Godliness Required, Godliness Given
1 Timothy 3.14-16
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: 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.
I’d like to give the context for this passage, for those who are joining us for the first time. We’re currently working our way through Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Paul’s disciple and “true child in the faith,” as he calls him. The goal of Paul’s letter, as he said before and as he reminds us here, is to give instructions to Timothy concerning the manner in which he should lead the church, and concerning the way Christians ought to behave together. For example, at the beginning of the letter (1.5), Paul reminds Timothy that the goal of these instructions is love, which issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith; and that consequently, he was to take care that in the church there is no teaching which is not centered on that objective. Or in chapter 2, where Paul asks the church to pray for all men, for authorities, etc.
For the last two weeks, we’ve been looking at v. 1-13 of chapter 3. In these verses Paul speaks of those who would take on positions of responsibility in the church—the elders and the deacons. In Jason’s messages on these texts, we saw what these roles looked like; but what comes out of these texts in particular are the criteria which qualify members of the church for these areas of responsibility. We saw that the character of the person is more important than his abilities (which weren’t mentioned at all, except the ability to teach, in the case of the elders). Basically, God calls his church to the highest standard of godliness… All Christians. And he calls the leaders of the church to model this godliness for others.
In today’s passage, Paul continues this idea. He explains first why such a high premium is placed on godliness in the church in general, and in the leaders of the church in particular (1); secondly, he defines godliness by explaining the means in which that godliness can be received (2).
1) Why is godliness required?
I had already heard messages before which spoke of the fact that God requires the highest level of godliness for those in positions of responsibility in the church. But this time around, it was a peculiar experience because it was the first time I was directly concerned by what I was hearing. As you may know, Jason asked Paul, myself and other people in the church to submit their candidacy to the rest of the church, to be validated by the church for various positions of responsibility.
Last Sunday, I was talking to one of these people after the service. And his feeling, like mine, was that this standard of godliness and morality to which the Bible calls us is very high. It’s difficult to see what the Bible demands of us and to say, “I’m worthy of this.” I don’t think I ever will be, even if I know the Bible calls us to it. Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” But we also noticed that it was important for God to show us this high standard. Simply by giving us this standard, the Bible reminds us of how important the Church is to God. And this is precisely what Paul does at the beginning of today’s text.
v. 14-15: 14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
The first reason why the highest degree of godliness is required for those belonging to the church is that the church is the HOUSEHOLD OF GOD.
You’ll doubtless remember the episode in the gospels where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. This was a tradition in that day, and it’s still a tradition today in certain parts of the world, in those towns and villages with unpaved roads. After walking a certain distance, your feet are covered in dust; so when you arrive at your home or that of your host, you have to wash your feet, to not bring dust into the house.
I remember when I was young, we had to do this. I grew up in a city which wasn’t developed; and the places where I played with my friends were very dusty. But when it came time to take a break or to go eat at someone’s home, we had to get as much dust as possible off of our feet before going into the house. I also remember that the effort we put into cleaning up went up depending on the house we were going to. Certain homes were nicer than others. I had a friend who often invited us; his house was very well decorated, with rugs on the floor. So when we went to his house, we made particular efforts to clean our feet.
It’s true in this context, but it’s also generally true. If we were invited to dine at the palais de l’Elysée, we’d dress up! If an “important person” invites us into his home, we conduct ourselves in a particular way.
Paul is saying something similar here—if we belong to the church, we are the house of God; we are the place where God lives. He said in 1 Corinthians 3.16, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? God is a spiritual being; he created all things; he is omnipresent. He doesn’t need a physical building to live in. But the only “place” on earth for which we can say that God is present in a particular way is the church. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God came and intervened through certain people. But since the ascension of Christ, the Spirit of God doesn’t just occasionally intervene through Christians; he lives in them, at all times, so fully that we can say that Christians are “the place” where God lives, the household of God.
If we clean up and dress up in a particular way when we are invited to the house of someone important, we should do much more when we belong to the household of God—not physically, but spiritually. As opposed to men, who look at the appearance but who can’t see farther, God is Spirit—he doesn’t look at appearances, but at the heart. If we are Christians, we must give the highest importance to our godliness because God calls us to be a part of his household, to be the place where he lives. And that is what we are.
The second reason God calls us to the highest level of godliness is because the church is a pillar and buttress of the truth.
