What the church is for

1 Timothy 3:14-16

16 November 2008

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


When we are seeking to understand a Bible text, or a book of the Bible, one of the key questions we should always ask is, "why is it here?" Why did the Holy Spirit move this writer to write these things to these people?

In this series on Paul's first letter to Timothy we are now about half-way through the letter, and it is a good time to ask, "why did Paul write these things to this church?"

Why is he writing to them about God's work in his own life? Why is he writing to tell them how to pray? Why is he writing to tell them that women should dress modestly and not have authority over a man? Why is he writing to tell them how to choose elders and deacons?

The question of why is an important part of working out how we should apply these teachings today. If we can understand why Paul was writing these things to these people, we are better equipped to know how to apply them to ourselves.

For example, every Monday morning at 10am precisely, the fire alarm goes off in my office. Why? Because it is being tested. So in this case, we just stick our fingers in our ears for a few seconds. But if the answer to the Why? question were, "because there's a fire!" we would behave very differently.

In the case of the fire-alarm, we can work out the answer to the Why? question from the time. If it's 10am Monday, it's being tested; otherwise there's a fire. Woe betide us if there is ever a fire at 10am on Monday morning!

In the case of the Bible, we often have to work out the answer to the Why? question by looking at the context of a passage, or what we know of the historical context of a book, and it can sometimes be quite difficult.

But thankfully, in some cases, the writer simply tells us why he is writing. And these are very important verses to find, because they guide how we understand everything else.

And that's exactly what we are looking at today. In verses 14-16 of chapter 3, Paul tells us exactly why he is writing to Timothy and the church at Ephesus:

Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.ref

Here, Paul explains that he is telling them what the church is for — the purpose of the church. Knowing what we are here for will guide how we conduct ourselves. These are not abstract truths — Paul is clear that they are intended to affect how we live as a church. If we're here to make money we will behave one way; if we're here to stop global warming we'll behave another.

But of course the church is not primarily here for either of those reasons. Paul gives the church in Ephesus three statements that tell them and us what the church is for. First, they are God's household; second, they are the church of the living God; and third, they are the pillar and foundation of the truth. These three things underpin all the instructions he is giving them.

The reason Paul is going into all these detailed, and sometimes apparently nit-picking commands in the all the rest of the letter, is because of these three great truths. Let's look look at his three statements in turn.

We are God's household

First, we are God's household.

It is said that you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family. Well, the same is true of church. If we are Christian believers, then God has adopted us into a family, a household.

Now, some of the people God has adopted into his family might not be the people we would have chosen. We are thrown together as a church with people we would run a mile from if we weren't Christians.

This is one of the glories of the church, but it is also one of its great challenges. Because we haven't chosen to be together and to work together, tensions and conflict often arise, just as in natural families. Christmas is coming — you know what I'm talking about: family strife.

So here Paul emphasises that one of the reasons he is writing to the church in Ephesus is to help them to get along. To help them to love each other. They are not any old family: they are God's household. We are not any old family: we are God's household.

So he writes in chapter 1 that they should not occupy themselves with controversies, but with love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faithref. He writes in chapter 2 that men should lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputingref. He writes in chapter 3 that an elder should be not violent but gentle, not quarrelsomeref.

In my home-group last week, one of the members was very upset because of the attitudes of some people she was trying to work with at church. She remarked that in the business world, people would never treat each other so badly. And she's got a point. Not all businesses are good, but in general there are standards of respect that apply. Our standards in the church should be far higher than that, not lower. But so often, churches are the places where people get hurt more than anywhere else. It shouldn't be like that, should it?

The church is God's household, God's family, and Paul writes so that we will know how to conduct ourselves. How will that affect this household of God? How are you going to conduct yourselves?

Is there a squabble or disagreement you need to settle with somebody else? In God's household we should learn from the character of the head of the household. We should be people who are characterised by forgiving one another.

Elsewhere, Paul, echoing the Lord's prayer, commands Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.ref

We are the household of God. Like it or not, we are bound together as God's family. Let's not import into the church all the usual family strife, but let's set a new standard of love and forgiveness for one-another.

We are the church of the living God

Second, Paul says that the church is the church of the living God.

The emphasis here is on living. We are not the church of a dead idol, but of the living God.

So this is why Paul talks about God in such an active way in his letter. God commands him, God strengthens him, God appoints him, God pours out grace and faith and love. God saves and mediates and answers prayer. He is living and active and present in the church.

So how should this truth affect our conduct? Well, our life together, our service and worship need to show that God is alive!

When I was at school, our biology classroom had rows of ancient bottles of formaldehyde lining the walls containing various interesting specimens pickled for posterity, as in a museum. Going to some churches is a little like going back to that classroom. You get the impression that God was alive once, but now he's well-and-truly dead, pickled and preserved in a jar.

The story is told of the young couple visiting an ancient parish church. Whilst looking around they meet the elderly church warden, who tells them he's been warden for over 40 years. "You must have seen a lot of changes in that time," they remark. "Oh yes, and I've opposed every one of them," he replies.

Preserving the past is a tendency in all of us. In one church I visited the organist told me that there are only two churches he likes to play in now, because all the rest have abandoned the 1662 prayer book. Much as I love the prayer book, surely this should not be the attitude of the church of the living God.

But I shouldn't only knock the Anglicans; there are plenty of so-called "free" churches who do not know the freedom of worshipping the Living God nearly as much as they ought.

When people look at us, do they think, These people know the true and living God, or do they think, These people are going through dead and pointless ritual? They might get out of bed for the former, but never for the latter.

