Do's and don'ts - 1 Timothy 4
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Let me begin by reading to you a letter written by a young minister to his mentor and friend:
‘My Dear Jim,
I’m through. Yesterday I handed in my resignation to take effect at once. This morning I began work at a land company. I will not return to the pastorate. I think I can see into your heart as you read these words and behold not a little disappointment, if not disgust. I don’t blame you at all for I am somewhat disgusted with myself. Do you recall the days in the seminary when we talked of the future and painted pictures of what we would do for the kingdom of God? We saw the boundless need for unselfish Christian service, and longed to be out among men doing our part for the world’s redemption. I will never forget that last talk on the might before our graduation. You were going to go to the foreign mission field and I was going into the church. We had brave dreams of usefulness and you have realised yours. As I look back across the past years I see some lives I might have helped, some things I have been permitted to do that have been worthwhile. But sitting here tonight I am more than half convinced that God never intended me to be a minister. If he did I am not big enough or brave enough to pay the price. Even if it leads you to write me down as a coward I am going to tell you why I quit. In these years I have found not a few earnest, unselfish, consecrated Christians. I don’t believe that I am especially morbid or unfair in my estimate. So far as I know my own heart I am not even bitter. But throughout these years the conviction has been growing within me that the average church member cares precious little about the kingdom of God and its advancement and the welfare of his fellow man. He is a Christian in order to save his own soul from hell and for no other reason. He does as little as he can and lives as indifferently as he dares. If he thought he could gain heaven without having to lift a finger he would jump at the chance. I have never known more than a small minority of any church that I have served to be really interested in and unselfishly devoted to God’s work. It took my whole time to push and pull and urge to persuade members of my church to do a little something for their fellow man. Not one out of ten ever thought of attending a prayer meeting. A large percentage seldom attended church in the morning and a pitifully small number in the evening. It didn’t seem anything to them that they had dedicated themselves to the service and honour of Christ. I am tired. I am tired of being the only one in our church for whom real sacrifice is expected. I am tired of straining and tugging to get Christian people to live like Christians. I am tired of planning for my people and ending doing it all myself. I am tired of dodging my creditors. I am not leaving Christ. I love him. I will still try to serve him. Judge me leniently old friend. I can’t bear to lose your friendship. Yours William.
I would suspect that at some time or other the experience of that minister is the experience of most ministers. For whatever reasons known only to that man and to God he felt that he could no longer go on and none of us is really in a position to judge him harshly. One also suspects that with many young men at the beginning of ministry a certain dewy eyed romanticism may have coloured his expectations so that when he eventually hit the harsh reality that ministry can be tough- disorientation and disappointment soon set in- and so he just gave up. But let me say that if an early romanticism is a danger, by the same token its opposite is an even greater danger, namely cynicism. This is more likely the curse of middle age than youth, although in my experience the cynic seems to be getting younger and younger. The result is the sin of cynicism which Dorothy L Sayers describes as, ‘the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing to die for.” Now a culture or a church or indeed a minister which is in that state is but a hairsbreadth away from extinction.
But thankfully we have in the Bible Paul’s first letter to Timothy which, amongst other things, is an antidote to undue optimism on the one hand and soul destroying cynicism as it points us again and again to the faithfulness of God. So do turn with me to 1 Timothy chapter 4 and just let me say in passing that although I will be referring to the NIV, for the most part I will be running with my own translation.
First we have what we can call the defensiveness of the ministry verses 1-5 which is one long sentence in the original. Now Paul is quite upfront about the context in which Gospel ministry will take place, namely, that of false teaching and a falling away from the faith. Sometimes my Free Church brethren ask me, ‘How on earth can you do ministry in a mixed denomination like the Church of England with all the false teaching that is floating around?’ The answer I always give is that I try to do it as Timothy was meant to do it in Ephesus with all the false teaching that was floating around then. He didn’t just ‘up sticks’ because it was hard, he was meant to work all that much harder. And so are we. And such a taxing situation should not take us by surprise because as we are told in verse 1 ‘The Spirit says explicitly that in the later times some will fall away from the faith.’ We are not sure whether Paul is referring to some contemporary prophecy that was doing the rounds at the time. It could be that this is a reference to what Jesus himself foretold in Matthew 24:4ff and the appearance of people who would rise up to deceive and even being able to perform signs and wonders to back up their claims, so we read, Jesus said: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.’ In fact, the apostle Paul had warned of this happening in Acts 20 in Ephesus itself, he says, ‘I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!’ That’s a prophecy of the Spirit if ever there was one. But the point is the reality of false teaching in the church is known by God and has been revealed by God-he is not fazed by it and neither should we be.
