into “His claims [were] justified by the Spirit.”  The Greek word is the one for “justified” and that is the typical way it is translated in other passages.[37]  Working from the maintenance of that translation in our current text, the word “probably means ‘proved to be right.’ ”[38]   

“In the Spirit:”  The preferred language now is to speak in terms of vindication, using either “vindicated in” (Holman, NASB) or “vindicated by” (ESV, NET, NIV). 

Attempting to explain the meaning of the words, GW takes it to mean that Jesus had the support or backing of the Divine Spirit— He “was approved by the Spirit.”  The ISV explains the Spirit’s role as that of keeping Him sinless--“kept righteous by the Spirit’s might.” 


Some commentators refer this to the Spirit descending upon Him at the time of His baptism in the Jordan.  Additionally, there was the Spirit sending Him into the wilderness to be tempted (Matthew 4:1; Mark 1:12).  Luke tells us that immediately prior to this He was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1).  Still “justified” seems an interpretive reach unless we think--as the GW and ISV--that it was the presence of the Holy Spirit that kept Him sinless.  But if Jesus be deity incarnated in flesh, wouldn’t He be that even without the intervention of the Divine Spirit?


            The text could also refer to Christ’s own spirit—the inner being either defined as His supernatural nature or the human spirit equivalent that he would be expected to have  since He was in this world in a very human body.  He was spotless and sinless in both.  Either way, this would be a body blow to Gnostic style thinking that saw an antithesis between flesh and spirit.  Here was “God made flesh” yet who had an unquestionably pure spirit at the same time.

            We could easily think of Jesus as being “justified in the (= His own) spirit” by successfully resisting the Devil during the forty days of temptation.  Did not that fully justify His claims to be totally devoted to being obedient to God’s will? 

            Also note that the wording of our verse is “justified in the Spirit” and not “justified by the Spirit.”  Robert H. Gundry attempts to make both expressions synonymous when he writes, “We might have expected ‘by [the] Spirit’ but ‘in [the] Spirit’ locates the resurrected Christ in the Holy Spirit just as believers ‘aren’t in the flesh—rather, in the Spirit—if indeed the Spirit of God is residing in [them]’ (Romans 8:9).”[39]  (Brackets per Gundry.)

            We leave it to others to judge whether Gundry’s argument is valid as to whether such a shift in wording would be justified.  But if we take the text as referring to Christ’s own inner Spirit/Nature the entire discussion is unneeded.          


            Another stream of interpretation is that this refers to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.[40]  The expression “refers to Christ’s resurrection as vindicating him over against others’ having crucified Him as though He were a criminal.”[41]

Romans 1:4 has been offered as justification:  declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.”  This can most naturally link to our current text by arguing that it establishes that Jesus’ claim to being “the Son of God” was proven or vindicated by the resurrection produced by the Divine Spirit.  (If Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all have a role in Divine revelation (John 16:13-15), why would it be so strange if all three were envolved in the resurrection as well? 

1 Peter 3:18 is also appealed to make the same point, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit.”  But here the reference seems clearly to be that the Spirit intervened to “make [Him] alive.”  In other words the Spirit’s power used to accomplish the resurrection would seem to be under consideration rather than what the Spirit proved by the resurrection—two supplemental truths rather than identical ones. 

I find that there seems to be a tad too much that has to be read into the text to accomplish the interpretation.  On the other hand, none of the possibilities jump out and seem overpowering.  Even if not the point in 1 Timothy 3:16--but true of either Romans 1:14 or 1 Peter 3:18--one could still reasonably argue that this conclusion was so widely accepted as fact that the current passage would automatically be interpreted in such a manner.


Third element of the once hidden mystery of godliness:  Seen by angels.”  This language is universally retained (ESV, GW, Holman, NASB, NET, NIV, Weymouth, WEB)--except by one that alters it to “adored by angels singing” (ISV).  “Seen” doesn’t require either “adored” or “singing.”  Presumably that wording is adopted because of the gospel allusion that immediately comes to mind when hearing the words:


Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you:  You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”  15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.  (Luke 2)


            Although we would naturally assume that “the heavenly host” would equate to angels—who else would we expect to be there?—this deduction is confirmed when the text speaks of “the angels” plural returning to heaven (Luke 2:15) when it was only “an angel” (singular) who had done the speaking (2:9).


