Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness

by Mike Ratliff

14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 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 3:14-16 ESV)

The best place for a Christian to be is at the Cross, before the Saviour, in complete agreement with God that without His saving Grace he or she would be on their way to Hell, and without His sustaining Grace he or she would lose all ability or desire for His godliness. In fact, Christians are in a great deal of trouble when they think otherwise. Yes, we are commanded to obey God and to seek His Holiness, but we are completely unable to obey Him in the Spirit; neither are we able to seek His Holiness unless He first gives us the Grace to do these things. In fact, if we try to do either in our own abilities, we will fail miserably and find ourselves in an impossible situation of trying to attain favor with God by our own efforts in our own ability. This is a form of legalism, which leads only to frustration and disillusionment. 

God’s solution to this is the spiritual maturing of His people, their growing in Godliness, which is given to us in Sacred Scripture as a mystery. If you are like me, you want a 10 step plan that details what we have to do in order to attain the level of Christlikeness which brings God glory and edifies us. When God saved me back in 1986, I remember digging through our church library for that volume that would show me how to know God’s will so I could do it. I wanted the plan. My pastor had pity on me though and let me know that what I was seeking was only available to us as we matured spiritually. Through this, God would manifest more and more of Christ’s character in us over time. I am a fast track person so this really did not sit well with me. I decided to pursue God with my all and find the fastest way there. I was able to stay on this fast track for about five years, but the next 10 or so were disastrous as I burned out leading to depression and a form of religion with no depth.

I do not recommend that for anyone, but God is good. After I reached rock bottom, the end of myself, I was drawn into Spiritual boot camp. At least, that is what I call it. I got back to basics as God drew me to seek Him because I loved Him. Over about 8 months of this, I found that my love for God was white hot and deep beyond my ability to describe. I did not get to this place of joy and peace by following a manmade formula or by doing certain works. No, what God had me do was seek Him and He filled me with an insatiable hunger and thirst for our Lord and His Holiness. I could not get enough of worship, prayer, Bible study, and meditation. I was in this all day every day for about 8 months. He changed my value system. He changed my focus. He changed how I looked at the flesh and sin. He changed how I looked at religiosity. He changed my doctrine,  He humbled me then lifted me up. He gave me a deep desire for His Godliness to become manifest in me.

These things are hard to describe, to bring the focus down to a sharp definition. I am a photographer and a picture that is out of focus is pretty worthless, but when it all comes together with proper focus, lighting, film speed and a great subject then the end product can be breathtaking. That is what I wanted to do with how we attain Godliness, but that is not how it works. It is a mystery. This is so because God is the one who builds godliness in His people, we do not earn it nor do we deserve it. In fact, there is not one thing we can do on our own that will build it in us. No, this is done by God.  The godliness mentioned by Paul in v16 of 2 Timothy 3 (above) refers to the truths of salvation and righteousness in Christ, which produce holiness in believers. What is our part or do we have one? Our part is to believe the great truths about Christianity, through which God places us in right standing with Him and instills in us the motivations to pursue His holiness.

Here is v16 again, ”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.” First, our Lord and Saviour was manifest in the flesh, which refers to His incarnation. Think of it my brethren! The eternal, divine Son of God took on a human nature like ours, except without sin, and became incarnate in Jesus Christ (John 1:1-18). What does it mean that He was vindicated by the Spirit? This is His resurrection. Our Lord was executed by the Romans on the accusation of the Jews that He was a blasphemer and insurrectionist. He was crucified and died a horrible death, but He did not stay in the grave. His resurrection refuted these charges. It also served as the declaration that all His claims to be God’s only begotten Son are true (Romans 1:1-6). When was He seen by angels? This happened at His ascension to sit at the right hand of the Father. Here, He enjoys the worship of the heavenly host (Psalm 110; Revelation 5:6-14). This Gospel is preached throughout the world by the faithful. Our Lord is glorified as His Church spreads the good news throughout the world (Psalm 67:1; 1 Corinthians 15:25).

God builds His godliness into those who believe these truths and live by them in the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not believe and do in our own power; that only leads to potential burnout. However, as we seek His face, His glory, His truth, His way, all in His power in our utter helplessness, God does a miraculous thing. It is no different than our Lord taking a rough fisherman like Peter and making him into a humble preacher who knew he was nothing and Christ was all. God used Peter in miraculous ways, but Peter never took credit for anything. He failed our Lord terribly on the night of our Lord’s arrest by denying Him three times. However, our Lord takes those who have hit rock bottom, turns them around, and uses them in their humility beyond anything they could ever imagine.

The mystery of godliness is that God builds it in those who do not deserve it nor do they earn it. They believe the truth and obey the Gospel and God changes them forever. The more they humble themselves the more God grows and uses them. The more they obey Him the more humble they become. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) are being manifest in them because this is Christ’s very character, which is given to those who belong to Him. Those who manifest this godliness are the ones who know the truth about themselves and this breaks them and drives them to their knees in their helplessness. Yes, this is how we grow in godliness, but we cannot remain on our faces doing nothing but bemoaning our helplessness. Instead, we move forward with our Saviour, bearing our crosses, following Him in self-denial, and doing good works as He leads. This is the mystery of godliness. We do the work God gives us to do, but we can only do it by His grace, which He gives freely to the humble.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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