Dr. Timothy Tennent: The Mystery of Godliness

I am sure that every pastor or Christian leader reading this Alumni Link article will have, at one time or another, read the qualifications the Apostle Paul sets forth in 1 Timothy 3 for being an elder or deacon in the church and wondered if we would have “made the cut” by the standards of the first century. Paul lists no less than 15 godliness qualifications for being an elder. For example, we must be hospitable, a great teacher, self-controlled, have a godly home, and be well thought of by outsiders, to name a few. A similar list of nine godliness qualifications follows for deacons. Sometimes you may wake up, look in the mirror, and not see a deacon, elder or bishop (current or future) of the church looking back at you. Some days we feel inadequate as pastors and not worthy to hold the charge which has been given to us. Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed and ready to throw in the towel. You may also look around the church and think, especially in the midst of such pain and travail, that godliness is in short supply and you are worried about what the future will bring.

However, when we read this passage from 1 Timothy 3, we sometimes fail to read the entire chapter. Paul ends these two extensive lists of qualifications with one of the most unusual phrases in Scripture. He says “great is the mystery of godliness.” That is an odd statement. After reading the chapter, it is difficult to find anything “mysterious” about it. It is a fairly straightforward list of qualifications regarding what it means to be godly. There is not a lot of ambiguity in these lists. Yet, Paul declares that the “mystery of godliness is great,” then he quotes an early Christian hymn or creed.

                                    He appeared in the flesh,

                                    was vindicated by the Spirit,

                                    was seen by angels,

                                    was preached among the nations,

                                    was believed on in the world,

                                    was taken up in glory.

I love the fact that scholars cannot decide for sure if this was an early hymn or an early creed. It shows how committed the early church was to utilizing their hymnology to promote good doctrine. What is clear is that this hymn is a poetical and creedal overview of the life of Christ in six lines. It begins with the incarnation, where he “appeared in the flesh,” to his baptism when he was “vindicated by the Spirit.” You will recall that the Spirit descended upon him like a dove at his baptism. This was an act of divine vindication. The next phrase celebrates the resurrection when he was “seen by angels.” You will remember that it was the angels who first proclaimed the resurrection to the disciples. The hymn then moves to the post-resurrection period when Jesus Christ gave us the Great Commission which set into motion this phase of redemption when he is “preached among the nations” and “believed on in the world.” It culminates in the ascension of Christ, when he was “taken up in glory.” It is one of the most succinct, poetical summaries of the entire ministry of Christ found in Scripture—his entire ministry summed up in six beautiful lines. However, the point is that He is the mystery of godliness. In other words, the mystery that God became flesh and walked among us, embodying the holiness and life of God is truly amazing and mysterious. This short hymn captures how Christ brings together and embodies the unity between things we often push apart such as “flesh” and “spirit,” (appeared in flesh, vindicated by the Spirit), between “heaven” and “earth” (incarnation and ascension to glory), and between “Jew” and “Gentile” since this Jewish messiah was now being “preached among the nations” (the word of nations is the same word for Gentiles in the New Testament), and “believed on in the world.” Jesus is the embodiment of godliness, and his incarnation and redemptive work remain a divine mystery. This is why we love the hymn, “And can it be?” The whole hymn is posed as a question because the whole gospel is a breathtaking mystery. Remember that a “mystery” in the New Testament is not something which is hidden and concealed (which is how we often use the word today), rather, it is something which once was hidden, but has now been made manifest. The “manifestation” of Jesus in the “flesh” is the revelation of that which was once hidden; namely, the heart of true godliness.           

What is the lesson for us? It is that none of us can ever “make the cut” and accredit ourselves as worthy of serving in leadership in the church of Jesus Christ. No, not one. We should daily remember our frailty. However, with equal confidence, we should also remember that we are “in Christ.” We are partakers of his holiness and his godliness. He is preaching the gospel through us. He is ministering through us. He is the source and life of our ministries. Apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). He is our godliness. It is a mystery that God takes ordinary people like you and me, fills us with his Spirit, and speaks through us to accomplish his work in the world! Indeed, great is the mystery of godliness!


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