Seminary Viewpoints

Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery

Timothy Hughes | December 7, 2022

True doctrine is worth treasuring — and living by. Fidelity to God’s words and ways is a wonderful gift of the Christian life to cherish and a life-long pursuit worth every step of the journey. But sometimes we need to be reminded that following God’s truth really is worth it.  

In 1 Timothy, what is the heart and center of the apostle Paul’s encouragement and direction for Timothy and the other believers as they seek to defend and commend the truth and pursue Christlike living? Apparently, the words to an ancient Christian hymn contain the answer.  

In 3:14-16, from the letter’s theme that Paul expresses in a central statement flows an ancient creed — a poetic confession of truth that many scholars have affirmed was most likely an early Christian hymn. I like to think of it as the earliest “Christmas” hymn I know of! 

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:  

He was manifested in the flesh,
      vindicated by the Spirit,
            seen by angels,
 proclaimed among the nations,
      believed on in the world,
            taken up in glory. 

This letter was written so that believers in the church might know how to conduct themselves as members of God’s household. This is important because the church is the pillar and buttress of truth in the world. But how will this be achieved? How does God find rebels dead in sin, save them from their sin and from themselves, equip them to live lives of godly witness and vibrant faith, and then use them to strengthen and support the truth as it goes out into the world? What is the mystery that lies behind this amazing reality?  

That, I take it, is the mystery that this ancient Christian hymn explains. And the explanation, every line of it, is all about Jesus.  

Look at the way this ancient text is introduced:  

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness  

This hymn doesn’t contain a single line that is controversial among true believers — this is what all Christians confess. There should never be any controversy here, as if any of it were up for question. There is one explanation to this mystery,  and every line of the explanation sings of the person and work of Jesus Christ. 

This is the story of Jesus.  

Now, like most hymns, poems and concise creeds, you don’t get the full story in the lines, not even every important detail! But for people that know and love these truths, there is enough here to evoke the other details. We recognize, in the hymn that follows, that we’re singing about the Gospel. 

He was manifested in the flesh 

This is the incarnation — the amazing truth we celebrate at Christmas. Perhaps we are so used to reciting this truth and assenting to it that sometimes we fail to realize how amazing it is. God chose, in the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, to become what He made originally in the garden: a human being.  

Why would he do that? God the Son, the theme of heaven’s praises, chose to robe himself in frail humanity, to enter and experience temptation, suffering, hunger, pain and the brokenness of a world gone wrong. He stepped into our darkness, our longing. He condescended. And He took on flesh to ransom us.  

He lived a perfect life, and never sinned, not even once. He came as a true, obedient Son of Adam, Son of Man and Son of God. He fulfilled God’s righteous demands. He hung on the cross in the stead of ruined sinners. And he died to pay the incredible price of our redemption.  

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the light of the world, was manifested in the flesh.  

vindicated by the Spirit  

What did the early Christians mean by this line? Let me suggest what may be the best way to understand this line which is, initially, a bit ambiguous seeming. Some cross references should help:  

(Jesus) was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4).   

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it … Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:23-24, 36).

Christ’s resurrection becomes a vindication of all that He is, has done and taught. It is a powerful proof that truly He is who He says.  

seen by angels  

One of God’s messenger-angels brought news to Mary. One of God’s angels helped Joseph embrace his role. Angelic hosts first heralded Christ’s birth. An angel directed the shepherds to the manger. And let’s not overlook that angels also heralded Christ’s resurrection.  

But as amazing as angels are, their role here is simply to be witnesses to Christ. They don’t even begin to approach the glory of Christ. This time of year, we hear more about angels than we do the rest of the year. We may watch Frank Capra’s classic film or other feel-good Christmas flicks that are willing to feature angels but won’t so much as mention Jesus Christ.  

But in Scripture, when someone encounters an angel, the angel — powerful and amazing as that angel may be — very quickly points them to Someone much greater. Christ at his resurrection was seen of angels. And when you listen to what they say, they point you to Him, His work, and His mission; they point you to the One who is truly worthy of your worship and your trust.  

proclaimed among the nations  

Let this sink in for a moment. The proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is part of His story. He said He would build his church! And Jesus didn’t just come to transform the lives of one people group, or change the landscape of one part of the globe — He’s the King over all. And He tells His disciples, at the very end of the book of Matthew, the Gospel of the King:  

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  

This is a message for the nations.  

believed on in the world  

As that message went out to the nations in the first century, people started believing it, and people from different backgrounds repented, formed churches — communities of people who have believed the Gospel — and began following Jesus together. Sometimes we feel very alone and and part of something very small; but that’s not the case. Though many people reject King Jesus, His word has gone forth in power, and He is bringing many sons and daughters to glory throughout the world.  

taken up in glory  

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9-11).

Jesus bodily rose to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. We call this the ascension, and it’s not something we tend to give a whole lot of thought to — but here it is, the final line of this ancient creed.  

This line about the ascension seems a little bit out of place in the story, doesn’t it? If we were writing this hymn, we might be tempted to place this line before proclaimed among the nations and believed on in the world. But I don’t think early Christians overlooked this little detail when singing this creedal, Christological hymn together. I think the placement makes sense.  

It helps us end the song on a triumphant and anticipatory note by thinking about where Jesus is right now — seated at the right hand of the Father, His redemptive work accomplished.  

And its placement at the end also reminds us that He promised to return. This truth, apparently, is one of the main truths we are supposed to think about when we think about the ascension.  

So even as we praise God that we live on this side of the cross, remember we live between the times — the restoration of all things has not yet come. The curse of sin has been broken for those in Christ, the price of redemption has been paid and Christ is King! But not every knee bows, and not every tongue confesses. And the world is still full of pain, and longing, and darkness. And our hearts still face sorrow and our eyes still cry tears.  

Yet here is something to marvel about and draw strength, hope and joy from this Christmas season and every other season of our lives: At His first advent, Christ, the light of the world, invaded this darkness. And as He promised, He will return and make all things new. We have in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and in the transformation we experience when we come to Him, an anchor for hope and a foretaste of glory.   

The truth that secures our tomorrow is designed to transform our today. This is the Christian hope. This is the message we must take to the nations. This is the truth that to this day is believed on all over the world, transforming lives. This is our confession, as individual believers and as members of the church united to commend and defend the truth in a world that desperately needs it.  

The gospel truths celebrated in this ancient Christological text are to form the stabilizing foundation of our lives, and the center of our hope and joy, as we join our voices with millions of Christians who have gone before us right down through the centuries.  

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:  

He was manifested in the flesh,
      vindicated by the Spirit,
            seen by angels,
 proclaimed among the nations,
      believed on in the world,
            taken up in glory.


Timothy serves in the Office of Ministerial Advancement at Bob Jones University and serves as enrollment and new student advisor at BJU Seminary.