“The Pillar and Ground of the Truth”
Tom Henry is pastor of Bible Baptist Church of St. Louis, Missouri. Bible Baptist Church hosts an annual Fall Sovereign Grace Bible Conference. He is himself a conference speaker and served as a past Chairman of the Sovereign Grace Baptist Fellowship.
“These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: 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.” (II Timothy 3: 14, 15 KJV)
Paul here states his reason for writing this epistle. It was to instruct Timothy, to whom he had committed the oversight of the church at Ephesus, how he should conduct himself in the church of God. Some prefer a more general rendering of the text, giving it a broader application, which reads, “that thou mayest know how men oughtest to behave themselves in the house of God.” The text can bear such a translation, and surely none would argue that all members without exception should behave themselves appropriately in God’s house. Plus, many of the things written in the preceding portion of the epistle have respect to the conduct of men generally. However, the context strongly indicates that Paul is addressing these words to Timothy in particular. “These things write I unto thee, hoping to come to thee…that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God.” To maintain the second person singular throughout seems most logical. Timothy must discharge his office as minister, evangelist, and pastor with honor to God and himself, and to the profit of the people.
As we consider the apostle’s stated purpose for writing this first pastoral epistle, his instructions to Timothy are written most carefully, in the event that his intentions to come to Ephesus in person should not materialize, or should his coming be delayed. Paul had no way of knowing that his hope would not be realized. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit did know, and moved His apostle to write these things down, not for Timothy only, but for us as well.
As we consider this tremendous text of Scripture, let us all take heed to ourselves, that we always “walk as children of light, proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.” Let us walk circumspectly at all times, for we are, after all, God’s sanctuary. However, let those of us who have been called to the pastoral oversight of God’s house give particular heed to ourselves and to the doctrine, that we might both save ourselves, and them that hear us.
In contemplating Paul’s statement of purpose: “that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God,” we need not ask for any reason or motive beyond that which is couched in the text itself. There are two most glorious descriptions of the Church set forth in the text which provides more than sufficient justification for his insistence upon unimpeachable pastoral conduct in the church. First, she is described in her designation: “The house of God…the church of the living God.” Secondly, she is described in her destination: “The pillar and ground of the truth.”
The Church's Designation
First, the church is designated, “the house of God.” The apostle is being very specific when he says; “the house of God, which is the Church of the living God.” The relative, “which”, is in this case, stronger than ordinary. (Another example of this is Gal. 4: 24) It is “employed to introduce an especial attribute belonging to the nature of an object, its real and peculiar property.” (Jeff, Gr. Pp 816, 817) Thus, the text might read, “the house of God, which is indeed the Church of the living God.” The necessity for this strong emphasis was because in former times the expression “house of God” had been much associated with the material fabric of the temple, which was believed to be the habitation and dwelling-place of the Divine Majesty. (II Chron. 5: 14; Isa. 56:7; Matt. 21: 13) There was nothing of like sort in the Gospel dispensation, for God’s people are indeed God’s house. But, in truth, this was nothing new. Even in Old Testament times the more enlightened believers understood that, “the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands.” The temple, with its sacred furnishings and services, was only an emblem of God’s fellowship with His people. The only proper habitation of God on the earth had ever been His people themselves. (Isa. 66:2) There was a mutual dwelling – they in God, and God in them. (Psa. 90: 1; Ezek. 11:16)
Having the spiritual nature of the church so clearly revealed, it should no longer be necessary, though sadly it is, to say that God’s house is not a building of bricks and mortar. The apostle most emphatically declares that the house of God is indeed His church. Although the church is, in fact, called a building, it is a spiritual building, whose stones are living stones. (I Peter 2: 15) The living stones in this building are of both Jews and Gentiles. (Eph. 2: 14ff). Its mortar, if you will, is that which every joint supplieth. (Eph. 4: 16)
Even though both Jews and Gentiles are together referred to as “the household of God,” (Eph. 2: 19) the KJV here is correct, in my opinion, in rendering oikoi, house, and not household, as in the preceding verse. (Vs. 4, 5, 12) Paul is not here emphasizing the fact of the church as the family of God, but rather, as His dwellingplace. Believers are God’s dwelling-place. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you”? (I Cor. 3: 16) “For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them.” (II Cor. 6: 16) With reference to Christ as a Son in His own house, the writer adds, “Whose house we are, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” (Heb. 3:6) Seeing that the church is God’s house, temple, habitation or dwelling-place, surely it is good that we know how to properly conduct ourselves therein. Let us also know that “judgment must begin at the house of God.” (I Peter 4: 17)
Second, the Church is most gloriously designated “the church (ecclesia) of the living God.” Of all institutions, the church alone has been so highly honored as to have been given a title so excellent. In this designation can be seen both her holy character and her loving favor with God. It expresses the special and effectual calling of the elect into living union with the living God. The Church of God, the ecclesia, in its full sense is a company of persons called out by the Holy Spirit from among the rest of mankind, banded together for the purpose of the defense and the propagation of the truth. As Patrick Fairbairn puts it, “It is the Church as the ecclesia of God, His elect, whom He has called out of the world and gathered into His fold that He may sustain and keep them unto life eternal.”
