Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist preacher, was one of the great Christian figures of Victorian England. Thousands upon thousands heard him preach.
When he died it seemed that the whole of London was turning out for his funeral. But in 1856 Spurgeon mounted the pulpit of New Park Street Chapel, Southwark, on 14 September and began with these words:
"We live in very singular times just now ... This is a day of strife, a day of division, a time of war and fighting between professing Christians. God be thanked for it! Far better that it should be so than that the false calm shall any longer exert its fatal spell over us. The day is come when we must know who are for the Lord and for his truth."
You may think that is a pretty heavy way to begin a sermon. But listen to how Spurgeon went on:
"At this very hour separations are everywhere taking place. We weep for the cause, we do not weep for the effect. We weep that there should have been such heresies growing up in the midst of the church; but we do not weep when we see those heresies brought out to the day and slaughtered, with what some think remorseless cruelty, but [with] what we believe unflinching justice ... It is with this view that I have selected my text - to urge upon you, at this time, the great duty of standing fast at your post for the truth of God."
And what text had Spurgeon selected? Answer: 1 Timothy 3.15 - the key verse in our passage for tonight, 1 Timothy 3.14-16. Spurgeon was expounding the words:
God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
I hardly need tell you that these words are so relevant for today as well.
When this programme card was being printed we had no idea that the day following the Sunday appointed for studying these verses (today), the Archbishop of Canterbury designate - a man who can ordain practising homosexuals as clergy - is to become a Druid.
And many in the church are welcoming his appointment to Canterbury.
This doesn't only disturb and distress faithful Christians. It is also causing the church to be publicly ridiculed - witness a recent article in The Mirror.
So will you now turn to 1 Timothy 3.14-16. And by way of introduction please look at verses 14-15:
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.
So far in this epistle Paul has been concerned to deal with false doctrine and those who teach false doctrine. He covers that (and them) in chapter 1. In chapter 2 he has been dealing with how the church should operate when it meets together publicly and formally; and how the authoritative teachers in the church should be male. And last week when Ian was preaching we saw that chapter 3 was about leadership in the church and qualifications for leadership.
In these verses, then, at the end of chapter 3 Paul is pausing to underline the importance of all he has been saying. He tells Timothy that getting these things right can't wait until his [Paul's] arrival. Paul knows that these are life and death matters. Therefore if he is delayed, Timothy needs to get on with putting these instructions into effect straight away. Paul knows that if you have heresy in the church, you get spiritual shipwreck (chapter 1 verse 19). Paul knows that if you have women in authoritative teaching positions in the church and you disobey God's order, you do so at your peril (chapter 2).
Was it a coincidence that the results of a large survey of Anglican clergy reported last week found that, I quote, "only three out of ten women priests believe in the Virgin Birth, and they are far more sceptical generally than their male colleagues about the other central Christian doctrines?"
And Paul knows that if you have the wrong sort of leaders in general, obviously the church will be at sixes and sevens (chapter 3). Paul sees that getting these things right is so strategic because the church is not a club or any other sort of human organization where you can do what you like. No! Paul is talking (as he says) about nothing less than "God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth."
So with that introduction, let's now look in some detail at the second half of verse 15 and verse 16. And I want us to think ...
First, about THE CHURCH - and ITS NATURE
What is the nature of the church? Paul calls it here "God's household" which he then defines as "the church of the living God." And those words are so important.
First, it is "the church". The original word, ecclesia, means "an assembly". The church is, therefore, people in essence and not a building. And it was not any old gathering but an assembly of people who were called together because of their special right to meet to discuss certain issues. They were a "called out" assembly - "called out" is the literal translation of the word here translated "church". So fundamentally the church is not something you can choose to join. It is something God calls you into.
