I Timothy 3 Part 4
New King James Version 15. but if I am delayed, 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.
The Resultant Version 15. But if I should delay, that you may know how it is fitting to behave oneself in the house of God, which is the outcalled of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
Paul realizes that he may be delayed. Perhaps he was having problems himself ministering in Macedonia, just as Timothy was having problems ministering in Ephesus. At any rate, Paul knows well that he may be delayed in coming to Timothy. Yet he does not want Timothy to be in the dark about these things, and so he is writing to him in case he is in fact delayed, as it appears he was. As we mentioned above, the delay apparently resulted in Paul never going to Ephesus at all. In II Timothy, Paul is urging Timothy to come to him in II Timothy 4:9, but he appears to have no plans to go to him in Ephesus. That fits right in with what God said in Acts 20:25.
In case he is delayed, Paul is writing these things to Timothy so he may know how he ought to conduct himself. This is very interesting, for what we have just been reading has not been written as instructions to Timothy on how he should behave, but rather has been written as qualification for choosing leaders, both over-watchers and servants. Yet I believe this demonstrates for us what is very important to realize: that these qualifications are not just meant for such leaders, but are the behaviors and character traits that should be promoted among all believers and that all true followers of Jesus Christ should strive to emulate. Thus these were not just things that Timothy should look for in leaders he is choosing, but they are behaviors that he himself should cultivate in his own life.
Now we come upon a most difficult and mysterious section, for Paul speaks here about how Timothy should conduct himself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. What does this mean? Is the “house of God” the church building? This would violate the truth set forth by God in Acts 17:24.
24. “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.
So this cannot be the church buildings that are so common in our society that are being spoken of. And what about this matter of the “church of the living God”? What church is this? The Baptists? The Methodists? The Episcopalians? These churches did not exist until more recent times. If these are the churches meant, then “the church of the living God” did not exist until well over a thousand years after Paul made this statement. But what is left then? The Roman Catholic Church? The Eastern Orthodox Church? These are the only churches that really go back to most ancient antiquity, yet we would certainly deny that either of these are the “pillar and ground of the truth.” Yet if neither of these are the church spoken of, what then? Some would take this to be the sum of the agglomeration of churches, or, as they call it, Christendom. Yet this makes things even worse, for there are a thousand and one ideas about the truth in Christendom. This certainly is no fit thing to be the pillar and ground of the truth.
There are those who would suggest that the answer to these questions is obvious. “The church,” say they, “is the people. All believers who are alive at any given time make up the church.” Well, if all believers alive are the pillar and ground of the truth, then when do they meet? When are they going to come out with something that will uphold the truth and be a basis for the truth? How would they even go about doing this? The only way the individual believers in Jesus Christ can come out with something is as individual believers. Even then, it would seem much more as if the truth upholds us, not that we uphold the truth. If this verse stated that the Word of God is the pillar and ground, or that Jesus Christ is, that would make sense. But the sum total of all the people who belong to God today? They do not seem like a pillar and ground of truth.
If anything should be obvious to anyone who is not so foolish as to insist that only those who agree with him are saved, it is that all believers, even the true ones, do not agree much of the time. If the truth is based on and upheld by these, then the truth is in trouble, for it is on a very shaky and uncertain foundation, and its pillar is a far from reliable one. No, as much as we might appreciate true believers and thank God for all of them and that they exist in this world, these cannot possibly be the pillar and ground of the truth that Paul is talking about.
So what then is Paul talking about? What is this mysterious thing he is referring to? First, let us consider this phrase, “the house of God.” If we would start from the beginning and turn to the pages of the Old Testament to see what the “house of God” is, we would not come upon anything that Timothy might be dwelling or acting in. The first time we see the phrase is in the book of Genesis, when the man Jacob awoke from his dream wherein he saw the ladder reaching up to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it, and God standing at the top speaking with him.
16. Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17. And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Genesis 28:16-17.
In this passage, Jacob refers to the place where he had this dream as the “house of God.” This caused him to change the name of this place, as we read in verse 19.
19. And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously.
The name “Bethel” means “House of God.” In this case, the “house of God” was apparently just a fancy of Jacob’s, for certainly God could appear in any place. All we know is that Jacob assumed this. Whether or not the “ladder” God showed him touched down in that place specifically and nowhere else we are not told, any more than we are told what the ladder was. No doubt it was a symbol for whatever method it is that angels use to pass from heaven to earth. This is probably not a literal latter or stairway, but this symbol is used to describe something we would not really understand. Yet even if that is the place angels always arrive at when they come from heaven to earth, the idea that that made it the “house of God” is entirely Jacob’s.
