A Christmas Confession

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

1 Timothy 3:16 | December 25, 2016 -

December 25, 2016
A Christmas Confession | 1 Timothy 3:16
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Let’s pray. Gracious Heavenly Father, we ask that you would give us ears to hear the wonderful good news of the Son of God, who came to earth for us and for our salvation. In his name we pray, amen.

I know that Christmastime means a lot of pressure for you. Some of you are thinking about the pressure you have today from meals, parties, and other things over the next week. Personally, I’m under a tremendous amount of pressure from our covenant children—including, but not exclusively, my own children—who have asked me (many times), “Pastor Kevin, will your Christmas morning sermon be a little shorter?” It will be a little shorter.

Have you ever noticed that there are an unusually large number of good 3:16s in the Bible? I’ve thought before that it would make a very good sermon series: “The 3:16s of the New Testament.” John 3:16 comes to mind, of course:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

Also 2 Timothy 3:16:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 2 Timothy 3:16

And there are other well-known texts!

John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Luke 3:16
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 1 Corinthians 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 thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 1 John 3:16
So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3:16

The chapters and verses were not inspired. They came later, so we can’t claim any sort of divine warrant for this, but it is a remarkable coincidence.

This morning, I want us to look at one other New Testament 3:16: 1 Timothy 3:16. This is what we read in God’s holy, inspired word:

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. 1 Timothy 3:16

In the New Testament, “mystery” doesn’t mean exactly what we mean by the word. We think of something that’s elusive, baffling, confusing, and even magical, but “mystery” in the New Testament refers to something which is hidden and has now been revealed. Don’t think of Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine. Instead, think of something which was hidden or obscured, which has now been made visible and manifested.

Up in verse 15, Paul refers to “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” He’s thinking of the great truth that the church is to proclaim and protect, but he calls it by a different phrase: “the mystery of godliness”.

Most scholars have concluded (rightly, I think) that verse 16 was an early hymn or creed of the church. That’s why you should see it offset in poetry form in your Bible. You can hear the rhythm in English: “…manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

If you want the particulars of the Greek syntax (and who among us does not?), the pattern is an aorist passive verb, plus the preposition “en” (which can be translated “in,” “with,” or “by”), followed by a noun in the dative case: “Hos ephanerōthē en sarki [flesh], edikaiōthē en pneumati [Spirit], ōphthē angelois [angels], ekērychthē en ethnesin [the word for “nations”; you can hear our word “ethnicities”], episteuthē en kosmō [cosmos; the world], anelēmphthē en doxē [doxology; glory].

Since we think this was an early hymn or creed (or perhaps both), and since it says that it’s a mystery we confess, I would like us to confess it together. 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. 1 Timothy 3:16

It’s beautiful. How we understand it, though, is a little more difficult. From the get-go, scholars have disagreed on the basic structure of the poem/confession. Some have argued that it’s strictly chronological. You can see very clearly that there are six different lines. They believe that it’s moving from the Incarnation, to his baptism by the Spirit, to being seen by angels in his life, then preached on, then believed in, followed by the Ascension. All of that is possible, and certainly somewhat in line with the interpretation I’ll offer this morning.

Others have argued that there are three couplets here instead—three pairs of verses, each of which is meant to contrast an earthly and a heavenly perspective. On earth, he was manifested in the flesh. In heaven, he was vindicated by the Spirit. In heaven, he was seen by angels. On earth, he was proclaimed among the nations. On earth, he was believed on. In heaven, he was taken up in glory. That too is possible.

If you’re reading from the ESV (which is what we have in the pews), you’ll how it organizes the creed into two stanzas of three lines each. That’s how we’re going to understand it, and (I think) it’s the right way to do so. In the first stanza, you have a description of Christ’s completed work: his Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension. Then, in the second stanza, you have the response to that work: preaching, faith, and then glory to Christ.

Manifested in the Flesh

Let’s look at each of these lines in turn. The first stanza, which details Christ’s completed work, begins with: “He was manifested in the flesh”. This is obviously a reference to the Incarnation, which is what we celebrate this morning: Immanuel—God with us.

…our great God and Savior Jesus Christ… Titus 2:13b

There, Christ is plainly given the reference of deity. Famously, after the resurrection, Doubting Thomas says, “My Lord and my God!” Christ was God himself, manifested in the flesh. That is the doctrine of the Incarnation.

“carne” means “meat”, so “the Incarnation” literally means “the enfleshment”. It’s what makes Christianity unique. Unlike polytheistic religions, we believe in one God, the creator of heaven and earth, who is sovereign, absolute, and unrivaled in his power. Unlike other monotheistic religions (like Islam or Judaism), we believe that God was manifested in the flesh as a human person. God, by the mystery of the Incarnation, was able to do the most un-Godlike things imaginable. By definition, God does not suffer or hurt. He does not sleep. He isn’t born, doesn’t grow up, and can’t die. He doesn’t learn. He cannot be seen. That’s what it means to be God.

This is the great mystery and majesty of our faith: in the Incarnation, God took on human flesh. He, in the weakness that we share (except for sin), is able to do all of these things. “Thou who was rich for our sakes becamest poor.” We just sang that, but we can scarcely imagine what it means.

