Paul urges the church to be of one mind, but this can only happen if we’re in Christ, who saved those who turn to him in faith and serves as their example. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 25, 2018.
Religion can be very controversial. I know that well, and I suppose there’s something within me that likes to address controversial topics, especially when they find their way into the public square. Well over five years ago, there was a controversy related to Barack Obama’s second inauguration, after he was reelected as president. Whoever organizes inaugurations had invited a rather mainstream evangelical pastor named Louis Giglio to give the benediction. Later, some people had discovered that Giglio actually believes what the Bible says about homosexuality, and that he once preached a message on Romans 1 and addressed that topic. So, Giglio was basically uninvited. A “liberal” pastor who doesn’t believe what the Bible says about homosexuality replaced him.
Now, I’m not going to preach on the issue of homosexuality this morning. That may or may not be a relief to you. But I remember watching something on TV when this controversy with Giglio emerged. One of MSNBC’s hosts, Lawrence O’Donnell, gave a commentary on this controversy. He noted that Giglio would be replaced with a pastor who doesn’t believe parts of the Bible, the same parts of the Bible that Obama doesn’t believe. And he suggested that we shouldn’t believe all of the Bible, and that no one really believes all that’s found in the Bible. I think O’Donnell would have been happy to ditch the Bible altogether.
But this is the part that really got me. Here he was, behind a desk with a closed Bible on it, one that he surely has not read in its entirety. And he said this:
This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the book will be held by a First Lady who is a descendant of slaves. [He’s referring to Michelle Obama.] But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting somewhere near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.
As someone who has actually read the Bible several times and someone who has studied it, I had to stop and think. Does the Bible contain no words that condemn slavery? Is that true?
Whether you agree with O’Donnell or not, I think we should step back and think about some questions, ones that we might not have good answers for right at the moment. We all know that slavery is wrong, but why is that so? Why is slavery wrong? Where did that idea come from? What societies were the first ones to forbid slavery? And, since we’re in a church, what does the Bible actually say about slavery?
Well, I hope to answer those questions, at least in part, today. And I’ll do that as we continue our study of 1 Timothy, which is a book in the New Testament of the Bible. If you’re joining us for the first time, we usually study a book of the Bible in its entirety, going passage by passage. Sometimes, a passage is a paragraph, or a whole chapter of the Bible. Today, I’m going to look at just two verses, 1 Timothy 6:1–2. And just to give us a little context, I’ll tell you this much: The book of 1 Timothy was written by the apostle Paul, a messenger of Jesus Christ and a man who started some churches throughout the Roman Empire almost two thousand years ago. He wrote this letter to his younger associate, a man named Timothy. Paul had left Timothy to help a church in the city of Ephesus (in the western part of what is now known as Turkey). This church had its share of problems, and Paul wanted Timothy to know how “one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
In this part of the letter, Paul is telling Timothy how different groups of people should behave in the church. And, at the beginning of chapter 6, he talks about slaves. And this is what Paul says:
1 Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [slaves] regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved (1 Tim. 6:1–2).
It’s a bit jarring to read about slaves and masters, because it seems so foreign to our experience. That, and we know slavery is wrong. And what Paul tells Timothy doesn’t match our expectations. We might expect Paul to tell Timothy to contact his senators and representative, or start a petition at change.org, to put an end to slavery. But Paul doesn’t do that.
To understand why Paul says what he does, we have to understand slavery in context. Today, I’m going to give us three contexts in which we should understand slavery. The first is the context of the whole Bible.
“In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), and he made human beings in his image and likeness, which means that we are unique in all of God’s creation. We alone are made to reflect what God is like, to display his glory, to rule over his creation by coming under his rule, to worship him, and to love and obey him as his children. What God made was good, and there was no hint of division, greed, or exploitation. If you knew nothing other than the first two chapters of the Bible, you would never imagine that such a thing as slavery could ever exist. Everything was peace and harmony.
But something changed. The first human beings didn’t trust God. They failed to obey him. They violated his commandment, deciding that they knew better than God. And the consequences have been horrific. Because human beings rebelled against a holy, perfect, righteous God, he could not allow that rebellion to go unchecked. So, he removed them from the sacred space of the garden of Eden, and he put a curse on all of creation. In a sense, he gave them over to their rebellion and let them go their own way. And when we reject God, who is the source of truth, beauty, goodness, and life, we find lies, ugliness, evil, and death. The reason why we’re at war with each other is because we’re first at war with God.
The first mention of slavery in the Bible comes in the context of a curse. In the story of Noah, after the flood has ended, his son Ham violates him. And Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan, saying, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25). The New International Version says, “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
I’ll add this here: slavery was a universal institution in the ancient world. Every ancient society had slaves. From Egypt to Assyria to Babylon and far beyond, all ancient societies had slaves. While the Bible never commands people to enslave others, it does assume that the practice exists. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, after all.
