“By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory."
“By common confession,” is sometimes translated “without controversy.” These words are a line in the sand. These are defining words of Christianity, being the very foundation for agreement and unity. That upon which we agree center on Christ Himself, not ideas. We gather our being around a person not a concept, a tangible, historical individual who existed in time and space as opposed to an intangible mythological figure who represents grandiose ideas. If there is controversy with the following statements, if there is nothing we share in common based on what follows, friends, we have no unity. One of us is clearly not of the faith. A few verses previous Paul says these things are written that we may know how to conduct ourselves in the household of God, the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. Anything apart from this is not of the true church, is without support and contains no truth.
Reminding us of the purpose for which the confession or agreement arises in these statements is the phrase, “great is the mystery of godliness.” I am on a search right now for Good People, and I know I will not find one for two reasons: first, no one is good but God Himself (Mt. 19:17); second, a person will proclaim his own goodness and loyalties (Prov. 20:6) but the fact remains, “there is none righteous, not even one” (Ro. 3:10-18). My search is not futile because I am not searching for me—I already know what I will not find; rather, I want people to see they will not find goodness in themselves apart from Christ. This is also why I can say I am searching for godliness and I know I will not find godliness in myself or in other people apart from Christ Himself. Let’s see how all this works.
Everything about godliness is a mystery, and everyone loves a mystery. Ironically, the word “mystery” comes from a 14th Century term that means, “a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand.”[i] We need to be clear: an answer will not be found by our own reasoning or discovery. The definition can include the concept of “beyond understanding or comprehension,” but if this were the case for godliness, it would be impossible and God has created for Himself a stone He cannot move. Profound? Yes. Inexplicable? No.
Discovering a mystery takes time, patience. Reading must be done, wrestling must be engaged, but there is no short-cut. There is no envelope we can rip open when we are perplexed to the point of no return—it is all right there before us and we must take the time to examine. The god of this world blinds the minds of the unbelieving by the conveniences of the age: instantality is detrimental to examination.
In 2001 the New York Medical Examiner had a task of a lifetime before them, handling all the remains of the victims of the World Trade Center collapse. Their volume was instantly exceeded and had a decision to make: short-cut and mishandle data, or delegate and get help. A lab in Virginia was brought alongside and together they processed all available data completely, efficiently and thoroughly with acceptable results. This was a job not to be rushed.
The great mystery before us is godliness and how it is bound up in Christ. There is no godliness apart from Christ. “Godliness refers to the truths of salvation and righteousness in Christ, which produce holiness in believers; namely, the manifestation of true and perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ.”[ii]
We must be in agreement on this. Here is the evidence that we may discover and examine:
“He who was revealed in the flesh.” This agrees with our definition of “mystery” in that He, who is God, reveals. What did He reveal? Himself. How did He do it? In the flesh. I was talking with an individual about the incarnation of Christ and was surprised to be met with great disagreement, “how can God be reincarnated?” This has nothing to do with RE-incarnation, but INCARNATION. God took on flesh and lived among us (John 1:1–4; 14:9; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; 2 Pet. 1:16–18).
If there is none good but God, there is none godly but God. God Himself is the perfect standard for all that is godly and good. If a man or woman proclaims his or her own goodness, discovering ungodliness and ungoodness is comparatively easy. Not long ago one of my kids friends called the house and when I answered the phone, it threw her off and she forgot who she was calling. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to ask her, “are you a good person?”
Silence, then slowly, “I think so.”
“Are you good enough to go to heaven?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m a Christian,” she said, “I know I’m going to heaven.”
“How do you know you are a Christian,” I fired back.
Silence. “Because all my sins are forgiven,” she seemed to guess.
“What sins?” I pressed.
“Have you ever told a lie?”
“Yeah, a long time ago.” [I love that answer! 9 ½ out of every 10 people I ask tell me the same thing. Try it and see what you get].
“Have you ever taken anything that didn’t belong to you?” I asked.
“No,” she shot back emphatically. I reminded her she told me she was a liar. “Well, I did take something from my brother . . . but that was a long time ago!” She clarified. [Why is it everyone does these things “so long ago?”]
And on we went. My point was to help her realize exactly what salvation is all about. While my conversation begins by asking about heaven, my point in taking professions through this conversation is to help them discover what godliness is all about! See, we aren’t saved to go to heaven. Salvation is from sin and not going to hell is only a small part of it! Andy Stanley puts it nicely, “Everybody is preoccupied with making a living, falling in love, having kids, and whatever else they are doing. Nobody’s taking the time to think about going to heaven.”[iii]
If people are not taking the time to think about why or how they are going to heaven, they are certainly not taking the time to think about, much less carry out, a life of godliness! Our text does not say, “great is the mystery of heaven” or “great is the mystery of hell.” Godliness begins and ends with “He who was revealed in the flesh.” God did not take on human nature, but human-ness. We find out that godliness is bound up in God, who became flesh . . . and more.
“[He] was vindicated in the Spirit.” Another way to put this is, “He was made righteous by the Spirit” or “justified in the Spirit.” Doing and Being, or as Bonhoeffer would put it, “Act and Being,” are not separated here. What Jesus did and who He was does not give us two different people. There is no “Jesus of history” and “Christ of faith” as the ungodly and false teachers would have us believe. They are clearly not in agreement with the common confession here. There are many things to say here:
- He is righteous. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 Jn 2:1)
- He is without sin. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor 5:21)
- He could be convicted of no sin. “Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?” (Jn 8:46).
- He is perfect. “And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” (Heb 5:9. See also 4:15 and 7:26).
