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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Mystery of Christ's Coming
Text:1 Timothy 3:16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God The Son

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 68:2,12                                                                               

Hy 25:2,4

Reading – Matthew 13:10-17; 1 Timothy 3:14 - 4:16

Ps 104:1,8

Sermon – 1 Timothy 3:16

Hy 24:1,2,3,4,5,6

Hy 23:1,3,4,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, how should we picture the LORD God? As we think of him, worship him, and pray to him, what’s the “visual” that we have? There can be none. For our God is invisible. He dwells in the unapproachable light of holiness. He lives in highest heaven, seated on his throne: “No one may see him and live.”

So we don’t picture God. But how can God ever show himself to us? If He’s invisible, “unapproachable,” so infinite that even the heavens can’t contain him, how does God come close enough to connect? For that’s what He wants to do: Almighty God in his grace desires to fellowship with us. But how can He, without us getting incinerated?

We see God coming near in different ways. Think of God in the smoking firepot and blazing torch, when He made a covenant with Abraham. Think of God in the burning bush, speaking with Moses. Think of God in the wind and earthquake and fire, when He gave the law—or when God revealed himself to Elijah in the still, small voice. Or how God was in the words of the prophets, and showed himself in dreams and visions.

Point is, our God is a consuming fire, yet He finds ways to come near. We don’t have a hidden-away God, but a God who reveals. He’s interested in showing, in telling, because He’s interested in connecting. He’s done this at various times and in various ways—but in these last days He’s done so by his Son. And Jesus is God manifesting himself in the flesh. In Jesus, God shows himself so personally interested in the life of mankind that He comes down to us, not as fire or wind or voice, but as flesh and blood. So that He can redeem us! This is the great gospel which I proclaim to you,

God was manifested in the flesh:

  1. a great mystery revealed
  2. a glorious life unfolded
  3. a godly calling issued

1. a great mystery revealed: One of the words that sticks out in our text is “mystery.” Paul writes, “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness…” It’s important to be clear on what that word means. Because to our ears, a “mystery” is something that’s still unknown, like there’s some secret or riddle that needs solving. Maybe the kids enjoy reading books about this kind of thing—with titles like, “The Mystery of the Missing Scroll.” You’re trying to get to the bottom of something, and solve a puzzle.

But the apostle Paul uses the word “mystery” in a very different way, here and other places in his letters. For him, a “mystery” is not something that’s strange and unknown. It used to be unknown, but now it’s plainly before the eyes of all. A “mystery” in the New Testament is something that was concealed formerly, but now revealed by the LORD. It’s a secret that’s been shared with all, even announced from the rooftops!

Take Colossians 1:26-27 as an example. Paul speaks of his preaching there, and he says that he’s busy every day with sharing “the mystery” of God. This mystery “has been hidden from ages and from generations.” Notice that it used to be hidden, and was kept for a long time from general viewing. “But,” Paul continues, “Now [it] has been revealed to the saints.”

What’s this mystery he’s speaking about, the mystery that he preaches? The gospel of salvation! Because it used to be hidden from so many people. By God’s design, it was reserved for the people of Israel alone. But now the gospel has been broadcast widely—it’s in the public domain—there’s open access for everyone. Whatever your nationality or your status or your character, you can freely come and listen and believe. The “mystery” is the revealed truth of our Saviour: it’s the complete message, intended for a universal audience.

So also when the Spirit speaks of the “mystery of godliness” in our text, it’s something that’s come right out in the open. After saying that it’s so “great,” He tells us what the mystery is: “God was manifested in the flesh.” Here’s the great truth that’s been revealed and uncovered! It’s a message that we know so very well. All year long, we hear about it: the LORD came down to earth. “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Is it possible that we ever hear those lines in our creed without thinking about them? Do we really think what that means: God in the flesh? To us, it’s not mysterious or miraculous, it’s mundane.