So, the Bible talks about creation and the entrance of sin into the world, which we call the fall. And the fall is the reason why anything bad, including slavery, exists. The next part of the story is called redemption, which I will come back to later. The final part of the Bible’s story is restoration, when God makes everything right in the universe. And while we only get glimpses of what a renewed and restored world will be like, there is no hint of slavery there. That is because there will be no sin in that perfect world.
The second context in which we should understand slavery is slavery in the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament. As I said, slavery was universal. It existed for a long time before the time of Jesus. It was found in ancient Greece and later in the Roman Empire. There are several things to know about slavery in the Roman Empire. One, there were a lot of slaves. Exact figures are hard to come by in the ancient world. One estimate I read was, “Slaves accounted for something like 2 to 3 million of the 7.5 million inhabitants of Italy.” That same author, James Jeffers, says, “Slaves were probably closer to 10 percent of the population elsewhere in the Empire.” That’s a low estimate. Another author says, “Estimates are that 85–90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome and [the] peninsula [of] Italy were slaves or of slave origin in the first and second centuries A.D. Facts and figures about slavery in the provinces are sketchy by comparison with those in Italy, but the existing evidence suggests a comparable percentage.” Let’s assume the truth is somewhere in between those figures. Perhaps 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire were at any given time slaves and many more were freed.
Two, people could become slaves in a few different ways. Some people sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts. That may sound odd, but as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, people could go to prison for debts. When I was a doctoral student in music, I studied the life of Richard Wagner, the famous German composer, and I read that he spent time in debtor’s prison. There was nothing like bankruptcy then. In the ancient world, you could work off your debts through slavery. People could also become slaves by being captured by slavers, or because they were children of slaves, or because they had been abandoned by their parents and raised to become slaves. More likely, people became slaves because they were conquered by the Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire expanded, prisoners of war became slaves.
Three, slavery in the Roman Empire was much different than what we think of when we think of slavery. Slavery wasn’t based on skin color. I don’t like using the word “race” because there is only one human race, but slavery then wasn’t based on race. Masters and slaves often had the same ethnicity. In fact, that’s true of much of slavery in the world. In the Roman Empire, slaves could have certain rights. They could earn money and they could eventually buy their freedom. If they had rich masters, they might live better than the poor free people. They were often freed, usually at a relatively young age; we don’t have evidence of people dying as slaves.
Four, the way slaves were treated could vary greatly. The slaves with arguably the worst lives were those who were used for sex. Many slaves worked in mines, which apparently was the most physically demanding and miserable job. There were hundreds of thousands of slaves who worked in the mines, and sometimes they were worked to death. The largest group of slaves were farmers. Slaves could also be domestic servants, artisans, artists, and managers of their masters’ businesses. I’m sure a slave’s quality of life largely depended on his or her role.
All of that is to say that slavery was different than what we think of when we imagine slavery. No one would argue that slavery was a good thing, but slavery did not necessarily mean a person was worked to death or degraded. But the reality is that could happen, too. It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations.
The final context I want us to see slavery in is the context of the New Testament. When we read Paul’s words, it’s hard for us to understand why he wouldn’t speak out more against slavery. Well, we should realize one thing: O’Donnell was wrong. (Unless we read the Bible as fundamentalists, which is something that unbelievers, ironically, tend to do.) There are some words against slavery in the Bible. At the beginning of 1 Timothy, Paul says that the Old Testament law can be used to reveal those who are “lawless and disobedient,” those who are “ungodly and sinners” (1 Tim. 1:8). He then gives a vice list, and he includes “enslavers” among the list of “sinners” (1 Tim. 1:10). So, Paul quite clearly says it’s wrong to capture people and force them to be slaves.
Paul also wrote a short letter to a slave owner, a man named Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, and he had a slave named Onesimus. We don’t know why, but Onesimus ended up with Paul. Many assume Onesimus ran away from his master, but we don’t know the whole backstory. At any rate, Paul writes to Philemon to encourage him to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not a slave. Paul could have used his apostolic authority to command Philemon to let Onesimus go. He had the ability to do that. He even says, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philem. 8–9). Instead of commanding Philemon, he appeals to theology. He reminds Philemon that he, Paul, is (quite literally) “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (verse 9) and he says that he has become like a father to Onesimus. He tells Philemon that he is sending Onesimus, “my very heart,” back to him. He would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, because Onesimus served Paul while Paul was in prison. But Paul knows it is right to send Onesimus back, “in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (verse 14).
And here’s the main point: Paul says, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant [slave] but more than a bondservant [slave], as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philem. 15–16). Instead of treating Onesimus as a slave, Philemon should treat him as a brother, because that’s what he is—a brother in Christ.
Paul concludes by telling Philemon that he should receive Onesimus “as you would receive me” (Philem. 17). He tells Philemon that if Onesimus owns anything, he should charge it to Paul’s account (Philem. 18), which sounds like Paul might be willing to pay the price to free Onesimus. Paul also casually mentions that Philemon owes him “even your own self” (Philem. 19). Paul means that Philemon became a Christian through his ministry. In that sense, Paul has given Philemon the gift of eternal life. Philemon owes Paul everything. The least he could do would be to free his own slave. Paul then comes to this conclusion: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Philem. 21).
