I Timothy 3 Part 5
New King James Version 16. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.
The Resultant Version 16. And beyond all argument the secret of true worship is great: which was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, witnessed by messengers, heralded unto the nations, believed on in the world, received in glory.
Here we have a very important verse, but also another one that is difficult of interpretation, just like verse 15. As it stands we read that “without controversy the mystery of godliness is great.” However, we realize that the word “mystery,” which is the Greek word musterion, is used in Scripture not for an unsolved “mystery,” but rather for things that are secret. Particularly when a secret is mentioned, it is something that formerly God had kept a secret, but now He is revealing it for the learning of His people. In other words, once God starts talking about a secret, it is a secret no longer. What this is telling us is that it formerly had been kept secret, but now it is being revealed.
Now the secret that Paul says is great beyond all argument is the secret of godliness or true worship. What we would expect then is a statement about devoutness or true worship. Instead, we get a statement about God having been manifested in the flesh. This would appear, then, to be a long passage about the reality of Who Christ is. Yet how is this the “secret of true worship”? This does not seem at all obvious.
Then there is the fact that some of these statements are rather odd when applied to Christ. Yes, we believe He was God manifested in the flesh. That is true. Yet what about “justified in the Spirit”? We would think of being “justified” as being “declared righteous.” Yet how was Christ “declared righteous” in the Spirit? This could be talking about the fact that the miracles Christ worked in the Spirit proved that His claims about Himself were true. God is spoken of as being “justified” in what He says in Romans 3:4, so this is certainly possible.
Then the “seen by angels” part also seems odd. When did this take place? We could try to point to I Peter 3:19, when Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison.” Yet the spirits in prison were rebels against God, and the word “angel” means a messenger, so the “angels” are messengers of God. Could such a term really apply to beings imprisoned for rebellion against God? No, it would seem these angels who saw Him have to be yet submitted and following His will. What then is this referring to?
Finally, while we would admit that Christ was both “preached among the Gentiles (nations)” and “believed on in the world,” yet the next statement, “received up in glory,” seems to be out of place. For surely his ascension and reception in heaven preceded Him being preached among the nations and believed on in the world. These elements seem positively out of order as they occur.
So we may summarize the problems with this passage as it stands in the following questions. Why is a truth like “God was manifested in the flesh” called “the mystery of godliness” or “the secret of true worship”? Why did Christ need to be justified in the Spirit? When was He “seen by angels,” and why is this important? And why is it said that He was proclaimed among the nations and believed on in the world BEFORE the passage says He was “received in glory”?
While these questions are very difficult to answer as it stands, there is another possibility that may help us here. For there is a manuscript variance of this verse that is most interesting. It revolves around the word “God.” This word is not the same in all ancient Greek manuscripts. In some manuscripts, it reads, “He Who was manifested in the flesh.” In others, it reads, “Which was manifested in the flesh.” This latter phrase would make the whole topic of the passage not Jesus Christ at all, but rather the mystery of godliness!
Now we would not question for a second the great truth that God was manifested in the flesh. He was, and that manifestation was revealed in Jesus Christ. He was Jehovah Himself made a human being like us. This truth is plainly stated in Scripture in many passages, and cannot be doubted by any honest student of the Word. This passage before us has been used as a great “proof text” for that fact. Yet certainly that fact does not rest on this one passage, but on many, many passages. Reconsidering this passage will not harm that truth or remove it from Scripture in the least. Yet what can we say about this possibility? Could the subject of the passage really be the mystery, and not Christ?
First of all, how could something as drastic happen to the manuscripts as changing “which” into “God,” or vice versa? This is not at all obvious in English, but it is quite obvious in Greek. The word “which” is just the Greek word “ho,” which is merely written as an “o” in ancient Greek, since the “h” is just an aspiration. “He Who,” on the other hand, is just “hos,” spelled in Greek “os,” which means you just put an “s” after the “o” to change it from “which” to “He Who.” Then, God is “theos.” That might not look much like “o” or “os,” at least, not until we realize that “theos” was often abbreviated to “ths” in Biblical Greek manuscripts. Since “th” in Greek is the letter theta, which looks like this: θ, we can see that if you just took a handwritten Greek omicron, ο, and put a line through it, you could easily change it into a theta. So the transition from “which” to “He Who” to “God,” if taken one step at a time, would not be very difficult. The question, then, is only which way the transition went, from ο to ος to θς, or from θς to ος to ο?
