Because all scripture is given by inspiration of God, 2 Tim. 3. 16. It is therefore the final authority in matters of doctrine and practice. Indeed, fellowship is founded upon it, and conduct derives from it. Hence, every local assembly should be comprised of believers who know, love and obey the word of God.
The priority of scripture was evident among the earliest Christian believers. Indeed, the 3,000 converts of the Day of Pentecost ‘continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers’, Acts 2. 42. After once for all receiving the preaching of Peter, being baptized and added to the apostolic fellowship in Jerusalem, they engaged in four continual actions. The way in which these actions are expressed in the Greek language, structures them into two groups of two. First, the ‘apostles’ doctrine’ is connected with ‘fellowship’. The doctrine of the apostles comprised verbal teachings which are now contained in the writings of the New Testament. These men were divinely enabled to recall the teaching of the Lord Jesus as well as being conduits of further revelation.12 The adherence of these early Christians to the apostles’ doctrine established their fellowship – the truth bound them together in theological and practical unity. Let us not be swept away with the common misconception that fellowship is founded upon a collective cup of tea and a biscuit! True biblical fellowship derives from a firm adherence to apostolic truth contained in the scriptures. The second couplet describes the expression of this doctrinal fellowship in ‘the breaking of bread’, i.e., the Lord’s Supper, and ‘the prayers’, i.e., the corporate assembly prayer meeting. In these four matters, they ‘continued steadfastly’, indicating devoted perseverance and busy engagement. Such plain, characteristic features of the first assembly in Jerusalem are a pattern which has never been retracted and to which we should cling. Many Christian gatherings these days, blaming the spirit of the age or attention span of the saints, are reducing the time given to the teaching of scripture and increasing the time given to congregational singing, ‘worship bands’ or entertainment. Perhaps they do not want to hear the voice of God. May we not be counted among them.
In association with every local assembly. Indeed, the central verse of Paul’s first letter to Timothy, which expounds the ‘house of God’, describes the local assembly as the ‘pillar’ and ‘ground of the truth’,
1 Tim. 3. 15. Pillars were a familiar sight to the inhabitants of Ephesus, the temple of Diana being supported by 127 pillars. Whilst pillars were columns supporting the weight of a building, they also acted as public noticeboards. The leading thought of the pillar is therefore that of display. Every local assembly should proclaim the truth of God corporately, whilst each individual member manifests the same in godly conduct and living. The second word, ‘ground’, refers to a support or bulwark, akin to a physical structure that protects from external forces or pressure, like a sea wall. So, the local church defends the truth in the face of all opposition, including, in the context, the storms of heresy and unbelief. Thus, every local assembly should be a centre of biblical teaching and instruction – a veritable spiritual feast for every believer, young or old.
The whole counsel of God, namely ‘the truth’ of scripture. The outstanding aspect of truth concerns a divine person (see below), but the thought no doubt includes the entire revelation of God. We do well, as local churches, to prayerfully consider whether we seek to preach, promote and practise all the word of God. It is all too easy to avoid preaching parts of scripture which are unpopular or counter-cultural so as not to cause offence to the ‘sophisticated’ individuals of modern society.
In 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 16, Paul gives a summary statement of the principal truth the church defends and displays. How beautiful to note that ‘when we look at the top of the pillar to find out what it is that is held up by the local assembly, we find, not a series of rules and dogmas, but six sublime statements about Christ’.3 These statements almost defy analysis, but it is perhaps best to view them as two sets of three lines. ‘The first stanza sings of the historical Christ’s earthly ministry, concluding with a word of triumph and glorification. Similarly, the second stanza sings of the exalted Christ’s ongoing ministry in heaven through his church, concluding again with the theme of glorification’.4
Beyond question, ‘great is the mystery of godliness’. That is, godliness has had a great and glorious manifestation in the person of Christ – as revealed in the New Testament scriptures. ‘Godliness’ is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament ‘fear of the Lord’. It comprises an inner attitude of reverence that gives God His proper place in one’s life. This found perfect expression in the Lord Jesus. The slogan of the city of Ephesus was ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, but she was merely a lump of stone that allegedly fell from the sky, Acts 19. 28, 35. The revelation of true godliness came from heaven in the person of Christ – that was far greater!
