This is part 2 in a 3-part series on church-strengthening in the New Testament. See part 1 here.
Teaching Churches to Swim
One of my earliest memories is at a small public swimming pool. I was four years old. Barely tall enough for the shallow end, I somehow wandered to the deep end and nearly drowned. Without the skill to keep myself afloat, I panicked and gasped for air. Thankfully, a lady close by noticed my desperation and carried me safely back. I’ll always be thankful for her!
A few years later, I was in a pool yet again, but this time I was with an instructor who was paid to give me swimming lessons. At first, she held on to me to keep me from falling under, just as the other lady had done. But after several lessons I finally learned to tread water in place, to take breaths at the right time, and eventually to make laps around the pool. Her instruction have continued to save my life every time I jump into deep water. It has also allowed me to help others who need to learn the same.
When I think about the work of missions, I’m convinced that every church should be able to “swim” on its own and not require constant rescue from others. What does this look like?
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. Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
In 1 Timothy 3:14–16, Paul explains to Timothy that he’s writing so that he understands God’s purpose for the church. He wants Timothy to know that the church’s godly conduct is meant to clarify truth before the world. Despite years of Paul’s ministry to the Ephesian church, they are still prone to be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14), following ungodly teachers into error (see 1 Tim. 1:3–7). Because of this, their evangelistic witness is stunted.
In other words, they need to learn how to swim on their own. But how?
By sending faithful workers.
Paul cannot be in Ephesus at the moment. He writes, “I hope to come to you soon . . . but if I delay” (1 Tim. 3:14–15). He longs to be with the Ephesians, helping them to know “the love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge” so that they might be “filled with all fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). What can he do when not present with the church? He can send a trusted co-laborer to teach and carry out his instruction.
That’s exactly what Paul does. He sends Timothy, the one of whom he says in Philippians 2, “I have no one else like him.” It is clear that Paul values the strengthening of the church enough to give up one so highly valued for their sake. When problems arise, he is not reluctant to send this kind of help. Timothy’s presence in Ephesus for a season will be the best way for the church to learn to swim on its own.
Established, healthy churches have a similar opportunity today to train pastors and churches in parts of the world that lack solid teachers. Their long-term ability to swim is worth sending qualified workers who teach the truth of God.
By learning what true godliness looks like.
Paul wants the Ephesian believers to behave rightly in the presence of God. He writes, “If I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15). Even though Paul and Timothy will not remain with the church indefinitely, God will. He is always present in his house, and as the Lord of the house has the right to order it as he sees fit. The behaviors Paul highlights in 1 Timothy 2–3—for men, women, elders, and deacons—explain what true godliness looks like.
It’s right to send workers to patiently encourage such godliness. Timothy comes not to dominate the church into submission but to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). He should “put these things before the brothers” as a “good servant of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 4:6). His efforts in modeling and instructing the church to live rightly in the presence of God will enable them to swim without help.
By exalting the truth of Christ.
Godliness is not an end to itself, nor is it disconnected from doctrine. By behaving rightly in the presence of God, the church functions as a supporting structure (“a pillar and buttress,” v.15) for the truth to be seen by all. Each local church reveals the beauty of the truth of God when it orders itself according to his design.
Even more, a rightly ordered and godly church proclaims Christ to the world, since the “mystery of godliness” is Christ himself. Jesus is the personification of the truth that the church props up through godly living. In 1 Timothy 3:16, he is incarnate (“manifested in the flesh”), resurrected (“vindicated by the Spirit”), and ascended (“taken up into glory”). As Paul has previously told the Ephesians, Jesus is the creator of the church as the “one new man” (Eph. 2:15) and the “cornerstone” of the church as the new temple (Eph. 2:20). All of the church’s action is designed to reveal Christ to the world.
It is through the church’s godliness that Jesus is “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world” (v.16). When a church exalts the truth of its Savior by its godly, Christlike conduct, it has evangelistic credibility and vitality. Coming back to the illustration of swimming, this is a church that not only stays afloat but also helps others to dive fully into “the breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ (Eph. 3:18). As the church of the living God, it does not depend indefinitely on workers from other countries to fulfill the Great Commission in its own village, city, or region. With the occasional help of faithful workers, the church learns to sufficiently and credibly proclaim the gospel on its own.
This is the model of the New Testament: that by careful theological teaching and well-applied instruction in godliness, churches will display the beauty of Christ to the world. Look around and ask others, “Who needs help learning how to swim? And who can we send to teach them?”
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