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TEXT: I Timothy 3:16

SUBJECT: Ecumenical Creeds #2: Confessedly Great

As believers in Jesus Christ, we want to confess our faith. We love the Lord and we long to put our love into words, but there's the problem: we don't have the words.

Our hearts are warm, but our minds are dull and our words are garbled. Our Father in Heaven is lenient with His children, and He knows what we mean when nobody else does. We're thankful for His understanding and patience, but we still want to confess our faith: we want others to hear who God is-and what He is to us.

The Lord knows how weak we are, and He doesn't overtax us. He doesn't demand 'original essays' every time we want to say something about Him. He lets us use familiar words; in fact, He gives them to us, to meditate on in private and to confess in public.

For almost seventeen hundred years, the People of God have recited the Nicene Creed; we have lived by it, and some have died for it. It is a magnificent summary of the things that matter most-to the Church back in 325 and always.

The Nicene Creed is not in the Bible, of course, but what's in it is. It reflects both the content of the New Testament and also its priorities. The Creed is mostly about Christ and it is largely based on the text of today's sermon, I Timothy 3:16-

And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness:

God was manifested in the flesh,

Justified in the Spirit,

Seen by angels,

Preached among the Gentiles,

Believed on in the world,

Received up in glory.

This is a truly Ecumenical Creed. In the words of the Church Father, it is believed-

Always. Everywhere. And by all.

WITHOUT CONTROVERSY

Most scholars believe Paul did not coin these words himself, but quoted them from some other source, either an early Christian hymn or a baptismal vow. In either event, the confession of faith is not a private one; it is not what we call a 'personal testimony'.

It is what everyone in the Church believed. My Bible translates the first line as-

And without controversy.

This emphasizes the unity of the Early Church on these doctrines. You cannot read the New Testament and think all Christians back in the day were united on every point of doctrine: they weren't then and we aren't now.

But on these things there was no dissent, no disagreement, no debate, no discussion, no nothing. All Christians believe these things, because this is what a Christian is! He's a believer-in-Christ, and this means he's a believer in certain things about Christ. What things? Well.these things!

Taking this same line the NIV puts it-

Beyond all question.

The NASB calls it-

Our common confession.

In other words, not what one man believes, or one church, or one 'school of thought', but these beliefs are shared by all of God's People.

GREAT

I have never understood why people think doctrine is dull; I know it can be preached dully-I've been on both ends of dull doctrinal preaching-but the doctrine itself is scintillating! Paul says the content of our faith is-

Great.

It is both sublime in its character and important in its effect. Have we heard the Christmas story so often we're no longer stupefied by its majesty? The Almighty, Eternal, and Infinite God joined the human race, born into a poor family and laid in a manger!

The Heavenly Host did not yawn at the event, why do we? We have more to gain from God becoming manifest in the flesh than they do. For God did not assume the nature of angels, to save them from their sin, but He took on flesh and blood to save us from our sin!

God forgive us for being bored by the Gospel or making it boring to others. It is good news, glad tidings, great joy to all people!

Over-the-top language is a sure sign of illiteracy and lack of imagination. A few weeks ago, I attended a high school graduation where the key-note speaker described the students as amazing and incredible; seeing their talent, he was stunned, blown away and floored; finally, he assured us they were going to change the world.

Unlike this man, Paul was not given to rhapsodies of exaggeration! But when he spoke of the Gospel, he broke out every superlative in the book-

Great is the mystery of the Gospel.

And what is the exceeding greatness of His power.

He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we ask or think.

Our faith is a big and deep, wide, rich and magnificent thing. The greatness of the Gospel defies exaggeration! Men can understate it, but not even angels can overstate it!

THE MYSTERY OF GODLINESS

What's so great is-

The mystery of godliness.

The Gospel is a mystery, a thing that used to be hidden, but is now revealed. The day Adam and Eve fell into sin and guilt, the Gospel was preached to them. But go back to Genesis 3:15, and you'll see the promise was obscure, something about the serpent's seed warring with the Eve's seed, winning a battle, but losing the war. The early saints trusted God and hoped in His promises, but they had no idea how it would all shake out.

The promise was later renewed to Noah, to Abraham, to Jacob, in the Law, to David, and in the prophets, each adding more light, but it remained murky.

