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The Mystery of Godliness

Series: 1 Timothy

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Aug 22, 2004

1 Timothy 3:14-16

The Lord's Day Morning

August 22, 2004
I Timothy 3:14-16
“The Mystery of Godliness”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to I Timothy, chapter three. We’re working our way through this book. In fact, we're working our way through the Pastoral Epistles, these three letters from Paul, a veteran pastor, church planter, evangelist and missionary, to a young pastor named Timothy and another young pastor/church planter named Titus.

In those letters Paul sketches out the priorities of Christian life in the local congregation. In fact, in what we've studied so far in I Timothy 1, 2, and 3, we've seen Paul address the goal of Christian teaching, what it's supposed to aim for. He's also addressed the issue of the role of the law in the Christian life; he's touched on the question of prayer; and even what the church is to pray for, and for whom the church is to pray. He has touched on the issue of the role relationship between men and women in the local church, including the issue of what men are to do in the local church and what women are to do in the local church.

In First Timothy, chapter three, he has addressed the issue of the qualifications of church officers: what are the character qualifications, and what are the gifts and abilities which are to be present in the elders and deacons of every local church. And as we go through this list, you may be saying to yourself, “Paul, are you a control freak? Are you just going to spell out every iota of what Timothy and Titus are supposed to do, every minute of the day? Do you just not trust them to know how to lead a local congregation? Why all these details about the day to day life of a local church?”

Well, have no fear! Paul's going to give you the answer today. In the passage we're studying today in I Timothy 3: 14-16, Paul explains why all of these details of local church life are so important. Paul is going to explain to you why it's significant that we ought to strive to live in accordance with God's instructions, written down in His Bible, about life and ministry in the local church. And he's going to give us two reasons in this passage.

The first reason is because of what the church is. The second reason is because of who the Savior of the church is. Paul is going to tell us here that the reason we ought to strive to live in this way is because of what God has made the church to be. And if we would realize this, we would realize why we need to strive to live in accordance with these commands about life and ministry together.

And then he tells us that the only way we're going to be able to live this way, the only way we're going to be able to live a godly life together in the way he describes here in I Timothy and II Timothy and Titus, is if we properly appreciate the glory of the Savior with whom we are united by faith.

Let me outline the passage for you. It's a very simple passage. In verse 14 and the first few words of verse 15, you’ll see Paul's first point, his purpose for writing. Then if you look at the final words of verse 15 you’ll see Paul address the importance of the local church. If you look at the first half, or the first few words of verse 16, you’ll see his third point: the secret of the Christian life. And then in that beautiful hymn, perhaps, that he is quoting from the life of the early Church at the end of verse 16, you’ll see the glory of Christ. So there it is, four parts: The purpose of Paul's writing; the importance of the local church; the secret of the Christian life; and the glory of Christ. We’ll look at that together. Before we do, before we hear God's word read and proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your word. It is the very word of God. Teach our hearts by it. May the needs of our hearts bow before the authority of Your divine truth, and by Your Spirit make this truth to live in our lives and ministries. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word.

“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 may 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. And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness:

He who was revealed in the flesh,

Was vindicated in the Spirit,

Beheld by angels,

Proclaimed among the nations,

Believed on in the world,

Taken up into glory.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, and inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

In this great passage Paul tells us that we will never aspire to live in accordance with God's commands–especially found in the New Testament, but of course found in all of the Bible–we will never aspire to live as God commands, as He instructs in the word, as a people together in the local church until we realize what the local church is, until we realize the glory of what God has done in the assembly of believers.

And secondly, he tells us that we’ll never be able to live like this unless we fully realize the glory of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Let's explore those two grand realities in the four parts of the passage that we have before us today.

I. Paul writes so that we will know how to act in the local church.

First, look at verse 14 and the first part of verse 15. Here Paul will tell you why he's writing to Timothy, and of course, this applies to his words to Titus in the little book of Titus, as well. He says, “I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God.”