Of course, at this late date, it is impossible to say for certain which way the transition and corruption of the original text went. All we can do is gather the evidence and come to a conclusion. There are three ways to gather evidence for an ancient reading. One is, of course, from ancient Greek manuscripts. These are a great source, yet we do not have the original manuscripts written by the apostles themselves, so all we have are copies, and copy errors are always possible. The second is from quotations of the Bible made by the church fathers, many of whom wrote in Greek, and some in Latin. It has been said that if we did not have a single copy of the ancient Greek Scriptures, we could still recompile it from the quotations made of it in the church fathers. These quotations give us an idea of what the Greek manuscripts they were using said. Sometimes, they were writing earlier than our earliest Greek manuscripts, which means they were using copies earlier than any we have. This provides us with valuable evidence.
Thirdly, we have ancient translations of the Bible. Of course, these ancient translations have been copied, and so copy errors could creep into them as well. Yet we must realize a version is translated and then the translation is copied. If you were printing the King James Version, you would copy a previously-printed King James. You would not go back to the Hebrew and Greek and try to retranslate the King James. So once a translation is made, it is separated from then on from the original language. And the kind of errors you would make in one language you are not likely to make in another. For example, in my argument above, you can hopefully see how easy it would be to go from ο to ος to θς. Yet we must admit that there would be no explanation at all in English for going from “which” to “He Who” to “God.” These three are drastically different, and even written by hand no one could possibly mistake them. There are other mistakes that might be more common in English, like mistaking a “lo” for a “b,” but the typical Greek errors are not likely. It is the same once a translation of the Greek Bible was made into another language. The passages that might well be copied wrongly in Greek would be “frozen” into their current form once they were translated into another language.
Now if we take these three sources of evidence, we would sum it up as follows. The strongest evidence in Greek manuscripts is, I believe, for “God.” I know that that is not the common thought in our day, yet it is true. The quotations from church fathers are largely in favor of “God” as well. But when it comes to the versions, the evidence is strongest for “which.” The two earliest translations we know of, the Syriac translation into Aramaic and the early Latin translations, both have this passage as “which,” not “God” nor “He Who.” The Syriac and the Latin were both first translated around the second or third century after Christ, which is several hundred years older than our oldest Greek manuscripts. Therefore, this could suggest to us the possibility that the original reading was “which,” and that the corruption into “He Who” and then into “God” was an early one, explaining why there is so much evidence for “God” in the Greek manuscripts.
Now when a change has taken place, we must ask ourselves what the motive for the change, assuming it was deliberate, might have been. In this case, it is fairly easy to suggest a motive either way. We know that one of the earliest debates in the Christian church was about the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is possible that some early Arian-type (for he would have lived before Arius) did not like this passage and its strong evidence for Christ being God, and so he changed the strong “God” to a weaker “He Who,” and then someone later changed it into “which.”
Yet I would suggest that the opposite change is also possible, and perhaps in some ways more likely. If a Christian who was debating with an early doubter about the Deity of Christ and wanted to find as many passages as he could to prove it from the Bible, he might well hit on this passage. Yet it would not help him much if it read “which” was manifest in the flesh, since that makes it sound like it isn’t talking about Christ. He cared little about the secret or what it might mean regarding God’s work today, so the passage as it read meant little to him. The small addition of a sigma to make it “He Who” instantly makes it seem to be a clear passage about the Deity of Christ, and one which he can now use to badger his opponents who question Christ’s deity. Since there were generally more Christians opposed to Arianism than supporting it, it makes it much more likely that the Christian world would have been willing to accept a change opposing Arian-type ideas than a change supporting it. Then later another scribe comes along and realizes that “He Who” is grammatically incorrect. He figures that there must be a mistake here and he must figure out what it was. The fashion in early times was to write the middle line in a theta lighter than the circle around it. When a manuscript got old, the middle line could fade away. The scribe might have figured this had happened, and changed the ο into a θ. Thus, the change would have been made. Since arguing that the Lord was God was a big thing to the church fathers, it is understandable that they would all gravitate toward this reading. This version of events in some ways makes more sense, since the change from “which” to “He Who” instantly makes the passage useful to one who wanted to use it to argue for the Deity of Christ. Yet the change from “God” to “He Who” is less of a help to the Arian, since “He Who” still clearly refers to Christ, and “manifest in the flesh” certainly makes it sound as if He were pre-existent. The first Arian would have gotten only a minor benefit from the change. Only the second one who changed it from “He Who” to “which” would have really accomplished something to help his argument. A purposeful change that immediately changed its meaning, then, would make more sense than one that only set up changing its meaning.
Ultimately, we cannot know for certain in this case which way the original read. The evidence of the Syriac and early Latin is strong, however. We must at least admit that “which” is a strong possibility. “He Who” really has no strong evidence from any of the three sources to back it up, so it is rather strange that this is the reading that modern textual critics support. Their support is largely based on a few old Greek manuscripts, but with nothing to stand behind these, this is quite questionable.
