I Timothy 3:16 “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
I remember quite clearly when this mighty verse was drawn to my attention for the first time. It was forty years ago this year in the little seaside town of Greystones, south of Dublin, and I was working in summer evangelism with the Children’s Special Service Mission. The students in the team were asked one by one to lead the morning devotions. An Oxford University undergraduate was on the team whose name, I believe, was John. An eccentric, he informed us he had his own second-hand hearse, and had driven it to the Swanwick IVF conference the previous Easter where it had been talked about even by the platform speakers. He gave me one of his visiting cards which had an engraving of a hearse on it. It was all enormously impressive for me, a country-bumpkin student from Wales whose parents never owned a car. How cool and sophisticated it seemed, and a bit exhibitionist. Very ‘Brideshead Revisited.’ I was quite envious at that time.
On the morning when it was John’s turn to take the devotions he began by reading the words of our text, and he said to us quite simply and earnestly how much he loved this verse, how comprehensive it was, and that all of the Christian faith was in these words of the apostle. I cannot remember anything more of what John said, but the verse and the hearse have stuck indelibly in my memory for forty years. The verse is, of course, one of the famous “3:16’s” of the New Testament. That was a happy time in my life, enjoying meeting a wide range of Christians in the ‘holy catholic church,’ and deciding that my future was going to be always amongst them.
An Excursus: Why the Word ‘God’ is Omitted from the Verse in the NIV
This verse is more striking in the King James or Authorised Version translation where it says with a marvellous plainness, “God was manifest in the flesh.” Certainly this is its meaning, and no one disputes that. But that is not what the original says. Even recently someone sent me a sermon on cassette preached by a friend who is a great defender of the King James version of the Scriptures. In the sermon he goes OTT, quoting this verse from the New International Version as a proof that the NIV has been influenced by modernism and has a low view of both Scripture and the person of our Lord Jesus.
This is the beginning of this particular message, and as you are feeling awake I must explain to you first of all very briefly why the word ‘God’ is omitted from the NIV. You are all aware that today we have none of the original manuscripts either of the Old Testament or of the New. The earliest substantial parts of the New Testament we possess date from the fourth century, though there are some fragments going back to early in the second century. We do have, however, thousands of manuscripts which give us abundant testimony to the nature of the original text. There are indeed varieties in these manuscripts, mostly of a very minor nature, arising from the fallibility of the human eye and memory. These affect such matters as spelling, names and grammar. About sixty words of the New Testament are in doubt – one in a thousand. Many of these leave the sense of the passage entirely unaffected, and not one article of faith or one moral precept depends for its entire support upon a disputed reading.
So imagine this papyrus letter which was written by Paul to Timothy arriving in Ephesus and soon it was copied and taken to other churches. Then copies of those copies would have been made. All this was done extremely carefully, and if mistakes were seen to have been made then the manuscript would have been torn up and copied again. Damp, mildew and constant use would have worn out all the original manuscripts of the New Testament. So we have many copies of this letter and of all the other books of the New Testament, and we can compare the manuscripts, and there are excellent principles to help us know what is the likeliest reading where there is any dispute – and there is dispute, you remember, in only a tiny minority of places.
What you have in our particular text is a Greek word which would have been written down something like our letters ‘OC’ meaning ‘he who.’ But there is another very similar Greek word ‘QC’ which is an abbreviation for the word ‘God’ and the only difference is that in the centre of the first letter in that word is a sign like a tiny capital ‘H’. Sometime during the copying of this verse a scribe slipped the little ‘H’ into the word, and thus, when such reverence had been given to Christ as God, later generations of copyists in the Greek church would not omit that little ‘H’. But the Vulgate translators had actually translated this verse into Latin before this change from ‘he’ to ‘God’ became commonly copied, and the Latin church has always known this verse as saying ‘he’ rather than ‘God’. Most men of our century, like Lenski and Hendriksen and Guthrie and Knight and Warfield, teachers of impeccable conservative views, believe that ‘he’ is the original word. They think that a pious scribe with poor eyes was responsible for this alteration. The doctrine of the incarnation does not hang on this verse.
