Hymns in the New Testament – 1 Timothy 3:16

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

This short, hymnic verse comes from the Pastoral Epistles. “Since antiquity, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus have been understood as a unit, because their vocabulary, writing style, and concerns are so similar.”[1] These letters were likely written in the late first century, not by Paul, but by authors who respected Paul as an authoritative figure in church doctrine.

The third chapter of 1 Timothy also includes instructions on the qualification of church leaders. Specifically, bishops and deacons are mentioned as needing to be strong in faith and devoted to their families. “The emphasis on virtues rather than duties for leaders no doubt proved valuable to generations of church leaders who followed in different contexts and circumstances.”[2]

The Pastoral Epistles were written to church communities under duress. Persecution was spreading as the Roman Empire cracked down on the spreading religion. This was “an inevitable consequence of adopting a faith that is at odds with the ways of the world.”[3] Another threat to the growing Christian movement was false teaching and harmful doctrine. The Pastoral Epistles ring the notes of holding to the one true faith.

Perhaps that is the origin of this short, hymnic verse. It has an almost creedal tone as it defines the movements of Christ’s incarnation:

  • God was revealed in human flesh as Jesus (John 1:1)
  • Jesus was justified by the Spirit (another way of translating that phrase); the Holy Spirit was present in Jesus’ ministry, most notably alighting on Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:10, Matthew 3:16, Luke 3:22, John 1:33)
  • Jesus was seen by angels; perhaps a reference to the temptation (Mark 1:13), or the resurrection (Mark 16:5, Matthew 28:2), or his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9-11)
  • The good news of Jesus was shared not only with the people of Israel, but with the whole world (Acts 2:1-47)
  • The message continued to spread ever wider, and was taken up in glory; this could refer to Jesus’ ascension, or Jesus’ glorification at the crucifixion (John 12:32-33), or could be relating to the suffering of the Christian community amidst persecution (following Jesus in the same manner of death)

If this verse is a hymn or creed fragment, perhaps it was used in the catechetical instruction of new believers.[4] The term mystagogy is used to describe the final period of training that catechumens receive in their preparation for baptism. Indeed, the mystery of our faith is still being unveiled even as we sing and pray today.

Join the Discussion – If you’d like to collaborate further and share your ideas, join the “Hymns in the New Testament” Facebook group.

[1] Walter F. Taylor, Jr. Paul: Apostle to the Nations: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 297.

[2] Deborah Krause. “1 Timothy,” in Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Kittredge, David A. Sanchez, eds., Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 596.

[3] Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 412.

[4] Naomi Koltun-Fromm, “1 Timothy,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 386.

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