The Mistery of Godliness
Roy Hill, Bristol, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
The apostle Paul in writing to Timothy, who was then located in Ephesus, was concerned that he might not be able to visit him and the saints there for quite some time. He is anxious to ensure, should that be the case, that Timothy should have some written encouragement to know how he and others ought to ‘behave . . . in the house of God’, 1 Tim. 3. 15. This resulted in the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy and, divinely inspired, it has survived nearly 2000 years; its message is still current and perhaps uniquely applicable to us today.
The first three chapters of the epistle are taken up with the assembly’s way of doing things which is quite different to what the saints had encountered in the past either in connection with the Jewish temple, the synagogue or the heathen temples of the Gentiles. The new practices must have been very significant to the believers and, in the beginning, quite novel. Yet, they had learned that it was not only a new way of doing things but it was God’s way of doing things. There is instruction about praying, who should pray in public (the men only) and when. Similarly, information on how Christian women should dress and deport themselves is discussed, as is the existence of elders and deacons and their character. Further, the fact that women are not to teach in the assembly but to learn in silence is addressed and explained. These are most certainly not man’s way of doing things but they are God’s way and as such cannot be improved and should not be denied nor watered down for the sake of convenience.
Following these instructions we have the phrase in chapter 3 verse 16, ‘Great is the mystery of godliness’, followed by a list of six things about the Lord Jesus. We would usually equate the word ‘godliness’ with the character of saints and therefore its presence in this context may appear to be unusual. However, if we take the meaning of the word ‘godliness’ to be ‘God’s way of doing things’ it encourages us to more readily appreciate the teaching that is being brought before us here, i.e., ‘Great is the mystery of God’s way of doing things’. We are then presented with six things God has done in Christ to show that there can be no better way than His way and that His way of doing things is unique and appropriate. An understanding of this will impress on us that as far as the assembly is concerned, its structure, administration and practices cannot be improved by men. Those who advocate different ways to those proposed by scripture would imply that whatever God does they can adapt and improve; these six items indicate that is not so. We now look briefly at God’s way of doing things. Previously these were a mystery but now the unique way He works is perfectly revealed in Christ:
1 God (He, or who) was manifest in flesh – Incarnation
For something to be ‘manifest’ or revealed it must have been in existence before the event. So, when Jesus Christ was manifest it is evident that He pre-existed; and He did so as the eternal Son of the eternal God. He was seen of men and in His life thoroughly manifested God the Father and His many attributes. So complete was this manifestation that He was able to say in response to a statement by Philip, ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’, John 14. 9. We often think of incarnation being His birth but it is rather more than that. It i ncludes His whole life on earth from beginning to end. In revealing Himself to mankind this was God’s way of doing things, and it could not be bettered.
2 Justified in the Spirit – Vindication"
During His life the Lord was, as prophesied in the Old Testament‘, despised and rejected of men’. On the occasions when this happened He did not seek to justify Himself. He accepted the rejection in humility. As the days of His sojourn here progressed so the rejection spilled over into threats and violence. Eventually, it culminated in His death on the cross. He was rejected by the Romans, by His own nation and indeed by His own earthly family. Everything and everybody was against Him; even His close friends deserted Him. But, at last, He was vindicated. Because, when He was crucified and buried, on the third day God raised Him from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. This was the greatest possible vindication of His life and ministry. It was God’s way of doing things: it is marvellous in our eyes!
3 Seen of angels – Observation
Angels are often encountered in both the Old and New Testaments. They appeared on earth at various times and in different places. We are aware of their residence in heaven and of the services they render to their Creator. We know that some are fallen and await coming fearful judgement. Following the Lord’s resurrection, angels appear in parts of His exodus, e.g., at the tomb, at the ascension and doubtless at His entry back into the courts of heaven itself. While men, lower than angels, rejected the Lord and His claims, angels are associated with His return to glory. The thought is not only of observation but of intelligent close study of the Lord and of totally committed service to Him. They were quite unlike men and where men failed they, as it were, picked up the responsibility of being by His side as He ascended. This was God’s way of doing things.
4 Preached unto the Gentiles – Proclamation
The great plan of Satan was to stifle the gospel message at its beginning by removing all trace of the Lord Jesus from the records of Jerusalem. This was to be achieved by distributing His remaining possessions to the Roman soldiers on duty at Calvary and by burying Him in a common grave with criminals. Later, even some Jewish believers would try to keep Him for themselves and only permit believing Gentiles into the church if they had first become Jews, been circumcised and given an undertaking to keep the law of Moses. This was their way of doing things. God’s way of doing things, however, was somewhat different. He determined that the gospel of God concerning His Son should be preached among all nations even to the uttermost parts of the earth. This did not please the Jews but it was God’s plan and we know only too well the success that attended the early mission of Paul and others right through until this day when the message resonates around the world giving opportunity for all men, to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. In the great plan of salvation this is God’s way of doing things.
5 Believed on in the world – Salvation
On hearing this message of salvation by grace through faith many are those who have believed. He is, of course, not believed on by the world. In fact, the majority still reject Him; but most certainly He is believed on in the world. Around the globe many from every nation have trusted Him for salvation, and we recall the words of the Lord, ‘They shall come from the north . . . south . . . east . . . and the west’ and populate heaven in accord with the divine plan of the provision of a bride for Christ. This is hardly the way men would have planned things but it is indeed God’s way of doing things and we rejoice in it.
6 Received up into glory – Expectation
Finally, in the gospel plan, there is the problem of how to get men from earth to heaven. Some of them still alive but most of them dead, buried, and decayed. Such a venture is beyond the wisdom of man to accomplish, but God has a way of doing things and in this case it is the Rapture of the church. The living will be snatched away and the dead raised. All will be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and then they shall appear in heaven all safely rescued from the world and avoiding the coming tribulation and other great judgements on men and nations. This again is God’s way of doing things and we cry, ‘Halleluljah!’
The message in these six statements is that God has a way of doing things that is perfect and cannot be bettered. We may not fully understand now why He chose these ways but we do know that they are good and right. We must also acknowledge that His way of doing things in His local assemblies cannot be improved upon either. Therefore, we should be content to follow the New Testament church pattern for praise, worship and service. His ways of doing things are past finding out and His ways are not our ways - ‘Great is the mystery of God’s way of doing things’!