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The church’s one foundation

A sermon by Rod Benson

What books and movies did you love as a child? I seem to have spent a large part of my childhood in books. Among my favourites were The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis, the Tom Swift science fiction series, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, mystery stories by Enid Blyton, The Hardy Boys investigative mysteries, and a similar series by Alfred Hitchcock.

Why are we drawn to mysteries? A good mystery compels us to keep reading, to have a guess at the solution, to recognise that there is much in life that defies easy answers.

Whether children or adults, we like coming face to face with the inexplicable, the incomprehensible, in the safety and security of fiction, but we also like to have the inexplicable explained.

But there is another use of the idea of mystery in religious culture, the notion of a cluster of truths incomprehensible to most but revealed to a chosen few, the enlightened ones, the inner circle, who guard its secret so that the uninitiated remain in the dark.

Such mysteries, whether in ancient or modern religious traditions,

were a kind of secret code, the secret to the meaning of life, the universe, God, everything; the secret, too, to someone’s own life, the hidden clue that would make sense of everything and bring you peace of mind, salvation, or whatever else the religion in question might be offering.[1]

The heart of the Christian faith too is a mystery of this kind, though with a novel twist.

What is this mystery? It is the story of Jesus, from his birth to his ascension into heaven and his glorification. In learning about Jesus Christ, and following him, we have come to know the supreme mystery, the ultimate secret of the universe, the certain path to the good life – now revealed by God and made clear and accessible to all the world!

So Isaiah 9:2 says, “The people walking in darkness
 have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
 a light has dawned.”

And in John 8:12, Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Now and then in the New Testament pastoral letters, Paul gives us a glimpse of his profound understanding and appreciation of Jesus – rich in theological precision, warm in evangelical conviction, profound in contemplative depth. Verse 16 is one such glimpse.

In three couplets, in 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul discloses the mystery at the heart of Christianity. There’s theology, history, and mission.

Notice the contrast between flesh and Spirit, angels and Gentiles, world and glory.

The heart of Christianity is, unsurprisingly, all about Jesus – who he is, what he has done, what he has done for us, and what it this means in the context of world history, and world religions, and spirituality, and ethics, and the choices you and I make every day.

“He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit” (v. 16b, c): in Jesus of Nazareth we see the fullness of the living God in bodily form – fully divine, and truly human (Col 1:19; Jn 1:14).

The appearance of any god would be unforgettable. But the God whom Christians worship went further, becoming flesh in the person of Mary’s child, and after his death God vindicated him by raising him from the dead and granting him endless life.

“was seen by angels” (v. 16d): the Bible reveals that an angel predicted his birth (Mt 1:20), angels announced his birth (Lk 2:8-14). Angels ministered to him after his temptation in the wilderness (Mt 4:11), and again as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk 22:43).

Angels had important work to do at the time of his resurrection (Mt 28:2, 5, 6). He was “made lower than the angels for a little while”, in his incarnation, “so that he might taste death for everyone,” in order to bring us home to glory and to God (Heb 2:9).

“was preached among the nations” (v. 16e): as universal Lord, as the only Saviour, as the fulfilment of all the hopes of Old Testament prophecy, as the one able to redeem and reconcile to God people from every tribe and language and people and nation.

“was believed on in the world” (v. 16f): not merely intellectual assent, but trust, loyalty and dependence. Those who believe his message, and trust him, will never perish but have eternal life. Their faith in the finished work of Jesus, responding to God’s grace, means they have “crossed over from death to life” (Jn 5:24).

“was taken up in glory” (v. 16g): Jesus rose from the dead, appeared to his beloved disciples, and returned to heaven. The good news of Jesus Christ is literally out of this world, although God’s future plans for humankind and all of creation are very much grounded in this world.

Those who believe these universal truths are those who “allow their own personal story to be reshaped around the story of Jesus himself.”[2]

They discover that in God’s sovereign purpose they together constitute “the church of the living God” in contrast to every other association and every false god; together they form “the pillar and foundation of the truth” in contrast to every other foundation, philosophy, worldview and ideology.

Commenting on the nature of Christian ministry, as Paul has expounded it in chapters 1-3, John Stott says, in relation to verse 15:

If the apostles’ directions regarding the doctrine, ethics, unity and mission of the church had been given only in oral form, the church would have been like a maples traveller and a rudderless ship. But because the apostolic instructions were written down, we know what we would otherwise not have known, namely how people ought to conduct themselves in the church.[3]

Notice the three illuminating terms Paul uses to describe the church of Jesus Christ: it is “God’s household,” “the church of the living God,” “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (v. 15).

Elsewhere Paul speaks of the church as a body; here his image is first that of a family (see also 1 Cor 3:16; Heb 3:5-6; 1 Pet 2:5; 4:17).

His reference to the living God reminds me of his words to the Christians at Thessalonica, who had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead” (1 Th 1:9-10a).

Notice the similar idea in Ephesians 2:22, where Paul teaches that those who follow Jesus and come together in fellowship for service “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

When we gather, this is who we are! God is among us. The living God is the object of our worship, our devotion, our allegiance.

To what degree is this really evident as we meet? How I wish we were all more godly, more united, less worldly, less self-centred, less half-hearted, less burdened by life’s problems, more “on fire” for God – so that people observing our manner of life, our conversation, our devotion to the common good, and our vibrant worship might be compelled to “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Cor 14:25).

The church is also “the pillar” of the truth, lifting it aloft, and its “foundation,” holding the structure firm and stable in the face of external threats to its structure and function.

The great classic temple in Ephesus, dedicated to the worship of the goddess Diana (Artemis), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, boasted one hundred colossal Ionic columns, each over 18 metres high, supporting a massive shining marble roof.

Timothy, and everyone at Ephesus, knew about pillars. As John Stott observes,

as pillars life a building high while remaining themselves unseen, so the church’s function is not to advertise itself but to advertise and display the truth of God in Jesus Christ … The church depends on the truth for its existence; the truth depends on the church for its defence and proclamation.[4]

There is no pillar more reliable for your daily conduct and your eternal salvation; no foundation more secure on which to ground your faith and build your life (cf Eph 2:19-20).

The truth points to Jesus, and is embodied by Jesus. Without the incarnation of the Son of God, there could be no bold announcement of the inauguration of the kingdom of God; no proper understanding of the immensity of God’s love for us; no accurate appreciation of audacity of God’s plan for our reconciliation; no propitiation for our sins; no resurrection, and no hope for the world.

But Jesus has come! And we have peace with God, and joy amid the sadness and suffering of life, and a reliable hope for the future.

If you have pledged allegiance to Jesus, if your forgiveness rests on his atoning death, if your light is a small reflection of his pure universal light, then you have passed from death to life, and your life is hidden with Christ in God, and having believed on him in the world, he will be true to his word and take you up in glory.

Thanks be to God.


Sermon 632 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 23 August 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Pastoral Letters (London: SPCK, 2003), p. 38.

[2] Wright, ibid., p. 41.

[3] John R.W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (Leicester: IVP, 1996), p. 103, original italics.

[4] Ibid., pp. 105, 106.

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