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The Mystery of Godliness

November 26, 2023 Speaker: Jim Davis

Passage: 1 Timothy 3:14–16

This morning we are doing a one off sermon in 1 Timothy chapter 3 before we start Advent next week. The theme of 1 Timothy is that the gospel leads to practical, visible, change in the lives of those who believe it. It’s easy to read this letter and think it’s mainly about church order, but all the stuff about offices is simply a part of the larger argument that the true gospel, in contrast with false teaching, will always lead to godliness in those who embrace it. 


We don’t know exactly what the false teaching was that Timothy was encountering in Ephesus, but we do know that it was working against the Christian path toward godliness. And this isn’t something that stopped in the church after Paul wrote this letter. God knew that the church would need this instruction until Jesus comes back. 


So, why are we so susceptible to false teaching that leads us away from godliness? I’m going to make my case by way of ‘girl math.’ Girl math is a set of spending formulas put forth by women on social media to push against what we might call the traditional way of spending. You might also call it a way of rationalizing spending. And let’s be honest, a lot of guys use this too. Some examples… Spend $20 more on a purchase so you get free shipping. If you buy something with cash, that doesn’t come out of the budget because there is no record of the transaction. If you transfer money to your starbucks card, any purchases on that card are basically free money. Or, on Black Friday, you really need to focus on how much you’re saving and not how much you’re spending. 


So what do these formulas have in common? They rationalize indulgence. Which isn’t always bad when we are talking about $20 or a way to get a new outfit, but Christians over the course of church history (both men and women) have done a very similar thing with our sanctification. We might call it ‘sanctification math.’ We have created formulas to bypass God’s plan for sanctification and to rationalize indulgence in our flesh and we can do this in so many different ways. We can rationalize ways to indulge our flesh in the realms of laziness, sexual gratification, or the pursuit of power because we have ‘been given grace’, not realizing that grace is meant to lead us toward godly lives, not away from it. 


But, we can also indulge our flesh in the areas of self-righteousness by creating formulas for sanctification outside of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can create parenting formulas that make us feel more righteous because our kids behave a certain way. We can create Bible memorization formulas, evangelism formulas, and giving formulas that lead us toward arrogance and pride and away from godliness. In all these formulas, we are engaging our sanctification under our own sovereignty and our own effort. 


And in this passage, Paul addresses our pursuit of godliness and he calls it a mystery. It’s easy to read this passage in English and be slightly confused and think, “Well, if the apostle Paul doesn’t know the path to godly living, how could I ever hope to?”


But that isn’t what Paul is saying. Mystery is one of these words that has a different nuance in Greek than in modern English. We think of a mystery as something that we just won’t ever understand. But in Greek, a mystery is something that might be unknown to a great number of people, but it is known to at least some. It wasn’t largely understood, but now it has been revealed. 


Paul knows the secret and in these three verses gives it to us. He tells us that the mystery of godliness lies in knowing who we are, what we do, and why this is so. 


  1. Who We Are


Let’s read verses 14 and 15 again: I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God. - 1 Tim 3:14,15


Did you see it? We are the household of God. And Paul isn’t talking about the universal church the way he is writing, although, sure, you can certainly infer that. He’s referring here to the local gathering of believers. The assembly of the people of the living God. 


So, what does it mean to be a part of the household of God? I can remember acting out of line in Sunday School growing up and the teacher said, “You’re in God’s house and that is not an appropriate way to act.” If you grew up in church, you’ve likely heard that phrase before. My African American Christian friends tell me that it is common in their culture to be driving down the street listening to ungodly music, but when you pass a church building you turn the music down because that is God’s house. These aren’t Biblical ways to think about a church building and it isn’t at all what Paul is trying to communicate. 


From Genesis to Revelation one of the most significant themes we see develop is the theme of the temple. The temple simply means the place where God and man meet. It’s not God’s house, it’s the place he has sovereignly chosen to meet with his people. The Garden of Eden was the first temple, but that natural meeting place with God was destroyed when man rebelled against God. Then as the people of Israel are wandering in the wilderness, God instructs them to build a tabernacle. In the center of the tabernacle is God’s presence in some unique way that makes it the place God meets with His people. When the Israelites enter the promised land and settle, they build the permanent temple under Kings David and Solomon. That, then, becomes the place God meets with His people. But it wouldn’t stay there. God’s people continued to stray and He removed His presence from the temple. 


God had to pursue us in an even more significant way. John 1 says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… - John 1:1 That word dwelt is literally ‘tabernacled.’ Jesus, God in flesh, became the tabernacle. Jesus became the meeting place between God and man. Jesus paid the penalty for our sin effectively mending the gap that existed between us and God and in doing so, made us the tabernacle because, now, if we believe, the Spirit of God indwells us. 


