It's all about Jesus - 1 Timothy 1:1-2
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I noticed during that the run up to Christmas ‘Dad’s Army’ presents were being sold in various department stores underneath a picture of Corporal Jones and a large sign saying, ‘Don’t Panic’. For those of you who can’t remember the TV series, Corporal Jones was an elderly, ex-Indian army soldier who, when things looked like they were going wrong, would run around like a headless chicken crying, ‘Don’t Panic!’ Of course not only was he panicking but his antics caused everybody else to panic as well and pretty soon everything began to unravel. But the temptation to panic when it appears that the world is about to fall apart is one to which Christians can easily fall prey. Let me ask: just what do you do when a church which seems to be running smoothly suddenly looks like it is going to split into a thousand factions? How do you respond when a denomination seems to be throwing up leaders who, if they are not out and out denying basic Christian truths, are questioning them or seeing them as options which you can pick and choose as you see fit? What is a church leadership to do when faced with blatant immorality amongst its members or within its own ranks? Well, I will tell you what we tend to do- and that is panic. Either we quickly decide to jump ship altogether or dart all over the place trying to dowse any sign of fire we think we can see, drenching a lot of dry people in the process.
And that is a temptation to which Timothy was no doubt open to as he was sent to Ephesus to sort out the church situation there. Ephesus was a real melting pot of religious ideas. It was a centre of popular paganism, superstition and magic with its temple to the goddess Diana being hailed as one of the great wonders of the world. So a little church in this teeming cosmopolitan centre where every way-out idea was being expressed was particularly vulnerable to religious infection. And as we shall be seeing over the next few weeks that is exactly what was happening-the Gospel of Christ was in danger of being diluted, sidelined or simply being replaced altogether by ideas which seemed much more exotic and attractive. What is more, the guys who were peddling some of these ideas within the church were gaining an increased following and that is where Timothy, the apostle Paul’s protégé, found himself- alone- and he was meant to sort it all out. Now the urge to panic would have been nigh on irresistible wouldn’t it? Which no doubt is why in his second letter to Timothy Paul says, ‘Keep your head in all situations – i.e. don’t panic (2 Timothy 4:5). So part of the reason for Paul writing this letter was to nerve this young Christian leader in the midst of an ecclesiastical storm.
But Paul isn’t just concerned with getting the church right for its own sake, but for the world’s sake. Let me explain what I mean. Throughout this letter, Paul clearly has an eye on a lost world and he doesn’t want anything to be going on in the church which is likely to cause non-Christians to be switched off from the Gospel. Rather he wants Christians to be believing and behaving in such a way that others will take notice and so will be saved too. What is the big thing for Paul? It is there in 1:15, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to- do what?-save sinners.’ What is it that God wants? Paul tells us in 2:4, namely for ‘All men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’. But that is not going to happen if the church has abandoned the truth and needs saving herself. A sick doctor is hardly going to help a sick patient. Similarly a sick church is not going to be of much use to a sick world- that is, a world sick with sin. In order for others to be rescued, which lies at the heart of the eternal purposes of God, the church has to be healthy. Do you remember what Archbishop William Temple said about the reason for the church being in the world? He wrote, "The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members." That is why Paul writes as he does.
Now we need to realise that this is a personal letter meant for public consumption. It is personal in that it is specifically addressed to Timothy, but he expects it to be read by the rest of the church as well. And we know this because Paul ends his letter with the words ‘Grace be to you’ and the ‘you’ there is a plural ‘you’- as they say in Texas ‘Y’all’- in other words, the whole church family is to be listening in on this. So it is with us. While this letter has a lot to say to church leaders like myself, Lee, Scott and Jake, it has an awful lot to say to each one of us, especially since, like Timothy, we live in the last days when Jesus warned that we were to expect trouble.
So how do we deal with that? Well, first we are to notice how, rather than launching in with pinpointing the ‘trouble’ in the church, Paul very wisely steels Timothy and the rest of the church by focusing on what is really important, the positive- and it is all about Jesus Christ, as we see in the first three verses.
