Many things in life fill us with wonder. Our world is full of profound mysteries, but the greatest mystery of all is the mystery of the incarnation. One of the profoundest statements of this mystery is 1 Timothy 3:16:
“And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, Beheld by angels, proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”(1)
This verse concludes a section in which Paul has discussed the church and her office bearers. As the church is the pillar and support of the truth, the focus of her life and message is the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul began with a declaration: “And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness.” By the phrase, “by common confession,” he stated that this mystery is to be the bedrock of the church’s witness. By this phrase, he taught that it is without controversy; something that is confessedly true. He was not referring to the church’s confession, but that which is a core belief beyond debate. In other words, if one is a Christian, one must be committed to the truths spelled out in this statement.
Paul called this undeniable truth “a mystery of godliness.” In Romans 16:25, 26, Paul explained what he meant by mystery:
“Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations leading to obedience of faith.”
A divine mystery is not some esoteric phenomenon, but rather a truth decreed from eternity and prophesied in the Old Testament, but only fully discoverable by apostolic revelation.
This particular mystery that was unfolded darkly in the Old Testament is the humiliation and exaltation of God incarnate with the subsequent incorporation of the Gentiles into the Church. The mind boggles at this mystery of the incarnation and its implication; it carries us beyond the limits of the abilities of our comprehension. The gospel is a mystery, but a mystery revealed clearly in the New Testament.
Notice as well the goal of this message. Paul wrote earlier, “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). So he called this truth “the mystery of godliness.” It is not a mystery that tickles the brain of the intelligent or of the secretly initiated; it is not a mystery that leads to abstract discussion, although our minds are stretched by the truths of Scripture and we enjoy thinking about the wonderful doctrines of the Word of God. This truth, like all of God’s truth leads to godliness. We find here the essence of what is called experiential Calvinism. All the truths of the Bible are to be embraced in a way that produces godliness and worship. Consequently, the very contemplation of this mystery is to be transforming.
Paul unfolded the mystery in the second half of the verse: “He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, Beheld by angels, proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” The format of this statement is in itself interesting, for it appears to be a liturgical statement–either a confession or a hymn. It is, perhaps, the most intricate piece of poetry in the New Testament. We see the careful artistic design of this verse in its grammatical construction, three couplets in six lines, with each line having the same grammatical construction. The first couplet deals with Christ’s work accomplished; the second, made known; and the third, acknowledged.
Furthermore, each couplet states a contrast between earth and heaven:
“revealed in the flesh” (earthly) ——— “vindicated in the Spirit” (heavenly)
“Beheld by angels” (heavenly) ——— “proclaimed among the nations” (earthly)
“Believed on in the world” (earthly) ——— “taken up in glory” (heavenly)
Finally, the statement begins with Christ’s humiliation and ends with his exaltation. All in all, this stylized structure makes a memorable statement about the incarnation.
What is the great proclamation and confession of the church? As noted above, the first couplet deals with the humiliation and exaltation of the incarnate savior: He, who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit. The term “who” refers to Christ; He is God who has come in the flesh.
Many of us have lived long with this truth and tend to rush over it; nevertheless, it is truly a profound mystery. The verb revealed (manifested) signifies the pre-existence of Jesus Christ. Paul further spelled out His pre-existence in Galatians 4:4, “That God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” With these simple words, Paul declared the deity of our savior. For the clause, “God sent forth His Son,” implies the divinity and eternality of the Son. When we announce the birth of a new baby, we do not say “We are pleased to announce that God has sent Jacob Belden into the world.” Paul used language that demands we understand the one born of a woman was already in existence. The Son was with the Father and the Father sent Him into the world. The Son is not someone whose existence began at birth; God sent His Son to earth (cf. John 3:16).
And He came to earth by being born of a woman. In this place, Paul expanded on the glorious account of the Virgin conception, revealed in Luke 1:26-38. These two simple phrases – “sent forth” and “born of a woman” – sum up the mystery of the incarnation. The eternal Son of God was sent into the world through a process of taking a human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As a result he was one person existing with two distinct natures. Luther captured this mystery in his advent hymn, “All Praise to Thee, Eternal Lord”:
Once did the skies before thee bow;
A virgin’s arms contain thee now:
Angels who did in thee rejoice
Now listen for thine infant voice.
We state this truth by the term incarnation. As the Apostle John wrote in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the event in this way:
“How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man? Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin May, and born of her, yet without sin” (S.C. 22).
Implied in this revelation in the flesh is His humiliation. God stooped low to take to himself a human nature, flesh. Paul stated the same thing in the simple statement of Galatians 4:4, “He was born under the law.” Although Jesus is the heir of all things, he was born under the Mosaic Covenant with all its obligations. He humbled himself and submitted to all the regulations of the Mosaic administration. He fulfilled all the prophecies and types. He is the perfect prophet, priest, and king. He offered his life as the perfect sacrifice. Again the Shorter Catechism describes these things as His humiliation, “Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist? Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross, in being buried and continuing under the power of death for a time (S.C. 27).
By submitting to the law as the Covenant of Works, Christ was under contract to obey the law of God perfectly and to bear the curse of any law breaking. In particular, he obeyed the moral commandments perfectly (His active obedience) and He satisfied the curse of God’s judgment (His passive obedience).
