December 5, 1999
THE STUNNING SECRET
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. 1 Timothy 3:16
Some secrets are too good to keep to yourself. Early this year my wife, Wendy, had a baby girl, Sarah Faith. When we first found out about the pregnancy, Wendy and I were thrilled. We decided to tell our three older girls (ages 11, 9, and 4) that we were going to have a baby. They screamed with glee and jumped up and down with excitement. Wendy and I suggested that the girls keep the news to themselves and not tell anyone else for awhile. Fat chance of that! By the next day, they had already told their friends, and the news spread from there. The girls explained sheepishly, “We tried not to tell, but we couldn’t help it!”
Some secrets are too good to keep to yourself. That’s true in a family with a new baby on the way, and it’s especially true of the most amazing baby of all, the baby Jesus. The night Jesus was born, God decided to let some shepherds in on the secret. An angel appeared and told the shepherds,
“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David [Bethlehem] a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)
So [the shepherds] hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. (Luke 2:16-18)
The news about Jesus was just too good for the shepherds to keep to themselves. God had let them in on the best secret in the world, and the shepherds had to tell others.
Two thousand years later, discovering Jesus is as exciting as ever, and those of us who are in on God’s secret still can’t keep quiet. We have to spread the word and let others in on the secret as well. Some secrets are too good to keep to yourself!
The Great Mystery
The New Testament part of the Bible often speaks of Jesus as the mystery of God. Calling Jesus God’s mystery doesn’t mean Jesus is unclear or elusive or impossible to know with certainty or clarity. Mystery doesn’t mean mysticism or mistiness. When the Bible uses the word mystery, it simply means a secret you wouldn’t know unless it’s been told or shown to you, a lock you wouldn’t be able to open unless you’re given the key.
Jesus is God’s mystery, God’s secret. God is hidden from us, but in Jesus God shows in human form the secret of exactly what the invisible God is like. The purpose of our lives and the meaning of this world are hidden from us, but in Jesus God shows the secret of what life is all about and why the world exists. The way to be forgiven of sin and transformed into new people is hidden from us, but in Christ God provides forgiveness and transformation. The way to be saved from death and enjoy eternal life is hidden from us, but in Jesus God provides salvation and a new creation. Jesus is God’s secret in the sense that the God we didn’t know, the meaning we couldn’t grasp, the forgiveness we couldn’t earn, and the immortality we couldn’t achieve, are revealed in Christ.
When the Bible calls Christ the mystery of God, it doesn’t means he’s misty, vague, and shapeless. Jesus was and is a person with a clear shape and personality; he’s not just a foggy feeling of spirituality. Christ is like a key. If a key is called a mystery, it’s not because a key is vague or shapeless, but simply because you won’t have a key unless it’s given to you, and you won’t know what it unlocks unless you’re told. As G.K. Chesterton once put it, the early Christian church “definitely asserted that there was a key and that it possessed that key and that there was no other key like it…. A key is above all things a thing with a shape… a rather fantastic shape… A key is not a matter of argument. It either fits the lock or it does not.” Whatever may have seemed puzzling or complex about Christianity, there was “one thing about it that was simple. It opened the door.” Christ has opened the door and let us in on divine wonders that would otherwise remain hidden.
[That’s why the shepherds who saw the baby in the manger were so excited and eager to tell others, and that’s why, for the past two thousand years, Christians have had a thrilling sense that, in Christ, God has let us in on his very best secret. Before I say more, let’s listen to a Christmas song in celebration of Christ the Lord.
Before Jesus came, the most anybody saw of God was just a peek through a keyhole. God gave the Old Testament prophets of Israel glimpses of the coming Messiah and the wonders of eternal life, but Israel had little understanding of what amazing things God was going to do, and people outside Israel had almost no idea at all. Jesus came as a splendid shock, a glorious surprise. No longer was religion a matter of peeking through the keyhole; through Christ the door to God’s riches was unlocked and opened wide. The early Christians couldn’t stop marveling at the stunning secret which God had let them in on. The apostle Paul, writing a few decades after Jesus’ coming, spoke of Christ and his gospel as “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints (Colossians 1:26).
The very way we mark the years–the reason we speak of the year 2000–is based on the time of Christ’s coming. All of history is divided into “before Christ” and “after Christ,” because in Christ the secret which God kept hidden for ages has come out into the open.
The secret to a relationship with God and a life pleasing to God–what the Bible calls “the mystery of godliness”–isn’t found first of all in us but in Christ. And what a stunning secret he is! “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great,” declares the Bible in 1 Timothy 3:16. “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.” Let’s take a closer look at each of these phrases.
