Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 3:14-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/22/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 3:14-16
Supporting the Truth
It is too common among American Protestantism to have a fairly low view of the church as an institution. We can so much emphasize our individual relationship to Christ and the spiritual aspect of our faith, that we can tend to minimize the role of the church. And yet the Bible does not minimize the institution of the church. The Bible holds a very high view of the church. Yes, there is a personal aspect of our Christian faith, but there is also a corporate aspect. Yes, there is a spiritual unseen aspect of our faith, but there is also a visible way we can see Christians as we gather together in worship. The Bible says many wonderful things about the organized church; it has a high view of the church, and so should we.
And this passage is one such example. Here we find the church strikingly called the house of the living God. Here we find the church amazingly called a pillar and ground of the truth. And here we see the church confessing wonderful mysteries, truth which God has revealed to us, which we then confess to each other and to the world. And so today we will reflect on these three things as we look at verses 14 and 15 and the first part of verse 16.
And so, let’s begin by thinking about the church being called the house of God. This was an idea previously alluded to when talking about the elder qualifications. In verses 4-5 it said that elders need to manage their house well otherwise how could they take of God’s church. That implied that the church was God’s house. Well, here we are told that explicitly. There are quite a few references in the New Testament that speak of the church as God’s house and I think it is too easy to take that language for granted and just gloss over it like it is no great thing. But remember how Ephesians 2:19 said that as converts to Christianity, we used to not be a part of God’s house. Becoming a Christian through faith in Christ has many great benefits. Arguably the biggest is that we don’t have to go to hell when we die. But being a Christian is far more wonderful that just getting a “get-out-of-hell free card”. We get to belong to God’s kingdom, and not just to his kingdom, but to his very own house. We sit at his table. We are his sons and daughters. We share in the riches and privileges of God Almighty.
Paul helps show the significance when he says in verse 14 that the God he is talking about is the living God. Remember at that time, if you weren’t Christian you were probably a worshipper of pagan false gods. In Ephesus where Timothy was serving, the big deity there was Artemis. In Ephesus, you could even go to the house of Artemis, a grand physical temple dedicated to her worship. But Artemis was a false god. When someone became a Christian they would be abandoning those false gods to come into the house of the living God!
This household analogy is also helpful for us in light of what we’ve been studying in 1 Timothy. Back then the typical household tended to be a little more elaborate than today. In addition to a husband, wife, and children, you would also likely have various servants. Everyone had different roles and responsibilities in the house in order for the house to function well. Even among the servants, some servants might have roles of varying authority over others. The head of the house had to oversee all of this. And so, when Paul mentions in verse 15 about how one is to conduct himself in the house of God, we recognize that analogy. Look at chapters 2 and 3 and we see the descriptions of how different sorts of people are to conduct themselves in the church, in the house of God. In chapter 2, we saw that all of us in the church are to conduct ourselves in a commendable way in society, not causing trouble. We do this so that as the household of God we do not get in trouble with the state as we do the church’s work in this world. Men in the church are to pray and worship in a certain way, without fighting and disputes. Women are to worship and pray in a certain way, adorning themselves with good works, supporting the God-given leadership, and being busy with their daily callings. Then chapter 3 speaks of the leadership within God’s household: the elders and deacons. He describes what they are to be like and how they should conduct themselves in God’s house. And the virtues mentioned for the leaders then speak to how all of us in God’s house should look to behave.
And so, Paul says that the church is God’s house, and that concept, that structure implies that we should conduct ourselves in a certain way. In verse 14, Paul says that this is a main purpose for why he is even writing this letter. That means that what we are studying is helpful for us here at Trinity to know not only how to organize our congregation, but how we should conduct ourselves here. And all of this says that we should have a high view of the visible church.
So then with that idea that we are God’s household, let us move on to our second point and consider how the church is a pillar and ground of the truth. Here Paul surely issues another subtle rebuke to paganism. I mentioned that Ephesus was the home of the temple of Artemis. This was no small temple. In fact, the temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. And though it’s been long destroyed, the written records describe it in great wonder. What stands out in the description is its pillars and its foundation. The temple of Artemis had 127 marble pillars and a prominent marble foundation that was 300 feet long and 150 feet wide. It was very impressive. But in contrast Paul tells these Ephesians that the Christian church is a pillar and foundation for the truth! The pagan Ephesians had their pillars and foundation for Artemis, something untrue. But in contrast, the church of Jesus Christ stood in relief to that pagan temple. The church of Jesus Christ stood for truth in contrast to any and all pagan temples which stood for a lie.
John Calvin rightly said in his commentary, “It is no ordinary dignity that is ascribed to the church when it is called the pillar and ground of the truth. For what higher terms could he have used to describe it?” This is an amazing idea to think that the church is somehow the support of truth in this world. It’s an amazing idea because if you think about it, the truth is actually the foundation for the church. The truth in Jesus Christ is what supports us. From one vantage point, that is so very true. And yet from another vantage point, we can think of the other way around, how the church itself is a support for the truth. In this world that worships false gods and denies biblical morality there is great need to stand up and support the truth. When there is so much propaganda today by the unbelieving world to convince us of things that are not true, we now as much as ever, need the church to be a support for truth. And that’s what this passage says. The word pillar in verse 15 is just that. Think of a column that keeps the roof from caving in on a building. And the word for ground in verse 15 is foundation language, which could also be translated as a support. This is what keeps a building from toppling over. So, Paul is saying that the church exists to prop up the truth in this world for all to see.
