"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." (1 Timothy 3:16)
Thus the apostle sets forth in a few sentences the great mystery of our faith relative to the Person of that dear Emmanuel of whom you have been singing. (Gadsby's 20) It will ever be a mystery that the great, eternal God, the Maker of all worlds, tabernacled in clay, in a feeble body like our own. And this mystery of "God...manifest in the flesh" is to be believed. When the Lord Jesus Christ appeared in the commencement of His ministry, when He came into contact with one and the other, they affirmed their belief, as did Nathaniel: "Thou art the Son of God; Thou art the King of Israel."
This mystery of God being made manifest in the flesh is that on which our hope is built for a never-ending eternity, and upon which our salvation rests. If you take away this foundation truth, what can the righteous do? But Christ is very God and very Man in one Person; not a confusion of substance, but that Christ is that glorious God-Man; and it is "without controversy." That is, there is no controversy relative to the mystery of it, though there is controversy concerning the fact. I suppose there has been more controversy respecting the fact of the eternal Godhead of the Lord Jesus Christ than any other truth in the whole scriptures; but there can be no controversy relative to the mystery of it, because we are at one here, in speaking of this as being a great mystery. The apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, speaks of the "wisdom of God in a mystery."
Well now, this is a mystery, and yet it is well worthy to be believed. "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." (1 Tim. 1:15) "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation." Probably for thirty years the Lord Jesus went about as an obscure Person, just as the reputed son of Joseph; but when He came forth into His ministry, then we believe the rays of His eternal Godhead began at times to shine forth, especially in those mighty miracles that He performed and in those blessed truths to which He gave utterance. But "God was manifest in the flesh;" not the full rays of the eternal Godhead, but God undoubtedly was manifest in the flesh of Him who was spoken of as Jesus of Nazareth. When He turned the water into wine, when He fed the multitude with the few loaves and fishes, when He healed the leprous man, when He raised the dead, and in all those miracles, which were signs of His eternal Godhead, there was a manifestation of God in the flesh; for though the flesh of the Lord Jesus was pure and sinless, undefiled and, in a sense, He was separate from sinners, yet He had the appearance of an ordinary man. In fact, according to the prophet, if there was anything about His appearance, "His visage was so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men." (Isa. 52:14) People think that if they saw the Lord Jesus Christ walking upon this earth they would believe on Him and follow Him, but they would need a supernatural faith, the same as those did who saw Him when He tabernacled here below and walked this earth as "A Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." (Isa. 53:3) It needed faith, God-given faith, supernatural faith, to believe on Him, for "as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His Name." (John 1:12) O, He was manifest in the flesh. In a way they were without excuse when they saw the mighty miracles, but such was the perversity of human nature that, though they had it before their very eyes, yet they would not believe. But He was manifest in the flesh.
It was real flesh. It was not an aerial substance. It was not a phantom. The Lord Jesus tabernacled in a body like our own; and so, even after the resurrection, the Lord Jesus told them to handle Him and prove that He had that same body that He wore as He walked amongst them, that it was real flesh that He tabernacled in and that rose from the dead.
He was manifest in the flesh, also, by the wonders that He performed and the doctrine to which He gave utterance. We must not lose sight of that. "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine." (John 7:17) The Lord Jesus Christ spoke of Himself as being the "Bread of life that cometh down from heaven." (John 6:51) So the doctrine was manifested in the preaching and the testimony of the Lord Jesus.
But He was "justified in the Spirit;" that is the Holy Spirit of God, the third Person in the blessed Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son, bore witness to Christ's eternal Godhead. So when Christ was manifest in the first place, when He submitted Himself to be baptized of John, He said, "Suffer it to be so now; for this it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness;" (Matt. 3:15) not merely being plunged into Jordan's stream, but the Spirit bore witness, or justified the Lord Jesus Christ, by descending upon Him in bodily shape as a dove and resting upon Him. The Spirit thereby justified the Lord Jesus Christ in His entrance upon the public ministry; and so it is with every true minister of Jesus Christ. There will be times when the Spirit of God will so rest upon the minister that He will abundantly justify such a one's entering upon that sacred, solemn work. The Lord Jesus, after being baptized, was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil, so that He was "justified by the Spirit" in being made perfect in those sufferings whereby He became a faithful and merciful High Priest in things pertaining to God, in that He suffered, being tempted, so that He was able to succour every tempted son. So though He was not led into temptation by the Spirit, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. There is a difference. The Lord will not tempt anyone to sin, but He may lead you in His providence into those places where you may be subjected to temptation. So the Lord Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted of the devil.
Then He came forth by that same Spirit into the place where He was brought up, and He went into the synagogue there, and they gave to Him the book. Probably it was a scroll; but it was the book of the prophet Isaiah; and He opened it in that place. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor." (Luke 4:18) There we see that Christ was justified in the whole course of His ministry by the Spirit of God. Though the Spirit did not, at that time, rest upon Him bodily as a dove, yet the Spirit of God abundantly rested upon His ministry. It accomplished those things: it was for the poor, the blind, the lame; it was for those who were in captivity, for those who were bowed down. Hence the Spirit of God justified the Lord Jesus Christ in the whole course of His ministry and in the baptism of suffering that He had to endure. So the Spirit of God was with Him to the end; that is, when He said, "It is finished," and gave up the ghost.
