Theme: The Church as Pillar and Foundation
In this week’s lessons, we learn what it means that the church is the pillar and foundation of God’s truth, and how we are to live as a result.
Scripture: 1 Timothy 3:14-16
Each of the books in the Bible has been written for a special purpose, but you don’t always find that purpose explicitly stated. Or if you do, you don’t always find it in the same place of the book. Sometimes it comes at the beginning, and sometimes at the end. Sometimes a book is written primarily for instruction, and other ones deal with problems.
First Timothy 3:15 contains a problem of interpretation, which is located within the context of Paul’s explanation of his purpose in writing to Timothy. On the surface it looks like it is a significant problem, but as we study it, it turns out to be, like so many biblical problems, actually a great blessing. We see his purpose for writing in verses 14-15. Paul tells Timothy that he hopes to come to him soon, but if that does not happen, he wants to tell Timothy how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s church. That’s why we’re studying this book. We, too, want to know how we are to act.
But when in verse 15 Paul speaks of the church as “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” we come to a problem. Now it’s not that the idea of a pillar or a foundation is anything unusual. We find that all throughout Scripture. As a matter of fact, these two words take us to some of the most encouraging and blessed teaching that’s to be found in the Bible. For example, there is a reference to a foundation in Isaiah 28:16, where the LORD says that he is laying “a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.” We come to know that this is a promise of the coming Messiah, the foundation and cornerstone upon whom the church will be built. We certainly need a foundation like that in the midst of a world that builds on the wrong foundations.
When we go to the New Testament, we find the same thing in Luke 6:48-49. Here, Jesus is speaking about how people respond to his teaching, likening it to two approaches using the image of building a house. The one who hears Jesus’ words and does them is like a man who dug deep and laid his foundation on a rock. Jesus, of course, is the rock, upon whom a wise man establishes his life. We see the same principle taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:10-11. Paul writes in verse 11, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
And yet, when we come to our passage in 1 Timothy, the same Paul who said that Jesus Christ is the foundation now says that the church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of the truth. It seems to us as if this idea is backwards, because, we ask, isn’t it true that the church is built upon Christ? We’re not the foundation, and yet here he is saying that the church—what he also calls God’s household—is the pillar and foundation of the truth. Now how are we supposed to understand that? It seems to us as a problem. But whenever we find something like this, and then begin to study the matter, we find that it is not a problem, and, in fact, such verses have a great deal to say to us in a very practical way.
Obviously, this verse is not repudiating what Paul has said elsewhere. When we read that the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, it is not saying that Jesus Christ is built upon the church. There are people who say things that sound like that, however. Some theologians hold that stories about Christ that we find in the Bible are really inventions by the church to describe the early Christians’ spiritual experiences. In that sense, you see, according to these theologians, the church is the foundation for Jesus Christ because the only things we know about Christ are the things that the church has taught us, and not on the basis of eyewitness accounts. Clearly, Paul is not saying that. He is the one who has emphasized that what he was communicating to his hearers was only that which he had received from those who were before him. It concerned the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born, who died on the cross for our sins, who was buried, and who rose again. All of this was testified to by eyewitnesses who had gone before Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-5). So by this, Paul is not saying that the church is the foundation for Christ
What do we learn from other passages about how the Bible uses the ideas of pillar and foundation?
Describe the problem we come across in our text for this week.
Prayer: Whenever you study the Bible, always pray for God to guide your study by the Holy Spirit.
For Further Study: Download and listen for free to Donald Barnhouse’s message, “What Is the Church?” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)