The Mystery of Godliness: God Manifest in the Flesh - 1 Timothy 3:16

by John Calvin

The twenty-seventh Sermon, being the eighth upon the third Chapter 16  

And out of all controversy, great is the mystery of godliness, that God is manifested in the flesh, justified in Spirit, seen of angels, preached to the Gentiles, believed in the world, and received in glory.  - 1 Tim 3:16

We have seen this morning, how Saint Paul exhorting Timothy to behave himself dutifully in his office, shows him to what honor God has advanced him in that he has placed him to govern his house. And he shows him also that the office itself is honorable because the Church upholds the truth of God in this world. He also shows him that there is nothing more precious, and more to be hunted after by us, than to know God, and to worship him and serve him, and be certain of his truth to obtain salvation. And all this is kept safe for us, and this so great a treasure is committed to our custody by the means of the Church, according to the words that Saint Paul adds, and therefore this truth of which he spoke is well worthy to be better accounted of and esteemed than it is.

What a hidden thing is this, and how wonderful a matter, that God is manifested in the flesh, and God is become man! Does it not so far surpass our understanding, that when we are told of it, we are astonished? Yet notwithstanding, we have a full and sufficient proof that Jesus Christ, being made man and subject to death, nonetheless is the true living God who made the world. For his heavenly power bore us witness of this, and again we have other miracles, namely, that he was preached of among the Gentiles, which before were banished from the kingdom of God. That faith has had its course throughout the whole world, which at that time was shut up among the Jews, and Christ Jesus was lifted up on high into glory and set on the right hand of God his Father to obtain chiefdom and rule over all. And if men despise this, their thanklessness shall be condemned because the very angels have hereby come to the understanding of that which before they knew not of. For it pleased God to hide the means of our redemption from them, to the end that his goodness might be so much the more wonderful to all creatures. And thus we see Saint Paul's meaning. And because he called the Church of God the keeper of his truth, he shows now that this truth is such a treasure as cannot be sufficiently esteemed of us. And how so? Let us mark the contents of the Gospel, namely, that God abased himself in such a manner that he put on himself our flesh, so that we have become his brothers, who is the Lord of glory, and governs the angels, that he made himself of no reputation, inasmuch as he joined himself unto us and took upon himself the form and shape of a servant, even to suffer that curse which was due to us. And under this word, flesh, Saint Paul comprehends also whatever things Jesus Christ received in his person, namely, that he was subject to all our infirmities, except sin. True it is, that there is no blemish in him, but all pureness and all perfection. Yet so it is, that he became and was made weak as we are, to the end that he may now have compassion on our feebleness in order to help us (Hebrews 4:15). And not only that, but he that had no sin suffered the punishment which was due to us, and was, as it were, accursed of God his Father when he offered himself as a sacrifice, to the end that through his means we might now be blessed, and that his grace which we were shut out from, might be poured out upon us. And when we think upon this, have we not occasion, I pray you, to be astonished and dumbfounded? Do we consider what a being God is, that we can in no wise reach unto his majesty, which contains all things in itself and can by no means be contained, this majesty, I say, which the angels worship? Let us consider how weak we are, and how lowly, to come so high, to have this majesty joined with our flesh.

What is there in us? If we cast our eyes upon our God and then enter into comparison, alas, shall we come near to this highness which surmounts all the heavens? No, but rather can we have any acquaintance with it? For there is nothing but rottenness in us, nothing but sin and death. Then let the living God, the wellspring of life, the everlasting glory, the infinite power, let all this come, and not only to come near to us, and to our miseries, to our wretchedness, to our fragility, and to this bottomless pit of all villainy that is in men, sin always excepted, let not only the majesty of God come near this but be joined to it and made one with it in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ? And what is Jesus Christ? God and man? But how is he God and man? What differences are there between God and man? For we know that there is nothing at all in our nature but wretchedness and misery. There is nothing but a bottomless pit of all stench and infection; and yet in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, we see the glory of God which is worshiped by angels, and together with that, the weakness of man, and that he is but one God and man. Is this not a secret and hidden thing worthy not only to be set out with words, but in this way, that we might all be ravished with it? Therefore, the more we think upon it, let us learn to worship such a miracle, which the very angels could never have thought upon, as also Saint Paul speaks here. Seeing that it pleased the Holy Spirit to set forth the goodness of God and show us how precious a jewel we ought to esteem it, let us beware on our part that we be not unthankful and have our minds so fast closed and shut up that we will not once taste of it if we cannot thoroughly and perfectly know it. For it is enough for us to have some little taste of it, and that every one of us be content with his measure considering the slenderness that in us, and looking for the day in which what we see now in part shall be wholly and perfectly revealed to us.