Then we believe that He was justified in the Spirit when He felt in His inmost soul that He had finished the work that the Father had given Him to do. He knew that redemption's work was accomplished, that the mighty conflict was over, and the conquest was gained, so that He could say with confidence, "Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit." And I believe that--though not to the same extent as our great Forerunner, the great Head of the church--yet there are times when this self-same Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we are the children of God, when the Spirit of God gives us to know that we are justified from all things from which we could not be justified by the law of Moses, as we "venture all on One," and as we rest the weight of our souls' salvation purely upon the finished work of Christ.
But as well as being "justified in the Spirit," He was "seen of angels." From His very nativity Christ was seen of angels. Angels heralded His birth; and what a sweet song they sang! "Peace on earth; goodwill toward men." (Luke 2:14) It was such that it filled those shepherds who were looking after their flock with such joyful anticipation that they said, "Let us now go even to Bethlehem, and see this great sight." Would to God that we could go to Bethlehem! I do not mean literally or yet locally, but see by precious faith that Infant of Days, that Babe in the manger, and believe that He is our God. Well, He was "seen of angels" there, and I believe at different times angels ministered to His necessities. We have it recorded that after Satan had finished his temptations, angels ministered unto Him. In Gethsemane's garden angels ministered unto Him; and then again, when he was about to be parted from His disciples, He was seen of angels, as He ascended up into heaven. So these angels, that are "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister to them who shall be heirs of salvation," (Heb. 1:14) looked upon--desiring to look into--this mystery; and yet they had no part in the work of redemption,
"If sinless innocence be theirs,
Redemption all is ours."
Therefore, my friends, these angels were servants to the Lord Jesus Christ.
But it is said here, relative to the Person of Christ, that He was "seen of angels, and preached unto the Gentiles;" and that was according to His own word to His disciples before He left them, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." (Mark 16:15,16) Christ is to be preached, whether it is to Jew or Gentile; as in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch who was reading in his chariot, returning from Jerusalem. He may, it is true, have been a Jew, but in all probability, he was a proselyte to the Jewish faith. He read the scriptures, and as he was reading that wonderful part, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, speaking of the sufferings of Christ, he said, "Of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?" And Philip began at the same scripture and preached Christ to him; that was the doctrine of Christ and Him crucified; it was not just talking about the Name of Jesus, but it was opening up the precious truth concerning Him. And Philip went to Samaria and did the same there; he preached Jesus. I believe that if we are true preachers of the gospel we must preach Christ as being the only way of salvation for poor sinners. "There is none other name given under heaven among men, whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) Do not think that there is another way of getting to heaven, because there is not. You may think that your moral integrity will take you to heaven, but it will not. You may think that a few religious duties will take you to heaven, but they will not! And you may think that your profession will take you to heaven, but it will not. "There is no other name given under heaven among men, whereby we must be saved." Christ, and Christ only, is that living Way, the way which God Himself ordained. It is not man-made religion; it is that which was ordained by the eternal Three-in-One before ever time had a being, that Christ should accomplish all that was needed in reconciling poor sinners to God, in His Own suffering, death and merit. And as this precious Christ is preached, so He is believed.
"Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." (Rom. 10:17) There is no believing apart from hearing. The truth must be made known in some way or the other, or faith cannot mix with it. Hence the necessity of preaching the gospel to every creature, so that there can be those who believe. This believing means a receiving of the truth in the heart, "for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation." (Rom. 10:10) So it is no small mercy if you have a heart to receive the gospel, because that is the very nature of saving faith. It is not just believing that you are a child of God; it is whether you believe the truth and whether you have a heart to that truth, and if the Spirit of God opens your heart to attend unto the things that are spoken; that is the very nature of saving faith. If the Lord gives you this saving faith, it will carry with it a sentence of justification unto life. So said the apostle when preaching in those early days of the Christian church, "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by Him all that believe are justified from all things from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses." (Acts 13:39) So if you believe in the things of Christ, that brings with it some sense of acceptance with God, and thereby the forgiveness of sins. You must not expect an angel to come down from heaven and tell you your sins are forgiven, but for the Spirit of God to work faith in your heart upon the things of Christ, and that will bring some sense of forgiveness of sins.
"Believed on in the world." So that these people are not angels. Angels, it is true, look upon the things of Christ and desire to enter into them, but these people who are believers are in the world. And that is the mystery of it very often, that the Lord should have a people whom He intends to take to heaven, and yet they must remain upon this poor, sin-bitten earth, perhaps for a number of years. But I believe it is to this end, to display the wonders of His grace. It is to reflect the honor and glory of His great Name. So these poor sinners are called out of nature's darkness into His marvelous light, and are brought to believe upon Christ for their salvation; as the poet says,
"Trust Him for salvation; you need not to grieve;
There's no condemnation to them that believe."
And as you are brought to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ, it carries with it some sense of your adoption into the family of God.
Then the Lord Jesus was "received up into glory." It was not intended for Him to live eternally upon this earth; but He was to be "received up into glory," whatever that means--the Lord only knows--but it is something "unspeakable," as the apostle says, "and full of glory." That related to the saints, but this glory which Christ had with the Father before the foundation of the world, that is to be upon, or is already put upon, the Person of the God-Man Mediator, the Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, as He enters into this glory; because the human nature of Christ was never in heaven until after His resurrection and ascension into heaven. So the glory that He had with the Father before the foundation of the world was to be put upon Him as He entered those eternal doors that we read of in one of the psalms, for the King of glory to come in. "Who is this King of glory?" (Ps. 24:7,8) This mighty Jesus, He is the King of glory. And if we are amongst these people, the time will come when we shall see that glory.
May the Lord grant that you and I may be amongst that number. Amen.