If we would move on to the next time we see this phrase, however, it takes on a new and important meaning.
Judges 18:31. So they set up for themselves Micah’s carved image which he made, all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh.
Here, it is clear that the “house of God” is the tabernacle, which at that time was pitched in Shiloh. The same meaning is found in Judges 20:18.
18. Then the children of Israel arose and went up to the house of God to inquire of God. They said, “Which of us shall go up first to battle against the children of Benjamin?” The Lord said, “Judah first!”
This same meaning is clear in Judges 20:26 and 21:2, as well as in I Chronicles 6:48. In I Chronicles 9:13, 26, and 27, however, the meaning appears to change to the permanent temple Solomon built. In I Chronicles 22:2, this meaning is clear.
2. So David commanded to gather the aliens who were in the land of Israel; and he appointed masons to cut hewn stones to build the house of God.
David was preparing to build the house of God, which meant he was preparing to build the temple in Jerusalem. I Chronicles 23:28, 24:5, 25:6, and 26:20 all refer to the house of God, and give further instructions for how the service of this temple was run. In I Chronicles 28:12, we learn that the plans David drew up for the temple were not his alone, but were given him by the Spirit of God.
12. and the plans for all that he had by the Spirit, of the courts of the house of the Lord, of all the chambers all around, of the treasuries of the house of God, and of the treasuries for the dedicated things;
Here, the “house of the Lord” and the “house of God” are one and the same, and both are the temple. Further references to building the house of God, the temple in Jerusalem, abound in I and II Chronicles. We see the phrase used in I Chronicles 28:21, 29:7, II Chronicles 3:3, 4:11, 4:19, 5:1, 5:14, and 7:5. Years later, King Asa brings dedicated things into the house of God, which is still the temple, as we read in II Chronicles 15:18.
18. He also brought into the house of God the things that his father had dedicated and that he himself had dedicated: silver and gold and utensils.
II Chronicles mentions the temple as the house of God many more times: in 22:12, 23:3, 24:7, 24:13, 24:27, 25:24, 28:24, 31:13, 31:21, 33:7, 34:9, 35:8, and 36:18. The final reference in 36:19 records for us the destruction by the Babylonians of the temple Solomon built, the end of this particular house of God.
19. Then they burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious possessions.
Years later, however, King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree to rebuild the house of God, as we read in Ezra 1:4.
4. And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.
The temple is rebuilt in Ezra, and it is called the “house of God” in Ezra 2:68, 3:8, 3:9, 4:24, 5:2, 5:13, 5:14, 5:15, 5:16, 5:17, 6:3, 6:5, 6:7, 6:8, 6:12, 6:16, 6:17, 6:22, 7:24, 8:36, 10:1, 10:6, and 10:9. The temple is likewise called the “house of God” in Nehemiah 6:10, 8:16, 11:11, 11:16, 11:22, 12:40, 13:7, 13:9, and 13:11. Judging from the many occurrences of this phrase in Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah, all of which were among the later books written of the Old Testament, this would appear to have become a more popular phrase to describe the temple after the exile. However, it is called this in earlier books, as we can see in the Psalms when the phrase is used. The first occurrence is an interesting one in Psalm 42:4.
4. When I remember these things, I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go with the multitude; I went with them to the house of God, With the voice of joy and praise, With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.
A pilgrimage to the house of God was, of course, a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. Psalm 52:8 mentions the house of God as well, and in Psalm 55:14 David mentions going to the house of God in former, happier times with a man who now is his enemy.
14. We took sweet counsel together, And walked to the house of God in the throng.
This is another reference to the tabernacle as the house of God, for the temple had not been built yet in David’s day. The next reference we have to the house of God is by Solomon in Ecclesiastes 5:1.
1. Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil.
The Old Testament occurrences of the phrase are rounded out by Daniel 1:2, 5:3, and Zechariah 7:2. However, the occurrences of the phrase do not end there. The Lord Jesus Himself used this phrase to describe the temple in Matthew 12:4, speaking of David in I Samuel 21.
4. how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?
Mark 2:26 and Luke 6:4 are parallel to this. These are the only references to the “house of God” that speak of the temple clearly. Therefore, we have this phrase that is used consistently many times in Scripture to mean the temple in Jerusalem. However, in this passage in I Timothy 3:15, this is clearly not its meaning, since Timothy was not then in the temple in Jerusalem. What then does it mean? It must have some similar meaning, for it must have been a familiar phrase to the Israelites, but it is used in a new way. We have two other New Testament references to the house of God, and these may help us to clear up this other meaning in I Timothy 3:15. The first is found in Hebrews 10:21.
