The Mystery of Godliness


I Tim. 8:16:—"And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness."

"confessedly great," says Paul, "is the mystery of piety." This does not mean that piety is exceedingly "mysterious." There is no "mystery" in piety as such. As Paid means it here it rests simply, objectively on the great fact, subjectively on the hearty conviction that God was in Christ reconciling the world with Himself. The word "mystery," in the usage of Paul, does not imply inherent incomprehensibility, but only actual inaccessibility to the natural inquisition of men. Whatever is known by revelation rather than by unaided reason, is, in his usage, a "mystery"; and the employment of the word by no means implies that the revelation has not already taken place and the hidden truth been made fully known, but rather just the contrary. The "mystery of piety" is thus just "the opened secret of piety." And what Paul affirms of it is that this "opened secret of piety" is confessedly of the highest importance. "Confessedly great" he says, and he throws these words forward with sharp emphasis, "of admittedly the highest importance," "is the mystery of piety."

What Paul is doing in this clause, then, is simply impressing on Timothy's mind as deeply as possible a sense of the supreme value of the Gospel, which he calls a "mystery" only because it is a matter of revelation, but without the faintest implication that it is difficult to grasp when once made known, or that it includes in it any elements of the inscrutable or incomprehensible. Christianity, like other religions, had its mysteries, its sacred truths, made known to its initiates; and these mysteries, as they constituted its very essence, were to every Christian of the most supreme importance—to be carefully guarded, preserved intact, and kept whole and entire, pure and unadulterated, at every hazard. Confessedly great, says the Apostle here with marked emphasis, admittedly of supreme importance, is the mystery, the opened secret of Christian piety, the Gospel.

It is especially worth our while to observe two things here. First, preliminarily, why the Apostle is so strenuous in insisting here on the importance of the opened secret of piety, the value and significance of the Gospel. And, secondly, and more at large, because it is this that constitutes the burden of the text, what the Apostle conceived to be this " opened secret of piety," that is to say, what he conceived to be the contents of the Gospel which he pronounces here to have such confessed importance.

We need not delay long on the preliminary point. A glance at the context is enough to inform us that the Apostle insists on the greatness of the Gospel here in order to impress Timothy with the importance of attending to the directions he had been giving him as to the proper ordering of the Church. Somewhat minute prescriptions had been laid down especially as to the conduct of public worship and as to the organization of the Church. In particular the officers of the Church had been enumerated, and the qualifications for their offices carefully described. At the close of these directions, now, the Apostle adds these pointed words: "I am writing these things to you, though I hope to come to you very soon: but if I am delayed that you may know what sort of behaviour is incumbent in God's house—seeing that it is the Church of the Living God, the pillar and buttress of the truth; and confessedly great is the mystery of piety. ..." You see, his appeal to the confessed greatness of the truth, for the support and propagation of which in the world the Church exists, is intended to impress Timothy with a sense of the importance of the proper ordering and right equipment of the Church for this, its high function.

It is of the more importance that we should note this, that there is a disposition abroad to treat all matters of the ordering of public worship and even of the organization of the Church as of little importance. We even hear it said about us with wearisome iteration that the New Testament has no rules to give, no specific laws to lay down, in such matters. Matters of church government and modes of worship, we are told, are merely external things, of no sort of significance; and the Church has been left free to find its own best modes of organization and worship, varying, doubtless, in the passage of time and in the Church's own passage from people to people of diverse characters and predilections. No countenance is lent to such sentiments by the passage before us; or, indeed, by these Pastoral Epistles, the very place of which in the Canon is a standing rebuke to them; or, in fine, by anything in the New Testament.

On the contrary, you will observe, Paul's point of view is precisely the opposite one. He takes his start from the inestimable importance of the Gospel. Thence he argues to the importance of the Church which has been established in the world, so to speak, as the organ of the Gospel—the pillar and buttress on which its purity and its completeness rest. Thence again he argues to the proper organization and ordering of the Church that it may properly perform its high functions. And, accordingly, he gives minute prescriptions for the proper organization and ordering of the Church—prescribing the offices that it should have and the proper men for these offices, and descending even into the details of the public ser


vices. His position, compressed into a nutshell, is simply this: the function of the Church as guardian of the truth, that glorious truth which is the Gospel, is so high and important that it cannot be left to accident or to human caprice how this Church should be organized and its work ordered. Accordingly, he, the inspired Apostle—"an Apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Saviour and Christ, our Hope"—has prescribed in great detail, touching both organization and order, how it is necessary that men should conduct themselves in the household of God—which is nothing other than the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. In other words, it is God's Church, not man's, and God has created and now sustains it for a function; and He has not neglected to order it for the best performance of this function.