This is why Pauls says in 1 Corinthians: Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?...For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. - 1 Cor 3:16, 17b  And in the DSV Bible, the Deep South Version, you can see that Paul isn’t saying you, he’s saying y’all. You, local congregation, are the visible temple of God. It has nothing to do with the building we meet in, but everything to do with the Spirit living inside of us. 


And this has major implications for Lone Ranger Christianity. It’s very popular to hear people say they believe in God, but it’s a very private matter for them. Their relationship is 100% personal and 0% corporate. And even among your average Christian today, there is a premium put on private devotional time that far exceeds corporate worship. And please don’t hear me say that private devotional time should decrease in any way. I’m simply saying that understanding who we are as a local congregation directly affects our pursuit of a Godly life. Privatized Christianity is more susceptible to ‘sanctification math’ because we are the final word on our own sanctification and have no input from the body we are called into and baptized into. 


None of us were meant to live the Christian life in isolation. You put me on a deserted island with just a Bible and I will not flourish spiritually. And that’s not just because I’m an extreme extrovert. It’s because God designed us to live in community as His household. And the culmination of that community is coming together on Sunday to sing together, to pray together, to repent together, to read and hear the Word taught together and to take communion together. 


There is something powerful about the gathering of God’s people that fuels our pursuit of a godly life. We need to know who we are before we can do anything. So, the question we need to ask ourselves is what level of priority do we put on the local gathering? As our society becomes more individualistic and our ability to travel on the weekends increases, it has a real effect on our spiritual lives because we increasingly view ourselves as the sole temple instead of a part of the larger temple. 


We need to know who we are as we pursue godliness. Second, we need to understand what we are called to do. 


  1.   What We Do


Let’s look at the rest of verse 15: I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 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. - 1 Tim 3:15


The church, the household of God, is called to behave in a certain way. The way Paul talks about behavior in all his epistles begins with a proper understanding of God and it emanates from our hearts. It’s not just looking a certain way on the outside, it’s being changed on the inside. 


This is why he connects our behavior to the fact that we are to be a pillar and buttress of the truth. Paul is doing something very intentional with his wording. In Ephesus, as we’ve talked about, there was this enormous temple to Artemis. This temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was this massive structure with over 100 pillars, each about 60 feet tall and these pillars were supporting this superstructure of a roof that claimed to all around, the glory and wonder of the goddess Artemis. 


And if you know the story of the Ephesian church, you know that Paul had a lot of history with the worshippers of Artemis. In Acts 19, a riot broke out because the gospel was spreading and those who made money off of little trinkets and shrines to the goddess Artemis were losing money. So, do you see what Paul is saying? In the same way that these astounding pillars support the false worship of the Goddess Artemis, we are to be pillars supporting the true worship of the only God. John Stott says, “The church depends on the truth for its existence; the truth depends on the church for its defense and proclamation.” 


So, Paul is again connecting our pursuit of godliness with our connection to all the other pillars in the church supporting true worship. I wonder if Paul could have ever imagined the billions of pillars that would follow him to support the truth. And do you know how many pillars remain of Artemis’ temple? Not one. 


We may not need to defend the truth against an attack from those who worship Artemis, but we will need to defend truth from an onslaught of other forms of attacks. Our culture may not believe in Greek gods and goddesses, but they do largely embrace a very similar universalism that embraces whatever idea of God is best for you. I read an article this week in a major news outlet slamming a politician for claiming that we are inherently sinful and that that displeases God. I mean, that is not even one of our more controversial doctrines. That’s just middle of the road Christianity. 


So, very practically, what is truth and how do we support It? Truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory and being of God. Martin Luther said that before the fall, we would walk through the fields and the woods and hear God speaking truth. But then men rebelled. And although God never stopped speaking truth, we ceased to be able to hear. So God had to speak more clearly because of our inability to hear and that mode of communication is our Bible. The truth of God revealed to us. 


So, how do our lives model this truth? Well, the first, and most obvious answer is to know the truth in the first place. Not just in our heads, but deep within our hearts. Second, we need to live this truth out in community. We aren’t supporting truth if we know it, but keep it to ourselves. We aren’t supporting truth if we know it in our heads, but aren’t embracing it in our hearts. Now, none of us is perfect and I want to give space for that. But if our mouths speak about a truth our lives don’t display, we can do more to hinder that truth than support it. 


