What is “the mystery of godlienss” (1 Tim. 3:16)?
The passage you are quoting from is commonly considered to be a brief Christian hymn about Christ: His incarnation, ascension, proclamation of Him, and the reaction to Him on earth and in heaven. It is within this emphasis on the nearness of God in Christ that the phrase you mention should be understood. We will comment on the main statements found in the text.
1. Godliness and Mystery. In the New Testament the word “mystery” designates something hidden that has been revealed to believers. We now understand it, although not necessarily in its fullness (Col. 1:25, 26). The word “godliness” designates the Christian life lived in a response of gratitude to what Christ has done. Therefore, the phrase “mystery of godliness” does not mean “the mystery that is, or consists, of godliness,” but the mystery that makes godliness possible, that provides the very foundation to a Christian life. This mystery, the hymn will clarify, is Christ.
2. Life of Jesus. The hymn itself begins with the masculine, singular pronoun “He,” referring to Jesus and His work of salvation; the mystery is Jesus (Col. 2:2). This glorious mystery, hidden in God, “appeared in a body” (literally, “in flesh”). The mystery is the amazing work of God in becoming human in order to bring us closer to Him. The mystery also includes the resurrection of Christ. Implicit in the hymn is the cruelty of the death of the Son that appeared to deny what Jesus claimed to be. But the Resurrection, realized through the power of the Spirit (see Rom. 1:3, 4), vindicated Christ and His claim to be the Redeemer of the world. After the Resurrection came Christ’s ascension to the very presence of the angels. They saw the victorious Prince return to the Father (see Rev. 5:12).
3. Proclamation and Response. There is a double response to the Incarnation, one on earth and the other in heaven. On earth the saving power of Christ is proclaimed to the nations. The unveiled mystery is now made known to all people in the fulfillment of the mission of the church to which the mystery had been entrusted. The mystery revealed by God belongs to the human race and must reach all, because all are lonely and in need of acceptance by others, and above all by God. All are sinners in search of forgiveness. The hymn emphasizes the positive response to Jesus: He was “believed on in the world.” This is the response to the Incarnation on earth, but the response to the Incarnation in heaven took place at the ascension of Christ. Because Christ became human, died, and was resurrected, the heavenly response was to welcome Him there in the fullness of His glory, the glory He had before the creation of the world (John 17:1).
The hymn is introduced by the statement “Beyond all question [what is being ascertained is unquestionable], the mystery of godliness is great.” Theology is placed at the service of the Christian life. The hymn appeals to us to respond to what God has done for us with gratitude, and to align our lives to the Redeemer as our closest friend in whom we find repose. He is the spring from which godliness is possible.