Paul said before (2.7) that he was appointed a preacher and an apostle… a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. This “truth” is the teaching of Jesus and the apostles (and of the law and the prophets before them), on all things concerning who God is, what he has done, and what he calls us to do in response.
The TRUTH found in the teachings of the apostles is that God exists. He is holy—he cannot tolerate sin. He is just—he does not punish the innocent, nor does he leave the guilty unpunished. He is merciful—he does not want to punish sinners, but to save them. He is love—he showed the infinite reach of his love when he gave his Son to be punished in our place.
The TRUTH is the life to which God calls us. We saw this in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The Word of God tells us the way in which we should conduct ourselves in our work; the way in which we should interact with the members of our family; the way in which we should manage our money; the way in which we should manage our sexuality…and much more.
In our society, it can sound offensive, and even arrogant, to claim to know the truth. But the Bible is clear—God exists, he created everything, he has a clear will for each aspect of our lives. Whatever the will of God is is what we must do. It is THE TRUTH, and whatever is contrary to this truth is sin.
An ideology which remains merely written is empty; but it takes on strength when it has people who represent it and verbalize it and live according to its principles—this is how we see an ideology fleshed out. For example, to know that there are extremist or racist ideologies is one thing; but to see people who adhere to those ideologies, that’s a different matter.
In the same way, knowing about the truth of God and his will for us is one thing. But there is nothing more pertinent than seeing people who believe in this truth living it and modeling it.
The world is filed with thoughts that are contrary to the will of God. But God desired (because of his grace) to make his Truth live in the world. God chose the Church to preserve his truth in a world pregnant with error. If you are children of God, if you have put your faith in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins through his Holy Spirit, you belong to the church of God. So God calls you to the highest level of godliness, because he chose you to image his truth to the world.
As the church of God, we must seek the highest level of morality and godliness, because we are the household of God, we are the pillar and buttress of the truth.
Now, in v. 16, Paul tells us what this godliness consists of, and how it is given to us;
2) How is godliness given to us?
1 Timothy 3.16: Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: 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.
The first thing we see when Paul speaks of godliness is that it is a mystery. As Jason mentioned last week, “mystery” in the Bible speaks of something which God kept secret for a time, but that he has now chosen to reveal. Several times we see mentions of “mysteries” in the New Testament. Paul speaks of the mystery of iniquity, or sin, in 2 Thessalonians 2.7; he describes marriage as a mystery in Ephesians 5.32. All of these subjects are subjects of profound truth that are difficult, but concerning which God has revealed his will through the prophets and apostles.
Godliness is not easy; true godliness is a mystery. God has given us access to godliness, but it’s not necessarily evident—God had to make it known.
Next, we see that according to Paul, “we confess” this mystery (or “all confess” this is the truth). I thought of this when I was listening to the first round of debates for the presidential elections. One journalist asked the candidates, “Why would you be a president of integrity?” And there, I found Paul’s sentence that much more true. All men, believers and unbelievers, agree that integrity is important; morality is important. All people want leaders of integrity, friends of integrity, managers of integrity, treasurers of integrity, etc.
But where can this integrity come from, this integrity we hope to see in others? Also, in ourselves, if we’re able to judge ourselves objectively?
For the apostle Paul, this is a mystery, hidden at one point, but now revealed by God, which he has revealed to us through what is probably a song.
In our modern culture, songs are often constructed with phrases that rhyme. But in Jewish culture at this time, less effort was given to the structure of song, and more was given to the meaning. In this song, for example, there are six phrases, which describe opposing realities: 1) The first phrase “He was manifested in the flesh” (God came down to men) is opposed and symmetrical to the sixth, “taken up in glory” (God went back up to heaven); 2) the second phrase “he was vindicated by the Spirit” (declaration of God’s spiritual nature) is opposed to the fourth, “he was believed on in the world” (declaration of God’s approachability); 3) the third phrase, “he was seen by angels” (subject of praises from the spiritual beings) is symmetrical and opposed to the fifth, “he was proclaimed among the nations” (subject of praises from human beings).
The fact that Paul breaks out in song shows how contemplative he is before the incredible realization of who God is. It’s what we call a “doxology”: when a theological truth drives you to break forth in adoration and song before the greatness of the mysteries of God. Paul expresses his wonder at the fact that God came down to earth to give us godliness, and the way in which he did it.