Now the meaning of the passage is clear if “God” was the original reading. It talks about Christ becoming a Man and accomplishing His work on earth. He was God; not the invisible God Whom no man has seen at any time, but God manifested in the flesh. The statement that He was justified in the Spirit refers to the fact that, though His claims may have been blasphemous for one who simply made them on his own behalf, yet in His case His claims were justified by the miracles that the Spirit worked through Him. He was seen by messengers. This probably does not refer to heavenly messengers, but human messengers. These messengers, like His twelve apostles, were the ones who went out and carried the message of Jesus Christ to the world after His ascension. The record of these messengers going out and proclaiming Him is recorded for us in the book of Acts. He was proclaimed among the nations, and again this proclamation is recorded in the book of Acts, which tells how the gospel went through the world like a whirlwind. He was believed on in the world. Again recorded in the book of Acts we see this happening over and over again in example after example in multiple different places throughout the world. He was received up in glory. As I said, this seems a little strange, but this would have to mean either at His ascension, in which case it is listed here out of order, or else when He was believed on. In this case, every time that people believed the truth they gave glory to His name when they took it up as the name of their Savior and Lord.
This is how we would interpret this passage if the original reading is “which.” One could also insist on interpreting the passage this way if the original reading was “He Who.” Yet this seems the most unlikely reading of all to me, for it takes a neuter noun, mystery, and then refers to it with a masculine pronoun, He Who. This makes little sense. Those who argue for the reading “He Who” insist that this really means the same thing as saying “God,” just stated a little differently. Yet I do not believe this is so. If we were not to assume that this is a grammatical error, then we would be left with the impression that something that originally was just a secret, a bit of information known only to God, then later became a man, and all these glorious things were true of that secret. In other words, it was not God Himself Who was manifested in the flesh, but a bit of unrevealed information that turned into a person and thus was manifested in the flesh. This is NOT saying the same thing as if it read “God,” and it is not saying the truth. The only other option if the reading is “He Who” is to suggest that God made a grammatical error. I find both these explanations unlikely. I do not believe the evidence backs up this reading either. A bit of hidden information did not become a human being. Yet if the original reading was “which,” then the neuter agrees with musterion, and so “which” then refers to the mystery or secret, as is suggested in the Companion Bible. This is grammatically possible, but does this really fit or make sense in the context?
To answer this question, we should keep in mind that Paul is writing after the great change at Acts 28:28. This change was a very significant one, and it makes sense that Paul would write about it in I Timothy, a book he was writing to Timothy to help him understand how he is to conduct himself now as a believing Jew living in the dispensation of grace. If the “secret of true worship” that Paul is talking about here is the truth of how to worship in the newly revealed, formerly-secret dispensation, this would fit right in with what I believe is the overall theme of I Timothy. It would fit right in with verse 15, which we have already discussed appears to be talking about how a Jewish believer in Jesus Christ living among Jewish believers should conduct himself now that the law is no longer the rule of the day. It would fit right in with the beginning of chapter 4, which speaks of the “doctrines of demons,” one of which is to deny the truth for today that all foods are now to be considered clean. A momentous statement about the Deity of Christ, while valuable, would not fit in at all with this context, however. It would relate to nothing that came before it or after it. A momentous statement about the mystery would, however.
What was the teaching of the passage then? What was the Holy Spirit trying to say through Paul about the secret? I believe it has to do with the revelation of the secret as most people at the time would have experienced it. Remember that Paul was in Rome, far away from most believers in Jesus Christ, when he made his momentous proclamation in Acts 28:28 that changed the dispensation and brought the Acts period to an end. Most believers would not have heard him say this, so they would not have known immediately that God’s work had changed. How would they first have become aware that things were suddenly different? Probably by experiencing the difference. Perhaps some believer injured himself. In the Acts period this was no problem, as he could just go to one of the healers and have his injury repaired. However, when he went this time, he found that the healer could do nothing, and his injury remained. Perhaps someone else became sick, and yet no one could prove that this person had done anything to violate any of God’s kingdom laws. It would have started to dawn on the Acts period believers that they were no longer enjoying the perfect health and healing that they had enjoyed ever since they had believed in Christ during Acts. They might have noticed other things as well, like the fact that they no longer had dreams or visions; that words of knowledge or wisdom ceased to come; that God-given gifts like gifts of faith, government, hospitality, and so forth were no longer renewed; and so on. In other words, the dispensational change first became known to them by its manifestation in reality. It was manifested in the flesh, and they experienced it before they ever heard any teaching about it.
