The Great Mystery

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Timothy 3:16

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

1 Timothy 3:16 rsv

A great mystery. The apostle Paul calls the gospel of Jesus Christ, the faith of Christians, just that. Listen. These words are from 1 Timothy, chapter 3, verse 16:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

That is the great mystery.

But this evocative word mystery has a special meaning for the biblical writers. In our normal usage, a mystery is an unsolved problem, a crime with no clues apparently, a whodunit thriller. We call things “mysterious” because we can’t figure them out. In the Bible that kind of meaning is still present. A mystery is beyond our power to ferret out or understand completely. But the unique feature is this: mystery to the biblical writers is a long-held secret now revealed. It is something wonderful made known.

And, according to the apostle, this mystery of the Christian gospel is great. Dorothy Sayers has reminded the modern world about that. She maintains that Christianity has to do with events altogether astonishing. She writes, “You can call it revelation or you can call it rubbish, but if you call it dull, then words have no meaning at all.” Anyone with the slightest understanding of what Christians believe has to be impressed by that. We can ignore, we can reject the claims that Christian faith makes but surely no one can dismiss those claims as trivial. The gospel deals with amazing things, of supreme significance. This mystery on any reading is great.

Like a number of other passages in what we call the Pastoral Epistles, these words sound like a familiar confession of faith, almost like a well-worn creedal hymn. They gather up the heart of the Christian message in concise and memorable form. I’ve been pondering them this week, going over them again and again in my mind, letting their cadences march before me; “manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget those. They seem to me too a great mystery, an unveiled secret that is uniquely glorious.

There can be no doubt about who the He is here, the subject of these affirmations. They only fit one person. They find fulfillment only in one historic life: that of Jesus. And that tells us something significant about this great Bible word mystery. The heart of it is not a philosophy or a problem but a life story. The mystery is a portrait, a person, Jesus of Nazareth. Six remarkable things are said about Him here, and they come in sets of two. They show how great the mystery is, great in revelation, great in renown and great in reward.


Think with me now about the first couplet. “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit.” The peculiar thing about this word manifested is what it implies about the person of Jesus. “Flesh” here refers, of course, to His humanness, His bodily existence in this world, His historic life. But when we say He was manifest in that, we’re saying that He was, that He had lived, before it happened. Something of who He was before became evident in that flesh and blood career here on earth. In Jesus, the eternal truly entered into time. The heavenly came down to earth. God revealed Himself in a human life.

Now we’re right at the heart of the mystery, aren’t we? This is the central affirmation of the Christian faith, that in the first-century life of Jesus, in places we call Galilee and Judea, the eternal God, the maker of heaven and earth visited us in a genuinely human life. Notice, friends, we’re not simply saying that Jesus was sent by God or that He was like God and fulfilled God’s purpose for Him. All those things are true, but the central theme is that He was God, deity and humanity, the Lord of glory in the life of a man. He was manifested in the flesh.

Remember, this is not something somehow overlaid on the original Christian message, a glory which His later followers have invented for Jesus. It was what He said about Himself. “He who has seen me has seen the Father . . . I and my Father are one” (John 14:9; 10:30). Many of us have recently come through the experience of Christmas and that’s what it’s principally about. Beyond the lights and trees, the gifts and parties, we have remembered an event which is incomparably the greatest thing that ever happened on earth. In the birth of a tiny baby God came to share our human lot: The Word, the everlasting Word, became flesh and dwelt among us, and, as the apostle John says, “We beheld his glory” (John 1:14). In that entire human career, from the moment of His birth in Bethlehem until He breathed His last on Golgotha outside Jerusalem, God was making Himself visible, was manifesting Himself in Jesus.

Well, what does it mean, “vindicated in the spirit”? We get a wonderful clue about that from another of Paul’s letters, the one to the Romans. There in Romans 1:3, he writes this about the gospel: “The gospel concerning his Son [Jesus, that is], who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” The claims of Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel and the Son of the blessed God had been called in question when He was rejected by the authorities of His own nation and executed on a Roman cross. His followers were left desolate, His cause crushed, His words about Himself pathetically denied. Who could believe now that He was God’s chosen, the Lord of glory in a human life?

But then, on the morning of the third day, came the resurrection. The linen garments in which Jesus had been wrapped were laid aside. The great stone before His tomb had been rolled away and the grave was empty. Jesus, the crucified One, had conquered death and was alive forever!

