title
Sermon

Jesus Christ: The Mystery of Godliness

December 25, 2022

O Lord, what stirring good news we have already sung this morning with heart and soul and voice. Now we need not fear the grave for Jesus Christ was born to save, and You have called us one and called us all to gain His everlasting hall, Christ was born to save, Christ was born to save. So now we ask in the name of that same Christ that You would speak to us that we may be saved and we may recall and remember the One true lasting, eternal, central story, that good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again. We pray in His name. Amen.

This morning, Christmas morning, we come to the end of this 7-week series and glad to have you here. If you’re just getting the last of this series on famous 3:16 passages in the New Testament, of course John 3:16, but there are lots of other key texts, third chapter, 16th verse, and this is the last of those. We took it out of order and Derek preached on 1 John 3:16 last week and this one this morning, turn in your Bibles, please, to 1 Timothy 3:16. We switched the order because this works so well as a Christmas morning message. 1 Timothy 3:16. Just one verse. Here it is.

“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.”

For many of us, probably lots of you here, the last five or six years in this country, and really all over the world, have seemed at times especially disorienting. Let me just mention some words, some names, some things, some events, without any comments, I’m just going to list them. I’m not going to say what you should think about any of them, but I imagine that just hearing some of these words, names, key people, places, events, will almost immediately stir up strong opinions, and maybe agitation as you think about conversations you’ve had with people or a running dialogue in your own head.

Here’s a few words: Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden. George Floyd. Elon Musk. Joe Rogan. COVID-19. Vaccines. Masks. Social distancing. January 6. Christian Nationalism. Woke. Pregnant people. Roe v. Wade. CRT. Uvalde. Ukraine. Vladimir Putin.

You already, you’re feeling pretty anxious now. Please, you’re thinking, Pastor, don’t talk about really any of those things right now on Christmas morning. And now you’re saying, “Great, you just ruined our lunch over Christmas when you’re done.” You just hear some of those names, people, places, controversies, sadnesses, death, and we feel unsettled, anxious, angry, maybe confused. And those are just national or international things. That’s to say nothing of what may be going on in your own personal life. What these poinsettias may represent, loss in your life. Just hearing this morning of tragedy and death in our church family.

It may feel like over the past four or five years, or perhaps it’s even just a season of sickness or loss in the last couple of months, that your heart has been in a blender and your head has been on a swivel.

It’s one of the reasons we need confessions. You see this word right there in verse 16. We need confessions. Often times the older the better. It’s a way of sort of stopping your head from spinning and your heart from churning and almost speaking to yourself, “Come on, brain. Come on, heart.” What do we believe?

You ever talk to yourself? I’m sure you do, sometimes out loud, that’s embarrassing, but often a running dialogue. Hardly a week goes by, sometimes a day goes by, where I am not saying inside, “Stop being so stupid, Kevin.” Thank you for not saying that out loud to me, I’ll say it to myself. Plenty of reasons to say that. Come on.

You ever shake your brain to say, “Come on. What are we doing here? What do we think? What do we believe?” It’s why we have old hymns and traditions and confessions. They remind us, they re-orient us. We need them, especially when we get flustered, confused.

I remember several years ago, I can’t remember if it was here or in my last presbytery, but it was during an ordination exam and if you’ve ever been to these, they’re, they can be sort of intimidating. You have, you know, 50 pastors or elders there, sitting in a church, and you have a young man and you have somebody who’s interviewing him. That’s to put it nicely. Plying him with questions, theological questions. Not much is riding on it, just his whole life and career plans and whether the Lord is… Anyway. These ordination exams and they ask theological questions and so it’s quite understandable that someone might get lost or flustered.

I remember several years ago some theological questions and the young man wasn’t really quite sure. You could see the tires in his head spinning and suddenly he dropped down and he said, “Well, I believe in God the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son.” Then he stopped and he said, “I’m sorry. I’m just quoting the Apostles’ Creed,” and the examiner wisely said, “No, no need to apologize. We want to ask and make sure you understand about your those things, but that’s actually what confessions are for. When you get lost, when you get flustered, when you get agitated and you lose your own words, you settle in to these creeds, these confessions.”