Yet notwithstanding, we must employ our minds and studies this way. But for all this, we see the malice and thanklessness of men. For how many are there of them which will be taken to be Christians, and make great brags of it, that know this secret? Nay, even as people know not what God's truth means, nor the doctrine of the Gospel, neither do they know what is taught us here. Why does Saint Paul call this a mystery of faith, that Jesus Christ, who is God everlasting, is manifested in the flesh? It is as much as if he should say, “My friends when we are gathered to God and be made one body with our Lord Jesus Christ, behold the end for which we are made; namely, to know that God is joined and made one with us, in the person of his son.” So now, we must conclude that no man can be a Christian unless he knows this secret which Saint Paul speaks of. If we should now examine and ask both men and women whether they know what this word means, that God was manifested in the flesh, we should hardly find one among ten that could make so good a confession as would be looked for at a child's hand. And yet we may not marvel at it; for we see what negligence and contempt there is for the most part. We show and teach daily in our sermons that God put upon himself our nature; but how often do men attend the sermons? Who is there that troubles himself much to read the Scriptures? There are very few that have time. Every man is occupied after his own business; and if there be one day in the week reserved to be taught in, when they have bestowed six days on their own business, if there be but one day chosen for men to come together to have some good lessons given them, then they must go play and engage in pastimes – some into the fields, some to the Taverns to carouse, as no doubt even at this present time there may be as many as are here assembled in the name of God, found carousing, who think this hour should be very evilly spent unless it were so profaned in contempt toward God. Another sort will be occupied in playing, and others in dancing. And therefore, when we see so many deliberately shun and flee from doctrine, can we marvel that there is such a brutishness that we know not the ABC's of Christianity, and that we hear, as it were, a strange language if men tell us that God is manifested in the flesh? Yet notwithstanding, this sentence cannot be put out of God's register, that is, that we have no faith if we know not how our Lord Jesus Christ is joined with us, to the end that we may be his members and he our head. Moreover, it seems that God will stir us up to think upon this mystery whether we will or not, seeing that we are asleep and as drowsy as we are. For the heresies which Satan spreads, come not by chance or haphazard, but God exercises us and by practice hardens us, and makes us steel, so to speak, to that which we understood not before. And we see how the devil stirs up these contentious people, sometimes to deny the humanity of Jesus Christ or his Godhead, sometimes to confound them both that we may not know two distinct natures in him, or else to cause us to believe that he is no more that man which fulfilled the promises in the law, and so consequently is descended of the stock of Abraham and David. Is it indeed so that such errors and heresies which existed in the beginning of the Church of Christ, are now spreading in these our days? It is God's doing (as I said), who intends to make our backs like steel, to the end that we may be strengthened in the truth of his Gospel. And because he sees us so negligent in that behalf, he draws us to it by force. And thus let us mark well the words that are set down here by Saint Paul. First of all he says, “That God was manifested in the flesh.” Now when he calls Jesus Christ God, he yields to him this nature which he had before the world was made. True it is that there is but one God only, but in this one essence we must comprehend the Father, and a wisdom which cannot be severed from him, and an everlasting virtue, which was always and shall be forever in him.

Thus is Jesus Christ truly God, insomuch as he was the wisdom of God before the world was made, and before all everlastingness. Now, it is said that he was made manifest in the flesh. By this word Flesh, Saint Paul gives us to understand that he was truly man, and took our nature upon himself. But now he shows by this word, Manifested, that there are two natures in him. And yet we may not imagine that there is one Jesus Christ who is God and another Jesus Christ who is man. But we must know him alone as God and man.

