This sermon is the fourth and final in our short series called Together. We started with marriage, then singleness; last week was parenting, and now we conclude with the church. Marriage together, single together, parenting together — and now, all that brought together in this most amazing of all human social arrangements called the church.
Our context makes focus and consideration of the church perhaps as important as it’s ever been. We’re more technologically connected than ever, and yet more genuinely disconnected and socially anemic. And the church, according to the Bible, is the most profound place of togetherness possible. Of all human togethernesses, this is the one that will endure forever. This is the one that God himself began in this world to carry us into the next. In principle (though not frequently enough in practice), there is no better community on the planet than the church. There is no greater human togetherness, in the universe, than the Jesus’s church.
When we talk about “the church,” we don’t mean a building, or a weekly meeting. We mean a people, a community with the potential to be for you now, and the promise to fully be for your later, what no other community can be.
Which is one reason among many for why we bother with this reality called the church. When you have Christian families and friends, and you can read your own Bible whenever you want, and listen to Christian preaching and teaching through a smartphone, and have conversations with believing friends, why bother with church? Because church is not a source of content and relationships that can be replaced by publications and conversations. Church is not a building or a service or a people, but the people of God. This is not just a community, but the community of the redeemed. This is not just one place of belonging, but the single most important nexus of belonging in the world.
Celebrating the Church
You can already see that this sermon is not mainly an argument for the church. This is a celebration. The text we’re looking at is the high point, not only of 1 Timothy, but of 2 Timothy and Titus as well. Here at the end of 1 Timothy 3, Paul pauses in awe and wonder about the existence and nature of the church.
It’s a remarkable movement from the mundane (traveling plans) into the magnificent, simply with the mention of the church. Paul is in manifest wonder that this reality called “the church” exists, and what it exists for. Two thousand years later, we so quickly take the church for granted. But Paul had seen it birthed in his lifetime. At first he hated it and tried to snuff it out; then Jesus opened his eyes, and he became the world’s foremost lover of the church.
Can you imagine if there were Christians but no churches in these Cities? What if there was just the Bible and fellow believers scattered about the metro, perhaps forming little Jesus clubs here and there that were preoccupied by all sorts of odd things. Imagine if there were just books and conferences and online articles, but no visible church here or anywhere else. No fellow Christians with whom you were covenantally committed to care for, take interest in, share life, and love in hard times. What if there we no weekly gatherings of the church to worship Jesus together, no Community Groups on mission together seeking the everlasting good of our city, no life groups to listen to each other and speak the truth in love?
But the church does exist. And it’s an amazing thing. Track with me here in 1 Timothy 3:14–16 as Paul celebrates what the church is and why the church is so essential and so magnificent. Verses 14–16:
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.” (1 Timothy 3:14–16)
We have three important phrases here in verse 15 about what the church is and why the church is essential, leading into this strange poem in verse 16. Let’s look at these three phrases in three statements about the church, and we’ll close with what’s going on in this poem.
1. The church is a happy family.
The first phrase in verse 15 is “the household of God.” The church is God’s house. Which may include two shades of meaning in this context: house as temple (where God is and is worshiped) and house as family (where God is Father). God’s house means both reverence and relationship. He is the one we worship, and he is the one who nurtures us.
Notice here that God has one household; the church is “the household of God.” We have no mention of a vacation home, or a cabin up north, or a divine timeshare in Fort Myers. God has no other houses — meaning no other families. You are not in God’s family if you are not in his church. The church is his family. To have God as your Father, and Jesus as your brother, is to have the church as your mother (as Cyprian and Calvin famously said).
Our Happy Father
The reason I say not just “family,” but “happy family,” is because the Father of this family is fundamentally happy — and he sets the tone and culture in his house. This is a happy house. There is great joy here. Unstoppable joy. Eternal joy.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have terribly sad times, and members in mourning. And it doesn’t mean that the Father himself isn’t moved at our sorrow. He knows; he cares; he draws near. He doesn’t handle our pain flippantly. And yet even in all the hurt and sorrow and trouble in this world, God’s family has the capacity to be “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:12). The Father’s infinite joy is deeper than our finite sorrows. Psalm 115:3 says our Father is in the heavens and does all he pleases. And 1 Timothy 1:11 refers to our family creed as “the gospel of the glory of the happy God.” Our Father is the “living God,” as we’ll see in the next description in verse 15, which means we are a family who enjoys God and his indomitable joy in our everyday midst.
