January 5, 2020
“The Mystery of our Religion”
1 Timothy 3:14-16
These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:14-16)
Epiphany comes after Christmas. It falls on January 6, but it is no longer customary among us Lutherans to gather together on Epiphany. So we celebrate Epiphany today.
We take Epiphany for granted. Maybe that’s why we largely ignore it, and act as if Christmas is over on December 25. In fact, without Epiphany, Christmas would have no meaning for us. Jesus was born King of the Jews. The shepherds who visited the manger in Bethlehem were Jews. They lived in the region of Bethlehem. They were brought up in the teaching of Moses and the prophets, participating in the worship prescribed by God for the children of Israel, and anticipating the coming of the Messiah. The wise men, or Magi, who visited the Lord Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, were not Jews. They were Gentiles. They were outsiders. They had learned of the promised King of the Jews, but while they were welcome at the crib of the Christ Child, they would not have been welcome in the home of or at the table of the ordinary Jew.
What Epiphany means for us is that the King of the Jews is also the Savior of the whole world. He came not only for the Jews, but also for the Norwegians, the Chinese, the Nigerians, the Germans, and the Americans. He came into this world to save sinners, regardless of their race, color, nationality, or language.
He came to fulfill the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He came to save the Jewish legalists from their legalism, showing them clearly the gospel truth promised to their ancestors for thousands of years. He came as well to save the Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Animists, Atheists, Agnostics, and all other sinners darkened by the delusions offered by false religions. He came to reveal the truth of God, and in so doing to open the doors of eternal life to people stumbling in the darkness of false teaching. Had Christmas not led to Epiphany, we would have been left spiritually blind.
Christmas did lead to Epiphany. The Gentiles came to the light, guided by the star. This light was not hidden from the world. It has shined in the hearts of people all over the world for nearly two thousand years.
The truth of the gospel is clear, but St. Paul calls it a mystery. It is a mystery, not because it cannot be known, but because it can be known only in Christ. It cannot be known apart from Christ. “Great is the mystery of godliness, God was manifested in the flesh.” He appeared not only to men, but as a true man. The word “godliness” in our text can also be translated religion. “Great is the mystery of our religion: God appeared in the flesh.”
This is the truth. We confess in the Small Catechism, after the explanation of each of the three articles of the Creed, “This is most certainly true.” In our text, St. Paul tells Timothy that the church is the “pillar and ground of the truth.” We do not find the truth by searching for the true church and submitting to that church’s authority. It’s the other way around. We find the true church by submitting to the truth. Wherever the gospel is preached purely, that is, according to the Holy Scriptures, and wherever the sacraments of Christ are administered rightly, there is the true church. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Only the church of the incarnate Lord Jesus has the truth. There is no other saving truth by which anyone born into this world can find God except that truth revealed to his church by Christ.
Where did the Magi go to worship? They went to where Christ was. Where do we go to worship? We go to where Christ is. The mystery of the true Christian religion is great because God was manifested in the flesh. God became a man. This is no myth. This is the literal truth. In him, that is, in Christ, all the fullness of the deity lives. In Christ, God did not just visit us. He became one of us. The divine nature and the human nature were united in one person. The man Jesus was, from his conception in his mother’s womb, the eternal God become flesh. The Father did not become a man. The Holy Spirit did not become a man. The Son became a man. He is true God and true man and all he does he does as true God and true man. The man Jesus stilled the storm, fed the five thousand, healed the sick, and raised the dead. There is nothing that God the Son does that Jesus the man does not do because there is only one Lord Jesus Christ, who is true God and true man, undivided and indivisible.
The mystery of our Christian religion is great because God was manifested in the flesh. The mystery of the true Christian religion is great because he was justified in the Spirit. That the sinless Son of God should be justified has puzzled some people. Usually the Bible talks about Christians being justified. God justifies us when he credits to us the righteousness of Christ. Before we can receive Christ’s righteousness, there must be a righteousness of Christ to receive. We do not receive a pretend kind of righteousness. We receive a real righteousness. St. Paul writes in Romans chapter three:
We are justified through faith in Jesus because Jesus is the One, the only one, who has redeemed us, set us free, set aside the anger of God, and made peace between sinners and the righteous God. Only the Holy Spirit can bring us to this faith that receives the righteousness of Jesus. Jesus was justified in the Spirit. By this same Spirit his justification becomes ours. He becomes ours. All that he did for us is reckoned to us. The Holy Spirit assures us of this truth. He convinces our hurting consciences that we really are righteous. No, we haven’t produced any righteousness of our own – in fact we have sinned daily and we deserve nothing but punishment from God. But in the gospel the Holy Spirit shows us the justification of Jesus. He binds our hearts and our minds to that great divine reckoning that looked with approval on Jesus’ perfectly righteous life and his holy suffering and death. The Holy Spirit convinces our fearful hearts that Jesus is ours and so is his justification. As surely as Jesus was justified in the Spirit, we, by the same Spirit are justified by Christ’s blood.
The mystery of our true Christian religion is great because he was seen by angels. Look! There are angels at the announcement of his birth, at his birth, after his birth, after his temptation, after his resurrection, and after his ascension into heaven. Why? So that we will take to heart the message from these messengers of God: “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” The angels see God. They live in the presence of God. They see God and then they see God become a man. They ascend and descend on Jacob’s ladder. This is to drive home with divine emphasis the truth that the final message from God is the message revealed in Christ and by Christ. He was seen by angels who watch over us, guarding us, protecting us, and keeping us safe.
The mystery of the true religion is great because He was preached among the Gentiles. He was preached. He did not enter in by force of arms. All the powers of all human tyrants have been powerless to stop him from coming through his preaching. Herod could not stop him. Nero could not stop him. Muhammad could not stop him. Lenin and Stalin could not stop him. Nobody will ever stop him because Christ’s manifestation in the flesh will be made known by preaching until the end of the world. He was preached among the Gentiles and this is how we were led out of the darkness of our pagan ancestry into the light of the truth.
The mystery of the true religion is great because He was believed on in the world. There is no greater power than faith. This power comes only from the God who is manifested in his incarnate Son and who is revealed by the Holy Spirit. Faith doesn’t come from us, though it does rest in us. But it isn’t a thing to be found or touched or discovered. Faith isn’t something we find. It comes from God. It comes from his truth. It is not our doing. It is our receiving. The faith that does nothing but receive yields every fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. All this the Holy Spirit works within the one he leads to the true faith in Christ.
The mystery of godliness is great because he was received up in glory. He fills all things. He is at the right hand of the Father, governing the whole universe for the benefit of his church. He is here with us, wherever two or three are gathered in his name to hear his gospel and receive his sacraments. Neither space nor time can bind him. No power can resist his might. Yet he whose glory is from everlasting to everlasting chooses to live with us. We cannot make it without him. We cannot make it for a single day. We are poor beggars, and we will remain poor beggars until the day we die. But in our spiritual poverty and weakness and helplessness we rejoice in a glory that is already ours. The true God who became our true brother has deposited his truth with us and the mystery it reveals is the greatest treasure we have in this life. So we cherish the mystery in our hearts.
Rolf D. Preus