The Mystery of the Church

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.  

As we continue our series on Paul’s first letter to Timothy, we find ourselves today at the mountaintop: the summary statement that Paul gives for writing this letter to his protege Timothy.  We’ve ascended past Paul’s stern warnings about false doctrine and his confident assertions that core of the gospel is that Jesus saves sinners.  We’ve waded through the complicated waters of how men & women relate as we strive on mission together in the church, and these past few weeks, we’ve focused on the qualifications for leadership in the church.  But now, we arrive at Paul’s main point.  We’re zooming out.  Why does the church exist in the first place?  How do we relate to one another, and to the world around us?  What is our true source of power? 

At the outset today, I want you to think about BELIEF and BEHAVIOR.  Paul says here that how one ought to behave in the household of God (the church), is connected to what we confess (believe to be true).  We’ll think about this as we walk through four truths that we learn about the church in this passage.  

  1. The Church is a family.

  2. The Church is alive.

  3. The Church holds a secret.

  4. The Church advances and protects.

Let’s pray before we dive in.  “Father, I ask that these spoken words be faithful to your written word and lead us to the living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”  

#1. The Church Is a Family: The Household of God

First, we’re going to take a look at verse 15 again.  Paul is writing all these things so that “you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God.”  There’s our first point.  The church is the household of God.  Now, what does that mean?  The term “household” can refer to either the house itself, or the people within it.  But one clue for us, is that there is familial language throughout this letter applied to the church.  Paul begins the letter by addressing Timothy as “my true child [son] in the faith.”  Just a few paragraphs later, in 5:1-2, he instructs Timothy to regard older men as fathers, older women as mothers, younger men as brothers, and younger women as sisters.  So the church of God, as the household of God, is first and foremost the FAMILY of God.  God is our Father, he is our Abba, our Dad.  If you are a Christian, you are part of a truly incredible royal family.  You are sons and daughters, princes and princesses of the high King of the Universe. 

What does this mean for us?  A few things.  It means that the church does not function like a business or a government.  It functions first as a family.  Now think about what a good family is like.  It’s been said that “happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family that lives in another city.”  Now, that’s funny if you have family that lives around you, and maybe they’re a bit too close.  But the benefits of a functional and healthy family still remain: love, support, belonging, acceptance, protection.  Who shows up when the best things happen?  A good family.  Who shows up when the worst things happen?  A good family.  And God says, that’s what the church is meant to be like — except it’s not founded on merely human biological temporal relationships, but on the divine spiritual eternal blood of Jesus, by which we have been ADOPTED into a new family.

My immediate family wasn’t huge, I grew up with one brother a couple years younger than me.  We were always coming up with different sports or games to pass the time… like in middle school, we invented roller-blade basketball.  We thought it was genius, sort of a combination of hockey and basketball, and we’d play it in our driveway.  Following one particularly heated game in which, being older and stronger, I happened to win, I’ll never forget my brother grabbing the ball, winding up in disgust, and chucking the ball as hard as he possibly could towards the hoop.  Almost in slow-motion, perhaps you can imagine what happened next… the ball ricocheted off the goalpost and hit him right smack between the eyes.  Since he was on rollerblades, his legs shot straight up and he landed right on his butt.  There were other memorable moments.  A bit earlier, when I was maybe 5 and he was 3, somehow I accidentally shoved a pocket-knife blade into the white of his eye.  It was a miracle he didn’t go blind… a fact Drew likes to remind me of every so often.  But overall, those days growing up with my brother are times I’ll never forget.  There were ups and downs, good times and fights, but now, we always have each other’s back.  I know he’s there for me if my family needs help, and I’m there for him when he does.  So maybe you have a relationship like that with a sibling, or maybe you have a friend that does.  But God wants us to know that there’s something important about that familial connection, that “brotherly love,” that describes our relationships with one another in the household of God.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Okay, church is a family.  Well, my family is all screwed up.  I don’t want church to be like that!”  Or, maybe you have a great family, but your relationships at church don’t look like you want them to.  To that, I think Paul would say, have hope.  The church is not a temporal institution, but an eternal family founded by the very God of the universe.  If your relationships are not perfect now, that’s to be expected!  Jesus himself promised that in this world we can expect trouble, but to have faith, that He is actively overcoming the troubles in the world.  But our call now is to love one another like a family, to overlook wrongs, to forgive quickly, to be loyal, not to gossip about our brothers & sisters, to represent our family well in the world, and to remember that we have a great older brother, Jesus, who has paved the way for us, conquering death and preparing a place in the heavenly house of God we’re all longing for.  

