Mystery of Godliness



. .as to Christians

This is very remarkably shewn in a passage in Timothy (1 Tim. 3: 16), the force of which is very frequently overlooked. The apostle would teach Timothy how he ought to behave himself “in the house of God”; and he then presents the formative power of all true godliness in the words, “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 in glory.”

This is often quoted and interpreted as if it spoke of the mystery of the Godhead, or the mystery of Christ’s Person. But it is the mystery of godliness, or the secret by which all real godliness is produced - the divine spring of all that can be called piety in man. “God manifest in the flesh,” is the example and the power of godliness, its measure and its spring.   Godliness is not now produced, as under the law, by divine enactments; nor is it the result in the spirit of bondage in those (however godly) who only know God as worshipped behind a veil. Godliness now springs from the knowledge of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.   It takes its spring and character from the knowledge of His Person as “God manifest in the flesh”; the perfectness of His obedience, “as justified in the Spirit”; the object of angelic contemplation, and the subject of testimony and faith in the world; and His present position as “received up in glory.”

This is how God is known; and from abiding in this flows godliness. And as in the passage before us, between the salvation, which is the result of the appearing of the grace and the crowning of “that blessed hope” which the believer looks for in the appearing of the glory, is the teaching of the grace that has brought salvation. It teaches the denial of ungodliness and worldly desires, as at war with the ends of redemption, and contrary to the character and position in which salvation places us as “delivered from this present evil world.” Certainly the cross and the glory alike forbid the allowance of ungodliness and the pursuit of worldly desires. It was the world that crucified Christ; and in the appearing of the glory worldly desires can have no place. “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away and the lusts thereof.” It will be all withered by the appearing of the glory. But sobriety, righteousness, and godliness are due from the believer towards the world as a witness; and due towards God as a witness of the conforming power of His most precious grace.

excerpts from writings of JND

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. . . as to Christ

Clearly then the question is, what the mystery of godliness, the truth inscribed on the church, is. Can any other subject be of greater importance?   Now, in a most striking verse, we have the answer set before us. The truth is presented here as Christ from beginning to end; and Christ in a way peculiar to N.T. revelation as a whole. There is nothing more explicit than this. It is not a body of doctrines, still less is it an exposition of Christian duty.   He is the truth: the essence of all Christianity is that all doctrine and all duty is embodied in a person, and that person is the Saviour. What is there that a simple soul can understand better than a person? Even a child can believe in Christ, can find Him life, and can feel His love. Christ then is the blessed truth according to (or after) godliness. Indeed it is stronger than this: it — He — is the secret of godliness; Christ First and Last, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End; a great mystery or secret, but a secret now revealed of God with consequences commensurate for souls that believe, and for those that believe not. For God is not mocked.

And what, coming to details, is the first view as it were that is afforded us? What is this first presentation of Christ in the verse? “God (or, He Who) was manifested in flesh.” It is not as we find in the Prophets, mighty God, Father of the age to come, God revealed with fire before Him. The God of the Old Testament was God in the exercise of power and judgment; God bringing His reward with Him, and dealing with men according to their works. But in a wholly different aspect is He shown here. God was manifested in flesh, in human nature. If ever there was a mode of manifestation in the universe where we should not have expected Him Who is true God, it was “in flesh.” The flesh had been busy from of old in pleasing itself, in rebelling against God, in yielding to evil lusts, and, from the flood at least, in religious abominations. Who could or would have looked for Him manifested in flesh or human nature?

In the Revised Version they do not say “God,” but “He Who.” It matters practically but little, though one would not say there is not a shade of difference. If we take the reading “He Who was manifested,” there is but one person that can answer to it, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. It could not be either the Father, nor yet the Holy Spirit of God. Without dogmatising, we may say that the best authenticated reading is o{”, that is, “He Who” (cf. John 1: 1-3). If it be so taken, the person of the Son is implied; whereas if we read “God,” this would look at the Godhead as such.   But as the Son was God, and Christ the image of the invisible God, it is substantially true, no matter how it be taken, whether as in the Authorised or as in the Revised form. Here certainly is predicated a manifestation such as was meant for faith at this time; and as it was “in flesh,” so also in this world when most evil, and flesh utterly corrupt (save in the Holy One of God). So that reason judging morally would conclude that God had nothing to do but to execute His most solemn sentence, if He sent thus His only-begotten Son.