What would have happened next? We imagine that the believers would have been in some consternation at this unexpected turn of events. They would doubtless have sought the counsel of their local apostles and prophets, asking them what had happened here? After all, they were expecting the miracles to increase as they entered into the full kingdom, not suddenly stop! This is what we read about in Ephesians 3:3-5.
The Resultant Version Ephesians 3:3. For by revelation the secret is made known to me, even as I have written before in brief, 4. By which you, reading, are able to apprehend my understanding in the secret of the Christ, 5. Which secret, in other generations, is not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets:
We read here that the revelation of the secret was made known, not just to Paul, but also to the other, local apostles and prophets wherever they might have been. They were informed by God of the change that had just taken place: what it was, and what exactly had happened. They were able to explain this change, and that it was a crucial but formerly-unrevealed part of God’s plan. This should have been considerable comfort to the believers of the time, for surely the cessation of the kingdom gifts they had been enjoying must have seemed to them as if something had just gone horribly wrong! To learn that this was all part of God’s plan was good, then. It justified, or declared righteous, right, or good, what had just happened. This revelation to these apostles and prophets was through the Spirit of God, and so the new change was therefore “justified by the Spirit.”
Next, we have “seen by angels.” What angels are these, we might ask? Of course, our first inclination is to assume it means heavenly angels. This is what most people think of when they hear the word “angels.” Why would heavenly angels seeing the mystery be important? An answer to this question may be found in Ephesians 3:10.
The Resultant Version Ephesians 3:10. That now to the sovereignties and the authorities among the most elevated may be made known, through the outcalled One, the manifold wisdom of God.
This verse tells us that the highest of heavenly rulers, the sovereignties and authorities, are learning God’s manifold wisdom through what He is doing today. God is not just concerned for His earthly people, but also His heavenly ones, and so it seems His work today is an important one for them to learn and get to know Christ better through seeing it. Therefore, the fact that the mystery was seen by these angels is important.
However, this need not necessarily be what this is talking about. The fact is that the Greek word “angels” is not really a name or designation for a certain race of heavenly beings, but is actually simply a Greek word meaning “messengers.” This very word is used multiple times of clearly human messengers. When the context makes it clear that human “angels” are meant, our translators typically have translated it “messenger” rather than “angel.” However, in cases where it is not clear from the context, as here, it could be that angels of Adam’s race and not heavenly angels at all are meant. Therefore, this could mean “seen of (human) messengers.” What would the significance of it then be, if this is the case?
The reality of the gospel is that it has not always been possible for just anyone to be a messenger of the gospel. The book of Acts records the acts of the apostles. This word “apostle” means one who was commissioned with authority, and the apostles were commissioned by God to carry the gospel to the people to whom they proclaimed it. Romans 10:14-15 tells us that such a commissioning was necessary in the Acts period for the gospel to be proclaimed.
14. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15. And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:
“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
Who bring glad tidings of good things!”
This passage sets forth four impossibilities. The first is that it is impossible that people would call on someone in whom they have not believed. The second is that it is impossible that people would believe in one of whom they have not heard. The third is that it is impossible to hear without a proclaimer. And lastly, it is impossible to proclaim unless you are sent. Of these impossibilities, three of them are still logically impossible today (though regarding the third, we can hear through a written message, which would make the written message the proclaimer). But the fourth impossibility, that it is impossible to proclaim without a commission, is no longer true. Anyone can take up the gospel to proclaim it who wishes to do so. He does not have to be commissioned for the task first. This impossibility became no longer true at the momentous proclamation Paul made in Acts 28:28.
The Resultant Version Acts 28:28. Be it known therefore unto you that the salvation-bringing message of God is now authorized (made freely available) unto the nations, and it will get through to them.
The word The Resultant Version makes “authorized” is the verb form of “apostle,” apostello. The salvation-bringing message itself is now apostled, and so now the individual messenger does not need to be apostled. This was a change that took place, and was what brought about the end of the Acts period. It was no longer necessary to talk about the acts of the human apostles, now that the gospel itself was apostled. The great change when this took place was the event that marked the postponement of the kingdom of God and the beginning of God’s current work, the dispensation of grace.
Now when this change took place, the fact that anyone could take up the gospel and proclaim it without ever having been apostled to do so was made plain to God’s people. Many saw this truth, and were encouraged to pick up the gospel and become messengers of it to carry it to many places around the world, or even back to their own hometowns and their own people. These people then became human messengers of the gospel of God, and they became this because they saw the truth of God’s current, secret work and understood what righteousness is in this dispensation. This, then, may be the significance of “seen of angels.”
