We have completed Paul’s lists of the qualifications for those men who hold offices in the church. But now we proceed to consider the church these men must serve, its calling, and so what theirs must be as well. Whether we think of the final verses of the chapter as a new section or as a kind of concluding summary of what has been said so far, they provide, in v. 15, a short description of the letter as a whole: instruction in “how one ought to behave in the household of God.” One fine scholar calls this short paragraph “the key” to the Pastoral Letters; not just 1 Timothy but 2 Timothy and Titus as well. [Spicq, 103]
Paul was still planning on visiting Ephesus but, until he did, he wanted the apostolic gospel and the apostolic church order to be preserved; hence Timothy’s presence in Ephesus and hence these instructions to his younger associate and to the church. It is remarkable, in a way, that we know so much of what we know about our faith and about the church in its formative period simply because the Apostle Paul couldn’t be everywhere at once and so dispatched communications by letter. Had all of his instruction been conveyed orally, as no doubt most of it was, we would know so much less. [Stott, 103]
The point of this first statement in context is that the instructions Paul has given and will give are important because of the great issue at stake: the health of the gospel itself. [Mounce, 219] The false teachers, with their new doctrines and the way of life they were recommending and exemplifying were damaging the proclamation of the good news; the lifeblood of the church and the lifeline of the world were threatened.
Paul describes the church in three ways. First as God’s house or household. The term itself can mean either the house or the family that occupies the house. Here clearly the latter is meant, as in the word’s previous uses in vv. 4-5 and 12. It is one of the most precious and consoling and elevating blessings of the gospel that by faith in Jesus Christ we become members of a family, God’s family, brothers and sisters with the same heavenly Father. So much of what a Christian is, so much of what he or she must do is the direct result of the fact that a Christian is a child of God and so a brother or sister of every other believer. What is a household at its best, after all, but an intimate community of love and loyalty? And that is what the church is to be. The false teachers weren’t damaging a social organization; they were corrupting the household of God, dragging its reputation through the mud and weakening its bonds!
Second Paul mentions “the church of the living God.” The Bible often refers to God as the “living God” in contrast to the lifeless idols man concocts for himself. “Church” is the English translation of the Greek ekklesia, a word that means “assembly.” Christians are always the assembly of God, but when they gather as an assembly, as a congregation for worship, their nature as his assembly is made more obvious. And from ancient times it was the Lord’s promise to be present when his people gathered as his assembly.
Third, the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” By the way, there is no article before either term, so the church is a not the pillar of the truth. The truth of the Gospel has other supports and protections and if the church should fail at some point, as she often has, it hardly means that the gospel will perish!
Paul’s way of speaking made special sense in a letter to Christians who lived in Ephesus. The boast of the city was its temple to Diana or Artemis. Regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it boasted one hundred columns or pillars, each some 55 feet high, supporting a massive roof of dazzling marble. The two terms Paul uses can be translated in various ways, but either way they easily refer to the structure of that temple and make the point: the church must both hold fast to the truth, keep it sacrosanct and protect it from corruption, on the one hand, and, on the other, hold it up for the world to see. [Stott, 105] This statement has led to some confusion. We might have thought that Paul would say, as he said elsewhere, that the truth was the pillar and buttress of the church. After all, isn’t the truth of the gospel the foundation of the church? If you remember, in Ephesians 2:20 Paul wrote that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, by which he certainly means the teaching of the apostles and prophets. John Chrysostom, in a sermon on this text, had his memory fail him and, in a slip of the tongue, put it this other way: the truth is the pillar and foundation of the church. It is a natural thought. But that isn’t what Paul wrote. Roman Catholics have pointed to this verse to support their teaching that the Bible rests upon the authority of the church and not vice versa; hardly Paul’s point. The point here is not whether the truth makes the church or the church makes the truth. The point is that the mission of the church concerns the truth that God has revealed. It is the church’s calling “to guard [the truth] against every distortion and falsification, and proclaim [it] without fear or compromise throughout the world.” [Stott, 106; cf. Spicq, 106] The special point of this emphasis is due, of course, to the fact that it was precisely this that the Ephesian church was not doing! [Mounce, 215, 218]
In Acts 19:28 we hear the citizens of Ephesus crying out “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.” “Great is the mystery of godliness” is a Christian equivalent. The church is the temple of God. The ESV has printed the six lines that follow in a way that suggests that what we have here is poem or a hymn or a creedal affirmation. And there is no doubt that this is right. In the original Greek, the six lines are formally very similar to one another. While Christ is the obvious subject of the lines, the fact that he remains unnamed is likely due to the fact that these verses were removed from a longer text. So we have here a fragment of a hymn or creed.