Let’s think then about how we support the truth in this world as the church. First, we can support it because we have come to have and know and believe the truth. Last chapter, verse 4, speaks as Christians as those who have come to know the truth. Next chapter, verse 3, speaks of Christians also as those who have come to believe the truth. So, in order to support the truth, the church has to first have the truth and actually believe that the truth is true. And that is what we have. The Word of God has come to us and we have come to believe it. You can add to that even general revelation – that we have even recognized rightly that the world around us testifies that the living God has made all this. That truth we have also come to have and believe.
Similar to this, we as the church have come to understand the truth. I love the story of Acts 8 where an Ethiopian eunuch had come into contact with some truth. The eunuch had a copy of the book of Isaiah. He had the truth, but he didn’t understand the truth. So then, Phillip, a leader in the church, explained the truth to him. The result was that the eunuch then came to understand the truth. And so, that is part of our supporting the truth. Not only do we have it, but because of the Holy Spirit we understand it, so we can in turn help others to understand it.
The church also supports the truth by making us of it and relying upon it. I think of Ephesians 6 talking about the spiritual armor we use as Christians. One of the pieces of the armor is the belt of truth. 3 John 1:8 speaks of Christians walking in the truth. Surely that is one of the best ways we can support the truth is to actually put it into use and live by it. If you say you support something but never talk about it or act in line with it, then what does it mean for you to say you support that thing? But if we support the truth then we should show we support the truth by making use of it. That means we talk about it, make decisions based upon it, rely on it and trust it, and live by it.
The church also defends the truth and advances its cause. I think of 1 Peter 3:15 which says that we are to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” Philippians 1:17 Paul mentions the importance of the defense of the gospel. 3 John 1:8 speaks of Christians as workers for the truth. We even have a whole discipline dedicated to this, called apologetics. The church in this world advocates for truth through its defense of it.
Lastly, I could say that the church speaks the truth. When the church does evangelism, that is heralding the truth of the gospel to the world. When the Bible speaks of Christians testifying of Jesus and the gospel, they are speaking truth, bearing witness to the truth. Of course, within the church, speaking truth is quite prominent. The reading and preaching of the word is declaring the truth to our own. Even individuals in the church are called to be speaking the truth in love to fellow Christians (Eph 4:15). And so, we speak the truth both to Christians and non-Christians because we know it is useful for all.
I could certainly go one. The church is a support for the truth in this world in many ways. But I want to offer a clarification here. Before we get to think too highly of ourselves by saying that the church is this wonderful support for the truth, let me remind us who is the head and foundation of this church. It is Jesus. And Jesus has placed the “Spirit of truth” within the church to aid us in this ministry. John 16:13 says that this Spirit of truth will guide us into all truth. And yet sadly in John 14:17 Jesus also says that the world will not receive this Spirit of truth.
And so, as we the church support the truth we do so not in our own strength. Rather, we support the truth in Christ and by the power of his Holy Spirit. And we need to support the truth. We need to support the truth because we live in a world that is hostile to the truth. We live in a world where people exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the creator, Romans 1:25. We live in a world where people are darkened in their understanding of the truth and are ignorant of the truth, Ephesians 4:18. 2 Timothy 3:7 speaks of people who are always learning but never arriving at the truth, people who oppose the truth and are corrupted in the mind. This is the war that is before us. There is a battle over truth. In this world God has placed his church, his visible, organized church as a pillar and ground for the truth. And we are a part of this support because we are a part of God’s church. What a high view of the church!
In our last point for today I want us to apply this idea that we support and speak the truth by pointing to verse 16. There we see some of the truth we speak. It’s put in terms of a mystery that we affirm. Verse 16 starts out by saying “without controversy.” That’s an okay translation but a little misleading. There is great controversy in the world about that statement of verse 16. But there is not in the church. The language of “without controversy” is an adverb in the Greek that could also be translated as “confessedly.” The idea is that Paul is emphatically proclaiming some key truth which the church affirms and confesses.
And I think it is very important that he uses the word “mystery.” A mystery in the biblical sense is a truth that was not previously made known, but now has been made known. And so, when we are thinking today about the church’s significance, this is a pretty big deal. We are the supporters of truth that before was not revealed but now has been revealed. God has now given certain mysteries to the world because we need to know them. And God has especially entrusted such mysteries to the church, to confess them, to spread them, to promote them, to support them.
And so, we again today declare this mystery. We declare the mystery of God coming to this world in the person of Jesus Christ. We declare that by the power of the Spirit he not only declared God’s truth but went to the cross to die in our place. He died for our sins, to pay their penalty. He suffered this that by faith in him we would be forgiven and reconciled to God. In this reconciliation, we then are welcomed into God’s house as adopted children of God. And so, we have come to believe in this Jesus, our Lord and Savior. And as much as Jesus now sits glorified in heaven at the right hand of God, we know that when we die, we too will go to be with him there in glory.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, in closing I note that the temple of Artemis was destroyed and rebuilt three times but it has been completely demolished since 401 AD. Today only remnants of its foundation remain, but that remaining foundation no longer has a structure to support. And yet the church continues on as a support to the truth. And we have the confidence from Jesus that even the gates of hades will not prevail against his church. And so, we know that the light of truth will never go out in this world. May this encourage you when the lies of the world seem so prevalent today.
And so, in light of this, may we each give thought to how to properly conduct ourselves in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. May we look to conduct ourselves by the grace of God as those being sanctified in the truth. May we look to behave by grace as those who are called children of God – that calls us to honorable conduct! And may we pray that God will continue to use us for his glory as we bear witness to truth in this world until Christ returns. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.