The Mystery of Godliness

1Ti 3:15 But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. 1Ti 3:16 And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

Oh, how about a little controversy this Tuesday morning? We talked about this briefly on yesterday’s podcast. I have always thought it hilarious that 1 Tim. 3:16 is such a controversial verse even though Paul says it’s without controversy! Not only that, this great thing that is supposed to be without controversy is a mystery! Thank you so much, Paul.

I know my readers understand that Paul’s body of revelation about God’s grace for us believers today came in a package called “The Mystery” and here we have in 1 Tim. 3:16 the mystery of godliness. So is this godliness somehow tied back to the mystery?

To add another layer of intrigue to this puzzle, it cannot be said that there is no wrong answer. There is a right and a wrong answer to this mystery because this is to be so great that it is without controversy. It’s supposed to be obvious to everyone, this great thing that is the mystery of godliness, which is obvious to maybe a few. This is a mystery that has only one solution about which there should be no controversy.

So what exactly is this controversial non-controversial great thing that is mystery of godliness? I’ll just say that I’m not dogmatic about this verse. I wouldn’t fight with anyone on it. I wouldn’t pretend I’m some know-it-all. I am open to other views.


In verse 15, Paul talks about the church of the living God as the pillar and ground of the truth. He’s impressing upon Timothy again a deep sense of the importance of sound grace doctrine, because the body of truth given by God to Paul for believers today now fully revealed through His completed Word, has been entrusted to the church, the Body of Christ, to local assemblies of believers who are to stand tall, stand proud, and stand strong upon that truth.

The church is never called the truth. Christ is the truth, but the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, the lighthouse of truth to be proclaimed to a world in darkness. Churches are to preserve the truth, to defend it, to not tolerate false doctrine, and to pass down that truth to future generations.

So we have in verse 15, not one subject that provides a context for vs. 16, but I’d argue that we have three major subjects that provide the context to the mystery of godliness.

You have Timothy’s behavior, the church, and the truth.

I’d suggest that one needs to consider all three of those points as the context to the mystery of godliness, because Paul begins vs. 16 with the conjunction “and.” He’s continuing his thought in the previous verse after having spoken about Timothy’s conduct in the church, which is the pillar and ground of the truth. In that context, it seems fairly obvious that the mystery of godliness has to be about godliness exhibited in us today, the members of the Body of Christ, which makes up the church, which is the pillar and ground of the truth, and it’s the acceptance of that truth found in Paul’s body of revelation called the Mystery that produces godliness in us.

BUT how can there be godliness in us if Christ didn’t first come into the world, as God manifest in the flesh, to die for all our sins?

To me, the great cross-reference would have to be Col 1:27 “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory…” The mystery of godliness seems to me to be synonymous with the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you. Godliness, or God-likeness, can only be possible if Christ Himself is inside of us, BUT… how can Christ Himself be inside of us if He didn’t first come into the world, as God manifest in the flesh, to die for all our sins?

Of course, Paul’s mystery among the Gentiles reveals God’s new program, which is Christ in all of us. The ground of our hope is Christ, and the evidence of our hope is Christ in us, which might be why the mystery of godliness should be without controversy, because the evidence of God in us should be so obvious, so unmistakable, so transparent, that it isn’t debatable. Because of Timothy’s Godly conduct in his church at Ephesus, none of those Judaizers or grievous wolves in his church should ever look at Timothy and say that the mystery Paul proclaimed was false because Timothy’s godliness would make it obvious to all in his assembly that God’s life is absolutely living out in us Gentiles today just as Paul taught.

This is the last time Paul would ever write the word “mystery” in his epistles, and this is after he wrote of “the mystery of the faith” in vs. 9, which potential deacons and elders are to hold in a pure conscience. So in vs. 9, we have the holding of the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience, and in vs. 16, we have the result, the evidence of God in us, the mystery of godliness, which is godliness exhibited in us, members of the Body of Christ, which makes up the church, the pillar and ground of the truth, and the acceptance of that truth found in Paul’s body of revelation called the Mystery produces godliness in us.