It is possible to take the six lines as strictly chronological. He came into the world, he was vindicated by the Spirit perhaps referring to his miracles and especially his resurrection, seen by angels then would be a reference to his ascension, then the spreading of the message about him after Pentecost, the “believed on in the world” a reference to the burgeoning church, and “taken up in glory,” while seeming to be a reference to his ascension, if the lines are chronological it would have to be instead a reference to his second coming. That might be thought likely simply because the absence of any reference to the Lord’s vindication at the end of history would be surprising in such a summary of the history of redemption.
Another possibility is to take the six lines as two verses, the first describing his earthly life and ministry, the second his life and work as the exalted Christ. Still another possibility is that the six lines should be divided into three verses of two lines each, with each verse describing the antithesis between Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, or between the realm of the flesh and that of the spirit, or the realms of the visible and invisible. So, Christ became a man and was known as a man among men, but was vindicated by the Holy Spirit at his resurrection as so much more than a man; he was seen visibly by angels, but proclaimed to the world as the object of their faith; he was received by many who believed in him but he was received bodily and visibly by the angels himself as he returned to heaven. [See especially Mounce, 215-218]
In any case, these six lines taken together are obviously a summary of the entire story of the life and work of the Lord Jesus, from his birth to his coming again. Each of the lines can be easily taken to evoke not a simple, single fact, but a great many facts. “Manifested in the flesh”: in how many ways was our Savior manifested to us in the flesh? Not only in his remarkable birth, but in his miracles, his preaching, and his perfect life. Vindicated by the Spirit: again, in how many ways in the Gospels and in the book of Acts do we see that happening? And so on. We have here and intentionally a simple summary of the entire history of Jesus as we are given that history in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.
The central fact of the gospel is that it is a message about Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ of history, the Christ who was born of a virgin during the governorship of Quirinius, died on the cross during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven when Tiberius was emperor, was preached and believed on throughout the world, and who is coming again. The mystery of godliness consists in the truth encapsulated in the six lines. In the Bible, as we have often observed, a mystery is supremely something that can be known only because it has been revealed. This historical message was, in some respects, contrary to what the false teachers were peddling, else Paul would not have mentioned it here. Their message was not this history and its spiritual and ethical implications, but some esoteric philosophy, some trendy wisdom for life that had some place for Jesus Christ but could not be described in terms of a simple summary of the personal history of Jesus of Nazareth. It was not the proclamation and the outworking of the historical facts of the Savior’s life, death, resurrection, and coming again which are the foundation of both Christian belief and Christian practice.
We cannot too often ring the changes on this fundamental nature of our faith as the account of what happened in days past. All the more in a day when it is commonplace to hear that all the religions are different paths to God, that each is in its way but one version of man’s quest for God, it is the more important that Christians themselves appreciate how utterly untrue that is of their Christian faith. I do not hesitate to say that is precisely the truth about every other faith and philosophy of mankind. They genuinely are simply versions of man’s quest for God. But not so the Christian faith! Every other religion is simply man’s quest for God, for a God of his own making, a God of his own liking, an idol in other words. But not so the Christian faith. It is not a version of this human quest for God; it is an account of God’s quest for man. And it is not a religious philosophy or program; it is the announcement of events in human history, and especially a series of events some two-thousand years ago when God himself entered the world to secure the salvation of the world.
