The Mystery Of Godliness (1 Timothy 3:14-16)

I am writing all this to you, hoping I can come to you before too long; but in case I am delayed, you will know how one ought to behave as a member of God’s family—the assembly of the living God, the pillar and foundation that support the truth—  and I think you will agree that the mystery of godliness is great: He was revealed in the flesh and proven right in the Spirit; He was seen by the heavenly messengers, and preached to outsider nations; He was believed in the world, and taken up to the heavens in glory.

The context: Paul has been warning Timothy about false teachers; he’s been stressing the connectedness of our beliefs and our actions. Here he connects what we believe with how we live once again.

We can’t get around the fact that this book has a lot of ‘oughts.’ Paul reminds Timothy that there is a particular way people ‘ought to behave’ if they are members of God’s family. It’s yet another reminder that following Jesus will cost us something: in this case, our autonomy. If we join the team, our lives our not our own anymore.  We see this in smaller ways all the time: work, sports teams, clubs. If we want to be a part of them, we have to align our lives with their vision of the good life.  If we want to be associated with them, if we want to represent them, there is an obligation attached.

In a much bigger and much more important way, we answer to God; He gets to make the call about how we ought to live if we choose to align ourselves with Christ and His Kingdom.

This is sobering. It reminds us that how we live to a large degree reflects what we believe is true – or at least what will bring us hope and peace.  I’m not denying what Paul called the war within (Romans 7), and I’m not denying that our sins or the sins of others can so damage our lives that we can be trapped in situations where we do what we know we shouldn’t  - and long to be free. I’m only observing a biblical truth: there is always fruit to our lives, and what kind of fruit we bear is a pretty good indicator of what kind of tree we are (Matthew 3:8; Matthew 7:15-20).

But then Paul promptly comes back the ‘mystery of godliness,’ the incarnation of Jesus on earth. Once again, God will equip us to do what he demands of us. It’s because of Jesus that the church can be the pillar and foundation of truth.

Three reminders about the importance of the church.

The church is God's household.

Membership in God's household implies at least three things: refuge, responsibility and interdependence.

Refuge: Church should be a safe place in a hard culture. I don’t mean compromising. I mean a place where no one is mean; where justice and mercy are both implemented; where we value everyone as an image bearer of God enough to speak truth with grace, and to exercise both tough and gentle love. We laugh about ‘safe spaces’ on college campuses, but in the early church, the Christian community was a safe space in a much more profound way in the midst of a violent and degrading culture. This does not mean enablement; this does not mean we gloss over sin or compromise on truth. It means that people must see the sacrificial love of Jesus embodied in us. People might walk away from us or the church because they just don’t think what we have to say is true, but they should never walk away because we pushed them away with our attitudes and words.

Responsibility. We are God’s ambassadors. I am a Weber; opinions are formed about the Weber name by what I do – and what all my relatives do as well. I am an American; I am male; I am a Buckeye; I am a CLGer. What I do builds or tears down the reputation of all these things. We share the name of Christ; our reputation builds or tears down His. This is inescapable. People form an opinion about God when they form an opinion about God’s family.

Interdependence. In many ways, family carried with it a weight of obligation in biblical times that it doesn’t necessarily carry today. Generations would live together; there were inheritance issues, and social expectations, and a strong sense of honor associated with defending one’s family. What’s the 21st century update? We need each other. We weep and mourn and laugh with others (Romans 12:15). We bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). There are fifty-nine times in the New Testament the phrase “one another” is used.[1] It’s a big deal.

God never meant for there to be lone wolf Christians.  We are in this together.

The Church Of The Living God.

The so-called gods of the surrounding pagan cultures aren’t alive. Artemis is just an idol. This new ecclessia (gathering) of Christian people is distinct: a living God dwells within it (2 Corinthians 6:16). It’s a reminder that God is active, near to us, listening to our prayers, involved in our lives. The Holy Spirit prays for us when we don’t have words (Romans 8:26); Jesus intercedes for us (Hebrews 7:25). Even the Word of God is active and powerful (Hebrews 4:12). This is important, because we cannot accomplish the work of the church without a living God’s help.

The Pillar and Foundation that supports the mystery of godliness

Some think this may be a reference to the doctrine that shows up in the upcoming hymn; most think it’s a reference to the fact that the church exists to protect and teach the truth. The "mystery" is the appearance of Christ in history as the plan of salvation was fulfilled in the cross and resurrection (compare a verse from last week, 1 Timothy 3:9). The Jews had always wondered how the Messiah would save them – it was through Jesus.

The Hymn

Now Paul cites a hymn or a fragment of a hymn which commemorates Christ's appearance and ministry on earth.

He appeared in a body and was vindicated (defended and cleared) by the Spirit.

First, note the natural/supernatural duality of this claim. Jesus was not just some kind of phantom before or after his Resurrection. He was not just a man. He was fully man even as he was fully God. Second, note the divine stamp of affirmation. The Spirit bore witness to Jesus: "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased," (Matthew 3:17, 17:5, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22). After he left earth, the Holy Spirit continued His work. All the Jesus said and did was proven by the Holy Spirit.

Was seen by angels and preached to outsider nations.

Once again, we are reminded that there is a supernatural and a natural world. God’s glory is declared in world both seen and unseen, and on earth, His gospel is meant for everyone.

Was believed on in the world and taken up in glory.

His resurrection and ascension gave an obvious and public display of his divine nature and glory, and as a result of witnessing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, many believed.

Here’s what stands out to me: As much as Paul has been talking about the importance of righteous living, he never grounds our ability to do this in us. It always comes back to God at work in us. It’s always about Jesus.

He tells the church, “Here’s how you ought to behave as a member of God’s family.” I don’t know about you, but I feel the weight of the ‘oughts.’ The responsibility of being part of God’s family, of being part of an earthly ‘pillar and foundation of truth’ tasked with faithfully spreading the good news of the gospel. I am well aware of my failures, and it’s easy for me do be discouraged.

 This is an impossible task on our own power.  No wonder Paul adds that the mystery of godliness is great.  Not great just because it’s a miracle, but great because of how it transforms even us. If I may paraphrase Paul: “The church ought to believe and live a certain way because it has to be a cultural pillar and foundation of truth – so it’s a good thing we have Jesus.”  Remember: God will not call us to something for which he does not equip us.

And then he sings. About Jesus.

He was revealed in the flesh and proven right in the Spirit; He was seen by the heavenly messengers, and preached to outsider nations; He was believed in the world, and taken up to the heavens in glory.