1-timothy: The Mystery of Godliness

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on August 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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