I have studied 1 Timothy 3:16 and would like to share the details of my understanding of this text. It is not for the purpose of proving who is right or wrong. But it is to present a reasonable doubt.
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, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
A relevant observation: Many go to great lengths to prove that the supernatural gifts are not for today. I agree. To support their understanding in Ephesians 4:11 they emphasize, And he GAVE (past tense) some, apostles; etc., meaning He is not giving these supernatural gifts during the dispensation of grace. However, when teaching 1 Timothy 3:16 no such emphasis is placed on God WAS (past tense) manifest in the flesh. The past tense usage of the word “WAS” seems to indicate this verse may not be referring the body of Christ. If it were referring to the body of Christ it seems more likely it should read, God “IS” manifest in the flesh. WAS is understood in the rest of the verses in the text; was justified in the Spirit, was believed on in the world, was preached unto the Gentiles, was seen of angels, etc. Since this is the word of God, altering the wording to say “IS” in those verses would not be good bible practice.
Observation – (Was) preached to the Gentiles: It is true the apostles were instructed not to go into the way of the Gentiles nor into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not (Matthew 10:5). Yet, if Jesus was not preached to the Gentiles, how would one explain the conversion of Gentiles under the law program who became proselytes and were saved (Acts 2:10). Matthew 12:21 And in his name shall the Gentiles trust. Luke 2:32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people. The Gentiles had to come through Israel for salvation, so it had to be Christ that was preached to them. And what about the Samaritans. John 4:25-26 The (Samaritan) woman said unto him. I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he. 29 Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? 39 And many of the Samaritans of that city BELIEVED on him for the saying of the woman, which testified. He told me all that ever I did. 40-41 So when the Samaritans were come unto him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he (Jesus) abode there two days. And many MORE BELIEVED BECAUSE OF HIS OWN WORD.
If 1 Timothy 3:16 is referring to the body of Christ, then those verses are saying: That the body of Christ was preached (past tense) unto the Gentiles. The body of Christ was believed (past tense) on in the world. The body of Christ was received (past tense) up into glory.
If one insist that “WAS” should be “IS” in this verse, then today the body of Christ is preached unto the Gentiles and the BOC is believed on in the world. Now we know that isn’t true.
Note: There is no argument that believers are seen by angels, that believers are justified in the Spirit or that believer’s will be received up into glory.
Observation: Some make the argument that being justified in the Spirit cannot refer to Jesus. Jesus was not justified (declared righteous) in the Spirit like believers. Believers are justified or declared righteous in Christ. We don’t have any righteousness in ourselves. Jesus was declared to be 2 righteous. Romans 1:4 And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. 1 John 2:1b…Jesus Christ the righteous. Matthew 3:16-17 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Romans 3:25-26 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God. To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
Observation: Some give much attention to the fact that Jesus coming in the flesh is not a mystery. There is no argument there. The verse is not about the mystery of Jesus Christ coming in the flesh or his Messiahship. The verse is about the mystery of godliness. 1 Tim 3:16 And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: In the context, 1 Timothy 3 is dealing with how bishops and deacons (believers) are to behave themselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God. God lives in believers. We are the church of the living God. A building is just where the church (believers) assemble for edification. Paul’s instruction to Timothy was how appointed officials ought to behave in these bodies, which are Gods. 1 Corinthians 3:16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you. 1 Corinthians 12:27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
1 Timothy 3:2a, 7 A bishop then must be blameless...of good behavior…have a good report of them… 1 Tim 3:10 And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. 11 …faithful in all things
Godliness: 1 Timothy 4:7-8 But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto GODLINESS. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but GODLINESS is profitable unto all things, having promise of life that now is, and of that which is to come. 1 Timothy 4:11-12 These things command and teach. Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation (manner of life, conduct, behavior), in charity (love, benevolence, brotherly love), in spirit, in faith, in purity.
The believer’s godliness comes from being in Christ. 2 Timothy 3:12 Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. Believer’s cannot have godliness apart from Christ. The believer’s godliness comes from being in the resurrected Christ, who was God manifest in the flesh, (was) justified in the Spirit, (was) seen of angels, (was) preached unto the Gentiles, (was) believed on in the world, (was) received up into glory. Colossians 1:26-27 Even the MYSTERY which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this MYSTERY among the Gentiles: which is CHRIST IN YOU, the hope of glory. Galatians 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live, yet not I, but CHRIST LIVETH IN ME….
A relevant observation: Let me give an illustration, though it might not be a very good one. When a woman is pregnant with a child, it is her life that gives life to the child. The child lives in her but at no time does the woman become the child. I think it is the same with the believer. God has children and it is his eternal life that gives life to his children. We have our life in God through Christ but I don’t think scripture ever says that God becomes his children.
2 Corinthians 4:10-11 Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the LIFE ALSO OF JESUS might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the LIFE ALSO OF JESUS might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.
It is the LIFE THAT IS MANIFEST in the believer. Christ LIVETH in me (Galatians 2:20).
Scripture tells us we are the children of God (Romans 8:16; Galatians 3:26; Ephesians 1:5). Scripture tells us we are the sons of God (Romans 8:14; 2 Corinthians 6:18; Galatians 4:5; Philippians 2:15). But scripture never tells us we are God. Yet it repeatedly tells us we have His life.
These observations were made from teachings on 1 Timothy 3:16. This writing is only to point out the things, which leave doubt as to the correctness of the teachings on this text. It is not clear how one can come to the conclusion that 1 Timothy 3:16 is referring to the body of Christ.