As the interpreter reads 1 Timothy 3:15, the greatness and grandeur of the local assembly looms large before his eyes. The church is said to be the house of God, the assembly of the living God, the pillar and base of the truth! And yet, as he comes to verse 16, there is an apparent shift in thought. The Apostle Paul is there revealing a great mystery. Moreover, this mystery obviously relates to the Lord Jesus Christ: His incarnate life and ministry.
What then is the connection between the church (v. 15) and the mystery (v. 16)? Why did Paul write verse 16 after he wrote verse 15? Why does Paul’s theme seemingly shift from the church (v. 15) to Christ (v. 16)? What is the relationship between the local assembly of believers and "the mystery of godliness"? In what way does this great mystery relate and apply to the church?
Those commentators who deal with the contextual problem (and many do not), including dispensational commentators, are nearly universally agreed that the solution is found by equating the "mystery of godliness" (verse 16) with "the truth" (verse 15). By this interpretation "the mystery" consists of the truth concerning Christ as expressed in the six phrases of "the hymn" (v.16), especially the truth of His Incarnation. Thus they would say that verse 16 refers exclusively to Christ and applies to the church only indirectly in the sense that the church, as the pillar and ground of the truth, is responsible to uphold and support the glorious facts of the incarnate Christ.
In four passages (Eph. 3:4-5; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26-27; Rom. 16:25-26; and compare Matt. 13:35) the Apostle Paul has clearly and carefully defined a New Testament "mystery." The definition that may be derived from these four references is as follows:
A New Testament mystery is that which was hidden, kept secret, and not made known to men in previous generations [prior to Paul’s generation] but was made manifest and revealed in the New Testament era to and by the New Testament apostles and prophets.
In view of this Biblical definition, how can the great mystery of 1 Timothy 3:16 be the Incarnation of Christ since the fact of the Incarnation was clearly revealed in the Old Testament? The fact that the Messiah would be manifested in the flesh was no secret to those who understood and believed their Old Testament (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; Jer.23:5-6; Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:4-5; etc.). But the fact that in this present Age Christ is now manifesting Himself in a body is the truth that thrilled the heart of the Apostle Paul (Col. 1:27; Eph. 1:22-23). The Incarnation of Christ as it applies to the Church is a great mystery indeed!
There are at least six reasons for suggesting that the statements concerning Christ in 1 Timothy 3:16 apply directly to the Church:
The six phrases found in verse 16 may be analyzed as follows:
1. Christ was manifested in the flesh. The living God became flesh (John 1:14) and made Himself known in and through a body (John 1:18). Likewise, God the Son is today manifesting Himself in and through His Body which is on the earth (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:24-27). As the visible and local body of Christ stays healthy (Eph. 4:12-16), conducts itself in a godly way, and functions according to the Biblical pattern (1 Tim. 3:1-15), then the following will be true:
2. Christ was justified (declared righteous, vindicated) in the Spirit. Throughout His earthly ministry Christ was vindicated by the Spirit of God. His miracles and signs were performed by the power of the Spirit (Matt. 12:28), giving unmistakable evidence that Christ was all He claimed to be. The ultimate vindication of Christ took place when He was raised from the dead (Rom. 1:4). Likewise, God the Holy Spirit is today vindicating the Resurrected Christ in and through the Assembly, convicting the world that He indeed is the Righteous One (John 16:7-11; note especially verse 7 which associates this convicting and vindicating ministry with the Spirit’s coming on the day of Pentecost).
3. Christ was seen of angels. Throughout His earthly life and ministry the God-man was the very center of angelic interest, attention and curiosity! They marveled at their holy Lord (Isaiah 6:1-4; cf. John 12:41) as He humbled Himself (Phil. 2:5-8) and was made even lower than the angels so that He might taste death for every man (Heb. 2:9). And yet today, it is the Church that has become the theater of the universe and the center of angelic observation! Unto the principalities and powers God is now making known His manifold wisdom and grace by the Church (Eph. 3:10; 2:7; cf. 1 Cor. 4:9; 11:10). The living God is using the Church to teach angels concerning Himself!
4. Christ was preached among the nations and the responsibility and privilege of making known the unsearchable riches of Christ has been committed to the Church! Although the gospel was known in previous ages (Rom. 1:1-4; Gal 3:8), there is a "mystery" aspect of the gospel which was unknown in other ages, but which now forms the very core of the gospel preaching of this Age. The passages which delineate the "mystery of the gospel" are as follows: Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 3:5-8; 6:19; and Colossians 1:27; 4:3. Our distinctive message today is that Jews and Gentiles alike may believe the gospel and be united together into one Body (1 Cor. 12:13) for the purpose of manifesting and bearing witness to Christ who is the sovereign Head of this unique organism!
