The Mystery Of Godliness (1 Timothy 3:14-16)

1. Why Paul is writing.

Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, 15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves


Every now and then in Paul's letter to Timothy, the apostle takes a brief break from giving the instruction that he wants to pass on to this younger minister, and addresses him directly. I love these bits. They give the letter a personal touch, a more intimate feel that brings home to us afresh the good relationship between these two ministers of the gospel. In calling Timothy a true son in the faith (1:2) or simply a son (1:18), in recalling and encouraging Timothy to recall the prophecies made about him (1:18) and in expressing the desire to visit Timothy again soon, as here, Paul gives us an insight into a relationship that's much richer than “strictly business”; a collegial relationship that reflects the way things ought to be in God's church. So then, Paul writes to Timothy here, saying that he hopes to visit soon.

But notice that the apostle clearly admits that he doesn't know exactly what will transpire. We might imagine that someone like Paul would have been more in the know than us; that He would have been able to always make the right decision and always do exactly what God wanted in every situation. See here, though, that Paul had no greater insight into God's specific will and plans simply because of who he was, or because he lived closer to the time in which our Lord walked the earth. We read in Acts 16:6-10 for example of times when Paul and his companions sought to visit a place, but were kept from doing so by the Spirit, or were given visions calling them to other places. They would do what we do and ought to do: apply godly wisdom in making plans and trying things out, but they too were ultimately dependant upon God's providence or the visions given in those times to confirm or deny their chosen path.

So Paul says that he hopes to come to Timothy, but he also applies more godly wisdom, putting in place the contingency of also writing to Timothy so that even if he is delayed, Timothy will have some good counsel to put into practice.

And this counsel, we're told, relates specifically to “how you ought to conduct yourself or how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household”, depending upon what translation you read. Why the difference? The original says “you will know how it is necessary to live in God's household.” Our English translations try to make the sentence more readable, and in doing so make a decision for us about whose conduct Paul is thinking of.

What's the best choice?

In the letter so far, Paul hasn't focused on Timothy himself at all, so we might be tempted to jump straight to saying the more general “people” version. In Chapter 4 however, Paul will begin to address Timothy, focusing alternately on both Timothy and those he serves through to the end of the letter.

To my mind, the more general reading seems better – Paul is writing the letter as a whole so that Timothy might know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household. Nothing in the immediate context pushes us – let alone demands – that we take a more Timothy centric focus.

Notice also – and again - that what Paul is writing isn't merely advice. He doesn't say that he is providing guidelines that Timothy, you and I can take or leave as we see fit. He uses a word that speaks of necessity, of need, just as he did in speaking about the qualifications for office bearers in chapter 3. It is the word used when Jesus says he must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed and raised to life, the word used when the Pharisees are told they should give tithes to God as well as not neglecting justice and the love of God.

This word is used in a variety of ways, but it always carries the idea of compulsion – there is never a hint of the action being in any way optional. We cannot therefore rightly ignore the counsel of God, given through His apostle, in this letter. This is how we must live today.


2. The importance of godliness.

… in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.


Why conduct important?

God's household

Church of the living God

Pillar and foundation of the truth


Why is it so important for us to know how to conduct ourselves? Paul tells us by reminding us of the fact that he is writing to us as members of God's church. Notice that he says three things about the church, underlining the importance of this reason.

First, our conduct is “in God's household” - or more literally, house. Paul uses ordinary word for 'house' or 'home', which in God's case was applied to the temple. It is the word used in Matthew 21 when Jesus says “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers”, and the word used when Jesus speaks about the occasion on which David “entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat.” (Luke 6:4).

So then, the first reason for it being important for us to conduct ourselves in a godly manner is the fact that God dwells in and with us. In the Cunningham home, we have a little sign in the dining area. It says “Christ is the Head of this house, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation”. These words true, not only in my dining room, but everywhere that every Christian goes. Do you speak like your God is listening to every word you say? Put another way, if you could constantly see God standing near you, listening to you, how would your speech be different? Do you act like He is watching everything you do? If you could constantly see God standing near you, how would your actions vary from what you do now? I must admit that I am not sinless myself, but that does not change the truth of what we read here. Whether we remember it or not; whether we act like it or not, we – all of us who truly are Christians – are part of the house in which God's Holy Spirit lives.