            This is certainly not the only time that angels played a role in Jesus’ life—either earthly or afterwards.  Here’s a brief summary made by one writer with the actual quotes removed since the summary itself is quite adequate for our current purpose:[42] 


·        Angel Gabriel announced the coming birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:10-22)

·        Gabriel announced the coming birth of Jesus to Mary (Luke 1:28-38)

·        An unnamed angel announced Jesus’ birth to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25)

·        At Jesus’ birth the angels worshipped Him (Luke 2:9-16)

·        An unknown angel warned Joseph of Herod’s evil intent to murder the Messiah (Matthew 2:13)

·        Angels strengthened Jesus during His ministry

                        [First case:]  Matthew 4:11

                        [Another case:]  Luke 22:43

·        Angels attended Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:2-7; cf. Mark 16:4-7; Luke 24:4-7; John 20:11-14)

·        Angels reassured disciples at the ascension of Christ (Acts 1:9-11)

·        Angels will accompany Jesus when He returns (Matthew 25:31-32; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; cf. 2 Thessalonians 4:16-17).


Although this amply demonstrates the angelic role in Jesus’ life, it doesn’t really seem to play fair with the wording “seen by angels:” that seems a far cry from “He (Jesus) saw angels.”[43]  Aren’t the roles being reversed?  Technically they saw each other, but isn’t this still a rather odd way to express that idea if it were actually in mind?

The closest the gospel texts come to the exact wording and concept used by Paul seems to be  in regard to the resurrection:


*  Describing the initial reaction of the disciples to the resurrection report by the women who had intended to do further burial work on the body:  When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive” (Luke 24:23). 

*  The angels made the exit from the tomb possible:  And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it” (Matthew 28:2).

*  Presumably an angel (who else could it have been under the circumstances) was found within the tomb as well:  “And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed” (Mark 16:5). 

* And as if to resolve any possible doubt that it was an angelic being, in John we read:  But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb.   And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (John 20:11-12).


If angels were this intimately envolved in the resurrection, would not the experience be, literally, one of Jesus being seen by angels?  On the other hand, these also were examples of mutual seeing:  one need not rule out the other for how could either see the other without it being mutual?

On the other hand, the words could easily refer to His heavenly interaction with the angels as well.  Their seeing Him before He was embodied in a fleshly form . . . while still in heaven . . . would certainly fit that criteria.

Likewise if the allusion is to something that happened in heaven after His resurrection.  At this point it would be relevant to note that some see the text as referring to their celebration of His victory over death, sin (1:15) and demonic evil (4:1).[44]  That they did so celebrate seems inevitable given the circumstances of earthly tragedy being overcome by Divine triumph over the power of even death itself. 

But is this really the same thing as “seen by angels”?  We could again make the theoretical objection that that there can be a major difference between saying they saw something and what they did-- their celebrating.  Yet could they see something without an emotional reaction to it?  That is hard to imagine!  If  the seeing envolves something angels uniquely saw and not mortals what other possible situations could the text possibly refer to?      


            The least likely option, it would seem to me would be to interpret “angels” in its strict sense of “messenger”—which is quite congenial to some contexts.  In other words as a human messenger.  Luke T. Johnson takes it in this sense and believes it refers to the “eyewitnesses” of His ministry who shared their story with others (Luke 1:2).[45] He notes that such a self-description as messenger was invoked by Paul himself:  And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus” (Galatians 4:14). 

He does not think to note that since Paul had literally seen the risen Messiah on the road to Damascus, he would himself have been one of the “angels” who had personally seen the Lord.  To the extent that one accepts that Paul embraced a “high Christology,” to that extent one is unlikely to embrace such a mundane interpretation.  It simply seems too limited to fit the glory and grandeur Paul seems to clearly want to convey. 

Aside:  There are those who argue that Paul only saw a bright light and heard Jesus talk with him on the road to Damascus.  A reasonable argument of this nature can be made based upon the descriptions of the event in the book of Acts since they only directly describe his seeing an overpowering light and hearing the Lord self-identifying Himself as the one Paul persecuted (Acts 9:3-9; 22:3-9).  But even there he clearly saw the manifestation of Jesus in a way that could not be denied.  He was at least a witness of those quite literal phenomena that carried with it the clear cut implication that Paul was dealing with the Man from Nazareth and far more than just an intangible vision.[46]

However Paul’s own words seem to deny us any option but that he also saw a bodily manifestation of the Lord as well:  Remember that Paul explicitly paralleled the original apostles seeing Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) and his own experience:  “Then last of all He was seen by me also, as one born out of due time” (verse 8).


