It is one of the basic premises of this series of articles that the theme of truth is of central to the Pastoral Epistles. There is little room to question this; the language of truth crowds the pages of these epistles. However, truth is not the only focus of these epistles. They are also deeply concerned with church life and order. Their pages are full of instructions for elders, deacons, and teachers. Indeed, if our Bibles did not contain the Pastoral Epistles we would have a more limited picture of church order than we now possess.
It is not a coincidence that these two areas of teaching come together. Truth and testimony are closely linked and mutually dependent. Without truth there would be nothing to which to bear testimony. Without testimony, truth would never be known. If it is true, as we have seen, that these epistles resonate with the wonderful truth that God has spoken, they echo too with urgent reminders that it is the “church of God,” the local assembly, which God has sovereignly chosen as the means through which truth is preserved and propagated in a dark world.
Perhaps nowhere in the pastoral epistles is this relationship so clearly stated as in 1 Timothy 3:15 where it provides us with a great statement of what a local church is and what it is for: “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The closing clause of the verse intimately links the local church with the truth. Its primary purpose is to be “the pillar and ground of the truth” – to preserve and present the truth to a watching world.
This is a tremendous and essential fact. If we lose sight of what the assembly is for, what it has been designed by God to do, we are likely to find ourselves moving away from the Scriptural pattern of church truth. Even as we grasp this fact, we are led inevitably to ask what is the truth that rests on this pillar. Paul anticipates and answers the question, not by outlining all of the truth, which would take a whole Bible of material, but by giving us “the great essential lineaments of the truth … the fundamental truth set forth in the person of Christ, and graven, not only on the hearts of Christians as such, but on the assembly for its public confession, its habitual praise, and its practice every day” (William Kelly). A careful consideration of verse 16 will help us to understand a number of important principles about what truth is.
The verse begins with a note of affirmation: “without controversy.” There is no scope for dissent here, and the apostle is not offering a proposition to be debated. The revelation of divine truth calls for unanimous assent. In our world, this can hardly be overemphasized. We live in an age of a la carte Christianity. Our postmodern society has abandoned the idea of objective truth in favor of a selective relativism. So religion becomes nothing more than a pick-and-mix. We take the bits that we like, the comfortable and comforting concepts and ceremonies that seem to make life easier. The harder truths that cut across our own preferences and inclinations we leave behind, dismissing the plain teaching of the Word of God with phrases such as, “I don’t see it that way.” We cannot approach truth like this. God’s Word demands our assent and our submission; the mystery of Godliness is “confessedly … great” (Darby).
The truth that demands our acceptance is revealed truth; it is “the mystery of godliness.” Once concealed in the purposes of God, inaccessible to human reasoning or scientific experiment, it has now been made known. Revelation, and not reason, is the source of truth. We tend to invert this, to value what we can see and hear and touch above the Word of God. Even as believers, we can be guilty of looking to science, history, or archaeology to prove the truthfulness of Scripture. Of course all truth, in whatever realm it may be found, is compatible with God’s Word and will not contradict it, but the Bible has an authority that comes from God, not from the evidence of the natural world.
Truth is connected with godliness. This provides another link to the preceding verse, which began with an emphasis on godly living: “That thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself … . ” This is an emphasis that re-occurs throughout Scripture, but that is particularly a feature of the Pastoral Epistles, especially Titus, where “the truth which is after godliness” (1:1, KJV) is the keynote of the whole epistle. Truth, as viewed Scripturally, is not something that can or should be divorced from practice. Truth produces godly behavior and, as a corollary, error inevitably manifests itself in moral evil. So it is here. This mystery demonstrates godliness. It presents Christ to us as its example and epitome. It also produces godliness, for it is only through Christ that godliness is possible for us. “He is the source, power, and pattern of what is practically acceptable to God” (Kelly).
Furthermore, truth is personal; it relates to the Lord Jesus Christ, “Who was manifest in flesh.” “Truth” is not some sort of abstract concept, to be debated by philosophers. All truth finds its origin in Christ, and all truth points us back to Christ. Thus it is that when we look at the top of the pillar to find out what it is that is held up by the local assembly, we find, not a series of rules and dogmas, but six sublime statements about the person of the Lord Jesus Christ: “God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.”
To examine these statements in any sort of adequate way would be impossible within the bounds of this article. As we read through them, one further aspect of truth is repeatedly emphasized: Truth has been, and is to be declared. “Manifest,” ”justified” (or vindicated), and “preached” all share a common emphasis on publication and declaration, and this emphasis closely accords with the assembly’s function as the exhibiting “pillar … of the truth.” Man loves gnosticism – the concept of special, secret knowledge, accessible only to those who have been initiated. God places no boundaries on truth. Long and loud, broad and wide, it is to be sounded out, unlimited by ethnic or national boundaries, out beyond the nation of Israel to the Gentiles, until the whole world has heard the voice of God. And that voice has not spoken in riddles. This is sometimes known as the perspicuity of Scripture. The Bible means what it says. Scripture is not a code to be cracked. The Bible is a book like no other, but we must read it as we would any other book, for God has deigned in matchless, free, and eternal grace to speak to men in the words of men, and to reveal His truth in a way that we can apprehend and comprehend. Small wonder that Paul says the mystery of godliness is confessedly great!