But then we have the seriousness of the situation- ‘in the later times some will fall away from the faith.’ Let me tell you, it is hard enough persuading people to embrace the faith so you can imagine how incredibly discouraging it is to see people turning aside from the faith having once appeared to have accepted it. This to me is still one of the major strains of ministry, working with people you love, seeing what you think is progress and then….? Well, then they are nowhere to be seen, even people who once occupied position of responsibility in the church - that is the real heartbreaker, I can tell you. And it is heartbreaking not simply because it puts the mockers on the growth of the church and may cause you to question your abilities as a minister, but because these people are now putting their eternal destiny in jeopardy. And that should cause any minister real anguish, because we care that much- or at least should do.
But we are left in no doubt are we as to the source of the situation- ‘heeding misleading spirits and teachings of demons.’ I know some make much of demon possession or demon oppression, but here we are given insight into the main method which the devil uses to dupe people and turn them away from the truth, namely the teaching of lies. Of course this was the method used in the Garden of Eden, this was the very thing Israel had to constantly battle (and often failed), it was with this that Satan tried to trip up our Lord in the wilderness, and this is always the main battle front of the church and it is here that the most vigorous defence has to be mounted, and ministers especially have to get on with doing the battle- so pray for us that we will not shirk this one.
And notice how this demonic teaching comes through normal sources, ordinary teachers who engage in hypocrisy v2- i.e. there is a mismatch between the faith they are meant to be professing and what they are actually expounding, and they are not even troubled by the fact because they have cauterised their own consciences, that is, the more you do this kind of thing, your sensitivity to it is reduced, it is like having hard calloused skin on your hands, so thick that you could stick a needle in there and it would not be felt-that is what these men are like. I don’t think that there is necessarily any questioning of the sincerity of these men , they really believe in what they are teaching and doing, but it is just plain wrong-lies, and out of kilter with the truth- hypocrisy.
Now the particular form in which these doctrines of demons was showing itself in Ephesus was in a very religious guise, maybe a kind of Jewish asceticism. You see, verse 3 ‘forbidding marriage’ could be translated ‘discouraging’ (kolyonton) marriage, after all, that was the conclusion the disciples came to after Jesus tough teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:10- better not to get married in the first place, they said. It also seems to be what Paul is suggesting in some circumstances in 1 Corinthians 7:8, lay off getting married until later. And so there may be good motives for such teaching. Of course, ‘abstaining from certain foods’ was deeply ingrained in the Jewish psyche- keep it kosher, lay off pork and add a few more things to the list to be on the safe side- so again it would seem plausible if there is continuity between the Old Covenant and the New that this was put forward as one of the points of continuity. But both of these things would fall into the category of ‘traditions of men’ (Mark 7) whereas Paul draws us back to the revelation of God and Genesis 1 which is probably behind what he says in v4, ‘everything God has created is good, given for our benefit and so to be properly received with thanksgiving’, with the understanding that it is thanklessness which leads to idolatry according to Romans 1:21. The consecration by ‘a word of God’ is probably the word of Genesis 1, and prayer is as it says, the expression of a grateful heart which acknowledges God as the great giver. It is gratitude which will help us guard against discontentment and help us to be alert to the devil and his servants who would use such dis-ease to cause us to be on the look out for other things which appear more attractive and more spiritual. You see, if you are happy and thankful with what God is giving you then you won’t be so gullible when others come offering you something else. Gratitude is fuel for trust. Starve the fuel of gratitude and the flame of trust will soon be extinguished. A failure to remember the past with gratitude leads to pride and hard heartedness in the present which is a basic human failing. And so if we ourselves are not grateful, full of thanksgiving, that is when we will be tempted to be unhappy with our lot, engage in self-pity, become bitter towards God and may even find ourselves entertaining the doctrine of demons. And by and large if a church has an ungrateful pastor, the church will soon become ungrateful too and so be more open to doctrines which will lead them astray. So can I ask you to help me to keep on being grateful and pull me up short if ever I’m not?
Secondly, we have the discipline of the ministry, vv 6-10. Now here a contrast is being put forward with what has just gone before. The false teachers behave and teach in one way, God’s minister behaves and teaches in another way-v6 ‘If you underscore these things to the brothers you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being nourished on the words of the faith and the good teaching which you have followed.’
