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First Timothy

Mystery and Discipline

1 Timothy 3:13 - 4:11

Lesson AudioPaul has been concerned greatly with the appearance of the church to the outside world. In this section of the Scripture he outlines the last three items:

1. The nature of the Church and Christ, and thus to beware of

2. Those who would lead the Christians astray, which is why

3. We must labor and strive for the truth.

The Nature of the Church and Christ

1 Timothy 3:14-16 NASB I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; (15) but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (16) By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.

Paul’s encouragement

Timothy is in a difficult spot. He’s a young man full of faith, but in his world the elderly were not despised as they are today. Being young was a handicap in leading the church. So Paul offers his encouragement: he tells Timothy that he hopes to return to him. However, he might be delayed – and therefore he has written. But it is not just to give him miscellaneous instruction; Paul lays our before Timothy the “why” of his letter. His words so far have been concerned with external behavior – but now he explains the mystery of the church.

The nature of the church

Paul gives us two descriptions of the church.

First, the church is the family of God. It is not uncommon for Christians to call each other brother and sister. For we are God’s household, his family. We are the brotherhood of men under the Fatherhood of God. This gives us great privilege – and great responsibility.

The church is also the pillar and support of the truth. The phrase is revealing. For some aspects of the truth – the spiritual, for example – the church is that pillar. Remove that pillar, and that truth collapses. That part of the truth would not be upheld if we did not do it. In other areas of the truth, we are its support. There are many aspects of Christianity which are shared with other religions. Without confirming them, we uphold those shared aspects. The prohibition against murder is (rather, was, in these days of abortion on demand) something shared, and something we uphold.

The Mystery of Godliness

It is fascinating that Paul does not refer to this as the mystery of Christ (as elsewhere.) Rather, he is talking about how the church should behave; at the core of that behavior is the answer to the only important question: who do you say He is? Here is as close to a creed as Paul gets:

Godliness was revealed in the flesh. It is the explicit teaching of the church, since its earliest days, that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Christ, God in the flesh, Godliness we can see. It is the reason for Christmas.

Christ’s Godliness was “vindicated” by the Holy Spirit. To vindicate means to declare righteous. The Holy Spirit did this in the Resurrection, for the wages of sin is death; but He who knew no sin could not be held by death. Those who seek such Godliness will be raised as He was.

Godliness was seen by the angels – telling us the importance of the One who died for us. Even the angels wanted to look; He is superior to them and accredited by them.

Godliness is proclaimed in this world to this day, two thousand years later. Despite the very best efforts by the powers of this world, it is not only proclaimed but believed.

Finally, as witnessed by man, He ascended into heaven – from whence He will return, to judge the living and the dead.

That is the mystery of Godliness. It has been revealed to us, and now we should do something about it. But before Paul presses into that subject, he warns Timothy of the wiles of our Enemy.

Heresy

1 Timothy 4:1-6 NASB But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, (2) by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, (3) men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. (4) For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; (5) for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer. (6) In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.

See how this will come – not all at once, but step by devious step.

First, there will be those who fall away from the faith, making themselves easy prey for the deceiver. They will want the power of Godliness without its discipline and truth. They are seekers of magic, not truth.

They will pay attention to deceitful spirit and their doctrines. Bill Walton, of basketball fame, once told Coach Wooden that his method was to empty his mind and then chant his mantra. Wooden told him that if he emptied it, Satan would be sure to fill it.

The leaders of this schism will be hypocrites – men who have seared their own conscience to the point of non-existence.

For example?

Paul has been concerned with the externals of the church – so he shows Timothy the externals that such people will promote. He tells him of the external things which will be a sign for the internal hypocrisy and seared conscience:

Marriage will be one such. Honored by God, some will be commanded not to marry. This is not just a function of the Roman Catholic Church; many times in the early days of the church this same command was given by the heretics. Manicheans, Marcionites and Encratites are mentioned by Chrysostom in the early 5th, century, for example.

Another is abstaining from certain foods (like red meat on Friday, remember?) Paul knew this in his own time from the debate over unclean meat maintained by the Jewish Christians. No one is quite so much holier than thou than a true vegetarian.

This is my Father’s world

At the root of the second point above is the Greek philosophy which proclaimed that things material are inherently evil. Paul reminds us that God created – and pronounced it good.

Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with grateful thanks to God.1 By prayer – and the word of God – that for which we give thanks is sanctified, or made holy. How so? Well, if you are saying thanks over your meal, you have proclaimed it to be food for the kingdom of priests. In the Old Testament, any food set aside for the priests (by law) was considered holy. It could not be eaten by anyone except a priest or his family. Has this really changed at all?

Labor and Strife

But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. Prescribe and teach these things.

(1Ti 4:7-11 NASB)

Despite the recent prescription in our women’s newsletter, bodily exercise is of little profit – for it deals only with the things of this world.2 Rather, we should seek that discipline which leads to spiritual growth. What kinds of discipline? Let me give you some examples:

Fasting is one – the denial of food to the body so that you will be able to concentrate on prayer, reading of the Scripture and praise to God.

Set times of prayer. If your prayer life is haphazard, what does that say with regard to how much you value your time with God? If you are always prompt to watch a TV show, how much more should you be prompt to pray?

A plan of reading the Scripture. There are many programs which will have you read through the Scripture in a year, for example.  There are many; choose one that works well for you.

Body and soul

If there is profit in disciplining the body, how much there is in disciplining the soul! Exercise helps you in this world only; spiritual discipline both here and life eternal. Satan therefore encourages us to bodily discipline – only.

You might argue as thus: “I can see how spiritual discipline benefits me in eternity – but how could it benefit me here? It’s largely giving up something I like to gain something of spiritual (hence, eternal) value.” Let me give you two reasons:

1. Because God explicitly promises to bless, in this world, those who follow His way.

2. Because spiritual discipline resets your expectations – so you don’t go around wanting what’s not good for you. Much less turmoil.

Paul tells us here that this is a “trustworthy saying.” It’s so important, he emphasizes it.

A Good Example

It must be remembered that spiritual discipline is not easy. You may have to start several times before it sticks. Count on it: Satan will do his best to distract you. Paul makes it clear thus:

We labor at it. The word in the Greek can also be translated as “hard work.” This is not supposed to be easy.

We strive for it. In other words, we will have strife in the doing – conflict. The King James translates this word as “suffer reproach.” Expect it.

Why? Because of our hope in Christ. We know who will reward and uphold us.

And finally – now that you know what it is you should be doing – go and tell the rest of the church. Preach, teach (and may I add model) the truth.


[1] It must be honestly confessed that the author holds that cooked spinach just might be the exception to this.
[2] This is a disturbing point. There are apparently those on our staff who are of the “church of what’s happening now” persuasion. When I hear a minister of the church proclaim that “any woman who doesn’t keep her figure in shape is begging for a divorce” I feel obligated to reply. When those around us (on the staff) confirm that minister’s opinion, I begin to wonder how the Holy Spirit will fix this.

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