Let us briefly consider these wonderful statements:
‘God was manifest in the flesh’ [or ‘manifested in flesh’]. This describes the period the Lord Jesus was visibly present as man on earth. The passive voice implies the pre-existence of the person who came to reveal God. What a truth! The uniting of fullness of deity with perfect, sinless humanity in one glorious person.
The context of these verses suggests that godliness is the kind of behaviour expected of the household of God. Scripture reveals the great pattern of godliness in the person of Christ. The imbibing of its truth therefore develops godliness in the life of every believer, 1 Tim. 6. 3. Paul is obviously placing responsibility upon the entire company to ‘pillar’ [display] the truth by godly living. Let us not be merely intellectual hearers of the word, but ‘doers’ also, Jas. 1. 22.5
Primarily, in public gatherings by gifted teachers. Whilst deacons may support them in this exercise, teaching is the primary function of the elders. Every overseer must be ‘apt to teach’, which does not necessarily imply a public platform, but describes one who is skilful in explaining truth and feeding the flock, 1 Tim. 3. 2. Some, ‘labour in the word and doctrine’, suggesting toil to the point of exhaustion inthe preparation and delivery of public preaching [gospel] and teaching [instruction], 1 Tim. 5. 17.
Paul elucidates the thought in Titus chapter 1 verse 9, ‘Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers’. It is imperative that the leadership of any assembly take active care to ensure that those who teach are brethren who have been fitted and equipped by the Spirit of God to do so. They will ‘reprove’ [expose sin], ‘rebuke’ [condemn sin] and ‘exhort’ [urge to put right] through plain instruction from the word of God, all in a spirit of patience. Sadly, the days have already come when Christendom at large no longer endures ‘sound [hygienic] doctrine’, 2 Tim. 4. 2-4. Such groups desire teaching which will please rather than ‘rebuke’. They gather teachers to tell them what they want to hear; those bursting with charisma and style rather than content and substance. All is wilfully calculated to avoid responsibility to the truth.
Paul will also remind us that the sphere of public teaching belongs to the male. He does not allow for ‘a woman to teach’, 1 Tim. 2. 12-14. The explanation for the prohibition is not based on local, temporal or cultural considerations in Ephesus, but the order established by God in creation. For a woman to assume the role of a teacher would be to take a place of authority [dominion] over the man. But God ‘formed’ [moulded] Adam first, thus giving him priority in time and authority. This established Adam as head, and Eve, created second, as helper, Gen. 2. 18. They were created to complement, not compete (!) with one another. For a woman to take the role of a teacher would therefore subvert this order. The place of a teacher in the formal gatherings of the assembly is thus denied to a woman. However, in an informal or private sphere, like the home, older sisters are to teach younger sisters and instruct their children in the faith.6
Scripture may be taught in public gatherings in a variety of ways, including formal exposition and exhortation, conversational Bible readings, as well as the simple but careful reading of the word of God, 1 Tim. 4. 13. But, let us heed a note of warning. Too often assemblies fall into the lazy habit of filling mid-week ministry meetings with different brethren who give a few scattered and unrelated thoughts over the course of a year, or engage in tedious Bible readings that cover a verse or two of the same passage week after week. Such an approach leaves vast swathes of scripture untaught and unfamiliar to the people of God. Local assembly shepherds should plan to ensure the flock receives a varied, balanced and, oftentimes, consecutive diet of Bible teaching from Genesis to Revelation.
John 14. 26.
John 15. 26; 16. 13; Eph. 3. 3, 4.
M. Sweetnam, Truth in the Pastoral Epistles, Truth & Tidings. Accessed online at: http://truthandtidings.com/2017/10/truth-in-the-pastoral-epistles-4-its-revelation-2/.
Gordon D. Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, Baker Books, 2011.
See the great examples of Ezra and the Lord Jesus, Ezra 7. 10; Acts 1. 1.
Titus 2. 3, 4; 2 Tim. 1. 5; 3. 15.