First, the authority of Christ, verse 1: ‘Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and Christ Jesus our hope.’ Have you ever thought to yourself why we should even bother reading this letter? After all it was written so long ago, to a specific individual who is long since dead and a church which no longer exists. Well, here we are told why every single one of us should be giving these words our utmost attention, because these are not just any words, they are God’s words. Sure, they are Paul’s words, after all, the writer identifies himself in the first line. But he goes on to say he is an ‘apostle’. Now that that would have got Timothy and the church’s attention straight away, just as if you received a letter with the heading: ‘Buckingham Palace’ or ‘Inland Revenue’ would get your attention. An apostle was someone who had seen and heard the risen Lord Jesus and had been given special authority by him. The idea being that this person fully represents Jesus, so that he was present and spoke on behalf of Jesus. To put it simply, what Paul says is what Jesus says. You can’t pick and choose between the words of Jesus and the words of Paul, for the words of Paul are the words of Jesus inspired by the Spirit of Jesus. But you might say, ‘Yes, but why should I bother too much about the words of Jesus?’ Well, you bother because of who Jesus is, for Paul goes on, ‘By the command of God our Saviour and Christ Jesus our hope’. Here we have an identification of Jesus with God. In Acts 9 we are given an account of Paul or Saul as he was then known, being encountered by the risen and ascended Jesus on the Road to Damascus. Blinded by the light, Paul asks, ‘Who are you Lord?’ Then came the answer which must have caused him to need a clean change of underwear: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what to do.’ Which is what he did. In the meantime Jesus had spoken to another disciple, Ananias about Paul saying ‘This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’ So Paul receives his command from Jesus who is Saviour, and here God is said to have given him the command and is referred to as Saviour. It is not that Paul was commanded by God through Jesus, but by God and Jesus- there is no separation between the two in Paul’s mind and neither should there be in ours. In other words this is a pointer to Jesus’ deity.
Now Paul was steeped in the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament, and he knew that to receive a command of God was the most extraordinary and glorious thing that could ever happen. For it was by the command of God that the universe was created. It was by the command of God that Moses wrote the law. It was by the command of God that Isaiah and all the other prophets dropped whatever it was that they were doing and went out and spoke to people, most of whom ended up hating their guts, but God had commanded and so they obeyed. In other words, Paul is endowed with God’s authority and there is no higher authority than that because no one is higher than God. Now this is so important friends. You see, if the words of Paul are the words of God in Jesus, then we need to listen to them very carefully. What is more, we had better believe them and act upon them no matter how much they may seem old fashioned or unpopular to our modern ears. This will be particularly so when we come to chapter two and read what is says about the role of women in leadership within the church. Are these God’s words or not? If they are then to question them or to ditch them is to question God and assert he has got it wrong. Certainly this leaves open questions of our interpretation of these words, but when all of that has been carefully done and we are left with something which is clearly stated and yet goes against the grain, the real test as to whether we are really devoted to Jesus is when he through Paul says one thing and we want to do something else- but we do what he says anyway.
I have mentioned to some of you before the comment made by the actor Martin Sheen on his role as Jed Bartlet in the TV series ‘The West Wing.’ Many actors like to take a script and improvise a little, but you can’t do that with Aaron Sorkin’s writings, they are just too precise and thoughtful. And this is what Martin Sheen said, ‘‘When I surrendered to the word and was ruled specifically by the text, I learned a wonderful freedom. Aaron Sorkin is a masterful composer. You can do your own riff and you can improvise, but it’s not the same composition. And the end result is different. I think all the cast came to that realization at different stages in the production. And now we are all in sync.’ And so when we surrender to God’s word and are ruled by the specific text of the Bible we too will experience a wonderful freedom because God is a masterful composer. And if we all do that as church here at St John’s then we will all be in sync with God’s Spirit and he will do some amazing things through us. Of course we can ‘do our own riff and improvise’ if we want to, but it won’t be the same composition- that is Christianity. No, we are to be shaped by this Word.
Secondly, we have the blessings of Christ. You know, when most people think of ‘religion’ it is in terms of duties- what we ‘have to do’ ( a belief which was very much close to the heart of the false teachers if you glance down at verses 3 and following). But here in Paul, the emphasis is not on what we do but on what God has done, is doing and will do. It is always ‘top down’ and not ‘bottom up’ which separates authentic Christianity from all other religions and Christian counterfeits- God doing the work.
In the first instance it is what God has done, for in verse 1 God is referred to as our Saviour which implies that we needed saving and have been rescued. It underscores how low God is willing to reach. ‘Oh, yes’ we think, there are plenty of people ‘out there’ who could do with a hand up. Well, yes, but in this regard there is no distinction between the folk ‘out there’ and the folk ‘in here’ because whatever our external veneer of niceness or middle class respectability, we are all rotted up inside by sin. ‘What, even the religious person?’- Yes, especially the religious person. And to underscore this point in verse 15 Paul, the religious man par excellence in his pre-Christian days, puts himself forward as the prime example of amazing grace: ‘Here is trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.’ Do you think you are too bad to become a Christian? You are not. Do you think you are too good so you don’t need to become a Christian? You are not. The Gospel is the great leveller. It was Martin Luther who once said that until a man realises he is nothing God can make nothing out of him. But when you do realise it, friend he can make a big something out of you as he did with Paul-the worst of sinners.
