1 Timothy 3:15 uses three phrases to describe the New Testament church: we are “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”
On Sunday we explored the “pillar and buttress” metaphor in some detail. What we didn’t explore—quite as much—is the rich Old Testament background behind those first two descriptions.
“Household of God”
Let’s consider this first phrase. Households typically live in houses. And, in fact, both words—“household” and “house”—are translations of a single Greek word “house,” which could have either meaning, depending on context.
In the Greek Old Testament, the phrase “house of God” was often used to speak about the the place where God dwelt.
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”(Genesis 28:16–17, ESV)
Later on this phrase was used many times to refer to the tabernacle and then temple.
Praise the name of the Lord, give praise, O servants of the Lord, who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God!(Psalm 135:1–2, ESV)
In the New Covenant, we understand that we are God’s house. As Ephesians 2:22 says, “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” And if we turn back a few verses in that chapter, we find that there’s not a huge gap between the idea that we are God’s “house” and that we are also His “household.” Look at how these two ideas come together in verses 19-21:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.(Ephesians 2:19–21, ESV)
This is who we are: the structure where God lives, and the family that lives with Him inside.
“Church of the Living God”
A similar Old Testament background stands behind the phrase “church of the living God.” Like we learned on Sunday, “church” is translated from the Greek word that means “assembly” or “congregation” or “gathering.”
This word is used many times in the Greek Old Testament to speak about God’s gathered people. When Israel gathered before Mount Sinai, this was known as “the day of the assembly” (Deuteronomy 9:10). Joshua 9:8 speaks about the “assembly of Israel,” and Judges 20:2 tells us of the “assembly of the people of God.” 2 Chronicles 6:12 says, “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel…”
This word is used in the Psalms to describe the gathering of God’s people for worship, and it’s often translated as “congregation” in our English Bible. “I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you” (Psalm 34:18).
Understanding this connection between the words “church” and “assembly” helps us bridge the gap between the people of God in the Old and New Covenants. Many Christians still speak about “Israel” and “the Church” as if they are two distinct entities, or two separate peoples of God. Nobody living in the 1st Century, reading the New Testament for the first time, would have made this mistake. They would have understood that “church” (or “assembly”) was a standard term to refer to the gathered people of God. The New Covenant “church” is simply the assembly of God’s people, Jew and Gentile, who have been saved by faith in Jesus the Messiah (See Ephesians 2:11-22).
As we come together again on Sunday, we should do so with the knowledge that God is the living God, and we are His gathered people who stand in a long line of assemblies—from Mount Sinai to Jerusalem to Ephesus all the way to Nipawin. More than this, we are also God’s very house. When people enter our gathering they should be able to say, along with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place!” Not because of our building, but because we ourselves are God’s house and household, and the Lord Himself is dwelling in our midst.