Spurgeon says in his sermon on this text: “There is very little occasion for fighting about this matter, for if the text does not say ‘God was manifest in the flesh,’ who does it say was manifest in the flesh? Either a man, or an angel, or a devil. Does it tell us that a man was manifest in the flesh? Assuredly that cannot be its teaching, for every man is manifest in the flesh, and there is no sense whatever in making such a statement concerning any mere man, and then calling it a mystery. Was it an angel, then? But what angel was ever manifest in the flesh? And if he were, would it be at all a mystery that he should be ‘seen of angels’? Is it a wonder for an angel to see an angel? Can it be that the devil was manifest in the flesh? If so, he has been ‘received up into glory,’ which, let us hope, is not the case. Well, if it was neither a man, nor an angel, nor a devil, who was manifest in the flesh, surely he must have been God; and so, if the word be not there, the sense must be there, or else nonsense” (MTP, Volume 18, 1872, “The Hexapla of Mystery”, p.712).
Let us add one more thing. There are other verses in the NIV New Testament where Christ is unequivocally called ‘God’ where in the translation of the Authorised Version this is not as clear, e.g. 2 Peter 1:1 “the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ” whereas the AV translates it “the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” I hope no one snarls their disapproval at the AV for that translation. Again the NIV translates Romans 9:5 “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” But the AV translates it, “Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever, Amen.” I hope no one criticises the AV for modernist tendencies for that translation. Again the NIV translates Titus 2:13, “the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” But the AV gives the verse some ambivalence, “the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses are happier with the AV at these points, and with the NIV translation of our text. But both the NIV and the AV are serious translations from the Greek, one translated over 400 years ago and the other 40 and yet to earn its spurs or prove it has staying power. Neither translation has any bias against the deity of Jesus Christ.
There are at least half a dozen serious attempts to translate the Bible, the Authorised Version, the British Revised Version or American Standard Version, the New American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New King James Version. There is even a group of conservative men now working on an adaptation of the Revised Standard Version which will be a more literal translation of the Bible than the NIV. The scholars involved in this work have been attempting to translate the original languages of the Bible. Christians should be careful about foolishly dismissing any of those versions or undermining the confidence of the Bible which some Christian is using, and memorising every day. Every version has its strength and its weakness – you think of how often Dr Lloyd-Jones says in his sermons that the AV translation at a certain point is not as helpful as it should be.
What a terribly long diversion, and I apologise, but once a decade something on the text of the Bible needs to be mentioned from this pulpit. Some of you are reading theology at the university and you are meeting the criticism that we cannot know what is the original text of the New Testament. Others of you have been in doorstep arguments with Jehovah’s Witnesses who have pointed out that modern translations agree with the errors of that cult and omit the word ‘God’ from I Timothy 3:16, and we have sought to tell you the reason why.
1. The Introduction (v.16)
“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great.” What has Paul been talking about? The church of the living God, and that every congregation has the high calling of upholding and elevating the truth before the world. How is that church to be structured? By elders and deacons. That is the way it is to be properly organised and administered – that it may function properly. All of us who own computers take care how we tamper with them lest we mar their efficiency. So too beware how you tamper with or are indifferent to the divine organisation of God’s church lest you thereby mar its effectiveness and enervate it as the pillar and ground of the truth. What, then, is the truth? Paul tells us here:-
i] It is a ‘mystery’ to the non-Christian but not to the disciples of Jesus. God has hidden such things from the wise and prudent, but the whole supernatural story of redemption through the incarnate Son of God has been revealed to us babes! That is the only reason we know it. Sovereign Mercy has enlightened us.
ii] It is ‘the mystery of godliness’, that is, the mystery of our Christian religion, or the mystery of what is man’s chief end, or the mystery of this one thing which is every Christian’s priority, working out day by day his relationship with his Saviour. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis cannot be separated. God’s work of grace for us produces a life of grace in us. Accomplished redemption inevitably leads to applied redemption. It is the gift of faith and the object of faith too. The sovereign act of the God who sent his Son creates our acts of godliness. The whole of Christianity focuses upon the person of the revealed Lord Jesus Christ, and that has immense implications for everyone who bows before him. So, that word ‘godliness’ is summing up the whole of true Christianity.