But think of the apostles, preaching this word for the first time. What they said would’ve been incredible. Imagine: that Almighty God, the LORD of hosts, became flesh and blood! For this was a God of fire and wind, this was a God enthroned and empowered. But in the fullness of time, He came down, and He was conceived and born of a sinful woman. Amazing love!

And then the Messiah went walking among his battered and beleaguered people. He went among them, feeding them bread, weeping at their graves, healing their festering diseases, reaching out to the sin-covered outcasts, even suffering the torment they deserved. He did it as God, and He did it as one of us! This is a great mystery, because if anyone but God had suggested it, no one would ever believe. Too far-fetched.

There were those prophecies that spoke about these events. Yet who could really picture the coming of “Immanuel,” God-with-us? It was almost a tall tale. But this is what the Spirit wants to tell us. As Paul in this letter gives instruction to his younger colleague, he reminds Timothy of what the truth is. What are the core elements of the gospel that Timothy—and every preacher—needs to be preaching?

“Without controversy great is the mystery…” (v 16). False teachers may say what they want, atheists may deny it up and down, but “there’s no controversy here,” says Paul. The word carries the idea of an undeniable confession, something that can’t be disputed. It’s God’s plan to save sinners, a plan He put together before the world’s foundation, foreshadowed and prophesied it for many centuries—then revealed and fulfilled it in Christ. Into this salvation, Peter says elsewhere, even the angels desire to look. The angels know that it’s great and marvelous, yet it’s not for them.

But for us the curtain has been pulled back, and we see what God’s been working on. Into our ear, the secret’s been told. Listen to what Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 13: “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (vv 16-17).

Like those disciples of Jesus, we’re given access to this amazing knowledge in Christ. When we open the holy Scriptures, we see all the treasures of the gospel. We’re allowed to see the true glory of God, reflected in the face of Jesus! So many people in this world have never received this opportunity. So many people have died, without ever hearing the message of grace. But you have heard it! You know the mystery. You have the knowledge of salvation, long hidden, now revealed: God, who opens himself up to us through Christ, so we can be his sons and daughters, forgiven and glorified and blessed forever!

So what should we do with this gift? What do you do with this gift? What do you do with the opportunity you have to know the living God as Father, as Saviour, as Lord? Do you treasure this gospel more than any earthly thing? Can you say that it’s worth more than life itself? It can be, and ought to be, our highest joy: to know God through his Son.

“Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” So love it! Know it. Devote your life to it, all your heart and soul and strength. For it’s the only thing we take in our hands that will ever endure, the only thing we’ll love that will never disappoint. It’s the mystery—it’s the gospel—that in the person of Christ we can meet with the living God. We can meet with him in covenant and communion. And then make use of this privilege in your prayers: calling on God with sure confidence. Make use of this privilege in your worship and devotion: listening often to God’s Word. And then thank God always for what his Son did for you!


2. a glorious life unfolded: There’s always a lot of theology that’s wrapped up in the songs of the church. What you sing is what you believe! Paul knew that, because the second part of our verse might be an early hymn. In many English Bibles, it’s even structured that way. In the original Greek, these words have a rhythm, and the lines are carefully structured, just like a song would be. And if it is a song, it’s loaded with theology.

There are six lines here, but each is closely linked to the next one. Consider the first pair, for example: “manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit”—linked with the comparison of flesh and spirit. There’s also a movement from Christ’s humiliation (at the beginning of the hymn), to his exaltation (at the end). In each line of the song, you get a different snapshot of his life: birth, resurrection, ascension. And overarching the whole thing is the fundamental truth that by his coming to earth, Jesus has restored the broken bond between God and sinners. A hymn to the Messiah!

This is how it begins. It begins with Christmas, you could say: “God was manifested in the flesh.” For the Son of God has always existed: as God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But then the Son became something that He wasn’t before, when He came in the flesh. The Almighty, invisible, immortal God showed himself in human form. Incredibly, the Divine was clothed with the lowly garments of humanity.

