The Mystery of Our Religion (1 Timothy 3:16)
Paul writes to Timothy: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion.”
Paul writes here about “the mystery of our religion.” “Mystery” does not mean something one cannot know; that’s obvious for Paul writes about “the mystery of our religion.” A mystery is something that was once concealed but that later is made known. When you read a mystery novel, you may not understand everything when you begin reading the book, but at the end of the book, everything is revealed. The mystery Paul here discusses was once veiled from the world, but it has now been revealed to us.
This mystery is great. The things Paul writes in this verse boggle my mind; they are not easy to comprehend. But we will attempt to comprehend them this morning.
It is believed by many biblical scholars that what we have in this verse is part of an early Christian hymn. That does seem to make sense, for this verse seems poetic. In most editions of the Bible, this verse is written as poetry. Whether or not this is an early Christian hymn what we have here is truth—the Spirit inspired Paul to record this for Timothy and for successive generations.
Another question which arises is: “Are the events mentioned in the hymn in chronological order?” There are arguments that could be put forth for either view. I do personally believe that these events are in chronological order mainly because of the following two lines: Jesus was “preached among the nations, believed on in the world.” These two lines must be in chronological order; the nations cannot believe on Jesus until he has been preached to them. Also, Jesus became flesh before all the other events took place. Thus, we will take these lines as though they are in chronological order.
Let’s examine this true, “The Mystery of Our Religion.”
Jesus Became Flesh
The King James Version has “God became flesh” in place of “He was manifested in the flesh.” That does not seem to be the proper way of looking at this passage. The earliest and best Greek manuscripts have “He was manifested in the flesh.” But whatever the original wording of this passage, the meaning is abundantly clear: Jesus became flesh.
One of the central doctrines of Christianity is that Jesus pre-existed and that he left that pre-existent state to become flesh. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).
Jesus’ become flesh served several useful purposes. For example,
His becoming flesh allows Jesus to be a useful high priest.
Hebrews 2:17-18. Hebrews 4:15-16.
His becoming flesh allowed Jesus to take away sin.
“You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (1 Jn 3:5). “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8).
His becoming flesh allowed Jesus to die for man.
Spirits cannot die. The lake of fire is, of course, called “the second death,” but those who are there are very much alive. The rich man, although in Torment and not yet in hell, was very much alive. Thus, Jesus could not remain a spirit and die for you and me.
Thank God that Jesus became flesh and dwelt among us!
Jesus was Vindicated in the Spirit
Exactly how was Jesus vindicated in the Spirit?
This could mean that the Spirit vindicated Jesus by the miracles he enabled Jesus to perform. Jesus performed his miracles by the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit came upon Jesus: “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him” (Matt 3:16). It was the Spirit who enabled Jesus to do the miracles he did: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him” (Acts 10:38). The Spirit, through the miracles he enabled Jesus to perform, said, “This is the Son of God.”
Another possibility—the one I think is more accurate—is that the Spirit vindicated Jesus through the resurrection of the dead. Jesus was “designated [the] Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 1:4). “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” (1 Pet 3:18).
What a blessing it is to know that the Spirit vindicated Jesus through the resurrection from the dead!
Everyone of us is going to die. Not a one of us shall escape death: “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). If all there was to the story of Jesus was that he died for us, how pitiful we would be!
Yet, the story is that Jesus died for our sins and that he was raised back to life! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised from our graves: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).
When Thomas Jefferson edited a Bible for publication, the Gospels closed with these words: “There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone at the mouth of the tomb and departed.” How grateful we ought to be that that is not where the biblical story ends! But is that where your story will end?
Jesus was Seen by Angels
Angels served Jesus throughout his ministry. An angel came and announced Jesus’ birth to Mary (Lk 1:26-38). Angels announced his birth to the shepherds (Lk 2:8-14). Angels ministered to Jesus at his temptation in the wilderness (Mk 1:13). An angel opened the tomb at Jesus’ resurrection (Matt 28:2). Angels spoke to the apostles at the ascension (Acts 1:10-11).
This statement that Jesus “was seen by angels” could refer to the ministry the angels performed for Jesus during his ministry, or it could refer to his pre-existent state. However, if we understand this passage in chronological order as I have argued, we must see this as occurring after his vindication by the Spirit. It would seem to be that this refers to Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God; the angels witnessed Jesus’ exaltation at God’s right hand. When Jesus “had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3). Jesus “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and power having been made subject to Him” (1 Pet 3:22).
Jesus Was Preached Among the Nations
Jesus desired that he be preached among the nations. “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). “You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
At the time Paul wrote to the Colossians, the Gospel had been preached among the nations: Paul encouraged the Colossians not to be moved away from the hope of the gospel which they heard, “which was preached to every creature under heaven” (Col 1:23).
Are these words still as true as when they were written? Granted, it’s biblical truth, and Jesus was preached among the nations in that era. What I mean is: Has Jesus been preached among the nations in our day and age?
Jesus Was Believed on in the World
Believing, of course, is the result of Jesus’ having been preached throughout the world: “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17).
We must have faith if we plan on being pleasing to God. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). “Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb 11:6).
Do you have faith?
Jesus Was Taken Up in Glory
This could refer to Jesus’ ascension and exaltation. Jesus was taken up in glory at that time: God raised Jesus “from the dead and seated Him at High right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:20). Yet, if we keep this in the context of chronological order, I think this refers to the glory Jesus will have after the resurrection of all the dead.
Jesus will be raised in glory after the resurrection of the dead. When Jesus returns, “all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt 24:30). Philippians 2:9-11.
Jesus will be taken up in glory after the Judgment. What about you? Will you be taken up in glory after the Judgment? Do you need to come this morning and prepare to be taken up in glory?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.