Mystery of True Godliness (1 Timothy 3:16)
This short hymnic passage of 1 Timothy 3:16 interrupts Paul’s address to Timothy with an exposition of “the mystery of true godliness.” This break is apparent by the change of personal pronoun from the second person (you) to the third (he) as well as also pointed by relative pronoun “which (ὃς [hos]).”
The form of the hymn is always the same using the scheme aorist passive + dative, therefore providing some rhythmic flavor or meter to the text. This scheme structures the text into six lines starting with each passive verb. It is difficult to find any logical structure (ie. chronological) in the text without some challenging problems for the suggestion. Rather what is more visible is that the text contains contrastive pairs: flesh-spirit (σάρξ-πνεῦμα), angels-nations (ἄγγελος-ἔθνος), and world-glory (κόσμος-δόξα). We will, therefore, stay with the division into lines.
The introduction to the hymn itself presents the following content as “the mystery of godliness (τὸ τῆς εὐσεβείας μυστήριον [to tés eusebeias mystérion])” (1 Tim 16a). For Paul the mystery points to the revealed Gospel in Jesus Christ previously unknown or in general to something which was revealed (revelation of the Gospel: Col 1:26; 2:2; 4:3; Rom 16:25; or in general: 1 Cor 15:15; Rom 11:25; see also 1 Tim 3:9). Whereas in the Greco-Roman world it was used for secret teachings and customs strictly concealed within a particular mystery cult unknown to the outsiders. As for the godliness, we might assume that the reference probably boils down to the practical expression of one's belief sprouting from the revelation of the Gospel.
Even though no specific person is mentioned in the hymn, it is obvious that Jesus is in mind. Using very economical communication, it is difficult to exegete some lines (especially the second and third) with absolute certainty. However, there are some pointers that make things quite obvious. These links will be explored line by line now.
The first line speaks of him as that “he was revealed in flesh (ἐφανερώθη ἐν σαρκί [efaneróthé en sarki])” addressing the incarnation. This is a very similar point as John 1:14 is making. This fact about Jesus brings to the foreground his manifestation in the flesh which was refused by some teachings especially Gnosticism. Nevertheless, for the economy of salvation, this mode of being of Jesus is very important as Paul suggests in Romans 8:3.
The second line describes Jesus as that “he was justified in spirit (ἐδικαιώθη ἐν πνεύματι [edikaióthé en pneumati]).” This is believed to be a reference to the resurrection as referenced in 1 Peter 3:18 that “he was made alive by spirit (ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι [dzóopoiétheis de pneumati]).” It might also point to that the Spirit is a kind of a token that manifest that Jesus was truly vindicated through the resurrection and the church blessed with the gift of the Spirit given at Pentecost (Acts 2:32-33). The Spirit is also understood, in some places in Paul, as a firstfruit of the eschatological fulfillment of salvation as described in Romans 8:11.
The third line speaks about Christ as that “he was seen by angels (ὤφθη ἀγγέλοις [ófthé angelois]).” There are some scholarly opinions that this points to the proclamation of the Gospel to the fallen angels as is mentioned in 1 Peter 3:18-22. But more probable is the recognition and worship by the angels for what had Jesus done (see Heb 1:6; Rev 5:12-13; cf. Phil 2:9-11).
The fourth line points to the church missionary activity since it speaks about Jesus as that “he was proclaimed in nations/gentiles (ἐκηρύχθη ἐν ἔθνεσιν [ekérychthé en ethnesin]).” This reflects the fulfillment of the Great commission (Matt 28:16-20) and the command to the disciples to witness throughout the whole world (Acts 1:8).
The fifth line, on the other hand, shows the effect of church missionary activity on the account of that “he was believed in world (ἐπιστεύθη ἐν κόσμῳ [episteuthé en kosmó]).”
The sixth and final line speaks about Jesus as that “he was taken up in glory (ἀνελήμφθη ἐν δόξῃ [anelémfthé en doxé]).” This clearly speaks about Jesus being taken away in ascension (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9-10). Drawing on the idea of the glory we might assume that it may represent the presence of God in the holy of holies. This might mean that Jesus was brought up into the presence of God - to his right hand meaning reigning with him (Mark 16:19).
For Paul, this hymn sums the essence (among others) of what the faith in Jesus is (1 Tim 3:15). Also, the main events important for the Gospel may be in view. In the broader context of the letter, this instruction serves as a way to show what the genuine faith is and to exhort to the right conduct in the church (1 Tim 1:3; 1:10b-11).