iii] It is ‘beyond all question…great.’ Here is one long Greek word translated ‘beyond all question,’ and it is found nowhere else in the Bible but here. It is a splendid word. It is affirmatory and positive declaring “this is most certainly and confessedly the case.” Yet it also negatively states the truth – “this is undeniably and without question the case.” Whatever way we look at this great revealed mystery of the coming of the incarnate Son of God, however we approach it, this is mega! That is the Greek word translated by our over-used word ‘great.’ It is positively and negatively mega! What is?
iv] It centres upon the Lord Jesus Christ – “He.” All the rest of this verse describes him. He is the subject of every clause. Six times Paul speaks of him. That is why Spurgeon calls one of his two sermons on this text, “The Hexapla of Mystery.” He returns to his Lord again and again. Some commentators are so taken up by this repetition that they tell us that here must be an early Christian hymn. They don’t know much about preaching with the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, when a man will be consumed by Christ and will spontaneously set up contrasts about the God-man, unable to stop speaking about him. I turned to my notes of a lecture given in 1962 at Westminster Seminary by John Murray on the theme of the incarnation. Mr Murray was taken up in describing the glories of the great mystery of godliness and he cried to us these words, as I worshipped while frantically scribbling what he was saying, “the infinite becoming finite: the eternal and supra-temporal entering time and becoming subject to it: the immutable becoming mutable: the invisible becoming visible: the Creator becoming created: the sustainer of all becoming dependent: the Almighty becoming weak. God became man.” that is like a hymn, and could be turned into a hymn, no doubt, but it is simply the fitting response of a Christian theologian to what is beyond all question the great mystery of godliness.
2. The Son of God has been revealed.
“He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit.” These are the first two clauses in which the apostle tells us that the Lord Jesus was ‘made known’ to us. At his incarnation he was being introduced to us. His birth in Bethlehem did not mark his beginning as birth marks the beginning of every other creature. The world had been in ignorance that God was eternally triune, that the Father was God, the Son was God and the Holy Spirit was God, and yet that these three were one God. The world did not know that Christ already existed. “He was rich,” Paul tells the Corinthians, “yet for your sakes he became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9). Let me remind you of that incident during the 1859 revival in our county of Cardiganshire. Dafydd Morgan, the outstanding figure in that awakening, was speaking in the Penllwyn Chapel of the Calvinistic Methodists here in Capel Bangor. He quoted to devastating effect that verse, then, questioning the congregation where there were some deists, said “We know when he was poor, but when was he rich?” It is reported that three unitarians professed conversion on that occasion. Christ was as rich as God because he was already and timelessly God. Before he appeared in a body, before he was born of the virgin Mary he existed in the form of God. His birth was God’s way of making him known to men.
This pre-existence of Christ is exactly what we have in the prologue to John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the word.” Donald MacLeod writes about John’s marvellously careful use of the tenses. In the absolute beginning the Word had being, the Word was already in being. But you contrast it with the words of John 1:14, “the Word became.” It is the aorist tense speaking of a once for all action. The Word became, definitively, flesh. But “in the beginning the Word was in being. At that moment, when everything that ever was came into existence, the Word did not come into existence. At that moment of the beginning the Word already was. He was in being” (Donald MacLeod, “Philippians 2 and Christology,” a pamphlet published by TSF, 1976, p.3).
Christ was in being as God, that is, as the very fulness of God, with all the functions of God like creation, providence and judgment. He had the attributes of God, the titles of God, the prerogatives of God, the rights which the only living and true God can possess. Whatever constitutes God, whatever makes God God, that was all his from the beginning. Without him was not anything made, and what was made was life in him. In Jesus Christ all things are held together. You remember Isaiah’s great vision in the sixth chapter of his prophecy, “I saw the Lord.” It was the glory of the Lord Jesus that he saw, “sitting upon a throne.” He is God’s equal. There are not three thrones in heaven, or three sources of sovereignty. There is just one Lord of Hosts, and he is Father, and he is Son, and he is Holy Spirit. They each have the same eminence and same status. They also have the same compassion and love, and that love can be grieved by the same defiances of sin. God is one. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one.”
