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?
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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.
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.
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
HIC EST ENIM CALIX SANGUINIS MEI, NOVI ET AETERNI TESTAMENTI: MYSTERIUM FIDEI: QUI PRO VOBIS ET PRO MULTIS EFFUNDETUR IN REMISSIONEM PECCATORUM
FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD OF THE NEW AND EVERLASTING TESTAMENT: THE MYSTERY OF FAITH: WHICH FOR YOU AND FOR MANY WILL BE SHED UNTO THE REMISSION OF SINS.
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)
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)
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.