A strong fortress
One of the dominant biblical images of ‘church’ is as a building (e.g: 1Corinthians 3:9, 1Peter 2:3-4; Hebrews 3:6; Ephesians 2:19-22). And a particular slant on this is the church as a strong fortress of Bible truth. In 1Timothy 3:15 the church is a ‘pillar and buttress of truth’.
A pillar holds truth high – displays it for all to see.
A buttress holds truth firms – defends it from all attacks.
In 1 Timothy this Bible truth is under subtle, fatal-to-faith attack from those inside the church! They are even named: ‘Hymenaues and Alexander’ (1:20). The reminder to display the truth prevents cowardice – keeping low so we avoid the bullets. The reminder to defend the truth prevents complacency – a deadly indifference to distortion.
Wolves in shepherd’s clothing
But it is a double surprise. Not only are the attacks from those inside the church (wolves in shepherd’s clothing?) but what they attack is the Bible. They ‘teach false doctrine’ (1:3). They have ‘turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers but do not know what they are talking about…’ (1:6-7). Their ‘teaching come from hypocritical liars’ and ‘does not agree with sound doctrine’ (4:1-2, 6:3-4).
The solution; the way to both lift high and hold firm the truth is in right handling of the Bible. To be ‘nourished on the truths of faith and of the good teaching that you have followed’ (4:6-7). To ‘command and teach’ and ‘devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.’ (4:11, 13).
The strongest, military language is used; six times the word ‘command’; twice to ‘fight the battle’ and the letter finishes ‘guard what has been entrusted to your care’ (6:20). The reason is that the outcome is devastating, leading to ‘shipwreck’ (1:19), ‘abandonment’ (4:1), and being ‘plunged into ruin and destruction’ (6:9).
It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of rightly handling the Bible, hence our value of being Bible-saturated.
In everything all the time
To love the Bible – to love it and know it and learn it and delight in it and obey it and teach it all the time in everything.
Especially in the centrality of main meeting preaching
The weight and lean in 1 Timothy and throughout the New Testament is toward the central position of the public preaching of the Bible – ‘devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching’ (4:13).
Preaching is the vessel through which divine life-blood for the vitality and health of the church and God-exalting transformation either flows freely or dribbles feebly.
Preaching is the rays of God’s sunlight that ripen and mature seedlings to fruit-bearing beauty or creates grey, damp rot-inducing dankness that stifles all growth.
Preaching is the guide-rope anchored to Christ the cornerstone which the church lays stone, brick, mortar and cladding correctly against. Precise, taut and accurate guide-ropes produce a Christ-aligned, solid masterpiece; slack, crooked guide-ropes leave a bulging, unsafe, uninhabited structure.
Preaching is vital. Preaching either opens wide or clogs and restricts the vessel through which God’s life-blood flows. Preaching either shines forth sun or creates grey, over-cast, rot-inducing damp. Preaching either lays a true and precise guide to build to or a crooked, slack rope that is useless.
An example: our corporate worship
We do not worship the Bible but without the Bible we cannot worship. Without the Bible we do not know who God is, why he should be worshipped, or what is an appropriate way to worship him. And of course that is the same for every block of church life and personal life. Without the Bible taught I do not know how to love. I do not know how to serve or live or parent or work. The quality of the Bible taught to us (and our response to it) is vital. Attacking it undermines all the church can be. We must be determined to hold it firm and hold it high (a pillar and buttress) in everything all time and especially in the public preaching.
1 For how preachers preach
Preachers speak for God.
“When a man goes to church he often hears a preacher in the pulpit rehash everything that he has read in the editorials, the newspapers, and the magazines. On the TV commentaries he hears that same stuff over again, yawns, and goes out and plays golf on Sunday. When a man comes to church, actually what he is saying to you is this, “Preacher, I know what the TV commentator has to say; I hear him every day. I know what the editorial writer has to say; I read it every day. I know what the magazines have to say; I read them every week. Preacher, what I want to know is, does God have anything to say? If God has anything to say, tell us what it is.”
(W.A. Criswell (1909–2002), who pastored First Baptist Dallas for 40 years)
But preachers speak for God only as they teach the Bible. Preachers have a real but delegated and conditional authority.
“The Christian preacher has a boundary set for him. When he enters the pulpit, he is not an entirely free man. There is a very real sense in which it may be said of him that the Almighty has set him his bounds that he shall not pass. He is not at liberty to invent or choose his message: it has been committed to him, and it is for him to declare, expound, and commend it to his hearers . . . It is a great thing to come under the magnificent tyranny of the Gospel!”
(Donald Coggan, Archbishop 1976-1980)
So there is a paradox: liberty and restraint; authority and humility; prophetic and submissive; anointed and studied.
2 For how churches prioritise
Meetings: The priority meeting in the life of the church is the main meeting where the Bible is preached. This is not to say small groups and private study, for those who can, are not valuable and to be encouraged but meeting together under God’s Word is essential for the health and shape and life of the church.
Ministers/Leaders: Among demanding character qualities the one competence in the biblical criteria for leadership is to teach (e.g: Titus 1:9). Alongside many things but above them all the minister/pastor/elder/leader is set-aside to ‘hold firm to the trustworthy message as it has been taught’. The church must demand and release this in its leaders.
3 For how listeners listen
Three R of good listeners:
Relief: Though we should all desire to grow and progress you do not need nor should you expect to understand everything in the Bible. God has given you teachers. Listen to them. Let them help. Benefit from their gift. Do not worry about not being able to understand or explain everything.
Responsibility: To choose your teachers well and regularly and attentively hear them teach and respond to what you hear.
Do they teach the Bible and try and obey it?
Do you listen well with an open Bible, active mind, ready heart and submissive will?
At least 50% of good preaching is good listening – are you doing your part?
“If I could choose a symbolic sound that Bethlehem Baptist Church would come to be known for, you know what it would be? The swish of the pages of 500 Bibles turning simultaneously to the morning and evening texts. The reason is this: the source of my authority in this pulpit is not . . . my wisdom; nor is it a private revelation granted to me beyond the revelation of Scripture. My words have authority only insofar as they are the repetition, unfolding and proper application of the words of Scripture. I have authority only when I stand under authority. And our corporate symbol of that truth is the sound of your Bibles opening to the text. My deep conviction about preaching is that a pastor must show the people that what he is saying was already said or implied in the Bible. If it cannot be shown it has no special authority…I have nothing of abiding worth to say to you. But God does. And of that word I hope and pray that I never tire of speaking. The life of the church depends on it.”
(John Piper recently retired after 33 years from Bethlehem Baptist Church, Min, USA: a church grown from 400 members to 5000. Quoted from his first sermon in 1980)
Readiness: God works by his Spirit through his Word taught. Are you ready? Are you expected? God will work as his Word is preached.