So there are 6 components in 1 Tim. 3:16 that make up the mystery of godliness. God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. I’m totally onboard with everyone about the idea that the mystery of godliness has to be about godliness in us, but where I struggle with many dispensational speakers and writers is how they try to make each of these 6 components be about the Body of Christ, which doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve heard the arguments, and it always feels off to me, like they’re trying too hard to squeeze a square peg into a round hole, and I keep thinking we should let these 6 components be what they clearly are.

God was manifest in the flesh

I would be onboard thinking that this is a reference to God being manifest in us except for the fact that Paul said, “God was [past tense] manifest in the flesh.” This has to be a reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. This phrase falls under the category of Occam’s Razor, the simplest answer is usually the right one, and the simplest answer has to be the one that comes to mind when you read that verse – the Lord Jesus Christ when God was, past tense, literally manifest in the flesh.

Well, some might say, this phrase cannot be about the Lord Jesus Christ because the deity of Christ was no mystery. His deity was foretold in prophecies. Take, for example, Mat 1:21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Mat 1:22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Mat 1:23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. So they’ll say, “See? The deity of Christ was clearly foretold, and thus, the phrase, God was manifest in the flesh could not be a reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. This phrase has to be a reference to God being manifest in us, the Body of Christ.”

That makes no sense to me.

Is it not true that in order for godliness to even exist in us today, Christ had to first come to die for our sins before He could ever be alive in us, as revealed through Paul?

And would not Christ have to be God manifest in the flesh in order for His sacrifice to be acceptable in the eyes of God the Father as a payment for all our sins?

Why wouldn’t the Lord Jesus Christ as God coming into the world in the flesh be an integral component to how it came to be that godliness exists in us Gentiles today?

If God hadn’t come in the flesh to die a sinless death as a payment for all our sins, then not only would godliness not exist in us today but all our faith is also void and we’re dead in our sins.

We could not have had a proper sacrifice for our sins if God had not come manifest in the flesh in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. That Christ would even die for sins was no mystery either. What was a mystery was that His death would become an opportunity for the whole world to be saved by grace through faith alone in this interruption of the prophetic program that we call the Age of Grace. Before godliness could ever exist in us, Christ had to come in the flesh to die on a cross.

Plus, Paul said, “God was [past tense] manifest in the flesh.” How can Paul be writing about the Body of Christ in the past tense? Well, some may point out verses like Rom. 8:30 talking about members of the Body in the past tense, “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” See? This is past tense. God is viewing what was predestinated for the Body of Christ as an accomplished fact in the past tense, but I think a strong case could be made that since this verse was written to saved believers, His predestinated calling and His justifying and His glorifying is all past tense for each of us, because that all took place the moment we got saved.

However, with respect to 1 Tim. 3:16, I’d be willing to go along with that past tense theory if it wasn’t for some of the other components on this list, like preached unto the Gentiles, or believed on in the world. Is the Body of Christ preached unto the Gentiles? Is the Body of Christ believed on in the world? To me, all 6 components have to be references to Christ Himself, and those six components combined explains how godliness is manifest in us. Christ alone is the reason and the source of all godliness in us, because He lives in us.

But what is an incomprehensible mystery about God being manifest in the flesh is the very fact of His incarnation itself, which no human mind can fully comprehend.

His incarnation is one of my favorite topics. You have two aspects of incarnation – His pre-existence & the act of being clothed with flesh.

First, we have the fact that Christ always existed, which is easy to support in Scripture. The Lord said His prayer in Joh 17:5 “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.

Second, the fact that He became clothed with flesh. The promise that God would accomplish this amazing incarnation goes all the way back to the fall in the garden and Gen 3:15 in which the Lord God said to the serpent “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” That was a prophecy of pure grace. As soon as man fell into sin, a remedy was promised and a hope was given, although here God makes it clear that the coming redeemer would win a victory over the serpent while He Himself would suffer as well.

But the bigger point is that all of humanity would be saved by Eve’s child-bearing, that is, by the promised seed who shall descend directly from her. From HER SEED shall come the deliverer of fallen man out of the power of Satan. And this prophecy is echoed in the words of Isaiah. Isa 9:6 “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Apostle John writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (1:1, 14).

Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh, made in the likeness of men, fashioned as a man, and the express image of His person. The Mighty Creator, who formed man from the dust of the earth, took upon Himself that same form and entered the world He Himself had spoken into existence, which is just unbelievably amazing.

