On the First Epistle to Timothy

Chapter 3:14-15.

Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 342 - November 1884


Chapter 3:14-15

The presence of an apostle was an incalculable boon both for founding and for building up the assembly in any place. But what do we not owe also to his absence? Therefore he wrote, as here to Timothy, so at other times to this or that assembly, so as to give us in a permanent form the mind of the Spirit as applied to the instructive wants, difficulties, and dangers of the saints here below.

"These things write I to thee, hoping to come unto thee rather quickly. But if I should tarry that thou mayest know how we ought to behave in God's house, seeing it is a living God's assembly, pillar and ground-work of the truth " (ver. 14, 15). Thus the loss of the apostle's presence is turned to•profit, not of Timothy only but of us also. From detailed duties we are now in presence of the great truth that God has a house on earth where each Christian has to conduct himself aright. Our relationships are always the measure and mould as well as the ground of our duty. How solemn, yet how precious it is to know that God has His dwelling place on earth with which every believer has to do in faith and practice. No doubt this was meant to act on Timothy's soul; but the form of the phrase indicates that it was not limited to Timothy; it is so expressed as to take in any and every saint in his own position. It is no longer now an overseer or a deacon, or their wives. All is on the broadest ground, yet what could act more powerfully on conscience than to find oneself called to behave suitably to God's house? All the English versions from Wyclif to the Authorised refer the call tπ Timothy only and his personal duty. I cannot but agree with the Revisers that the application is purposely left more general. Perhaps however "how men ought to behave themselves" is hardly so happy as "how one ought to behave oneself." It seems too vague, as preceding English Versions are rather too limited.

In the Old Testament God had His house on earth. It was not so always. In the earlier dealings of God with man He had no such dwelling-place here below. There was none when man was unfallen in the brief sojourn of Eden; still less was there during the long sorrowful years of fallen man's history till the flood. Nor was it a privilege vouchsafed to Noah when God established His covenant and "set His bow in the cloud for a token between Him and the earth." Not even the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had it yet vouchsafed to them, though Jacob did say in his fear, "how dreadful is this place! this is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven." More correctly did he add "This stone which I have set up for a pillar shall be God's house." As yet, God had not actually any house which He could own on earth, though faith might anticipate it.

On what then is God's house based? On redemption. Hence as Exodus is pre-eminently the book of redemption, it is precisely that book of Old Testament which first and most fully treats of God's House. For the second book of Moses naturally divides into three parts: first, the evidence  of the peoples needs of redemption; secondly the accomplishment of redemption in all its fullness; thirdly, the great consequence of redemption in the founding and ordering of God's house or tabernacle with all the appurtenances, and the surpassing glory of His presence filling that in which He was now pleased to dwell.

But, in accordance with the general character of the Jewish economy, the dwelling of God was but typical, manifesting itself after an external sort. And as the law was the ground-work of God's government of His people, so the glory that dwelt in the sanctuary had a judicial character, whatever the longsuffering that bore with a stiff-necked and guilty people from generation to generation. When patience with their idolatry, in the people, the priests, the kings, even of David's house, must be, if continued longer the sanction of their apostacy and of His own dishonour, that very glory judges them by the power of Babylon (mother of idols) and is seen slowly departing from their midst, though not for ever, but assuredly till He come whose right it is to restore this, as all things. Compare Ezekiel i.-xi., xl.-xlviii.

Meanwhile, Christ has come; but the people would not have their King, the anointed of God. For the time they have forfeited all, having both killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophet, and driven out the apostles, "pleasing not God and contrary to all men, forbidding the Gentiles to be spoken to that they might be saved, filling up their sins always, so that wrath is come upon them to the uttermost." But their greatest evil is the occasion of God's greatest good to man. Israel's rejection of the Messiah has brought about the redemption that is in Christ Jesus through His cross, blood-shedding, and resurrection. And now .God deigns to dwell net merely in the midst of u people externally, but most really and intimately in His own and with them for ever by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven. "Ye are God's building" says Paul to the Corinthian assembly, "know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the Spirit (if God dwells in you "? (1 Cor. iii. 9- 16. Compare also 2 Cor. vi. 16). The same truth applies also individually as we have seen it collectively. " Knew ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have from God? and y are not your own, for ye were bought with a price; glorify God therefore in your body " (1 Cor. vi. 19, 20). In both cases God's dwelling-place is maintained by the presence of His Spirit, not by a mere outward display. "Ye also are builded together for God's habitation in virtue of the Spirit" (Eph. ii. 22), the reality and permanence of which indwelling is measured by Christ's having obtained an eternal redemption. What a call to holiness, not only in personal walk but in our joint responsibilities. Those who truly believe and appreciate this incomparable favour are of all others under the deepest obligation to behave accordingly.

But the apostle adds "which" (or "seeing that it") "is a living God's assembly." This description gives great force to God's house, and in direct contrast with a dead idol, the boast and shame of all Gentiles everywhere. Form without life is valueless under the gospel; though life acts and shows itself in forms for which scripture is the only adequate authority, for it is God's word and not man's. What is He to be accounted of? Nor does a dead assembly suit a living God. But the point above all remains—not what they are, but what He is. It is His assembly: let them never forget it.

Further, it is characterised as "pillar" and "groundwork," or support, of the truth. Christ is the truth, and so is the written word, as well as the Spirit. They are the truth, either objectively, or in power. But the assembly is the pillar on which the truth is inscribed and upheld before the world which believes not in Christ, receives not the word, and neither sees nor knows the Holy Spirit. The truth is not in faithless Judaism; nor is it in Mohammedan imposture; if possible yet less in the abominable vanities of heathendom. The church is the responsible witness and support of the truth on the earth. There only could men see the truth (compare 2 Cor. iii. 2, 3), if they could not read a letter of the scriptures. Alas! how great the ruin, if we judge the privilege and the responsibility of the church by the word as it bears on its actual state. He who so weighs all before God will never take things lightly, but will search the same word in order to find how grace provides for the path of the faithful in such circumstances; so that one may neither acquiesce in evil nor give way to unbelieving despair, but judge oneself as well as the departure, in order to do God's will in faith.

There is not a single good reason to sever the last clause from the assembly, and to connect it with "the mystery of godliness," as is done chiefly by Germans of the 17th and 18th centuries (including even Bengel). Not only do I agree with Alford and Ellicott in their rejection of a dislocation so abrupt and artificial, but I maintain that it would strip the assembly of its essential place here defined, and that it would detract from; instead of adding to, the true dignity of the mystery of godliness. It is a construction therefore burdened with almost every conceivable objection, without one genuine merit, and in my judgment the offspring of not ignorance only but deplorably low and wrong views of the church's place and duty here below. Scarcely better is the reference to Timothy as by some ancients and moderns. To the assembly alone is the true application.