Yet the Lord Jesus is a distinct person from God the Father. One can love the other, and send the other, and manifest the other to men. It is not the Father who became incarnate. He did not die upon the cross it was the Son alone. They are equal yet they are distinct persons. They are the same in substance – “I and my Father are one” – yet distinct in their persons. It is one of the great New Testament phenomena that the order of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not sacrosanct. Salutations, doxologies and benedictions have a tremendous variation in order. It is sometimes Father, Son and Holy Spirit as in the baptismal formula at the end of Matthew’s gospel. It is sometimes Jesus, Father and Holy Spirit as it is in the words of the grace at the end of 2 Corinthians. While in I Corinthians 12:4-6 the Spirit comes first and God the Father last, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” So we must school ourselves in seeing Christ as absolutely and unreservedly God. That is where the New Testament always begins, not with the humanity but with the godhead of the redeemer. He was God before he became man. He is the Son of God before he comes, when he comes and after he comes. He is always the Son of God,
But Paul says in our text that “he appeared in a body.” He had appeared to Isaiah high and lifted up on a throne. But when God sent forth from heaven his Son he did not refuse to come into the closest contact with our sad world. Paul tells us he was “made in the likeness of sinful flesh.” It is a daring phrase, in which he is saved from blasphemy by the word ‘likeness.’ He did not shake his head at being made poor. He did not draw the line at having nowhere to lay his head. He did not despise taking up his abode in Mary’s womb – he who had filled the heaven of heavens. Milton said that the Son left the courts of everlasting day, and chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay. Christ did not say that that would be inconsistent with his personal dignity. He didn’t stand upon his rights and say, ‘Father, I must insist that I retain my equality and I am not going to compromise on that.’ He did not say, ‘Father, if I go into the world, if I am to be sent forth, I must insist that it be like it was at Sinai with thunderings and lightnings and angels and a thick cloud, or that it be like it was when I was manifest to Isaiah seated between the cherubim high and lifted up and glory everywhere, or as when I appeared to Joshua before Jericho as a mighty warrior.’ He did not make that request.
Or think of when he will one day come again, and it will be in the glory of the Father, with all the holy angels with him. He will appear in all the splendour of his divine eminence, divine nature and divine status. He will sit upon a great white throne and all the world will confess that Jesus is Lord. All eyes will be cast down to the ground, every tongue will be silent, and each head will be bowed in submission.
But when he appeared for the first time it was not like that. He appeared in the body of a baby. The Ancient of days became an infant of days. He was not a spirit, nor a phantom, nor a shadow. He was not a deity disguised in human form. He was manifest in flesh and blood. It was not a sham nor was it a show. He did not simply look like a man. He began his humiliation where all of us begin, as a fertilised egg smaller than a comma on this page. Our measureless Lord was contracted to that span. He became a genuine man with the same chemical constitution as ours, the same anatomy, the identical physiology, the same central nervous system. He had a body with a peculiar and distinctive genetic inheritance, and the same physical limitations that we have. It was not a body of measureless stamina or of boundless energy. He was bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh. He became weary, thirsty, exhausted, lacerated, because he had taken a true body.
Christ took every constituent and component that makes up a human being. It is our human nature in its low condition that he had taken, ‘addicted to so many wretchednesses’ as Calvin says. Every faculty and attribute that make up manliness were all there. In that body he lived and expressed himself. He could smell the fine perfumed oil that Mary Magdalene poured over his head. He could feel her hot tears wetting his feet. He could taste the freshly cooked fish he prepared for his disciples and ate with them at the Sea of Galilee. In that body he was whipped and wounded and crucified and died and was entombed. In that body he rose from the dead – it was a physical resurrection.
Christ also had the human mind and affections and will and decision-making processes that every man has. He had a true human intellect that was not omniscient but that sought information and grew in wisdom. He had true affection for his mother – she was on his heart as he was dying. She had been a wonderful mother to him, He loved his friends some of them particularly warmly, and for a young wealthy man who very nearly followed him. He loved God above all, passionately and all embracively. Jesus knew the human emotions of joy and of sorrow, of fear and apprehension, disappointment and amazement. There was one moment when he was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death. So that not only is his physique similar to ours, but his psyche too, his excitements and his griefs are utterly human.
Christ served God with a human brain, arms, legs and physical energy. Each day he rose he would present his body as a living sacrifice to God. In that body he put himself where the darkness is, where a woman is shamed publicly and threatened with being stoned to death. He faced her and her executioners. He experienced his mother’s nephew being imprisoned and beheaded. He faced Satan head-on, and overcame him as we do by dependence upon the God of the word and the word of God. He was the oldest son of a poor carpenter living in a village and working hard each day to survive. There could have been few vacations by the Sea of Galilee. He knew stress and deprivation at all kinds of levels. He was exposed to suffering, so that long before confronting Jerusalem’s rejection he had shed many a tear. When they stripped him he felt the shame.
