Posted by: stpowen | October 25, 2014

The Glorious Gospel of the Blessed God

The Glorious Gospel of the Blessed God
1 Timothy 3:16. ‘And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.’

Transcribed from a sermon preached at Scott Drive Church, Exmouth U.K.

I want to preach this morning on one of the most glorious statements in the whole Bible concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. It is found in 1 Timothy 3:16. I have entitled the sermon, ‘The Glorious Gospel of the Blessed God’ which actually occurs a little earlier in the epistle in 1:11, but I think it is appropriate to use it here.

In Chapters 1-3 of 1 Timothy, Paul is giving Timothy instructions concerning the administration of the church in Ephesus. There are obviously problems there. Paul tells him, ‘Remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they preach no other doctrine’ (1:3). The prophetic word that Paul gave to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29-30) has come to pass, and Paul needs Timothy to clear up the mess. So in these early chapters, Paul touches upon the proper understanding and place of the Law, the prayer life and proper conduct of both men and women and the qualifications of elders and deacons.

In 3:14-15, we learn that Paul is hoping to come to Ephesus in person to sort things out, but he foresees the likelihood of his being delayed; so he’s writing, he says, so that Timothy will be clear about the proper conduct for people in church, and a church, he says, is not just a social club where people come to meet one another and have fun; nor is it a debating society- it’s not a place where people can set their own rules to suit themselves. It is, says Paul, three things:

    1. The House of God.

It belongs to God. He is our Father and we His children, adopted into His family, but Dad sets the rules. ‘”A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If then I am the Father, where is My honour? If I am a Master, where is My reverence?” says the LORD of hosts.’ We are not free to please ourselves what we do in church; we should have sanction from God’s word for everything we do or teach.

    2. Church (or ‘assembly’) of the living God.

The Greek word for church here is ekklesia, which has a root meaning of being called out. We are called out of the world and into the church, and it is the church of the living God. We are not worshipping some dead person like Muhammed or Buddha or Karl Marx, or some idol that can neither hear nor see us (Psalm 135:15-18) ‘For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them’ (Matt. 18:20). God is present at all our meetings through the Holy Spirit, to be pleased or offended by all that we do; to bless or to withhold blessing.

    3. Pillar and ground of the Truth.

We are stewards of God’s holy word, custodians of the truth. It has been entrusted to us to pass on to the next generation without addition or subtraction. God’s Church is not a building, it is people, brought to salvation by the Gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit, coming together as living stones (Eph. 2:19-20). It is built on the doctrine of the Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. It is the ‘pillar….of the truth’- the Church holds up God’s word before an unbelieving world, and it is the ‘ground’ (or ‘foundation’ or ‘buttress’) of the truth.’ The Church supports and defends God’s word against attack.

‘And beyond all controversy, great is the mystery of godliness.’ The stress in this sentence is upon the word ‘great.’ The Greek word is Mega. We are familiar with the words ‘megabyte’ and ‘megawatt.’ They express a huge number, so when we hear the word ‘mega,’ we don’t think of something small or puny, we think of something grand and impressive. Sometime ago I visited a transport cafe; it was advertising various kinds of breakfasts for the hungry lorry-drivers who were its customers. There was the Small Breakfast, the Regular Breakfast, the Large Breakfast and the Mega Breakfast. This was the one with the three sausages, three rashers of bacon, two fried eggs, the grilled tomato, the black pudding, the beans and the fried bread. It was vast! This is the idea to be conveyed here. The mystery of godliness, which is Christ Himself, is something to be wondered and marvelled at.

The word ‘mystery’ in the New Testament does not signify something to be puzzled over and worked out; it always means something that was formerly unknown or barely understood, but now revealed to God’s people. ‘……The mystery which has been hidden from ages and generations, but has now been revealed to the saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col. 1:26-27). Christ is the mystery that was hidden from the Gentiles and known to believing Jews only in types and shadows, but is now revealed to all in the Gospel. ‘Godliness’ (Gk. eusebia) in this context probably means ‘the faith we profess.’ This faith, says Paul, the faith of Christ, is not some poor pathetic thing, nor is it unfathomable; it is grand, great and amazing; and it can be known.

Paul goes on to make six statements about this faith, and they are all statements about the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the sum and substance of our faith. He is the mystery of godliness. No one who has been a Christian for any length of time can look at these statements without knowing that they are all about Him. If the Ethiopean eunuch should ask us, “Of whom does the prophet say this?” (Acts 8:34), we should have no difficulty in answering, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth.”

The next thing that we need to observe is that these statements are in the form of poetry. What we have here is nothing else but a fragment of an early Christian hymn- they used to sing this! It is also a piece of fulfilled prophesy. Some parts of it still lay in the future back in the 1st Century, but the early Christians did not hesitate to sing it in the past tense as though it were already an accomplished fact. So let’s look at each of these statements contained in verse 16 in turn.