We are one family of marrieds and unmarrieds, adults and children, given to each other for our joy, the good of others, and the glory of God. The church is the one household of God, and in all our ups and down, joys and sorrows, pains and pleasures, we are a one profoundly happy family.
2. The church is a diverse assembly.
The next phrase in verse 15 after “household of God” is “the church of the living God.”
We already mentioned “living.” Everything changes if God is not alive and endlessly filling the house with his energy and joy. But he is alive and active, as the engaged and attentive Father of this family, and in assembling his church and protecting his house.
The word we translate “church” in English is simply the term for an “assembly.” “The church of the living God” then is clearly not a building, but a spiritual assembly of people. While the one house (one family) image stresses our unity, the assembly image highlights our diversity.
The church is the assembling of God’s people into one family from many different families and origins — from every tribe and tongue and nation. An assembly calls people out from where they were to gather into some new space for a purpose. The image of the church, then, points to God calling people out from all humanity into his one new humanity. Both sin and circumstances have divided us into our pockets and groupings, with our degrees of indifference and hostility, but God transcends all our divisions, and begins reversing the curse of Babel, and wins worshipers for his Son from every type of people on the planet. The church is God’s one family assembled from diverse peoples.
Which means the church brings us together in the most fundamental way with all sorts of people who are drastically different. This is patently true of the universal church, and hopefully increasingly true in various measures for local churches, including Cities Church. The ideal church is not one where everyone looks and sounds the same and shares all the same life experiences with similar personal histories.
Coming together with people who are all the same as us appeals to our natural desires; but the church is a supernatural people, born again with new desires echoing the very heart of God. People who have had their hearts changed by Jesus increasingly desire to move toward people unlike themselves, toward other ethnicities, cultures, age-demographics, and life-seasons. With the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we see afresh that we’re better when partnered with those different from ourselves in experience and perspective. Marrieds appreciate the importance of unmarrieds in the mission and life of the church, and don’t try to just mindlessly marry them all off. Unmarrieds appreciate marrieds and the rhythms and patterns of life we develop together in the church. We learn to appreciate genuine believers from a generation different than our own, whether that’s older or younger adults, or even different ages of church history.
And with widening, mature hearts like we’ve been describing, it’s only a matter of time until a healthy church begins collecting society’s misfits — the kind of people who have trouble fitting in just about anywhere else. Cities Church, please listen carefully: the misfits are badges of honor. The church is the one real hope for their embrace on the planet. Where else will they go? Here is the place where diverse, plural people are assembled into one, singular family. It is an honor when our hearts have matured enough to embrace the misfits that no other groups seem to take. Healthy churches are places where unhealthy people feel welcome.
No Perfect Churches
In casting such an ideal vision, it’s important to clarify that I’m not at all saying that healthy churches are perfect. Far from it. There are no perfect churches — especially Cities Church. If you expect it, your bubble will be burst. Very soon.
Churches are assemblies of diverse sinners in the midst of their long journeys of transformation. Even reasonable people can feel hurt by good churches. For those who have felt hurt by the church, you know it’s real. Hang around any church long enough and you’ll experience something that feels like hurt from a complex interaction of diverse, individual sinners. But I plead with you not to be done with Jesus in all his perfection because some of the other people he’s in the process of saving aren’t perfect yet.
Local churches in this age are never the ideal, but only an echo and microcosm of the universal church. And yet we do want to resemble the universal church as much as we can, winning together, under the glory of our king Jesus, as many ethnicities and ages and life-stages and misfits as we can. As Jesus says in Luke 14:23, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” Our happy Father loves to fill his house with all kinds of people.
So the church is a happy family (because of the infinite happiness of our Father). And the church is a diverse assembly (because of the many diverse places and pockets from which the Father gathers us and compels us to come in to fill his house). And finally . . .
3. The church is a gospel people.
I get the phrase “gospel people” from the third and final phrase in verse 15, and then we’ll see it confirmed in verse 16: “. . . the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth . . .”
The church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Most of us know what a pillar is, but perhaps not a buttress. A pillar lifts the roof up, and a buttress keeps the walls in. A pillar holds up, so the roof doesn’t fall, the buttress holds in, so the walls don’t come down. What I think Paul is getting at here with the images of the pillar and the buttress is something like presentation and protection. Or advance and defense. Strength and support. A pillar compresses against vertical weight for the sake of lifting high and catching eyes and creating an impressive structure that grabs attention, while a buttress acts against lateral forces to reinforce the defenses and provide safety and stability. The church, then, as pillar and buttress, holds high “the truth” (presentation) and holds firm to “the truth” (protection).