Let us in this way distinguish the two natures which are in him that we know that the Son of God is our brother. I said that God suffers the old heresies, which in times past troubled the Church, to make a stir now again in our day, in order to sharpen us all the more. But let us mark also, on the other side, that the devil goes about as much as he can to destroy this article of faith because he knows perfectly that it is the foundation and support of our salvation. For if we have not this secret of which Saint Paul speaks, what will become of us? For we are all of us Adam's children; and therefore we are accursed. We are in the bottomless pit of death, to be short, we are fatally hostile toward God, and therefore there is nothing but death and condemnation in us until we learn that God has come to seek us and has come down to us because we cannot climb up to him. Until we learn this, are we not more than miserable? For this reason, the devil went about as much as he could to abolish and extinguish this knowledge, or mix it with lies and dreams in order to mar it utterly and bring it to nothing. On the other side, when we see such a majesty in God, how dare we presume to come near him, seeing that we are full of misery? So then, we must have recourse to this link of God's majesty and man's state together.

And therefore, do what we can, we shall never have any hope or be able to fly to the bounty and goodness of God, and be bold to call upon him and return to him, until we know the Majesty of God that is in Jesus Christ and the weakness of man's nature which he has received of us. To be short, we are utterly cast off from the kingdom of heaven. The gate is shut against us so that we can in no way come near it. And seeing that the devil has bestowed all his art this way, to pervert this doctrine, because he saw that all our salvation was grounded upon it, what should we do but be all the more confirmed and strengthened in it, to the end that we may never be shaken from the faith which is contained in the Gospel, no matter what he does or desires. Therefore, we have this to note first of all, that we shall never know Jesus Christ to be our savior until we know that he was God from eternity past. And indeed, that which was written of him by Jeremiah the Prophet must be fulfilled in him, “Let him that glories, glory in this, that he knows me, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23-24). Saint Paul shows that this must be applied to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. And upon that, he protests that he made no account of any doctrine or knowledge, but only to know Jesus Christ. Again, how is it possible for us to have our life in him unless he be our God and we be maintained and preserved by his virtue? How can we put our trust in him? For it is written, cursed be the man that puts his trust in flesh, or in the arm of man, or in a creature (Jeremiah 17:5). And again, how can we be drawn out of death but by God's infinite power? For to him belongs the deliverance out of death, as the Psalm witnesses (Psalm 68:20). We see then, although the Scriptures bear us no record of the Godhead of Christ Jesus, that it is impossible for us to know that he is our savior unless we yield unto him the whole majesty of God, confessing him to be truly God, because he is the wisdom of the Father, by which the world was made and by which also it is preserved and kept in its state and being. And therefore, let us be thoroughly resolved in this point, as often as we are spoken to about Jesus Christ, that we lift up our minds and worship this majesty which he had from everlasting, and this infinite essence which he enjoyed before he clothed himself with our flesh. Let this be one side of things. There is to be marked on the other side, that he was made manifest in the flesh, that is to say, became man, like unto us in all things (as the Apostle says) only without sin (Hebrews 4:15). And when he says, “only without sin,” he means that our Lord Jesus was not faulty, nor blemished in any way whatsoever; and yet notwithstanding, he did not refuse to bear our sins, nay he laid this burden upon himself, to the end that we through his grace might have our burden removed. Yet notwithstanding, we cannot know Jesus Christ to be a Mediator between God and men unless we behold him as man. And indeed, when Saint Paul would upon this embolden us to call upon God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, he calls him expressly and in plain words, man.

“There is only one God, and one Mediator, Jesus Christ, who is man” (1 Tim. 2:5). The point is that we may in his name, and by his means come familiarly to God, knowing that we are brothers of Jesus Christ, who is his only son. Seeing that there is nothing but sin in all mankind, we must also find righteousness as well, and life in our flesh. And therefore, if Christ were not really and truly our brother, and man just like us, in what case would we be? Let us leave all the rest and consider only his life and passion.

Behold the death of Jesus Christ is called an only and everlasting sacrifice, by which we are made one with God (Heb. 9:26). And why is it this way? Saint Paul shows us the reason in Romans 5:12 and following when he says, “As by one man's presumption we are all condemned, so by one man's obedience, we have all recovered salvation.”