In his capacity, as one born under law, Jesus redeemed His people. Galatians 4:5 contains two purpose clauses: “in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
The first purpose statement describes Christ’s work: He came to redeem. You should never divorce the truth of the incarnation from redemption. There are two major aspects involved in our redemption: the removal of the curse and the restoration of the inheritance. Paul explained the first aspect of Christ’s work of redemption in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”
Our savior fully satisfied the wrath and curse of God against sinners in order to deliver us from the eternal punishment of sin. On the basis of this work, God justifies his people. Shorter Catechism 33 defines justification well:
“Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” We learn that God does two things for us in our justification: he pardons our sins and constitutes us legally righteous.
In Galatians 4:5, the apostle referred to the second aspect of Christ’s work of redemption; namely, the restoration of a lost inheritance. This second aspect is spelled out in Leviticus 25:25, “If a fellow countryman of yours becomes so poor he has to sell part of his property, then his nearest kinsman is to come and buy back what his relative has sold.” God beautifully illustrated this transaction in the story of Ruth and Boaz. Naomi had lost her inheritance through the negligence of her husband Ahimelech. The kinsman redeemer, Boaz, paid the debt (redemption) and restored the inheritance.
In Adam’s fall, we all lost our inheritance. He had the opportunity to be the adopted son of God, but by his rebellion he became a son of Satan, a member of the dark kingdom. Consequently, none of us by birth are heirs of God, but all are sons of Satan. For the inheritance to be restored full payment had to be made. This payment was Christ’s active and passive obedience. Christ obeyed the law perfectly and delivered us from the curse; He paid off the debt. On the basis of His work of redemption we obtain the inheritance.
Paul expanded on this truth in the second purpose clause: that we might receive adoption as sons. By adoption Paul is describing the unique relation God bears to all those who are justified in Christ. The Shorter Catechism 34 defines adoption as “an act of God’s free graced, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.”
These privileges are our inheritance. If, however, Christ had remained dead, His enemies would have been correct in their assessment, but the second part of the couplet says, “He was vindicated in the Spirit.” The term vindicated is the word normally translated justified. Christ’s vindication was God’s declaration that He accepted the sacrifice offered. He was justified, declared to be the holy Son of God. In His vindication or justification is our justification: “He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25).
By the term Spirit, Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit, paralleling what he wrote in Romans 1:4: “Who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The resurrection was accomplished by the power of the Spirit. In the first couplet, therefore, Paul taught that the incarnate Savior perfectly accomplished redemption. Note He had to be a man in order to redeem fallen, sinful human beings (Heb. 2:14, 15); He had to be God in order to give an infinite and eternal efficacy to His work (Acts 20:28).
The second couplet deals with Christ’s work made known: “Beheld by angels, proclaimed among the nations.” This couplet begins in heaven; Christ resurrection was witnessed by the angels. Of course, throughout His life He was attested to by angels. They made the pre-announcements of His birth to Mary and to Zacharias (Lk. 1:18-21, 26-38) and on the day of His birth, they announced His birth to the shepherds (Lk. 2:8-14). They ministered to Him in the wilderness (Matt. 4:11) and were dumbfounded witnesses to His death (Matt. 26:53). But angels also were the witnesses of His exaltation; they were the first heralds of His resurrection (Matt. 28:2-7); they beheld Him triumphantly entering the courts of heaven on His ascension day (Ps. 68:17, 18; Eph. 4:8-10); now they are constantly gathered before His throne, praising Him (Rev. 5:11-14).
Joined with this heavenly proclamation is the earthly: “proclaimed among the nations.” Our glorious Christ is to be preached unto the ends of the earth. We note here the relation of this statement to the purpose of the Church in verse 15. The church has received this glorious mystery that she might proclaim the excellence of Christ. For Paul, part of the divine mystery is the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church. The second half of the second couplet is the Church’s mandate; we preach the glorious Christ unto the ends of the earth until He returns. Hence, the incarnation involves the mission mandate of the church (Matt. 28:18-20).
The third couplet deals with Christ’s work acknowledged: “Believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” Out task is not uncertain; He is Believed on in the world. The church, in her first decades, could confess that Christ is already believed on in the world (Col. 1:6, 23). This confidence is grounded in His heavenly session: “taken up in glory.” He is exalted in heaven at the right hand of God the Father (Ps. 110:1: Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1). All authority has been given to Him (Ps. 2:8, 9; Matt 28:18); therefore, the church confidently proclaims the gospel to the nations, knowing that on the basis of the work of the incarnate savior, God will save all His elect people.
Moreover, because Christ is in heaven, He is the guarantor of our glory. As He has been lifted up into heaven and received into glory, we shall be with Him. We shall one day look on Him and be like Him (1 John 3:2). Indeed, this is the mystery of godliness! At the end of the ages, the glorious, incarnate Savior will perfect us in glory.
When we contemplate the glory of Christ’s incarnation, we exclaim with John, “To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood—and He has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:5, 6)!
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1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995).
Joseph A. Pipa, Jr. is President and Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. He has pastored churches is Mississippi, Texas, and California and is the author of numerous books.