1 Timothy 3:14-16 – “The Church’s Commission and Confession”
“I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.”
This short section is the conclusion of all that we’ve been studying since chapter 2:1. Paul has already used a very similar construction back in 1:18 that concluded his introduction. Here in 3:14 we see that Paul is writing these things to Timothy. What is included in these things?
Paul includes the charge for the assembled church to pray for the salvation of the lost (2:1-7), his exhortation for holy men and righteous women within the congregation (2:8-10), his firm and biblical stance on male leadership within the family and the church (2:11-15), and the qualifications for overseers (3:1-7) and deacons (3:8-13). Paul is writing these things (specifically all of chapters 2&3) to Timothy as he hopes to come to him before long. So if he plans on coming to Ephesus to oversee the situation in person, why bother writing Timothy at all?
But in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God.
Paul is a realist who understands that travel in the 1st century is hardly predictable, but also knows that there is always the possibility of other, more pressing matters coming to his attention. His desire is to come quickly to Timothy’s aide, but actually expects to be delayed. And so he takes out quill and parchment to write for a single purpose: So that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God.
The connection back to overseers and deacons should be obvious. Their conduct has already been scrutinized both inside the church and within their own homes. But Paul is writing to Timothy specifically that he should know how one out to live within God’s household. This certainly includes the leadership, but clearly extends to any and all members of the local body/assembly/church. The past two chapters have been highly ecclesiological. There has been much emphasis upon the church, the body and bride of Jesus Christ. Before moving on Paul wants to ensure that Timothy understands general concepts about the church with crystal clarity.
The Church’s Commission
“But in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.”
We’ve already introduced this verse, but I think it’s important that we make a few observations. Notice the purpose statement:
So that you will know
Two things must be understood. First, the knowledge introduced here is not theoretical but application of knowledge. The Greek οἶδα speaks of “how to” knowledge, knowledge that runs from head to hands. The very word implies that Paul expects Timothy to immediately implement what he is about to read.
Secondly, the “you” stated here is singular. In other words, this purpose statement is directed specifically to Timothy. As Paul’s representative, the buck stops with him. Paul left Timothy there to clean house, instill a holy passion for God’s standard within the existing overseers, and stand upon the truth. This is a job that Paul has done himself on several occasions at other churches. But he is not there right now. And so it falls to Timothy to both know and do what must be done.
So that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God
Did you notice how Paul introduces the church? First, he calls it the household of God. We’ve seen that term (οἶκος) three times already in 3:4, 5, 12. Each time before, either the overseer or the deacon was being scrutinized by the way they ruled over their household. What is clearly in view is their family. Paul is not interested in the way they take care of their pets, set their thermostat, or what time they eat dinner. He’s interested in the way they rule over their family. That same sense is indicated here as well. The church is God’s household, not in the sense of an empty shell of a building that is only occupied a few times a week, but in the sense that those who make up the church belong to God.
To make his point abundantly clear, Paul defines God’s household as the church of the living God. To fully understand Paul’s point, there are a few things to consider. First, the church is not a building. The Greek ἐκκλησία means an assembly of called out ones. The church indicates a group, not a building. Never does the NT refer to a building as a church, but saves the term to indicate individuals who make up the church. Christ’s church = the group of people from his resurrection to present who have been called out of sin and indwelt by God the Holy Spirit.
Paul stresses that the church belongs to the living God. A dead and fixed structure would be fine for a dead god who is deaf, dumb, and blind. But a living God resides within a living assembly. Because God indwells every believer, He is actually present where His people gather. It matters not where the saints gather, but that they gather. When they gather, there is the church, the assembly, and the household of the living God.
When Paul stresses that Timothy must know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, he doesn’t mean, “don’t run in the aisle!” or “stop jumping on the pews!” He’s talking about roles, purpose, and function. Timothy must know what every Christian must do within the assembly. What is the purpose of the gathered saints?
The pillar and support of the truth
The church, the assembled redeemed, is the pillar and support of the truth. By truth Paul means the revelation of Almighty God to man; the gospel, His Word, Scripture, the Bible. As Jesus said Himself, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
Much must be understood about the church before going any further. It is not a building. It is not an organization. The church is the assembly of individuals who have been specifically called out by God. It is they who collectively are the pillar and support of the truth.
What does this mean? It means that the truth (the revelation of God through His Word) is made known to the world through the church’s ministry. When people proclaim the gospel, it is a ministry of Christ’s church. When the Bible is taught, it is a ministry coming from Christ’s bride. When God’s people admonish each other in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, it is a ministry from those called out, indwelt, and assembled by God. The church does not determine what is true but supports, declares, and displays what is true.