Paul is writing to this young pastor Timothy at the church in Ephesus and this was a confused church. Some of you may remember the story in Acts chapter 20 where Paul is leaving the Ephesian elders and he gives them one last speech and he warns them that wolves are going to come in, they’re going to try to lead them astray. You are going to have season of great confusion here at this church in Ephesus.

You could turn back the page to chapter 1, verse 3 – “I urged you when I was going to Macedonia,” he’s writing to Timothy, the pastor, “remain at Ephesus.” Why? “So that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths, endless genealogies, which promote speculation.”

Verse 6: “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”

This church was facing confusion. You can see it in the verses immediately preceding our text this morning, chapter 3 verse 14, “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.”

There were false teachers, agitation, confusion. So in verse 16 Paul says, “All right. Get your heads, stop its spinning. I want you to get your heart, I want you to turn off the blender, and I want you to remember we confess.

What follows is likely not something that Paul wrote for them on the spot in this letter, but was already a part of the Christian tradition, already something they had come to believe and affirm together. They were tossed by false teaching, there were theories floating around, speculation. They could have as a people easily been divided, polarized, confused. So they need a tried and true confession.

So do we. Hope you have your Bibles open. I want us to confess this together. Beginning with that “He was manifested in the flesh” in reading those six stanzas.

People of God, what do we believe? 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.

You can hear that it was meant, almost certainly, to be recited. It’s fairly easily said. In fact, it was probably a hymn. You can hear the rhythm just in English. If you want the technicalities, and I’m sure you do, in Greek there’s a definite pattern, there’s an ___ 1102 passive verb plus in five of the six lines, the preposition en and then a dative noun. Clears it right up.

It begins, you see in English it’s translated with the word “he.” The most reliable manuscripts, we think, is the word “hos,” which is a relative pronoun, so it’s referring to someone and it’s translated rightly as “he,” and this sort of way of moving from confession and this pronoun is common in introducing a hymn, which you can’t see in English but you can see very clearly in the Greek, is there is the literary technique assonance. Alliteration you’re familiar with, that’s the same consonant sound. Assonance is the same vowel sound.

There are six verbs, one verb for each of these lines. You can see in English, manifested, vindicated, seen, proclaimed, believed, taken up. Those are the translated. But in Greek each of the verbs begins with a vowel and they all have a kind of “eh” sound, they all have a vowel that starts and they all have a similar sound.

So we’re quite certain given the stylized pattern here that this was an ancient confession and likely something that the congregation said together, and probably sung together, a hymn, that Paul drops into his letter. Likely he wasn’t the one who wrote it, but he could say, “Look, we all know this. We know this Christmas Carol, Timothy knows it, you know it in Ephesus, great is the mystery of godliness.”

Now if you were to read all the commentaries on this verse, and there’s scholarly articles on this verse, you would find lots of theories about the structure of this hymn. You can see, if you’re looking in the ESV, that the ESV opts for two stanzas, each with three lines. You can see it by the way they indent those lines. So there’s six lines total, and that’s one way to do it. It could be two stanzas with three lines each. The first stanza speaking about Christ’s completed work, the second showing the results of Christ’s work and ministry.

You could also, and some translations do this, say not two stanzas of three lines, but three couplets, three pairs, and you could make this case, too. That the first pair contrasts flesh and spirit and then angels and nations and then world and glory, and so not two stanzas of three but three stanzas of two.

It could be, largely, a chronological and theological retelling of Christ’s work. This seems the simplest explanation and it’s not, doesn’t rule out that there may be three couplets or there may be two stanzas, but what’s important is to follow here and track with the very intuitive demarcation and structure.

Now the last line in particular poses some difficulty, and we’ll come to that in a moment, but it’s not hard to track with these six lines and see that this hymn is giving to us a hymn to Christ and of Christ, of His work in the world. It’s called here a confession of the mystery of godliness. Now the word “mystery” in the New Testament is not like we think of it, some detective thing. A mystery is something that was hidden and revealed. That’s the best way to think of the word “mystery” in the New Testament, something hidden now revealed. Sometimes it’s called an open secret.

So this is that truth about Christ that was given in shadows and now is given in substance. It was hidden and now it’s revealed. A mystery of godliness.