#2. The Church Is Alive: The Church of the Living God

With that, let’s move along to our second point in Paul’s illustration of the church, what he calls “the church of the living God.”  There are two parts to that phrase.  The first component is the word church, translated from the Greek word ekklesia, which means literally “called out ones,” or “chosen ones.”  It refers to people who are gathered for a particular purpose by someone in authority.  Again, the focus here is on the PEOPLE, rather than the building.  The church is a living, active organism, a veritable body, made up of individual believers the world over with Jesus Christ, as our founder.  An illuminating passage that sums up the significance of this calling is found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians 1:9-10: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.”  

The second component of this phrase “the church of the living God” is that we are the people called out by THE LIVING GOD.  This is not a fairy tale that some Jewish guys made up a couple thousand years ago that makes us feel better.  Contrary to popular reports, God is not dead.  HE IS ALIVE!  He is the active, living King, and even though we don’t see Him now with our physical eyes, He is more real than anything else.  In fact, He is, at this very moment, sustaining the entire universe, each and every second, by simply speaking.  He is telling a story, and we’re in it!  So why does it matter that we’re the church of the living God?  One, your life is not an accident.  It is very much on purpose.  God is actively, today, weaving together a beautiful tapestry, even through the dark times, the trials, the troubles we face.  And we can trust Him here… because Jesus put Himself on the hook for the suffering of the whole world.  He went to the darkest place, the most confusing and sorrowful pit of betrayal, humiliation, pain, loss, mistreatment and abandonment.  And He came out the other side exalted, glorified, vindicated, ascended.  If you’re in here today and you’re new to Christianity, or it’s something that’s never made a difference in your life, we want you to know that Jesus Christ is REAL, He died on your behalf because He loves you, and He really did walk out of the tomb, and He is worth trusting with your entire being.  It’s what you were made for!  

Now, for the believers in this room, being the church of the living God has powerful implications for us as well.  It means that just as Jesus is alive, as God is active in the world today, our faith is meant to be alive, active, present, and visible.  It means that our Christianity actually looks a bit like Jesus, if you squint, and more and more each passing season.  As Jesus’ half-brother James wrote, “Faith by itself, without works, is dead!”  James had a front-row seat for what Jesus’ faith in His Father’s promises looked like.  He banked on them, cherished them, and acted on them.  So let’s think about our daily lives for a moment.  If our faith in Jesus Christ is not active, visible and obvious in our thoughts, emotions, and actions, it’s as good as DEAD.  But we are the church of the LIVING GOD, so let us be ALIVE!    Like Father, like Son, as so like His brothers and sisters!

#3. The Church Holds the Secret: The Mystery of Godliness

Now, before we move onto Paul’s third and final descriptor of the church in verse 15, we’re going to skip ahead.  Before we can flesh out what it means to be a pillar & buttress of THE TRUTH, we need to understand what Truth God has in mind specifically.  Our third point here is called The Secret.  With that, let’s look at verse 16 together.  “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.”  

So first we need to look at the second half of verse 16, at these six components of the truth.  This was likely an early creed of the church.  When you read it the first time, it can be confusing as to what they mean exactly, why they’re there, and how they fit together.  We’ll look at the pieces together and apply a summary word to each statement.

  • INCARNATION: He was manifested in the flesh.  Jesus, fully God, was born like us.  He put on ordinary human bones, muscle, and skin.  He walked among us.  And while he lived among us, he was constantly telling his disciples about how he’d die instead of us, and be raised from the dead for us.  

  • VINDICATION: Vindicated by the spirit:.  Jesus was vindicated, or proved right, when He took his life back up by the power of the Spirit.  He had promised he would be killed by his enemies, but that he would come back from the dead.  And it happened just as Jesus said it would.  He was vindicated.  

  • OBSERVATION: Seen by angels.  Following his resurrection, Jesus was seen by angels who rolled away the stone, watched him breathe in the air He created, and stood by as He strode past purposefully into early rays of sunshine that first Easter morning.  They stayed at the tomb to tell Mary & Martha, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen!”   

  • DECLARATION: Proclaimed among the nations.  After Jesus appears to his disciples, He gives them the Great Commission we end our services with each week.  He tells them to take this incredible message, the secret of life, to the ends of the earth.  To preach it with force, and herald it with joy.  This is how the gospel spreads.  “Faith comes by hearting, and hearing through the Word of Christ. (Romans 10)”

  • AFFIRMATION: Believed on in the world.  As the gospel is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit works, souls are opened, and the message is believed & trusted.  The amazing thing is that over the last 120 years, Christianity across the globe has undergone a dramatic shift.  Today, over 75% of the Christians in the world live in the global South - South America, Africa, and Asia.  In 1900, that number was 25%.  As a church in North America, we are the minority.  The Christian church is not a white, western institution, but a global, colorful, diverse group of humans that God is calling to Himself all across the world.  We need to be humbled & amazed that the gospel continues to go forth so powerfully, and take root, even as our own country is in moral disarray.  God does not need the United States, but what a joy it is to be part of his global mission!  