That is what God has done, then we have what he will do, ‘Christ Jesus our hope’- that is future. I think it is true to say that we are now part of a culture which is desperately short of hope. In a novel by Douglas Coupland, one character expresses such anxiety about the future in this way: ‘There’s a darkness to the future…. the future’s not a good place.’ (Girlfriend in a Coma) Maybe that is why so many people live for the ‘now’-living on easy credit and ‘partying’- don’t worry about tomorrow for there may well not be one. But that is not what a Christian says for Jesus Christ is our hope. Not that he simply gives us hopeful feelings, though he does, but Jesus himself is our hope- hope is a person. Do you know that as a Christian, the first face you will see when you pass over from this world to the next in death will not be a loved one who has gone before-it will be that of Jesus waiting to receive you home.
But what of the present, what does God give us now? We are told in verse 2, ‘grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord’. By the way, again we have a reference to the deity of Jesus, for only God can give grace, mercy and peace, and here Jesus together with God the Father gives them, so he too must be divine, do you see? Let me tell you something: at the end of my extended study leave, Heather and I spent some time with our families and on one occasion I took my eldest granddaughter, Chloe, out to a garden centre and café. We both stuffed ourselves with ice cream and it was one of those moments I wished could have lasted forever. As I looked into her beautiful face, her eyes sparkling with wonderment, the love I had for her was simply overwhelming. And I thought to myself, can God love me any less than this? Then I thought, actually he loves me more. Chloe is quite beautiful, lively and interesting- and she belongs to my family- of course it is difficult not to love her. But when God looks at me, what he sees is, to be frank, rather ugly, because I am deformed by my sin which makes me singularly unattractive to God. And yet inspite of that (in one sense because of that) he loves me with a far greater intensity than I can ever love Chloe- because that is the kind of God he is. That is what is meant by grace. That is how we receive mercy and keep on receiving mercy though we keep on sinning. And that is also how we have peace- peace knowing that God is for me as a friend and not an enemy; peace that whatever the world, the flesh and the devil may throw at me, he remains the one constant whose face is always towards me in love, and peace when it really matters at the point of death, knowing it is not the end but the beginning because Jesus is my hope.
But there is one more thing that Paul reminds Timothy and us of what we have in Jesus, and that is new relationships. And so he writes in verse 2, ‘To Timothy my true son in the faith’, a better translation would be ‘my true son in faith’. When Paul speaks of Timothy being a ‘true son’ it means ‘genuine son’ it was used of those born into a family in contrast to someone who was adopted. It is likely that Paul was instrumental in Timothy’s conversion and in this sense as an evangelist he, as it were, ‘fathered’ Timothy as a Christian. But what makes Timothy, and all Christians, genuine sons is that they have a genuine faith, a trust in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. By saying this of course, Paul is flagging up to the church that they should treat Timothy with some respect because he, unlike some of the other leaders in the church, was the ‘real deal’. And he will continue to be the ‘real deal’ only if he keeps holding to Paul’s teaching which is Jesus’ teaching. So it is with us. What binds us together is far greater than that which distinguishes us. Our education, our family background, our class, colour- whatever you may care to name and prize, count for very little compared to the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. And clearly there is a warmth here, a deep fondness for Timothy by the apostle. And I would suggest that this was something which was deepened as they worked together in the service of Christ. Any soldier will tell you that the comradeship which is forged in battle is something that can never be replicated in peacetime. On the front line you are there for each other as a band of brothers. All the veterans of any war will tell you that. So it is with Christians. It is as we are working together, shoulder to shoulder for the cause of Christ that a warmth and friendship develops which is second to none. I fear that many Christians who complain that they don’t have any ‘Christian friends’ or no nothing of this closeness with other believers, find themselves in that position because they have never got caught up in Christian service. Let me tell you, the warmth and affection I have for Lee, Scott, Jake and all the others on our team is second to none. Having been away I feel that sense of affection for them even more. But that is not something I have generated all by myself, it is something that has come into being by God’s grace as we have worked together. It is when Christians stop working together that they soon find themselves majoring on minors, and open themselves to crazy teaching which they think will give them a buzz. When you become a Christian, God in his kindness gives you a whole new family. So do you see how at the end of the day- it is all about Jesus?
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