This is a radical move by Paul. He is saying that Onesimus doesn’t have a lower status than Philemon. They are one in Christ Jesus. They have equal access to God, equal standing, an equal inheritance. That’s why Paul writes, in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (See also Col. 3:11). When Paul writes to churches and tells slaves to act in a certain way, and masters to act in a certain way, we should imagine that slaves and their masters were worshiping together. If you look at Paul’s references to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6 (Eph. 6:5–9) and Colossians 3 (technically Col. 3:22–4:1), you see that he reminds slaves that they are really serving Jesus, so they should work hard and work honorably. And he tells masters that they should remember that they and their slaves both have the same Master, Jesus. Again, Paul puts slaves and masters on the same footing, telling them that they are both slaves of Jesus. They belong to the same Master, they are part of the same family, and this should change their relationship.
We might still wonder why Paul doesn’t write more forcefully against the institution of slavery. I think there are two reasons why he doesn’t. The first is that the early church had no political power or influence. None. And the Roman Empire wasn’t a democratic republic. They couldn’t send a lobbyist to Rome. If early Christians tried to put an end to slavery through force or by sending a prophet to Caesar, it wouldn’t work, and it would likely backfire. The Roman Empire would crack down hard on Christians and put an end to the church. This is why we should study the Bible in its historical context. If we fail to understand and historical and cultural context of the Bible, we’ll end up misunderstanding its meaning.
But we should also note that Paul does tell slaves that, if possible, they should buy their freedom. This is what he writes in 1 Corinthians 7:20–24:
20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant [slave] when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant [slave] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant [slave] of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants [slaves] of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
He tells slaves that if they can, they should buy their freedom. But as long as they are slaves, they should know that they are truly free in Christ. To those who are not slaves, Paul says that they should realize they are slaves of Christ. No matter what position they found themselves in, they should ultimately serve God. They can do that as slaves or as freedmen.
Another reason that Paul doesn’t speak forcefully against slavery is that he knows some things are more important than politics and public policy. The reason he doesn’t command Philemon to free his slave is because he wants Philemon to think about the gospel, the message of good news at the heart of Christianity. At the least, he wants Philemon to realize that his slave is now his brother. They belong to the same family. And that reminds me of something else, some words from that Christmas song, “O Holy Night.” The words are “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” While Christianity has given hope to literal slaves the world over, promising ultimate freedom in eternity, it also has something powerful to say to all of us: all of us are slaves.
Jesus once said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Elsewhere, Paul says that all people will either be slaves to sin or slaves of God (Rom. 6:16–22). The apostle Peter says, “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19). We like to think that we are free. One of the gods of our age is the idea that we can do whatever we want, that we are free agents with free wills that cannot be constrained. We can determine who we are and what we’ll do. But the Bible’s message is, “No, you’re not really free. You’re enslaved by your sinful desires. You often know the right thing to do but you don’t often do it because your selfishness, your greed, your pride, and your lust really are your masters. You’re in chains.” We’re not really as free as we think we are.
But the Bible’s message doesn’t end there. It says something quite amazing. It says that though we were enslaved, God came to free us. And he came to free us by becoming a slave. Consider this famous passage, from another one of Paul’s letters. This is Philippians 2:5–11:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [a slave], being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Though Jesus was and is the Son of God, which is to say he has always been God, he didn’t cling to that glorious status. He didn’t stand on his rights. He humbled himself by becoming a slave, by becoming a human being. And not only did he do that, but he put up with sinful human beings who doubted him, mocked him, rejected him, arrested him, tortured him, and killed him. He did this so that he could pay the penalty for our rebellion against God. Our sin must be punished, because God is a perfect judge and he can’t allow rebellion and evil to go unchecked. But if God punished us for our sins, we would be destroyed. Fortunately for us, God gave us a way to be reconciled to him. That way is Jesus, the perfect man who became a perfect slave. Everyone who trusts in him is credited with his perfect obedience. Everyone who trusts in him has their debt of sin removed. Their chains are broken. They are forgiven. They receive the Holy Spirit, the third person of God who empowers us to trust God, to love God, and to obey God. Though our lives may be hard, we, like Jesus, will be exalted. Though we die, we will later be resurrected to live in a perfect world with God forever.
This part of the Bible’s story is known as redemption. It has given many people great hope. Slaves have been comforted by this news. Though they might be powerless to change their status, they could hope in Jesus, the God who became a slave. Though they were in physical chains, they knew the chains of sin were broken, and one day they would have eternal freedom. The apostle Peter wrote to slaves who were suffering unjustly. And he wrote these words (1 Pet. 2:18–25):
18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
The message of Christianity is what brought about emancipation for slaves. Over a long period of time, slavery disappeared almost entirely from Europe. By the middle ages, there was almost no slavery in the Christian world. Sarah Ruden, a professor of the classics and hardly a Bible-thumping evangelical, says, “the early Christian church, without staging any actual campaign against slavery, in the course of the centuries weakened it until it all but disappeared from Europe. Slavery was doomed simply because it jarred with Christian feeling—the same basic circumstance that doomed it in the modern West.”
