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“These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly; but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness; He who was manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, received up in glory”—1 Tim. iii. 14–16.

St. Paul here makes a pause in the Epistle. He has brought to a close some of the principal directions which he has to give respecting the preservation of pure doctrine, the conduct of public worship, and the qualifications for the ministry: and before proceeding to other topics he halts in order to insist upon the importance of these things, by pointing out what is really involved in them. Their importance is one main reason for his writing at all. Although he hopes to be with Timothy again even sooner than might be expected, he nevertheless will not allow matters of this gravity to wait for his return to Ephesus. For, after all, this hope may be frustrated, and it may be a long time before the two friends meet again face to face. The way in which Christians ought to behave themselves in the house of God is not a matter which can wait indefinitely, seeing that this house of God is no 131 lifeless shrine of a lifeless image, which knows nothing and cares nothing about what goes on in its temple; but a congregation of immortal souls and of bodies that are temples of the living God, Who will destroy him who destroys His temple (1 Cor. iii. 17). God’s house must have regulations to preserve it from unseeming disorder. The congregation which belongs to the living God must have a constitution to preserve it from faction and anarchy. All the more so, seeing that to it has been assigned a post of great responsibility. Truth in itself is self-evident and self-sustained: it needs no external support or foundation. But truth as it is manifested to the world needs the best support and the firmest basis that can be found for it. And it is the duty and privilege of the Church to supply these. God’s household is not only a community which in a solemn and special way belongs to the living God: it is also the “pillar and ground of the truth.” These considerations show how vital is the question, In what way ought one to behave oneself in this community?5252   To take the “pillar and ground of the truth” as meaning Timothy makes sense, but not nearly such good sense: moreover, it is almost certain that if St. Paul had meant this, he would have expressed himself differently. There is no intolerable mixture of metaphors in speaking of Christians first as a house and then as a pillar, any more than in speaking of any one as both a pillar and a basis. In vi. 9 we have the covetous falling into a snare and hurtful lusts such as drown men.

For the truth, to the support and establishment of which every Christian by his behaviour in the Church is bound to contribute, is indisputably something great and profound. By the admission of all, the mystery of the Christian faith is a deep and weighty one; and the responsibility of helping or hindering its establishment 132 is proportionately deep and weighty. Other things may be matter of dispute, but this not. “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness.”

Why does St. Paul speak of the Truth as “the mystery of godliness”? In order to express both the Divine and the human aspects of the Christian faith. 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 centre 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 (xvi. 25), “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.” He rarely uses the word mystery without combining with it some other word signifying to reveal, manifest, or make known.5353   1 Cor. ii 1, 7, xv. 51; Eph. i. 9, iii. 3, 9, vi. 19; Col. i. 26, 27, ii. v. 3, comp. Rom. xi. 25, and see Lightfoot on Col. i. 26.

133 But the Christian faith is not only a mystery but a “mystery of godliness.” 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 Thess. ii. 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.

“Who was manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, received up in glory.”

After the text about the three Heavenly Witnesses in the First Epistle of St. John, no disputed reading in the New Testament has given rise to more controversy than the passage before us. Let us hope that the day is not far distant when there will be no more disputing about either text. The truth, though still doubted, especially in reference to the passage before us, is not really doubtful. In both cases the reading of the A.V. is indefensible. It is certain that St. John never wrote the words about the “three that bear witness in heaven”: and it is certain that St. Paul did not write, “God was manifest in the flesh,” but “Who was manifested in the flesh.” The reading “God was manifested in the flesh” appears in no Christian writer until late in the fourth century, and in no translation of the Scriptures, earlier than the seventh or eighth century. And it is not found in 134 any of the five great primary MSS., except as a correction made by a later scribe, who knew of the reading “God was manifested,” and either preferred it to the other, or at least wished to preserve it as an alternative reading, or as an interpretation. Even so cautious and conservative a commentator as the late Bishop Wordsworth of Lincoln declares that “the preponderance of testimony is overwhelming” against the reading “God was manifested in the flesh.” In an old Greek MS., it would require only two small strokes to turn “Who” into “God”; and this alteration would be a tempting one, seeing that the masculine “Who” after the neuter “mystery,” looks harsh and unnatural.5454   Cf. Col. i. 27, which throws much light on this passage; and also Col. ii. 2. In some MSS. and Versions the “Who” has been changed into “which,” in order to make the construction less harsh.

