In 1 Timothy 3:14-16, Paul explains his purpose in writing. Although he planned to visit Timothy and his congregation in person, he realized that he might be delayed. So he wanted to make sure that Timothy had clear instructions on how people ought to behave in the church.
But notice how Paul describes the church. It is the household of God. I suspect not many people nowadays understand what that means. On the other hand, I suspect any modern Christian would quickly agree that “godliness” makes a good one-word definition of proper conduct. Paul calls the source of godliness a mystery.
The household of God
Today, household usually means the people who live together in a house, usually some kind of family structure. As far as the church is concerned, that definition is very good as far as it goes, but Paul, Timothy, and everyone they ever met lived in an empire.
The emperor had a household with a greatly expanded meaning. That meaning has lasted until the present day, actually. It persists not only in all monarchies, but also in the mansions of the very rich.
The Biltmore Estate, one of North Carolina’s best known tourist destinations, was the family home of George Vanderbilt. His household extended far beyond his family
In a monarchy, the king reigns and rules. He has people who work for him, from the top officers in his government to the people who scrub the floors. In between are artists, musicians, chefs, and all manner of skilled people who serve the king. Together, these people were known as the king’s household.
As Christians let’s not forget whom we work for. We are God’s household. Not only we lay Christians, but also the clergy, including all of the bishops or their equivalents in other denominations are God’s household.
From the top leaders to the newest convert, the church exists to serve God. 1Timothy 3:15 actually expresses that truth the other way around. God’s household, his roster of servants, is the church, or assembly, of the living God.
Assembly can mean both the gathering of a congregation and unity of all congregations. These are distinct, but not separate meanings. Paul primarily means the local congregation here, but goes on to call God’s household the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
Any large structure requires more than one pillar, so whatever Paul says about a local congregation requires the understanding that it must take its place within a universal structure to uphold the truth and defend it against attack.
Think of it this way: Some of the royal household in England work at Windsor Castle, others at Buckingham Palace, etc., but they all serve the same queen and have the same basic mission. Rivalry and dissension among various groups of the royal household would be quite unseemly!
Paul calls Christianity a mystery. For some reason, we tend to use that word as if it meant some kind of impenetrable puzzle. Fortunately, we still preserve a more profound understanding of the word, at least in literature.
As in any modern mystery novel, that means that something unknown and unknowable in the beginning is revealed in the end.
Much remains unknown to us, but God has already revealed how the story will end. He began that revelation immediately after the fall: he pledged to redeem Adam (his generic name for human) from the bad bargain he had made with Satan.
And through Jesus Christ, God revealed the greatest clue to date about his final intentions, about the grace that leavens his judgment, and how thoroughly Satan has already been defeated.
That thought inspires Paul to write down another hymn of praise that’s truer now than it was when he put it in this epistle:
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.
People throughout more of the world than Paul ever imagined believe in Jesus. For all its faults, the church is accomplishing its mission in the world.