Strengthen the Church   
 1 Tim 3:14- 4:5  
By Paul Robison

Someone put an updated twist on an old hymn:
Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight,
With the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight.
Christ our rightful Master stands against the foe
Onward into battle, we seem afraid to go!
Like a might tortoise moves the church of God.
Brothers we are treading, where we've often trod.
We are much divided, many cliques you see,
Having different opinions, and not much charity.
Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the cross of Jesus hidden does remain.
Gates of hell should never 'gainst the church prevail,
We have Christ's own promise, but we think that it will fail.
Sit here then ye people, with our sleeping throng.
Blend with ours, your voices in a feeble song.
Blessings, ease, and comfort ask from Christ the King,
Yes, with our modern thinking, we won't do a thing!
Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight,
With the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight.
 
We've seen in previous sermons that the church at Ephesus was in chaos. Paul’s earlier prediction that there would be elders who would lead others away from the Gospel to follow false teaching and to gain a following has come true.  Church leaders like Hymenaeus and Alexander had shipwrecked their faith, and they were twisting Old Testament texts to lead others astray.  We've seen how Paul skips his usual prayer and gets right down to business ordering Timothy to tell members not to teach another gospel and not to get caught up in the heretics' falsehoods and idle talk (1:3-11).  Then we saw how Paul uses himself as Exhibit A to say that if Jesus could save him, He could save everybody who repents. The heretic's are claiming that they really have the 'inside story' and it involves a special knowledge that only a few can possess (6:20-21).  Then Timothy was urged to wage the good warfare as he lived up to his appointed task to be the evangelist and to avoid the heretics.  In chapter 2, Paul instructs the members to combat the heretics with a peaceful, evangelistic, and spiritual lifestyle.  Paul then explains how Christian women can contribute both negatively and positively to the church. Another safeguard for the church in Ephesus against the false teachers will be having good church leadership, so Paul spells out in detail the qualifications of both elders and deacons in the first part of chapter 3. How could Timothy work to continue to strengthen the church?  Let's look at a four aspects to answer that question.
 
The first aspect might be called behaviors within the church.  Let's read 1 Timothy 3:14-15: "These things I write you, though I hope to come to you shortly; but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself ..."  Have you ever read a letter and then asked yourself: "What is the point of this writing?  What is the main point that's being communicated?"  The apostle Paul does us a great service here because he explains the purpose of why he wrote to Timothy.  You see how Paul says that he hopes to come to Timothy shortly, but Paul was realistic enough to know that sometimes his plans did not always work out like he envisioned.  Hindrances often occurred which delayed departures and changed plans.  So Paul decides to do what he can to help Timothy in case of delay: "I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself ...” You see, there are definite behaviors that Paul wants to see taking place in the congregation at Ephesus.  They have been through a difficult time with the heretics and the divisions that they have caused.  So Paul is writing to Timothy with specific instructions in mind to help the church there get back on its feet and to take a stand lest the heretics gain further ground.  We summarized the instructions given before this passage in our introduction, and we're going to see further instructions in subsequent chapters.  The church has a great mission to accomplish, and Paul wants Timothy and the members at Ephesus to learn that they need to practice certain behaviors in order to achieve that mission.  One commentator rightly observed: "Paul's sole concern is to emphasize that the members of each local community should be a strong bulwark of the gospel against the assaults of false teachers" (Kelly).  You see, we too have the same responsibility as those early Christians: we must love the truth, live the truth, and stand up against those who would destroy the truth!  It's like Paul wrote to these same brethren in Ephesians 6:14ff: "Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace [have you prepared yourself to share the gospel of peace if someone asks you how to be saved?], above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."  Let's keep learning more about how we should conduct ourselves as members of Christ's church.  From this great letter, behaviors within the church are clearly spelled out.
 