It’s true that slavery reemerged in Christianized nations sometime in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is a shameful thing. Yet Christians have always been the ones who pushed for the abolition of slavery. They realized that enslaving people was contrary to treating them like fellow image bearers of God. As many as two-thirds of abolition leaders in the United States were Christian pastors. Many of the celebrated figures who pushed for the abolition of slavery in America were Christians and they were led by Christian motivations.
Some people might think slavery was ended by the Enlightenment, by people who were motivated by secular reason. But this isn’t true. Many famous figures of the Enlightenment, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Voltaire, supported slavery. David Hume, a famous philosopher who was a skeptic (what we might call an agnostic), was not in favor of abolition. Worldviews that don’t believe all human beings are made in God’s image don’t give us good enough reason to free slaves. To free slaves, we have to go against self-interest. This would actually have us go against the survival instinct that we supposedly have. If we truly believed in any form of Darwinian evolution, we would believe that nature is “red in tooth and claw” and that we are engaged in a competition. It’s a survival of the fittest, and if the weak become slaves to help the strong, well, so much the better for us.
But Christianity gives us a proper motivation for putting an end to slavery. In England, one of the leading figures in the abolition movement was William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a Member of Parliament and a Christian. Largely due to his work, the British Empire banned the slave trade (in 1807) and then slavery itself (in 1833). And they did this at great cost. Slavery only existed in the more remote colonies of the British Empire, places like the West Indies, islands in the Caribbean, where sugar was made by slaves. The British Empire knew that the cost of abolition would be huge for slave owners. So, the Emancipation Act of 1833 paid slave owners to compensate for their losses. The cost was “equal to half of the British annual budget.”
Freedom always comes at a cost. We see that most clearly with Jesus’ sacrifice. And there are many ways for us to respond to that sacrifice today.
If you are not a Christian, I urge you to put your trust and your hope in Jesus. Right now, you are not truly free. You’re not free to live out your God-given purpose in life, which is to know God, love him, and serve him. You’re not free from the fear or death. But Jesus came to destroy the power of death (Heb. 2:14) and to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). The only way to be right with God, to be forgiven of all wrongdoing, and to have eternal life in a perfect world is to trust in Jesus. I would love to talk to you more about what this looks like in your life. It first comes with the realization that you are enslaved and you can’t deliver yourself.
There are many ways that Christians should respond to this message. One is that there are things that are more important than politics. We often get caught up in defending our first amendment freedoms. We get caught up in trying to fix the world through politics. But there is something more important. Paul told slaves that, more important than their freedom, they should make the gospel look good. He told slaves to honor their masters, “so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Tim. 6:1). Paul told Titus that slaves “should be submissive to their own masters in everything . . . so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:9–10). Making God look good is more important than our own personal vindications. We should be willing to suffer for God. Jesus, the truly righteous one, suffered unjustly, and so should we.
We can also learn to serve God in all circumstances, regardless of our position in society. If you are an employee, you should work as though your boss were God. Ultimately, he is. If you’re an employer, treat your employees well, knowing that you have a greater boss to answer to. Regardless of our position in this world, we were called to serve the greatest Master there is. Any other master will ruin us and eventually destroy us. Jesus is the only Master who would become a slave to set us free, to die for us so that we could live forever.
- Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible,” NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration. Both articles quote O’Donnell as saying “someone” instead of “somewhere”; surely, this is a mistake. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- The ESV formerly used “slaves” with “bondservants” appearing in a footnote. The actual Greek word, in the singular, is δοῦλος (doulos). Now, they have reversed this, probably so that we wouldn’t think of chattel slavery in America instead of Roman slavery. As we’ll see, the institutions were quite different. ↑
- James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 221. ↑
- Arthur A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery,” ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 881. He cites Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 105–131. ↑
- Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 297. ↑
- Sarah Ruden, Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 168. ↑
- Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 279. ↑
- Stark, For the Glory of God, 359. ↑
- Ibid., 351. ↑
Why do we think slavery is wrong? Where did that idea come from? What does the New Testament really say about slavery? And what does this have to do with us today? Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and answers those questions.
I haven’t used the Proverbs much at all in my preaching, which isn’t by design. Proverbs is a very important book of the Bible, full of wisdom and insight. And there are some very funny proverbs, like this one:
Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout
is a beautiful woman without discretion (Prov. 11:22).
You have to think about that a little bit to get it.
Another one of my favorite proverbs is this:
A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating (Prov. 18:6).
That’s a good one, isn’t it? The idea is that foolish people speak before they think. They rush to judgment, and the consequences aren’t good.
There are a couple of proverbs near that one that address similar issues. The next verse says,
A fool’s mouth is his ruin,
and his lips are a snare to his soul (Prov. 18:7).