But what is “the truth” in verse 15? Is it truth in general, like the truths of mathematics and biology and physics? Is it truth in general that the church holds high and holds firm?
Here, and throughout 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, “the truth” doesn’t mean truth in general, but specifically the truth, the message of the gospel that Jesus saves sinners (ten other texts: 1 Timothy 2:4; 4:3; 6:5; 2 Timothy 2:18, 25; 3:7, 8; 4:4; Titus 1:1, 14). As one scholar summarizes it, “‘truth’ in the Pastoral Epistles [is] a technical term for the gospel message” (Mounce, 86–87). So the church is the pillar and buttress of the gospel. For the presentation and protection of the gospel. For the advance of the gospel and its defense.
Creature of the Word
Another way to say it is that the church is a creature of the word — a people created and sustained by the word of the gospel, for the advance and defense of the gospel (pillar and buttress), molded and shaped through and through by God and his word and the deepest revelation of himself in Jesus and his work.
The church is the creature of the word, the people of the gospel, who lift high the message of Jesus and hold firm to it. This is why Paul goes where he does, in celebration of the church, in verse 16.
The Mystery of Godliness
Verse 16 expands “the truth” in verse 15. And we have this new enigmatic term “the mystery of godliness.”
. . . 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.”
Throughout the letter, this word godliness has referred to Christian living. In light of who God is, we are to live together in the church in increasing degrees of godliness. We are to imitate God, and live as he would in the world. And now Paul, in celebrating the church, moves into the very thing that created the church and sustains her and is her organizing principle and at her center: the person and message of Jesus. We already saw Jesus’s message in “the truth.” Now we get his person in the poem.
“The mystery of godliness,” then is that God himself became man and lived a perfect life — true godliness in human form — died for the ungodly, rose again in triumph, and now empowers the spread of his message through the church. The mystery of godliness, which now is revealed, is that we are not the source of our godliness, but Jesus is. He is godliness incarnate. And only through him and his gospel can we truly be godly. The church is not a collection of self-made people, but Christ-made.
The Church Hymn
Some call this poem a “Christ hymn,” but in this context it’s not only a “Christ hymn.” It’s also a “Church hymn.” This celebration of Christ becomes a celebration of the church. That’s how we got here. In pealing back the layers to the very heart of the church, we came to the gospel and to the Savior himself. And the poem has something to say to us not only about Jesus, but also his church.
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 key thing to notice is the last word of each line. We have three pairs: flesh/spirit, angels/nations, world/glory. And the point of the hymn is to show the universality and magnitude and extent of Jesus’s work. He brings together human flesh and the realm of the spirit; the angelic hosts and the earthly nations; the physical world and heavenly glory.
Now the connection to the church. The first two descriptions focus on what we typically think of as the gospel: “he was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the spirit.” But the church is essential to complete the poem: “proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world.” Married to her Groom, the church stands with Jesus in spanning both the realms of flesh and spirit, both the audiences of angels and nations, and both this world and the glory to come.
The point is the glory of Christ and his church in the unrestricted scope of their impact and mission. Two worlds are coming together: the present world of flesh and nations, and the coming world of angels and heavenly glory. And all of this celebrates the grandeur and expansiveness and beauty of Christ, and his church which is essential in completing his mission in the world.
The church is the people in which the physical world and spiritual universe come together. The current age and the age to come meet here. The Lord of heaven kisses the things of earth. And the church is the manifestation, the creature, of Jesus’s saving work, and the channel of the ongoing extension of his work.
Through the Church
There is nothing like the church, no other body, no other collection in creation is more significant. There is one other place — and I close with this — where Paul celebrates the grandeur like this and the centrality of the church in God’s plan. It’s Ephesians 3, verses 10 and 20.
Ephesians 3:7–10: “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Ephesians 3:20–21: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
God is making his manifold wisdom known to the spiritual powers in the heavenly places (angels) through the church. And his glory is streaming from two lamps: in the church and in Christ Jesus. It is an almost unbelievably awesome thing that we are a part of this together. May God be pleased to renew our wonder, like Paul’s, that the church exists and that we get to be a part of the most important body and mission there is in the world today and in all of history.