The next aspect might be called images of the church.  Paul gives us three powerful images.  Let's begin reading again in verse 15: "I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."  First of all, Paul calls the church the house, household, or family of God.  Our physical family provides each of us a sense of identity (we have family names that have a history), a sense of belonging (our parents, relatives, and siblings contribute to this), a sense of acceptance (despite our wrongs and mistakes, family members forgive and continue to love us), a sense of security (we feel safe among those we know), and a sense of closeness (our family has its own unique events, struggles, and ways of doing things).  Now if all this is true for our physical family, shouldn't all these things exist as well in our spiritual family?  In Christ's church, we should also experience a sense of spiritual identity, a sense of spiritual belonging, a sense of spiritual acceptance, a sense of spiritual security, and a sense of spiritual closeness!  At one congregation, there was a small house trailer that was right behind the church building.  A visiting preacher asked if the trailer was being used for additional classrooms. "No," said a member, "That trailer is for our widow.  She's been having trouble lately making ends meet.  She asked the congregation if we could help her, but she made it clear that she didn't want charity.  So we asked her if we could provide her housing if she would become our janitor and groundskeeper.  She was delighted, and we were benefited."  And the preacher quickly added, "And God was glorified!"  This is a beautiful example that should be multiplied a thousand times over in various congregations where we care for one another as Christ family!  Next, Paul describes the church as the assembly of the living God. The word "church" in Paul's day referred to a group of people that met for a specific purpose.  So the congregation in Ephesus was a group of people that assembled to worship and to serve the living God.  This was in contrast to those in Ephesus who assembled to worship and to serve pagan gods and goddesses, especially the goddess Diana, whose large temple was one of seven wonders of the ancient world!  But who is Diana of the Ephesians in comparison to the living God and the resurrected Jesus?  If today we serve the living God, the risen Savior, and an active Holy Spirit, then why have we become such an anemic church?  Have we forgotten a simple truth: "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31).  Christ can defeat all our spiritual enemies!  We are the assembly formed by Christ and shaped by the Spirit to worship and to serve the living God.  It is a unique cooperative society that exists to bless others, and especially those who aren't its members (Temple).  And then comes the third image: The church is the pillar and ground of truth.  A newer version has: “The church is the pillar and buttress of the truth.”  A commentator correctly explains: "What Paul is saying is that it is the function and responsibility of each congregation to support, bolster up, and thus safeguard the true teaching by its continuous witness" (Kelly).  Pillars and buttresses were part of ancient temples, and temples were holy places, dwelling places, worship places, and meeting places. Christ's church is also a holy place, a dwelling place, a worship place, and a meeting place.  And our congregation should be a place which promotes truth, the whole divine truth, and nothing but that truth!  As Christians, we should be pointing others to the truths that Jesus taught.  Why?  Because when they know the truth, the truth will make them free from Satan, from sin, and from the world!  Have we forgotten that the truth can be liberating?  Paul states that by means of the truth, people can come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil (2 Timothy 2:26).  What powerful images of the church—the family of God, the assembly of the living God, and the pillar and buttress of the truth!
 
The next aspect might be called the essential truths from the church. Now let's read verse 16: "And without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory."  Without controversy means that the following truths can't be compromised; all Christians should believe these.  Great is the mystery of godliness!  Does that phrase remind you of anything that happened in Ephesus when the city was in an uproar?  Yes, the people shouted for two solid hours: "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!"  Paul states the liberating truth: Great is the mystery of godliness!  And that secret is Jesus Christ!  This is the point of all these truths.  There are various interpretations of verse 16, but the following chronological approach is my favorite.  God was manifested in the flesh.  This refers to the incarnation when Jesus came into this world miraculously. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory" (John 1:14). "Justified in the Spirit" means that Jesus was shown to be authentic by the Spirit's bringing Him back to life.  "... declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:4).  "Seen by angels" refers to Jesus' ascension. Remember the two angels that stood by the apostles as Jesus ascended mentioned in Acts 1:10-11?  "Preached among the Gentiles or among the nations."  This is exactly what Paul had been called by Jesus to do. "Depart for I am sending you far from here to the Gentiles" (Acts 22:21)! "Believed on in the world" means that because the Gospel has been preached and obeyed, there are believers in Jesus on all parts of the globe.  "Received up in glory" means that Jesus now sits exalted and enthroned at God's right hand.  One commentator rightly observed: “The [passage] could not close more suitably than with the humiliated Messiah's exalted entry into His heavenly sphere” (Gutherie).  The mystery of godliness or the mystery of the gospel (Eph. 6:19) is composed of six great truths: Jesus' incarnation, His resurrection, His ascension, His gospel, His church, and His glorification.  These are truths that we also must ever defend against those who would pervert them!  These are the essential truths from the church.
 
