Did you hear about the 911 operator who one day answered a call from a frantic-sounding man who said, “My wife is in labor and her contractions are only a minute apart!” When the operator asked, “Is this her first child?” the man replied, “No, you idiot, this is her husband!” A clear case of mistaken identity!
We often see another case of mistaken identity when men read Paul’s words in I Timothy 3:16:
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.”
Most commentaries insist that Paul is speaking about the Lord Jesus, and it’s true He was God “manifest” in the flesh (Jo.1:14). But it wasn’t a “mystery” that God would be manifest in the flesh of the Lord Jesus, it had been prophesied (Isa. 7:14 cf. Mt. 1:23). Paul is actually talking about “the church, which is His Body” (Eph. 1:22,23). Today God is manifest in our flesh (II Cor. 4:10,11). This was “a great mystery” (Eph. 5:32), hence “great is the mystery of godliness!” The word “godly” means God-like, and Christ wasn’t like God, He was God! We’re the ones who are supposed to be godly! This understanding fits the context better too, for Paul had been talking about the church (I Tim. 3:1-14), not the earthly life of Christ.
Those who believe Paul is speaking about Christ here say that God was “justified in the Spirit” in Matthew 3:16. But the Lord’s baptism didn’t justify God, it identified Christ! (Jo.1:31-34). But God was justified in us. You see, for thousands of years men thought God was unjust in saving adulterers and murderers like David. But our apostle Paul explained how God could be “Just, and the Justifier of him which believeth” when He explained how Christ paid for our sins by becoming our “propitiation” (Rom. 3:26).
It’s true that Christ was “seen of angels” (Mt.4:11; Lu.22:43; Acts 1:9,10) but this was no mystery either (Ps. 91:11 cf. Mt. 4:6,7). It was a mystery, however, that the Body of Christ would even exist (Eph. 3:1-9) let alone be seen of angels (v. 10). In addition, God was definitely not “preached unto the Gentiles” when Christ was here on earth (Mt. 10:5,6; 15:24; Rom. 15:8). But He was preached to the Gentiles by Paul (Rom. 15:16; Eph. 3:8 etc.), and by members of the Body of Christ ever since.
Finally, God wasn’t “believed on in the world” when Christ preached Him, but He was believed on in the world through Paul (Col. 1:6). And while God was “received up into glory” in Christ (Mark 16:19), the Lord’s ascension was no mystery (Ps. 68:18). But it is a mystery that we’ll be received up into glory (I Cor. 15:51,52). I know Paul says God “was” received up into glory, and we haven’t yet been raptured, but Paul was a prophet, and the prophets saw future things so clearly they often spoke of them in the past tense (cf. Isa. 53:5-12).
There are plenty of verses that teach the deity of Christ (Isa. 9:6; John 1:14; 10:30; Col. 2:9), so don’t try to force that precious doctrine on this verse! Instead, remember that in the dispensation of grace, if God is not manifest in your flesh, He is not manifest in anyone’s flesh. So live your life in such a way that others will question their disbelief in God.
To the Reader:
Some of our Two Minutes articles were written many years ago by Pastor C. R. Stam for publication in newspapers. When many of these articles were later compiled in book form, Pastor Stam wrote this word of explanation in the Preface:
"It should be borne in mind that the newspaper column, Two Minutes With the Bible, has now been published for many years, so that local, national and international events are discussed as if they occurred only recently. Rather than rewrite or date such articles, we have left them just as they were when first published. This, we felt, would add to the interest, especially since our readers understand that they first appeared as newspaper articles."
To this we would add that the same is true for the articles written by others that we continue to add, on a regular basis, to the Two Minutes library. We hope that you'll agree that while some of the references in these articles are dated, the spiritual truths taught therein are timeless.