- What was began by the Spirit (Matt 1:18, 20) continued in the Spirit (Matt 3:16-17) and was finished by the Spirit (Ro 1:4).
Another aspect of our common confession is that “[He was] seen by angels.” Which angels: Fallen or unfallen? I would say both. As Jesus existed eternally with the Father, He was seen by angels from eternity past. As Jesus was active through the Spirit in creation, the Bible says that angels looked on and witnessed the event. At His birth, there was suddenly with the angel a multitude of heavenly hosts, praising God and “saying.” As Jesus made His way through His earthly ministry on earth, he cast out demons and His resurrection was made possible with the help of and declared by angels. After Jesus ascended back into heaven, two angels asked the disciples, “wassup?”
The disciples immediately carried out Jesus’ instructions, that brings us to the next part of our common confession, that “[He was] proclaimed among the nations.” One thing we did not indicate earlier concerns our very starting point here: the book of Acts is a record of the beginning of that proclamation and it is said that the book of Acts is the only book of the Bible without an ending (think about it for a minute). But what is it a record of, actually? It is not about the disciples or apostles. The book is a record of how the Holy Spirit continues His work of pointing people to Christ and how that message spread from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and to the remotest part of the earth!
“With the New Testament in our hands it may be surprising to say that we know comparatively little about the beginnings of Christianity.”[iv] I’ll bet that if you followed the footnote to the bottom of the page, 2/3 of my readers would say they’ve never heard of the book from which the quote comes or know what it’s about. With that in mind, think about this: If Jesus was a personification of philosophy or concepts “he” would have died out by now. Which is more lasting? Which has endured? The Bible is just chock full of passages about the message that reaches the nations! “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth.” (Psalm 66:1). And I would follow that with a ridiculous plethora of exclamation points.
“[He was] believed on in the world.” God Himself does Missions. That is why He Himself asks us to be co-laborers with Him. John Piper put it succinctly, “Missions exists where worship does not.” When people believe God, He is worshipped!
I like that statement, “believed on.” Many people believe “in” but the numbers who believe “on” are much smaller. I was talking with a guy not too long ago who made it clear he was saved from sin, had assurance of salvation and all that, but he stymied me when he looked right at me and said, “I sure wish I could do what you are doing, going out telling people about Jesus.” I told him I was no brave person (and I’m not) but depend on the power of God through the Holy Spirit to do it. “But I can’t,” was his reply.
“Can’t, or won’t?” I asked. He scowled, not liking my question. Further discussion revealed the latter. He failed to believe “on” God. There was no doubt he believed “in,” but would not confess his sin of disbelieving God. He told me he would probably never tell people about Jesus then and I got scared . . . for Him. All I could think of was Rev. 3:16-17.
God must be believed in the world. Turn that though over in your mind. The world is the place in which we live. No-brainer. Gotta exist somewhere, right? Look at it another way. The world is the enemy of God, so there is no way this should happen. Now consider 1 John 2:15-17:
“Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”
We have no choice but to start from where we are. 2 Corinthians 5:17ff tells us that God, through Christ Jesus reconciles the believer to Himself and peace is made. Through Christ Jesus, we are given the ministry of reconciliation becoming His ambassadors. In effect, we take His name on ourselves by believing Him. When we take His name, we represent Him. Would we dare take His name in vain? God must be believed. This is what the discussion is all about. He is the source of the godliness and He is the source of our understanding of it.
“Taken up in glory.” There are so many ideas and heresies out there that are at odds with this confession. Another aspect so many have difficulty with is the agreement of scripture, to allow scripture to interpret itself. I’ve already discussed a few blogs back the approach of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their doctrine of interpretation (it is a sin to read the Bible as an individual). For one to do this would be detrimental to their doctrine, for they do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, much less “taken up in glory.” We have no common confession with them. There is no fellowship. A similar thing could be said of the Mormons, who profess to be Christian. How can the Christian if they deny the first tenant of this common confession?
Interestingly, as crucial as this statement is, little is actually said about it in scripture. Mark 16:19, Acts 1:9 and this passage are all that is recorded about the ascension, yet it is vital component of the basis of our unity and helps explain the mystery of godliness. I think one implication for it’s importance is found in John 14, where Jesus says,
“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”
If Jesus did not go back to the Father, the Holy Spirit would not come. If the Holy Spirit would not come, then the mystery of godliness remains intangible and impossible. “He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory." The work of salvation was complete on the cross, in the resurrection and ascension. But salvation is more than deliverance from hell. It is deliverance from the power of sin. The day will come when we will be delivered from the presence of sin. The one who became flesh vindicates, or justifies the believer by the same Spirit. The angels not only attest to the work they have already experienced and/or seen Him do, but concerning salvation, look on with wonder (see Hebrews and 1 Peter). The work of sanctification is that work of the Spirit that not only sets us apart from the world from which God is believed, but creates the godliness that about which such mysteries entail. The day will come when we, like Christ, are taken up in a glorious fashion to the praise of His glory!
[i]Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Includes index. 10th ed. Springfield, Mass., U.S.A.: Merriam-Webster, 1996, c1993.
[ii]MacArthur, John Jr. The MacArthur Study Bible. electronic ed., 1 Ti 3:16. Nashville: Word Pub., 1997, c1997.
[iii] Stanley, Andy. Since Nobody’s Perfect . . . How Good is Good Enough? Sisters: Multnomah, 2003.
[iv] Schonfield, Hugh. The Passover Plot. Toronto: Bantam. 1965.