He was manifested in the flesh. The Bible reminds us that the source of godliness is God incarnate, Jesus Christ. We are completely depraved. We could not change ourselves. To what extent are we unable to change ourselves? To the extent that God in heaven took on himself the responsibility to change us. If God made this trip, we understand that nothing but God can do the work! This reminds us how much God loves us and wants to restore his image in us which was marred by sin. It reminds us of the grace of God, because “no man can see God and live,” but God made himself visible and approachable to men.
He was vindicated by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit confirmed that the man Jesus was indeed God. He did this through Christ’s life, his miracles, his resurrection, and by the conviction in our own hearts. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that we can “see” (or spiritually discern) the divinity of the man Jesus, and the incarnation of God in Jesus. This vision of Christ, made possible by the Holy Spirit, gives us a reverence for him which produces godliness.
He was seen by angels. There are several types of creatures in God’s creation. Inanimate things, living creatures without reason (animals), and living creatures with reason (men and angels). Men are superior to animals. But to a certain extent, angels are superior to men, in terms of what their intelligence can comprehend, the places they can explore and their strength (in the Old Testament one angel destroyed an entire army). Paul tells us here that these angels, these great spirits, are in wonder before the all-powerful God who came to earth to save men. We would do well to make every effort to understand this mystery as well—it is a very high task.
He was proclaimed among the nations. The mystery of godliness which is found in God, and which Jesus Christ proclaimed, is proclaimed to all, without distinction. We also understand that it is through the preaching of his Word that God “gives himself to us;” it is through the preaching of the Word that he makes himself known. It is by listening to his Word that we grow in this godliness.
He was believed on in the world. God’s Word is the means by which God “gives himself” and offers godliness to us; faith is the means by which we receive this godliness. We often hear things like, “I want to be challenged,” or “I want someone to tell me what I need to change in my life.” Saying you want to change doesn’t give you the means to do it. The only way to be changed is to hear about Jesus and to believe in him. Faith in Jesus unites us to God, faith in Jesus brings our reason and our hearts close to God. If God is close to our reason and our hearts, our reason and our hearts will naturally change… Belief in Christ is the key to godliness. The mystery of godliness is not, “You must change,” but rather, “God became a man.”
He was taken up in glory. Jesus did not stay on earth; he was taken up to heaven. Right now, he is with the Father. He is interceding for us. And he can intercede because he knows what he’s talking about. He lived as a man. He knows what it’s like to be a man; he knows our weaknesses. But now, he has all power in heaven and on earth. Everything is under his authority. He began his work of godliness in us; and he can (and will) finish it. Since he is in glory, he will transform us to be like him, in the glory and dignity of his person. And one day we will be changed and taken up in glory to be with him.
3) Receiving the Gift of Godliness
The gift of godliness is like all the others—we have to receive it. Think of God’s ultimate gift, Jesus Christ. Jesus was given to us by God for the forgiveness of our sins and for life. But we must receive him as our Lord and Savior. So how do we do this?
Read, listen, and meditate on Christ—take your time. One day a thought came to my mind as I was eating in a fast food restaurant. The thought came because I was watching how quickly the meals were made, and how quickly the food was consumed! I thought of how much how much we hate taking our time. We want to have the same results, in less time.
But for spiritual life and growth in godliness, it doesn’t work like that—it takes time. So let’s take time, every day, to read and meditate on his Word. Let us take time to read good books, old and new, which speak of Jesus, to immerse our thoughts in him. What do we do with our vacation? Our vacations are perfect for taking time to meditate on Christ through his Spirit. And in the church, we have opportunities to come together and think of these things—in our community groups, in our discipleship groups…
Brothers and sisters, think much on Christ. Remember God, in his human condition. Remember the vindication of Christ by the Spirit; pray that the Spirit reveals Christ to our hearts and minds. Remember that this is the greatest task a human being can undertake: the angels undertake it, and we can too. Listen to the Word of God. Work hard at your faith. Remember Christ, risen and taken up in glory, the glory that is reserved to all who believe in him.
This is the mystery of godliness. In this way, we will grow in godliness, and we will be better able to image the truth of God to the world, and to live in a manner worth of the church of God, which is the household of God.