Next we read that the secret of godliness was “preached among the Gentiles,” as the New King James Version has it. Yet this translation of ekeruchthe en ethnesin is questionable. Kerusso means “to herald,” and ethnesin means “nations,” not “Gentiles.” Therefore, this should read as does The Resultant Version “heralded unto the nations.” This was the result of many believers seeing that the gospel was now freely available for them to proclaim. That is, they went out and proclaimed it. When they proclaimed, the right message, including the truth of the secret of true worship in our day, was proclaimed among the nation.
Next is “believed on in the world.” This was the result of the secret of godliness being heralded unto the nations. Many might have doubted this result among the Israelite believers of the Acts period. After all, they were Jews, and the gospel was about their promised Messiah. Why would people from other nations, nations which already had their own religion, believe the truth of the secret of true worship? Why would they want to hear about the true God of heaven and believe in Him and His Son Jesus Christ? This might have seemed most unlikely. Yet the promise of God in Acts 28:28 had been that it would get through to them, and it did get through to them. The result was that many people from many different nations heard it and believed it. The proclamation of the secret did not fail. Many believed it.
Finally we have the statement that it was “received in glory.” This verse is rather more difficult, but again I think we may relate it to the fact that the reception of this secret might have seemed very doubtful. We know that God works today by asking people to believe the gospel without seeing signs, wonders, or other physical proofs that His gospel is true. According to John 20:29, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This describes every believer today. Yet how unlikely this must have seemed to the believer of the Acts period! He had only believed after seeing signs and wonders proving that the gospel was true. Why would anyone receive such a radical message without evidence? This might have seemed a most improbable thing to these believers. Yet many did receive it, and this glorified the truth of the secret. God’s Word had not failed. The message He said would get through did get through, and was received in faith by many, many people. Thus God’s decision to do this was both justified and glorified.
We might consider a similar case. We know that God sent John to baptize the people of Israel in water unto submission. The purpose of this was to prepare the way for the Lord when He came, so that they would be ready to hear and follow Him. This was John’s own stated purpose in John 1:23.
23. He said: “I am
‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Make straight the way of the LORD,”’
as the prophet Isaiah said.”
The question arises, then, “Did this work? Were the people baptized by John more likely to be ready for the Lord Jesus when He came than those who were not?” We can find the answer to these questions in Luke 7:29-30.
29. And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. 30. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.
Here we see that the people heard the Lord, and even the tax collectors, those considered as irredeemable outcasts by the others in Israel, heard Him as well. They were ready for the Lord and His words, and the reason they were ready is that they had been baptized with the baptism of John. Those Pharisees and lawyers who rejected the will of God for themselves, however, had not been baptized by John, and so they did not hear the Lord when He came. This justified God, Who had sent John, for His purpose in sending him was accomplished.
A similar thing happened when the secret of true worship was heard and believed. Those who heard and believed it then began acting upon it and worshipping according to it. This glorified both the secret itself and the God Who had given it and Whose secret it was. The receiving of the secret glorified it, just as the hearing of the Lord Jesus Christ justified God Who had sent John to prepare people to do just that.
In closing, I would have a few final remarks to make about this verse and my interpretation of it. I believe this interpretation is an exciting one, and it gives us a picture of events as they occurred after the dispensational change that we get nowhere else. The evidence of the early translations makes it a strong possibility that this was considered a good reading when those versions were translated, centuries before our oldest Greek manuscripts. Moreover, this reading seems to fit well with the immediate context of the passage, and “God” only fits if one searches for it in the much remoter context of the book. Therefore, this is an interesting interpretation, and one I felt was well worth setting forth here.
At the same time, however, I would warn against using this interpretation as a “proof” of the Acts 28 dispensational position or the recent dispensational change that had occurred a few years before Paul wrote I Timothy. This interpretation largely makes sense only if one has already established and believed the dispensational dividing line at Acts 28:28 because of other reasons. To try to prove that dispensational change from this passage would be exceedingly problematic. Moreover, many people use this verse as a way to prove Christ’s Deity. (As stated before, I am in complete agreement that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully Man, and so I am all for seeking proof for this. I just am not certain that this passage is actually talking about that.) Such people are going to be reluctant to give it up, and there is certainly evidence in the majority of Greek manuscripts and in the quotations from church fathers to back up this reading. Therefore, without any way to be certain that this reading is the correct one, we cannot insist upon this interpretation of the passage. All we can do is set it forth as a possibility for the consideration of God’s people who see the truth of the Acts 28:28 dividing line. May God give us all further light regarding the truth.