Do our church activities advertise the fact that God is alive, that he is active in our lives, that he is working in us and through us. Do we talk about how he is at work in us from day to day? Do we expect him to work in and through us?

The book of Hebrews says It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.ref Do unbelievers get any sense of the reality of that from their dealings with us? When unbelievers come in, will they, in Paul's words, fall down and worship God, exclaiming, God is really among you!ref?

If we worship the Living God, then we will be prepared to change as God leads us; we won't preserve our worship in formaldehyde. If we worship the living God, our life together will be full of vigour and power.

A question to ask: How does the life of Blenheim Free Church show that this is the church of the Living God?

We are the pillar and foundation of the truth

So, these are the first two truths about what the church is for that have prompted Paul to write his letter: the church is the household of God, and it is the church of the living God. So we must work at loving one another, and we must reveal the Living God in our life together.

The third truth about the church is that it is the pillar and foundation of the truth, or better, the pillar and buttress of the truth.

Paul here pictures the church as a building. Of course he knows that the church is people not a building, but the New Testament sometimes pictures the church as a temple made up of people.

In this picture, the building is protecting and holding up the truth: the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. The word the NIV translates "foundation" actually means something more like buttress: it is about protecting and holding firm a building.

The church — that's you and me — has been entrusted by God with the awesome tasks of proclaiming and protecting the truth.

This church is a pillar of the truth. Pillars hold things up: we hold up the truth in front of the world, lifting it high so that the whole world can see it. The truth is not hidden inside this building, but on display to the world.

On the other hand, this church is a buttress of the truth. We guard it and protect it. Because we deal with a living God, our church practises will change, but the foundational truth never changes.

The truth is a massive theme in this letter. Paul says that God's desire is for all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.ref He describes himself as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truthref. He describes his opponents as depraved in mind and deprived of the truthref And he spends paragraph after paragraph warning Timothy against false teachers.

The truth is at the heart of the church's purpose. Which is why Paul spends so much time in his letter telling the church how to guard the truth.

Why does it matter how we pray in church? Because it affects how we proclaim and protect the truth. Why does it matter how women dress in church? Because it affects the way we proclaim and protect the truth. Why does it matter whether a man or a woman is in charge? Because it affects the way we proclaim and protect the truth. Why does it matter that an elder not be a recent convert? Because it affects the way we proclaim and protect the truth.

There are two ways in which we can fail to proclaim and protect the truth. We can do it in our behaviour, and we can do it in our teaching. Paul intertwines these themes throughout his letter. If we live bad lives, people will conclude that our truth is bad. If we listen to bad teachers, we will live bad lives and again people will reject our truth.

So Paul writes to tell us how to conduct ourselves in the household of God, because it is the pillar and buttress of the truth. Our good living helps to proclaim the truth; our good teaching helps to protect the truth.

What is the truth we proclaim and protect? Well, we find it in verse 16. Paul inserts what looks like an extract from a hymn:

Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.

Every commentary I have disagrees with the details of how this little extract should be structured, and exactly which events each line refers to. But one thing is very clear. The truth we proclaim, the mystery we reveal, is not some abstract information, but a person.

Jesus appeared in a body. Jesus was vindicated by the Spirit. Jesus was seen by angels. Jesus was preached among the nations. Jesus was believed on in the world. Jesus was taken up in glory.

These are the facts at the core of our faith. We proclaim a person. It is the truth about a person that we protect.

For Paul, our church conduct all revolves around Jesus. Ultimately that's why he has written his letter: to help them better proclaim and protect Jesus.

Is that the goal of this church? In the end, does every activity of your lives revolve around proclaiming and protecting Jesus? The Sunday morning services, the prayer meetings, the Bible study groups, the coffee mornings, the youth-work, the elders meetings, the music, the visiting, and all the other activities of a busy church?

Amidst all the activities, sometimes it is easy to forget the point: if you are doing church right, proclaiming and protecting the truth about Jesus will be at the very heart of everything that happens.

This, above all, is Paul's purpose statement in First Timothy. The church is the pillar and buttress of the truth, so conduct yourselves accordingly.


There is a story doing the rounds at the moment, which may or may not be true, about an eminent and well-known English preacher. This preacher was approached by a congregation member who complained about some aspect of church life. It may have been that he didn't feel welcomed, or that he was finding it hard to make friends and fit in; it could have been that he was finding the service dissatisfying or the preaching too long; it could have been that the music was not to his taste or that his family was not being catered for to his satisfaction. The details of the complaint have been lost in the telling and re-telling of the story.

The preacher listened to the complaint, paused, and then replied with five words that cut straight to the heart of not only the man's problem, but the problem with all grumbling and complaining in church. He simply said, "It's not about you, stupid!" and walked off.

It's a shockingly rude thing to say, but I suspect the Apostle Paul might have agreed. Don't you get it? It's not about you, stupid. The church is not about me and my needs.

The church is about each other: since the church is the household of God, we conduct ourselves in loving and forgiving each other.

The church is about the living God: so we conduct ourselves in worshipping and knowing him as a body of people, not putting our own desires first.

And the church is about the truth. We must do everything necessary to proclaim and protect the truth about Jesus.

If we are not doing these things, we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing. If all we are concerned about is our own good and well-being, then we are as pointless as banks who won't lend money. We are as useless as a schools without any teachers. We might as well just close up and go home.

So, when we read a letter in the Bible like First Timothy, we simply need to get on and do what it says. There are things in here that you may disagree with, or things you would prefer he hadn't said. But, at the end of the day, church is not about you.