By J.P. Thackway
God was manifest in the flesh – 1 Timothy 3:16
The verse, from which the above phrase comes, contains some truths concerning our Lord Jesus Christ. Six crisp little statements take us from His first coming right up to His ascension to heaven.
“God was manifest in the flesh.”
This is obviously referring to the incarnation of God the Son. It is one of the strongest testimonies to the deity of our blessed Lord in the New Testament.
“Justified in the Spirit.”
This probably refers to our Lord’s resurrection. His death seemed to disprove that He was God’s Son and Israel’s Messiah. The unbelieving multitude thought so (Matthew 27:40), and even His disciples did (Luke 24:19-21). However, in rising from the dead, He was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Thus, the Holy Spirit, operative in His resurrection, vindicated our Lord (cf Matthew 11:19b).
“Seen of angels.”
Angels ministered to our Lord throughout His life below. From the incarnation (Luke 2:14) until His ascension (Acts 1:11) angels witnessed His appearing, ministry, finished work and triumphant return to glory. These are things “angels desire to look into” (1 Peter 1:12). This also may mean that angels witnessed His actual rising from the dead (Matthew 28:1-6).
“Preached unto the Gentiles.”
The book of Acts shows the apostles obeying the Lord’s Great Commission, so that from Jerusalem the gospel went to “all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:11; cf Psalm 2:8). Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, preached to them in his generation, and we are favoured to hear this gospel in our day.
“Believed on in the world.”
The day of salvation is now, because after death it is too late (Luke 16:19-31). What a mercy to believe on our Redeemer in this world and to know that we are “saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation” (Isaiah 45:17,22)!
“Received up into glory.”
His ascension marked the consummation of our Lord’s saving work. What acclamations greeted Him as He passed through the gates of heaven (Psalm 24:7-9)! The Father gave Him glory (1 Peter 1:21) as His reward, which He will ultimately share with all of His people (John 17:24).
Some have suggested that these lyrical statements are a fragment of an early hymn. However, there is no New Testament evidence that the early church sang human compositions. They would have sung the Psalms (Matthew 26:30, “hymn” meaning one of Psalms 113-118 sung at the Passover; Ephesians 5:19, where “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are a threefold designation of the Psalter; James 5:13). It is more likely that these six are a confession of faith in rhythmic form to help the memory.
If they are an early creed, then this is “the truth,” of which the church is “the pillar and ground” (1 Timothy 3:15), and it leads to “godliness” or piety (verse 16) which is always the fruit of sound doctrine.
a] Notice what these six are called.
“The mystery of godliness.” In the New Testament, “mystery” means an unknowable thing that has been made known. Something that we could never know unless God were pleased to reveal it. In these six verities God has spoken, it is an open secret and we are without excuse.
b] These are fundamental truths.
“Without controversy.” Meaning by common consent, or what all Christians hold to. While all revealed truth is vital, there are some truths over which Christians differ and it is not fatal. Matters such as baptism, church government, details regarding the Second Coming and suchlike. Spurgeon once wrote: “We mistake our divergences of judgment for differences of heart, but they are far from being the same things.” However, these six are not like this – they are saving truths – they comprise the gospel. To deny any, or believe otherwise, is to be lost. The can be no controversy here.
c] These truths are also majestic.
“Great,” which in the Greek gives us our word “mega.” Such is our need as sinners, that the gospel of Christ must be big enough to cover it. “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (Genesis 6:5) but God’s remedy proclaimed in the gospel is “so great salvation” (Hebrews 2:3).
Robert Hawker says this of this confession, “What a rich cluster of mysteries is here! All blessedly hanging together, like some large bunch of the richest grapes, on the most luxuriant Vine!” Let us consider the one that heads these six great affirmations: “God was manifest in the flesh.”
Before we look at this phrase, we have to say that its very existence is not “without controversy.” The newer Bible translations from the 1885 Revised Version onwards, do not have the verse in this form. “God” instead reads “who” or similar. For example, the New International Version reads: “He appeared in the flesh,” and the English Standard Version: “He was manifested in the flesh.” This makes the one manifested not to be God absolutely but by implication Christ instead. This difference is because, according to Bishop Ellicott in his Commentary,
Here, in the most ancient authorities, the word “God” does not occur. We must, then, literally translate the Greek of the most famous and trustworthy MSS as follows: He who was manifested in the flesh.