How can God being fully divine and fully human at the same time not be a mystery to us? Christ had both a perfect and complete Divine nature as well as a perfect and complete human nature. These two natures were united in One Person. Christ was not a Divine Person and/or a human Person, and thus one of two types of a person. He was One Person with two natures. He was fully human and also fully God. He had two natures, human and divine, that were united and yet distinct.

People use the phrase hypostatic union or the word hypostatical to indicate that the union of the two natures was a personal one. It is the Greek word which is translated “person” in Hebrews 1:3: “the express image of His person” – His hypostasis. It means primarily that though Christ has two natures He is but one Person.

How can this be? How can He be both human and divine? How can He be finite and yet infinite?

It is an absolutely incomprehensible mystery.

I think God wanted to do something so mind-blowing to us that it would be forever a mystery, forever fascinating, and forever beyond our grasp.

Justified in the Spirit

Again, this is often used to make the case that this has to be about the Body of Christ. Are we not justified in the Spirit? When was Christ ever justified in the Spirit? And is this no doubt a reference to what Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 6:11: “…but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” Notice here we’re justified IN THE NAME and BY the Spirit.

Again, it makes no sense to me that this wouldn’t be about Christ. There are two major definitions to the word “justify.”

In one sense, justify is “to pardon and clear from guilt; to absolve or acquit from guilt and merited punishment, and to accept as righteous on account of the merits of the Savior, or by the application of Christ’s atonement to the offender.”

But that’s the secondary definition.

The primary definition of “justify” is to “To prove or show to be just,” and it is in this sense Christ was justified in the Spirit. Christ didn’t have to become justified as we do. He was always justified in the Spirit.

Did He not always prove and show that He was just and righteous since the moment He was born? That He was always innocent and righteous and just as the Son of God? Luke 2:40 said that Jesus, as a child waxed strong in the spirit. Was this not the Holy Spirit? Justified in the Spirit means He was always proven to be sinless, which was absolutely crucial to make His sacrifice an acceptable payment for all our sins in the eyes of God the Father, which was essential for our salvation.

Stam wrote that “the words ‘justified in the Spirit’ seem inappropriate when applied to Christ.” It seems inappropriate to me to make these 6 components of the mystery of godliness to be anything other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Unto the Lord only is all the credit and the praise and the adoration for His life in us. Godliness wouldn’t exist in us if Christ hadn’t come into the world as God manifest in the flesh, then led a sinless life having proven Himself to be utterly just in every sense, and then He gave Himself as a sacrifice for all our sins, which is the foundation for everything that God has made us in Christ, which makes us Godly.

I’m not alone in this view either. This isn’t simply Joel-ology. Of this phrase, Arno Gaebelein would write, “He lived the holy life on earth. The power of the Holy Spirit was manifested throughout His life on earth. And having offered Himself by the eternal Spirit without spot to God, the power of the Holy Spirit marked Him out as Son of God in resurrection. ‘Declared the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead’ (Rom. 1:4). His resurrection, by God the Father and through the operation of His Spirit (Rom. 8:11) justified Him as Son of God.” Amen!

Seen of Angels

Why is this significant to the mystery of godliness? Were angels not witnesses to these great truths Paul has proclaimed? They announced the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. They warned Joseph and Mary to escape to Egypt. They ministered to Jesus after the temptation and at the Garden of Gethsemane. They were at the tomb of Jesus. They were at the ascension. I suspect Paul speaks of angels here in the sense of witnesses, because he would use angels in the same sense in 1Ti 5:21 when he would tell Timothy, “I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.

Gaebelein would write: “Not only did man see Him as John testifies, ‘that which was from the beginning which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the Word of Life’–but angels saw Him. The host of angels witnessed His entrance into the world, surrounded Him and were present with Him in His life on earth. He was seen of angels in His resurrection, and seen of angels when He ascended on high to take His place at the right hand of God, far above all principalities and powers, becoming the head over all things, the head of the Church. And to these heavenly principalities and powers there is now made known by the church the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10).”

