CAN YOU EXPLAIN 1 TIMOTHY 3:16?
by Shawn Brasseaux
People have confused 1 Timothy 3:16 for many, many years—centuries, actually. Just what makes it so controversial? Read it to see why: “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.” What is this talking about? There has been so much discussion about it but very little light has been shed. In this Bible study, we purpose to make the truths of God’s Word as plain and simple as humanly possible concerning 1 Timothy 3:16. To the Scriptures!
I. FIRST TIMOTHY 3:16 AND TEXTUAL CRITICISM
First Timothy 3:16 is one of the major problem verses in the modern English versions and their underlying manuscripts. Our King James Bible says, “God was manifest in the flesh….” Most modern English versions, however, have a general reading of “He” or “He who” or “Who” where our KJV has “God.” (With no Greek authority, some modern versions read “Christ!”) Why do modern English versions read differently here? The answer is two-fold.
The first and foremost factor is a textual issue. It is not that the new-version translators are unskilled in translating. The problem is they are translating a depraved (corrupt) Greek text. The King James Bible’s underlying Greek text, the Textus Receptus, reads “theos” (rendered “God”). However, the modern English version manuscripts, the Alexandrian text, read “os” (“which” or “who”—which is syntactical nonsense). Modern English versions that read “Christ” are interpreting the passage without manuscript support. The scribes/copyists of the modern-version Alexandrian manuscripts altered (probably intentionally) the correct Greek word, theos, into os. Notice how this extremely subtle change involved nothing more than dropping the first three letters (“the-”). With the omission of these few Greek letters, the Bible text was greatly damaged. (And these perverted manuscripts are heralded as “better” texts!!)
Secondly, there is a copyright issue. Modern English versions must read differently from each other in order to have their unique copyrights. Verses must be reworded if the text is to be considered distinct from other modern English versions. Modern English translators are forced to change the wording of 1 Timothy 3:16 so as to keep their respective works separate. This is why some versions have “He who,” others have “He,” some have “Who,” and others have “Christ.” The New King James Version, surprisingly, actually agrees with the King James Bible by retaining “God.”
People who do not like to recognize Jesus Christ’s deity prefer the reading of 1 Timothy 3:16 in the modern English versions. Only unbelievers and heretics would be comfortable with removing “God” and replacing it with “He,” “He who,” or “Who.” Now we understand why the Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation does not use the King James Bible Greek text! The Jehovah’s Witnesses see no problem calling Christ Jesus “He” or “He who” or “Who”—they just refuse to call Him “God!” (Anyone who dismisses this textual problem as “minor” has a heart problem. They do not have the sense to understand their Bible should not have mistakes in the first place!)
II. FIRST TIMOTHY 3:16, IN CONTEXT
Like so many, I once assumed 1 Timothy 3:16 referred to Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. Friend, this is probably how you have often heard this verse taught. If you read study Bible notes, commentaries, and listen to preachers and teachers, invariably, you will see they approach 1 Timothy 3:16 in this manner. However, if you look at the context, there is nothing about Christ’s earthly ministry. What is the context of 1 Timothy chapter 3? Or, better yet, what is the context of the whole book of 1 Timothy? The context of the epistle is the organization and administration of the local church assembly. Chapter 3 begins with the office of the bishop, then discusses the office of the deacon, and finally mentions the assembly (collectively).
Our first step in understanding 1 Timothy 3:16 is to read and believe the two previous verses: “ These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly.  But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” If you get nothing else out of this article, friend, please remember not to isolate verse 16 from verses 14 and 15!
What is “the house of God?” What is “the church of the living God?” Church tradition causes most people to say “the house of God” is a physical building. However, the Bible says God does not dwell in temples made with hands (Acts 17:24). Rather than speculating, we will let the Bible define for us this term “the house of God.”
Ephesians 2:19-22 says: “ Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;  And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;  In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord:  In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”
We are the temple of the Holy Ghost, as 1 Corinthians chapter 6 says: “ What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?  For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Also, 1 Corinthians chapter 3: “ Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?  If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”
According to the Bible text, the “house of God” of 1 Timothy 3:15 is individual Christians. It is also the local assembly of these Christians gathering in fellowship. We Christian believers, we are the house of God, the temple of God. Friend, do not let religion rob you of this truth by encouraging you to refer to some manmade structure today as “the house [or temple] of God!”
When we come to verse 16, we simply carry the thought over from verse 15 (most Bible readers fail to do this and thus misinterpret the verse). Verse 16 is still talking about the local group of Christians, or you could even say all of the Church the Body of Christ. If you look closely, the order of events of verse 16 does not match the order of Christ’s earthly life and ministry. However, that order of events perfectly matches our life and earthly ministry as members of the Body of Christ. We now dissect 1 Timothy 3:16: “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.”