When you hear godliness, don’t think simply about personal behavior, morality, holiness, but think more broadly of piety or of faith. It’s a statement about the Christian life. Remember verse 15? Right before it, “This is how you ought to behave in the household of God.” So verse 15 is telling here’s what you ought to do, and he’s giving that in the sweep of the letter, and then it’s anchored in verse 16 about Christian doctrine. Christian life, verse 15, Christian doctrine, verse 16.

So what do we have here in this Christological hymn? Well, let’s just look at each line quickly.

First, He was manifested in the flesh. The incarnation. Notice it doesn’t say He pretended to be a man, or God only seemed to be a man. He wasn’t wearing a mask. It wasn’t a masquerade ball. That He was wearing this, you know, Jesus kind of a Scooby-Doo episode, and ooohhh, it’s God, you weren’t really a human being. No, God became man. Christ manifested in the flesh. This is what makes Christianity unique. Unlike polytheistic religions, we believe in one God, Creator of heaven and earth, who’s sovereign and absolute in power over everything.

At the same time, unlike other monotheistic religions, say Islam or Judaism, we believe that this one God was manifested in the flesh. Sometimes Christianity, Islam, Judaism, all lumped together called Abrahamic religions or the great monotheistic faiths of the world, but at their very core they fundamentally disagree on this essential point, that for Islam and for Judaism to have the God of the universe appear in human flesh is not only a scandal, it is blasphemous, and for us as Christians it is the best news and the heart of the Good News.

Manifested in the flesh. God appeared. An objective fact. A revelation of what God is like.

As you think about God, God as God, by definition God doesn’t sleep. God isn’t born. God doesn’t die. God doesn’t feel pain. God cannot be seen. God does not learn. God does not need a diaper change. God does not toddle around. God does not have to learn his alphabet. It’s just common sense about what it means to be God.

And yet the mystery and the majesty of Christmas is that God, not by subtraction but by addition, takes upon a human nature. God did not become something less than He was, though His glory was shrouded for a time, but He became something more. A divine nature joined to a human nature, so that it’s often been said God became what He was not without losing at all anything that He was. He took to Himself a human nature.

So this means we don’t have to bring God down to earth. That’s sometimes the impulse. Because God is all those things, He doesn’t feel pain, He can’t be seen, then people want to say, “Well, let’s have a God who hurts as much as we do. Let’s have a God that we can see. Let’s have a God who’s a great buddy.” We don’t have to do any of those things because God Himself has done it. The whole miracle and mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus Christ, the God-man, experienced these things, the most un-God-like thing possible, that God in heaven cannot experience, He did taking on human flesh. God sent His Son so we could see face-to-face what God is like.

I came across this illustration this week in a journal article by David McCloud. He says in London’s Trafalgar Square, some of you have been there, stands the statue of Lord Nelson, a famous war hero, great British admiral. The colossal column, Nelson’s Column, is so high, I had to look it up, the whole thing from top to bottom is almost 170 feet tall. The statue of Nelson at the very top is 18 feet. So you have 150 feet of column to get to the very top to the statue that you can barely see. McCloud says the colossal column is so high that it is difficult to really see what Lord Nelson looks like. An exhibition in 1948 provided an exact replica to be placed at eye level where all could see it. For the first time, many had a close view of the features that they had earlier beheld only from afar.

It is a wonderful illustration of the incarnation. Go to Trafalgar Square and you hardly even notice. You wouldn’t know what Lord Nelson looked like, he’s so high up on the column. All you see is the column, and yes, there’s some figure up there in the clouds. They bring him down, ah, so that’s what he looks like.

So it was at Christmas. This God who dwelt on high was manifested in the flesh. Vindicated by the Spirit. Could be a reference to his Spirit, that is flesh and spirit, but I think as the ESV has it, it’s a reference to the Holy Spirit. This most likely refers to the resurrection. You say, “Well, how does this refer to the resurrection?” Because in a number of places God’s Spirit is said to be the agency by which Jesus was raised from the dead.

