The phrase the mystery of godliness, found in 1 Timothy 3:16, is part of an introduction to an ancient hymn. In the English Standard Version, the verse reads this way: “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.” Other translations speak of “the mystery from which true godliness springs” (NIV) and “the great mystery of our faith” (NLT). The words that follow in 1 Timothy 3:16 explain the mystery of godliness: God became flesh and lived among us (cf. John 1:1, 14).
The Greek word musterion (“mystery”), when used in the New Testament, refers to the things of God that were once hidden but were later revealed through Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4). A mystery is that which can only be known through the revelation of God (Romans 16:25–26; Colossians 1:26–27). It is something that in times past had been hidden but is now revealed to God’s people. Jesus spoke of “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11, NAS) that He was at that time revealing to His disciples. The apostle Paul used the word mystery 21 times in his epistles: the mystery of God (Colossians 2:2), the mystery of faith (1 Timothy 3:9), the mystery of iniquity (2 Thessalonians 2:7), etc. In each case, the “mystery” involved a declaration of spiritual truth, revealed by God through divine inspiration. The New English Translation of 1 Timothy 3:16 speaks of the mystery of godliness as an “amazing revelation” concerning our faith.
The Greek word translated “godliness” in most English translations means “a proper response to the things of God, which produces obedience and righteous living.” As He walked this earth, Jesus was the embodiment of pure godliness, which led Him to lay down His life for unworthy sinners (John 10:18). His life was dedicated to the glory of the Father, and He always did what pleased Him (John 8:29). Christians pursue godliness when we follow the example of Jesus in dedicating every decision to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Godliness is not a suggestion; it is a command (1 Peter 1:15–16; Hebrews 12:14).
The mystery of godliness is the heart of the Christian faith. The hymn that Paul records in 1 Timothy 3:16 contains a summation of Jesus’ ministry. The godliness of God’s Son is now to be reflected in us. Christianity is not a system of rules and actions that must be performed to appease a deity. At the heart of Christianity is the mystery of godliness—the fact that God took on human flesh to live among the people He created (Philippians 2:5–11). As a Son, Jesus remained completely obedient to His Father in heaven and then offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice in our place (John 10:18; Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21). God then raised Him from the dead, thereby conquering death for all who trust in Him (Matthew 28:6; 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, 13–14, 55). Because Jesus took our place, sinful humans may be declared righteous before God and be “born again” (John 3:3). The new birth is spiritual and results in a change of heart that produces true godliness (2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 John 3:8–10). How a life is transformed is the mystery of godliness and is comprehended only through the revelation of God in Christ. “Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great” (1 Timothy 3:16).