As you can imagine, words or phrases that are only used one time and that do not have a clear definition in that passage can be difficult to interpret. Therefore, I admit that my understanding of the mystery of the faith is not as secure as with many doctrines. However, I do think that we can get a pretty good understanding of what is being referred to here. Let us analyze the doctrine.
1 Timothy 3:9 states: "Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience."
In context, it is dealing with the qualifications of deacons. This mystery is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, the words "mystery" and "faith" are used in the same Bible verse only in this verse. Therefore, we will have to look at other connections in order to understand its meaning.
The word "mystery" is commonly used in Paul's epistles. In a previous study, I have seen four characteristics of mysteries in the Bible. They are:
- Not previously known (Ephesians 3:4-5,9; Matthew 13:35)
- Beyond human understanding (1 Corinthians 2:7-10)
- Selectively revealed (Matthew 13:10-11; Ephesians 3:10)
- Meant to be taught (1 Corinthians 4:1-2)
Therefore, we are looking for something that had not been revealed to Old Testament saints but is an important part of New Testament understanding.
Next, I notice the phrasing of the mystery. It is not the mystery of faith, but the mystery of "the faith." The phrase "the faith" is found 43 times in the Bible. All of these references are in the New Testament from Acts to Revelation. It is definitely a New Testament phrase. Its first occurrence in the Bible is in Acts 3:16. It is in a sermon by Peter and it is referring to healing of the lame man through faith in the name of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is not coincidence that it is chapter three and verse sixteen (as in John 3:16). Here is the verse (I have added the capitalization):
Acts 3:16 And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, THE FAITH which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all.
This passage refers to THE FAITH which is by Jesus Christ as the means of blessing from God. Many other passages tell us that this is THE FAITH that brings us the greatest of all blessings--the blessing of eternal salvation. Although, "the faith" often refers to the body of truth as found in the entire Bible (1 Corinthians 16:13; Ephesians 4:13; Titus 1:13), it specifically refers to the faith of Jesus Christ. This has two connotations: the faith of Christ working in us and our faith in Him. Consider the following verses:
Galatians 2:16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
Galatians 2:20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
Ephesians 3:12 In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.
Philippians 3:9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:
1 Timothy 3:13 For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
James 2:1 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
Revelation 14:12 Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus.
In other places, it is referred to at the faith of the gospel:
Philippians 1:27 Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;
Colossians 1:23 If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister;
Notice especially 1 Timothy 3:13. This is only four verses down from the verse we are studying (1 Timothy 3:9) and it still dealing with the qualifications of a deacon. Therefore, the meaning of "the faith" here is significant. In 1Timothy 3:13, the deacons are to have "great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus." This is the faith that trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation. It is also the faith that trusts in Jesus Christ for our daily walk with God. And, it is the faith of Jesus Christ that works in us to enable us to full salvation and the crucified Christian life. In sum, it is the faith of Jesus Christ.
This is evidently the faith that was a mystery to the Old Testament saints. They knew of the coming of a Messiah, but they did not know all that would come through our faith in and the faith of the Son of God. That has been revealed to us today.
In our passage, Paul is telling Timothy that the deacons must hold this mystery--the mystery of the faith--in a pure conscience. They are responsible for ministering to others in this holy truth. If their conscience in impure, they will drag this precious truth in the mud and will discredit its testimony before others. They must rightly exalt the message of the gospel and the faith of Jesus Christ; first in their own hearts, and second in their proclamation of that gospel to others. It is a high and holy calling and is not to be the vocation of men of the baser sort. If they do not hold the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ in holy awe while living holy lives, then they are disqualified from being deacons.