A Christmas Confession

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

1 Timothy 3:16 | December 23, 2018 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
December 23, 2018
A Christmas Confession | 1 Timothy 3:16
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, as we come now to Your Word, we ask that You would give us receptive minds and attentive hearts, that we might hear what you have to say to us. We have listened all week to social media or talking heads or read reports in the paper, listened to friends and family, and now we want to hear from You. So speak to us. Give us the word that we need to hear. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Have you ever noticed that there are an awful lot of memorable 3:16’s in the Bible? John 3:16, of course, comes to mind: For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Most of you know that one. If we were going through and doing some sword drills, you might know 2 Timothy 3:16: All scripture breathed out by God, profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training, in righteousness. I wonder if you can think of some others. My wife, perhaps, may be thinking of Genesis 3:16: I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing, [laughter] in pain you shall bring forth children. I may be thinking of the next part of the verse, “your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” [laughter] But we won’t go there.

What about Luke 3:16? “I baptize you with water but He who is mightier than I is coming and the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

1 Corinthians 3:16: Do you not know you are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in you?

And many of you know Colossians 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thanksgiving in your hearts to God.

Or 1 John 3:16: By this we know love, that He laid down his life for us and we also ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

Or finally Revelation 3:16: So because you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Have you ever put together just how many famous verses in the Bible happen to be 3:16’s? Now, it’s perhaps by God’s providence, it’s not by inspiration. The verses were not in the originals when they were written by the Holy Spirit through the pens of men, but it has come down to us as a remarkable providence that so many famous and important verses are 3:16’s.

Perhaps sometime there will a sermon series on the 3:16’s in the Bible, but this morning you’re getting one of them, and that’s Timothy 3:16. You know 2 Timothy 3:16, but just as important is 1 Timothy. So please turn in your Bibles, if you’re not there already, page 992 in the pew Bibles, 1 Timothy 3:16. Of all the 3:16’s you may have tucked away somewhere in the memory banks of your hearts, here’s one that ought also to be there. Follow along as I read 1 Timothy 3:16: “Great indeed we confess is the mystery of godliness. He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

Now keep your Bibles open because we’re going to be working phrase by phrase through this one verse. You’ll notice this is called “The Mystery of Godliness.” When we hear the word “mystery,” we’re liable to think of magicians or conjurers or illusionists.

For some reason I have stuck in my mind, when I was growing up my mom told me I could, I could dream and be whatever I wanted to be, or at least try, I wasn’t really going to be a football player, but she said there’s two things that you’re not allowed to be. I’m not sure why these two things stuck out to her: You’re not allowed to be a magician or a boxer. So, I have fulfilled my mom’s wishes in both of those regards. I guess they seemed dangerous. This was the time when you were seeing on TV David Copperfield float across the Grand Canyon or do other things and she said “don’t do that.”

That’s what we think of with mysteries, but the Bible means something else. A mystery in the New Testament is something that was hidden and has now been revealed. It’s our faith now unveiled to us with open eyes. The mystery of godliness. That is, here is the faith that was prefigured, that was seen in types, that was prophesied, but has now been revealed. The mystery now is an open secret.

Many scholars conclude, I think rightly, that verse 16 was some kind of early creed in the church, or perhaps even a hymn that we no longer have the music to. Even in English you can catch the sort of rhythm and cadence to it. If you’re reading in the Greek, you would see it an eras passive verb followed by a preposition and then a dative noun. It’s just beautiful grammar. But you don’t need to know any of the Greek to just pick up the rhythm and the cadence: Manifested in flesh, vindicated by spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among nations, believed in the world, taken up in glory. Verb – preposition – noun. It has a rhythm to it.