The next fact stated as to Him in the mystery of godliness is “justified in Spirit.” But when was that? In the Holy Ghost Christ walked and testified all through the days of His flesh. The very demons bore witness to Him with abject terror. But man reviled Him with impunity and shamelessly. When was He irrefutably justified? They called Him a winebibber, a Samaritan. They said, He had a demon. There was no end to the wickedness that was spoken of the Lord Jesus. How then did His justification come? When He was raised from the dead. This was the standing justification of Him Whom man crucified. If lawless hands slew the Lord of glory, God raised Him up, having loosed the pains of death: such was His answer to man. And this seems to be what is referred to in the words, “justified in Spirit.” In the first Epistle to Peter He is said to be “quickened in Spirit,” being in contrast with “put to death in flesh” (1 Peter 3: 18). The quickening in Spirit expresses the divine power in which He rose. This fell to the province of the apostle Peter; as the apostle Paul is the great witness in bringing out, not only life and resurrection but, justification. No doubt justification has a different sense as applied to the Lord Jesus compared with any other person; for every other man is a sinner. Still there is a common point in all; and justification in every case means that the person is proved or pronounced righteous — here inherently so. Man had spoken contumeliously (i.e., contemptuously) against Him, and none more so than the religious people of the day. The scribes, Pharisees, and the chief priests were educated enough, but the worst of the Lord’s adversaries when He walked the earth. Surely that is a very instructive fact. Consequently it became God to mark His sense of what Christ was. And He was “justified in Spirit.” The same Spirit of God, Who had led “Jehovah’s righteous Servant” in all His course of unswerving obedience and love during His life, now justified Him against the world that treated Him as the worst of malefactors. How true the prediction Christ cited from their law, “They hated Me without a cause!”

He is “seen of angels” after He went to heaven. There is no doubt that angels ministered to Him first and last here below, as the heavenly host praised God at His birth. They are now sent forth to minister to those who are to be heirs of salvation (Heb. 1).

But it is not the attendant angels who are spoken of here. Our Lord, after being justified in Spirit, is presented next where the angels are what we may call indigenous inhabitants, and where men have no natural place. Earth is given to the children of men, but heaven is filled with myriads of angels; there too is the risen Lord gone. He has passed out of this world and entered on a condition suited to heaven, where He is “seen of angels.” Men who had the far nearer interest no longer see Him, angels do. This was a fact outside the expectation of Israel as to the Messiah. They ought to have known that the Son of man would come with the clouds of heaven, and be invested with everlasting dominion over all peoples, nations, and languages. But there was no intimation that the Lord would be rejected by the Jew while the church was being formed in union with Him on earth. Besides, and in order to this, the Lord has a body now, just as much as when upon earth. Thus the resurrection and ascension are capital truths of Christianity. “Seen of angels” falls in with His seat on high, where we know Him no longer according to flesh. When He comes to reign over the earth, of which the prophets chiefly speak to Israel, “every eye shall see Him.”

Is there not anything going on meanwhile with regard to the world? There is a very admirable work of God. “Preached amongst Gentiles.” Never could be conceived a fact more repulsive to the Jews as they were. Even Peter was exceedingly astonished, although the Lord before He left the earth had prepared them all for it. The communications in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are plain enough to all now. Yet Peter did all he could to avoid going; and afterwards he behaved ill about it at Antioch. Here then we find that instead of the Lord Jesus, Jehovah of hosts, reigning in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem and before the ancients gloriously (which was what Isaiah and the other prophets taught to look for), He was “preached amongst Gentiles.” It was a new and unexpected work “till the fulness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11: 25), while blindness in part is happened to Israel (for there is ever a remnant). It is Christianity, flowing from Christ as now made known in the mystery of godliness, “preached amongst Gentiles.” Can anything be of deeper interest and moment to us who are not Jews but Gentiles? For God now makes such as we are His express object of appeal. The rejected but glorified Christ is now preached “among Gentiles.” How great is our debt to His grace revealed in the mystery of godliness! Nor have we heard in vain. We have received Christ and are already brought into relationship with God Himself; for there is no other way.

Notice how the next statement is beautifully in place, as indeed all are.   They are in regular sequence, so that you could not put one of them out of its place without damaging the order of the truth. Hence, after saying that He was preached among Gentiles, there follows, “believed on in the world.” Nor can any assertion be more accurate. It is not the reign of the Messiah in Palestine or “King over all the earth”; still less does it mean that there is going to be a reign of the gospel, though there is the gospel of the reign.   The Lord will come to reign by-and-by in power and glory, as none can mistake when His day arrives. He is now occupied with His heavenly work. Soon He will ask and have the nations for His inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession. And He will inaugurate His kingdom by ruling them, rebellious as they are, with a rod of iron, and dashing them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. It is His kingdom over the earth; and that is the truth, and a truth that earthly men indeed like not, because they prefer something pleasant for themselves, instead of suffering with Christ now and reigning with Him in that day. But the first duty of the Christian now is to follow Him as He walked, and not to be above his Master, but to be perfected as He.

Lastly comes the clause “received up into (rather, in) glory.” It marks Christ’s permanent condition on high — received up in glory. There He abides:

why is that last? It seems arranged in this order, to present a contrast between Christ and what “demons” or deceiving spirits were to do in latter times, as says the next chapter. Christ “received up in glory” puts shame on the efforts of men that give heed to evil spirits at work in the hypocrisy of legend-mongers that despise marriage, and cry up abstinence from meats which God created to be received with thankfulness by those that believe and know the truth.

excerpts from writings of Wm. Kelly