So, the words of a fool lead him into trouble. That’s because they’re not based on knowledge, but only opinion. Proverbs 18:2 says,
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.
A lot of times, we form opinions quickly. It seems like people don’t think, they just react. They see a person and they quickly form an opinion. They hear of something on the news, and they quickly have a theory. The problem is that opinions don’t require a lot of thought. In fact, they often don’t require any conscious thought at all. Often, our opinions are no more than gut reactions.
But Christians are supposed to seek wisdom and understanding. We’re not supposed to go on gut reactions and quickly-formed opinions. Proverbs 18:15 says,
An intelligent heart acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Knowledge is often very different from opinion. Our first reaction to things may very well be wrong. Proverbs 18:17 says,
The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.
Our first impressions and our “hot takes” can be wrong. What first seems right can later seem wrong.
Why do I bring this up? Because in the passage that we’re looking at today, the apostle Paul tells his younger associate, Timothy, that he shouldn’t prejudge, that he shouldn’t do anything from partiality. In other words, Paul tells Timothy that he wouldn’t act rashly. He shouldn’t make decisions unless they are based on real evidence. And that’s a good lesson for all of us to learn.
Today, we’re going to look at 1 Timothy 5:17–25. This book of the Bible is a letter from Paul, the preeminent evangelist and church planter of the first century, to his younger associate, Timothy, who was responsible for the health of a church. In this passage, Paul tells Timothy about some things related to the leaders of the church. Here, they’re called elders. Elsewhere, they’re called overseers (1 Tim. 3:1) or shepherds (Eph. 4:11). We often just call them “pastors.” Now, that might not seem very relevant to you if you’re not a pastor, or if you’re not a member of a church. But the principles that we see in today’s passage should inform the way that all of us live, particularly those of us who trust our lives to Jesus Christ.
So, let’s read today’s passage, then we’ll break it down into parts to understand it, and finally we’ll think about how it should affect our lives. Here is 1 Timothy 5:17–25:
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) 24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.
Let’s walk through this passage together.
As I said, this paragraph is about elders, or pastors. The first two verses state that elders should be paid. Paul says that those “who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” “Double honor” may refer to receiving both respect and financial support. It’s not enough to give a pastor one or the other. Other passages in the New Testament teach this idea. Some passages teach about respecting and submitting to leaders of the church (1 Thess. 5:12–13; Heb. 13:17). Others teach about the importance of financially supporting ministers. Galatians 6:6 says, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” Paul also talks about this in 1 Corinthians 9. He says, “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” (verse 7). And then he says, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (verse 11).
There are many reasons why a pastor should receive financial support. We can talk about the value of spiritual leadership, the eternal value of the word of God, the fact that a financially-supported pastor is free to work without stress, and so on. But it comes down to simple, proverbial wisdom. Everything that is of benefit comes at a cost, and someone has to pay that cost. I’ll come back to that idea later.
Before I move on, there are a couple of interesting details in verse 17 and 18. In verse 17, Paul refers to those who rule in the church, and then he says, “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some churches have taken this to mean that there are ruling elders and preaching elders. But that clause could be translated, “namely those who labor in preaching and teaching.” That’s a picky grammatical point that rests on how we translate one Greek word (μάλιστα, malista). But I think that’s probably the right translation. What Paul is saying is that those who labor are those who preach and teach. The work of a pastor is largely preaching and teaching the Bible. He leads with the word of God.
The other interesting point is that in verse 18, Paul quotes two other passages in the Bible, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Paul calls both of these passages Scripture, which is a way of saying that they are the word of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). The first passage, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” is from Deuteronomy 25:4. It teaches a basic principle: an animal who is treading the grain, in order to separate the kernel of grain from the husk, should be able to eat some of that grain. Paul applies that principle to supporting pastors. The idea that we should take away is that though the Old Testament law is not in force today, we can and should apply basic principles of that law to our lives. The second passage, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is from Luke 10:7. Jesus spoke these words. I just want to point out that Jesus viewed the Old Testament as God’s word (see John 10:34–35, for example), and Paul viewed Jesus’ words as God’s word. The apostle Peter believed that Paul’s letters were Scripture, too (2 Pet 3:15–16). There are many such verses that indicate that the whole Bible is God’s written word.
In verse 19, Paul shifts gears. He says that charges against elders must be based on two or three witnesses. This is a biblical principal. Deuteronomy 19:15 says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Interestingly, that passage in Deuteronomy goes on to talk about a “malicious witness” who accuses someone of wrongdoing. Paul may have that in mind here, too.
Why does Paul single out accusations made against an elder? It may be that people are more willing to wrongly accuse pastors of something. It may also be that Paul knows that all it takes is one false accusation to ruin a man’s life. So, if people accuse a pastor, there should definitely be multiple witnesses who can attest to the pastor’s sin. And when we’re talking about sin, we mean a sin serious enough to address publicly, something that, if not repented of, could disqualify a pastor.
