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The Mystery of Godliness

Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached to the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.--1 TIMOTHY iii. 16.

St. Paul here sums up in one verse the whole of Christian truth. He gives us in a few words what he says is the great mystery of godliness.

Now, men had been inventing for themselves all kinds of mysteries of godliness; all sorts of mysterious and wonderful notions about God; all sorts of mysterious and strange ceremonies, and ways of pleasing God, or turning away His anger.

And Christian men are apt to do so also, as well as those old heathens. They feel that they are very mysterious and wonderful beings themselves, simply because they are men. They say to themselves: "How strange that I should have a body of flesh and blood, and appetites and passions, like the animals, and yet that I should have an immortal spirit in me. How strange this notion of duty which I have, and which the other animals have not; this notion of its being right to do some things, and wrong to do others! From whence did that notion come? And again, this strange notion which I have, and cannot help having, that I ought to be like God: and yet I do not know what God is like. From whence did that notion come?"

Again: "I fancy that God ought to be good. But how do I know that He really is good? I see the world full of injustice, and misery, and death. How do I know that this is not God's doing, God's fault in some way?"

Again, says a man to himself: "I have a fair right to believe that mankind are not the only persons in the universe--that there are other beings beside God whom I cannot see. I call them angels. I hardly know what I mean by that. The really important question about them to me is: Will they do me harm? Can they do me good? Are they stronger than I?--Ought I not to fear them, to try to please them, to keep them favourable to me?"

Again, he asks: "Does God care whether I know what is right? Does God care to teach me about Himself? Is God desirous that I should do my duty? For if He does not care about my being good, why should I care about it?"

Again, he asks: "But if I knew my duty, might I not find it something too far-fetched, too difficult, for poor simple folk to do: so that I should be forced to leave a right life to great scholars, and to rich people, or to people of a very devout delicate temper of mind, who have a natural turn that way?"

And last of all: "Even if I did struggle to do right; even if I gave up everything for the sake of doing right; how do I know that it will profit me to do so? I shall die as every man dies, and then what will become of me? Shall I be a man still, or only--horrible thought!--some sort of empty ghost, a spirit without body, of which I dream, and shudder while I dream of it?"

Men in all ages, heathens and Christians, have been puzzled by such thoughts as these, as soon as they began to feel that there was a world which they could not see, as well as a world which they could see; a spiritual world, wherein God the Spirit, and their own spirits, and spiritual things, such as right, wrong, duty, reason, love, dwell for ever; and a strange hidden duty on all men to obey that unseen God, and the laws of that spiritual world; in short a mystery of godliness.

Then they have tried to answer these questions for themselves; and have run thereby into all manner of follies and superstitions, and often, too, into devilish cruelties, in the hope of pleasing God according to some mystery of godliness of their own invention.

But to each of these puzzles St. Paul gives an answer in the text. Let us take them each in its order, and you will see what I mean.

The first puzzle was: How is it that while I am like the animals in some things, and yet feel as if I ought to be, and can be, like God in other things? How is it that I feel two powers in me; one dragging me downward to make me lower than the beasts, the other lifting me upwards--I dare not think whither? It seems to me to be my body, my bodily appetites and tempers which drag me down. Is my body me, part of me, or a thing I should be ashamed of, and long to be rid of? I fancy that I can be like God. But can my body be like God? Must I not crush it, neglect it, get rid of it before I can follow the good instinct which draws me upward?

To which St. Paul told Timothy to answer: God was manifest in the flesh. God sent down His only-begotten Son, co-equal and co-eternal with Himself, very God of very God, the very same person who had been putting into men's minds those two notions of which we spoke, that there is a right and a wrong, and that men ought to be like God; Him the Father sent into the world that He might be born, and live, and die, and rise again, as a man; that so men might see from His example, manifestly and plainly, what God was like, and what man ought to be like. And so Jesus Christ was God, manifested in the flesh.

Now we do know what God is like. We know that He is so like man, that He can take upon Him man's flesh and blood without changing, or lowering, or defiling Himself. That proves that man must have been originally made in God's likeness; that man's being fallen, means man's falling from the likeness of God, and taking up instead with the likeness of the brutes which perish; that the fault cannot be in our bodies, but in our spirits which have yielded to our bodies, and become their slaves instead of their masters, as Christ's Spirit was master of His body. But the Son of God, by being born and living as a man, showed us that we are not fallen past hope, not fallen so low that we cannot rise again. He showed that though mankind are sinful, yet they need not be sinful; for He was a man as exactly, and perfectly, and entirely as we are, and yet in Him was no sin. So He showed that brutishness and sinfulness is not our proper state, but our disease and our fall; and a disease of which we can be cured, a fall out of which we can rise and be renewed into the true and real pattern of mankind, the new Adam, Jesus the sinless Son of Man and Son of God.

The next question, I said, that rose in men's mind was: "How do I know that God is good, as I fancy sometimes that He must be? I see the world full of sin, and injustice, and misery, and death. Perhaps that is God's doing, God's fault." That is a common puzzle enough, and a sad and fearful one. The sin and the misery and the death are here. If God did not bring it here, yet why did He let it come here? He could have stopped if He would, and kept out all this wretchedness: why did He not? Was He just or loving in letting sin into the world?

