Reflections – 1 Timothy 3:16

As part of a daily Bible reading plan, I was going through 1 Timothy chapter 3, trying my best to pay attention to the details in the text, and reflecting on the meaning of each verse. Much of this chapter is instruction from Paul to Timothy on the qualifications for the Office of the Ministry. These words are true and comforting, reassuring us that those in the Pastoral Office must be godly men, and “above reproach.” Although there is plenty of reassuring gospel to be found in these verses, I was especially interested in verse 16:

“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.”

1 Timothy 3:16 (ESV)

The first time reading this through, I took note of the word “godliness.” In most evangelical circles, this term is defined as one’s leading of a “purpose driven life.” (In other words, godliness = good works.) There is some truth to this mentality. “Godly” is indeed a term that can apply to the way a Christian lives, being a loving neighbor to those around him. Many people throughout the Bible are referred to as godly, meaning that they feared God an followed His Law. But we should not let our opinio legis (opinion of the Law) cloud our understanding of what it means to be godly. That is, when we read any verse in the Bible, even if it is a verse of pure Gospel, the sinful nature in our hearts will try to turn the Gospel into a command we need to obey. It is the nature of mankind to desire to earn salvation, not to receive it.

Pay attention to the verse above, and notice how Paul is defining godliness. It is something we confess. Godliness is Christ manifest in the flesh, Christ being filled with the Holy Spirit, Christ being seen by angels and proclaimed to the nations, and Christ being believed in, and having been taken up into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. To summarize my point, Paul is saying that “godliness” is not dependent on what we do. It is something that has been done.

I looked up this verse in the Concordia Self Study Bible to help me drive this point home. The commentary on 1 Timothy 3:16 says, “The phrase [mystery of godliness] means the ‘revealed secret of true piety,’ i.e., the secret that produces piety in people. That secret, as the following words indicate, is none other than Jesus Christ. His incarnation, in all its aspects (particularly his saving work), is the source of genuine piety. ” The way this verse is formatted in the original Greek text suggests that it was an early creedal hymn. This was something confessed by the early Christian Church even before Paul penned these words!

To be godly and pious is to confess the work of Christ and how He justifies us by grace, through faith. Christ was our piety for us. I say this not to diminish the importance of “walking in a manner worthy of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:12) Rather, it is to realize that true piety and godliness was accomplished for us in the person of Christ, that we may add nothing to our own salvation. We lead “godly” lives as a response to this ultimate godliness completed for us by Christ. Martin Luther summarized this well when he stated:

“Yes, dear friend, you must first possess heaven and salvation before you can do good works.  Works never merit heaven; heaven is conferred purely of grace.”

Go about your life, knowing that this true godliness is credited to you by grace, through faith, on account of what Christ has accomplished.

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