This morning (Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017), my pastor David Strain preached from 1 Timothy 3:14-16, a passage that has been a special interest to me for a number of years. It was an excellent message and brought out many things that I have missed before, and offered superb illustrations of several points that helped me grasp the significance of the text better.
One of the phrases in this text that I have long pondered (and have been not a little baffled by, and uncertain of how to explain or express) is “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness” (1Timothy 3:16 NASB). What does Paul mean by “great is the mystery of godliness”? This phrase (“μέγα ἐστὶν τὸ τῆς εὐσεβείας μυστήριον·”) is translated variously by modern commentators and versions. The NIV, for instance, indicates my query by rendering the phrase: “the mystery from which true godliness springs is great.” The NRSV says: “the mystery of our religion is great.” While J.N.D. Kelly translates following more closely the word order of the Greek: “great is the mystery of our religion.”
So what does Paul mean by “godliness” here? Does he mean by “godliness” something like “sanctification,” as in “great is the mystery of how we grow in godliness or how we become godly” – in other words, is he thinking about the process of our growth? Or is he thinking about the subjective result of God’s saving work for and in us to make us godly, as in “great is the mystery that we are or have become godly.” Or does he mean by “godliness” something objective to us like our “religion” or “the faith” (cf. v. 9) or “the truth” (cf. v. 15)?
And then, what does the whole phrase mean? That godliness is a big mystery? Or that godliness is based on a great mystery?
Interestingly not many commentators camp on this question. Maybe the answer seems obvious to them, but I’m a slow learner! I found some help from George Knight and J.N.D Kelly though. Kelly, commenting on 1 Timothy 3:16a, says:
As in 9 above, the mystery stands for God’s redemptive plan which has been kept secret from all ages but has now been revealed. The original of our religion is the Gk. eusebeia, so characteristic of the Pastorals: see note on 2:2. The whole phrase, which for all intents and purposes is equivalent to ‘the mystery of faith’ in 9 and ‘the truth’ in 15, might be paraphrased, ‘The saving revelation which lies behind, and finds expression in, Christian faith and life’. [Kelly, J. N. D. (1963). The pastoral epistles (pp. 88–89). London: Continuum.]
So, that’s how he puts “the mystery of godliness” (“τὸ τῆς εὐσεβείας μυστήριον·”) “The saving revelation which lies behind, and finds expression in, Christian faith and life.” That is extremely helpful to me. The “mystery,” as elsewhere in Paul, is something that was once concealed but now revealed. The “mystery” then is “the saving revelation of God in Christ” – which fits perfectly with what follows this statement: “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.” (1Timothy 3:16b NASB)
Further, Kelly explains, this mystery, this saving revelation of God’s redemptive plan, is the basis of the Christian faith and life. That really helps me.
George Knight (under whom I studied New Testament) also is helpful:
The “great” μυστήριον is qualified by the genitive τῆς εὐσεβείας (see 1 Tim. 2:2). The RSV and NEB have captured the sense well in their rendering “the mystery of our religion” (cf. BAGD: “the duty that man owes to God, piety, godliness, religion”). Thus the concern of v. 15 for both “truth” and “conduct” is restated in this phrase. [Knight, G. W. (1992). The Pastoral Epistles: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 182). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.]
“Godliness” or “religion” then refers to “(1) generally, a particular manner of life characterized by reverence toward God and respect for the beliefs and practices related to him, religion, piety (1 Timothy 3:16); (2) as behavior directed dutifully toward God piety, devotion, godliness (1 Timothy 6:11); plural godly acts, godly living (2 Peter 3:11)” [Frieberg Lexicon].
Paul’s point then is not that godliness is mysterious, but that our godliness, our piety, our devotion, our living of the Christian life is based on a great mystery (meaning something that was once concealed, but now revealed): God’s saving revelation of his redemptive plan in Christ. The whole of the Christian faith and life is dependent on and derived from God’s revelation of and in Christ. As Knight elaborates: “The content of the μυστήριον is set forth in a sixfold statement that describes the pivotal points of Christ’s earthly ministry and the continuing results of that ministry (cf. Rom. 16:25)” [Knight, G. W. (1992). The Pastoral Epistles: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 182). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.]
The verse itself (1 Timothy 3:16) points us in this direction by saying: “By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who . . . .” The mystery is not godliness. Godliness, rather, is based on the mystery. And the mystery is not a what, but a who. Did you catch the word after godliness? It is “who” or “He who.” In a sentence announcing that the great mystery of godliness, you might expect Paul to say: these things that you need to do are the secret of godliness. But that is not what he says. Instead, he says, the underlying mystery, or revealed truth, that enables our godliness is the person and work of Jesus: “He who” (ὃς). The mystery that enables godliness is a person (Jesus), which also involves divinely revealed truth about that person (God’s redemptive plan).
The whole of the Christian life is based on a person and on truth (and, more specifically, truth about that person). Here, as elsewhere in Paul, truth and life, doctrine and ethics, theology and practice, are inseparably connected.
So, back to my original question: what does Paul mean when he says “great is the mystery of godliness”? He means, our whole Christian life of faith (“godliness”) is based upon and flows from divinely revealed personal truth (mystery): God’s redemptive plan accomplished in the person and work of Jesus.