A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy. 3:14-16. 3c). the pillar and foundation of the truth (continued).
Spicq sees these verses as the ‘doctrinal climax’ of the letter, even its ‘heart’, since they define the church ‘by her relation to the glorious Christ’. He also sees the creedal affirmation (‘great…is the mystery of our religion’, REB) as ‘a solemn public confession in opposition to that of Diana’s devotees’ who shouted in unison for two hours. ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ (Acts 19:28, 34).
The liturgical statement Paul goes on to quote consists of six lines which, stylistically speaking, closely resemble one another. For all six begin with a verb which ends in the letters *-the*, and is in the aorist tense and the passive mood. All also end with a noun in the dative, and all but one use the preposition *en* to link the verb with he noun. Moving from style to substance, however, what do the six statements mean, and how do they relate to one another? Three suggestions are made.
First, the six affirmations may be read chronologically, each denoting a fresh, consecutive event or stage in the career of Jesus, taking us from his first coming to his second, from his appearance in flesh to his welcome in glory. So *he appeared in a body* (literally, ‘in flesh’) refers to his incarnation, by which the pre-existent Son was born into the world, and lived and died in it. Next, he *was vindicated by the Spirit*. Although the body-spirit contrast has suggested to some commentators a reference to his human and divine natures, ‘spirit’ is more likely to refer to the Holy Spirit who vindicated Jesus first by his mighty works (Mt. 12:28), and then supremely by his resurrection (Rom.1:4; 8:11). He was *seen by angels*, and attended by them, throughout his life (E.g. Lk.2:13; Mk.1:13; Lk.22:43; 24:23; Mt.28:2ff.). But the chronological sequence following his incarnation and resurrection would expect this third statement to refer to his ascension. And indeed angels were present at it (Acts 1:9ff.). and watched the whole unfolding drama of salvation (Eph.3:10; 1 Pet.1:12). That he *was preached among the nations* is a clear reference to the church’s world-wide mission in obedience to the great commission of the risen Lord (1 Tim.2:7; Mt.28:19ff.), while he *was believed on in the world* is an equally plain allusion to the success of the gospel as people responded to it. The final statement, that he *was taken up in glory*, sounds like another reference to the ascension. But if the sequence is chronological, it must be the parousia which is in mind, his ascension foreshadowing his final epiphany in power and great glory. This interpretation is the more probable because otherwise ‘there is no hint of eschatology’ in this Christological hymn.
A second and more popular construction is to divide the hymn into two stanzas, each consisting of a triplet, the first alluding to the life of the historical incarnate Jesus on earth (he appeared, was vindicated and seen), and the second to the life of the exalted Lord (he was preached, believed on and glorified).
The third and best suggestion, however, is that the hymn consists of three couplets, in each of which there is a deliberate antithesis: between flesh and spirit, between angels and nations, between world and glory. The first couplet speaks of the revelation of Christ (*he appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit*). Here are the human and divine aspects of his earthly life and ministry in Palestine. The second couplet speaks of the witnesses of Christ (*was seen by angels, was preached among the nations*). For now the significance of Jesus Christ is seen to extend far beyond Palistine to all the inhabitants of heaven and earth, to angels as well as humans, to the nations as well as the Jews. Then the third couplet speaks of the reception which Christ was given (*was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory*). For heaven and earth did more than see and hear him; they joined in giving him recognition and acclaim.
Some years ago Joachim Jeremias, in his book *Jesus’ Promise to the Nations*, argued that this Christological hymn was essentially a missionary statement, announcing the inclusion of the nations in consequence of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He also suggested that this creedal fragment was ‘couched in the form of a hymn in three distichs, after style of a coronation hymn’, indeed ‘the ancient coronation ritual exemplified for us in the ancient Egyptian ritual’. It consisted of the Elevation (of the king to deity), The Presentation (of the deified king to the world) and the Enthronement. This, Jeremias proposed, corresponded to the three couplets of verse 16, namely ‘the Justification by resurrection of him who has been manifested on earth, the Announcement to heaven and earth of his exaltation, and his Assumption of the kingdom on earth and in heaven’. Commentators have been intrigued by Jeremias’s suggestion, and have pronounced it ‘ingenious and attractive’, but have not been persuaded by it, mainly on account of the inexact nature of the parallelism. Yet the missionary emphasis is surely right. The mystery of godliness which the church proclaims, the truth of which the church is the foundation and pillar, is the historic yet cosmic Christ.
In conclusion, Paul’s perspective in this chapter is to view the presbyters and the deacons in the light of the church they are called to serve, and to view the church in the light of the truth it is called to confess. One of the surest roads to the reform and renewal of the church is to recover a grasp of its essential identity as *God’s household, the church of the living God, and the pillar and foundation of the truth* (15).
|Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 4:1 – 5:2. Local leadership.|
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.