Now while God’s people need to be alerted to the false doctrines it is not to end there. The temptation for the younger minister when facing trouble in the church is to come out with both barrels blazing, shooting not only the teaching but the teachers plus a load of other people who get caught up in the crossfire- spiritual collateral damage with bodies strewn across the pews- I have known churches where this has happened and it is not a pretty sight. Such ministers end up spending an inordinate amount of time refuting error that they don’t have time to preach the truth. Let me say that the best way to deal with error is to make the truth attractive or in Charles Simeon’s words to ‘preach up the truth.’ You know I came across the story of a man who preached a sermon on the 20 errors of the Roman Catholic mass. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had at least a couple of points on the glory of the Holy Communion? We are to keep the main thing the main thing- which is the Gospel.
And so Christian leaders are to avoid ‘profane and old wives tales’- v7, which are anything but the main thing, and they are to be avoided not simply by not teaching them but by not getting distracted by them and spending endless amounts of time refuting them. Paul then goes on to draw upon an image which would have been very familiar to his listeners namely, that of the gymnasium which is behind the word translated ‘training’ in vv 7-10. Those who emphasise bodily discipline do have a point, it is of some value, and given the amount of hard work that people put in to get that six pack then something similar is going to be required to produce the spiritual six pack of godliness. The fact is, Gospel ministry involves shear hard work but the rewards are literally out of this world. Just look at the terms Paul uses in verse 10, ‘for to this we labour and agonise.’- it is a wrestling metaphor. Do you some of you remember the wrestler ‘Big daddy’? Well, we are to have Big Daddy ministers- not necessarily looking like the incredible hulk, but putting in enough effort in prayer and studying God’s Word to produce the equivalent spiritual muscles. Long hours, emotional stress, interrupted night, hard thinking, diplomacy, perseverance are just some of the things ministry involves. Now don’t get me wrong here, I am not trying to illicit sympathy. I am privileged to have been set apart to do this stuff full time. And for that to happen, I am so aware that there may be some of you who are spending days with your head stuck under a car’s oil sump, or working mind numbing night shifts packing boxes so that I can do what I do. And to be honest I have to pause and cause myself to remember that when I feel like whinging because I have had a tough day. I never want to be an ungrateful minister because you folk are just too dear to me. The focus I have to set before me is in the trustworthy saying of verse 10 which is what we are working hard for, setting ‘our hope in the living God who is the Saviour of all men, especially of believers.’ This really is the stuff that gets us out of bed in the morning. This is why we as a staff team agonise and strain in our work, so that folk who don’t know the Saviour will come to know him and those who do will know him better.
Finally, we have the devotion of the ministry, vv11-16. The balance Paul gives here is so crucial. There is ‘commanding and teaching’. Whether we are young like Jake or older like me, ministers have been set apart by God and the church, given a position of authority and that is not to be shirked. However, the danger is, especially when you are young, and some do despise a minister’s youth (when you get to my age it is not only policemen who appear young and straight out of school but clergy as well), the temptation is to become authoritarian out of a sense of insecurity- ‘you will do this because I as the minister says so’. Let me tell you something. A young Scottish minister was rebuked in his early days of his ministry when an older member of the congregation came to see him. After some flattering words about his first year at the church, the older man said, ‘Yes, everything in the garden’s lovely - or nearly everything. My boy, the garden is still waiting for the blossoming of one flower without which the garden of no minister can be perfect. I know we are not everything we ought to be, and no doubt we need a lot of scolding; but we’d all be a great deal better if only you would try sometimes instead of lecturing us, to show us you love us!’ That is why we have the coupling exhortation to set an example by our lips and lives- ‘become an example of the believers in word, in behaviour, in love, in faith, in purity.’ Do you see?
This very much ties in with Paul’s parting shot in verse 15 -16, ‘Attend to these things; be immersed in them so that your progress might be plain to all. Be attentive to yourself and to the teaching. Continue in them for by so doing you will save yourself and those who hear you.’ Paul is saying something like this: if, because of your inexperience or lack of a ‘commanding presence’, people seem to be rather slow in taking on board what you teach, at least they should be able to look at you and say, ‘You know, he does practice what he preaches. Sure, when he came here a few years ago he seemed a bit wet behind the ears, but look at him now, maybe there is something in this Bible stuff after all.’ In short Paul saying to Timothy and Christian leaders like him that they are to be role models.
But given that the church in Ephesus is meant to be reading this letter too, do you not see what kind of church Paul is saying that they and we should be if this is the kind of ministry that is to be encouraged? It means we are to be a gospel protecting, holiness seeking, Word hungry church.
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