But here, as in many other places, the apostle uses the word ecclesia, not in its absolute sense, but as referring to the outstanding, visible organized communities of believers established in this or that locality. As Mr. Spurgeon noted, “If there be but three or four, yet if they be so banded together in the fear of God, they are to all intent and purpose, a church; and if they should happen to number thousands, they are no more a church because of their numbers – a church being a company of faithful men.”
The excellence of this glorious title is the more enhanced by the phrase “the living God.” We have no dead formal religion, if we be indeed the church of the living God. There are churches of God, and there are synagogues of Satan. There are churches that take the name upon themselves, but they are dead. (Rev. 3:1) But, as God lives, so do His churches live.
The Church’s God is the living God. Timothy knew all too well what vain hopeless religion the Ephesians all about him were practicing. They would fall down before some lifeless image, whether it be the image of Diana, or some other block or stone. Our God, the God of the Church lives and reigns. He shows His life and power all around us. We see Him sustaining nature, ruling providence, and reigning in the midst of the Church. He is the living God. By the living Spirit of God, we preach the living Christ. He ever lives to make intercession for us as we preach the living Gospel, by which He calls his elect out of death into His life, and brings them into living union with Himself, making them His Church.
When we come to appreciate the Church as she is here described by her highly elevated titles, we must then realize how that nothing of a merely carnal nature can by any means add to her greatness. Should she have the fullest and friendliest support and cooperation of all worldly powers, her real glory could not thereby be improved in the least degree.
Thus, we have a glorious description of the church in her designation as God’s own called out assembly, which He has made His dwelling place. John Newton beautifully sets forth this precious truth in the words of his great hymn, the title of which is doubtless taken from Psalm 87: 3: “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion City of our God; He whose word cannot be broken formed thee for His own abode.”
The Church's Destination
The church is described in her destination, i.e. her appointed or predetermined purpose. She is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” The church is established to maintain and exhibit before the world the testimony of Divine truth that is committed to her keeping. This is what she is called to do. This is a perfectly fitting and natural calling for Christ’s Church. Was not He Himself called to bear witness to the truth, and in doing so, to become the light of the world? In this, Christ is pre-eminently what in a measure His Church is to be. The Church is a foundation upon which truth may securely rest amid all of the uncertainties of the world. It is also a pillar to bear it aloft, that all may know and consider it.
This mode of interpretation has been resisted in certain quarters because of the supposition that it plays too much to the Church of Rome. Some expositions have gone so far as to connect these words with what follows, (Vs. 16) rather than what precedes them. This forms a most artificial and awkward beginning of a new sentence. Plus the connection is not at all suitable. This is, indeed, one of the passages that Rome uses to base its claim to universal homage as the one Church of Christ. But, it is no more suitable to Rome’s purpose than any other text that she, by arbitrary distinction and vain assumption, has used to promote her false claim. It is not for us to give either a Protestant or Catholic sense to the Scripture. It is our duty to give the true sense, be that what it may. The rendering of our version (KJV) is, as far as can be determined, quite accurate and clear. Paul describes the church in reference to truth as a pillar, and the base upon which that pillar is supported.
Perhaps this analogy came to Paul’s mind because of the great temple of Diana that was at Ephesus. That massive structure was adorned with more than a hundred enormous pillars made of Persian marble some sixty feet in height. Each was set upon a basement which was elevated ten steps above the surrounding area. False religions always seek to dazzle their worshippers with magnificent material structures meant to represent the greatness of their god and their religion. True religion and undefiled is always concerned, not with outward appearances, but inward strength and beauty. Paul calls the church of God the pillar and basement of the truth. It is not a gigantic building with stupendous columns. It is a spiritual house made up of living stones, and is itself a pillar, and also the foundation which holds up the pillar.