.Until the fullness of time came, and the promises were met in Jesus Christ, crucified, buried, raised from the dead, ascended to Heaven, and, from there, pouring out His Spirit.

If the Gospel did nothing for anyone, it would be a great mystery, but what makes it even greater is this: it is the mystery of.godliness. Or, piety. That is to say, it is the Gospel that turns sinners into saints!

The Roman Empire was a moral outhouse! Many people hated the stink, and they wanted to do something about it: they wanted to clean up their own lives and to disinfect their neighborhoods, their countries, maybe even Rome itself. They set about doing it in the expected way: with programs for moral uplift.

Of course they didn't work. Rules never change us because they start on the outside, while, in fact, our problem lies on the inside. We're changed from the inside-out-or not at all!

This is what the Gospel does. Not by hectoring us to be better, to try harder, to join a recovery group, but by telling a story-this Story, the story summed up in the text of today's sermon! Describing the weirdness of the Gospel and what it does, J. Gresham Machen wrote-

Could anything be more impractical than the attempt to influence conduct by rehearsing events concerning the death of a religious teacher? It seemed foolish to the ancient world and it seems foolish today. But the strange thing is that it works. Where the most eloquent exhortation fails, the simple story of events succeeds; the lives of men are transformed by a piece of news.

THE UNITY AND THE REASON BEHIND IT

The Early Church was united by a story, the story of God's saving work in Christ. Some believed it because they were eyewitnesses. The Apostles and some others actually saw Jesus die on the cross, then met Him three days later alive and well; a few weeks later, they saw Him ascend to Heaven on a cloud of glory, the glory that once shone in the Holy of Holies attending God, and now attends Jesus who is God! We don't know if Paul had seen Him die on the cross or not, but we do know that a few years later, He saw Jesus glorified at God's Right Hand-and not in a vision or dream-but with his own two eyes that were briefly put out by the radiance of His face.

Most of the Early Church had not seen these things for themselves, but had heard them from others. Why would they believe such an unlikely story? For one thing, the witnesses were credible men and women-not liars or fruitcakes!

More importantly, the Story itself has a way of creating faith in the ones who hear it. Paul said-

Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.

Jesus said-

It is the Spirit who quickens, the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are Spirit and they are life!

FLESH/SPIRIT

Though Peter, Paul, John, Philip, and others told the story in their own ways, the Church arranged it in three contrasting couplets. (A couplet is two lines that work as a unit, and is often seen in the poetic parts of the Bible).

God was manifested in the flesh,

Justified in the Spirit.

In Jesus Christ, God joined the human race without giving up a speck of His Divinity. He was always God, but in time, He became Man-not 'like' a man, but a real man, and not half a man, but a full man, completely human in body and soul, and all the low things that go with them.

To people whose eyes were blinded by unbelief, Jesus was the most ordinary man in the world-

Without form or comeliness, and no beauty that we should desire Him.

He talked like a hillbilly, dressed like a carpenter, and smelled like a man who had no place to lay His head. Ordinary. Mediocre. Average. Below average. The Rulers called Him this fellow, which is something like, 'a guy'. You wouldn't call your doctor, 'a guy', or a judge, or a senator. But this is exactly what they called the Lord of Glory! Because He was in the flesh, and His flesh was not fair or pampered.

But the people who believed saw something in Jesus the others did not. And what they saw was.God! His character, words, and works, though 'translated' into human idiom, are the very things God is and does. Thus, He could say what nobody else can-

Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.

This was not His ego run amok, for the men who knew Him best felt the same way-

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

And we beheld His glory, the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

If the Bible teaches anything, it teaches us to not worship men. Yet millions of people today are kneeling before the Man Christ Jesus, and saying with Thomas-

My Lord and my God.

Jesus of Nazareth, a real, historical man who was born in Bethlehem, lived mostly, in Nazareth, and died in Jerusalem is God manifest in the flesh.

We know He was, in part, because He was also-

Justified in the Spirit.

Commentators differ widely on this one; the ones I like best take it to mean 'The Holy Spirit justified Jesus by raising Him from the dead', and they're right: the Spirit did do that for Jesus, and Romans 1:4 says so.

