Verse 16. "And, without controversy" - kai omologoumenev? And confessedly, by general consent, it is a thing which no man can or ought to dispute; any phrase of this kind expresses the meaning of the original.
God was manifest in the flesh] If we take in the whole of the 14th, 15th, and 16th verses, we may make a consistent translation in the following manner, and the whole paragraph will stand thus: Hoping to see thee shortly; but should I tarry long, these things I now write unto thee, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God. The mystery of godliness, which is the pillar and ground of the truth, is, without controversy, a great thing. And then he proceeds to show what this mystery of godliness is, which he sums up in the six following particulars:
1. God was manifest in the flesh; 2. Justified in the Spirit; 3. Seen of angels; 4. Preached unto the Gentiles; 5. Believed on in the world; 6. Received up into glory.
Though all this makes a very plain and consistent sense, yet we are perplexed by various readings on the first clause, qeov efanerwqh en sarki, God was manifest in the flesh; for instead of qeov, God, several MSS., versions, and fathers, have ov or o, who or which. And this is generally referred to the word mystery; Great is the mystery of godliness, WHICH was manifest in the flesh.
The insertion of, qeov for ov, or ov for qeov, may be easily accounted for.
In ancient times the Greek was all written in capitals, for the common Greek character is comparatively of modern date. In these early times words of frequent recurrence were written contractedly, thus: for pathr, pr; qeov, qv: kuriov, kv: ihsouv, ihv, &c. This is very frequent in the oldest MSS., and is continually recurring in the Codex Bexae, and Codex Alexandrinus. If, therefore, the middle stroke of the q, in qv, happened to be faint, or obliterated, and the dash above not very apparent, both of which I have observed in ancient MSS., then qv, the contraction for qeov, God, might be mistaken for ov, which or who; and vice versa. This appears to have been the case in the Codex Alexandrinus, in this passage. To me there is ample reason to believe that the Codex Alexandrinus originally read qv, God, in this place; but the stroke becoming faint by length of time and injudicious handling, of which the MS. in this place has had a large proportion, some person has supplied the place, most reprehensibly, with a thick black line. This has destroyed the evidence of this MS., as now it can neither be quoted pro or con, though it is very likely that the person who supplied the ink line, did it from a conscientious conviction that qv was the original reading of this MS. I examined this MS. about thirty years ago, and this was the conviction that rested then on my mind. I have seen the MS. several times since, and have not changed my opinion. The enemies of the Deity of Christ have been at as much pains to destroy the evidence afforded by the common reading in support of this doctrine as if this text were the only one by which it can be supported; they must be aware that John i. 1, and 14, proclaim the same truth; and that in those verses there is no authority to doubt the genuineness of the reading. We read, therefore, God was manifested in the flesh, and I cannot see what good sense can be taken out of, the GOSPEL was manifested in the flesh; or, the mystery of godliness was manifested in the flesh. After seriously considering this subject in every point of light, I hold with the reading in the commonly received text.
"Justified in the Spirit" - By the miracles which were wrought by the apostle in and through the name of Jesus; as well as by his resurrection from the dead, through the energy of the Holy Ghost, by which he was proved to be the Son of God with power. Christ was, justified from all the calumnies of the Jews, who crucified him as an impostor. All these miracles, being wrought by the power of God, were a full proof of his innocence; for, had he not been what he professed to be, God would not have borne such a decisive testimony to his Messiahship.
"Seen of angels" - By aggeloi here, some understand not those celestial or infernal beings commonly called angels, but apostles and other persons who became messengers, to carry far and wide and attest the truth of his resurrection from the dead. If, however, we take the word seen, in its Jewish acceptation, for made known, we may here retain the term angels in its common acceptation; for it is certain that previously to our Lord's ascension to heaven, these holy beings could have little knowledge of the necessity, reasons, and economy of human salvation; nor of the nature of Christ as God and man. St. Pet. informs us that the angels desire to look into these things, 1 Pet. i. 12. And St. Paul says the same thing, Eph. iii. 9, 10, when speaking of the revelation of the Gospel plan of salvation, which he calls the mystery, which FROM the BEGINNING OF THE WORLD had been HID in God; and which was now published, that unto the PRINCIPALITIES and POWERS in heavenly places might be MADE KNOWN, by the Church, the manifold wisdom of God. Even those angelic beings have got an accession to their blessedness, by an increase of knowledge in the things which concern Jesus Christ, and the whole scheme of human salvation, through his incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification.