And since this is most like a hymn, or perhaps even an early creed, I want us to confess it together. So people of God, what do we believe? He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

Now what does that mean? Well, there’s clearly a structure here, although people don’t all agree on what the structure is. It could be that the structure is chronological, and I think that’s close but doesn’t exactly fit. So if you’re following through, you can see “manifested in the flesh” seems to be about His, His birth and as we’ll see then resurrection and ascension… But you have the last phrase, “taken up in glory,” where it seems that “seen by angels” already speaks of His ascension, so it’s sort of chronological, but there’s another theological layer to it, we’ll see in just a moment.

Others argue that what we have here are three couplets, contrasting pairs with an earthy perspective and then a heavenly perspective. So that you have, in the first pari you have flesh and spirit, and then you have angels in heaven, nations on earth. And then you have world, here, and glory, up there, that there are three couplets contrasting an earthly and a heavenly perspective, that’s possible.

But I think the ESV is onto something. As you notice the way they do the versification here, they have it as two stanzas with three lines each. And you can see that with the way it’s indented, and I think that’s as best as we can figure, probably our best estimate of how we might understand this hymn or this poem. The first stanza, then, those first three lines, speak of Christ’s completed work, the work that He has achieved and accomplished here His time on earth. And in the second stanza, beginning with the word “proclaimed,” then shows the results of Christ’s work.

So you can think of verse one to this hymn as His historical incarnate ministry, and then verse two the life of the exalted Christ in heaven and what has now taken place as a result of this completed work.

Now as we’ll see, it’s not terribly different from a chronological understanding and it has overlap with the couplet understanding of earthly and heavenly perspective, but I think the ESV gives us the best way of approaching this text. We have essentially two verses. The first verse or stanza which moves through the earthly historical incarnate ministry of Christ. He was manifested in the flesh. This is obviously a reference to His incarnation, Immanuel, God with us.

If you notice in your Bibles, you see there’s a little footnote there with the word “He” and you can go down and you can read. The Greek actually has the word “who” but some manuscripts say “God” and others say “which.” It’s translated here in English as “He.” This is one of the most famous passages in the Bible which has some different textual variants. Come back tonight to hear more about that and why we can actually trust the Bible more than any other ancient book in the world, that it has come down to us by God’s providence with great reliability.

But here, the discrepancy is whether it is a direct reference to God or simply an indirect reference to God being manifest in the flesh, and in the end the theology is the same. He, that is Christ, the Son, has been manifested in the flesh. Now even if this does not have in the most reliable manuscripts “God,” which is what the footnote says some have, we don’t need this particular verse to tell us that Jesus is God. We know that from what we’ve been studying in John’s gospel. We know it from Titus 2:13, which speaks of our great God and savior Jesus Christ. Or Thomas’ confession when he puts his finger in his hand and in Christ’s side and he says “my Lord and my God.”

So Jesus is that God manifested in the flesh. This is what makes Christianity unique. Think about it. Unlike polytheistic religions, we believe in only one God. Not a pantheon, not dueling gods and goddesses, but one God, creator of heaven and earth, who is sovereign and absolute in His power over all things, distinct from His creation. One God. And at the same time, unlike other monotheistic religions, perhaps Islam or Judaism, we believe that this one God and only one God has been manifested in the flesh. We believe in a triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This God came down, assumed human flesh, and dwelt among us. And in this great miracle of the incarnation, God has participated in the most un-God-like things imaginable.

By definition, you cannot have a God who suffers. God doesn’t do that, God does not suffer, God cannot be acted upon by outside forces. By definition, you do not have a God. God cannot sleep. God cannot die. To be God is to be eternal, without end. God cannot die. By definition a God cannot be born, a God doesn’t hurt, he doesn’t grow, he doesn’t learn, he doesn’t feel pain. And the God of the Bible cannot be seen. And it’s true. That, that’s God.