Preached unto the Gentiles

Some would argue, “since when was the Body of Christ preached unto the Gentiles?” to which I’d say “Amen!” And I know what the response would be. They’d say, “this isn’t about the Body of Christ being preached unto the Gentiles, this is about the Body of Christ preaching Christ unto the Gentiles.” One book I read argued that this is actually about the mystery being preached unto the Gentiles, which makes zero sense to me.

Paul isn’t talking about anything present tense. He writes “Preached [past tense] unto the Gentiles,” which has to be none other than a direct reference to the ministry of the Apostle Paul who preached, past tense, Christ unto the Gentiles in a mystery, which explains how godliness is now present in the Gentiles today. The gospel by this point had already gone out into all the world. Indeed, even the faith of the Romans had already been spoken of throughout the whole world (Rom. 1:8), and so Paul could speak of Christ preached unto the Gentiles in the past tense.

Believed on in the World

One pastor said: “It should be noted that Paul does not say, ‘Believed on BY the world’ for the world at large goes on its Christ-rejecting way. The ‘not many’ of 1 Cor. 1:26, however, do believe: ‘For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called:’” I would just add that the reason the great mystery of godliness exists in the Gentiles today is because Christ Himself was believed on IN the world via the mystery proclaimed by Paul. That is the reason godliness now exists in all of us.

How can Christ not be the object of this phrase? Well, some might say, this is about the Body of Christ, because those members of the body believed, which is why the mystery of godliness exists. But upon what do we believe that saves us, that transforms us, to make us godly in our walks? Is it not Christ Himself? Christ, who was God manifest in the flesh, who was always justified in the Spirit in that He led a sinless life, which made Him an acceptable sacrifice in the eyes of God the Father, and who was preached unto the Gentiles by the Apostle Paul? Is it not belief on Christ that not only saves us but also produces godliness? This phrase only deepens the point that these components have to be about Christ Himself.

Received up into Glory.

And finally, we have the last component, received up into glory, which many claim has to be the Rapture. How can this be when received up into glory is spoken in the past tense?

This phrase can be nothing other than a reference to the resurrection and the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. His ascension underscores His resurrection, which is a fundamental component of not only the gospel but also our glorious identification with Christ. He was received up into glory because He was resurrected, and because He was resurrected, our spiritual identification with Him through the baptism of the Spirit, transforms us to be walking His resurrection walk, living His resurrection life in a newness of life.

Some might say, “well, received up into glory” sure sounds a lot like the Rapture. It certainly would… if it wasn’t past tense.

One question I always had was, “If all these phrases are about the Lord Jesus Christ, why isn’t the order different? Shouldn’t “received up into glory” precede “preached unto the Gentiles”? Shouldn’t the order be God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, [then] received up into glory, [then] preached unto the Gentiles, [and] believed on in the world?

Why is “received up into glory” last on the list?”

I’ll tell you why.

Because as it was for Christ, so shall it be for us. While the object of these expressions are about Christ the order of the list parallels the natural trajectory of His life in us. God is also manifest in us. We’ve proven ourselves just in the Spirit by our walk. We, too, are seen of angels. We certainly preach Christ unto the Gentiles, who is believed on in the world, and then we’ll be received up into glory. Even though Christ is the object of the list, the order represents a parallel to the natural course of His life manifest in us.

The list isn’t about the Body of Christ, but the order suggests a parallel between His life and ours.

One Comment Add yours

  1. BT says:

    Enjoyed your write up! Just a few thoughts for your consideration…

    The words translated in the past tense is in the aorist tense to quote a Greek Scholar “…the concept of the verb is considered without regard for past, present or future time. There is no direct or clear English equivalent for this tense, though it is generally rendered as a simple past tense in most translations” Blue Letter Bible

    Wuest Word Studies –
    1 Timothy 3:16

    “The words, “without controversy,” are the translation of homologoumenōs, an adverb from homologeō, “to agree with.” The translation could read, “confessedly.” The word “godliness” is eusebeia, “reverence, respect,” in the Bible everywhere, “piety towards God, godliness.” It is a term used, not of God, but of men. The word “mystery” is mustērion. A mystery in the Greek Mystery Religions was a secret rite which was administered to the person being initiated. The word as used in the N.T., refers to truth previously hidden, which when revealed, is understood by the believer. The word is also used of such things as the mystery of evil, which is a mystery not to be understood, at least, this side of the grave. The mystery of piety towards God on the part of men is the truth to which Paul referred in the previous verse. “The contents of this truth or mystery is Christ, revealed in the gospel as the Saviour from ungodliness, the norm and inspiration of godliness, the divine life in man, causing him to live unto God as Christ did and does (Rom 6:10)” (Vincent).

