By Barnabas Piper
Despite growing up as the son of a pastor and being part of churches my entire life, when I began to sense God’s call on my life toward pastoring I was hesitant. I wasn’t sure what it meant for me to do it well. 1 Timothy was pivotal in helping me see God’s plan for the people and the leaders of the local church.
The passage begins by saying that it is commendable to desire the position of overseer (a pastor or elder), but lest anyone desire it out of pride or eagerness for power, Paul lays out the qualifications. And they are all about character and godliness, not gifts and abilities. Overseers of the church are to embody the heart and attitudes of Christ. Why? Because the church is “God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1Timothy 3:15).
Just prior to that he explained that he was writing “so that you will know how people ought to conduct themselves” (v.15). So Paul doesn’t want us to think godliness is reserved only for the ones leading the church. We are all part of this living expression of God’s Word and character so our conduct and character really do matter.
Then Paul says something eye-catching: “And most certainly, the mystery of godliness is great” (v.16). Does he mean that we aren’t sure what “godliness” means or how to live it out? Or maybe that it’s a mystery where godliness comes from?
Paul isn’t saying that godliness is confusing or that God has been opaque about what it looks like to be godly. He is marveling at the scope of God’s plan and work to reveal Himself. He calls it a mystery because it is miraculous, something only God can do. He sent prophets to foretell the coming salvation and then fulfilled those prophecies when “These things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1Peter 1:12). He gives new hearts to replace our hard hearts and He fills us with the Spirit so we will walk in obedience (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
The mystery of godliness is the magnitude of it. God has been working in innumerable ways for all eternity to reveal Himself and His plan of salvation. It is beyond our understanding, but not beyond our worship, wonder, or obedience. Best of all, we are called to be part of it. “But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy” (1Peter 1:15–6). We have the privilege, the joy of being members of the Church of the living God, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1Timothy 3:15). We are called into this mystery, this mighty work of God, so we can live out this mystery for the world to see.
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