If we do not know this, that the fault which was committed in our nature was repaired in the selfsame nature, in what case would we be? On what might we support ourselves? And therefore, the death of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot profit us one bit unless he was made man like us. Again, if Jesus Christ were only God, could we, I beg you, have any certainty or pledge in his resurrection, that we should one day rise again? True it is that the son of God rose again.  Yes, but he is not like us. No, on the other side, when we here say that the son of God took upon himself a body like ours and came of the stock of David and that that man is risen again, we conclude boldly that since our nature, which is of itself corruptible and has nothing in it but corruption, is lifted up on high into heavenly glory in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, we dwell already in heaven, as Saint Paul speaks in the Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph. 2:6-7). And therefore, they are so much the more to be accursed and to be spat at, who went about to bring to nothing the truth of man's nature in the person of the son of God. For the devil raised up in old times certain contentious persons who sowed this wicked seed, that Jesus Christ appeared indeed in the shape of man, but he had not man's true nature. And thereby they went about not only to abolish God's mercy toward us, but also utterly to beat down our faith.

Others imagined that he brought a body with him from heaven, as though he did not actually identify with us. And this is it also, that this cursed heretic which was put to death here, set forth, that Jesus Christ had a body from everlasting, even from the beginning of the world, that he had a body made of four elements, which were not made, and that the Godhead was at that time in visible shape and that however often the angels appeared, it was his body, not begotten of the seed of man, but built and framed of those fantasies which he talked of.  What madness it is to imagine that the Son of God would get a body in this way. What shall become of that which the Apostle says – that God gave not this honor to angels, to send his son to be of their state and condition, but made him like us, and showed therein how well he loved us? What shall become of that which is said, that he took upon himself our flesh, to become a true and natural brother with us (Heb. 2:16). Yes, and that he was made like us, to have pity upon our infirmities, and to help us (Rom. 8:26; Heb. 4:15)? To be short, why did he die except to deliver us? Last of all, he was made the seed of David, to the end that he might be known to be the redeemer that was promised, and whom the fathers looked for from all ages. All this will be beaten down and come to nothing. So then, let us remember well this article, where it is said that the son of God appeared in the flesh, that is to say, that he became truly man and made us one with him, yes with a brotherly tie, so that we may now call God our Father. And why may we do so? Because we are of the body of his only son, of his natural son. And how are we of his body? Because it pleased him to join himself to us, to the end that we might be partakers of his substance. And by this we see that they are not vain speculations and subtleties, when men tell us that Jesus Christ put on our flesh; for hither we must come, if we will have a true knowledge of faith (as I have shown already). For it is impossible for us to trust rightly in Jesus Christ unless we apprehend his humanity; as also we must understand his majesty before we can trust to have salvation by him. Moreover, this is not yet everything. It is not enough that we know that Jesus Christ is God and man, unless we also add that there is but one person in him.

Yet here again has the devil, in this behalf, stirred the coals as much as he could in order to pervert or disguise this doctrine which Saint Paul teaches us here. For there have been heretics which made such a hodgepodge of Jesus Christ's Godhead and majesty with his humanity that they thought his heavenly essence was immediately changed into flesh and into man. And thus did Servetus (of whom I spoke before), with his other cursed and devilish blasphemies, say that Jesus Christ was made man.

And what will follow upon this? God must forego his nature, and his spiritual essence must be turned into flesh. And what a thing would that be? And he goes on further and says that Jesus Christ is now man no longer, but his flesh is become God. This is another laboratory of his through which Christ must pass. This is a marvelous alchemy, to make so many new natures of Jesus Christ. And thus the Devil raised up such dreamers in old times to trouble the faith of the Church, and this is now renewed in our time. And therefore, let us mark well what Saint Paul teaches us in this place; for he gives us good armor to be well defended against such errors, namely, that there is a Godhead in Jesus Christ, and also flesh.

