The Mystery of the Incarnate God
1 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…

The Christian system is a great and holy mystery, presenting an important function for the maintenance of Divine truth. Mystery may only be a secret, and comprise nothing difficult in itself. When broken the secret may be the plainest thing. The calling of the Gentiles was such a concealment. But there are many who deride this view, who speak of mystery as incompatible with the purport of a revelation. Now this objection surely goes too far and urges too much. For it would then be inconsistent for any religion to pretend a Divine authority. Religion must, in addressing us, though its information be most scant, tell us of Deity, insisting on spiritual relations and eternal issues. The poorest pretext of any religion must be a theism. "Who can by searching find out God?" So vainly empty is the adage, Where mystery begins, religion ends l Nor less light is the remark, that ere a proposition be believed all its terms must be appreciated. There is something in every term of knowledge which defies this rigid perception. Others diversify the objection by taking for granted that revelation can only be an appeal to our reason, and that it will therefore contain no mystery; nothing but what is intelligible to reason. We cheerfully subscribe that reason must judge its evidence, that reason must ascertain its scope. The mystery is no object of our faith apart from the testimony which avouches it, and from the fact in which it consists. The proper notion for us to form of a revelation is that its essentials shall entirely exceed our powers of discovery. The light of reason has become so common a phrase that it may seem hazardous to call its correctness in question. But it is unmeaning. Reason can boast no light. It is only a capacity to judge upon any subject presented to it. It finds a general analogy of its function in the bodily eye. That does not impart the elemental light, but receives it, together with the impression of those images which it unveils. It is nothing more than an organ to be exercised upon things without. Reason is no more the source of knowledge than corporeal vision is that of day. A moral sun and a spiritual world are as much needed by the one as the physical sun and material world are for the other.

1. The ancient mysteries were only affectations of the wonderfulness ascribed to them. They surrounded themselves with a purposed reserve. They included nothing which might not readily be apprehended. If there was difficulty, they contrived it. If the course of revelation was slow, they made it slow. If the curtain was laboriously raised, they had hung it heavily that so it might be raised. All was intended to excite curiosity, to produce impression, to strike the aspirant with artistic effects. It was the scenery of a theatre. Unlike this wilful perplexity, this ample drapery to cover nothing, the mystery of godliness was really transcendent. It muffled itself in no fold, it was abhorrent from all disguise. It spoke in no swelling words of vanity. It encircled itself with no seeming of doubt and amazement. The cloud which was upon it was of its own glory.

2. The effect which initiation in the ancient mysteries wrought upon the mind of the candidate was generally that of disappointment and aversion. The man of intelligence, though he came to them a believer, could not go forth from them with any assurance. Indignation at the banded impostors was his first feeling. Contempt of the mummeries, however splendid, practised upon him would quickly follow. They had spoken "lies in hypocrisy." Their "deceit was falsehood." If any particle of the truth was in their possession, they had "held it in unrighteousness." But they who have "knowledge in the mystery of Christ" rise in every sentiment of gratitude and satisfaction with every step of that knowledge. Nothing has failed of their expectation. Nothing has sunk in their esteem. It is marvellous in our eyes!

3. Much delay attended the probation of those who sought enrolment among the enlightened in the ancient mysteries. Their trials were protracted. Before the profession was attained there was every harassing and tedious ceremonial. Lustration followed lustration, each power of endurance was tasked to the utmost, subterranean chambers reverberated to each other, there was a prison-house and escape from its horrors was not sure, panic congealed the stoutest frame, all extremes of sensation were combined, and the whole service was fenced round with every caution against eager impatience or inquisitive haste. But the mystery of godliness knows no such suspicious restrictions. "Learn of Me" is the language of its Founder. A docile temper is the exclusive condition. We haste and delay not.

4. The most awful vows of secrecy were exacted of those who received the supposed purgation of these mysteries. A universal execration fell orb the betrayer. "We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard." "We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak." "To make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery." They "used great plainness of speech."

5. The whole arrangement of this singular discipline was invidious. It looked unfavourably on the great mass of our race. Selfish in its aims, destitute of any noble philanthropy, it intended the perpetual thraldom of the multitude in ignorance and degradation. It was the most cruel and potent auxiliary of priestly device and political despotism. In contradistinction to this haughty insolence, this vile contempt, with which the Mystagogues spurned and branded the species, Christianity surveys our nature in its broadest features, its truest intimacies, its grandest generalities. If it be marked by a partiality, it is toward the poor. It says: "How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!" It says: "Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted!" Among its brightest; evidences, crowning all its miracles, is this attestation: "To the poor is the gospel preached." Its mercies are unto all. We may suppose that the inspired writer of the text, in styling the mystery of God indubitably great, bore in mind the common separation of the less and the greater ceremonies through which the respective postulants were called to pass. These were deemed alone worthy of the epithet, and alone capable of justifying it. Now the greater mysteries of the Pagan world pretended to solve religious difficulty. They promised that a great portion of the popular credulity might be simplified. They construed facts into allegories. They stripped the fable of its accessories, and exposed the moral which was couched in it. But the mystery of godliness was a grand interpretation. It was a key to cyphers. It was the substance of shadows. It was the fulfilment of visions. It gave light and meaning to "the dark sayings of old." Those greater mysteries boasted of a predominant doctrine. We do not with certainty know what that was. Whether the unity of the Divine nature or the immortality of the soul has been questioned, we think that we may conclude, with perfect confidence, that it was neither the one nor the other. Now, the mystery of godliness has its cardinal truth. It is the Incarnate Word. All connected with this manifestation is like itself. It is sin-offering and propitiatory sacrifice. We receive the atonement. A form of doctrine is declared to us. It is the glorious gospel of Christ. Those greater mysteries commanded a powerful influence. The chambers of imagery would not be soon forgotten, even if its import was explained. Terror sometimes prevailed, or it yielded to joy and repose. Some felt an immitigable dread, others a calm relief. The mystery of godliness is power. Christ dwells in the heart by faith. All the springs of our being are moved. His love constraineth us. Those greater mysteries claimed to impart an inward life. The spirit was supposed to emerge from a mystic death, to acquire new powers, and to occupy new relations. The regimen of its novitiate was called its birth. The man who had passed through these exercises was publicly hailed as endued with an existence higher than intellectual. He was of a privileged class. This new birth is to holiness. It is regeneration, a making of us again. It is renewing, a making of us afresh. With a marked description is this mystery announced; it is the mystery of godliness. This mystery is characterised by its attributes of purity and pious excellence. They belong to it. It has a tendency to inspire them. They are its ever-present glories and its invariable emanations. But here rebuke is dealt. Those arcana to which the mystery of holiness is opposed, were the scandal of the ages through which they survived. They were "works of darkness." But the proposition of the text is not exhausted. It asserts a particular use which the mystery of godliness subserves in relation to the truth. How is the mystery of the Incarnation the pillar and ground of the gospel? Its importance to the whole scheme of redeeming mercy is thus declared, and that importance is easily vindicated.

(R. W. Hamilton, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: 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.

WEB: Without controversy, the mystery of godliness is great: God was revealed in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, and received up in glory.

The Mystery of Godliness
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