To all which St. Paul answers: "God was justified in the Spirit."

You do not see what that has to do with it? Then let me show you.

To be justified means to be shown and proved to be just, righteous. Now what justified God to man was the Spirit of God, as He showed Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ. For when God became man and dwelt among men, what sort of works were His? What was His conduct, His character; of what sort of spirit did He show Himself to be? He went, we read, doing good, for God was with Him. Not of His own will, but to do His Father's will, and because He was filled without measure by the Spirit of God, He did good, He healed the sick, He rebuked the proud and self-conceited hypocrite, He proclaimed pardon and mercy to the broken-hearted sinner, wearied and worn out by the burden of his sins. Thus, in every action of His life, He was fighting against evil and misery, and conquering it; and so showing that God hates evil and misery, and that the evil and the misery in the world are here against God's will. Strange as it may seem to have to say it, so it is. Jesus Christ showed that howsoever sin and sorrow came into the world, it is God's will and purpose to root them out of the world, and that He is righteous, He is loving, He is merciful, He does and will fight against evil, for those who are crushed by it; and help poor sufferers always when they call upon Him, and often, often, of His most undeserved condescension and free grace, when they are forgetting and disobeying Him. And so by the good, and loving, and just spirit which Jesus showed, God was justified before men, and showed to be a God of goodness and justice.

The next puzzle, I said, was about angels and spirits, whether we need to pray to them to help us, and not to hurt us. St. Paul answers: God, when He was manifested in the flesh of a man, was seen by these angels. And that is enough for us. They saw the Lord God condescend to be born in a stable, to live as a poor man, to die on the cross. They saw that His will to man was love. And they do His will. And therefore they love men, they help men, they minister to men, because they follow the Lord's example, and do the will of their Father in Heaven, even as we ought to do it on earth. Therefore we have no need to fear them, for they love us already. And, on the other hand, we have no need to pray to them to help us, for they know already that it is their duty to help us. They know that the Son of God has put on us a higher honour than He ever put on them; for He took not on Him the nature of angels, He took on Him the nature of man; and thus, though man was made a little lower than the angels, yet by Christ's taking man's nature, man is crowned with a glory and honour higher than the angels. Know ye not, says St. Paul, that we shall judge angels? And the angels, as they told St. John, are our fellow-servants, not our masters; and they know that; for they saw the Son of God doing utterly His Father's will, and therefore they know that their duty is to do their Father's will also; not to do their own wills, and set themselves up as our masters, to be pleaded with by us. They saw the Son of God take our nature on Him, when they sang to the shepherds on the first Christmas night: "Peace on earth, and good-will toward men;" and therefore they look on us with love and honour, because we wear the human nature which Christ their Master wore, and are partakers of the Holy Spirit of God, even as they are. For no angel or archangel could do a right thing, any more than we, except by the Holy Spirit of God. And that Holy Spirit is bestowed on the poorest man who asks for it, as freely as upon the highest of the heavenly host.

And this leads us on to the next puzzle of which I spoke: Men were apt, and are apt now, to say to themselves: Does God care whether I know what is right? Does God care to teach me about Himself? Is God desirous that I should do my duty? For if He does not care about my being good, why should I care about it?

To this St. Paul answers: "God, who was manifest in the flesh, was preached to the Gentiles."

God does care that men should know about God; for He loves them. He yearns after them as a father after his children, and He knows that to know God, to know the truth about God, is the beginning of all wisdom, the root of all safety and honour and happiness. He willeth not that any should perish, but that all should come to the knowledge of the truth. And, therefore, when the Son of God died for our sins, He did not stop at that great deed of love; but He ordained Apostles, and put upon them especially and above all men, His Holy Spirit, that they might go and preach to all nations the good news that God had become flesh, and dwelt among men, and borne their sorrows and infirmities, and to baptize them into the very name of God itself, into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; that so, instead of fancying now that God did not care for them, they might be sure that God so longed to teach them, that He called every child, even from its cradle, to come into His kingdom, and be taught the whole mystery of godliness.

The next puzzle I mentioned was: "But this right life, this mystery of godliness, is it not something very strange and difficult, and past the understanding of simple men who are not extraordinarily clever and learned scholars or deep philosophers?" To that St. Paul answers: No. It is not past any man. It is not too deep or too difficult for the simplest, the most unlearned countryman. For, says St. Paul in the text, we Apostles have had proof of that; we have tried it; we Apostles preached the mystery of godliness, and it was believed on in the world. People of the world, plain working men and women going about their worldly business, who had no time to be great readers, or great thinkers, or to shut themselves up in monasteries to meditate on heavenly things, but had to live and work in the commonplace, busy, workday world--they believed our message. We Apostles told them that the Son of God had showed Himself in the likeness of man, and called on every man to repent, and to be such a man as He was. And worldly people believed us, and tried, and found that without giving up their worldly work, or deserting the station in which God had put them, they could live godlike lives, and become the sons of God without rebuke. They saw that scholarship was not wanted, leisure was not wanted, but only the humble heart which hungers and thirsts after righteousness. About their daily work, by their cottage firesides, among their poor neighbours, the Spirit of Almighty God gave them strength to live as Jesus their pattern lived; He filled them with all holy, pure, noble, brave, loving thoughts and feelings, fit for angels and archangels. He enabled them to rise out of their sins, to trample their temptations under foot, to leave their old low brutish sinful way of life behind them, and become new men, and persevere in every word, and thought, and action, in virtues such as the greatest heathen sages could not copy; ay, even to shed their life-blood freely and boldly in martyrdom, for the sake of God and the truth of God. They, these plain simple people, living in the world, could still live the life of God, and die like heroes for the sake of God.

