Also available as MP3: The Noncontroversial Controversy – 1 Timothy 3:16
Most commentaries say that “the mystery of godliness” is about Christ, and He certainly was “God…manifest in the flesh.” But we’re talking about the mystery of godliness, not the mystery of God. “Godly” is short for God-like, and the Lord wasn’t like God, He was God. We’re the ones who are supposed to be godly; this verse is about us, the Body of Christ.
It was no mystery that Christ would be God manifest in the flesh (Isa.7:14), but it was a mystery that we’d manifest God in our flesh (Eph. 5:32). Of course, it is controversial to say “God…manifest in the flesh” isn’t about Christ, for some say robs us of a verse that teaches His divinity. But there are many verses that teach Christ is God (Isa.9:6,etc.), so we’re not taking anything away from His deity to force it on this verse. Remember, the context here isn’t about Christ’s earthly ministry, it is about the local church (v.1-15). When the Lord was here, He was “the pillar and ground of the truth” (v.15). Now that He’s gone, we are.
It’s true, God was manifest in the Lord’s flesh (Jo.1:14). But that word “dwelt” is the word for tabernacle. When Christ was here, He was a tabernacle, a tent made of skin with the glory of God inside. Now that he’s gone, we are a tent of skin (IICor.5:1) with God’s glory inside (IICor.4:8-11). When we live like Paul describes there, we manifest God in our flesh as the Lord did when He lived that way.
The commentaries that think this verse is about Christ think “justified in the Spirit” refers to Matthew 3:16, but the Lord’s baptism wasn’t about justifying God, it was about identifying Christ (John 1:33). God was justified in us, however, in that men thought God was unjust for saving sinners like David, but when Paul broke the news that Christ paid for his sins (and ours) God was justified in us (Rom.3:26). God couldn’t be justified in the law, for the law said it would be wrong to do what He did at Calvary (Pr.17:16). But when God put our sins on Christ and then condemned the just, and put His righteousness on us and then justified the wicked, He was justified in the Spirit.
It’s true that Christ was “seen of angels” when He was born (Lu.2:11-13), tempted (Mt.4:11), struggled in the garden (Lu.22:43), and at His ascension (Acts 1:9,10). But it was no mystery He’d be seen of angels (Ps.91:11). It was, how-ever, a mystery we’d even exist, let alone be seen of angels! Angels watched the Lord, now they watch us. They watched Him be born, and they watched you be born again. They watched and rejoiced when He overcame temptation and His struggles and rejoice when you do too. And they watched as He ascended and they’ll watch as you do.
Since the Greek word for “spectacle” in I Corinthians 4:9 means a show (it’s translated “theater” in Acts 19:29), you’re putting on a spectacular show for angels as you live as Paul did in I Corinthians 4:9-12.
When Paul says “God was…preached to the Gentiles,” that was not true of the Lord when He was here (Rom.15:8). But it was true of Paul (Acts 13:42-44) and every member of the Body of Christ since then. Nor was it true that God was “believed on in the world” in the Lord, for when the world didn’t know the Lord (John 1:10), they didn’t know the Father (John 8:19). But it was true in Paul’s ministry (Col.1:6). Finally, while it is true that God was “received up into glory” in Christ (Mark 16:19), that was not a mystery (Ps.68:18 cf. Eph.4:7,8). But it was a mystery that God will be received up into glory in us (ICor.15:51,52).
“But it uses the past tense to say God was received up into glory, how could that be about us if the Rapture hasn’t happened yet?” Well, remember, Paul wasn’t just an apostle, he was also a prophet, and that’s just how prophets talked! Isaiah used the past tense to describe how Christ would suffer (Isa.53:5-12) because he had seen it in a vision. Since God can see the end from the beginning (Isa.46:9,10), He can describe the end as if it has already happened. That’s how Paul can say that God has already been received up into glory in us, even though it hasn’t happened yet (cf. Eph. 2:6). The Lord knows He will rapture us and His counsel will stand, and He will do all His pleasure in us. If that doesn’t make you want to manifest God in your flesh, I don’t know what will!