  • ASCENSION: Taken up in glory.  Finally, Jesus ascends to heaven with his disciples looking on, and a “cloud took him out of sight.”  The disciples must have stood there shocked for a while, because two angels had to show up and rib them for staring into the sky, saying “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come [back] in the same way…” (Acts 1:8-11).  This event gave the disciples great confidence.  Can you imagine?  Jesus had already proved he had done the hardest thing in rising from the dead, and so they trusted him when he pronounced “I will be with you to the end of the age.”  They had just watched him slip from our visible dimension to the heavenly one, and they knew he’d be right there ensuring the mission would be completed.  

Now that we understand the particulars of this truth, let’s look again at what Paul says about it.  Paul says “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness.”  When the New Testament speaks of mystery, it’s not like a true-crime mystery we can’t figure out, but a secret that God is revealing.  This goes back to what we said at the beginning, that our BEHAVIOR and our BELIEF are linked.  Because if we believe the real gospel, in all its fullness, then we will act like we’re members of God’s family in his household, fully active and alive in the world.  And that’s where godliness comes in.  Don’t confuse godliness for goodliness.  The focus is not primarily on our behavior, but on the behavior of Jesus upon which we put our belief, which ultimately leads to godly behavior.  2 Cor 3:18 “[As we behold] the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to the next.

#4. The Church Advances and Protects: A Pillar and Buttress of the Truth

In closing, now that we have a fuller picture of the secret of godliness we’ll turn to our final point today.  Remember, we’ve said the church is God’s household & family, the church is alive & active because God is alive, and believing the gospel is the secret to godly living.  How then should the church behave in the world?  Looking at verse 15 one last time, we get our final point - the church is a pillar and buttress of the truth.  To really understand Paul’s point here, we need to think about ancient architecture.

First, let’s take this archaic word “buttress.”  A buttress was commonly used in ancient times as an exterior support build against the walls, for strength, support, and defense.  It wasn’t the Cornerstone, but rather something designed to keep the building from shifting or sinking.  How is the church a buttress of the truth then?  We are a brace, a reinforcement.  We are to defend the core of the message from error or drift, to protect the amazing secret of godliness.  The people of the church, and especially its elders, do not create the truth, rather we embrace it, hold it in place, guarding against the forces that would pull us away from the true center and foundation of Christ, God incarnate, given and risen for sinners like us.  

But the church is not just about protecting the truth.  We’re also a pillar.  A pillar is used to hold something up.  They are often right on the front of a building.  They are permanent.  In 1 Peter chapter 1: “As you come to him… you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house… that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light!”  So pillars proclaim!  Pillars preach!  Pillars display!  Pillars advance the truth of the gospel in the world.  So as individuals, and as a corporate local body, how are we advancing the gospel in our day-to-day lives?  Are you fulfilling your role as a pillar?  Or are you hiding it in the basement?  God chose you, Christian, on purpose to fulfill a role for his kingdom.  Don’t think you’re not enough.  It’s not about you, it’s about his mercy & his excellency!  He called each of us OUT OF DARKNESS and into his MARVELOUS LIGHT!  You don’t hide marvelous light!  So don’t hide your connection to Jesus, don’t be ashamed, but BE A PILLAR! 

The Table

And that brings us to the table, the family meal where we meet the Living God, and are strengthened by his mysterious grace that allows us advance his gospel with urgency and defend it with gladness.  Jesus Christ is the center of it all.  Because of what he did on the cross, we are transformed from strangers to siblings, from dead to alive, and from dust and disorganized to unified and valuable in the mission of God.  Because our elder brother Jesus won the victory and established his family with a promise to be with us forever, we can go forth together as the church.  

Let’s pray.  

Father, thank you for the amazing reality that because of the gospel, we are a new family, made alive in Christ as you are the Living God, with a mission to advance and defend your truth.  But we know that your Word says that unless You build the house, those who build it labor in vain.  So God we ask that you would help us, work in us with power as we learn how we ought to behave in your household and in the world, while not forgetting the great secret, the amazing mystery of godliness.  In Jesus name we pray, Amen.