To imagine that it is of little importance how the Church shall be organized and ordered, then, is manifestly to contradict the Apostle. To contend that no organization is prescribed for it is to deny the total validity of the minute directions laid down in these epistles. Nay, this whole point of view is as irrational as it is unbiblical. One might as well say that it makes no difference how a machine is put together—how, for example, a typewriter is disposed in its several parts,—because, forsooth, the typewriter does not exist for itself, but for the manuscript which is produced by or rather through it. Of course the Church does not exist for itself—that is, for the beauty of its organization, the symmetry of its parts, the majesty of its services; it exists for its "product" and for the "truth" which has been committed to it and of which it is the support and stay in the world. But just on that account, not less but more, is it necessary that it be properly organized and equipped and administered—that it may function properly. Beware how you tamper with any machine, lest you mar or destroy its product; beware how you tamper with or are indifferent to the Divine organization and ordering of the Church, lest you thereby mar its efficiency or destroy its power, as the pillar and ground of the truth. Surely you can trust God to know how it is best to organize His Church so that it may perform its functions in the world. And surely you must assert that His ordering of the Church, which is His, is necessary if not for the "esse," certainly for the "bene esse" of the Church.

But our main attention to-day must be given to the Apostle's elaboration of the contents of this "truth," or this "mystery of piety," to support and buttress which he tells us the Church has been established in the world. He moves Timothy to zeal in properly ordering the church under his care, by the declaration that "the opened secret of piety," to support and buttress which the Church exists, is confessedly of the utmost importance. And then he deepens and vitalizes the impression which this declaration is calculated to make by abruptly enumerating the chief items which enter into this "mystery of piety"—this "truth" for which the Church exists.

This enumeration thus embodies Paul's conception of the essence of the Gospel, and takes its place among the numerous brief summaries of the essence of the Gospel which stud the pages of his epistles. It differs from most of them, however, in this circumstance—that it is not couched in language of his own, but the Apostle has availed himself here, as so often in the Pastoral Epistles, of a form of statement current in the churches, which would appeal to Timothy's eye and heart, therefore, with all the force of customary and well-loved words, in which he and the congregation had been wont to express their apprehension of the truth most precious to their hearts. Whether the words thus adduced are derived from some current liturgical form, or from a hymn, or merely from some formulary of accustomed speech, we have no means of knowing. We can only be sure that the whole document is not quoted here and, from the balanced, almost mechanical form of its structure, that the original document possessed an elevated and festal character.

The choice of the Apostle to adduce the essence of the Gospel from such a current formulary, rather than to frame it out of his own heart, naturally produces a certain abruptness in the words in which it is introduced. A fragment of current speech, torn out of its own context, is here simply juxtaposed by way of apposition to his own declaration, that the Gospel is a supremely important thing, and left to exhibit that importance by its contents. "Great," he says, "confessedly great, is the opened secret of piety," this to wit: "Who was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, observed by angels, proclaimed among peoples, believed in by the world, received into glory." There is not a word to tell us who was the subject of all these transactions; that was a part of the original context of the fragment, and here goes without saying; no one of his readers— least of all his primary reader Timothy, who knew as well as Paul the whole document from which the fragment was derived,—would hesitate to supply the subject, Jesus Christ. What Paul does is simply to avail himself of this fervent fragment and set out the contents of the "mystery of piety" by means of its rapid enumeration of the principal transactions which concerned the redemptive work of Christ—beginning with the incarnation and ending with the ascension.

Now, of course, this means that to Paul, Christ is the essence of the Gospel. As everywhere else, so here, he sums up the Gospel in Christ; not Christ, of course, merely as a person, but the active Christ—or in other words, in the great redemptive work of Christ. And it will repay us to observe in some detail how the redemptive work of Christ is presented to us in this somewhat artificially because artistically ordered fragment of old Christian confessional expression.