Before we close this section it would be appropriate to note a paradox:  Though manifestly “seen by angels,” His personal interaction with angels was extremely limited during His life on earth.  As John MacArthur notes,[47]  


            Do you remember that in Matthew 26:53 and 54, He said, “If I wanted, I

could have called legions of angels?”  But He chose and was willing to live and

die without angelic intervention.  Only two times during His life did angels come. 

Once in his temptation when Satan had tempted Him 40 days they came and

ministered to Him.  Once again at the garden, when He was tempted, an angel

came and strengthened Him.  Those are the only two recorded times that angels

gave any attendance to Christ.


Thinking along that line of a lack of personal interaction, one is tempted to say that they observed His actions either from heaven or out of physical sight of both Him and His earthly contemporaries.  They were, if you will, the covert observers of all that happened.


Fourth element of the once hidden mystery of godliness:  Preached among the Gentiles.”  The dominant element of the Roman Empire consisted of “Gentiles” since the label applied to everyone who was not a Jew.  That the message of the Jewish Jesus should be widely spread among them would be surprising since they would not be a natural target for a religious system originating among Jews.  So odd was this that Paul specified it as one of the major characteristics about Jesus and His message.

Today we don’t see the Gentile/Jewish distinction invoked very often in a secular context and it is not surprising that some would prefer to downgrade or eliminate the language because of that lack of usage.  (That one is not going to have a hope of understanding some of the early church controversies spoken of in the New Testament without grasping the importance of the distinction argues that people should be quite cautious in this regard however.)

Just one of our sample translations retains “preached among the Gentiles” (NIV).  Those who retain the ethnic reference have typically changed the preferred language to “proclaimed:”  proclaimed among Gentiles” (NET) or “proclaimed among Gentile nations” (WEB, Weymouth).  The plural “nations” is a concept we still grasp and adding “Gentile” to it allows one to retain the original ethnic connotation while simultaneously conveying the idea that wide areas are under consideration.

Stripping ethnicity totally out of the picture is “proclaimed among the nations” (ESV, NASB) and “preached among the nations” (Holman).  “To nations was he manifest” (ISV) would seemingly fit only if Paul were talking about a personal missionary tour of Gentile lands by Jesus Himself.  “Believed in the world” (GW) removes the Gentile element and by doing so obscures the fact that Christianity was determinedly blending together both Jew and Gentile into a new religious coalition that had never been seen before.

This is described as part of the Divine “mystery” because in the past it had been something unthought of and, only in the gospel, is the previously hidden purpose of God toward the Gentiles revealed in its fullness and entirety.  First, that God would happily accept them even though they remained Gentiles and were never circumcised.  Second, that this was so important that throughout the known world sharing the gospel’s “good news” with them would be of central importance.  God’s will was now for everyone no matter what they called themselves.  


Fifth element of the once hidden mystery of godliness:  Believed on in the world.”  This wording remains strongly dominant (ESV, Holman, NASB, NET, NIV, Weymouth, WEB).  “Was believed in the world” (GW) would fit best if it were Jesus personally doing the preaching but is surely intended to simply say the same thing as the others but in slightly simpler form.  To change the text to “believing souls found peace and rest” (ISV) expresses a profound truth but surely has nothing in the current text to justify it.

The phenomena the text refers to is that belief in Him has not died out; instead it has prospered.  Hence we see here a reference to “the widespread success of . . . evangelism.”[48]


            Sixth element of the once hidden mystery of godliness:  Received up in glory.”  Although WEB retains this reading and Weymouth adds “received up again into glory,” most prefer to speak of taken up in glory” (ESV, Holman, NASB, NET, NIV).  GW alters that a bit to “taken to heaven in glory.”  “Received” most naturally reads as if the nature of the reception back into heaven is under consideration while “in glory” suggests the visual impressiveness of the act of returning to heaven.  (Both approaches reflect teaching found in other passages.)

            However our Lord in heaven reigning” (ISV) has the result of being taken up substituted for the act of--or heavenly reception of--the returned Jesus.  The return can properly be understood as initiating the reign of Christ, but it is hard to see how that particular aspect is under consideration here.





[1] Bratcher, 32.


[2] Scott Lindsay, “1 Timothy 3:14-16.”  At:


(Dated August 2009; accessed:  July 2019.) 


[3] Arichea and Hatton, 79.


[4] Scott Lindsay, “1 Timothy 3:14-16 


[5] David Guzik, “Qualifications for Leaders.”     