Now the Bible consistently attributes this event to the power of God. And more specifically, it is declared to be the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is the one whom we confess in the creeds as Lord and Life-Giver. By this quickening Spirit of the living God, Jesus was raised from death to endless life and by that mighty act He was vindicated. That is, the human verdict against Him was reversed. He was shown to be all that He had claimed to be. Jesus, the One who was manifested in the flesh, was shown decisively to be the Son of God with power by His resurrection from the dead. He was “vindicated in the Spirit.” These acts of God – incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection – made up the great revelation.


The mystery is great also in renown. He was, we read, “seen by angels, preached among the nations.”

It’s striking to note in the Scriptures how these remarkable events of God’s revelation attracted the attention of angels. Remember how they announced His birth to Mary and sang on the night the child was born? And remember how they were there at the tomb on Easter morning, surveying the scene, telling the astonished disciples that Jesus was alive? The apostle Peter says that the marvelous happenings of the gospel are “things into which angels long to look.”

A great deal of what goes on here on Planet Earth must offend heavenly observers, must make the angels weep. But what has moved the cherubim and seraphim and all the rest of heaven’s host to awe and adoring wonder has been the visit of their King to earth, and what befell Him here. What especially had all heaven celebrating it was the triumph of the suffering Savior on Easter morning. He, the risen Jesus, was “seen by angels.”

But He was also “proclaimed among the nations.” The events which constitute the Christian gospel took place in a remote province of the ancient Roman empire among a despised subject people. Jesus, to the powers that be in His time, was one more crucified Jew, an insignificant statistic. And yet what had happened in the life and ministry of this man, in His agonizing death and His return to life, was already in the first century being proclaimed among the nations. The disciples of Jesus were filling the Roman world with the knowledge of His name. And that has been going on ever since. Around the world at this moment there are hundreds of millions of human beings who worship that name. On every continent, in every land, He, the risen One, is being heralded today. Truly this mystery is great in renown. It’s getting the attention of the whole earth – and of heaven too.


In the last couplet, we celebrate the reward that comes to Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. He is believed on in the world. The great aim and delight of Jesus’ life had been to obey the Father. Remember how He said it? “My will is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” But that will of the Father was always a will to save, a gracious purpose toward us, so that another way to say it was this: “Jesus’ meat, His sustenance and delight, was to seek and save those who were lost, to give His life a ransom for many, to become for a hungry and thirsty world the bread of life and the living water.” His joy was that people should be saved. For this He came. For this He lived a life of steady obedience. For this He drank the cup of our condemnation to the bitter dregs, dying for our sins. And His reward is that He is believed on in the world. His longing to bring many sons and daughters to glory is being fulfilled. This had been the joy set before Him for which He had endured the cross, despising the shame. Wherever the gospel is preached, there are those who repent and believe, those who become God’s children through faith. This is the Lord’s exceeding great reward. He sees the fruit of the travail of His soul and is satisfied.

Lastly, He’s taken up in glory. The God who raised Jesus from the dead has now exalted Him in unimaginable power and glory to the throne of the universe. There He reigns until all His enemies become the footstool of His feet.

That’s what we celebrate as believers in Christ on Ascension Day. That’s the final point of the wondrous parabola of grace. Jesus shares the glory of the Father but He comes down. He does not count that equality with God a thing to be clutched to Himself. Rather, He empties Himself, and takes upon Him the form of a servant and is made in the likeness of men. Being found in human form, He humbles Himself and becomes obedient unto death, even death on a cross. That’s the lowest point. “Wherefore,” says the apostle, “God has highly exalted Him, lifted Him up, and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (see Phil. 2:9-10).

Isn’t this Christian gospel a great mystery? Great in what it reveals of the loving heart of God toward us, great in the way it is published all over earth and among the hosts of heaven, and great in the reward it brings to Jesus of people redeemed and brought to unspeakable joy, in a kingdom which shall have no end.

My heart’s desire and prayer, friends, is that you may know in personal experience how great is this mystery of the Christian faith. Oh, may you, hearing this word of the gospel that is preached throughout the world, turn from every evil in your life and trust in Jesus as your crucified and risen Savior. And so may you forever live to the praise of His glory and forever be a joy to His heart.