Sometimes Christians want to make God more attractive and down to earth by ascribing those sorts of things to Him, saying “well, God’s in heaven and He hurts as much as any of us,” or “God needs to learn things, just like we need to learn things.” But that’s not the God of the Bible. And in fact, that removes the scandal and the glory and the wonder of the incarnation. “Tis mystery all, the immortal dies,” you remember that line from Wesley’s famous hymn And Can It Be? Tis mystery all, the immortal dies. There’s no mystery for the mortal to die. There’s no mystery for the immortal to live forever. The mystery is how does the immortal One in some sense, in the incarnate state, die?

The miracle and the mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus Christ as the God-man experienced these things that God as God in heaven would not experience. It’s not that the Son of God was imperfect or lacking in something, but as Hebrews tells us, He had to be made perfect. You ever wonder what does that mean? That the Son of God had to be made perfect? Are you saying that the Son was not perfect in heaven? Well, think of perfect not as moral failing, that’s clearly not what it means, but as qualification. Hebrews makes plain that the Son of God had to be qualified in order to save us. That is, He had to partake in flesh and blood as we are flesh and blood. That He can only save what He has assumed. Which is why we want and we need a fully human Christ, One who can lay a hand on us both, for us and for our salvation, the Nicene Creed says, He came down. This is the great mystery of godliness, that this God, immutable, eternal, impassible, independent, never learning, never growing, never lacking in anything, that this God took on human flesh and dwelt among us, and died.

Imagine the scandal after years of having drilled into your brain as a good Jew you worship an invisible God. The second commandment says we don’t make images of this invisible God. He’s invisible. We don’t see Him. We remember what happened, all the trouble we got in with the golden calf. This is an invisible God.

And then all of a sudden there’s a man. He looks just like you. Hair just like you, color just like you, skin complexion just like you, language just like you, and he talks as if He’s God.

John 1:18: No one has ever seen God. The only God who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known, manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the spirit.

The first line is a reference to the incarnation. This line is a reference to the resurrection. In a number of places, God’s spirit is said to be the agency by which Jesus was raised from the dead. It’s so obvious that we often miss it. Romans 8:11 says that God’s spirit raised Jesus from the dead. It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that God the Father gave new life to Christ.

And Romans 1:4 makes explicit the Spirit’s connection in raising Him and therefore vindicating Him. It says “Christ Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh,” so there’s that language that we just saw manifested in the flesh, “and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead.” That’s what it means, that in the resurrection the Spirit vindicated Christ.

Now how did He vindicate Him? Well, think of all the misunderstanding there was around Christ. Who was He? The Messiah’s not supposed to die. He was scandalous, He was a blasphemer, He made himself equal with God, and He dies the death of a criminal. Well, that’s what he deserves and there he is in the tomb. But when the stone is rolled away, and the tomb is empty, and by the Spirit the Son is risen to newness of life, it is the vindication that everything he said about Himself was true, that the grave had no hold on the Son of Man, because He was the one to pay for all of our sins and the wages of sin is death. And when those wages have been paid for, death has loosed it’s chains, so that as Peter will say in his famous sermon, “death could not hold Him, the grave could not hold our Christ.”

Because all had been paid for. And the empty tomb was that great vindication He was who He said He was, and He will do what He says He will do. He is the perfect Son of Man and Son of God manifested in the flesh, and then in His resurrection vindicated by the spirit.

What more powerful evidence could there be that Jesus was the Son of God, was the King of Kings, was the long-awaited Messiah, was not the son of the devil, was not a messianic pretender, was not deserving of death, then that He would be raised from death.

The third line, “seen by angels.” Have you ever noticed angels are all around Jesus’ ministry. They minister to Him during His temptation, they witnessed His ministry, they were there at the empty tomb, they were there at the ascension, and they greeted Him in glory.

Listen to 1 Peter 3 and how resurrection, what we just saw, is connected with angelic glory. 1 Peter 3: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience.”

Now listen to this part: “Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers, having been subjected to Him.”