Now, in a certain sense the church cannot be the pillar and ground of the truth, because truth is true of itself, and owes its origin to God Himself. The church is not the deepest foundation of truth, because the church, which is the ground of truth, itself rests upon the Rock of Ages. Jesus Christ is the chief corner stone of the church. (Eph. 2:20) But, truth itself is one thing, while truth as existing in the world is another. It is the church of God which is to believe, vindicate, proclaim and defend the truth in this world. The church is all the people of God; “them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ.” (I Cor. 1:2) The person who, therefore, will take up the cause of truth, stand for it, fight for it, and make it known, may be properly called the pillar and basement of the truth in this world.
The Church being the pillar and ground of truth means that the precious doctrines of the faith are under the guardianship of the church, and in her they must ever abide and be maintained. Truth is not preserved by any of its orthodox articles and creeds, good as they may be, nor by its ministers. Neither is this sacred trust to be sublet to any of its outreach ministries. All who go out to preach must be examined, set apart, sent out and overseen by the church, to which they must ever be accountable. Clearly, it is the church as she is represented in visible organized local assemblies, which must assume this sacred duty.
This means that in the true church the truth is uplifted as upon a pillar. Truth, like a pillar, is founded upon an unshakable, unmovable basement so that it might stand upright and be seen. It is the duty and privilege of the Church of Jesus Christ to exalt the truth into the open view of all mankind. The Church is a pillar which lifts up and publishes all of the great truths of His Gospel; all of the great articles of the Mystery of Godliness. (Vs. 16) We must not hide this Gospel under a bushel, but hold it up high for all the world to see.
The Church, as a pillar, is intended to lift up the truth in its wondrous beauty. That beautiful temple which Solomon built was a type of the church. As one would approach unto it, that which would first capture his gaze would be the two massive pillars of brass standing tall in the forefront. Although these pillars, the one named Jachin, and the other Boaz, symbolized establishment and strength respectively, as indicated by their names, they were also things of great beauty. Solomon hired a cunning worker of brass to beautify them with amazing ornate work. They were then topped with magnificent chapiters. They were truly pillars of rare beauty. (See I Kings 7: 13- 22) God’s truth is indeed powerful, and it is established forever, of this we are sure, but God’s truth is also to be admired. The church is to adorn the doctrine of God her Savior in all things. Thus, she is a pillar, not only of enduring strength, but of wondrous beauty.
The Church, like a great pillar fixed upon a solid base, will stand fast and endure against all enemies of truth. Jesus said, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Greek Parthenon built on the hill of the Acropolis in the fourth century BC represents the summit of classical Greek architecture. Having stood there for over 20 centuries, it was blown up by the Turks in 1687. Even still, many of its columns remain standing to this day. Nevertheless, when those great columns are all reduced to dust, the Church as the pillar and ground of the truth will be standing firm as ever. Peter said, “The word of the Lord endureth forever and this is the word which by the Gospel is preached unto you.” (I Pet. 1: 25) Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” (Mark 13: 31)
We know that the Church, the ecclesia, is a company of faithful men called out by God from the world. But, in a doctrinal and practical sense, a true church must be patterned after the Church of the Apostles. She finds not her model in any of the institutions that have been revised after the opinions and fancies of men. In fact, she stands as a brazen pillar against all revisions and alterations of Divine truth, knowing that, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any shall take away from the words of the book of this prophesy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Rev. 22: 18, 19) This pillar is firmly fixed upon a solid base so as not to be moved or shaken by any winds of doctrine that are contrary to the teachings of Christ. So must the true Church be in all ages, yielding to no error, nor concealment of doctrine, nor change of ordinance.
The Church of God is to uphold, defend, maintain and propagate the pure doctrine of Christ and His apostles. If she fails in this, if in her midst the truth is not loved, if it is not adorned, if it is not vindicated and proclaimed, the church, so-called, is no longer the pillar and ground of the truth.
How careful, therefore, ought Timothy to be in the discharge of his pastoral duties! How careful also should every member of the church be to maintain a proper character! How careful, especially to stand in the truth, which alone defines the church in its purpose here.
Oh, what a blessing is ours to be numbered among His chosen ones, called out from the world, and made a part of the Church of the Living God, which is the house of God where He is pleased to dwell! What an honor it is to be entrusted with the everlasting Gospel, as the pillar and ground of the truth! May God’s truth be to us more precious than life itself. May we prove ourselves worthy of this sacred trust by holding fast the form of sound words, whatever the cost. “That good thing which was committed to us,” may we “keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.” (II Tim. 1: 13, 14)