And therefore, we must hold those things together, which God points out to us with the finger both on the one side and the other. Will we then consider Jesus Christ rightly? Let us behold in him this heavenly glory; let us behold this essence which he had from everlasting and before all ages. And then let us come to his humanity which is shown to us there. And this is one noteworthy thing, that we may distinguish the two natures in our Lord Jesus Christ. And this is not to gaze in the air, but we must practice it to nourish our faith. What is the reason? If we will seek life in Jesus Christ, we must understand that he has the whole Godhead in him, for it is written in the Psalms that the wellspring of life lies in him, and that we see briefly in his brightness (Psalm 36:9). If we will be maintained against the Devil and against all our enemies, we must know that Jesus Christ is God. To be short, will we put our whole trust and confidence in him? Then must we also know that he has all power. Which he could not have unless he were God. Thus to exercise our faith rightly so that we may be fully grounded in Jesus Christ, we must know his Godhead and his essence on the one side. On the other side, when we will seek forgiveness of our sins and satisfaction for our debts, the means to call upon God, to be helped in our infirmities, and to be delivered from the curse, we must find Jesus Christ near to us and behold him as man. And for this reason, we must know his nature which he took of us, that we not beat around the bush to find in him what belongs to the hope of our salvation because he was offered to be our Mediator and to make us one with God his Father. Thus it is easy to see that we must apprehend the humanity in our Lord Jesus Christ, to distinguish it from his heavenly essence and majesty. And yet notwithstanding, we must join these two natures together in one person. Who is that God then that Saint Paul speaks of? It is the Son of the virgin Mary, who has life in himself, it is he that was subject to death. Who is he that has all power? It is he that became feeble and weak. He that bore the punishment for our sins is the wellspring of life. Therefore, we must learn to join these two natures together in one person and not separate them. For if we forge one Jesus Christ who is God, and then make him that suffered being born of the virgin Mary, and is dead and risen again, a man apart by himself, what a thing would that be? So then, let us mark well that this word Manifested joins the two natures together, so that we must know Christ not to be a double one, but only one, although he has two natures.

We have two eyes in our head, and each eye is regarded separately; but yet when we look steadfastly upon something, if our two eyes give themselves to I know not what, our sight, which is separate of itself, joins itself together and becomes one, to give itself wholly to behold that which is set before us. Even so stands the similarity, as we have two eyes in our head, so are there two diverse natures in Jesus Christ. But yet our faith must be more simple than our two eyes; the spiritual regard, I mean, of our understanding must lift up itself in such a way that we may know that Jesus Christ being Son of God, is also Son of man to become our brother. Yes, is there, I pray you, anything in the world more different one from another than man's body and his soul are? His soul is an invisible spirit that cannot be seen nor touched, which has no place, nor any of these fleshly passions. The body is a corruptible lump subject to rottenness, a visible thing, and touchable; the body has its properties which can in no way agree to the soul. And what is man? A creature built of a body and soul. If God used such a workmanship in us, when he made us men of two diverse natures, why should we think it strange in Jesus Christ that God used a far greater miracle in him? And therefore, let us mark well this word, Manifested, which Saint Paul uses, to the end that when we come to Jesus Christ, and have distinguished his Godhead from his humanity, we may receive him as God manifested in the flesh, that is to say, he who is truly our God, and yet in one person has made himself one with us so that insomuch as he became man, we are the children of God. Since he is our satisfaction, we are freed from the burden of our sins. Since he has delivered us from all our miseries, we have now perfect riches in him. To be short, since he submitted himself to death, we are now sure of life. Now after what Saint Paul has thus spoken, he adds: He was justified in Spirit. This word “justified” is often times taken in Scriptures for “Approved.” When it is said that God is justified, it is not that he becomes just, it is not that he is acquitted before men, as though they were his judges and he were bound to give them an account. No, no, there is no such thing; but it is when the glory which he deserves is yielded and given to him, and we confess him to be such a one as he is indeed. Along the same lines, it is said that the Gospel is justified (Matt. 11:19), that is, when men receive it obediently and through faith submit themselves to the doctrine that God teaches them; so in this place, it is said that Jesus Christ was justified in spirit. And why was he? To the end that we esteem him not only under this shape of man, in which he appeared to us, and in this infirmity which he shared with us mortal men. And therefore, we must not support ourselves and stand upon the bodily presence of Jesus Christ, to know what he is, touching this shape which was visible, but we must look higher. But how? This is what Saint John said in the first chapter – that God was made flesh, or the word of God, which is as much. The word of God (he says) which was God before the creation of the world, was made flesh, that is to say, was united to our nature so that the Son of the virgin Mary is God, yes the everlasting God. And after he has thus spoken, he adds that the glory which pertains to the only Son of God was known in him. After what sort? For there is more in Jesus Christ than man, and more than what he received of us. What then? The infinite power of God showed itself there, so that this was a most sure witness that Jesus Christ is God. And therefore, Saint Paul in the first chapter to the Romans, when he had said that Jesus Christ was made of the seed of David, adds that he was declared mightily to be the son of God. And therefore, let us mark that it is not enough for us to behold Jesus Christ with our fleshly eyes, for so should we climb up no higher than man, but when we see how, by miracles and mighty workings, he shows himself to be the Son of God, this is such a seal and such a proof that we may no longer doubt but that Jesus Christ in so abasing himself, did not for all that, leave off his heavenly majesty. And so we may boldly come to him, as to our brother, and worship him as our everlasting God by whom we were made, and by whom we are maintained. And therefore, Saint Paul adds in plain words that Jesus Christ was justified even in Spirit.

