James Nisbet Commentary - 1 Timothy 3:16 - 3:16

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James Nisbet Commentary - 1 Timothy 3:16 - 3:16

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This Chapter Verse Commentaries:


‘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.’


‘Without controversy’—i.e. by universal consent and beyond dispute—‘great is the mystery of godliness,’ literally, right worship; in other words, true religion. Confessedly, the mystery of Christianity is great! In the necessity of the case there must be ‘mysteries’ in religion.

I. Mystery is a necessity.

II. Mystery is an evidence.

III. Mystery is humiliation.—The more we try to fathom it, the more does it baffle us, and the lower must we come; and he who knows the most is always the man most conscious of his humiliation.

IV. Mystery is discipline, an essential part of our education. By the sense of ignorance and incompetence we are taught many lessons, which train us for a higher condition. We have a subject before us which must occupy us for ever and ever; therefore, we must always be in expectation. We are compelled to be ever looking for a revelation to come, and that revelation waits till we are low enough and prepared to receive it.

V. Mystery is joy!—For this reason ‘Mystery’ involves and necessitates progression, and progression is an essential element of all happiness.


‘Would not religion want one of its evidences without “mystery”? If there were no “mystery”—if I could understand everything in my religion—could that religion be religion at all? Could it be of God? If a worm could understand a man, either the man would not be a man, or the worm would not be a worm. But the interval is greater between God and me than between me and the lowest animal in creation.’



This verse is like a page of a book printed in double columns. The words ‘great is the mystery of godliness’ resemble the title at the head. The six explanatory clauses which follow are six paragraphs so arranged on that page that three occupy the first column and three the second, and at the same time so framed as to be parallel in purport as well as in position: 1 (‘God manifest in the flesh’) and 4 (‘preached unto the Gentiles’); 2 (‘justified in the Spirit’) and 5 (‘believed on in the world’); 3 (‘seen of angels’) and 6 (‘received up into glory,’) mutually corresponding. Viewed in this double order they seem to set before us: I. The object of Christ’s Incarnation; II. Its success below; and III. Its success above.

I. The object contemplated in the Incarnation of Christ, viz. to make God known to His creatures.

(a) So the very first clause, ‘God was manifest in the flesh.’ Whatever view we take, critically, of the reading, this, exegetically, is the meaning. God is referred to here, if not named. And God is described here as being manifested or made visible ‘in the flesh.’ Just as we also read in Joh_12:45; Joh_14:9; Joh_1:18; Joh_1:14. This is how the invisible Godhead was, as it were, made visible to men’s eyes, viz. in the person of Christ, and under the veil of His flesh. Men saw what God was in seeing what Christ was. Something, as a man’s words, if spoken to us in our own language, make known to us His thoughts and nature; so of this Word Incarnate, speaking to us, as it were, in the language of flesh. It made known to men all that men could know of God’s nature and thoughts.

(b) Amongst whom was this done? Here the usefulness of the other mode of division comes into view. With the first clause of the first division we take the first clause of the second. God was so ‘manifest in the flesh’ as to be ‘preached unto the Gentiles.’ The manifestation, therefore, was not only for one race. (See, inter alia, Isa_49:6; St. Luk_2:32; Act_13:47; Joh_1:9.) Nor yet only for one age. God was manifested where Christ was seen: ‘we beheld His glory’ (Joh_1:14). God is also manifested where Christ is ‘preached.’

II. The extent to which this purpose was answered.—Did this intended light effect its object? The two second members of our two triads seem to answer these questions.

(a) This incarnate Saviour, first, was ‘justified in spirit.’ There are two worlds co-existent in fact in this world of ours, as we see it now; the world of spirit, and that of flesh; the world of grace, and that of nature. The ‘true worshippers’ (Joh_4:23) belong to the first of these worlds, and live in it. In their world, therefore (that of spirit), the Saviour may be described as being ‘justified.’ And this ‘justification’ among such is the more remarkable because of the blindness of others.

(b) Here the other clause seems to come in. ‘Believed on in the world’—in this world of flesh and nature—this world of blindness and unbelief. Even in such a world there are those who become enlightened by this light. Passing, as it were, by the operation of God’s Spirit into the world of spirit and faith, God is indeed ‘manifested’ to their apprehensions in the face of Jesus Christ.

III. But we must look above as well as below.—This ‘manifestation’ of God in His Son was observed by other eyes than those of men.

(a) ‘Seen of angels’—rather ‘showed Himself to them—so says the first. The glory of the Godhead, that is to say, was so ‘manifested in the flesh’ by the incarnation of Christ, as to be made instructive even to the angels of heaven.

(b) But the crowning lesson, the extremest interest, would be in His return to heaven when all was accomplished. And this it is, therefore, that our final clause seems so vividly to set before us. ‘Received up into glory.’ In that hour of triumph, in that atmosphere of purity, brighter to them than ever would this ‘manifestation’ be.

Rev. W. Sunderland Lewis.


‘It is at least curious that the “mystery of creation,” in Genesis 1., with its six consecutive “days,” admits of a similar arrangement: the first and fourth days dealing with “light,” the second and fifth both with the “waters,” and the third and sixth both with the “dry land”; in each case, in the way of separation, on the one hand, and of production, on the other.’