21. and having a High Priest over the house of God,
Here it is clear that the “house of God” meant is not the temple, for the author of Hebrews is making it clear that he is not speaking of the Aaronic high priest, but of Jesus Christ, a greater priest over a much greater House of God. What is that house of God? Peter perhaps makes it plain in I Peter 4:17.
17. For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?
Peter uses the phrase “house of God,” and then uses the pronoun “us,” indicating that the house of God he is referring to is “us.” Peter includes himself and his readers in this “us,” and who his readers are is made plain in I Peter 1:1.
1. Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,
To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,
Peter, himself a Jew who believes in Jesus Christ, is writing to the dispersed Jews in these places. These are the ones whom he refers to as the “house of God.” Paul refers to the Corinthian believers, themselves Jews who believed in the Lord Jesus as their Messiah, as the “temple of God” in I Corinthians 3:16-17.
16. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17. If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.
Paul refers to these Corinthians as being, in their persons, the temple of God, and the justification he gives for this characterization is that the Spirit of God dwells in them. This ultimately is his argument for holiness, for it would be most improper to defile the temple of God, and now that their bodies are the temple of God, it is important that they not defile them. Paul again refers to these Corinthians as the “temple of God” in I Corinthians 6:16.
16. And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will dwell in them
And walk among them.
I will be their God,
And they shall be My people.”
Again, it was God dwelling in them that made them the temple of God. Therefore, since Timothy was not anywhere near Jerusalem so he was not “conducting” himself on the temple grounds at all, we would conclude that it was among these, the people of God in whom dwelt His Spirit and among whom He walked, that Timothy was to conduct himself aright. Yet notice that the people Paul was writing to in I Corinthians, the people being written to in Hebrews, and the people Peter was writing to in I Peter were all Jews. These three occurrences were all during the Acts period. Now, however, Paul is writing in I Timothy during the dispensation of grace, wherein all nations are now equal. How could he be writing of Jews, then? The answer is simple enough. Timothy was working in Ephesus, where a large contingent of Jews were brought to faith during the Acts period. We can arrive at this conclusion from comparing Acts 19:10 with Acts 19:20.
Acts 19:10. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.
Acts 19:20. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
Clearly, if all the Jews and Greeks in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, and if the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed, then it must have been among the Jews and Greeks that it grew mightily and prevailed. Therefore in Ephesus, Timothy would have been among a great number of Jews who believed. It would seem, then, that this means that Timothy needs to know how to conduct himself among these Jewish believers who make up the house of God.
Now if this is the interpretation of this phrase, then the next phrase would have to fit with it as well. Does it make sense that Israel would be the “church” of the living God? Yes, for that is exactly what they were in the Old Testament. When we recognize that the ekklesia of the New Testament is the qahal of the Old Testament, we can see that the ekklesia of God is made up of Israelites, as we read in Judges 20:2.
2. And the leaders of all the people, all the tribes of Israel, presented themselves in the assembly of the people of God, four hundred thousand foot soldiers who drew the sword.
Here the word “assembly” is the Hebrew word qahal, which we could make ekklesia or “church” if we translated consistently with the New Testament. The assembly of the people of God is made up of the leaders of Israel. This is the ekklesia of the living God. Therefore it was again among these that Timothy needed to conduct himself aright.
Does it make sense that Israel would be called the pillar and bulwark of the truth? A pillar is that which upholds, and a bulwark is that which protects. For hundreds of years, the nations in general had given up on the idea of one God Who alone must be worshipped. The faithful among the Israelites alone upheld this truth. It was to Israel that the Scriptures, the oracles of God, were given. Paul himself acknowledged this in Romans 3:1-2.
1. What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? 2. Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.
Israel were committed or entrusted with the oracles of God, and they were ones who protected them, passing them down carefully through the centuries. Israel alone at the time Paul was writing this could possibly be described as the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
So we can see that in Ephesus Timothy, himself a Jew, would often be conducting himself among the faithful Israelites who believed in the Lord Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. But why would Paul think that he needs to write these things to Timothy? Why would Timothy have any difficulty knowing how to conduct himself among the faithful Israelites who believed in Christ? Had he not already been doing this for around two decades before this? Why would he suddenly have trouble doing it now, so that Paul would need to write to him how to do this, in case he could not come to him soon to tell him these things in person? Had not Paul been working with Timothy for nearly two decades before this? Would he not already have taught him what he needed to know about good behavior for a believer?