So the Son of God came to this earth, and He led a very earthly existence. He had a human life. And this wasn’t just obvious at the very beginning—when He was laid in the manger, and wrapped in swaddling cloths. But every day of every year, Jesus was utterly human, and humbled down to our level. For Jesus lived with his parents, Joseph and Mary, in Nazareth. There was a day when He first began to speak. There was a day when toddler Jesus took his first hesitant steps. As Scripture says, He grew in stature and He grew in wisdom. Then He took on a life of ministry, He submitted to water baptism, underwent the devil’s temptation, became in every way a man among men.

“God was manifested in the flesh”—you could see his eyes, you could hear his voice, you could bump up against him in a crowd. You didn’t have to take off your sandals like Moses at the burning bush, but you could be near him and not be afraid. Like John says in his gospel, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we saw his glory” (1:14).

John mentions glory, but there was more to it. Being “in the flesh” meant the ordeal of being born, the growing pains of getting older, and then the trouble of hunger and fatigue and thirst—the daily reality of suffering. For isn’t that our earthly life, when you look closely? There’s always weakness. There’s always a disappointment around the corner. The brokenness of relationships, and the allure of temptation. Jesus knew about these things. Though He never sinned, Jesus tasted the affliction of being a human. And then as a man, He was killed. His flesh was ripped to shreds. He blood was splashed onto the ground.

This is where the story ends up—at the cross. This is where it ends up, because that infant in the manger is completely vulnerable. He’s open to all danger, even to the attacks of the devil. By becoming flesh, He’s given up the security of being invisible. He no longer dwells in unapproachable light, but people can see him now, can touch him. Which means they can also grab him, strike him, and hammer nails through his hands. All this they did, and more. “Manifested in the flesh,” Christ was able to be—He allowed himself to be—tortured and killed. And He did it for us. God might be invisible, but his love for us is not! Jesus showed it so clearly, by dying for us when we were still his enemies.

Then comes the second half of that first pair, “Manifested in the flesh, justified in [or by] the Spirit.” Because after his suffering was done, God accepted what Jesus had given. So the Father raised him from the dead by the power of his Spirit. For what if Jesus had remained where He was? He had died, carrying a load of guilt. He’d been accused as a sinner, put to death as a criminal. So we could never be forgiven, not ‘til his resurrection erased all doubt, took away all uncertainty that sin has been paid for. But Christ was justified by the Spirit, and He rose from the dead! It’s the Spirit who conceived Christ at the beginning, and it’s the Spirit who vindicates him at the end. Jesus did what He came to do!

That’s why Christ is now “seen by angels.” Now, what’s so special about that, someone wonders? Don’t the angels “see” each one of us, as they protect us daily? They do. But think for a moment about all of the angels in and around Jesus’ life. To Joseph and Mary, the angel announced that He’d be born. Then to the shepherds, angels proclaimed his arrival. It was angels who attended to Christ in the desert, and angels who helped him in the garden. After Jesus arose, angels stood by his grave. When He ascended, angels brought his reassuring words to the disciples. And now that He’s in heaven, the angels constantly sing his praise! So to be “seen by angels” speaks of great things. It’s a reminder of who Jesus really is. He is God himself, He is the LORD of hosts! During his life on earth we got glimpses of his glory—and now his majesty is beyond all question, as the King of kings!

“Seen by the angels, preached among the Gentiles.” Right now Jesus dwells among the angels above, but that doesn’t mean He has no presence on earth. For here He is preached and proclaimed. It begins already when He was born: the good news just has to go out, to those shepherds, and even to the wise men in distant lands. This was a great surprise—it’s one of those mysteries!—that the God of Abraham is interested in the Gentiles, that He thinks of us. For the preaching of his victory now goes out to all nations: “I bring you good news of great joy, which is for all men. There is a Saviour, Christ the Lord!”