At this point it’s important to understand the thread that runs all the way from 2:1 up to this point. Paul has stressed several different topics in the past 29 verses. To ignore a single one of them is to disregard how one must act within the assembly and thus compromise the church’s very simple commission. To neglect praying for the lost (2:1-7), gather in un-holiness and unrighteousness (2:8-10), usurp and neglect God-given roles (2:11-15), or place unqualified leaders into pulpits and positions of influence (3:1-13) is to cripple the church in her task of upholding and supporting the truth. If Christ’s church refuses to act and look like Christ’s church, then how can they be expected to function like Christ’s church?
The church is commissioned with one simple task: support and proclaim the truth.
The Church’s Confession
“By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.”
What we have here is either a hymn or creed that was already in use in Paul’s day, or a fantastic phrase that Paul turned, which would later be used as a creed or hymn. Either way, each word is chosen carefully and presented to clearly articulate the single center of our faith; namely, the person of Jesus Christ.
By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness
When Paul mentions a “common confession” he means to indicate a statement that all Christians can agree upon. To boldly stand upon the truth that day is light and night is dark is a common confession in which we can all proudly unite. But what is the confession? What is the statement with which we are ready to affirm?
The way most modern translations read it seems like the common confession = the greatness of the mystery of godliness. It is as if we are all agreed when saying: Boy! Godliness is a great mystery! That is not the sense at all.
Remember how we defined mystery as something that is revealed, rather than something that is hidden. The common confession regards not the statement “great is the mystery of godliness” but the mystery of godliness itself.
To put it more simply: The mystery of godliness is a person. God has revealed Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ. He is the mystery, that which has been revealed. The six statements that follow are indicative of Christ. It is the sum total of those six statements which consist of the common confession. If you are a Christian, then you also affirm these things.
He who was revealed in the flesh
This is a clear reference to the incarnation. Notice that Paul says revealed and not something like brought into existence. The Greek (φανερόω) simply means made to appear or to become visible. Because Jesus is indeed the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), He was revealed/became visible by putting on flesh and dwelling among us (John 1:14).
Was vindicated in the Spirit
In what way was Jesus Christ vindicated or justified in the spirit? Jesus lived for about 33 years as a perfect man. In all His ways He was blameless. He claimed to be the Messiah, the seed of David, the rest-giver, eternal God. He promised a sign to confirm all these claims, the sign of Jonah (i.e. resurrection). As Paul says elsewhere: “Concerning His Son, who was born a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:3-4). In resurrection, Christ was vindicated, justified, and verified to be the Son of the living God.
Seen by angels
This is probably best understood as commenting on the resurrected Lord in glorified human form. The first ones to see and to testify to the risen Christ were of course angels. “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said” (Matthew 28:6). The angels who long to look into the intricacies of the gospel (1 Pete. 1:12) were the first to witness and see Christ after His redemptive work was complete.
Proclaimed among the nations
I prefer the word preached to proclaimed, but that may be because I am a preacher. Jesus commanded that His good news must be preached in the entire world. There must be earthly witnesses as well as heavenly ones, men of every tribe, tongue, and nation (Gen. 12:1-3; Rev. 7:9)
Believed on in the world
You really should read through the book of Acts and take note of the phrase, “the Word of God kept on spreading.” Where the gospel was preached, it found root. Not in every place and certainly not by every person. But the Word went forth and accomplished the will and work of God.
Taken up in glory
This is how the book of Acts begins. Do you believe that Jesus Christ is even now at the right hand of the Father in heaven (i.e. glory)? Do you believe that it is Jesus Christ alone who can deliver you from sin and death? Do you know and believe the same message that has been preached among the nations for 2000 years? Do you believe that Jesus was seen by angels, proven to be God’s Anointed One, and revealed in flesh? If you do not believe the entirety of this common confession you deny the basic core of Christianity. To doubt or deny any one of these six statements is to doubt and deny Christ.
Timothy is given a very basic task: Know and implement what is necessary within the church. The church has a basic commission: uphold the truth. The church has a basic confession: Jesus Christ. These are simple, but non-negotiable. As the old hymn says:
The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord
She is His new creation by water and the Word
From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy Bride
With His own blood He bought her and for her life He died
I will never understand why people mock theology. Paul has spent 29 verses explaining the importance of ecclesiology (the study of the church) and here stresses that to mess up the church is to mess up her commission and confession. Theology matters. The way we apply theology matters. To deny that fact is to deny the gospel itself.