1. ‘God (or ‘He’) was manifested in the flesh.’ The vast majority (several hundred) of the ancient manuscripts start the sentence with Theos, meaning ‘God,’ but about ten of them, including one of the oldest, have hos, meaning ‘who’ or ‘He.’ I personally have no doubt that the traditional Majority Text reading is correct, but the fact is that the majority of modern textual critics and translators disagree with me. However, it really does not matter, because for two reasons there is no doubt that the Person being discussed in these verses is very God. Firstly, the word translated ‘Manifested’ (‘revealed’ is another good translation) {1}. This is the language of the theatre. Someone is behind the curtain, waiting to be revealed. His appearance on the stage is not the beginning of his existence. So it was with the Lord Jesus; His appearance as the Babe of Bethlehem was not the commencement of His life. As the prophet writes, ‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah……..out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be ruler of Israel, whose goings forth are from old, from everlasting’ (Micah 5:2). Secondly, we compare Scripture with Scripture: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God’ (John 1:1). So at Christmas we sing these amazing truths about Christ:

‘Lo! Within a manger lies,
He who built the starry skies.’

And again,

‘In the bleak mid-winter, a stable-floor sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.’

The Deity of the Lord Jesus is revealed throughout Scripture, as is His humanity. One very powerful example is His stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35ff etc.). First, we see His humanity; He is tired as He gets into the boat, so He needs to sleep. He is a Man, subject to bodily weaknesses. He is Man, Man as though He were not God. But when the storm arises and the disciples rush to Him in a panic, He arises and rebukes the wind and waves with a word, ‘and there was a great calm.’ Who can control the elements in such a way but God Himself? He is God, God as though He were not Man. ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten Son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

The fact that He was manifested ‘in the flesh’ is also important (1 John 4:2-3). He came to make propitiation to God for sinful man, and He could only do that in the flesh. It was in the flesh, as Man, that He suffered on the cross, and it is this that so many find it impossible to understand. One of the earliest heresies to afflict the Church was Docetism, the teaching that our Lord only seemed to have a human body (cf. 1 John 1:1), and today Moslems teach that God substituted Barabbas for Him. But this is to miss the point spectacularly. ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins’ (Heb. 9:22). If Christ, God the Son, did not come in the flesh He did not die in the flesh, and we are still in our sins. But He did come in the flesh, to share our humanity and to live the life of complete righteousness and total submission to God (Phil. 2:5-8) that we cannot live, and to die the death that we deserve to die- the death of the criminal, the miscreant; the death of the cross.

2. ‘[He was] vindicated by the Spirit.’ That is, He was proved to be who He said He was, and to have told the truth. ‘And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again’ (Mark 8:31). He was vindicated at His baptism, when ‘The Holy spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:21). He was vindicated at His transfiguration (Matt. 17:1ff) when His face ‘shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light’ and the voice from heaven spoke again. But His greatest vindication came at His resurrection: ‘Declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead’ (Rom. 1:4). Death could not hold Him; He was no ordinary man; He is our risen Lord and Saviour, ‘Who was delivered up because of our offenses and was raised for our justification’ (Rom.4:25).

3. ‘[He was] seen by angels.’ Of course angels gazed in wonder as our Lord lay in the manger at Bethlehem, but I am quite sure that the text is speaking of our Lord’s ascension. In Daniel 7:9ff, we read of ‘the Ancient of Days’ who can only be God the Father, seated on His throne. ‘A thousand thousand ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him…………And behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him were given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples nations and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.’ A vast throng of angels watch amazed to see the One whom they had worshipped since their creation sent down to earth in deepest poverty, rejected by men, crucified, dead and buried, and now returning in glory; the Lamb looking as though it had been slain, the wounds of His crucifixion still visible, coming to occupy the highest place in heaven and hear the Father say to Him, ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool’ (Psalm 110:1). And what did the angels do? They worshipped. ‘Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne…..; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice; “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honour and blessing!”’ (Rev. 5:11-12).

4. ‘Preached among the nations.’ In His time on earth, the Lord Jesus scarcely visited outside of Israel. When the He ascended into heaven, He left behind just 120 disciples, all Jews, hiding in an upstairs room. Just a week or two later, the Holy Spirit came down and 3,000 were saved in a single day, and from that time the word of God has gone forth in power. When Paul and Silas visited Thessalonica, their opponents cried out in alarm, ‘These who have turned the world upside down are here!’ (Acts 17:6). In AD 120, Pliny the younger, governor of Bithynia, wrote in alarm to the Roman Emperor Trajan, advising him that the temples of the gods were empty and everyone seemed to be turning to Christ. And so it has been down the ages, certainly since the Reformation. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ has been moving forward, sometimes more slowly, sometimes more quickly, but today there is scarecely a country in the world where the name of Christ is not being preached. It is an excellent thing to read good Christian biography; to learn about David Brainard, dying of tuberculosis, pressing on through the North American wilderness to find the Red Indian tribe to which he was longing to preach. Or William Carey, the cobbler who taught himself so many Indian languages so that he could translate the Bible into them; waiting nine years for his first convert, but laying the foundation for the 40 million or so Christians that are in India today.