5. Christ was believed on in the world and it is the glorious privilege of the Church to bear witness to Christ as the sole object of faith! The Lord Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church for the purpose "that the world may believe that Thou sent Me" (John 17:21). As the church functions according to godliness (1 Tim. 3:15) and edification (Eph. 4:12-16), then unbelievers will be convicted as they see the living God being manifested in the assembly (see 1 Cor. 14:24-25; cf. Col. 1:27 and John’s purpose as a witness in John 1:7).
6. Christ was received up into glory when He was taken up into Heaven at the Ascension. This marked the termination of the Lord’s earthly ministry and witness. Likewise, the earthly ministry and witness of the Church also has a terminal point: "When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory" (Col. 3:4; see also the "mystery" discussed in 1 Cor. 15:51-52 and compare Rev. 12:5 with 1 Thess. 4:17 where the same word for the Ascension of Christ is used for the Rapture of the Church). Actually, according to Acts 1:1-2, the Ascension of Christ did not mark the termination of our Lord’s ministry and witness, but rather it marked only the beginning! It is the Church that continues the witness (Acts 1:8) and teaching (Matt. 28:20) of the resurrected Lord who is the Head of the Body, God blessed forever!
The six phrases found in 1 Timothy 3:16 when applied to the Church may be briefly summarized as follows:
1. Manifested in the Flesh - God the Son manifesting Himself in and through His Body which is on the earth (Col. 1:24-27; Eph 1:22-23).
2. Justified in the Spirit - God the Holy Spirit vindicating the resurrected Christ in and through the Assembly (John 16:7-11).
3. Seen of Angels - God the Father making known His manifold wisdom and grace unto the principalities and powers by means of the Assembly (Eph. 3:10; 2:7).
4. Preached among the Nations - The Assembly making known the mystery of the gospel among all nations (Eph. 3:5-8; Rom. 16:25-26).
5. Believed on in the World - The Assembly functioning as a godly witness before the world (John 17:21; 1 Cor. 14:24-25).
6. Received up in Glory - The Assembly being received up in glory at the Rapture of the Church (Col. 3:4; 1 Cor. 15:51-52).
Thus Paul in verse 16 traces the purpose, witness, message and destiny of the Church. Understood properly, 1 Timothy 3:16 provides the most comprehensive summary of the "mystery" aspects of church truth that can be found in the New Testament. It should also be noted that this section (1 Tim. 3:14-16) is the key passage in the book of 1 Timothy and gives the very reason why the letter was written. And remember, the dominant theme of 1 Timothy is the local church—its doctrine, its worship, its organization, its officers, its discipline, its enemies and its conduct.
This interpretation solves the chronological problem. That is, why did Paul mention the "preaching" and "believing" before the Ascension of Christ? Christ was not "preached among the nations" until after the Ascension.
All six phrases in 1 Timothy 3:16 have "GOD" (or "Christ") as the subject, but the significance of these phrases has direct bearing and application to the local church! Thus, what we have is a series of six parallelisms in which the present tenure of the local church is analogous to that of our Lord Jesus in the days of His flesh! This is in complete harmony with the very clear statements of John 20:21; 17:18 and Acts 1:1-2, which indicate that our Lord’s witness and ministry on earth was to be continued by a similar ministry on the part of the Church.
The death of Christ is not mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:16. Certainly the death of Christ was of utmost significance to the Church because God purchased the Church with His own blood (Acts 20:28). But the emphasis in 1 Timothy 3:16 is upon the life and witness of the Lord Jesus, and by application, the life and witness of the Church; and thus the omission of any statement concerning the death of Christ is easily explained.
Do we see the Church as God sees it? Does church truth thrill your heart as it did the Apostle Paul? Do you pray fervently that the Lord might open the eyes of your understanding so that you might see how precious the Church is to Christ (Eph. 1:18)? Have you discovered what are the riches of the glory of this mystery (Col. 1:27)? Are you a healthy cell and a healthy member of a local body of believers (Eph. 4:12-16)? Is the indwelling Christ being manifested in your assembly (1 Cor. 14:25)? Oh may we see the assembly as God sees it! May we agree and confess with Paul: "GREAT IS THE MYSTERY OF GODLINESS!"
(George W. Zeller, 1975; revised 1998)