KJV 1 Timothy 3:9  Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.

By "the mystery of the faith" does Paul mean the gospel itself? Or some particular aspect of the gospel? Why does it refer to it as "the mystery of" the faith?

4 Answers 4


Ephesians 3:1-7 is Paul's definitive statement on what he means by 'mystery'.

This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Ephesians 3:6

Paul was steeped in the Jewish Scriptures, having studied under Gamaliel but failed to understand what it really meant (Acts 22:3ff, Galatians 1:11-17) - it was a mystery. It was only after his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road that he re-evaluated all that he had learned (possibly spending the time in Arabia doing this), and saw it fulfilled in Jesus as the Christ. The mystery of the faith, then, is that understanding of Jesus as the fulfilment of OT prophecy, the promised Messiah.

  • Please understand that an "answer" must include sources, not just undocumented opinion. Can you please "back up" each of your assertions? Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Jun 14, 2018 at 10:43
  • That is an appropriate verse. There are however 7 mysteries revealed to Paul. How do we know that he had this one in mind?
    – Ruminator
    Jun 14, 2018 at 18:33
  • Good question... The answer depends on whether there 7 references to aspects of one mystery or 7 distinct mysteries. On inspection, in Paul's letters most references to mystery include the definite article and can certainly be understood as different aspects of Paul's revelation of what the Gospel is so on that basis I'm inclined to the former. Jun 15, 2018 at 15:08

Its essential meaning might be given to us in the second epistle to Timothy, where doing a certain action again with (the only other mention of the words) "a pure conscience" is associated with the act of liturgical or divine worship (λατρεύω—render divine service).1

2 Timothy 1:3

I thank God, whom I serve with a pure conscience as my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day

This reminds me of a relevant portion of the more-or-less contemporaneous epistle of Clement to the church at Corinth from a fellow bishop of the NT era:2

For it would be no small sin for us were we to expell those who have blamelessly and devoutly offered the gifts of the bishop's office.

He even uses the word προσενεγκόντας (having offered), which comes from the same root as 'hold' used in 1 Timothy 3:9 ("ἔχοντας"—holding).

Given that in pretty much all other Christian literature, including and as early as the Didache, view the Eucharist specifically as the sacrifice of the New Covenant (namely, that spoken of in Malachi 1:11), we can safely assume this blameless holding of the Eucharist is in view in 1 Timothy, especially since he is writing to a fellow bishop specifically about the office of bishop.

More interestingly, I happen to remember that this phrase is used in the Roman Rite of Mass at the words of consecration:3



Moreover, we find the same need to clear one's conscience before the Eucharist here in 1 Timothy as is found in Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians:

1 Timothy 3:10

Moreover let them be examined beforehand, and so let them minister, being beyond reproach.

1 Corinthians 11:27-29

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he eats and drinks damnation upon himself who gives no consideration to the body [of the Lord].

The mystery of faith would of course be the "hard saying" of John 6:56, 60 if the Eucharist is in view.

It's not conclusive, but it's definitely something.


1 Thayer's: "to perform sacred services, to offer gifts, to worship God in the observance of the rites instituted for his worship" | "of priests, to officiate, to discharge the sacred office"

2 Epistle to the Corinthians, 44, 4 (circa. A.D 70-90) .

3 The Canon of Mass, Consecration of the Wine (Tridentine/Roman Rite)

  • 1
    Neither, but that they offered liturgical sacrifice or divine service. 'My' is inserted, but it could equally be 'as did our forefathers' i.e. simply 'the fathers.' It doesn't say either way. St. Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin, not a Levite. But this isn't an issue, as this limitation on the priestly office to one tribe was artificial and a punishment for the golden calf incident, and for the Old Covenant, not the New. (Clement compares the bishop, presbyter and deacon, structure, seemingly, to the high priest, priest, Levite hierarchy of the Old Covenant.) Jun 13, 2018 at 21:48
  • To offer divine service is not to reinstate the Law of Moses, since sacrifice is not proper only to the Old Covenant. (As I mentioned, early Christianity was unanimous on Malachi 1 containing a prophecy about the Eucharist as a sacrifice which replaces the defunct rites of the Old Covenant and people.) It's not evident exactly how the fathers' service might relate to Paul, only that he parenthetically involves them in the context of that service as if to imply some kind of succession, or as if they share a similar office, charge or duty. Jun 13, 2018 at 23:14
  • The 'sacrifice of the New Covenant' was made - once - by Jesus Christ when he offered up himself. The sharing of bread and wine is a memorial - not a sacrifice.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 14, 2018 at 3:08
  • @Ruminator The Eucharistic offering was not against anything and has apostolic sanction. The Old Law is not the measuring stick for the New. Besides, it was Jesus who instituted this, not the apostles, as St. Paul himself records for us, and as the Gps. do. Jesus commissioned them with this liturgical function when He told them concerning what He had just done, to do it as a memorial of Him. They obeyed. When they say the bread and wine are the flesh and blood of Christ, they are no more doing away with the sacrifice of Christ than Christ Himself in saying those words.It is the same sacrifice. Jun 14, 2018 at 14:43
  • @Nigel J The Greek word used for "a memorial" is pregnant with Old Testament reference to sacrifice, not a mere commemoration, although it is essentially commemorative. And obviously no Christians today nor in the early Church view the Eucharist as a challenge to Christ's sacrifice, they rather identified it radically with it (it being nothing other than His flesh and blood). The manner of offering is different, but it is not a new sacrifice. It's the once and for all sacrifice applied in time. Again, this is no novelty, it's the perennial Christian understanding of the Eucharist. Jun 14, 2018 at 14:44