I believe that the only sensible answer we can give for this question must be the dispensational change that had recently taken place. Timothy, for the first fifteen years or so of his ministry, had been conducting himself among Jews in the Acts period. He had started off as a man who kept the law, but whose father had been a Greek so he had never circumcised him. Paul corrected this oversight in Acts 16:3. From then on, Timothy was a Jew who kept the law as Paul did (Acts 21:24, “you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law”), and who believed in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. His rule of life was the law, and if the law was unclear on anything, he had access to God’s apostle Paul to tell him what to do. As such, what he should do and how he should live his life were plain and obvious to him.
Yet now, Paul’s great pronouncement recorded in Acts 28:28 had come and gone. Suddenly, Timothy was no longer living in the kingdom of God. That kingdom went into abeyance, and its guidance and direction were no longer available to him. Moreover, Paul had made his sweeping and unequivocal statements about the law that we read in Philippians 3:2-3.
2. Beware of the outsiders, beware of the evil workers, beware of the mutilators. 3. For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the spirit, who are glorying in Christ Jesus, and who have no confidence in the flesh.
These words put an end to all law-keeping for any believing Israelite. Now, those who circumcised and kept the law are called dogs, evil workers, and the mutilation. These word “dogs” was one the Jews might before the dispensational change have used to describe the Gentiles who do not have the law. The word “mutilators” was one the Gentiles might have mocked the Jews with for circumcising their children. Yet now Paul ascribes these words to any Israelite who continues to keep the law. For any Israelite who would obey the command of God, law-keeping could no longer be the way to conduct himself.
Now we must put ourselves in Timothy’s shoes. He was a believer in Jesus Christ, and one who was willing to obey God and His Word no matter what. When God announced this through Paul, that would have been enough for Timothy, and he would have given up law keeping at that point. Yet what a predicament this put him in! For if he was no longer to keep the law, then how was he to conduct himself? Since birth, he had been taught rightfully that the law was the rule and standard for conduct for every good Israelite. Moreover, it was not just his own life experience he had to draw on, but more than fifteen hundred years of his ancestors who had lived and done the same thing. He had known that, and had continued to know it and live his life according to it long after he had come to faith in Christ. At first, he had the disadvantage that he lived outside the land, and therefore could not keep all the law as it was meant to be kept. Yet once he came to faith in Christ, he learned that he was free to keep the parts of the law that he could, and that the death of Christ paid for the transgressions of the parts that he could not. He would have kept the law with a new and blessed freedom then.
Yet now that was all set aside. Timothy may have still been an Israelite living among Israelites, yet now the law was no longer his standard and code of conduct. At the same time as the law was set aside, the kingdom of God was postponed, and so he could not look to the kingdom laws and the God-appointed rulers of the kingdom for guidance and direction either. How then was Timothy to live? How was a good Israelite who believed God and who believed in Jesus Christ to live now? That was the question Timothy was facing, and that is the question Paul is answering in this letter to Timothy.
In these instructions he has just given to Timothy regarding how over-watchers and servants are to behave, Paul has expressed a standard of conduct that God has revealed for believers today. It is not the law God gave to Moses, neither is it the laws that will prevail in the kingdom of God, yet this standard is appropriate for the behavior of believers in this, the dispensation of grace. We should live in all these ways: irreprehensible, as one-woman men, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, knowing how to take hospitality, having an aptitude for teaching, not parallel with wine, not strikers, not greedy of money, but lenient, not brawlers, not lovers of money, controlling well our own houses, having our children in subjection with all seriousness, having good reports from those who are without, serious, not double-tongued, holding the secret of the faith with an undefiled conscience, and blameless. This is the code of conduct for believers today. This was how Timothy should live as an Israelite who believes in Jesus Christ among his fellow Israelites who believe.
While I believe that this is the meaning of this verse, a second possible meaning is worth mentioning. I believe that we who believe in Christ today are predestined to someday be part of the living God’s great ekklesia of the kingdom of God. Yet it is important that we know in advance how one in that ekklesia should conduct himself.
It is always a rather awkward thing not to know how to conduct yourself. If one is at a fancy, formal party and does not know which fork to use or the proper manners to employ, one might well be embarrassed by any number of faux pas. Yet think how much worse it would be to find oneself as part of God’s great ekklesia of the future, and yet have no idea how a person in that ekklesia should conduct himself! A faux pas in a formal party may not be that big a deal, but to show that one did not bother to learn how God’s ekklesia members should behave when one gets to that great ekklesia would be a shameful thing indeed. This is something we should all be learning today, so when we get to that great day to come, we will not be found lacking in knowledge of the ways of our God.