Romans 8:11 says that God’s spirit raised Jesus from the dead. Romans 1:4 makes this explicit connection. It says “Christ Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead.” Did you hear there in Romans 1:4 “flesh,” according as a son of David, but then “declared by the Spirit of holiness in His resurrection from the dead”? That’s what it means “vindicated by the Spirit,” or justified by the spirit, meaning that when the Spirit raised Jesus Christ from the dead, it was the vindication that Jesus was who He said He was, and He was not a pale Galilean, He was not simply another prophet or another teacher, but He was, in fact, the great I am. He was God in the flesh. When the Spirit raised Him from the dead, we had evidence that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Kings, the long-awaited Messiah. He was not a son of the devil as some thought. He was not a messianic pretender. He was not in Himself deserving of death, but when He was raised, the Spirit vindicated Him, proved to the world who He was, if we have ears to hear.

“Seen by angels,” is the third line. Angels ministered to Jesus throughout His life. Angels were there to announce His conception, angels were there singing in the heavens at His birth, angels were there ministering during His temptation, angels were there at the empty tomb, and angels were there at His ascension. Angels greeting Him in glory. So this likely a reference perhaps to all of that, but in particular to Jesus’ ascension.

1 Peter 3 says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience,” now listen to this, “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” so there’s resurrection, “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him.”

So there is 1 Peter we have a similar progression. Resurrection, ascension, cession, seated at the right hand of God, seen, worshiped by angels, now in subjection to Him. Manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen at His ascension, into glory by angels.

Fourth line – “Proclaimed among the nations.”

Don’t you love this? Don’t you, Christmas, Christmas is about missions. Christmas has become so much about family, good, love it. About coming home. Some of you have come home, glad that you’re home, all of that’s good.

But we don’t want to miss that Christmas is not fundamentally about leisure, vacation, even nostalgia. It is about propulsion, expulsion. If you come together around the hearth today, let it be if we are Christians that we may also go out to proclaim Him among the nations.

This has happened. Yes, there is still much work to be done, but much has already taken place. According to Wycliffe, there are 724 languages with a full Bible, over 3000 languages with some portion of the Bible. There are still hundreds or thousands of languages to go in part, but it accounts for more than 7 billion people on the planet at least have some language that they can understand if we could but bring it to them, some portion of the Scriptures.

According to Joshua Project, there are 17,000 ethno-linguistic cultural people groups in the world and about 10,000 of those are reached. It doesn’t mean that there’s no work left to be done. We live among reached people and there’s lots of work to be done, but it means there is a self-sustaining church which is able to perpetuate and to speak to its neighbors and bring the Gospel. So it’s “reached.” There are 7000 people groups, then, unreached.

But this is remarkable. It’s remarkable. This work that has taken place in the last 2000 years, so much of it has taken place just in the last 100 or 200 years, that Jesus Christ, this is not an overstatement, more than at any time in human history is proclaimed among the nations.

You hear it in our Christmas songs, don’t you? Yes, I know, some of the Christmas carols are a bit sugary, especially the ones that are in the mall all the time, some of the ones that we’re not singing in church.

I don’t want a lot for Christmas, hmm, all I want for Christmas is you. I saw somebody put on Twitter, “Mariah Carey seems like the person who maybe does want a lot for Christmas actually.” I’m not sure.

Even our own Christian songs, some of them, take some poetic license. There’s a lot of speculation about what the animals were doing there, the animals have become, and a lot of speculation about surprising snow that happened in Bethlehem. Not an impossibility, but you would think they lived in West Michigan or something, with all of the snow around, all of the angel, all of the animals.

I saw this little cartoon and it has all of these animals gathered and it’s like a donkey that says, “I will carry His mother,” and a camel that says, “I will bring the wise men to Him with gifts,” and there’s a shepherd, “I will provide Him warm clothes,” and there’s a horse and there’s all sorts of, and there’s a duck and “I will provide” and then the very last one is a pig, and it says, “I will let Him cast a thousand demons into me and I will run over the cliff. Wait, what? How did I get this assignment?”

The Christmas songs have some sentimentality to them. They have some poetic license. But for the most part they tell the old, old story. They are singing sermons. They recite what God did and so many of them invite us to tell others. How can we not ring out these tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy? How can we not go tell it on the mountain? Proclaimed among the nations.

What’s the result of this proclamation believed on in the world? He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.

By God’s grace, there’s hardly a nation-state on the planet where there are not Christians gathering this day, having already gathered this day, yet to gather this day, who will sing of the glories of His righteousness and the wonders of His love.