Ellicott was on the Revised Version translation committee, which used different Greek manuscripts from the Received Text the Authorised Version translators used. The product mainly of B.F. Westcott and F.J.A Hort, and containing 6,000 changes from the Received Text, they persuaded the Committee to translate their text for the New Testament instead. This was not the remit of the committee, yet it was accepted, and a modified form of this text now underlies all Bible translations, apart from the New King James Version. Even it, however, casts doubt upon the verse by footnoting “God” with the words, “NU-Text reads Who.” This refers to the Critical Text published in the twenty-seventh edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (N) and in the United Bible Societies fourth edition (U), which gives the acronym, “NU-Text.”
We do not have the space to enter into the textual arguments in favour of the Received Text here. They are, however, overwhelming. Those who would like to investigate further can access a helpful article by T.H. Brown here
This is a chapter from the book True or False? by David Otis Fuller, which also contains other articles related to this subject. Dean Burgon in his The Revision Revised devotes an article to the defence of the Received Text at this point, which has yet to be refuted.
C.H. Spurgeon, however, admirably puts the internal evidence for “God manifest in the flesh,” in a sermon preached in 1872. This was before the rendering in the 1885 Revised Version appeared. He said,
I believe that our version is the correct one, but the fiercest battlings have been held over this sentence. It is asserted that the word Theos is a corruption for “Os” so that, instead of reading “God was manifest in the flesh, we should read, “who was manifest in the flesh.” There is very little occasion for fighting about this matter, for if the text does not say “God was manifest in the flesh,” who does it say was manifest in the flesh? Either a man, or an angel, or a devil. Does it tell us that a man was manifest in the flesh? Assuredly that cannot be its teachings, for every man is manifest in the flesh, and there is no sense whatever in making such a statement concerning any mere man, and then calling it a mystery. Was it an angel, then? But what angel was ever manifest in the flesh? And if he were, would it be at all a mystery that he should be “seen of angels?” Is it a wonder for an angel to see an angel? Can it be that the devil was manifest in the flesh? If so, he has been “received up into glory,” which, let us hope, is not the case. Well, if it was neither a man, nor an angel, nor a devil, who was manifest in the flesh, surely he must have been God; and so, if the word be not there, the sense must be there, or else nonsense. We believe that, if criticism should grind the text in a mill, it would get out of it no more and no less than the sense expressed by our grand old version. God himself was manifest in the flesh. What a mystery is this! A mystery of mysteries! God the invisible was manifest.
Let us consider, then, WHO WAS MANIFEST: “God was manifest.”
The word “manifest” means to reveal or show openly. And this is what God has given us with His Son’s incarnation: God has become visible so that we can see Him.
We need this because God cannot be seen.
“God is a spirit” and “invisible” and “no man hath seen God at any time” (John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16). This is what we lost by our fall in Adam: not only friendship but also face-to-face friendship (Genesis 3:8). It is true there have been manifestations of God before the incarnation. One called “the Angel of the LORD” showed Himself to Hagar, Abraham, Moses, Balaam, Gideon, Manoah and his wife, Elijah, David and others. God the Son “put on the clothes of His flesh at times,” to make communication possible and to hint at what was to come. His “goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2).
However, now God is “manifest.”
And manifest in a human body. In the person of Jesus, God shows Himself. He said, “He who hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9; cf Colossians 1:15; 2:9). This is stupendous. J. Gresham Machen wrote:
When men looked upon Jesus they actually saw with their eyes one who was truly God. That is the marvel of the incarnation. To behold with one’s bodily eyes one who was truly God – what greater wonder can there possibly be than this?
It gives us a very comfortable revelation of God.
We can look at the Saviour in the Gospels and say, “This is God in our nature, this is what He is like.” It is a manifestation of the greatest possible nearness to us and love for us. Think, for instance, of the leper in Mark 1:40,41 who knelt before Jesus and said, “If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.” That is what God is like! And so with the father in tears, feeling for the multitudes, the woman at Sychar’s well, the woman taken in adultery, patience with His disciples (Mark 9:24,25; Matthew 9:36; John 4; 8:1-11; Mark 7:18). This wonderful view of God encourages us to draw near to Him ourselves. As James Smith wrote,
The manifestation of God is in the person and work of Christ, and we are here from to learn what our God is, and what we may expect Him to do for us. What Jesus was to those about Him, such Jehovah is; what Jesus did and was willing to do, that our God is willing to do for us. In Jesus we see tender love, melting compassion, and gracious forbearance; mercy and power, rectitude and pity, holiness and long-suffering, justice and harmlessness, united. Such is our God. Fury is not in Him. Love is His name and His nature. And can you slavishly fear such a God? Can you wilfully sin against and grieve such a Being? Cannot you believe His word, depend upon His veracity, rejoice in His name, and expect from Him every promised good?