Do you see the sequence there? Just like we have in verse 16, the sequence from resurrection to angels. What’s the connection? Well, through the resurrection then gone into heaven at the right hand of God, and there angels, authorities, and powers have been subjected to Him. Seen by angels is to speak of His heavenly arrival and all things being placed under His feet, and even the angelic host doing His bidding and singing His praises, subservient to Him. In other words, what we have in this first stanza is a summary of Christ’s work and ministry on earth: incarnation, resurrection, ascension.

And incidentally, it’s all of one piece. Sometimes we just, you know, focus on Christmas. Sometimes we just focus on Easter. Almost nobody just focuses on the ascension. We give it too little attention. But’s all of a piece, all of it describes to us and is fulfilled for us the fullness of Christ’s ministry and all that He accomplished. All three go together. Without the incarnation at His birth, we do not know that He is the God-man to save us, without the resurrection our sins are not paid for and He is not vindicated, and without His ascension we do not know that He has now arisen to the right hand of God where He dwells in glory, to come again.

So people of God, what do we believe? “He was manifested in the flesh,” together, “vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

If the first stanza gives us the work of Christ on earth, then the second stanza gives us the results of that work, so that as a result of this Christ even, incarnation, resurrection, ascension, He has been proclaimed among the nations. Christmas is about missions. Because Christmas happened, missions should happen. Christmas has become so much about family and snow and homecoming and food and all of that, it can be a blessing, but we don’t want to miss that it is meant to send us out just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so we are sent out now with a message.

Think of some of the Christmas carols, “go tell it on the mountain,” “good Christian men rejoice with heart and soul and voice, give ye heed to what we say, news, news, Jesus Christ is born today.”

I can with absolute confidence you will not find any better news today, whether it’s CNN FoxNews, your favorite app… No better news. No more important news. No more lasting news. So glued to what’s happening today, so many of us caught up in the twists and turns of everything that happens in a 24-hour news cycle, we lose sight of the most important news that has already happened, and that we have the privilege to share.

That’s what we’re doing with our Christmas songs, I hope. Yeah, some of the songs are a little sugary, some of the songs take poetic license, how much snow was there really in Bethlehem? Were the cattle really just lowing? Mooooo… [laughter] The little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes. Doubtful. [laughter] So there’s some poetic license, but, but they tell the story. They are singing sermons, reciting what God has done, inviting us to tell others, how could we not ring out these tidings of comfort of joy, comfort and joy. Proclaimed among the nations, and then, as He’s proclaimed, He is believed on in the world.

Do you see the parallels with lines one and four and two and five? So He’s manifested then vindicated, then you go to four and five, He’s proclaimed and then He’s believed. And do you know that this still happens? People still hear and believe? Maybe it’s a miracle that will happen and needs to happen for some of you. There’s bound to be somebody in this great city, today or tomorrow, who wanders into a church, not even sure why they’re there, just out of obligation to some grandparent somewhere, and they come and they hear and for the first time they believe. Maybe that’s you.

If you’re a Christian, at some point that miracle happened in your life. You heard the story of Jesus and it was more than a myth to you, it was more than just an inspiring moral tale, more than just sentimental holiday jargon. If you really believe, you know this happened. This story that has been so sprayed over with the mist of history and tradition actually happened. Joseph and Mary and actually went up to be registered in Bethlehem and they actually laid down there in the manger and there the Lord Jesus breathed His first human breath. It happened.

Believed on in the world, taken up in glory. This is the most difficult phrase of the six. It could refer to Christ’s coming again and return into glory, but it’s more natural to hear this is another echo of the ascension. After all, the verb here used “taken up into glory” is the exact same verb used for the ascension in Luke and in Acts. But it seems a little strange because it seems like well, didn’t well already do the ascension with “seen by angels,” and now He’s taken up into glory again? But I think the difference here is that there’s a theological layer. The ascension language here isn’t focusing so much on the act itself as it is the theological implication of the proclamation and the belief. That is to say, as Christ is proclaimed among the nations, and as Christ is believed on in the world, He is then further glorified and exalted just as he was when He was taken up into glory and seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. In other words, this reference to the ascension is really a theological gloss.