We hear a lot about ‘radicalization’ of young people today. Back in 1880, James Hudson Taylor visited Cambridge and radicalized seven young students there. They were all rich and privileged, and some of them aristocratic- one, C. T. Studd, was already a famous Test Cricketer and a hero to his generation- but they laid aside their wealth and followed Hudson Taylor to China, not with guns or bombs, but with the word of God. They had no power, and precious little funding, but, ‘…..Since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe……..because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men’ (1 Cor. 1:21, 25).

5. ‘Believed on in the World.’ This follows on from what has gone before; God’s word does not return to Him void. The Lord Jesus told His followers, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In those days, Britain must have seemed like the end of the earth, but we know that in a short space of time the Gospel had been preached there and it swiftly took hold. In 1951 in China, when the communists came to power, all the missionaries were expelled and many preachers imprisoned. It seemed as if all the work of Hudson Taylor and his colleagues would go to waste. Yet from the death of Mao Tse Tung in 1970, the Gospel has gone out in enormous power in China and today there are at least 100 million Christians, and the Church there is growing by hundreds or thousands every day. In Iran, there were estimated to be as few as 50 evangelical Christians at the time when the Shah was deposed. Today the estimates vary between 100,000 and a million coming to Christ in the midst of the most vicious persecution.

Who knows what may happen in the future? Who knows if God will not use the violence and wickedness of these ISIS people to disgust the Moslems of Syria and Iraq and turn them to Christ? Those Christian refugees flooding into the Kurdish territories and taking with them the Gospel, just as , in Acts 11:19ff, the early Christians fleeing from Jerusalem brought the Gospel to Antioch, and from there to Asia Minor and to Greece. God willing, we shall see a revival in Kurdistan, and the Gospel spreading from there into Turkey, Jordan and Syria. We need to be praying to that end. But the fact is that the Christians of Paul’s day, despised, mocked and persecuted, believed the promise of God that Jesus Christ would be believed on in the world. And so it has been; the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). And what though the cause of Christ has been having a hard time in Europe- and in Britain in particular- in recent times? Let us believe the promises of God as these early Christians believed them and let us be about our task of turning the nation back to Christ through the power of the Spirit. Is anything too difficult for God?

6. Taken Up in Glory. Most commentaries associate these words with our Lord’s ascension to heaven, but this makes a mess of the sequence and the commentators seem (to me at least) to tie themselves up in knots trying to explain it and they make it more complicated than a hymn is likely to be. No, no! Is there not a simpler interpretation? Is there not another, second ascension, when Christ will return gloriously to the Father? Listen to Paul: ‘Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power’ (1 Cor. 15:24). There is a day coming when the Lord Jesus Christ will return. A day when He will put an end to all wickedness and oppression, all sickness and disease, all sadness, bereavement and death. All these will be gone forever. ‘The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.’ Then He will come once more before the Father, and we with Him, and He will say, “Here I am and the children that You have given Me!” (Heb. 2:13). This is Revelation 21 and 22 stuff! Listen!

‘Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away….Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He shall dwell with them , and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain for the former things have passed away.” Then He who sat on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”………But I saw no temple in [the city] for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city had no need of the sun or the moon to shine in it; for the glory of God illuminated it; the Lamb is its light…….But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life’ (Rev. 21:1-5, 22, 27). Is your name written in that book? Are you sure? Well make sure! You dare not miss out on this! This is our Lord Jesus taken up in glory. The One who died in pain and ignominy, now vindicated and reigning in total and complete victory, every enemy beneath His feet. And we shall be with Him, cleansed and purified, the last vestige of our old nature peeled gently away with our old, worn out bodies, so that in new, sinless, resurrection bodies we can rejoice, love worship and adore our glorified Saviour throughout all eternity.

Oh Christ, He is the fountain,
The deep, sweet well of love!
The streams on earth I’ve tasted
More deep I’ll drink above.
There to an ocean fullness
His mercy doth expand;
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel’s land.

The bride eyes not her garments,
But her dear Bridegroom’s face.
I will not gaze on glory
But on my King of grace.
Not at the crown He giveth,
But on His pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory
In Emmanuel’s land.’

He is the sum and substance of our faith; not a set of rules; not a system of religion, but Christ, in very nature God, who humbled Himself, taking on the nature of a servant, obedient unto death; then risen, ascended, returning and gloriously reigning forever!

Note

{1} The NIV traslation ‘He appeared’ is weak just because it does not suggest our Lord’s pre-existence.

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