Now let us shortly gather that together which we touched on before; for time would not suffer us to declare that which is contained in this place. Will we then have a short summary of our faith and Christian religion? We must know that God was manifested in the flesh, as also in the text which I declared before out of the first chapter of Romans, Saint Paul having made mention of the Gospel, adds that it is a message that he brings of Jesus Christ, who was made the Son of David according to the flesh, and showed himself to be the Son of God. Were it not for this, we could have no church. Were it not for this, we could have no religion. Were it not for this, we could have no salvation. It would be better for us to be brute beasts without all reason and understanding, than to lack this knowledge, namely, that Jesus has come and joined his Godhead as one with our nature, which was so wretched and miserable as nothing else. But yet let us mark that Saint Paul was not content only to use this word Faith, but he said that it is a mystery and a hidden thing, to the end that we should not come to it proudly and arrogantly, as we see many men do that will seem subtle and sharp witted. And this is what has caused so many heresies to spring up, even pride that was in those detestable creatures whom the devil possessed, since he is the father of pride. And indeed pride has always been the mother of all heresies. And therefore, when we hear this word “Mystery,” let us remember two things – first, that we learn to stay sensible, and not flatter ourselves as though by our own subtleness and cleverness we were able to comprehend so high a matter, as to know how it came to pass that God took upon himself our nature. All wisdom of man must stoop in this case. And therefore, let us learn to climb up beyond ourselves, and reverence that which we know not and which passes our capacity. And this is the first thing we must take note of.

The second is this, that we take heed when it is said unto us, “Behold a secret.” We must not be lazy sluggards; God prepares us and sharpens us so that we should think upon this doctrine, and rack our brains about it; and when we have once gotten some little taste of it, that we should endeavor to profit in it all the days of our life. Moreover, when we realize that the Son of God is thus joined with us, let us cast our eyes upon that which is so highly set forth in him, that is to say, this virtue and heavenly power of the Holy Spirit. So then, Jesus Christ did not only appear as a man, but showed indeed that he was God almighty, as all the fullness of the Godhead dwelled in him. If we realize this, we may well perceive that it is not without cause that Saint Paul says that all the treasures of wisdom are hidden in our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, we shall know the height and depth, the length and largeness, yes, whatever is necessary for our salvation, when we have once laid hold upon this Mediator, especially in his majesty, so that we may rest our faith upon him, as upon our only God, and have beheld him as our brother, who has not only come near to us, but has united and joined himself to us in such a way, that he has become one selfsame substance. If we understand this, let us know that we have come to the perfection of wisdom which Saint Paul speaks of in another place, so that we may fully rejoice in the goodness of God because it has pleased him to lighten us with the brightness of his Gospel, to draw us into his heavenly kingdom.

Now let us fall down before the face of our good God, acknowledging our faults, and praying to him, that it would please him to give us such a feeling of them, etc.


From Sermons on 1 Timothy by John Calvin



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