So Paul's telling you here his purpose for writing. And what is that purpose? Well, Paul writes so that we will know how to act in the local church. At the heart of Paul's practical instruction in this book–and remember, it's ranged far and wide–he started by telling us what the goal of teaching was, then what the role of the law in the Christian life was; then, how to pray, and for whom to pray; and male and female roles in the local church; and the qualifications of church officers.

But at the heart of his concern in writing about all those things in chapters one, two and three, and about all the things that he's going to write about in [chapters] four, five, and six–at the heart of his concern is that the local church would live in light of an enormous truth.

What is that truth? He tells you right here in verse 15: It is the truth that the local church is the household of God, is the house of God. That's a phenomenal truth. The truth is that the local church is the house, the household, the family of God. And that is why it is vital that we live according to the book.

You know, probably there are some young men in here who remember their fathers’ disciplining them at church, upon occasion. When they got in trouble and they were taken out to some isolated area of the church where the congregation could not hear their screams... and at some point after the corporal punishment was administered, they were told by their fathers: “You don't behave in God's house like that.” Well, if that's true for showing a proper appreciation for the place where God's people gather, surely it is also appropriate when we realize that the people of God gathered, we are the house of God. We are God's house, God's temple. We serve in His house, not ours.

Paul's words would have been thunderous to Jewish Christians. Jewish Christians would have remembered that way back in the days of Jacob, when he met God at Bethel he could say, “Surely this is the house of God. Surely the Lord is present in this place.” He was struck by the dwelling of God near to him, by the favor of God to him, by the presence of God with him. And then later when Moses first gave the commands for the tabernacle to be built in Exodus, and then executed the building of the tabernacle in the Exodus, the tabernacle became that place, that focal point of God's presence with His people. It was not that the God of heaven and earth could be contained in a tent: He's bigger than a tent. But it was a special place where He manifested His nearness to, His love for, His favor on His people. It was the place where His people came face to face with Him, met with Him, encountered Him, praised His name, heard His word, enjoyed communion with Him. And then later, after the tabernacle, the temple became the place where God dwelt, God's house par excellence in all the world.

But in the New Testament the emphasis is this: there's no longer some special spiritual location, there's no longer a tent somewhere or a building somewhere. Wherever the people of God are gathered, the local congregation of believers assembled, whether it's in a beautiful sanctuary or whether it's in a parking lot, or whether it's on a hillside, or whether it's in a valley; there, when the people of God are gathered on the Lord's Day to meet with Him, they are God's house! And Paul's saying ‘Why is it important that we obey all of these instructions that I've spoken about in I Timothy 1, 2, 3 and am going to speak about in [chapters] 4, 5 and 6 for the life of the local congregation? Because you’re God's house! That's why.’

It's staggering. You are the house of God. And of course that means that the very first principle for the Christian life is to realize that this church is not ours, it's God's. And therefore it's not our opinion that matters, it's God's. God's house belongs to God. And you know, so many of the problems in the local churches all over the world today that encumber us would be solved if we would simply realize that we are God's house. We are not our own. We belong to Him. This church is not ours; it's His.

And so Paul says, “Why is it that I am writing to you? I'm writing to you because I want you to understand: you are God's house.” When God is in the tabernacle right in the midst of the tribes of Israel traveling through the wilderness, you know, it was kind of a pain for Israel, because it meant that Israel had to act differently because God was in her midst! Paul is saying, “You’re God's house. You don't act like the pagans in the world. You don't act like the world, you don't emulate the world. You've got God in your midst! You are the house of God, and therefore, that changes everything.”

II. Christians must have a proper estimation of and love for the Church.

But Paul doesn't stop there. He goes on to explain the importance of the local church in verse 15, and that's the second thing I want you to see. He makes it clear that we as Christians need to have a proper estimation of and love for the local church. Notice what he says: “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 an the support of the truth.”

Paul wants us to appreciate the nature of the local church. To say it another way, he wants us to appreciate what the local church really is. Now I want you to note that he's especially thinking of the local assembly of Christians here. What he says, of course, applies to every Christian church, and in some measure applies to the universal church; but he's especially thinking of the gathered people of God. He wants us to realize that this local church is glorious in ways that we too infrequently appreciate, and he zeroes in here in verse 15 on two qualities of the church.