Why would people make false accusations against an elder? Because they think the church is “theirs” and they don’t like the way the pastor is leading. Power struggles are behind a lot of ungodly behavior. The thirst for power can lead an otherwise good man to do a bad thing.
And lest you think I’m making this up, I can tell you that multiple pastors have told me that they have been falsely accused of something by people who want to gain or reassert their power in a church. Less than two weeks ago I met a man who has been the pastor of a church in Pennsylvania. He has been at that church for seven years. He told me that the same married couple has twice tried to stir up trouble against him. (I believe the husband in the couple is a leader in the church, possibly the youth group leader—I can’t remember.) This pastor explained to me that his church’s by-laws clearly state that there are two reasons to dismiss a pastor: for teaching false doctrine and for immoral behavior. Early on in his tenure at the church, he switched the Bible translation that the church used. They were using the King James Bible, and he switched to the English Standard Version, the same translation we’re using here. This couple tried to accuse him of teaching some kind of false doctrine. I can’t remember the details. But more recently, the wife in this couple tried to start a whisper campaign against the pastor. He had preached a sermon in which he happened to address the men. He said that lust and pornography were serious problems for men, and they are. This woman then started to whisper in the church that the pastor had an “eye problem.” She meant that the pastor was looking at things he shouldn’t be looking at. So, the pastor and the other elders had to address this couple. He said he put the man “in quarantine;” if he wanted to continue to be the youth group leader, he had to meet with the pastor and the other elders to study what it meant to be an elder in the church. So, this couple has twice tried to stir up trouble against this pastor, but their attempts have been thwarted.
Now, there are times when accusations against pastors are backed by multiple witnesses. And if that is the case, the pastor can either confess his sin and repent, or they may “persist in sin,” as Paul says. Paul tells Timothy, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Unrepentant elders should be rebuked in public, in front of the congregation. This will cause the other elders—“the rest”—to stand in fear, lest they fall into sin as well. Publicly addressing sin serves as an example. It says, “This kind of behavior won’t be tolerated here.” Paul is clearly talking about those who continue in sin, probably some kind of egregious sin. He doesn’t mean that those who sin once are kicked out of a church.
Since disciplining a church leader is difficult, and since we’re so prone to have our emotions and biases get in the way, Paul tells Timothy not to be prejudiced and not to be biased. In verse 21, he writes, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.” Timothy shouldn’t be prejudiced against an elder. He shouldn’t show partiality towards an elder or an accuser. Instead, he should act as though he were standing in the presence of God, Christ, and angels, because in reality we all stand in their presence, though we can’t see them. We all should act as though God is witnessing everything we do, because he is.
While on the topic of rebuking and possibly dismissing sinning elders, Paul tells Timothy not to put someone into that position of leadership too quickly. In verse 22, he says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” Paul may be thinking of installing new elders. Or he may be thinking of reinstalling an elder who had sinned. Either way, Timothy shouldn’t act too quickly. If he puts a man who is unfit for the job into a leadership role, it could harm the church.
Paul also tells Timothy not to participate in the sins of others and to keep himself pure. Earlier in this letter, Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). There is always the possibility that any of us could fall into sin. So, be careful.
But it’s possible that Timothy might take that command to be pure in the wrong way. In Ephesus, where Timothy was located, there were false teachers who taught that people shouldn’t eat certain foods and that they shouldn’t marry (1 Tim. 4:1–5). They might have taught that people shouldn’t drink any alcohol whatsoever. Timothy might have been observing that supposed rule. But in verse 23, as a bit of an aside, Paul says, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” There’s nothing wrong with drinking some wine—at least if you’re not addicted to it. If you’re an alcoholic, stay away from it! The Bible doesn’t forbid all drinking; it warns against drunkenness, but it also says that wine is a gift (Ps. 104:14–15). In Timothy’s case, Paul says he should drink wine for his stomach problems and for his “frequent ailments.” We don’t know what these were. Perhaps Timothy had experienced a great amount of anxiety and stress, and a little wine might relax him. That’s a bit of speculation, but I think it makes sense given how difficult leading a church can be, and how Timothy was probably experiencing opposition in Ephesus, at least from the false teachers.
In the last two verses, verse 24 and verse 25, Paul returns to the idea of not making hasty decisions. Timothy shouldn’t quickly put someone into a position of leadership because a man’s qualities are not always easy to see. Some sins or character defects are obvious; some become apparent only later in time. Some good works or good characteristics are obvious; some become apparent only later in time. That’s what Paul means when he writes, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” Sometimes, our initial view of people is wrong. We don’t know everything about a person. We should refrain from making judgments until we’ve given things time. In this case, when someone is being considered as an elder candidate, the church needs to know who he really is. Some men can appear godly, but they have sinful characteristics that they are hiding. Some men may seem rather ordinary, but their godliness comes through in the end. The basic principle is that you can try to hide sin, but you can’t hide sin forever. Your sin will find you out. And you can’t hide your good works. In the end, those will be revealed. That is certainly true when we are all judged by God on the last day. Everything done in darkness, whether bad or good, will be brought into the light.