When we try to conceive of what God is like, we have an unsolvable problem. Our fallen, sin-darkened mind always goes wrong. It is significant that the heathen in their total ignorance imagine gods that are bad-tempered, spiteful, and dangerous. Their idols are ugly and frightening. This is the best we can do, left to ourselves with no revelation. Our Lord warned us about heathen caricatures of the Father and consequent wrong praying (Matthew 6:7,8) because this is our sinful tendency.
However, the incarnation shows us that God is Jesus-like, “manifest in the flesh.” He not only said, “the Father Himself loveth you” and “your Father knoweth” (John 16:27; Matthew 6:8) but He also shows us this. The word always corrects us. Rabbi Duncan once said that if he had his time over again he would spend more time in the Gospels – perhaps for this very reason.
Then, let us see WHY HE WAS MANIFEST: “God was manifest in the flesh.”
This not only gives us a right view of God, but it is also gives us a right view of the atonement. “God was manifest in flesh” is in order that One who is God might be capacitated to suffer and die. Because man has sinned; only one who is Man can be our substitute. And yet, such is the immensity of the work – bearing the sin and wrath of all the elect – only One who is also God could do it. As the Puritan John Howe put it: “The wrong that man had done to the Divine Majesty, should be expiated by none but man, and could be by none but God.”
We rejoice to know that the God-Man has accomplished this work for us.
God in the flesh means the one perfect life that was ever lived in this world. Everything ever demanded of us by the Law has been rendered by our Lord’s active obedience to its precepts. He has magnified it and made it appear honourable (Isaiah 42:21).
And God in the flesh means passive obedience in submitting to the penalty of the broken law, death and the curse. It was love that did it. Rabbi Duncan, the Scots divine movingly said to his students one day, with tears in his eyes, “Do you know what Calvary was? What? What? What? Do you know what Calvary was?” … “I’ll tell you what Calvary was. It was damnation, and He took it lovingly.” The punishment of all His people was swallowed up that day in His atonement. God cancelled all our eternities in hell through our great Substitute on the cross.
It means we are redeemed by One in our place who is divine (Acts 20:28).
This gives infinite value and efficacy to the atonement for sins past, present and future. How else could it avail for an innumerable multitude of the elect, and take our sins away never to be remembered again?
His divinely-perfect humanity gave infinite value to this atonement, so that it can avail for all His elect – all who trust their souls to this Saviour. This precious blood “cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Not literally, of course, as blood does not cleanse but stains. Rather, it expresses the fact that, through Christ’s sacrifice for us, God removes our guilt totally, with no trace remaining. As Johann Rothe put it,
O Love, Thou bottomless abyss,
My sins are swallowed up in thee!
Covered is my unrighteousness,
Nor spot of guilt remains on me,
While Jesus’ blood, through earth and skies
Mercy, free, boundless mercy! cries.
What comfort this is for sinners like us, whom the devil torments with the memory of our past sins, and our continual failures through remaining sin! We rejoice in this provision made for sins: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8,9).
However, it is one thing to be manifest in the flesh, another to be manifest in our hearts.
Do you enjoy this inward revelation for your comfort and joy? Is the precious God-Man your portion and delight? Does He dwell in your heart by faith? – faith being not the bond of union but the means of realisation! (Ephesians 3:18). How we need this experiential acquaintance with Him! To see and feel these truths is to be truly blessed. If He came all the way from heaven to earth, He will come the little way into our hearts and will be pleased to manifest Himself to us. May He do so to each of us who reads these lines, and enable us to say with Gadsby,
This God-like mystery we will gladly sing,
And own the virgin’s Babe our God and King;
Jehovah Jesus, we will Thee adore,
And crown Thee Lord of all for evermore.