But here we come upon a highly interesting consideration. The words that follow look like a quotation from some primitive Christian hymn or confession. The rhythmical movement and the parallelism of the six balanced clauses, of which each triplet forms a climax, points to some such fact as this. It is possible that we have here a fragment of one of the very hymns which, as Pliny the Younger tells the Emperor Trajan, the Christians were accustomed to sing antiphonally at daybreak to Christ as a God.5555   Carmen Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem (Plin., Ep. x. 97). Such a passage as this might well be sung from side to side, line by line or triplet by triplet, as choirs still chant the Psalms in our churches.

“Who was manifested in the flesh,

“Justified in the spirit,

“Seen of angels,


“Preached among the nations,

“Believed on in the world,

“Received up in glory.”

Let us assume that this very reasonable and attractive conjecture is correct, and that St. Paul is here quoting from some well-known form of words. Then the “Who” with which the quotation begins will refer to something in the preceding lines which are not quoted. How natural, then, that St. Paul should leave the “Who” unchanged, although it does not fit on grammatically to his own sentence. But in any case there is no doubt as to the antecedent of the “Who.” “The mystery of godliness” has for its centre and basis the life of a Divine Person; and the great crisis in the long process by which the mystery was revealed was reached when this Divine Person “was manifested in the flesh.” That in making this statement or quotation the Apostle has in his mind the Gnostics who “teach a different doctrine” (i. 3), is quite possible, but is by no means certain. The “manifestation” of Christ in the flesh is a favourite topic with him, as with St. John, and is one of the points in which the two Apostles not only teach the same doctrine, but teach it in the same language. The fact that he had used the word “mystery” would be quite enough to make him speak of “manifestation,” even if there had been no false teachers who denied or explained away the fact of the Incarnation of the Divine Son. The two words fit into one another exactly. “Mystery,” in Christian theology, implies something which once was concealed but has now been made known; “manifest” implies making known what had once been concealed. An historical appearance of One Who had previously existed, but had been kept from 136 the knowledge of the world, is what is meant by, “Who was manifested in the flesh.”

“Justified in the spirit.” Spirit here cannot mean the Holy Spirit, as the A.V. would lead us to suppose. “In spirit” in this clause is in obvious contrast to “in flesh” in the previous clause. And if “flesh” means the material part of Christ’s nature, “spirit” means the immaterial part of His nature, and the higher portion of it. His flesh was the sphere of His manifestation: His spirit was the sphere of His justification. Thus much seems to be clear. But what are we to understand by His justification? And how did it take place in His spirit? These are questions to which a great variety of answers have been given; and it would be rash to assert of any one of them that it is so satisfactory as to be conclusive.

Christ’s human nature consisted, as ours does, of three elements, body, soul, and spirit. The body is the flesh spoken of in the first clause. The soul (ψυχή), as distinct from the spirit (πνεῦμα), is the seat of the natural affections and desires. It was Christ’s soul that was troubled at the thought of impending suffering. “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt. xxvi. 38; Mark xiv. 34). “Now is My soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour” (John xii. 27). The spirit is the seat of the religious emotions: it is the highest, innermost part of man’s nature; the sanctuary of the temple. It was in His spirit that Christ was affected when the presence of moral evil distressed Him. He was moved with indignation in His spirit when He saw the hypocritical Jews mingling their sentimental lamentations with the heartfelt lamentations of Martha and Mary at the grave of Lazarus (John xi. 33). It was in His 137 spirit also that He was troubled when, as Judas sat at table with Him and possibly next to Him,5656   St. John reclined on our Lord’s right; Judas seems to have been on His left. He must have been very close to be able to hear without the others hearing. He said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray Me” (John xiii. 21). This spiritual part of His nature, which was the sphere of His most intense suffering, was also the sphere of His most intense joy and satisfaction. As moral evil distressed His spirit, so moral innocence delighted it. In a way that none of us can measure, Jesus Christ knew the joy of a good conscience. The challenge which He made to the Jews, “Which of you convicteth Me of sin?” was one which He could make to His own conscience. It had nothing against Him and could never accuse Him. He was justified when it spake, and clear when it judged (Rom. iii. 4; Ps. li. 4). Perfect Man though He was, and manifested in weak and suffering flesh, He was nevertheless “justified in the spirit.”5757   Cf. the partly parallel passage 1 Pet. iii. 18: “Put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the spirit.” But “flesh” and “spirit” have no preposition in the original Greek in 1 Pet. iii. 18: here each has the ἐν.