He became flesh for ever. That union of eternal deity with true humanity is indissoluble. He is still today God and man. There are permanently two natures in the one person of the Son of God. The dust of the earth is on the throne of the universe.
A man there is, a real Man, With wounds still gaping wide, From which rich streams of blood once ran, In hands and feet and side.
‘Tis no wild fancy of our brains, No metaphor we speak; The same dear Man in heaven now reigns, That suffered for our sake.
This wondrous Man of whom we tell, Is true Almighty God; He bought our souls from death and hell; The price, His own heart’s blood,
That human heart He still retains, Though throned in highest bliss; And feels each tempted member’s pains For our affliction’s His
Christ’s memory cells do not fade and die. He has not forgotten one incident from his thirty-three years. The wave of excruciating pain that hit his brain when they drove a nail through the palm of his hand is remembered today as vividly as when he was being crucified two thousand years ago. That is the foundation of his compassion towards us. He remembers that we are dust because he was once dust himself. He knows our frame because he too is that same glorified frame today. He has been through all our stresses and pressures, save for the guilt of sin. He will ever be touched by our frustrations and disappointments. He knows and sympathises with our vulnerability, and he is completely accessible to us.
“He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit,” says the apostle. Why did Christ need to be vindicated? There were two aspects to the incarnation: the Lord taking frail flesh, and the Lord accepting the vocation of a servant. Firstly, as a man Christ came into our low condition, and he looked indistinguishable from us sinners. Judas needed to go right up to the group of disciples in Gethsemane and point him out to the chief priests by kissing him. Jesus did not have an ethereal glow about him, nor did he wear a distinctive white robe, nor did he tower over his shorter statured friends. He was found in fashion as a man, and that was his singular appearance – except for the episode of the transfiguration. He does not seem to have been particularly tall because he could go to sleep on a pillow in a boat, while Zacchaeus decided to climb a tree to look over the heads of the people that surrounded the Lord in order to look down upon the shorter Jesus. So how was this little man vindicated – he who made such great claims to be the promised Messiah, the Son of God, to go right back before Abraham, and to be one with God? This man who faced the disdainful opposition of the world’s religious leaders, and met contemptuous demonic resistance – how was he at all credibl e? Paul tells us in our text that it was by God the Holy Spirit. He “was vindicated by the Spirit.”
Or think of his vocation to be the Servant of the Lord: he came under the law. He was under obligation when asked to perform certain duties. There was a work assigned to him and commandments given to him. So he was as answerable as any slave to his master. From Lordship in heaven he plummeted to the position of earthly servitude. “He went down to Nazareth with [his parents] and was obedient to them” (Lk.2:51). He was under the law in both its active and passive demands. Eventually he says to his Father, “I have finished the work that you gave me to do.” There was an assignment given to him which no other creature under heaven or in heaven could perform. How could he survive as a man under such high and heavenly demands? How was he at all credible? Our text says that he was “vindicated by the Spirit.”
So it is as a man in the low condition of men in a fallen world (unlike Adam in paradise), and as a man commissioned to do certain things that he is vindicated by the Spirit. The phrase found in the prophet Isaiah is that God’s servant was ‘upheld.’ “My servant whom I uphold.” “His ministry as mediator in all its dimensions and all its aspects, is also performed by the strength of Almighty God, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who is filled with the Spirit from the moment of his conception. He is the one upon whom the Spirit comes at the moment of baptism – or perhaps ‘comes’ is the wrong word because the dove may be more an attestation of an existing reality than the conferring of a new endowment. The dependent humanity of the incarnate Lord is ministered to constantly by the Spirit and upheld by the Spirit. Even such things as our Lord’s understanding of the Old Testament, our Lord’s understanding of the divine will, our Lord’s receptiveness to divine revelation, are consequences of the ministry of the Holy Spirit; as is also the resoluteness with which in the Passion he is able to embrace actively the cup which God the Father has put into his hand. It would be perilous to minimise in any way the dependence of the Lord, to minimise this great factor of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. As Prophet, as Priest, as King he is functioning as one who is upheld. He himself on the threshold of the Passion uses language of this kind, ‘I am not alone. The Father who has sent me is with me.’ You have the tremendous paradox of the simultaneous forsaking of the Son by the Father and the upholding of the Son by the Father” (Donald MacLeod, “Philippians 2 and Christology,” T.S.F., 1976, p.14).