Yes, if you are going to be a faithful member, you need to join (in one sense). You need at this church to be involved in a Home Group or another small Bible study group; to be in the Giving Scheme; to be on the electoral roll and so forth. But being on the electoral roll, for example, doesn't make you a member of the true Church. It just puts you on the lists of the Church of England. Fundamentally, God himself joins you to his church. As Jesus said to his disciples:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit (John 15.16).
Listen to how Paul puts it when he is writing to these Ephesians himself in his letter of that name - chapter 1 verses 4-5:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.
If you trust in Christ - or the mere fact that you are here tonight - is not because you are a good person, it is because God has been working in your life.
That is why you cannot sit in "a holier than thou" judgment on others who don't trust Christ. For the church is not made up of essentially good people. It is made up of sinners who God has called out of the sinful world to be his people and to be forgiven as they trust in Christ. You say, "I don't understand that, and it seems a bit unfair." Well, listen on. The church is not just about privilege but also responsibility - as we will see when come to think about its "function".
Then note it is the "church of God". It is not fundamentally, the Church of Ephesus, or the Church of England, or the Church of Jesmond - but the Church of God. Jesus Christ is its builder. Jesus says, "I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." It is Christ, by his Spirit, who adds to the church. You and I, then, are just his workmen. That is why you need to pray for the Holy Spirit to be at work going before you in all your Christian work and witness.
Finally, note it is the "church of the living God". In this day of multifaithism it is vital to emphasize that point. Nearby to where the Christians in Ephesus were meeting was the Temple of Artemis - one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And in that Temple was housed the stature of Artemis - a fertility idol. But it was a lifeless idol. We heard in our Old Testament reading that David was incensed because Goliath was defying "the living God" through defying his armies. The God of the Bible is "the living God" - he is real and he is "there". He is not dead but alive. And the living God lives among his people.
For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people" (2 Cor 6.16).
So much for the nature of the Church - "God's household, which is the Church of the living God."
Secondly, ITS FUNCTION
Look at the last phrase of verse 15:
"the pillar and foundation of the truth.
Why does God call out a special people? Answer: one reason is that together they are to be "the pillar and foundation of the truth." Some of the details of that truth we will come to when we consider the Church's message. But for the moment it is the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. It is the truth that God has spoken:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Heb 1.1-2).
And what Jesus said and did and meant, his apostles have recorded for us in the Bible. That is why, in simple terms, "the truth" is for us today the Bible which points to Christ and gives his teaching along with the teaching of the prophets and apostles. Notice that Paul calls it "the truth" - there is a definite article that makes this emphatic.
Now, of course, there are lots of truths - the truths (in so far as they are true) of science, of history, of sociology and so on. But Paul and the other apostles knew that the truth about Jesus eclipsed all other truth. Nor can God's word and truth be ignored. The consequences are dire for individuals, societies and civilizations, if they ignore God's word. People will suffer not only eternally, but often even now. That is one of the great lessons of the Old Testament. But the West is flouting God's truth ad nauseam today - not least in terms of sexual ethics and idolatry in the form of multifaithism.
So what is the true Church to do at such a time? Answer: it is to be "a pillar and foundation of the truth." That is why Paul is so concerned to root out heresy. The church is useless, if it doesn't teach the truth and deal with error. For one of its great functions is to be "a pillar and foundation of the truth". Of course, the church itself is founded on the truth. It is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone" (Eph 2.20). And the truth isn't dependent for its being true on the Church.
But the Church is an instrument God uses. On the one hand it is for holding up the truth high, like a pillar, so that it can be seen far and wide. So the pillars of the Temple of Artemis meant that the Temple of Artemis could be seen from a great distance. On the other hand the church is to be a foundation that helps steady things in respect of the truth when there are storms of heresy and unbelief all around.
The church, then, has this dual role - on the one hand to proclaim the truth to the world; and on the other hand to defend the truth against attacks both from outside and from inside - as was necessary at Ephesus and as we need to do today. And notice that it is not the clergy - or just the teachers - it is the church as a whole that is to be a "pillar and foundation of the truth." Everyone is to be involved.