All of us have probably stayed in a hotel that felt a little sketchy. We may have gone to visit relatives who live at a little lower standard than we’d like. Don’t say if you’re visiting those relatives this morning! Some of you have been to far-flung places which have dire poverty and need that most of us are oblivious to.

Yet all that pales in comparison to coming from the glories and perfections of heaven to being poor for our sakes. Imagine the scandal and wonder of those first Jews, after centuries of having it drilled into their brains: “You worship an invisible God! We are not like the nations. We have no Baal or Asherah. We make no graven images of this God. ‘You shall have no other Gods before me.’” Then John has the audacity to say,

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. John 1:18

Paul later references Christ as “the image of the invisible God,” God manifested in the flesh.

Vindicated by the Spirit

Christ was “vindicated by the Spirit”. This is likely a reference to the Resurrection. In a number of places, God’s Spirit is said to have been the agency by which Jesus was raised from the dead—most notably, Romans 1:4:

…[Christ Jesus] was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead… Romans 1:3b-4a

Christ’s supreme vindication came on Easter Sunday morning, which is why it so glorious.

I know it’s a busy day, and I know some kids out there really want to get to the presents, but it’s a wonderful thing that we can celebrate the Resurrection on Incarnation Sunday morning. In that event, by which the Spirit raised Christ from the dead, he was vindicated in all that he claimed to be. As he hung on the cross, it seemed as if none of it were true, but when the tomb was empty, it proved that he was right.

Every since Joe Namath and Super Bowl III, athletes have loved to make predictions: “I guarantee we’re going to win this!” But they don’t mean anything. Do you know how often they fail? About 50% of the time. If they’re right, they look vindicated, because they said it and no one believed them. But if they’re wrong…well, so many people are wrong that it doesn’t matter.

Can you imagine this, though? Jesus said to them: “’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ In three days, I will be raised to new life, and I will go to the Father in glory.” He made the most outlandish promises—more outlandish, even, than promising that the Lions will win the Super Bowl! This is utterly unbelievable.

Yet it happened, and now it is believable! What more powerful evidence can there be that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Kings, and the long-awaited Messiah—not some Messianic pretender who deserved death. He was vindicated by the Spirit when the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty.

Seen by Angels

Christ was “seen by angels”. Angels ministered to him during his temptation. They witnessed his ministry. They greeted him in glory, sat at the empty tomb, and were present at his ascension.

And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes… Acts 1:10

This statement is likely a reference to the angelic attestation of his character all throughout his ministry, but particularly at his ascension.

So in this first stanza, we have a summary of Christ’s work on earth: his incarnation, resurrection, and ascension. What we confess is the great mystery of godliness: God come down to earth, put to death for our sakes, raised to life, and now ascended and reigning at the right hand of God the Father. Brothers and sisters, what do we confess?

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. 1 Timothy 3:16

Then we come to the second stanza. In the ESV, you can see how the indentation again goes to the left to mark that. The first verse showed Christ’s completed work, and this shows the response to that work on earth.

Proclaimed Among the Nations

Christ is to be “proclaimed among the nations”. Christmas, if it’s rightly understood, leads to missions. We usually think of Christmas as the time of year when everyone comes home. That’s wonderful. In fact, we have family who we will see this week, and so do many of you. It could be very appropriate to think of Christmas as the time for returning, drawing in, looking inward, and coming home. But theologically (even more so), it’s the time for looking out, going out, and sending! If the first stanza is accurate, how could we not share this story?

Some of us have been Christians for a long time. We’ve been to Christmas services forever. It’s all so familiar. We just confessed together twice that the God of the universe was born as a little baby, died (but didn’t stay dead!), floated up into the sky, and is now reigning in heaven. What?! But there’s evidence, testimony, and the word of God, and most of us believe it.

If that’s a true story, how can we not share it? It’s remarkable! I’m sure that all of you have seen those “A December to Remember” commercials this year—the ones where you wake up on Christmas morning, go out into your driveway, and see a shiny, new Lexus with a great big red bow on top, and you say, “Kids, you shouldn’t have.” Let me know if this has happened to you this morning. I’d love to hear that story. It’d be great. We might have to have another offering before you leave. No, when you see that commercial, you think, “Who has that happen? And where do you get a bow that big?”

Now you might be a little embarrassed or shy about it, but I’d bet that if that happened, you’d be telling people about it: “You’ll never believe what I got for Christmas!” And they’d say, “No, I don’t believe you!”

We have a story that’s so much more important, so much better, and filled with such unimaginably good news. How can you not proclaim this among the nations? We sing of it in some of our Christmas songs: “Go, tell it on the mountain!” “Tidings of comfort and joy!” How can we not pass along such a story? We have to share it if it’s true!

If anyone is here who didn’t really want to be here—you know, you just did it because of Christmas, or because your family wanted you to come, but you’re not sure that you believe any of this—start here. Start with Jesus. You can say, “I don’t like what the Bible says about x, y, and z. I’m not sure that I could ever do that. I don’t like church people.” Just start here. What about Jesus? Do you think this is true? Do you think these Christmas carols are true? If they’re not, you shouldn’t sing them. Then they’re not just innocent and fun, like Frosty the Snowman, but lies and deception. But is it true?