And this again brings us to the last puzzle of which I spoke: "But what became of those holy and godlike people when they died? What reward did they receive for all they had done, and given up, and suffered? What will become of us after we die? What will the next world be like? What is heaven like? Shall I be able to enjoy it? Shall I be a man there, or only a ghost, a spirit without a body?"

To this St. Paul answers: That Christ, the Son of God, after He was manifested in the flesh, was received up into glory. He does not tell us what heaven is like; for though he had been caught up into the third heaven, yet what he saw there, he says, was unspeakable. He neither ought to tell, or could tell, what he saw. Neither does St. Paul tell us what the next life will be like; for as far as we can find, God had not told him. All he says is: The man Christ Jesus, who walked this earth like other men, was received up into glory; and He did not leave His man's mind, His man's heart, even His man's body, behind Him. He carried up into heaven with Him His whole manhood, spirit, soul, and body, even to the print of the nails in His hands and in His most holy feet, and the wound of the spear in His most holy side. And that is enough for us. Because the man Christ Jesus is in heaven, we as men may ascend to heaven. Where He is we shall be. And what He is, in as far as He is man, we shall be. What we shall be we know not; but this we know, that we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And He is a man still; for it is written: "There is one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus." And He will be a man at the day of judgment; for it is written that: "God hath ordained a day in which He will judge the world by a man whom He hath chosen." And He will be a man for ever; for it is written: "This man abideth for ever." And He Himself said to His disciples: "I will not drink of this fruit of the vine, till I drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father." And again He declared, even when he was on earth, that He was the Son of Man who is in heaven. And in heaven nothing can grow less. But if Christ were not man for ever as well as God, He would become less; for He is now God and man also at once; but if He laid down His manhood, and so became not man any more, but God only, He would become less, which is not to be believed of Him of whom it is written: That Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. For, as the Athanasian creed teaches us, He is not God alone, nor man alone, but God and man is one Christ; and therefore, when St. John declares that Christ shall reign for ever and ever, he declares that He shall reign not only as God, but as man also. Therefore whatever we do not know about the next life, we know this, that we shall be men there; not sinful, weak, and mortal, as we are here, but holy, strong, immortal, after the likeness of our Lord, the firstborn from the dead, who has ascended up on high and raised our human nature to the heaven of heavens, and is gone to prepare a place for us, into which we too shall enter in that day when He shall change these mortal and fallen bodies which we now wear, the bodies of our humiliation, the bodies by wearing which we are now a little lower than the angels; them the Lord will change, that they may be made like unto His glorious body, according to the mighty working whereby He subdueth all things unto Himself, that we may see Him face to face, and dwell with Him in the glory of God the Father for ever.

Oh my friends, who is sufficient for these things? What shall we say of man? Is he not indeed fearfully and wonderfully made? Here we are, weak creatures, more liable to disease and death than the dumb beasts round us; full of poverty, and adversity, and longings which are never satisfied; our minds full of mistakes, our hearts full of false conceit, full of spite and folly, struggles, murmurings, quarrellings; our consciences full of the remembrance of sins without number. The greatest of all heathen poets said, that there was not a more miserable and pitiable animal upon the earth than man. He knew no better. He could not know better. How could he, when God had not yet been manifest in the flesh? How could he dream that the Lord God would condescend to be made flesh, and dwell among us, and show man His glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth--how could he dream that? And more than all, how could he dream that God, instead of throwing away our human nature when He rose again, as if it was too great a degradation for Him to be a man one moment more, should condescend to take up His human nature, His man's body, soul, and spirit, with Him into everlasting glory, that He might feed with it for ever the bodies and souls of those who trust in Him, so as to make them fit for us at the last day, to share in His everlasting life? The old heathen poet knew as well as you or I that there was an everlasting life beyond the grave; that men's souls were immortal, and could not die: but the thought of it was all dark, and dreary, and uncertain to him and to all mankind, till the Son of God brought life and immortality to light, when He was manifest in the flesh.

Wonderful mystery of godliness! Wonderful love of God to man! Wonderful condescension of God to man! Still more wonderful patience of God to man!

Oh you who live still in sin, when the Son of God died and rose again to make you righteous; you who defile your bodies with sins worse than the brutes, when the Son of God offers to raise those bodies of yours to be equal with the angels; how shall you escape if you neglect so great salvation; if you despise this unspeakable love; if you trample under foot, like swine, the everlasting glory and happiness which God offers you freely, without fee or price, for the sake of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, who died to buy them for you?


Charles Kingsley