Now that we’ve walked through this passage, let’s think about how it applies to our lives.
There are some obvious applications to life in the church. The church should pay pastors, those who labor in preaching and teaching. I am grateful that the church takes care of my family. If you are here and you’re not giving generously to the church, please consider doing that. The finances of the church don’t all come to me. Twenty percent of what goes in the offering plate goes to missionaries. We also need money to maintain and upgrade this facility, to have materials to use, to pay for utilities and insurance, and so on.
We should also be careful about making accusations against pastors. Pastors are flawed, sinful people like anyone else. And some egregious sins must be addressed. But some people will attack pastors if they feel threatened, usually because the pastor has made some decisions that they don’t like. And all it takes is one accusation to end a man’s pastoring career. As another pastor friend of mine told me, some people will chase off a pastor and not think twice about what that does to the man’s life, to his family. As long as they can have control of the church, as long as the church can be “theirs” or go the way they like it, false accusers don’t care. So, there must be real charges against a pastor and they must be backed by multiple witnesses.
Another application to the life of the church is that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge a candidate for leadership. If we don’t really know a person’s true character, we shouldn’t rush to make them a pastor, or a deacon, or a teacher, or any other position of authority. We should get to know a person. Again, our first impressions can be wrong—so can our second and third impressions. We shouldn’t rush to judgment.
Now, all of that may not seem very relevant to your life right now. To be honest, you might not care at this moment about what happens to pastors. I understand. But this passage still applies to you. Just as we can learn basic principles from the Old Testament and apply them to our lives, we can do the same with this passage. And one basic principle we all can learn is that we shouldn’t rush to judgments. We shouldn’t be hasty in forming our opinions.
One of the great problems in our society today is that we rush to judgments. We are all very reactionary. This is most true when it comes to political issues. But it also seems to be true of any potentially controversial topic. We are all very quick to have an opinion, to believe that we’re right about something, even if we don’t really know what we’re talking about. It’s like we’re rooting for a sports team. If you’re a Red Sox fan—and you should be—then you don’t need to know who plays for the Sox or who plays for the Yankees. You know the Sox should win and the Yankees should lose. You don’t care if the Sox players are using steroids and corked bats. All you care about is that they win. You know the Yankees are a detestable lot and they deserve to lose.
Of course, I’m being a bit sarcastic here. But that’s how people react to heated political and religious issues. And it’s a problem. We shouldn’t rush to make judgments about complex issues. Perhaps we should slow down and think.
There’s a great book I read recently called How to Think, written by Alan Jacobs. I think the subtitle of the book tells us what it’s really about: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. At the beginning of the book, he says that most of us don’t want to think. Instead, we just emote. He quotes T. S. Eliot: “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” We tend to view anyone different from us as a “repugnant cultural other.” Before they open their mouth or write a word, we just know they’re wrong.
Jacobs says we should be more virtuous than this. We should actually listen to people and try to understand them. We should slow down and not react when we hear something we think may be wrong. We shouldn’t mischaracterize other people in order to win an argument. We should value learning over debating. In other words, we should slow down and think, and we should treat other people with respect, even if they may be wrong.
Christians should be leaders in doing this. It’s embarrassing that more Christians don’t know how to think deeply about a complex world. It’s embarrassing that Christians don’t act virtuously. And I think some Christians don’t apply their theology to their own lives. Christianity teaches us that we’re all sinners. We have all turned away from a holy God who created us to know him, love him, and worship him. Because of that turning away from God, the power of sin is at work in us. Even Christians struggle with the lingering effects of sin. And sin can affect the way we think. We can be wrong in our judgments. So, we should slow down and consider whether we actually know what we’re talking about. We might very well be wrong. Christians should be the most humble people of all, willing to consider their own faults instead of pointing fingers at others.
Earlier, I said that any benefit we receive comes at a cost. That’s the way the world works. Every gain we have comes at a cost. The thing we can never forget is this: Our ultimate gain—being reconciled to God, forgiven of sin, and granted eternal life—came at an ultimate cost. Our sin is so bad—we’re so bad!—that it took nothing less than the Son of God becoming a human being and dying for us to fix the problem of sin. The gospel—the core message of Christianity—teaches us that all humans are sinful. Our desires are messed up. We want the wrong things. We make wrong judgments. We go astray. The only way we can be restored is for Jesus to come, to be the perfect man, and to die in our place. That way, his perfect righteousness is credited to our account and the debt of our sins is wiped away. It’s as though we owed trillions of dollars to God, and Jesus paid off that debt and left an extra trillion in our account. But we only receive that benefit if we trust him. This should humble us.
I would urge us all not to be hasty in our judgments. Christians, we should known for our thoughtfulness, our patience, our carefully considering evidence. This should all be part of loving God with all our minds.