Now notice that he first calls the church “the house” or “household” of God. Paul often uses building metaphors for the church. In Ephesians 2, he calls us “a temple not made with hands.” But he also uses family or human relational images for the church. Sometimes we are literally called God's family, or the people of God, members of His household or family. Both of those ideas are present here as he talks about the church, but in verse 15 he says two things about the church.

First, he says the church is the church of the living God. You remember in Hebrews 10:31 when it says that “our God is a consuming fire.” And then if you turn forward to Hebrews 12:22ff, what does it say? That when we come to Mount Zion, when we New Covenant believers come to Mount Zion–not to Mount Sinai, but to Mount Zion–what are we ushered into? “The assembly of the living God, the church of the Firstborn.” We are ushered into the presence of myriads of angels. What's Paul telling us that we're the church of the living God for? Because he wants us to appreciate how awesome it is to be the dwelling place of the living God of heaven and earth. That's what you are!

And then he goes on to say that the church is the “pillar and support of the truth.” Now, this has confused many people. This has caused some people to say that the church produces the truth.

Well, let me ask you, friends. In the Bible, does the church produce the truth, or does the truth produce the church? It's always the latter. God's word creates the church; God's promise creates the Church; God's truth creates the church. The church grows and prospers because it feeds on, accepts, embraces God's truth. So why can Paul say that the church is the pillar and support of the truth, if the truth is that which creates the church?

Simple. Because Paul's talking about the local church. He's not talking about the universal church, he's talking about the local church. Paul is saying that the local church is the place that God has appointed to be essential to the propagation and protection of the truth in the world. Paul's saying there can be no “Lone Ranger Christianity.” You can't be off on your own–you Jesus, and your Bible–and expect for the truth to prosper in your life. We need one another as believers. We need one another as encouragement, we need to see one another's lives. We need to see the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of other believers, to encourage us to love and good deeds. We need to be saying the word to one another, memorizing the word with one another, hearing the word of God together, serving the word of God together. Together the church serves as the pillar and support of the truth, in the sense that it is essential, it is God's essential vehicle for evangelism, for discipleship, for missions, for the defense of the faith. Paul is just pointing out that the church is absolutely crucial. It is vital in preserving and propagating the gospel. It is the local church, Paul is saying, where God meets especially with His people in the New Covenant era, and it is the local church which is the essential instrument through which God propagates His truth.

And so Paul wants you to appreciate the glory of the local fellowship of believers, and my friends, that's so important that we pause and do. Because in the fellowship of believers, just like in any family, we get irritated with one another and we get irritated about things with our church, and it deflects our attention from the essential things that the local church does that cannot happen anywhere else. And it causes us to under-value and under-appreciate the glory of what we have together as the assembled saints of God, meeting with Him, experiencing His presence, giving Him praise, hearing His word, growing in grace under the means of grace together. And Paul is saying to us that we need to re-appreciate that! And Paul is saying all of these qualifications and all of these instructions that I have given, they won't make sense, they won't grip your heart until you realize you are the place where God meets. You are the dwelling place, the house, the household of God. You are the church of the living God. Everywhere gospel-believing, Bible-believing, Christ-exalting people gather Lord's Day after Lord's Day, committed to one another in membership in a local congregation, there God dwells. And Paul's saying ‘Don't underestimate that, Christian.’

III. Christ is the mystery of godliness.

But he's not done. Look at the beginning of verse 16. He says a third thing. Here he gives you the secret of the Christian life. Now I know there are all sorts of people out there selling their book on “the secret of the Christian life,” and you feel like you have to spend your $19.95 to find out what the secret of the Christian life is. Well, let me save you some money! Paul's got it right here! You don't’ have to buy anybody's book. Here's the secret of the Christian life. What is it? Look at it. “By common confession...” In other words, every Christian knows this. “By common confession great is the mystery of godliness:...” what's the next word? “He.” He, who? He, Jesus! He, Jesus Christ! He is the mystery of godliness. He is the secret of the Christian life. Paul is saying that the mystery of living a godly life in this world as the people of God, living and ministering together is...Jesus! Jesus Christ is the secret of the Christian life! He is the “mystery of godliness.”

