At first reading, 1 Timothy 3:15 seems somewhat disconcerting. In it, Paul is explaining to Timothy why he is writing to him. It concerns the church: "I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth."
Did you catch what he wrote? "The church . . . a pillar and buttress of the truth." As sound evangelicals, we know that Paul has to have that backwards, don't we? Surely, the gospel is that which gives solidity and shape to the church? Isn't the church built on the gospel and the product of the gospel?
Yes, undoubtedly yes. But that's not the point Paul is making in this context. He wants Timothy to get the church in Ephesus back on gospel tracks because she has departed from the gospel. The Pastoral Epistles are not simply manuals for church order. They are an urgent call to arms. Timothy needs to go to war because the gospel is at stake in this city and region.
But critical to this strategy is the church herself. The church, formed by the gospel, is for the gospel, and by her life and witness, she commends the gospel and is the primary apologetic for the gospel before the world. John Stott, in his commentary on 1 Timothy and Titus, put it well when he wrote, "The church depends on the truth for its existence; the truth depends on the church for its defence and proclamation."
In essence, Paul's letter to Timothy shows us just how important the gospel is for the church, but equally how important the church is for the gospel. Which, given the comment by Jesus in Matthew 5, isn't at all disconcerting. Just as Israel under the old covenant commended Yahweh to the surrounding nations by her covenant life, so the church of the new covenant commends Christ by her covenant life.
So here are the two takeaways:
ENSURE THAT THE GOSPEL IS AT THE HEART OF YOUR CHURCH
Nothing else gives shape or stability to the church. Nothing else will sustain or nurture her. Nothing else gives her life or purpose. The church is all about Christ, and she is created by the gospel for Christ. Out of a deep love for Him, her ambition and passion will be His honor, reputation, and glory. The gospel isn't merely the way into the church; it is the means by which we remain the church and thrive as the church. Without the gospel of Christ, there is no church.
ENSURE THAT THE CHURCH IS AT THE HEART OF YOUR GOSPEL
Unless we are convinced biblically and theologically about the centrality of the church in God's purposes, we won't be committed to living out that identity together for the fame and glory of Jesus. But consider how the church puts the gospel on display by means of three cardinal gospel truths:
The church is the community of the justified. Unlike those who do not know Christ, we don't need to justify ourselves by our relational performance. We relate to one another as brothers and sisters without fear or favor because Christ is our justification. Those relationships display that to a watching world.
As the forgiven, we become the forgivers. People understand the doctrine more when they see it displayed in real time, up close and personal, in messy, disordered lives.
It is in being reconciled to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit that we become a reconciled community. It is precisely because we are no longer strangers to God that we are no longer strangers to one another. When people witness our reconciliation, they see a tangible expression of what God has done for sinners in Christ.
SHOWING THE GLORY OF THE GOSPEL
When the church puts the gospel on display in this way, we draw people's attention to the gospel. Like a diamond lying in the corner of a room, we glimpse it out of the corner of our eye even when we're not looking for it. It catches our attention. So it is with the people of God. As we live out our shared life together in the public square and marketplace, at street level, others glimpse the glory of God even when they are not looking for it. That glimmer excites inquiry, and they begin to look for the reason for our hope.
In Jesus, truth was embodied. He did not merely speak the truth; He was the truth. He did not come to simply tell the world about God; He came as God. So it is with His people. We speak the truth of the gospel with our lips. We show the glory of the gospel by the manner in which we live life-on-life together on mission as His church.