No other religion ties itself to history as Christianity does. No other faith so willingly suspends its credibility on the reliability of its historical claims; no other message about God and salvation is thoroughly interwoven with the events of human history, with the people of history, and with the history of nations. Christianity is utterly unlike all the rest in this most fundamental way. Everything rests on what happened in the world those long years ago. If the resurrection did not happen while Pontius Pilate was lying abed that Sunday morning in Jerusalem, then our faith is vain and we are not ashamed to say so. And when that is admitted, it will be seen that the entire structure of our faith is historical. The world was made by God, so the creation is history. Man fell into sin. The fall is history. Man was redeemed by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. That too is history in the ordinary sense; that is, an account of what happened. And Jesus will someday come a second time. The end of history, the consummation is also history, by which we mean it will be an event in time and space, the same time and the same space in which you and I are living today, in which every human being has lived or will live. There is nothing like this in the world, no other religion has this historical character, no other faith could be summed up in six lines that describe what happened to a particular individual in a certain time and place.
Islam, for example, may claim that at a certain time certain revelations were granted to Muhammad, but the religious message of Islam is not of events in history; the way of salvation is not historical; Islam does not proclaim that which God did in human history to save sinners. Buddhism and Hinduism are even less oriented to history. And, of course, secular versions of salvation have no historical basis. Indeed, every corruption of the Christian faith, in one way or another, is guilty of de-historicizing the gospel, of turning the Christian message into a philosophy or an ethical or liturgical program. This is some evidence of how fundamental the historical claims of the Christian faith really are: even we Christians have a hard time holding on to these claims as the center of our faith. They set the Christian faith utterly apart and give it an entirely unique character. That is the scandal of our faith; it always has been, always shall be, and it certainly is today. You cannot believe that there are many roads to God if you believe that God entered the world to live and die for sinners. No one who believes that such a thing actually happened also believes that sinners can be saved in some other way than by faith in Jesus Christ!
This was the point being made by the French intellectual in the mid twentieth century who said, “I believe everything in the Apostles’ Creed, except the phrase, ‘He suffered under Pontius Pilate.’” [J.W. Montgomery, Where is History Going, 7] He was happy with what he took to be the spiritual message of Christianity; it was its historical particularity that troubled him. But no one can read the Bible and think that the gospel is simply a philosophy or ethical system and not the announcement of wonderful things that happened at such and such a time and place, when so and so was governor or emperor, events so stupendous and so wonderful that the entire history of the world turns on them and must turn on them.
But I want us also to note something else about this short summary of our faith, this six-line confession of Christian faith. It is something like the Apostles’ Creed in its brevity and also something like the Apostles’ Creed in the nature of the material it covers. There is nothing here of the previous history of salvation from Abraham to David to the prophets, nothing of divine election or salvation by grace, nothing of the new birth, nothing of justification by faith — though there is mention of faith in Jesus –, nothing of sanctification, nothing of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, and nothing of the Ten Commandments. This summary of the Christian faith is a simple recounting of what Jesus Christ did and will do. The only thing mentioned about Christians themselves is that they are believers in Jesus.
This is, shall we say it, C.S. Lewis’ mere Christianity. It is not the Westminster Confession of Faith that we have here, with all of its doctrinal detail. There is no evidence here of the doctrinal precision that would later be required to protect the faith from its various malformations and falsifications. There is the simple confession of the incarnation of the Son of God, his death and resurrection — surely the “vindicated by the Spirit” refers to the resurrection, which resurrection assumes his death — his ascension to heaven and his coming again. Christians are identified here and in many other places in the Bible simply as believers in Jesus.
Now, to be sure, very simple definitions of our faith, such as we have here — and there are other such definitions in the New Testament, as when Paul summarized his message by saying that he preaches “Christ and him crucified” or when he defines his message as “the word of the cross” — can prove inadequate. It is not clear to me, for example, that the judaizers in Galatia would not have agreed with this summary of the mystery of godliness, yet theirs, Paul said, was another gospel that was in fact no gospel at all. Their failure to understand that works played no role in the justification of sinners, their reliance on the believer’s works of ritual obedience betrayed the cross as the true source of our forgiveness and peace with God. Certainly there have been multitudes through the ages who have recited the Apostles’ Creed in church who embraced errors so fundamental that they nullified whatever profession of faith they made by reciting the Creed. Nevertheless, even though doctrinal deviations had already been encountered in the apostolic age, and even though they were being encountered in Ephesus when Paul wrote to Timothy, Paul summarized the faith in this simple, historical way. There is something significant in that. Our faith can truly and fairly be summarized so simply as confidence in the personal history of Jesus Christ.
