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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory” (I Timothy 3:16).
Today’s verse is unique among all the “3:16” options.
It’s essentially six lines of poetry thrust into the middle of a correspondence between an experienced Christian leader and a young apprentice (traditionally, Paul and Timothy).
Scholars have long suggested that these words probably existed prior to the composition of this letter. If you’re writing to a friend this weekend, imagine quoting Shakespeare in order to illustrate a point, or reciting the lyrics of a popular song that communicate exactly what you want to say.
Such “pre-packaged” biblical statements are sometimes called doxologies. Other examples include Philippians 2:5-11 and I Corinthians 15:3-8. That term is comprised of the Greek words doxa (“glory, splendor, grandeur”) and logos (“word” or “speech”). So a doxology is a means of speaking a special word about God’s glory and splendor. Word-bundles of this sort were often used liturgically – that is, as components of a worship service.
Those of us with a mainline church background may be acquainted with what has come to be called the Doxology – four lines of praise sung by the congregation at some point in the service (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”). Despite the definite article, however, it’s just one of many expressions of praise composed over the centuries.
I Timothy 3:16 might also be considered an early Christian creed.
The word “creed” comes from the Latin credo, which means “I believe.” A creed aims to express, in as few words as possible, what’s worth believing – essentially, what’s worth living for, and by extension, what’s worth dying for. As the following examples demonstrate, you don’t have to be religious to have a creed.
The personal creed of 1960s psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary was just six words: Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out.
Robert Ingersoll, known as the 19th century’s Great Agnostic, expressed his deepest convictions in four sentences:
Happiness is the only good.
The place to be happy is here.
The time to be happy is now.
The way to be happy is to make others so.
Here are few others:
Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
U.S. Army Rangers: Sua Sponte (Latin for, “I do this willingly”)
United States Marines: Semper Fi (Latin for, “always faithful”)
U.S. Air Force Pararescuers: “These things we do, that others may live.”
Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel’s character in the Fast and Furious movie franchise): “You don’t turn your back on family, even when they do.”
So if I Timothy 3:16 is really a doxology or a creed, what does it proclaim?
It appears the author decided to spotlight a half dozen truths about Jesus.
“He was manifested in the flesh” (that speaks of the Incarnation, God becoming a human being). “Vindicated by the Spirit” (scholars suggest this probably refers to his resurrection). “Seen by angels” (this may refer to Jesus’ appearance in the spirit world between Good Friday and Easter morning). “Proclaimed among the nations” (a reference to the Great Commission, the disciples’ global mission to spread the Good News). “Believed on in the world” (Jesus is someone worthy of our deepest loyalty). “Taken up in glory” (his ascension 40 days after the empty tomb).
We might even say this “3:16” verse is a Cliff’s Notes version of the life of Jesus – the very kind of thing a young disciple might commit to memory.
In the end, Christians aren’t called to entrust themselves to a slogan. Or a laundry list of laws. Or a set of practices. Or even a polished, doctrinally precise creed.
We entrust ourselves to a person – an actual person whom we believe has no equal in human history. And what we believe about Jesus will make all the difference in the world.
When it comes to your own life, what do you believe?
That’s not the same question as, “To what beliefs do you formally subscribe?” or even, “What do you say you believe?” It’s actually rather easy to discern your true beliefs. As we’ve noted before, all you have to do is answer, with fearless honestly, three questions:
- How do I spend my time?
- How do I spend my money?
- What do I daydream about?
Look at your VISA bill. Look at your calendar. Look into the mirror and take stock of your fondest desire – what you hope, more than anything else, might one day happen in your own life and in the world.
That’s what you really believe in.
Narrowing the gap between what I say I believe and what I actually believe – and calibrating both with God’s deepest dream for this shattered planet, as represented by the life, death, and resurrection of his Son – will take the rest of our lives.
But it’s the one thing worth living for.