Believed on in the World

The result of this preaching, we pray, is for Christ to be “believed on in the world”. It’s a miracle, isn’t it? At some point in your life (for most of you, at least), you heard the story that we’ve just confessed, and God moved in your spirit. Maybe you have one of the testimonies that we love: “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know Jesus. It always seemed so natural.” But still, there was some time when you claimed it. Maybe it was very dramatic, in college or later in life. But there’s something in each of you who are truly born again where you can say to yourself and others, “This really happened!” What a miracle that we have this many people on a Sunday morning, in churches all over the world, gathering to sing, preach, proclaim, and believe the same things. This story is not a myth, inspiring moral uplift, or sentimental holiday jargon. It’s true!

You may think, “Well, back then, they were ignorant people. They didn’t know science or many other things that we know now.” Do you think it was easier to believe this story back then? It was new! But it’s not new for most of us. In those early centuries, they were often a persecuted church! But not many of us are really persecuted. There were no cultural markers to give plausibility to this! But even if you don’t want anything to do with Christianity in this country, you can’t deny that there are a lot of churches, that there are Christmas carols playing in the mall, and that there is a rich history of brilliant theologians and philosophers, along with Christian schools and universities. All of this surrounds us, giving some plausibility to the idea that these people aren’t crazy.

They didn’t have any of that. Christianity was brand new, and hardly seemed plausible. If you believed, you’d get persecuted for it. But you know what? They still said, “Sign me up,” because it was true, and because God moved in their hearts to help them and make them see that it was true.

Taken Up in Glory

Finally, Christ was “taken up in glory.” This could refer to Christ coming again, returning in glory, but it’s more natural to hear another echo of his ascension here. There are parallels between the two stanzas at several points. Manifested in the flesh, therefore proclaimed among the nations; vindicated by the Spirit (the ultimate proof that we should believe), and seen by the angels in his ascension, as he was taken up in glory. As Christ is proclaimed among the nations and believed on in the world, he is further glorified.

This language is meant to have an echo of the ascension, but it’s not just in the physical sense of being taken up into heaven. It’s also a theological interpretation and implication. Namely, when this Christ (in his incarnation, resurrection, and ascension) is proclaimed and believed, it means glory for him. He was taken up in glory in his ascension, but he is taken up in glory as men, women, and children bow and sing, “Come let us adore him!”

Is it not obvious how this early creed or hymn is centered, from start to finish, on Christ? What is the most central confession in your life? Really, the most central? I don’t mean the Heidelburg or the Westminster. What defines you, shapes you, sends you out, and gives you your identity, worth, and purpose? What is that confession?

I saw the new Star Wars movie this week. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to tell you that there’s one character who often repeats this line to himself: “I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.” I thought, “If you could get rid of the goofy Force thing and put Christ in there, it’s almost like the apostle Paul: ‘I am one with Christ, and Christ is with me.’” So, if you see the movie and hear that, just think to yourself, “That’s the Pauline doctrine of union with Christ.”

That was Paul’s fundamental confession. His identity, worth, purpose, and mission—how he understood himself in the world—were wrapped up in “I am one with Christ and Christ is with me.” This confession centers on Christ.

Even for some of us Christians, what really shapes and defines us is another confession. It could be a certain pride in your family name: “I am a DeYoung.” Maybe it’s in your heritage: “I am Dutch and you ain’t much.” Maybe it’s in your identity as a husband, father, mother, or pastor—or as a man, woman, Spartan, Wolverine, American, or whatever. Maybe you’re just trying to convince yourself through positive self-talk that, “I am special. I am good. It’s not my fault.” We all go through our lives, giving ourselves these little confessions. We’re all confessional people. We all anchor ourselves to things that shape and define us.

But the questions we need to ask are, “Is it true?”, and “Can it sustain everything in life?” because just claiming that you’re a mother, or you’re Dutch, or you’re rich, or you’re a Spartan is not going to be enough. Brothers and sisters, 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. 1 Timothy 3:16

We’ve now said it three times. Do you believe it? If you do (and I think most of you do), what discernible difference does it make in your life? Kids, students, teenagers, and young people: you’ve probably just said it, and many of you believe it too. What difference will it make in your life to believe this grand story of Jesus, the Son of God, who came to earth; was raised on a cross, buried in the earth, and raised to new life; who ascended into heaven; and who is now seated at the right hand of God, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead. If you believe this, kids, I hope you’ll tell your mom and dad. Moms and dads, if you believe this, I hope your kids know that you do, and that it’s the most important thing in all of your life to confess this great mystery of godliness.

Christ, to Thee with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving, and unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory, evermore and evermore! – Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Great is the mystery of godliness. Come and worship Christ, the newborn king. Let’s pray.

Father in heaven, what good news and grace that you have given us the opportunity to hear, even when so many have never heard or had the opportunity to receive, believe, and follow. May we never grow tired of the same old wonderful story. May we believe it, share it, base everything on it, give up everything for it, and trust that at the end of the age, we will have given up nothing. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.