The apostle has been writing a very practical nuts and bolts approach to pastoral ministry, but we must remember that application and doctrine (in Scripture) are not locked away in different cupboards. They always go together, and in this passage we see how practical doctrine is, and how doctrinal our practice necessarily is.
“These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thous oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory” (1 Tim. 3: 14-16).
Paul is not telling Timothy things he has never heard before. He has spent a great deal of time with him in person. This letter is to support Timothy’s authority in doing what he already knows he needs to do in case the arrival of the apostle Paul is delayed (v. 14-15a). If Paul is delayed, he wants Timothy to know how to behave in the house of God. Timothy almost certainly knows this, but it is important for Paul and Timothy to be seen as unified leadership. Paul says three things here about the church. First, it is the house of God (v. 15). It is the church of the living God (v. 15). And third, the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth (v. 15).
Then Paul comes to a glorious poem/hymn. Without disputing the mystery of godliness is great (v. 16). Each of the six phrases begins with a verb, a verb which ends in the sound -the. Each verb is aorist and passive. Each phrase ends with a noun in the dative case, and all but one use the preposition en to tie the verb to the noun. I want to format the poem here to bring out some of the larger structure:
Manifest in the flesh Justified in the Spirit
Seen of angels Preached to the nations
Believed on in the world Received up into glory
Incarnation Miracles and Resurrection
Seen by angels Seen by the nations
Received by the world Received by heaven
WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
In verse 15, we have the Church described for us in three different ways. The first is that the Church is the house of God. The word oikos can either mean house (building) or household (those who live in it). We are both. Scripture says that we are the house of God in 1 Cor. 3:16 and 1 Pet. 2:5. And we are described as the family of God, the household of God, in places is Heb. 3:5-6 and 1 Pet. 4:17. Are we the building or are we the worshippers? Yes.
Our God is the living God, and this makes us the Church of the living God. He, unlike the
gods worshiped by idolaters, is the living God. Scripture describes Him this way in multiple places. Joshua tells the people that the living God is among them (Josh. 3:10; cf. Deut. 6:15). Even such an earthy detail as how the Israelite latrines were to be built was tied to the fact that God was the living God (Deut. 23:12ff; cf. Num. 35:34; 1 Kings 6:13). And faithful Jews were outraged when infidels made light of the living God (1 Sam. 17:26, 36; 2 Kings 19:4, 16). But God is not a subset within a larger category of “living things.” He is life itself. We are in Him, and are therefore the Church of the living God.
The third thing that is said here is that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. This can be (and has been) distorted to mean that the truth is dependent upon whatever the Church might say. In other words, the truth is dependent upon the foundation of something else underneath it. But the word rendered as ground hereis hedraioma, and can mean foundation. But it would be better to translate it as buttress or bulwark. The Church does not create the truth, the Church supports the truth. And the Church is also described as a pillar, lifting up the truth so that all might see and honor it.
THE MYSTERY OF GODLINESS:
True piety, true godliness, is a real mystery. So is lawlessness, by the way (2 Thess. 2:7). But notice the real mysterious nature of this real mystery. Godliness is outside of us. Where does our godliness begin? In the womb of a virgin. Why, when such things are preached, are the captives freed? Why do the lame walk? Why do the blind see?
Let us look at the three sets of phrases. The AV has “God was manifested,” while other translations have “Who was manifested.” It is Christ in either case, but the AV has more clarity on this point of orthodoxy. This is a good place to note the unbelieving assumptions in much textual scholarship. When confronted with an “orthodox” reading and a not so orthodox reading, it is almost universally assumed that the orthodox scribes were industriously changing the text to make it fit. It is never assumed that heretics might do that. God was manifested in the flesh. We have seen Him, and believed it, John says (1 John 1:1-4). But God was kind to the world, and proved who Jesus was (Rom. 1:4) by raising Him from the dead. This is how the Spirit vindicated, or justified, Jesus.
These stupendous facts—the Incarnation and the Resurrection—were set before the angels, and were set before the nations. This is our second set of phrases. And so what happened then? We go to the third set. The world received Jesus, and the heavens received Jesus.
Take note of the nature of public faith that the early Christians exhibited. This is the coronation march of a new emperor, enthroned on high. And so the faith of the early Church, pillar and buttress of the truth, is set over against two very common problems in the first century world. The first is that this is the mystery of godliness, and not some mystery cult. Ephesus of that day was crammed with mystery religions, and this was not one of them. We can see this in the second point of contrast. The fundamental collision between this new emperor, Jesus, and the old gods—Zeus, Diana, Poseidon, and the like. The fundamental clash was between Jesus, the new emperor, and Caesar, the old emperor.