Preached unto the Gentiles] This was one grand part of the mystery which had been hidden in God, that the Gentiles should be made fellow heirs with the Jews, and be admitted into the kingdom of God. To the Gentiles, therefore, he was proclaimed as having pulled down the middle wall of partition between them and the Jews; that, through him, God had granted unto them repentance unto life; and that they also might have redemption in his blood, the forgiveness of sins.
"Believed on in the world" - Was received by mankind as the promised Messiah, the Anointed of God, and the only saviour of fallen man. This is a most striking part of the mystery of godliness, that one who was crucified as a malefactor, and whose kingdom is not of this world, and whose doctrines are opposed to all the sinful propensities of the human heart, should, wherever his Gospel is preached, be acknowledged as the only saviour of sinners, and the Judge of quick and dead! But some would restrict the meaning to the Jews, whose economy is often denominated hzh µlw[ olam hazzeh, this world, and which words both our Lord and the apostles often use in the same sense. Notwithstanding their prejudices, many even of the Jews believed on him; and a great company of the priests themselves, who were his crucifiers, became obedient to the faith. Acts vi. 7. This was an additional proof of Christ's innocence.
"Received up into glory." - Even that human nature which he took of the Virgin Mary was raised, not only from the grave, but taken up into glory, and this in the most visible and palpable manner. This is a part of the mystery of godliness which, while we have every reasonable evidence to believe, we have not powers to comprehend. His reception into glory is of the utmost consequence to the Christian faith; as, in consequence, Jesus Christ in his human nature ever appears before the throne as our sacrifice and as our Mediator.
1. THE directions given in this chapter concerning bishops and deacons should be carefully weighed by every branch of the Christian Church. Not only the offices which are of Divine appointment, such as bishop, presbyter, and deacon, should be most religiously preserved in the Church; but, that they may have their full effect, the persons exercising them should be such as the apostle prescribes. Religion will surely suffer, when religious order is either contemned or neglected; and even the words of God will be treated with contempt, if ministered by unholy persons. Let order, therefore, be duly observed; and let those who fill these orders be not only wholly irreprehensible in their conduct, but also able ministers of the new covenant. A wicked man can neither have, nor communicate, authority to dispense heavenly mysteries; and a fool, or a blockhead, can never teach others the way of salvation. The highest abilities are not too great for a preacher of the Gospel; nor is it possible that he can have too much human learning. But all is nothing unless he can bring the grace and Spirit of God into all his ministrations; and these will never accompany him unless he live in the spirit of prayer and humility, fearing and loving God, and hating covetousness.
2. It is well known that almost every Church supposes itself to be THE true Church; and some consider themselves the only Church, and deny salvation to all who are not of their communion. To such a Church the two last verses in this chapter have been confidently self-applied, as being the pillar and ground of the truth - the possessor and dispenser of all the mysteries of God. But, supposing that the words in verse 15 are spoken of the Church, it is the Christian Church, as defined under article the third above, that must be meant; and we may see from this the vanity of applying the words to any particular Church, as if it had all the truth without error, and none else could pretend either to truth or ecclesiastical authority. The Christian Church is a widely different thing; it is the whole system of Christianity as laid down in the New Testament; it is built on the great foundation of prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone. It is composed of all who hold the doctrines of Christianity; who acknowledge Jesus as their Teacher, Redeemer, and only Advocate; of all who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbour as themselves; or who are labouring after this conformity to the mind and command of their Creator. It is not known by any particular name; it is not distinguished by any particular form in its mode of worship; it is not exclusively here or there. It is the house of God - it is where God's Spirit dwells, where his precepts are obeyed, and where pure, unadulterated love to God and man prevails. It is not in the creed or religious confessions of any denomination of Christians; for, as all who hold the truth and live a holy life, acknowledging Jesus alone as the head of the Church and saviour of the world, are members of his mystical body; (and such may be found in all sects and parties;) so the Church of Christ may be said to be everywhere, and to be confined nowhere; i.e. in whatever place Christianity is credited and acknowledged. The wicked of all sorts, no matter what their profession may be, and all persecutors of religious people, who differ from them, are without the pale of this Church. Essentially must their spirit and conduct be changed, before the living Head of this spiritual building can acknowledge them as members of the heavenly family.
This text, therefore, will never apply to the Romish Church, till that Church be, both in doctrine and discipline, what the Christian Church should be. When it is the established religion of any country it gives no toleration to those who differ from it; and in Protestant countries its cry for toleration and secular authority is loud and long. I wish its partisans the full and free exercise of their religion, even to its superstitions and nonsense; but how can they expect toleration who give none? The Protestant Church tolerates it fully; it persecutes the Protestants to bonds and death when it has power; which then is the true Church of Christ?