This concept of being part of God's house also calls us to remember that we are part of his family, under His headship and therefore called to be obedient to Him in that context. It brings out aspects like our respect for God's rule, and our submission to His kingship. Are these concepts part of our conscious, day to day living?

The second impetus for godly living that we might draw out of what Paul says here is the fact that we are the church of the living God. The lives we're seeking to lead, the things we're seeking to do are not cold, dry, dead and pointless religion. We're not following man-made rules. No. We're serving a real and living God, who gave us these instructions for a number of reasons. He gave them to us because He loves us and wants the best for us. He knows that the way of life and blessing lies in following these instructions, and that they will help us have less sin and misery in our lives than if we disobey them. He gave us these instructions so that we can express our love and devotion to Him; so that we can please Him and make Him happy by how we live. And He gave us these instructions so that we can adorn the preaching of the gospel to non-Christians; so that they can see in how we live the goodness and righteousness of the God we proclaim and serve – so that they can see that God's ways are better than every alternative we might consider.

Thirdly, Paul describes the church as the “pillar and foundation of the truth”. This statement might bring to mind Jesus' statement that he would build the church on the foundation of Peter's confession, but notice the difference. The church is pictured here as the foundation of pillars of a building, and the truth as like a roof supported by this pillar and foundation. In Peter's case, the confession of truth is the foundation on which the church would be build – things are turned on their head here because the emphasis is not so much on the confession being made as on the support given to the proclamation of the truth. In other words, Paul is focusing in this last phrase on our role in outreach to non-Christians. He is making explicit that last aspect we mentioned under the previous point – the fact that we support or undermine the proclamation of the gospel by our actions.

In summary then, we have many and varied reasons to actively seek to live godly lives.

But how can we do that? Is it just a matter of will power and exertion? This brings us to the poem or hymn that Paul quotes.


3. The mystery of godliness.

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,

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.


Paul introduces this poem by saying “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great”, and we should indeed find no reason to disagree. Just think of all the ways in which people seek, using their own wisdom, to improve their behaviour. There is no shortage of personal trainers, life coaches, counsellors, books, magazines, tv shows, internet websites, philosophies and more that you can turn to today in the quest for what a non-Christian would think of as godliness. But Paul doesn't point us to something we think or say or do as a source of true godliness. He points to a person – to Christ.

You see, if you and I want to be godly, it does not and it cannot start with us. The imperfect cannot evolve into the perfect. No, godliness begins with God. It begins with Him, taking on our frail flesh and ends with Him, having met all God's requirements for our salvation, being exalted in glory, with us following on His coat-tails. It involves Him being witnessed in all He said and did, and proclaimed to those of us who are not direct eyewitnesses. It involves us having, by God's grace, faith in what is proclaimed. It involves all of those mentioned - the Holy Spirit, angels and people focusing on Christ, not on the efforts of Nigel or Marie or Bert.

No wonder godliness is a great a mystery!

But this is just the focus we need to have. Yes, you and I are called to seek to put into action all that Paul says is necessary in this letter. Yes, we should be seeking to make sure our focus is on salvation being by grace through faith and not by obedience to the law or genetic descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yes, we should labour not to see our faith shipwrecked as others have done in the past. Yes, we should pray for those in authority and seek to adorn the gospel and seek to meet the qualifications for elder and deacon. But we also need to remember, constantly, that apart from Christ, we can do nothing; that apart from Him, we won't even want to do what is pleasing in God's sight and nothing we do can be acceptable in God's sight.

And we need to remember that we will never reach a point where we don't need Jesus any more. We will, by God's grace, grow in faith and godliness all our lives long, but we will never perfectly meet God's standards for righteousness on this earth. Even our very best efforts are tainted by sin, and always will be on this side of heaven. We will always be saved by grace, never by our own efforts.

All of this should work in us even more love and devotion to our Lord. How amazing that He gives us things we could never obtain by ourselves – that, as Peter writes, God has given us everything we need to for life and godliness, through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own goodness and grace.

Yes, brothers and sisters, the mystery of godliness is great. We rely not on what we do, but on what Christ has done. Yet we also seek, by God's grace, to do many of the things that people would normally expect of people trying to be saved or trying to please God through their own efforts. But through it all, we rely on God's grace to us in Christ, not the things we do as a result.

To God alone be the glory for His grace to us.