“Seen of angels.” It is impossible to determine the precise occasion to which this refers. Ever since the Incarnation Christ has been visible to the angels; but something more special than the fact of the Incarnation seems to be alluded to here. The wording in the Greek is exactly the same as in “He appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then He appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then He appeared to James; then to all the Apostles; last of all, as to one born out of due time, He appeared to 138 me also” (1 Cor. xv. 5–8). Here, therefore, we might translate “appeared to angels.” What appearance, or appearances, of the incarnate Word to the angelic host can be intended?

The question cannot be answered with any certainty; but with some confidence we can venture to say what can not be intended. “Appeared to angels” can scarcely refer to the angelic appearances which are recorded in connexion with the Nativity, Temptation, Agony, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. On those occasions angels appeared to Christ and to others, not He to angels. With still greater confidence we may reject the suggestion that “angels” here means either the Apostles, as the angels or messengers of Christ, or evil spirits, as the angels of Satan. It may be doubted whether anything at all parallel to either explanation can be found in Scripture. Moreover, “appeared to evil spirits” is an interpretation which makes the passage more difficult than it was before. The manifestation of Christ to the angelic host either at the Incarnation or at the return to glory is a far more reasonable meaning to assign to the words.

The first three clauses of this primitive hymn may thus be summed up. The mystery of godliness has been revealed to mankind, and revealed in a historical Person, Who, while manifested in human flesh, was in His inmost spirit declared free from all sin. And this manifestation of a perfectly righteous Man was not confined to the human race. The angels also witnessed it and can bear testimony to its reality.

The remaining triplet is more simple: the meaning of each one of its clauses is clear. The same Christ, who was seen of angels, was also preached among the 139 nations of the earth and believed on in the world: yet He Himself was taken up from the earth and received once more in glory. The propagation of the faith in an ascended Christ is here plainly and even enthusiastically stated. To all the nations, to the whole world, this glorified Saviour belongs. All this adds emphasis to the question “how men ought to behave themselves in the house of God” in which such truths are taught and upheld.

It is remarkable how many arrangements of these six clauses are possible, all making excellent sense. We may make them into two triplets of independent lines: or we may couple the two first lines of each triplet together and then make the third lines correspond to one another. In either case each group begins with earth and ends with heaven. Or again, we may make the six lines into three couplets. In the first couplet flesh and spirit are contrasted and combined; in the second, angels and men; in the third, earth and heaven.

Yes, beyond dispute the mystery of godliness is a great one. The revelation of the Eternal Son, which imposes upon those who accept it a holiness of which His sinlessness must be the model, is something awful and profound. But He, Who along with every temptation which He allows “makes also the way of escape,” does not impose a pattern for imitation without at the same time granting the grace necessary for struggling towards it. To reach it is impossible—at any rate in this life. But the consciousness that we cannot reach perfection is no excuse for aiming at imperfection. The sinlessness of Christ is immeasurably beyond us here; and it may be that even in eternity the loss caused by our sins in this life will never be entirely 140 cancelled. But to those who have taken up their cross daily and followed their Master, and who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, will be granted hereafter to stand sinless “before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple.” Having followed Christ on earth, they will follow Him still more in heaven. Having shared His sufferings here, they will share His reward there. They too will be “seen of angels” and “received up in glory.”

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