Among the New Testament mysteries is the peculiar description Paul gives to his precis of the life of Jesus.
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
At this time of the year, we focus on that first phrase, “He was manifested in the flesh.” There is little doubt that though unnamed in this passage, he who came in the flesh is the eternal Son of God.
This is more than saying “Jesus was born.” Birth is not unusual nor a mystery. It is common as can be. The mystery is because it is the second person of the Trinity putting on flesh. How can God become man?
While not answering the question of how, Paul has earlier in the epistle answered the why of the incarnation.
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Tim. 2:5)
In the course of church history, two mirror heresies emerged to attack the truth of the incarnation, and Paul has answered both here. Arianism is the teaching that Jesus was less than God. In saying “He was manifested in the flesh” the apostle is affirming something about the identity of the one born in Bethlehem. “He was born” would have sufficed to refer to Jesus’ birth, but to say he was manifested in the flesh speaks to his pre-existence, his eternal identity as God the Son. That is the mystery we do not fully comprehend, but we surely apprehend in worship.
In the latter passage, Paul refers to the man Christ Jesus, and in so saying he expands upon the other truth of “in the flesh.” Jesus had come to earth, humbled himself to take on human flesh. As the writer to the Hebrews says,
“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2:17)
The body God prepared for the Lord Jesus was that which suffered on the cross, bled and died. God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, Paul writes to the Galatians. He is truly man, not only seeming to be a man. Apollinarism is the heresy that Jesus could not have really been a man like us because that would introduce change to deity, which is not possible. But that is like saying miracles are not possible because they contradict the laws of nature. That is why we call them supernatural, they cannot be explained by nature. Scripture speaks of Jesus as both God and man, but this truth (like any other in the Bible) does not stand or fall on our reception if it, and this is why Paul terms this a mystery. It is central to the gospel, to salvation – and indeed to right worship.