But, as true as this doctrine is, it doesn't quite fit the symmetry of our passage. I believe it means, 'Jesus was justified in the Age of the Spirit'. In other words, men of the old world-Pilate, Herod, Annas, Caiaphas, and their ilk condemned Him in courts of Law, but God overturned their judgment, and the New Age His Resurrection ushered in confirms His judgment. Mobs of wicked men once cried-

Crucify Him!

Now myriads of good men are crying-

Worship Him!

ANGELS/GENTILES

The second couplet provides another contrast. He who was manifested in the flesh and justified in the Spirit, was also-

Seen of angels

Preached among the Gentiles.

In Paul's upbringing, nothing was cleaner than an angel or dirtier than a Gentile! Angels mediated for God at Mount Sinai, taking the Sacred Tablets from the hands of the Lord and passing them on to Moses. While Moses couldn't look at God and live, the angels could. But if they were on one end of the 'cleanness' spectrum, Gentiles were on the other.

Unattached to God's Covenant, they were not His people, did not share in His holiness, or have recourse to the laws and rituals that made a man clean. Watching them bow to their lewd idols and stuff themselves with pork chops and shellfish must have made Paul sick to his stomach! They smelled of death.

But now, both angels and Gentiles have witnessed Christ's victory. When applied to Jesus, the Greek word for seen is used only after His resurrection. Obviously, people had 'seen' Him before that time-but not in this way! Seen of angels, doesn't mean they saw Him in the manger or they saw Him in the Garden (though they did that too), but rather, they saw Him alive after His passion and death!

When I think of the witnesses to the Resurrection, the first name that comes to mind is Mary Magdalene-and that's right, she was the first-if you're only counting humans. But the angels saw Him first; it was they who rolled the stone away and sat there till the ladies showed up. They were the first Gospel preachers, in announcing the Good News-

He is not here;

He is risen!

Angels are eye-witnesses to our Lord's victory over death, hell, and the grave. And, a few years later, Gentiles became ear-witnesses of the same triumph. Paul and others preached the Good New to the nations-and they heard it.

WORLD/GLORY

The third couplet picks up on these themes telling us what the Gentiles and angels did next-

Believed on in the world,

Received up in glory.

Against every human prospect, the Gentiles believed the Gospel and came to Christ by the thousands. They did not grow up looking for a Messiah, and the moral code He insisted on was a lot harder than the ways they were used to. But the Gospel mastered their minds and wills.

Just as God knew it would-

I was found by those who did not seek Me.

When light comes into a dark room, all but the blind see it. Most of the Jews in First Century Israel were blind-of their own doing. The Gentiles were not. And when, in Jesus, the True Israel emerged, He became-

Light to the Gentiles.

They started walking in that Light.

Because the angels are not fallen, they didn't need to repent of their sins and trust Jesus as the Savior. But they rejoiced in His victory, and, forty days after He rose from the dead, they gave Him a Royal Welcome back home. The King has taken His throne and is now and forever the Lord of Heaven and Earth.

The Levites sang Psalm 24 in parts: one choir sang the question; the other sang its answer. In doing this, they were anticipating the Song of Angels at the Ascension of our Lord-

Lift up your heads, O ye gates,

And be lifted up you everlasting doors,

And the King of glory shall come in.

Who is the King of Glory?

The Lord of Hosts, He is the King of Glory.

SUMMARY AND USE

What you believe matters, especially what you believe about Jesus. Was He a fine man only? A great teacher? A martyr for some hopeless cause? Or is He whom the Early Church took Him to be-

Lord and Savior

God over all, blessed forever.

They made their choice, and it was the right one. Now, it is your turn. Will you ignore Him or will you worship Him? Will you patronize Him or will serve Him?

This is not abstract, academic stuff: it is the very truth for which the Church exists. The Church is called to do many things, but number one of the list is to bear witness to Christ and this means to tell each other and the world who He is and what He has done for sinners.

This was always important, but never more than now. For if these shining words close chapter 3, chapter 4 opens with darker words-

Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons.

There is an Apostasy under way in the Church Universal. It will never sink God's Ark, but hard times are ahead. What other forms they will take, we cannot say, but we can say this: False teaching is always present, always deadly, always alluring, and can only be pushed back with the Truth, what truth?

God was manifested in the flesh,

Justified in the Spirit,

Seen of angels,

Preached among the Gentiles,

Believed on in the world,

Received up in glory.

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