Appeared in a Body
The first thing to notice about the mystery of godliness is that Christ “appeared in a body.” That’s the stunning secret of Christmas: the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, entered this world as a human baby born of a human mother. That’s what the angel meant 2,000 years ago when he told the shepherds, “A Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord.” The Lord of heaven and earth somehow became an infant in a manger. As a boy and later as a man, Jesus faced the same temptations and troubles as any other human, but unlike the rest of us, Jesus also had a divine nature and never gave in to temptation or sinned. By appearing in a body, Jesus showed us what God is like in a form we could see and understand. By appearing in a body, God joined himself with humanity so that humanity could be joined to God.
[The apostle John was Jesus’ closest friend during his time on earth, but he came to see that Jesus was much more than a wonderful man. He was God in human flesh, living among us. Speaking of Jesus as the eternal Son of God and the divine Word, John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). When people saw Jesus, they saw God (John 14:9). This stunning secret fills Christians with joy and awe.]
Some folks, though, don’t want to identify God with a particular person who appeared in a body. They’d rather have a god that is an impersonal, indefinite power. In a recent issue of Psychology Today, David Elkins writes about the importance of spirituality for mental health. But when Dr. Elkins talks about spirituality, he means any feeling or force that stirs people. “I encourage clients and students to first figure out what moves them deeply,” writes Dr. Elkins, “whether it’s Beethoven, Garth Brooks or the Grateful Dead, a hike in the mountains, or a day in an art gallery. Then, I help them design a regular, structured program to incorporate these activities into their life.”
This approach to spirituality ignores the fact that God appeared in a body. Elkins likes to quote scientist Carl Sagan’s sense of awe that “the wind whips through the canyons, and there is no one to hear it but us” or Star Wars producer George Lucas saying, “All the religions are true.” The real secret of spirituality, according to Dr. Elkins, is “the power of our ‘life force’: our body’s natural inclination to survive.”
But is that what real spirituality is all about? Your body’s natural inclination to survive is not at all the same as the fact that God appeared in a body. Having deep feelings about music or nature is not at all the same as worshiping the true and living God. Thinking all religious are somehow true is not at all the same as knowing that Christ is God with us. Believing in a nameless, impersonal force is not at all the same as trusting in a person named Jesus.
“He appeared in a body.” That means we must forget about reaching God in human feelings and instead focus on how God has reached us in human flesh. Look for God not in a feeling or a force but in a particular person named Jesus. In the words of Jesus’ friend John, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touches–this we proclaim” (1 John 1:1). The baby Mary held in her arms, the person John listened to and ate with–this flesh-and-blood man is the secret to knowing God as he really is. “He appeared in a body”–that’s the first thing to know about the mystery of godliness, the secret of true spirituality.
Vindicated by the Spirit
The second statement about Christ in 1 Timothy 3:16 is that he “was vindicated by the Spirit.” Jesus lived in great poverty and died in great pain. He didn’t have money or political clout. But although he didn’t have the things we usually associate with greatness, Jesus had the Holy Spirit without limit (John 3:34). Jesus was shown to be the Son of God by what the Spirit of God did in him. Jesus was miraculously born of a virgin after the power of the Holy Spirit made the virgin Mary pregnant. At Jesus baptism, John the Baptizer saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16). When Jesus announced his ministry of preaching and healing, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). The Spirit empowered Jesus to speak as no one ever spoke before and to do greater miracles than anyone who ever lived. When Jesus cast out demons, it was by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:28). In all Jesus’ years on earth, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, was showing the humble Jesus to be the Son of God.
But when the Bible says Jesus “was vindicated by the Spirit,” it refers especially to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus “was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 55:3). People tried to dismiss and destroy him. His enemies hated him, tortured him, and nailed him to a cross until he died. But, says the Bible, “Jesus our Lord was shown to be the Son of God when God powerfully raised him from the dead by means of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 1:4, NLT). Jesus’ enemies viewed his death as the ultimate disgrace, but the Holy Spirit gave Jesus the ultimate triumph by raising him to life again.
In the stunning secret of God, Jesus’ death was God’s way of paying the penalty for all the sins of his people, and Jesus’ resurrection was the key which opened the door to eternal life for all who trust him. In raising Jesus to life, the Holy Spirit proved Jesus to be the Son of God and the source of forgiveness and immortality. Christ “was vindicated by the Spirit.”
Seen by Angels
A third great statement about Jesus in 1 Timothy 3:16 is that he “was seen by angels.” That’s another marvel about Christ: the things he did for humanity were done not only for our benefit but to display God’s character and wisdom to the angels in ways that even angels had never before seen (Ephesians 3:10).