You know, in Ephesus–we find this out, by the way, in the Book of Acts–but in Ephesus, they were real pagans. And they worshipped many of the Greek and Roman gods. One of their favorite gods in Ephesus was Artemis, or Dianna. You may remember, in the Book of Acts Luke tells us that Paul got in a scuffle with the Ephesians once, and the Ephesian agitators, the pagans from the city were actually outside chanting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” because it was feared that Paul was somehow compromising the greatness of Artemis or Dianna, their god, by his preaching that Jesus Christ was the only way to God. And so they were chanting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Notice what Paul says that the Ephesian Christians ought to be chanting as opposed to what the Ephesian pagans were chanting: “Great is the mystery of godliness: Christ!” as opposed to “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.”

What's Paul's point? Paul is saying that all Christians know and can attest that the mystery of their new life in obedience finds its source in Jesus. Paul is saying that our ability to live in accordance with the instructions of God's word is all based on and grounded in Jesus Christ. Christ is the source of our ability to live the Christian life. Christ is the revelation of what the Christian life ought to be. Christ is the example of godliness and what the Christian life ought to be, and only in faith-union with Him can we live the Christian life. Our godliness, our piety, our obedience, our consecrated living–it's all rooted in the person and work of Christ. That's what Paul's saying. You need Christ in your life, Lord of your life, united to Him by faith, in order to live this Christian life. You don't try and be good in order that you can earn Christ's presence, but Christ in you is the hope of glory, and it's the motive force and the dynamic that enables you to live the Christian life. He is the secret of the Christian life.

IV. Christians must serve from a deep love for Christ.

And Paul doesn't stop there. He goes on to say a fourth thing. He wants to speak to you about the glory of Christ; not only the purpose of his writing, and the importance of the local church, and the secret of the Christian life, but the glory of Christ (end of verse 16), because Christians must serve the Lord from a deep love for Christ. Look at what Paul says:

“He who was revealed in the flesh,

Was vindicated in the Spirit,

Beheld by angels,

Proclaimed among the nations,

Believed on in the world,

Taken up in glory.”

This is a description of Jesus Christ in His incarnation, in His vindication, in the angels’ witness to Him in His universal proclamation, in people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation believing on Him, and in His ascension.

You see, in six grand phrases Paul is picturing to you your glorious Lord. Why? He wants you to appreciate how glorious your Master is, because your temptation in the living of the Christian life is to look at your circumstances and say, “This is too big for me, this is too hard for me, I can't life the Christian life. The situation, Lord, that You've put me in is more than I can handle.”

And Paul says, “Oh, yeah? Excuse me one minute.” And he says, “Let me tell you, if you are a believer, who you are united with and what power is at work within you.” You may remember that Paul, in Ephesians 1:15-23, prays three big petitions for the Ephesians. And one of those petitions is what? That they would appreciate the riches of God's glory, and the exceeding greatness of the power that is at work in them. Well, here's Paul pulling out the source of the exceeding great power that is at work in every believer, and saying, “Believer, think about this for a little bit. Set aside the struggles that you’re going through right now, the circumstances that you’re in, and think a little bit about who is at work within you. Let me tell you about Him.”

And he says six things, he sets out six objective truth. Let me tell you six things about Him.

He was revealed in the flesh. Though he pre-existed as God eternally with the Father, He came into this world, and though His deity was veiled, yet He was revealed in His humiliation and in His humility to be the very Son of God.

He was vindicated in the Spirit. This either points to the fact that the Holy Spirit vindicated Jesus Christ in His resurrection, proving that the Father had ruled on Him: “Not guilty; He's not a sinner; He didn't deserve to die, but I accept His death in the place of sinners who trust in Him who do deserve to die. He's not a sinner: they are. He's vindicated in His holiness and perfection;” or, this may mean that the Holy Spirit vindicates His divinity, just like Paul says in Romans 1:1-4. That's the Jesus, whom you love and serve: the one who was revealed in the incarnation, the one who was vindicated by the Holy Spirit.

