1 Timothy 3. 14–16 – the Mystery of Godliness

THE KEY TO THE LETTER

In these verses, Paul gives his desire in writing, his reason for writing, the character of the assembly, and the full revelation of the character which should mark every believer.

Paul’s Desire in Writing, v. 14

This verse may easily be overlooked as far as the content of the letter is concerned, but it has a very important reminder for us. Paul is setting the example of godliness as he writes. He could not state this directly, because that would be inconsistent with the humility that will mark the godly man. The pattern that he sets here is the longing of a man of God for the saints. He sees the need to encourage Timothy in his work, but he realizes that a letter can never fully replace the personal contact. For this reason, he writes to Timothy, but the letter is only a stopgap to cover the delay before he can come. He wants the best for the saints, and this may well mean putting himself out for their sakes. This should challenge us in days when it is easy to write a letter or pick up the telephone. The man of God will have a longing to do what is best for the saints. We need to consider our lives, and ask how often we take advantage of the convenience of modern technology to ease the work. While this is not automatically wrong, we must consider what it really means to those with whom we deal.

Paul’s Reason for Writing, v. 15

Paul gives as his reason for writing the need for correct behaviour in the house of God. He does not know how long he may be delayed, and the need for correction in the behaviour is too important for any delay. A godly person will realize the need for the character and conduct to be right. It is unusual to find a true balance in these aspects. Some will display the graces that are consistent with godly character, but they will set aside the need for obedience to the truth. Others will hold the truth in a way that shows little of the grace of Christ in the life. Our behaviour in the assembly must be consistent in both word and life.

The Character of the Assembly v. 15

This verse has a threefold description of the local assembly. It is the house of God, the church of the living God, and the pillar and ground of the truth.

As the house of God, it is the place where the Lord is found in the centre of His people, and where the rule of God is seen. This has a very solemn lesson for us. The world has a right to look at the way the assembly acts, and the way it is guided, and to see a picture of the way God works. Our lives individually must show His character, but the assembly takes the object lesson further still as the character of His rule is seen.

As the church of the living God, it is the place where He gathers His people to Himself. We have been called out of the world into a place of fellowship with His Son. While we have no right to say that no other believer can enjoy fellowship with God, it is reasonable to state that the Lord is looking for His people to come out of everything that belongs to the world, and to gather to His Name alone. There is a special privilege associated with this, but it is a privilege that we will lose by reducing our gatherings to a pattern that effectively shuts the Lord outside.

The pillar and ground of the truth tells us that we are the guardians of the truth of God in the world. We are firstly responsible for holding it up for all to see, as suggested by a pillar, and then for demonstrating that the assembly is a place where the word of God is the foundation of everything that we do. The order is important. Sadly, today, we have moved to extremes in many cases. Some will hold the truth as the foundation of all, but forget the need to bear a witness to the truth in the world. The effect of this is that an exclusive company is formed, and there is no power in any gospel testimony that may be undertaken. This is particularly so when truth becomes a rule book for the saints rather than a living revelation of the Lord. Others will show a great desire to spread the gospel, seeing their reason for existence to be simply preachers of the gospel with a view to converting sinners. To achieve this end, other truth may be set aside as outdated for the present. The effect of this is that the character of the assembly is lost. There may be some evidence of professions of faith, although any change of life is frequently short-lived, and often believers may leave the assembly because there is nothing to keep them away from other denominations where the ‘minister7 may be a ‘better preacher’ than those who speak in the assembly gospel meetings. Ultimately, both extremes have a very clear tendency to bring a decline amongst the saints.

The Revelation of Godliness v. 16

This verse is the cornerstone of the letter. It answers the question that ought to be in everyone’s heart: where can I see godliness in practice? Until we come back to this, we shall not begin to deal with the problem of decline that we probably all bemoan. The lesson is that we have not been left without an example, but rather we have the greatest example that we could ever want. Sadly, the force of this verse is often lost by the debate about detail. We need to realize that the impact of the truth of the word of God on our lives is far more important than the debates about meanings of individual words. Such issues can often be the work of the devil to detract from the word. They are often opportunities for debate and discussion to take place instead of godly edification.

What is interesting about this verse is that there is nothing here that could not be preached in the gospel. We often forget that the real purpose of the word of God for the saints is to bring us into the good of what we believed on the day we were saved. This is why there can be as much benefit for the believer coming under the sound of the gospel as hearing the ministry of the word. We must realize that we need to hear and obey the word of God as much on the Christian pathway, as the sinner does in order to begin. Faithful preaching will bring us face to face with the realities of Christian life as much as teaching. Indeed, teaching can become mere ‘doctrine’to be stored away with little impact on the life. While it is good to have a solid foundation, unless there is a change in the life, the teaching has failed. What the Spirit of God wants us to recognize that the life of our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect example of godliness. It is a pattern that we must follow if we are to please the Lord in our lives. The detail of the revelation is contained in three couplets. The first relates to the direct evidence of His character, the second to the witnesses, and the third to the vindication.

As to the evidence, the witness of earth and heaven are given as proof. In flesh men were able to gaze on a perfect revelation of God. Everything that God could show of Himself was made public for all to see. John opens his Gospel narrative with a clear explanation of how he was privileged to recognize this. Nicodemus adds his witness, John 3. 2, while even the demons have to confess Him as the Holy One of God. They knew that there was no flaw to expose in this blessed Man. The second expression adds the testimony of God to this. Whether it is the Holy Spirit who testifies, or whether the spirit of the Lord Himself is not the issue. He was able to go through life confident that He was in perfect harmony with the mind of God. The testimony of the Holy Spirit will always agree with the testimony of our spirits when we are walking in a right path, Rom. 8. 16.

The second couplet shows us the angels gazing on His blessed Person, and the Gentiles listening to the testimony of God to Him. Whether by vision or by hearing, the character of the Lord is the subject of heaven and earth. Angels look at the One who was made a little lower, now exalted far above all. Nations hear of the One who deserves and demands homage from the greatest to the least.

The third couplet shows that there is agreement on earth and in heaven. In the world, men believe as their eyes are turned to His blessed Person. In heaven, all stand aside willingly as He passes the ranks of angelic creation to take His place at the right hand of the Majesty on high. The secret for Christian life and testimony is simply to turn the gaze to the Saviour. If our eyes are fixed on Him, and our hearts seeking Him, then our lives will be transformed into His image, 2 Cor. 3. 18. The more we reflect His glory, the more the eyes of the world will be turned to Him in glory, and when that happens none can resist. They may resist the Man of Sorrows, but when they see His glory, they will mourn as Israel will mourn in a day to come, Zech. 12. 10.

The Pattern of Conduct

Behaviour in the house of God must reach far beyond a correctness in doctrine and practice, to hearts and lives that are lived in tune with the Lord. Just as He had ‘the tongue of the learned’ and His ear opened so that He could speak a word in season, Isa. 50. 4, so we need to follow His example if we are going to rise to the heights of privilege that He has prepared for us.

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