III. FIRST TIMOTHY 3:16, EXPOUNDED
A. “AND WITHOUT CONTROVERSY…”
“And.” Let me remind you again the opening “and” links verse 16 to verse 15. Verses 14 and 15 again: “ These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly.  But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.  And [a continuation of verse 15] 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.” Verse 16 continues the thought mentioned in verse 15. The truth 1 Timothy 3:16 sets forth concerns the Church the Body of Christ of verse 15!
“Without controversy.” The Apostle Paul will reveal, profess, and proclaim, what is undoubtedly one of the most awesome teachings in the whole Bible. (Although, as we already pointed out, this verse has been highly “controversial” because people refuse to believe it as it exists in the proper Greek and English Bible texts! Regardless of their great efforts to deface the Word of God, these people cannot change what the original Bible says.)
B. “GREAT IS THE MYSTERY OF GODLINESS: GOD WAS MANIFEST IN THE FLESH…”
Any Bible student knows that Jesus Christ being God was no mystery (secret). Various “Old Testament” prophetic verses all predicted—hundreds of years in advance—that Messiah would be God in human flesh. We will briefly survey some examples.
Isaiah 9:6-7, written 700 B.C.: “ For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” (Messiah holds the titles of “The Mighty God” and “The Everlasting Father.” Could Messiah’s equality with Father God be any clearer?)
Isaiah 35:4, written 700 B.C.: “Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you.” (In light of verses 5-6, this is a reference to Messiah’s earthly ministry. Messiah is called “God” here.)
Micah 5:2, written 750 B.C.: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” (This is a verse about Messiah Jesus, according to Matthew 2:4-6. Micah 5:2 is perverted in modern in English versions, with “everlasting” [a reference to Messiah’s deity] is changed to “ancient times.”)
Malachi 3:1, written 400 B.C.: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the LORD, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.” (The “me” here is JEHOVAH, and really it is Jesus Christ whom John the Baptist preceded—see Mark 1:1-3. Mark 1:2 is perverted in modern English versions.)
The above verses indicate Messiah’s deity was not a secret. BUT, 1 Timothy 3:16 says “God manifest in human flesh” WAS a secret. “And without controversy great is the mystery [secret] of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh….” In other words, God being manifested in the flesh in this verse, the truth of 1 Timothy 3:16, was hidden from the “Old Testament” prophets. There is only one logical conclusion—1 Timothy 3:16 discusses something other than Messiah Jesus’ earthly ministry. Perhaps this startles you, but rest assured, it will become clearer as we progress. What type of fleshly manifestation of God is Paul mentioning here? (Hint: Recall the theme of the chapter, or the theme of the book!) “God manifest in human flesh” is a description of us, the Church the Body of Christ! We, corporately, are “godliness” (“God-likeness”). After all, it is God’s life in us! This is the “mystery of godliness.”
Second Corinthians chapter 4: “ But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.  We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;  Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;  Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.  For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” In the lives of Christians, the “life of Jesus” is manifested for all to see! By the working of the Holy Spirit who indwells us, the life of Jesus Christ (who is God manifested in human flesh) is revealed, or made known, in our lives. The Holy Spirit produces the life of Jesus Christ in the lives of the members of the Church the Body of Christ.
Galatians 2:20 tells us: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” And, Philippians 1:21: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Finally, Colossians 3:4: “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.”
Recall that the group of believers we know of as the Church the Body of Christ was kept secret from the “Old Testament” prophets. God manifesting His life in and through a group of believing Jews and Gentiles in one Body of Christ, that was most definitely a secret (mystery) not revealed until Paul’s apostleship and ministry. Read about “the mystery of [the Body of] Christ” in Ephesians 3:1-9. We do not learn this secret until the Pauline epistles, Romans through Philemon.
We let the Holy Spirit tell us in Ephesians chapter 9: “ For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,  If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:  How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words,  Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)  Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;  That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:  Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power.  Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;  And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ….”
C. “JUSTIFIED IN THE SPIRIT…”
“Justified in the Spirit” would make no sense referring to Jesus Christ. He needed no justification because He was God. Remember, the context is the Body of Christ.
We are justified, declared righteous in God’s sight, by the shed blood of Jesus Christ on Calvary (Romans 3:25-26). The moment we trust Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour, the Holy Spirit puts us into the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). We thus share Christ’s identity, His righteousness. We are surrounded by the power of the Holy Spirit because He makes Christ’s life real in our lives. Romans 8:9 says: “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Rather than being “in the flesh,” we are “in the Spirit.” That means the Spirit of God lives in us—remember, we are His “temple.” That is our identity. He has applied the righteous nature of Jesus Christ to our account, in contrast to the sin nature we have in Adam. That new nature in Christ produces God’s life, enabling God’s life to be manifested in ours. Again, “God manifest in the flesh.”
Galatians 3:3: “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” And, Galatians 5:16: “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” Galatians 5:25 also: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” We can also look at Colossians 1:8: “Who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit.” Again, “in the Spirit” is our position, and when we walk in that sanctified position, God’s life is manifested (practical, daily living). God’s life is not manifested in our lives when we walk in our resources, our own strength (legalism instead of grace living). When we walk apart from our identity in Christ, sin will dominate our lives.