He was seen by angels. This may refer to His being seen by angels at the tomb on the day of His resurrection, or it may be His being seen by angels in His ascended glory. But whatever the case is, notice how Paul is saying that both from the earthly perspective and the heavenly perspective, this Jesus, this Christ, is quite matchless. He is incomparable. He's revealed in the flesh; He's vindicated in the Spirit; He's seen by angels.

And then He comes back down to earth again: He's proclaimed among the nations. The news of His word has gone throughout the world. And He's not only preached in all the nations, He's believed on in all the nations. There are people from every tribe and tongue, and land and nation, who are resting and trusting in Him. There's universal proclamation, yes, but there's also world-wide trust in Jesus Christ, and He's taken up in glory. This of course refers to His ascension. He was taken up into glory.

And Paul's saying, “Now Christian, you’re looking at your circumstances, and you’re saying, ‘Paul, I know I've made a profession of faith, but you don't know my wife! ... You don't know my husband....I can't love that man... I can't love that woman. Paul, I know I've made a profession of faith, but you don't know how overwhelming my anger is. You don't know, Paul, how difficult it is for me to forgive in this circumstance. Why, everything's been taken from me! How can I forgive?... Paul, you don't know my circumstances, you don't know what I'm up against. There's no way that I can overcome this in living the godly life.’”

And Paul replies: “Let me show you Jesus. This is the power that is at work in you! The one who was revealed in the flesh, the one who was vindicated in the Spirit, the one who was seen by angels, the one who was proclaimed in the world, the one who was believed in the world, the one who was taken up in glory! He resides in you! Don't tell me about your circumstances, not being able to overcome!”

Paul is saying the that one who is the mystery of godliness, the one whom you have been united with by faith, He is so much greater than any circumstance that you face right now. He is so much greater than any habit of sin that is hindering you right now. He is so much greater than any obstacle in your personal life, in your family life, in your work life, in your community life, in whatever aspect of your life–He is so much greater than that, that there is nothing that His power is not able to overcome.

You see, the Apostle knows that he is asking for a level of Christian living in these books that nobody is capable of doing on their own. If you read I Timothy 3 to officers, elders and deacons, and any elder and deacon worth his salt trembles a little bit in his heart when he hears those qualifications. You think, how can I be this? How can I do this? And Paul's message to you is, “Good news: you can't. But it's not about you. It's about the power of Jesus Christ in you, because He is the mystery of godliness.”

Christians, you don't think you can overcome what you’re dealing with? Let me show you Christ. There is no power in this world which compares to Him. And the Apostle Paul is saying that that Christ, that glorious Christ at work in His people, can overcome anything. Put Him to the test.

You know, the sad thing is, so many Christians spend so much time thinking about the problem, thinking about the trial, thinking about their sin, thinking about their habits, thinking about the situation, thinking about the circumstance–and very little time thinking about their Savior.

And here's the Apostle Paul saying, “You've got it all upside down!” Notice how Paul always looks at our practical problems, and he says, “You know what? Your practical problem isn't practical at all: it's theological. You’re looking at this the wrong way. You’re looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope. And the way you’re looking at it makes God look small and your problems look big, but you need to look at it the other way around. Because your problems, however great and real that they are, are dwarfed in the light of the glory of Christ, your Savior.”

Now live that, Christian! Believe that, Christian! Meditate on that, Christian! Reflect on that, Christian! Refuse to allow the circumstances of life to be the final determining factor in how you will respond. But in faith, trust in Jesus Christ. Realize His immensity and His incomparableness, and take courage.

Let's pray.

Lord God, in light of the greatness of our challenges we need a great Savior. But You have given us more than a great Savior, and because of this we can be more than conquerors. Grant us by faith the ability to believe and to so live. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

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