People still believe. If we don’t have ears to hear, we’ll just hear about how things are the rise of the nuns in America or the challenges of a post-Christian western world and all of that is worthy of consideration and strategy, and yet we might miss that in sub-Saharan Africa, or in parts of China, or India, or a great movement of the Gospel in the Middle East, there are stories more than ever before of people and peoples coming to believe on Jesus in the world. It still is happening. It still can happen in your life. If you’re a Christian this morning, you had a miracle at some point in your life. It’s a miracle that any of us are Christians, even if you grew up in a Christian home, you grew up in, even if you grew, the doctor stamped on your birth certificate, “Presbyterian from the very first day,” even Presbyterians have to be born again, believe the Bible.

It happened, if you’re a Christian. Whatever age, 8, 88. If you really are a Christian, you heard the story of Jesus at some point and you knew this is not a myth, this is not just an inspiring, moral tale. This is not sentimental holiday jargon. You heard it, it resonated in your Spirit, and you knew it was true. That’s a miracle.

He’s “believed on,” in this church we trust, and “in the world, taken up in glory.” That’s the last phrase. It’s the hardest phrase because it’s natural to hear another echo of the ascension, and that’s why some of the other theories say, well, really these are not following in some sort of strict sequence, but the first three are one half and the second three are the same thing from a different perspective, and all of that may be true, but I think “taken up in glory” does not have to refer only to the ascension, as if we had a nice sequence and all of a sudden we circled back to the ascension again.

We can also hear this as a reference to Christ’s further exaltation in heaven, taken up into full and final glorification. The word “appearing” in the New Testament is used in a variety of ways. Sometimes that word “appearing” is a reference to Christ’s birth, other times to His resurrection and the appearances, and then sometimes the hope of His appearing is a reference to the Second Coming. Appearing can be birth, resurrection, Second Coming.

In a similar way, perhaps, “taken up” has a range of meaning. It’s a theme throughout the New Testament that once in heaven Christ, surrounded by heavenly beings, given the name greater than all names, seen by angels, declared superior to angels, now exalted in glory at the right hand of God. And as Christ is proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, He is further glorified and exalted.

So this reference “taken up in glory” I think is a reference to the ongoing honor and worship and adoration that is given to Christ as He is proclaimed, as He is believed upon, and ultimately as He will return and take us up with Him, those who are living and the others resurrected, in glory.

So it’s a reference to the glory and the exaltation He is now receiving and at the end of the age when He comes again, that climatic glory, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

What do we see here in these six lines? Incarnation, resurrection, ascension, proclamation, conversion, exaltation.

We need to be reminded and reoriented to what really matters. Do you really believe this, this, this hymn? This is the story of the world. Now you don’t have to believe some other religion to just be bombarded with lots of other messages about the story of the world, that the story of the world is about everything from the march of western democracies or America. Or the story of the world is about your own personal self-fulfillment and expression, or about the growth of technology, or progress, or declension. Lots of rival stories.

This is the story.

Christians have been singing and saying this confession for 2000 years. Think about it. Places like this, much smaller than this. Most of them not in English. For 2000 years singing and saying this confession, this hymn, this story, in every corner of the globe. And should the Lord tarry in His return, they will continue. This confession will outlast all of us. This confession will outlast this country. It will outlast our denomination. It will outlast every one of our family lines because this will never end. This is the song of the ages. This is the song of all eternity.

Is it the most central confession in your life? Yes, we all want to put Christ back in Christmas. But is it a content-less Christ? Is He just a mere slogan? A ritual? A once-a-year tradition? Is this what defines you? What is your identity? Is your identity based on your feelings, your own choice? What you want to identify as?

Or maybe you set that aside, but your identity is really your family, your career, your hobbies, the food you eat, the teams you root for.

What do you come back to when life and world seem absolutely crazy and not what you expected? Is it this story?

People of God, what do we believe? He was manifested in the flesh together, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

This year, let’s confess more than Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. Let’s make this our confession. Let’s confess this great mystery of godliness.

Footnotes

Let’s pray. Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing. We worship You, Lord Jesus, receive our praise and adoration, as we sign Your song and the song of the ages. Amen.