Often in our times of corporate worship the cue to respond to God's Word comes in the singing of a hymn. Through chanting or singing in unison, the congregation signals its acceptance of the message and commitment to perform God's will now revealed by the Spirit. In essence, Paul has placed a hymn (or a piece of one) at the end of this section of teaching to elicit the readers' response. Especially in churches associated with Paul, songs were one of the basic components of worship (see 1 Cor 14:26; Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16-17). They were regarded as expressions of praise and adoration which the Holy Spirit produced in the heart of a human being. Colossians 3:16 draws a close connection between "the word of Christ" and these spiritual songs, which, with their point of origin in the Holy Spirit, may explain their deeply theological nature (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20). It was by the singing of such hymns that the believing community made the word of Christ live in its midst; in concrete expression, the sung word edified and admonished believers.
Now Paul's citing of part of what was surely a well-known hymn in the course of writing instructions for behavior in the church is to bring his readers to the point of corporate response. The hymn itself, like many in the New Testament, celebrates Christ's appearance and ministry on earth. The introductory phrase is a call to consider the implications of this grand event, to evaluate our conduct on the basis of what we confess.
The introductory words, Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great, remind the readers of their common acceptance of the statement. And both the Greek term behind the NIV's beyond all question (homologoumenos; literally, "confessedly") and the hymn piece that follows suggest that the idea of "confession"—that is, public, solemn agreement—may also be present.
But what is this great mystery of godliness? "Mystery," as often used by Paul, denotes the appearance of Christ in history as the hidden salvation plan of God which, conceived before time, has been revealed and fulfilled in the cross and resurrection (compare 3:9). The content of the Christ-hymn in 3:16 confirms the deep theological meaning of "the mystery."
The whole phrase the mystery of godliness needs some unpacking. It is commonly taken as the equivalent of the phrase in 3:9, "the mystery of the faith." This would make godliness, like "the faith," a reference to the objective content of Christianity—that is, "what" one believes. As such, the word here rendered godliness is often translated "religion." But although "the faith" does often bear this meaning in the Pastorals, "godliness" is a more expansive, less static idea. It includes "the faith" but goes a decisive step further to link a certain Christian manner of life to it (see notes on 2:2). The context, with its focus on conduct (v. 15), supports the broader meaning of "godliness."
Consequently, this phrase the mystery of godliness forms a connection between the appearance of Christ, which the hymn celebrates, and Christian living: the mystery is the essence of godliness. It was critical for Paul to remind the readers of this principle, for the false teachers were successfully driving a wedge between belief and behavior with damaging results. In our day of institutionalized atheism and the popular heresy of humanism, the church faces the same danger. Even if dangers of this sort seem remote, we easily forget the practical implications of what we believe and profess to be true.
The mystery is now explained in the six lines of the hymn, given in three couplets. We must remember that Paul included only part of a longer hymn and that its poetic nature prevented the making of a precise theological statement. Nevertheless, the thrust of this excerpt, to sketch a panoramic view of the outworking of God's salvation plan, is easily seen.
1. The conception of the mystery (lines 1-2). He appeared in a body (literally, "he was manifested in flesh") affirms the incarnation of Christ. The original term "flesh" and the passive form of the verb indicate the "mode" in which God revealed Christ to the world—in human form. Historically, the line of demarcation between the events recalled in lines 1 and 2 is the crucifixion/resurrection.
The meaning of was vindicated by the Spirit is more problematic, but the juxtaposing of "flesh" (line 1) and "spirit" (line 2), seen elsewhere in the New Testament, provides some help. The NIV correctly shows that Christ's "vindication" is in view. But by the Spirit is better left "in spirit" according to the original text (en pneumati). In fact, the rather widespread use of the flesh-spirit antithesis in the New Testament suggests that "in spirit" is a reference to the supernatural realm which is characterized by the activity of the Holy Spirit. It is this realm that Christ entered by his resurrection from the dead. Furthermore, as numerous biblical references show, it was this event of resurrection/exaltation that demonstrated Christ's "vindication" before hostile powers, whether human or angelic (Acts 2:22-36; 3:11-15; Rom 1:4; 1 Cor 2:1-9; Eph 1:20-21). Contained in these two lines, then, is the acknowledgment of the truth of the gospel message, that God came among humankind and introduced a new kind of life (compare 2:3-6).
2. The communication of the mystery (lines 3-4). Was seen by angels depicts a revelation of Christ to angelic beings, rather than the passive observation of angels. In keeping with the panoramic scope of the hymn, line 3 recalls simply the fact that at some point Christ appeared victoriously before angels. The time of this occurrence may have been after or coincident with the resurrection or perhaps coincident with the ascension—chronology is apparently not a dominant feature of the hymn. In contrast to this "appearance" of the victorious Christ in the spirit realm, line 4 tells of the proclamation of this victory, won in behalf of humankind, in the world. Lines 3 and 4 concentrate on the communication of the good news about Christ. Here is acknowledgment of the church's responsibility to reach the world for Christ (2:1-2, 7; 3:15).
3. The conclusion of the mystery (lines 5-6). Line 5 (was believed on in the world) and line 6 (was taken up in glory) refer respectively to the result of the preaching of the gospel (line 4) and the ascension of Jesus. Of course, this sketch of the history of redemption would be incomplete without reference to the saving effects of the gospel—the church in Ephesus was to see itself as living proof of God's plan to save (compare 1:15-16). To acknowledge this was to accept at the same time the call to godly living (2:2, 8-10; 3:1-13, 15).
Though we might have expected mention of the return of Christ in the closing line of this salvation-hymn (as we find in many contemporary hymns), the purpose of this piece was to ground the reality and presence of salvation in the past, historical appearance of Christ. So the hymn concludes by alluding to the point that marked the close of Christ's earthly ministry (including resurrection appearances) and the beginning of the age of the Spirit.
Consequently, Paul's readers are reminded of their confession that the first advent of Christ introduced a new way of life in the present age. The hymn combines snapshots of important points of that past appearance (lines 1, 2, 3, 6) with references to the salvation introduced by that event (lines 4, 5). The appearance of the God-man is the essence of the new lifestyle (godliness) that, Paul urges, must characterize the church as it gathers for worship and when it relates with the world. Our confession of Christ is our acknowledgment of the call to service and godly living.