Next, Paul shares what might be called dangers against the church.  Let's now read from chapter 4: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” You see, where truth flourishes, error is often sure to follow.  Paul specifies more about the false teachers and their false teaching which is against some of the truths that he has just mentioned.  The Spirit's revelation shows that what Paul writes is divinely inspired.  Some members will depart, or abandon, or fall away from the faith.  One commentator correctly notes: “Indeed, as often in prophetical utterances, what is predicted of the future is conceived of as already operative in the present, so the words have a contemporary significance” (Gutherie).  We already saw in chapter 1 how church leaders such as Hymenaeus and Alexander have shipwrecked their faith.  These members no longer follow Christ and His teaching.  Instead, they listen to false teachers who get their messages from Satan's deceiving spirits and demons.  These false teachers have become so calloused to the truth that their consciences have become seared by the hellish teachings that they have embraced and are now preaching.  One commentator noted: “In the OT, the evil spirit who stood before the Lord said, 'I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets' (1 Kings 22:22); and the same evil power would be able also to corrupt Christian elders, change them into hardened hypocrites, speaking the most glaring falsehood, with no reproach whatever from their dead consciences” (Coffman).  But the brethren at Ephesus should not be deceived by their lies nor by their hypocrisy.  And what is the false teaching that these heretics are prompting?  They forbid marriage and tell others to abstain from eating certain foods.  We know that being married is not sinful.  Paul has just pointed out in the qualifications for elders and deacons that both of these leaders must be married to one wife, must have children, and rule over their own families well.  What a good Creator creates is to be viewed as good, and not as evil.  So marriage should be viewed as good since God was its author.  Jesus purified all foods by showing that no specific foods can condemn people (Mark 7:19), and God showed that all foods should now be viewed as clean in his vision to Peter in Acts 10.  No foods are taboo for a Christian.  One commentator noted that prayer and God's pronouncements in the Scriptures set marriage and food in their true perspectives and in a way that enables us to regard them as sacred (Kelly).  You see, this passage very clearly shows that those religious leaders today who forbid priests, monks, and nuns to marry and also command their members to abstain from certain foods on certain days are not teaching God's will!  In fact, they are teaching a doctrine which comes from demons, and they have departed from the true faith! Brethren, there are still many who are teaching lies in hypocrisy, and we must ever be on our guard!  Paul exposes the false teachers in Ephesus in order to help the church get back on its feet and defend the truth.  Those who believe and know the truth should be able to recognize and to oppose error.  False teachings from heretics are the dangers against the church.
 
In the Greek Islands, one can seek out the home of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine.  In the area, one can also find an olive tree, supposedly dating from his time, some 2400 years old.  The trunk of this tree is very large but completely hollow.  The tree is little more than thick bark, and it might produce a few olives each year.  In the fields around, however, are olive groves in many directions.  The strong, healthy, young trees with narrow trunks produce masses of olives each year.  The tree of Hippocrates can still be called an olive by nature, in that it still shows the essential unique characteristics, but it has long since ceased to fulfill an olive's function.  Tourists file up to inspect this ancient relic, having some link to a dim history, but the job of the olive tree passed long ago to many successions of replanted trees.  Do you know any churches or even church people who are like the tree of Hippocrates?  The form is there, but the function is not.  They have stopped reproducing and are satisfied just being big, or having a noble past, or holding their ground.  Are your strengthening the church through your behaviors within, your making the images become realities, your upholding its essential truths, and your opposition to error?  If you are not a Christians, become part of the assembly of the living God through baptism.  If you are an unproductive Christian, confession and prayer can be the first steps toward changing that.  Make Christ's church your priority!