It is, in the first verse, taken up that He is then seen by angels in glory. Here it’s describing to us the great riches that have come to Christ now through the proclamation of the Gospel and believing in His name that He has now, just as He was in the ascension, been given glory. It’s a theme throughout the New Testament, that once in heaven Christ is surrounded by heavenly beings, given the name that is greater than all other names. So His being seen by angels and then being declared superior to angels is part of what it means for Him to be exalted, or to be taken up in glory. Just as the ascension was a literal taken up in glory, so when we proclaim Christ, and so when others believe in Christ, He is an even more profound sense, once again, taken up and given the glory that He deserves.

So people of God, what do we believe? “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”

Now, I trust that everyone here is eager to put Christ back in Christmas. We know that saying, and that’s good. We can be concerned that Christmas gets wrapped up in a hundred other things that aren’t really about the Gospel. We were trying to play some “Family Feud” as a family a few days ago and had these little cards and one of the questions was something like “Why do people not like Christmas?” and I wonder if you could come up with the answers. It was the commercialization, it’s cold, uh, it’s too long, I have to buy presents, it costs a lot of money. One of them was “I like everything about Christmas,” that was sweet. One of the answers was “I don’t like anything about Christmas,” so depending on where you are, we all know that Christmas feels like an unbelievable stress at times. And so we want to put Christ back in Christmas. That’s good, that’s good.

But is it for you a Christ with any content? There’s all sorts of church people, all over this country, who are going to be in services today and tomorrow and sing the songs and feel the warmth of tradition and light their candles and say “my, my, wasn’t that a beautiful choir,” “my, wasn’t it nice that pastor was a little shorter,” “weren’t the flowers beautiful,” “wasn’t Silent Night lovely,” “I’m so glad I’m a Christian.”

Who is this Christ? Is He merely a slogan? A ritual? A sense of aspiration, an empty bucket into which you pour all of your hopes and dreams? Is He just a once a year tradition? Think about what really defines you. What is your identity?

We live in a day where people are passionate about their identity and their tribe and what makes them like these people and not like these people. What sets you apart? “I’m a DeYoung, I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a pastor, I’m a man, I’m an American, I’m Dutch… ” whatever it is. What’s your identity? What really defines you? What really prods you and pushes you along? When you think about who you are, the deepest sense of your being, what makes you you? That you’re a southerner? That you’re a Yankee? That you’re a man? A woman? Is it who your daddy was? Is it your children? What defines you?

Well, I hope it’s this great mystery of godliness. Do you believe this? That He was manifested in the flesh? That He rose again, vindicated by the Spirit, ascended into heaven, seen by angels, proclaimed, believed, receiving the glory due His name. Do you believe that story? Does it make any discernable difference in your life?

Kids, we’ve lots of kids here, do you believe it? Do you really believe it? This story really happened. If you do, tell your mom and dad you believe it. They’d be glad to hear that. Mom and dad, if you believe it, would you tell your kids this afternoon, “You know what pastor was talking about? I want you to know, mommy and daddy really believe this story.”

It’s not just something we sing about. It’s not like movies you can see and television shows or picture books… This really happened. Let’s confess more than “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Let’s confess this great mystery of godliness.

Wouldn’t that be shocking to somebody? You know, we have the whole “Happy Holidays,” “no, Merry Christmas, get out of my face.. ” [laughter] It would be really something at the checkout line “Merry Christmas. He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. Happy Holidays.” [laughter].

Whatever you confess, make sure this is your truest confession: “Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord, late in time behold Him come, offspring of the Virgin’s womb, veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.”

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we thank You that You have revealed to us this great mystery, this news news, these tidings of comfort and joy. We pray that we might be the means of others hearing and in hearing believing, and in believing bringing glory to Jesus. In whose name we pray. Amen.