According to Strong's Concordance, the Greek word 'mustérion' (μυστήριον) refers to something which is hidden or secret - not unknowable, but to be revealed only to the initiated.

In Colossians, Paul speaks of this 'mystery' which he says 'is Christ' and also 'the word of God': not precisely Jesus or the gospel, but rather both and neither. The 'Christ' he describes is more a revelation of wisdom, knowledge and understanding that is 'made manifest' in the example of Jesus' life, and passed on through the gospel, after remaining 'hidden for ages and generations':

"...I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great, among the Gentiles, are the riches of the glory of this mystery which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ." (Colossians 1:25-28)

In Colossians 2, Paul refers specifically to "the assured understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, of Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (2 Colossians 2:2-3).

This reference to the mystery as the Christ is repeated again later in 1 Timothy:

"Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory." (1 Timothy 3:16)

So the 'mystery of the faith' would be not so much the written or even the spoken words of the gospel themselves that a deacon holds, but the wisdom, knowledge and understanding behind those words, behind the example of Jesus, who is 'the Christ', the mystery manifest.

It is not a deacon's role to preach the gospel or to instruct, but to perform certain administrative duties within the church. So this mystery is held 'with a clear conscience' - and the surrounding verses describe Paul's expectations for the exemplary behaviour of his deacons:

"Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons. The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well;" (1 Timothy 3:8-12)

Paul expects a deacon, therefore, not to do their revealing with words, but to 'hold' or embody the truth of Jesus' example through their actions in all aspects of their life, as a reflection of their actions for the church. If they do this with a clear conscience, without hidden agenda or falseness, then they also increase the congregation's trust and faith in the church itself, and in the wisdom, knowledge and understanding it then reveals through the gospel.

"for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus." (1 Timothy 3:13)

  • Please understand that an "answer" must include sources, not just undocumented opinion. Can you please "back up" each of your assertions? Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Jun 13, 2018 at 17:10
  • The makings of a good answer. You have distinguished between faith in the mystery of the gospel and a way of life that is visibly appropriate to such a mystery. I would have up-voted if you had attached some relevant scriptures.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 14, 2018 at 3:14

First, most scholars would agree that Paul is not the author of the Pastoral Epistles. Although there may be some Pauline content, the voice, the vocabulary and the issues are not Paul's.
That said, the great mystery of faith across all Christian traditions is the Cross-Resurrection. The description of both the over-seer and the server in 1 Tim are of a person who has died to his ego and can serve and love the community faithfully. The great mystery of the Christian faiths is that only in this "death" does one experience the fullness of life promised in the resurrection as the "good news" of God.

  • Hi Timothy. As I said to Possibility, on this site it is necessary (required) that you provide sources. Thank.
    – Ruminator
    Jun 13, 2018 at 18:04
  • 1
    Slight correction, Timothy. "Most LIBERAL scholars agree that Paul is not the author of the Pastoral Epistles." As for the biblical scholars who believe the Bible is God's Word, most of them see no reason why we should believe anyone else besides Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles. By the way, I am not a biblical scholar, but I am a scholar in rhetorical theory, and as a rhetorician I give little credence to the notion that "Pauline content, the voice, the vocabulary and the issues are not Paul's." I suggest those very factors can be explained rhetorically. By the way, welcome to SEH! Jun 14, 2018 at 0:56
  • Answers should be not expressions of opinion but studied contributions supported by citation.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 14, 2018 at 3:11
  • I believe that the Bible is the "Word of God" composed by men. If by "citation" you mean "citation from the Bible" you are asking for circular reasoning. We validate all that is true by a faith in the God living and acting in our humanness. As in all that our finite humanity can identify as true, truth for us limited creatures is circumscribed by all of the limits of our humanity such as language, syntax and experience. That is why the one God is recognized and described so differently within the Bible and in other traditions. We can never get past being human, at least in this life. Jun 14, 2018 at 19:06
  • Yes, welcome. Timothy, it's important in the Hermeneutics forum to support answers with scriptures, word studies, comparing several translations, and citing scholars specifically. It also helps to be familiar with the evidences of opposing scholars. Best wishes,
    – Dieter
    Jun 15, 2018 at 1:22

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