We can, therefore, hardly doubt and the believing church has never doubted that the Christian faith can be so understood and that true and living faith in Jesus as the Savior of sinners is all that salvation requires. There are many Christians whom we must believe to be in error in this way or that (as they must think we to be in error in this way or that), to have misunderstood the teaching of the Bible in this way or that, but of whose place in the family of God, of whose sincere and living faith in Jesus there can be no doubt because they so sincerely embrace the truth of these six lines and the implications of that truth. We Calvinists are not Arminians, for example, but we have never thought that earnest Arminians are not real Christians. George Whitefield, for example, Calvinist that he was, was always careful to say that he thought John Wesley, Arminian that he was, a better Christian than himself.
C.S. Lewis is another example of this phenomenon of diversity within the unity of Christian belief. He disappoints Presbyterians in any number of ways, [we Presbyterians are easily disappointed!] and yet, so far from reading him out of the family of God, we have long looked to him as a stalwart and brilliant defender of our faith and, even more, as a particularly gifted teacher of the Christian faith. But the faith he teaches is broadly the faith as it is described in these six lines in 1 Tim. 3:16. You look in vain throughout the large corpus of his writings to find him address the issues that Paul addresses in Romans or in Galatians. He makes very little of the great divide that separates and has long separated sovereign grace Christians from free will Christians, whether in Augustine’s day, the time of the Reformation, or in our own time. He does little to address the questions about the sacraments that have also and for so long divided Christians from one another. Though Lewis was an Episcopalian, he had close Christian friends among the English free churches and among the Roman Catholics.
In my Latin class here at Covenant High School I have my students translate some of the letters Lewis wrote in Latin to an Italian priest by the name of Giovanni Calabria. Calabria was both a sort of modern Francis of Assisi and a male version of Mother Theresa, devoting his life to caring for the poorest and the neediest of Italian society, especially abandoned children. He was also devoted to Christian unity and had friends in many Protestant churches. He was canonized not many years after his death in 1954. He was not comfortable writing in English and Lewis not so much in Italian, so they corresponded in Latin, writing back and forth for some seven years until Calabria’s death. You may be interested to know that Lewis’ Latin is as clear and simple and beautiful as was his English. If you want to know how to write Latin, read C.S. Lewis. Remarkable! It was a fascinating and engaging correspondence and they often discussed the question of Christian unity, something not much discussed between Catholics and Protestants in the 1940s and 50s. But read the letters for yourselves and see if you come away from them doubting the Christian sincerity or living faith in Christ of either man.
In fact, one of the very interesting features of Lewis’ writing is that it is widely read, even treasured by such diverse groups of Christians, Christians who do not see eye to eye with one another about much of anything except Lewis’ mere Christianity. His intellectual mentor was G.K. Chesterton, a Roman Catholic, but Lewis remained a Protestant and his greatest influence has been among Protestants. Lewis was a wine-drinking Anglican, but his papers are housed at Wheaton College which, until very recently, was a tee-totaling community of low-church evangelicals.
I mention all of this because in preparation for Palm Sunday and Easter this year I have been reading Joseph Ratzinger’s book Jesus of Nazareth, the volume entitled: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. You know, of course, that this Joseph Ratzinger is none other than Pope Benedict XVI, the pope whose recent retirement led to the recent selection of a new pope. It is a very fine book. It concedes a bit too much to liberal scholarship, perhaps the result of Ratzinger being a German and relying overmuch on German scholarship. (It was Billy Sunday I believe who said that if you turn hell upside down it would say “Made in Germany” on the bottom.) But all in all it is very fine. It is a work of serious scholarship but intended for the lay reader and a work of obvious Christian devotion.
It too is an exposition of the sort of mere Christianity that we are given here in First Timothy 3:16. There is little in Benedict’s book that strikes the reader as distinctively Roman Catholic, his bibliography features Protestant works as well as Catholic, and the exposition stays close to the text of the Gospels. I doubt that any of you, reading that book, would doubt that the author shared with you your commitment to Jesus Christ as the only Savior of sinners or that the key obligation of human beings was to believe in him.