Consider how the Lord was accused of employing occult and demonic power to do his miracles. He testifies to the vindicating action of the Spirit: “if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt.12:28). The miracles he wrought were acts he did by the Holy Spirit as a demonstration that he was God’s beloved Son. Supremely his resurrection is the Spirit’s great act of vindication. His death on the cross said that this man was a liar and a blasphemer, and that God had rejected and condemned him, though it was the Spirit who loved him who energised him for that great sacrifice: “through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God.” (Hebs. 9:14). And his resurrection came to the very reverse judgment to the world’s condemnation: “who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (Roms.1:4).
3. The Son of God Has Been Witnessed To.
He “was seen by angels, was preached among the nations” (v.16). To what places has the vindication of Christ reached? Paul answers, to the heavens, and also to the remotest corners of the earth. Before he was even conceived, one day all the angels gathered before God to get their instructions for the day and Gabriel was told to go to Mary and tell her that she had found favour with God and was soon to be with child and would give birth to a son whom she was to call Jesus who would be great and called the Son of the Most High. Soon after another angel was despatched to the home of a young carpenter named Joseph to tell him not to be afraid to take to his home Mary his espoused one, even though she was pregnant, because what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. So that before even Joseph knew this fact the angels in heaven knew. The two angels immediately went with the news to Mary and to Joseph.
Then when Jesus was born in Bethlehem God sent an angel to announce to farm-workers that that day in the town of Bethlehem a Saviour had been born who was Christ the Lord. Then God opened wide the gates of heaven and allowed a great company of angels to join their spokemen. They all came down and stood on the fields around Bethlehem, as numerous as the blades of grass, carpeting the area with an angelic host, standing amidst the sheep, on the walls and lanes, and under the trees, praising God with one voice, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests” (Lk.2:14).
Then you remember throughout Jesus’ life there are angels seeing him at the great crisis times in his life. After his temptations by the devil in the wilderness angels come and attend him. “Can we help you? Is there anything you need? Do you want food, drink, a pillow for your head?” Did they strengthen him by covering their eyes and covering their feet and crying, “Holy, holy, holy!”? Did they assure him that he was the victorious Son of God triumphant over Satan?
When he had prayed in Gethsemane in great agony, and his sweat was as drops of blood, and angel again was sent by God to that holy scene to comfort him. Did that angel say, “You Father sent me to tell you that you are his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased”?
Then think of the legion of angels waiting, hands upon their swords, in mute unbelief, as they saw men take their Lord and nail him to a cross and lift him up to die. Just one signal, a nod of the head, a request from their master and they would come at enormous speed and deliver and wreak divine vengeance on those who would torture their God and King so despicably. But they waited in baffled grief in vain.
When he came from the dead there were again angels to greet him risen from the tomb, to supply all he needed now that was fight was o’er and the battle won. One rolled the stone away. Others simply sat at the head and foot of the place where his body had lain. They were the first preachers of the resurrection to the women who came to embalm his body.
Angels saw him throughout his life. Little wonder that they sing so joyfully and with such fresh delight, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” They were there when the great events of cosmic redemption took place. They know just what it cost him and all he achieved. these are the angels who are spirits who minister to us day by day. Their head who gives them orders is our Shepherd and King of love.
One question, have you seen Jesus? He was seen by angels. Have your eyes seen him – your spiritual inner eyes, we mean those eyes that see a certain person so that you fall in love with him? Have you seen Jesus Christ to love him? If not, the Lord help you this day to look to him and be saved. It is nothing that he was seen of angels, unless he be seen by me also.
But Paul adds this, that the Lord Jesus “was preached among the nations.”