D. “SEEN OF ANGELS…”
While angels watched Jesus Christ in His earthly ministry, this is not a reference to His earthly ministry because, as we have said already, the context does not support it. Remember, angels watch us as well. First Corinthians 4:9: “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men.” And, 1 Corinthians 11:10: “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” Also, Ephesians 3:10: “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,” Finally, 1 Timothy 5:21: “I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.”
When we realize that angels are watching us in our daily activities, then that will surely change our behavior. Think of the millions of angels above observing us down here. Are they seeing the life of God in human flesh on display in our lives? Are they witnessing the grace of God transforming lives? Or, are they seeing sinful people misbehaving while also claiming to value and follow God’s Word? Something to think about, my friend, something major to think about!
E. “PREACHED UNTO THE GENTILES…”
The message of “God manifest in the flesh” (the Body of Christ) being preached to Gentiles would certainly not be true until we come to the Apostle Paul’s ministry. If you are familiar with the Bible rightly divided, then you know Paul’s ministry was to Gentiles, all the nations, not just to Israel.
Paul wrote in Romans 11:13: “For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office….” Also, the ascended Jesus Christ told Paul in Acts 26:17-18: “ Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,  To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.” And, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:5-7: “ For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus;  Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.  Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity.”
We can also refer to Titus 2:11: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men….” “All men” is a reference to Paul preaching to all nations. Also, the Holy Spirit led Paul to write in Romans 15:15-16: “ Nevertheless, brethren, I have written the more boldly unto you in some sort, as putting you in mind, because of the grace that is given to me of God,  That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” Another reference is Ephesians 3:9: “And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ….” Finally, Paul penned in 2 Timothy 4:17: “Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.”
In stark contrast to Paul’s ministry, Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry was not to Gentiles—it was only to Jews. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself said to the 12 apostles in Matthew 10:5-7, for example: “ These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:  But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He told a Gentile woman in Matthew 15:24: “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” And, we can also look at John 4:22: “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.” Finally, Romans 15:8 affirms: “Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision [Israel] for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers….”
F. “BELIEVED ON IN THE WORLD…”
Again, this would not be true of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. “God manifest in the flesh” (the Body of Christ) was not believed on in the world until Jesus Christ was preached “in the world.” As briefly noted earlier, Paul’s ministry goal was to reach “all nations.” Romans 1:5 highlights his ministry: “By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name.” And, Romans 16:26 serves as confirmation: “But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.”
The Holy Spirit led Paul to write in Colossians, chapter 1: “ Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints,  For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel;  Which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth….” Not only was Paul, through the power of the Holy Spirit, preaching the Gospel of the Grace of God to “all the world,” that Gospel message was “bring[ing] forth fruit” in all the world. That is, people believed it, trusted it, and thus gained a hope in heaven because of Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork.
G. “RECEIVED UP INTO GLORY…”
While commonly assumed to be a reference to Jesus Christ’s ascension into heaven in Acts chapter 1, this is actually in reference to the Rapture, when the Church the Body of Christ finishes its earthly tasks (previous clauses of the verse) and is taken into heaven to serve Father God there. You may read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Ephesians 2:6-7, Philippians 3:20-21, 2 Thessalonians 2:1, 2 Corinthians 5:1, Colossians 3:1-4, 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, et cetera). The life that God manifested in our mortal flesh here on earth will be brought to fruition in the heavenly places. His life, as lived on earth through us, will be put on display throughout the universe through us.
Unfortunately, time and space do not permit us to quote and expound Romans 8:18-25, Ephesians 1:20-23, 1 Corinthians 15:34-58, Colossians 3:1-4, and 2 Timothy 2:10-13. These are some of the main passages that highlight God using us (the Church the Body of Christ) in the ages to come to reflect His life in the heavenly places. Please read and study them on your own time. They will help you immensely in answering the question concerning what we will do in heaven for eternity.
Some believe that 1 Timothy 3:16 was an “early Christian hymn.” This speculation does not concern us. What concerns us is that we properly identify the person or people in the verse. It is not the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ Himself. Rather, it applies to the earthly ministry of the Body of Christ.
Christ ascended, then He was preached unto Gentiles, and then He was believed on in the world. First Timothy 3:16 has that order reversed—preaching unto Gentiles, believing on in the world, and then ascending into heaven. Could it be clearer, dear friends? The verse is describing the life of the Body of Christ (today’s program) and not Jesus Christ in the books of Matthew through John. The context of 1 Timothy chapter 3, the theme of 1 Timothy itself, and verses 14 and 15—they all demand 1 Timothy 3:16 apply to the Church the Body of Christ. First Timothy 3:16 is a succinct summary of everything about the Body of Christ, from its earthly formation to its heavenly destiny.
“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.”