Perhaps you say, "but isn't all this rather harsh. What we want is Christian love more than truth." The answer is that the truth is the only way, ultimately, to genuine love. Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1.22 that
you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers.
Perhaps others say, "but isn't it hard helping the church to be a pillar and foundation of the truth." Answer: "Yes!" Think of Tyndale - he was martyred for seeking to get the bible out. Think of Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, our Anglican Reformers, who were burnt at the stake for upholding the truth of the Bible. Thank God we are not yet in that condition.
In Sweden soon it may be getting that way when some Christian pastors who are faithful to the bible will get up to 6 months to 4 years imprisonment, if a draft law gets confirmed in the Autumn. There was a report on that in yesterday's Times newspaper.
Last summer some missionaries in Afghanistan were imprisoned for showing the Jesus film. It is not inconceivable that laws could make Christian evangelism illegal in this country if we are not vigilant. The Police tried to stop members of a Free Church in Rochdale recently giving out non-inflammatory Christian tracts to Muslims - something they had done for 3 years (and Muslims had also freely given our their tracts). The Christian Institute has been helping out with the case.
It is not easy standing up for the truth. The devil is the Father of Lies and he always works to eliminate the truth and blind people's hearts and minds. So you say, "what is the hope?" Answer: the hope is there in the message itself - and that is our final heading tonight.
So thirdly, THE CHURCH'S MESSAGE
Look at verse 16:
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.
"Beyond all question" means it is an unassailable fact that "the mystery of godliness is great."
You say, "what does that mean?" "The mystery of godliness" relates to both the divine and the human dimensions of the gospel. On the divine side the gospel is a mystery. A "mystery" in the New Testament refers to a disclosed secret. So the gospel is a mystery in that it is truth that was originally hidden from human knowledge. By our own understanding we would never grasp this truth. We needed God to take the initiative to reveal it to us. And he has done that in sending Jesus Christ.
"Mystery" is one of those words the early Christians borrowed from their pagan neighbours and then turned inside out. A pagan mystery was always something only for the inner core. The Christian mystery was once hidden but is now to be shared with everyone.
But the Christian faith is not only a mystery, but a "mystery of godliness". It is not only about Almighty God revealing his plan of election and salvation to human beings. It is also about how human beings in response are to be "godly." Christian people are to be transformed into Christ's likeness. They are to obey God and to serve him and others.
The pagan world, Paul said, had a "mystery [or secret power] of lawlessness" (2 Thess 2.7). The church has a "mystery of godliness" And it is centred on and about Jesus Christ. What then follows in verse 16 looks like an early hymn or chorus. The details aren't totally clear. But things are clear enough.
It first says that God the Son came down to earth as a human being - "He appeared in a body". Then he "was vindicated by the Spirit". That could refer to the Resurrection. "He was seen by angels" - that also could refer to the angelic visitors at the Empty Tomb on the Resurrection morning - but we are not sure. "He was preached among the nations" - that is clear as clear and was a reminder to the early Christians as they sang this to evangelise and preach Christ. And they were to do that confidently, knowing that as they preached Christ to their colleagues, family, friends and neighbours, Christ would be "believed on in the world". There would be success. Indeed, the Holy Spirit uses "preaching" - which is not only in the pulpit - as a means of convicting people about their own needs and of the fact that Christ is the ultimate answer to those needs. And then the hymn ends on a triumphant note. "He was taken up in glory." That is why we all can have hope.
I must conclude.
Remember that Jesus Christ is alive, ascended and reigning in glory and is praying for you and me - even now. "Salvation belongs ot our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb" as we sang earlier. And one day he is coming again.
This world will not go on for ever. In the meantime let's be faithful members of "the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth."
And if God has been speaking to you tonight, and you haven't already done so, why not say, "Yes! I want to be a member of that true church. I want to trust in Christ".