1 Timothy 3:16
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels…
I shall deliver the nature of the thing itself in this definition, viz., that a mystery is truth revealed by God above the power of natural reason to find out or comprehend.
1. That it is a truth. By which we exclude everything from being a mystery that is absurd and contradictions, since a truth can by no means be so.
2. That it be revealed by God, viz., as to its existence, that there is such a thing. For otherwise, as to the nature of the thing itself, and several other respects in which it may be known, the revelation of it is not supposed to extend so far.
3. That it surpasses all the power of natural reason to discover or find it out.
4. That it be such a thing as bare natural reason (even after it is discovered) cannot comprehend. I say comprehend, that is, know it perfectly, and as far as it is capable of being known (1 Corinthians 13:12). That the mysteriousness of those matters of faith is most subservient to the great important ends of Religion, and that upon these following accounts.
I. Because religion, in the prime institution of it, was DESIGNED TO MAKE IMPRESSIONS OF AWE AND REVERENTIAL FEAR UPON MEN'S MINDS. Distance preserves respect, and we still imagine some transcendent worth in things above our reach. Moses was never more reverenced than when he wore his veil. Nay, the very sanctum sanctorum would not have had such veneration from the Jews had they been permitted to enter into it, and to gaze and stare upon it as often as they did upon the other parts of the Temple. The high priest himself, who alone was suffered to enter into it, yet was to do so but once a year, lest the frequency of the sight might insensibly lessen that adoration which so sacred a thing was still to maintain upon his thoughts. In all great respect, or honour shown, there is something of wonder; but a thing often seen (we know), be it never so excellent, yet ceasing thereby to be new, it ceases also to be wondered at. Forasmuch as it is not the worth or excellency, but the strangeness of the thing, which draws the eyes and admiration of men after it. For can anything in nature be imagined more glorious and beautiful than the sun shining in his full might? and yet how many more spectators and wonderers does the same sun find under an eclipse? But to pursue this notion and observation yet farther, I conceive it will not be amiss to consider how it has been the custom of all sober and wise nations of the world still to reserve the great rites of their religion in occulto. Thus how studiously did the Egyptians, those great masters of all learning, lock up their sacred things from all access and knowledge of the vulgar!
II. A second ground of the mysteriousness of religion (as it is delivered by God to mankind) is HIS MOST WISE PURPOSE THEREBY TO HUMBLE THE PRIDE AND HAUGHTINESS OF MAN'S REASON. In short, man would be like God in knowledge, and so he fell; and now, if he will be like Him in happiness too, God will effect it in such a way as shall convince him to his face that he knows nothing. The whole course of his salvation shall be all riddle and mystery to him; he shall (as I may so express it) be carried up to heaven in a cloud. Instead of evidence springing from things themselves, and clear knowledge growing from such an evidence, his understanding must now be contented with the poor, dim light of faith, which guides only in the strength and light of another's knowledge, and is properly a seeing with another's eyes, as being otherwise wholly unable to inform us about the great things of our peace, by any immediate inspection of those things themselves. For as the primitive effect of knowledge was first to put up and then to throw down, so the contrary method of gram and faith is first to depress and then to advance. The difficulty and strangeness of some of the chief articles of our religion are notable instruments in the hand of God to keep the soul low and humble, and to check those self-complacencies which it is apt to grow into by an over-weening conceit of its own opinions more than by any other thing whatsoever. For man naturally is scarce so fond of the offspring of his body as of that of his soul. His notions are his darlings; so that neither children nor self are half so dear to him as the only begotten of his mind. And therefore in the dispensations of religion God will have this only begotten, this best beloved, this Isaac of our souls (above all other offerings that a man can bring Him) to be sacrificed and given up to Him.
III. God has been pleased to put a mysteriousness into the greatest articles of our religion, THEREBY TO ENGAGE US IN A CLOSER AND MORE DILIGENT SEARCH INTO THEM. He would have them the objects of our study, and for that purpose has rendered them hard and difficult. For no man studies things plain and evident, and such as by their native clearness do even prevent our search, and of their own accord offer themselves to our understandings. The foundation of all inquiry is the obscurity as well as worth of the thing inquired after. And God has thought good to make the constitution and complexion of our religion such as may fit it to be our business and our task; to require and take up all our intellectual strength, and, in a word, to try the force of our best, our noblest, and most active faculties. For no man can outlive the reasons of inquiry so long as he carries any thing of ignorance about him. And that every man must, and shall do, while he is in this state of mortality. For he, who himself is but a part of nature, shall never compass or comprehend it all. Truth (we are told) dwells low, and in a bottom; and the most valued things of the creation are concealed and hidden by the great Creator of them, from the common view of the world. God and diamonds, with the most precious stones and metals, are couched and covered in the bowels of the earth; the very condition of their being giving them their burial too. So that violence must be done to nature before she will produce and bring them forth. And then, as to what concerns the mind of man, God has in His wise Providence cast things so as to make the business of men in this world improvement; that so the very work of their condition may still remind them of the imperfection of it.
Parallel VersesKJV: And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
WEB: Without controversy, the mystery of godliness is great: God was revealed in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, and received up in glory.