I do not mean to suggest that 1 Tim. 3:16, or, for that matter, John 3:16, is all that Christians need to know. The rest of the Bible was written for a reason! The Savior, upon his departure from this earth instructed his disciples to make disciples of all nations teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. We need to know of the history of redemption, of the new birth, of justification by faith, of what happens to a person when he or she dies, and so on. We need to be taught the Ten Commandments and the two commandments. We need to be instructed in right worship, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, indeed, in the sort of practical rules and instructions that Paul has already provided in chapters 2 and 3 of this same letter. All of this is essential to the life and health of Christians and the Christian church.
But, at the same time, we must take note that we find such summaries of our faith as we find here a number of times in the Bible. There is this foundation upon which all Christians stand; and anyone who truly stands upon it is and must be a Christian. Christian faith is the simple, heart-felt confession of faith in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God the Son, who died for sinners and rose again, ascended to heaven, and is coming again to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. Such a simple and heart-felt faith must change one’s life by making a man or woman, boy or girl, a follower of this same Jesus Christ, his servant, his brother or sister, a member of the household of the living God.
I want us always to be whole-Bible Christians. I want us to love the Word of God from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 and I want us to know everything that is in between those two chapters and I want us to apply it all to our lives. The reason we cannot be Roman Catholics is because we do not find taught in Holy Scripture much that is taught and practiced in Roman Catholicism. In a lesser way, the reason we cannot be Baptists is because we do not think that they have correctly understood the teaching of Holy Scripture in regard to a very significant matter, one that bears mightily on the spiritual life of our children. And so on.
But, we must also hold our convictions in such a way that we do equal justice to the fact that our Christian faith not only can be but is summarized in the Bible itself in such a way as we find here in 1 Timothy 3:16, that there is such a thing as we have learned to call mere Christianity. It is not necessary to content ourselves with mere Christianity; it is not wise to do so; it would not be faithful to the Word of God. On the other hand, we must accept that the facts of Christian faith in the world leave us no choice but to respect the reality that there is a central core of biblical doctrine, historical in its nature, that is the Christian faith in its simplest form and that we share that faith with many with whom we disagree about much else.
Once you admit, as virtually all Protestant Christians have had to admit, that people with whom we have significant theological disagreements are nevertheless Christians, we are compelled to respect this mere Christianity as the Christian faith we all share. And when, further, we are honest and acknowledge that there are many more real Christians in the world who do not think as we do about many biblical teachings, we are forced to accept that it is our duty as members of God’s household, as brothers and sisters of these other believers, to honor that core confession, such as we have here in 1 Tim. 3:16, as the very heart of our faith, the sine qua non of the Christian faith. You can be a Christian and deny our doctrine of sovereign grace; you can be a Christian and deny infant baptism, you can be a Christian and deny the continuing authority of the Ten Commandments, but you cannot be a Christian and deny that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus died for sinners on the cross, that he rose again, and that he is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
We must live according to the light that we have. We cannot stop thinking as we read the Word of God that Roman Catholics make some ghastly mistakes in teaching the Christian faith to their people or that the Baptists have misunderstood the Bible in a vitally important way. But honesty compels us to admit that there are many more Baptists than Presbyterians, many more Pentecostals than Presbyterians, many more Arminians, at least in America, than Presbyterians, and vastly more Roman Catholics than Presbyterians. To be sure, in this world, counting noses is no way to discover the truth. But the question is not for us: who is right and who is wrong about this doctrine or that. We have studied the Word of God and believe we know what it teaches about these large issues. The question is rather: why did God put so many of his people in the Roman Catholic Church or why did he make so many of them Pentecostals and not Presbyterians?
I do not know the reason! I’ve wondered many times why the Lord has done that. But I am no closer to knowing the reason. But that he has done so has convinced me and ought to convince you that what matters most is belonging to the household of God and what determines whether one belongs to that household or not is not his view of sovereign grace or baptism or church government, but whether and only whether he or she can say from the heart concerning Jesus of Nazareth:
He was manifested in the flesh,
Vindicated by the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Proclaimed among the nations,
Believed on in the world,
Taken up in glory.