The Son of God in his divine nature was adored by angels for ages before he ever took on a human nature. When he was born into this world as a human, Jesus “was seen by angels,” and they marveled at God’s great miracle of love in sending his Son to save sinners. According to the Bible, “When God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him'” (Hebrews 1:6). At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he “was seen by angels” as he defeated the temptations of Satan and refused every shortcut to glory. The night before Jesus died, he “was seen by angels” as he faced the horror of what he was about to suffer and chose to do it anyway in order to obey his Father and save his people. Jesus “was seen by angels” when he was arrested and crucified, and though he could have called the angels to rescue him and slaughter his enemies, he instead died to pay the penalty that sinners deserve. The angels saw all this and marveled at the love of God in doing such things for people who don’t deserve it, and the angels also marveled at God’s wisdom in coming up with a plan to save sinners who seemed certain to go to hell. Jesus “was seen by angels” also on the day he rose from the dead. The angels even had the privilege of being the first to announce Jesus’ resurrection to his followers. Jesus was “seen by angels,” too, on the day he returned to his rightful throne in heaven. On earth some angels explained to Jesus’ friends where he had gone in his ascension, and in heaven multitudes of angels adored the exalted Christ.
The stunning secret of Christ is so wonderful, says the Bible, that “even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12). They’ve seen wonderful secrets of God come to light in Christ, and they’re eager to see even more of Christ and see even more deeply into what he is doing among his people.
These days there’s a renewed interest in angels. That can be a good thing, but it’s a mistake to focus on angels more than on Jesus Christ. The TV show Touched by an Angel, for example, says a lot about angels, but it never mentions the name of Jesus, the King above all angels. The show talks a lot about a God who remains vague and unknown, but it never mentions that God became human and appeared in a body. The TV angels talk about God’s love but never mention that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The stunning secret of godliness is not angels but the Christ angels adore. It’s a mistake to get too excited about angels if we’re not excited about what angels are excited about. Jesus is the one angels are excited about, and we should be excited about him too.
Preached Among the Nations
1 Timothy 3:16 emphasizes Jesus’ impact on angels, and then it describes his impact in the human world: he “was preached among the nations.” Already the night Jesus was born, the shepherds who saw the baby spread the word about him in the region of Bethlehem, and that was just the beginning. The word about Jesus has been spreading ever since. Jesus lived and preached and worked in a rather small region, but after he rose from the dead, he told his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Jesus said that, in the Holy Spirit’s power, the news about him would spread “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Sure enough, on every continent, in every country, Christ Jesus is “preached among the nations.”
Isn’t that astonishing? A man who lived on earth only 33 years, never traveled any great distance, never had much money, never held an important position, was executed as a criminal and buried in a borrowed grave, has been preached among the nations for 2,000 years and is still being preached today.
Believed on in the World
And Jesus isn’t just preached. He’s believed! In the words of 1 Timothy 3:16, he “was believed on in the world.” Centuries before Jesus, a prophetic psalm said of God’s coming King: “May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17). The identity of that king remained God’s secret until the coming of Jesus. But now that the secret is out, the name of Jesus does indeed continue, and people from all nations are blessed through Jesus and bless the name of Jesus.
Even those who don’t believe the full truth about Jesus and refuse his blessings have to admit that the most important person who ever lived, the one who has affected this world and its people like no one else, is Jesus Christ. Nobody else in any age comes close to matching the worldwide impact of Jesus.
When you really think about it, it’s amazing that anybody believes in Jesus, let alone that countless people all over the world believe in him. The things people believe about Jesus would be ridiculous if it were anyone else but Jesus. If it was claimed of anyone but Jesus that he was born of a virgin, who would believe it? If it was said of anyone but Jesus that he walked on water and made a storm obey him, who would believe it? If it was said of anyone but Jesus that he rose from the dead after being tortured and killed, who would believe it? If it was said of anyone but Jesus that he is God in human form, who would believe it? But for two thousand years, wherever these things are said of Jesus, in any part of the world whatever, there are people who believe it. God’s secret in Christ is so stunning that it would seem almost impossible to believe, and yet Christ “is believed on in the world.”
Taken Up in Glory
After speaking of the impact of Christ on angels and men, the final thing 1 Timothy 3:16 says is that he “was taken up in glory.” Ultimately, the response of angels and men to Jesus still isn’t as important as the response of God the Father. God took the risen Christ into glory. “After he had provided purification for sins,” says the Bible, Jesus “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3). “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). God the Father is so pleased with his Son and with all that he did during his time on earth that he has glorified Jesus and designated him ruler of the universe.
At times it may look as though other persons and forces are running things, but the stunning secret is that Jesus is reigning from heaven and directing everything to God’s appointed goal. He is the secret power who rules everything. To some people it’s a complete mystery who is in charge, but those who know Jesus are in on the secret. We know it’s no accident that Jesus has been preached among the nations and believed on in the world for the past 2,000 years. Jesus himself has been directing all of this from his throne. Christ and his Father have sent the same Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus and raised him from the dead to continue Christ’s work in this world. As Christ has been taken up in heavenly glory by his Father, his glory shines in the earth as the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ by empowering gospel preaching and moving hard hearts to believe God’s great secret.
Beyond all questions, 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.
Is this secret the most important, most thrilling thing in the world for you?
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.