Thirdly, we need to engage other worldviews. Engaging other world views doesn’t just mean fighting. It means charitably engaging. Asking good questions. Lovingly exposing the inconsistencies and flaws inherent in them. And this will have two consequences. First, it sharpens us. The sharpest and most effective Christians I know are those who are actively engaging people they disagree with. Again, not in a condescending way, but in a loving way. Really trying to understand the opposite view and bring Biblical truth to bear in a way that is helpful to real people. 


Engaging other worldviews sharpens us, but it does something else too. It creates more pillars. More people hear the truth, believe it, and become pillars themselves. And as we do this, that truth changes our hearts and guides our behavior because it is going deeper and deeper inside us. And guess what the result is? We live godlier lives! When we know who we are and live out the truth of the gospel in community, we almost can’t help but become more and more like Jesus Himself. But there is one more thing we need to know, according to Paul. We need to know why we are in the household in the first place. Why we are a pillar. 


III.    Why this is so


We are in the household of God because of our union with Christ. Jesus isn’t one God among many. He isn’t a myth. He isn’t a crutch. He isn’t simply the most influential human to ever live. He is the only person to have ever remained without sin, the only person to truly and permanently resurrect from the dead, and the only person to credibly claim to be God Himself on a mission to bring us home. 


This is what Paul is wanting to communicate in verse 16! Verse 16 is interesting because it seems like this was an already accepted hymn or prayer in most or all of the churches. Paul is using something they already knew to say Jesus is the key to a godly life. There are six things we need to know about Jesus that will fuel our pursuit of a godly life. 


First, He was manifested in the flesh. The NIV says He appeared in the flesh. Jesus didn’t begin to exist when he was born. He has always existed, but to bring the mystery to light, he appeared as a person. Fully God, yet fully man. 


Second, vindicated by the Spirit. All Jesus’ claims were substantiated when He died and came back to life. That was His vindication. This was the ultimate declaration by God the Father that the Son was ‘not guilty’! Over 500 people saw Him after his resurrection. To me, this has always been an extremely compelling part of Christianity. Given all the evidence that we have about Jesus, I have yet to hear a conclusion more compelling than that He really did resurrect. And if He really did resurrect, then He really does merit our devotion. 


Third, he was seen by angels. It wasn’t just humans who attest to His greatness and deity, all the angels in the heavenly realm do as well. Angels in the gospels appear before His birth, after His birth, during His ministry and at His tomb after He resurrected. 


Fourth, he was proclaimed among the nations. The word went out to every tribe, tongue and nation. The Romans wanted to keep the news of Jesus quiet, but they couldn’t. The word proclaimed here is the same word that would have been used when there is a new Caesar. People would go to every city and announce or proclaim the new king. But this time, it was no ceasar. It was Jesus.


Fifth, not only was He proclaimed, He was believed on in the world. It wasn’t just news, it was a movement. It wasn’t just one class of people or one ethnicity or one geographical area. All types of people were believing in and committing their lives to Jesus. 


And finally, he was taken up in glory. This, of course, is referring to His ascension. Jesus publicly ascended some feet off the ground and the fabric between our world and the heavenly world was torn open and Jesus passed through. He passed to where He currently rules all of space and time from one place. Where He constantly intercedes on our behalf to the Father. And where He gathers the saints in preparation for a triumphant return to the earth He is committed to renewing. 


This is a very old doctrine called Christus Totus. It means the whole Christ. It means that Christ is comprised of both the person of Jesus and the Church, which is the body of Jesus. We are actually a part of who Jesus is which is why we are a part of his household. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that ‘Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.’ The context here is marriage and Paul is saying that in the same mysterious way that a husband and wife are one flesh, so is Jesus and his church. Jesus identifies not only with his own immediate story, but with that of all of his body, the church, as well. 


This is what it means to be unified with Christ, this is why we are in the household in the first place, and this is the beginning and the end of our sanctification. It isn’t about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps or finding ways around the godly life Jesus wants for us. It’s about leaning into who Jesus is and who he has made us and experiencing the joy and satisfaction only he can give. Sanctification is letting him shape our hearts as he conforms us into the image we were designed to reflect. We willingly die to our old selves and joyfully  live for the satisfaction of knowing him more. 


In an age where loneliness is rampant, we are called into the deepest, most intimate relationship with our Savior AND each other because, in some mysterious way, you can’t separate the two. Jesus came to call us into the household of God as pillars of truth and it is in this relationship that sanctification is designed to happen. 


So, the question before us is simple. How are we engaging in our sanctification? Are we neglecting it? Are we trying to do it under our own effort? Or are we filling our longings with the only one who can truly satisfy and letting him change us on the inside and out?