More than once in his epistles, Paul gets so excited about the truth he is expounding that he bursts forth in a hymn. Perhaps the best-known example of this is Romans 11:33–36 where the apostle praises the Lord’s wisdom at the end of his exposition of God’s electing grace (9:1–11:32). Today’s passage about the person and work of Jesus is another instance of this phenomenon.
Many scholars believe 1 Timothy 3:16 preserves an early Christian creed later used as an outline for the more expansive Apostles’ Creed. In any case, Paul’s reference to the truth in verse 15 spurs him to write what he does in verse 16, which is a fuller statement of the truth of salvation. Notably, the phrase “great indeed, is the mystery of godliness” may intentionally echo the phrase frequently heard in Ephesus: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:28). If so, Paul is indirectly subverting the cult of Artemis, Ephesus’ patron goddess.
Dr. John MacArthur says that the godliness mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:16 “refers to the truths of salvation and righteousness in Christ, which produce holiness in believers” (The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 1,788). Here the apostle outlines great truths of Christianity that we must believe to be put right with God and pursue holiness. First is our Savior’s manifestation in the flesh, which refers to that point in time when the eternal, divine Son of God took on a human nature and became incarnate in Christ Jesus (John 1:1–18). Next is Jesus’ vindication “by the Spirit,” which is His resurrection. Having been put to death as a blasphemer and insurrectionist, these charges were utterly refuted when Christ was raised from the dead. It served as the declaration that all His claims to be God’s only begotten Son are true indeed (Rom. 1:1–6). Being “seen by angels” highlights His ascension to sit at the right hand of the Father, where He enjoys the worship of the heavenly host (Ps. 110; Rev. 5:6–14).
The creed of 1 Timothy 3:16 concludes with the universal proclamation of the gospel, the conversion of the nations, and the glory of Jesus. This is not merely a second mentioning of Christ’s ascension but an assertion that He is glorified as His church spreads the good news across the globe (Ps. 67; 1 Cor. 15:25).