We observe, at once, that the fragment consists of a series of six passive verbs, rapidly succeeding one another, with the common subject "Jesus Christ," each further defined by a brief predicative qualification; the verb being put emphatically forward in each case: He was "manifested" in the flesh, "vindicated" by the Spirit, "seen" by angels. . . . We observe next that the clauses are so arranged as to fall necessarily into three contrasting pairs; and yet these three pairs are bound together by the contrast in each case being made to turn upon the contrariety of earth and heaven, or of the flesh and the spirit. Thus we have the successive triads on the one hand of the flesh, the peoples, the world; on the other of the Spirit, the angels, glory. There is no strict chronological order of occurrence followed in the enumeration, but the pairs so succeed one another as yet to suggest a beginning, a middle and an end; the inception, the prosecution, the consummation of Christ's work. On the one hand, he was manifested in the flesh and vindicated by the Spirit. Here clearly His earthly life is in mind, with the stress laid perhaps on its inception in the incarnation and its culmination in the resurrection. Then we have the declaration that He was seen of angels and proclaimed among the nations. Here the process of the saving work is referred to,—chiasmically adduced. Finally, we read, He was believed on in the world and received into glory. Here the stress is laid obviously on the result of His work. The whole constitutes an exceedingly comprehensive description of the process of redemption, antithetically set forth in balanced clauses, which advert, one by one, to a characteristic transaction of which Christ was the object.

Let us now briefly observe the several items of the description, seriatim.

He "was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit." Here we have the redemptive work itself adduced. First, the incarnated life in the flesh—He "was manifested in the flesh"; next, the successful issue of that work,—He "was vindicated by the Spirit." The two clauses together constitute a singularly vivid though compressed picture of the incarnated work of redemption. Note the clear implication of the pre-existence—the deity—of the worker: He "was manifested,"—He existed then, hidden from human eyes, before; "in the flesh,"—in his pre-existence, then, he was something other than flesh. It is as clear a declaration of pre-existence and incarnation as the Johannean, "The Word became flesh," itself. There is a change of state implied, a change by virtue of which what was hidden is now brought to light, and it is brought to light because brought into flesh. Note next the perfection of His work established: He was "justified by the Spirit"; that is to say, though appearing in the flesh, yet by virtue of the Spirit that dwelt in Him, His work of salvation was vindicated; He rose from the dead, and could not be holden of death, and so manifested the completeness of His work.

He was "observed by angels, proclaimed among peoples." Here the progress of the saving work is outlined. It was not done in or for a corner. The object of the wondering contemplation of the hosts of heaven, it is made known also to the inhabitants of earth. Performed in Judea, in a life of confined and limited relations, to all appearance, yet it was all the time the focus of the observation of the angels of God, who anxiously desired to look into it; and when brought to its glorious completion, it was made the subject of a world-wide proclamation. Obviously it is the glory of the Christ—of the redemptive work of Christ—that is the theme of the whole fragment, and in this couplet we begin to see it come to light; and, indeed, the chiasmic arrangement might well have advised us of it before, what is most glorious in it beingthrust forward to attract ourfirstattention.

He was "believed on in the world, received into glory." Here we have the issue of the work adverted to; the earthly and the heavenly issue. So little chronological is the ordering that the conquest of the world by Christ is actually adduced first, while His ascension is adduced last. The order is climactic, not chronological; He has His earthly reward and also His heavenly. In these two items the whole comes to the appropriate end. And now I think we are prepared to see clearly that the whole fragment is a hymn of praise to Christ. He was before all worlds; He was only "manifested" in the flesh and vindicated by the Spirit. He was the object of the contemplation of the angels of heaven and proclaimed in all the earth. He was believed on in the world and received into glory. It is the Glory of Christ that, according to Paul constitutes the essence of the Gospel. "O, Jesus, Thou art our head, we are thy body!"—so one of God's saints teaches us to pray. "How can the body but participate in the glory of the Head? As for Thyself, therefore, so also for us art Thou possessed of that heavenly glory: as Thou sufferedst for us, so for us Thou also reignest. . . . O then, my soul, seeing thy Saviour is received up into this infinite glory, . . . how canst thou abide to grovel any longer on this base earth? . . . With what longings and holy ambition shouldst thou desire to aspire to that place of eternal rest and beatitude into which thy Saviour has «ascended, and with him be partaker of that glory and happiness which he hath provided for all that love him."