And the God who was seen in the flesh is now “believed on in the world.” That little child of Bethlehem, the Suffering Servant, that lonely man on the cross—people from all over the world are putting their faith in him! They’re staking their very lives on him. They know who He is. They know that He’s worthy of every sacrifice and effort. Paul saw it every day, as the apostle to the Gentiles: Jesus, believed on in the world, trusted by sinners, embraced by the lost.

The preaching of Christ has reached us too. We’ve heard it. So that’s the question, isn’t it? Having heard the preaching of the gospel, do we believe on him for life and salvation? Do we join in bowing before King Jesus, in humble adoration? Do we bring Christ our gifts, and do we worship him? Every time that we hear the preaching, we need to think about our response to that preaching. Christ has been preached—has He been believed? He’s been preached—so do we love his message, and do we put it into practice?

And now He’s been “received up in glory.” Jesus has gone back to where He came from, that place of dazzling glory. But He still has our human flesh, and still bears the marks of his suffering. So He hasn’t forgotten his people—his whole purpose is to rule for our good, to preserve us, and to prepare for the day of reunion. He sits enthroned until that time He returns. So let’s be eager to see him again. When He comes a second time, let’s receive him with joy!


3. a godly calling issued: When the kids are in school and they’re being taught a lesson about this or that, I think they’re quick to say, “How can I use this? What’s this math or this poem good for, anyway?” It’s the classic “so what?” question. And in our text Paul wants to show that the teaching about Christ has a living purpose, it has a real application.

Paul’s especially eager to do this when writing to Timothy. For there were false teachers that Timothy was dealing with. They were arguing about small points of the law, and imposing all kinds of rules on the church. Yet ironically, their lives were far from holy. They were so caught up in disputes and speculation, they didn’t obey what Christ actually said.

We see this more often. People try to divorce belief from behaviour. They assume that if you’ve got all the doctrine down pat, then you’re doing fine. Yet there might be a major disconnect with the rest of our behaviour. Maybe you’re good at pious-sounding talk about religion and church, but you still like to get drunk every weekend. Or all week you’re consumed by your greed for more money. Or you still cherish secret lust. Or you still carry bitterness and resentment around from ten years ago. Call it “The Case of the Missing Godliness.”

It’s missing, because Christian truth needs to lead us somewhere: it needs to lead to holiness. This is why Paul introduces those powerful statements about Christ’s life like this, “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness.” This is where true godliness comes from. Godliness has to come from this! Because of who God is, because of what He’s done in Christ, He calls us to live in a way that pleases him.

So the Spirit doesn’t just give a set of rules and guidelines. He gives us something far more fundamental and basic. He tells us the reason why to strive for godliness, the reason why to dedicate your life to his praise. Christ alone is the key to a life-transformed! Brothers and sisters, this is why we should strive for purity in our thoughts, and for gentleness in our dealings with each other, and for patience and love and self-control. Why? Because “God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, received in glory.”

If God became a man, if He died on the cross and rose the third day—and if He ascended and He’s coming again—if all that is true, and if you believe it, then the way you lead your life today has to be different. Because Christ came to this earth and saved us from sin, everything about us should be different. Our talking. Our thinking. Our planning. Our spending and loving and working. There’s an unbreakable connection between the two: Christ’s glorious coming, and our godly living. Christ’s death, and our life.

In the past too, that’s always how it went when God revealed himself. After Abraham met the LORD, God said, “Now walk before me, and be blameless.” After Moses saw the LORD at the burning bush, God said, “Now go, and do my will in Egypt.” After Israel witnessed God’s glory in the smoke and fire of Sinai, He said, “Now keep my commands, that you may live.” With great knowledge comes great responsibility. With a holy promise comes a holy obligation.

So also when we meet the LORD God in the person of Jesus Christ, He’s got a calling for us. He’s told us the mystery of godliness—and really, it’s very clear. God says, “Christ dwelled among you in the flesh. You’ve seen his glory, and one day you’re going to see it even more. Now love this Saviour with your heart, soul, mind and strength. And be more like Christ, in all that you do.”  Amen. 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2015, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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