This was one of the marks of the new covenant, that the word of God would be taken and declared outside the community of Israel, and that in Africa and in the islands of the distant seas, men would hear the word of Jehovah God. Under the old covenant the god of this world kept the nations in darkness. They were gentile dogs who had to be satisfied with a few crumbs that fell from the master’s table. But after our Lord ascended he was preached from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth. We are taken along in Paul’s first and second and third missionary journeys. The Word of God is sent to Rome and Corinth and Philippi and Galatia and Ephesus. Those places have the means of grace in preaching. Paul becomes a minister to the uncircumcision, and what a wonderful work he does among the Gentiles. He is what he urges us to be, steadfast, unmoveable and abounding in the work of the Lord. Christ is preached among the nations. Spurgeon says,
“Preached, mark you. For he is to be set forth in that manner. the church is ever to maintain this great, uncontroverted mystery, that the setting forth of Christ to the Gentiles is to be by preaching, and not by any other means of man’s devising. Suppose I could take my pencil now, and draw the Saviour with such matchless skill, that a Raffaelle or a Titian could not rival me: God has never ordained that so Christ should be set forth to the Gentiles. Or, suppose I should perform the ceremony of the mass with al the exactness, and with all the gorgeousness which the church of Rom would require; such a setting forth of Christ among the Gentiles would not be according to the divine mystery. Christ is to be preached among the Gentiles; the appointed way of manifesting the incarnate God to the sons of men is by preaching – the church must always maintain this” (MTP, Vol. 18, p172).
So you read the Acts’ narrative and see how speedily the message of those men spreads from the twelve in the Upper Room to the 500 on the Mount of Ascension to the 3000 on the Day of Pentecost. Then they quickly conquered Samaria and penetrated Asia Minor and took the message across to Europe, to Greece and to Rome. There in the capital they planted the cross of Christ, and their eyes were always further afield. No place was untrodden by the Christian missionary. No nation unaffected by the gospel declared with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. This is a great mystery which the Lord repeats again and again. O that such preaching might go on in this new millennium through the whole world, for the voice of truth in the preaching of Jesus is the great power of God.
But have you heard it? There is power in the preaching and God saves through this means, as many of you can testify, but there is a warning too – “Take heed how you hear.” If God waits to bless by hearing then woe to that man who hears disrespectfully and irreverently. Woe to the hearers who are not doers also. God grant that we who preach may give a good account at the last that our ministries may not have been in vain.
4. The Son of God has Been Accepted.
He “was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory,” Paul concludes. Spurgeon calls this the most glorious of the six points. What a fascinating remark! In other words, God might become incarnate and die and rise, but if the world would snarl, “Poppycock!” then what will it avail? But the message they preached everywhere about these astounding events was actually believed. It was a world plunged into darkness and superstition. It had no history of 2000 years of the expansion of Christianity behind it. There were temples and altars at every corner of the Gentile world. How unprepared the first preachers must have been for the reception they were given. Peter is a young fisherman, and how diffident and uninitiated he was in the arts of rhetoric. He gets up on the day of Pentecost and declares the Word and discovered that thousands of men were convicted at what he said, and cried mightily to God to have mercy on them. Could Peter have slept a wink the night that followed that service? For nights in a restlessness that only the joy of the Holy Spirit can bring he thought to himself, “Three thousand were prepared to believe my testimony to Christ!”
How amazed Paul was when he saw Asia Minor fall before Christ and then to go into Europe and meet there great numbers willing to suffer the loss of al thing for the excellency of believing upon the Saviour. What a happy man he was. This was the great mystery that Christ was believed on in the world, that is to say, trusted as Saviour. Men will leave their other trusts, and trust in him. They will give up their self-righteousness. They leave their vaunted sacraments. They forsake all ways of self-salvation and they come to Christ as he is freely offered to them in the gospel and they trust in him. That is a mystery. For a sinner to say, “From now on all my hope of peace with God lies in the one name of Jesus Christ.” Only a miracle of grace can explain that.
You say you do not think that is a mystery. Have you believed on him? If you have then you too will say, “That was the finger of God. He changed me, and saved me. I did not work up faith myself. He drew me and I came to him”. Someone may say that they will believe if we can persuade them. Very likely, but no preacher can create true faith. No father can place his hands on a darling child’s head and infuse faith. No parent can argue or pressure a son or daughter into believing. It takes a mightier work than a preacher’s or a parent’s. It takes the divine power of grace. Faith is a blessed gift of God, not of works lest any should boast.