[6] S. Lewis Johnson, “The Office of An Elder.”   


[7] Arichea and Hatton, 79.


[8] These are, in significant part, based on the reasons suggested by Robert L. Waggoner, “The Living God,” at:  (Dated May 2005; accessed:  December 2019.)


[9] Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 231.


[10] Arichea and Hatton, 80.


[11] Ibid.


[12] Ibid.


[13] Scott Lindsay, “1 Timothy 3:14-16.”   


[14] Johnny L. Sanders, A Charge To Keep:  Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, at:  (Dated 2005; accessed:  July 2019.) 


[15] Cather, “1 Timothy 3:8-16.”    


[16] John MacArthur, “A Resurrection Hymn (1 Timothy 3:16),” at: (part of the Grace to You website).  (Preached:  March 1991; accessed:  July 2019.) 


[17] Arichea and Hatton, 81-82.


[18] Steve J. Cole, “Why Is The Church Important?  (1 Timothy 3:14-16),” at: (preached 1994; published April 2013; accessed:  July 2019).   


[19] Dan Duncan, “The Pillar of the Truth (1 Timothy 3:14-16).”  Due to being in pdf form, it needs to be accessed through link at: 

(Preached 2014; accessed:  July 2019.) 


[20] Alfred Plummer, “1 Timothy” in The Pastoral Epistles, part of William R. Nicoll, editor, Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Ephesians to Revelation ([N.p.]:  S. S. Scranton Company, 1903), at:  (Accessed:  July 2019.)   

[21] R. W. Hamilton on 3:15, in Joseph S. Exell, Biblical Illustrator.    


[22] Arichea and Hatton, 82.


[23] Ibid.


[24] Alfred Plummer, “1 Timothy” Expositor’s Bible.   


[25] John MacArthur, “The Church’s Confessional Carol of Christ (1 Timothy 3:15-16),” at:  (Preached December 2006; accessed:  July 2019.) 


[26] Robert J. Karris, A Symphony of New Testament Hymns (Collegeville, Minesota:  Liturgical Press, 1996), 112-113.


[27] Coffman, 1 Timothy, online.     


[28] Yarbrough, n. 177, p. 100.


[29] Ibid., 99-100.


[30] Clearly implied by Philip W. Comfort, Text, 663.


[31] Ibid.


[32] Humphreys on 3:16.


[33] S. Lewis Johnson, “The Secret of Godliness:  The Truth We Defend (1 Timothy 3:14-16), at:  (Accessed:  July 2019.)


[34] Alfred Plummer, “1 Timothy,” Expositor’s Bible.     


[35] Akin, “The Mystery of Godliness Is Great,” 140.                              


[36] Robert G. Gundry, “The Form, Meaning and Background of the Hymn Quoted in 1 Timothy 3:16,” in Apostolic History and the Gospel:  Biblical and Historical Essays, edited by W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (Exeter, Devon, Great Britain:  Paternoster Press, 1970), 209.


[37] Arichea and Hatton, 84.


[38] Ibid.


[39] Gundry, Testament, 839.


[40] Daniel L. Akin, “The Mystery of Godliness Is Great,” introducing Romans 1:4 and 1 Peter 3:18 as evidence.             


[41] Gundry, Testament, 839.


[42] Wil Pounds, “Angels in the Life of Christ,” at:  (Dated 2008; accessed:  August 2015.)


[43] Gundry, “Form, Meaning and Background,” 204.


[44] Daniel L. Akin, “The Mystery of Godliness Is Great,” 140.


[45] Luke T. Johnson, Letters, 233.


[46] As a lawyer who made this point in regard to Paul once wrote:  “I’ve interviewed a number of witnesses over the years, and many of them did not actually see something relevant to the case.  Some simply heard something, smelled something, or even felt something. In one case from the early 1980’s, the testimony of an officer who felt the hood of a suspect vehicle became incredibly important to our case.  Witnesses often offer a variety of empirical observations at trial, testifying to what they saw, heard, felt or smelled.  Paul’s status as a witness is not dependent on his visual observations.”  See:  J. Warner Wallace, “Can Paul Be Considered a Witness if He Never Actually Saw Jesus?,” part of the Cold-Case Christianity website, at:  (Dated February 5, 2016; accessed:  December 2019.)


[47] John MacArthur, “A Resurrection Hymn,” prefers to take the reference in a different way, as to events connected with the resurrection. 


[48] Gundry, Testament, 839.