    The word “God” is not in the best texts, rather the relative pronoun hos, “who,” which refers to Christ as its antecedent Vincent says that “the abruptness of its introduction may be explained by the fact that it and the words which follow were probably taken from an ancient creedal hymn. In the early Christian ages it was not unusual to employ verse or rhythm for theological teaching or statement.”

    Our Lord was manifest in the flesh. The word “manifest” is phaneroō, “to make visible.” He said to the Samaritan woman, “God is as to His nature, spirit.” That is, God is incorporeal being. He does not have a physical body. He is therefore invisible. But in the incarnation, the invisible Son of God became visible as He took upon Himself a physical body.

    He was justified in the Spirit. The word “justified” is dikaioō, used of the act of God justifying a believing sinner, that is, declaring him righteous. But here the meaning is “vindicated, endorsed, proved, pronounced as.” The words “flesh” and “spirit” are set in opposition to one another. The former word refers to our Lord’s life on earth as the Man Christ Jesus. The latter word refers to what He was in His preincarnate state as pure spirit, as Deity, as being in the form of God and as being the express image of God’s substance. To simplify the matter further, let us say that the word “flesh” refers to His humanity, the word spirit, to His deity. During His life on earth, His humanity was clearly seen, but His deity was usually hidden underneath the cloak of His humanity. Yet, at times, momentary flashes of His deity were seen, such as on the Mount of Transfiguration, on the occasion when the Father’s voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, hear Him.” It was seen by His exalted and spotless character, by His works of love and power, by His words of authority. All these vindicated, proved, endorsed, pronounced Him for what He was, Very God of Very God manifest in human flesh.

    Our Lord was seen by angels. The incarnation was a spectacle to the angelic world, at our Lord’s birth, His temptation, His agony in Gethsemane, at His resurrection and ascension.
    The word “Gentiles” is ethnos, better, “nations.” He was received up into glory. The word “received” is analambanō, “to take or receive up.” It is the formal term to describe the ascension of Christ (Act 1:2; Act 1:22). The reference here is most probably to that event. The word “into” is the translation of en, “in.” He was taken up in glory, “with attendant circumstances of pomp or majesty, as we say of a victorious general” (Vincent). The cloud that received Him out of the sight of the disciples was the Shekinah Glory.

    Translation: And confessedly, great is the mystery of godliness; who was made visible in the sphere of flesh, vindicated in the sphere of spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

    To me the mystery of godliness must incorporate the Body of Christ. There is a consistent theme throughout the New Covenant of union to where the truth concerning Him is to be true concerning His Own. Not all will enter into this depth of relationship which is the key to our own inheritance in Him. “not of works” but by our submission to His Will… our likeness of Him is always proportional to our submission to His Will and His Way.

    Whether it be holiness, godliness, purity of heart, humility and the other wonders of Him becoming the substantial nature of ourselves is the great mystery.

    “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” The same image will partake of the same inheritance by a mercy so inconceivable that “angles’ cannot comprehend His workings and His end in those who become such. To the intent that in the ages to come all principalities and powers will stand in awe of what He has accomplished in the church!

    “Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ”

    Such heights of our inheritance is beyond the conception of my very limited understanding, but it is the truth of His Call to us. It is here that I marvel that what is true of Him – the only begotten Son of God Son is to be true in the sons of God that HE might ever have the preeminence in ALL things! There is no limit to the worship of Him that proceeds from those who have been fully redeemed by Him.

    “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”


    “And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”

    His desire is to fill us with the very “fulness of God” – It is such a fulness that it requires a unified, pure and holy Body (singular) to contain the vastness of His wonder… His Mystery!

    Sorry for writing so much – it needs not to be posted but a simple sharing of my limited understanding of all that lies before us.

    Blessings brother,


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