Have you this faith? Do you believe in Jesus? Everything else in the text leads to this. If he be manifest in the flesh, what is that unless I believe on him? If he be justified by the Spirit, what is that unless my faith in him justifies me in the sight of God? What if he be seen of angels, how does that help me unless I see him too? And even if he is preached week after week here and in other congregations in this town, and I hear it and know it, does not that mean greater guilt for me if, after hearing, I have not believed on him? O that my preaching became effectual by the blessing of God to your salvation. O that God would use it to persuade you irresistibly to believe on his Son Jesus Christ! Most of you, I am convinced, are true believers, but how many of you still hear, and hear, and hear, and that is all. You are yet in the world and not in Christ. But these words tell me that it was in the world that Christ was trusted. “Believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.”
Christ “was taken up in glory.” Those are the last words of the great saying. When that extraordinary life was over it was to glory he returned. From glory he came, and to that same glory he returned but now as the God-man for ever. In his human nature he is extravagantly exalted, seated in the midst of the throne of God. He goes directly to glory because all that needed to be said to us sinners has been said. All that needed to be done for us sinners has been done. All his toil was over, and now was the reward, the welcome and the seat at God’s right hand. He takes possession of all that he has purchased. “Ask of me and I shall give Thee the heathen for thine inheritance and the uttermost parts of the world for thine inheritance.” And this exalted Lord has asked on the basis of his accomplished mission for all those whom he was given by the Father before the foundation of the world. They are as many as the sands on the seashores and he has asked for them – every single one. The Father, loving his Son now more than ever, has granted him all he asks, that they all shall be with Father, Son and Holy Spirit in heaven and see their glory.
He is taken up in glory. They will niggardly give him a corner in ‘Faith Zone’ in the Millennium Dome and place all other ‘faiths’ and their founders alongside him. But what of that slight? They cannot hurt him for he is taken up in glory. They would slay his people and throw them into slavery in the southern Sudan and East Timor, but he is taken up in glory. They revile his gospel and say, “We can’t go back to that again.” But they cannot dim the lustre of his crown. He is taken up in glory. The rockets of the United Nations can’t dislodge him from that throne. He sits in heaven and does whatsoever he pleases. What matters is his triumph. He is everlastingly exalted, and every hour is bringing nearer the time when he shall lay bare his sword in the midst of his foes, and unveil his face in the midst of his friends. Let us rejoice in him today and bear our six-fold testimony to him.
Spurgeon ends by saying, “When I am preaching the gospel, many will say, ‘Oh, he is only telling us commonplace truth.’ Just so, I know that; and yet I feel within myself as I were wheeling up God’s great cannon, which will blow the gates of hell to pieces yet. ‘What! none of the venerable mysteries of Rome? What, none of the new philosophical discoveries? None of the imposing ceremonies? No, brethren, not one of them, they are all wooden guns, shames and counterfeits, and if they ever are fired off they will go to shivers. This plain truth, that ‘God was made flesh and dwelt among us,’ is God’s great battering-ram against which nothing can stand. never lose heart in the gospel, my brethren, but think you hear the apostle calling across the ages, ‘Great is the mystery of godliness.’ Look for nothing greater, the gospel is great enough. keep to it, never think you have told men times enough about it. As Napoleon told his warriors at the pyramids, ‘A thousand ages look down upon you!’ bleeding martyrs who from their graves, call to you to be faithful; confessors who ascended to haven in fiery chariots, implore you to be steadfast. Hold fast that ye have received! Attempt not to mend the truth, venture not to shape it according to the fancy of the times, but proclaim it in all its native purity. By this hammer the gods of Rome and Greece were dashed to shivers, by this lever the world was turned upside down; it is this gospel which has brought glory to God, filled heaven with redeemed souls, and made hell to tremble in all its palaces of flame. bind it about your heart, and defy the hosts of Rome or hell to unloose its folds. Wrap it about your loins in death, and hold it as a standard in both your hands in life. This simple truth, that ‘Jesus Christ has come to seek and to save that which is lost,’ and that ‘whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life,’ must be your jewel, your treasure, your life” (MTP, Volume 13, 1867, “The Great Mystery of Godliness” p.708).
12 December 1999 Geoff Thomas