And if you think you know all about Jesus but still don’t trust him, consider the possibility that you may very well be wrong. Consider that you may be rejecting Jesus because you want to retain authority over your life. Consider that you may reject Jesus because you don’t want to change. It’s not that there is insufficient evidence for Christianity. It’s that you don’t even want to consider that evidence in the first place. We all can be that way about various things in our lives. But that doesn’t get us to the truth, and only the truth can set us free (John 8:32). Jesus himself is that truth (John 14:6). He came to rescue us from our wrong judgments. The only way to be saved from condemnation on that day when all our sins and good deeds are finally exposed is to run to Jesus and find refuge in him.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017). ↑
- T. S. Eliot, “The Perfect Critic,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), quoted in Jacobs, How to Think, 22. ↑
We shouldn’t rush to judgment, whether in church matters or anything else. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 Timothy 5:17-25.
The Bible teaches charity, compassion, love. It teaches us to care for orphans and widows. The Bible also teaches personal responsibility. People should care for their own family members and work hard. Pastor Brian Watson shows how both of these ideas come together in 1 Timothy 5:9-16.
Christians have two families, one natural, the other ecclesiastical (the church family). Christians have responsibilities to both families. Timothy was supposed to treat people in the church like family. The church should care for widows, though widows should be cared for first by their own natural families. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 Timothy 5:1-8.
What are you training for? The apostle Paul told Timothy to train himself for godliness, which lasts forever. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 4:6-16.
I want you to imagine something. Imagine that you live in England. And imagine you have receive a letter in the mail. This is not just any letter, but an official letter from the British royal family. The letter informs you that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his new wife, Meghan Markle, will be relocating from Nottingham Cottage, on the grounds of Kensington Palace, to your house. That’s right, Prince Harry and his wife, two months after their marriage, are going to live with you. They want to live among the common people, and there’s no discussion, no debate. They’re not asking you if they can live with you. They’re just announcing that they will move in.
How would that change your life? What would you do? You would probably clean your house better than you ever have before. You might buy new furniture. You would be on your best behavior. You would probably make sure you had Harry and Meghan’s favorite foods. Of course, this enthusiasm might wear off over time. But what if you were told that the fate of England depended, at least in part, on how you managed your now-royal house? That would keep you motivated, wouldn’t it?
Okay, that’s a silly thing to imagine, I know. (I deliberately chose British royalty instead of American politicians because American politicians are now so hated.) But you get the point. If you had very special guests in your home, that would probably change how you live. And if you knew that the health of your house affected the whole nation, well, you would probably do your best to live in a right way. Of course, today’s British royals are really symbolic figures. Imagine if King Henry VIII was your royal guest. Now that was a monarch with power. And he was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, too.
Well, there is a greater reality that this should remind us of, one that isn’t just a silly thought experiment. If you are a Christian, you are part of the church, the body of Christ, God’s household, and God’s temple. You are part of God’s home on Earth, his temple where he is worshiped. You are even part of his family. And that should change the way you live. It should change how we live as individuals and how we conduct ourselves in this local church. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Three months ago, we started to look at the book of 1 Timothy. It’s a letter written by Paul, an apostle, which is a fancy way of saying a special messenger of Jesus. Paul was commissioned by Jesus to travel throughout the Roman Empire, almost two thousand years ago, to tell other people about Jesus and to plant churches. He helped established a church in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire located in the western part of what we now call Turkey. Paul left his younger associate Timothy there, to make sure that the church was healthy. Specifically, Paul wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teachers and from bad behaviors. And he wanted Timothy to have the church function according to God’s design for the church. In other words, Paul wanted Timothy to have the church go the way God wanted it to go.
Today, after some recent detours from 1 Timothy, we get to the center of the letter, which states why Paul wrote it. Since we’re looking at only three verses of this book today, let’s read them all right now. This is 1 Timothy 3:14–16:
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
Paul tells Timothy why he is writing this letter. Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus. While Paul hopes to come to Timothy soon, he realizes that he may not be able to get there quickly. So, he writes this letter to Timothy, “that . . . you may know how one ought to behave” in church. Timothy is to make sure the church is in good order. Specifically, he is to protect the church from false teachers and also from behavior that is not in line with the message of Christianity. Toward the beginning of the letter, Paul tells Timothy, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). Some people had been teaching a different message, and they “made [a] shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19).
But it’s not just right beliefs or right teaching that Paul is concerned about. He’s also concerned about right behavior. The two are related. If you have right beliefs, you should behave rightly. And there’s even more motivation to behave rightly, because the church is “the household of God.” The church isn’t a museum that houses memories of a dead god. No, the church is “the church of the living God.” God is alive, and he makes his home on Earth with his people.
This should blow our minds. God doesn’t just dwell with his people. God dwells in his people. That’s because the church isn’t a building; the church is a group of people. God dwells among the church, but he also lives in individual Christians. The third Person of God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in believers. If we are God’s house, shouldn’t we live accordingly?
The language of “God’s house” indicates that Paul has something particular in mind. God’s house is the temple. The language of “pillar” also indicates that Paul is thinking of a temple. The temple of God isn’t one special building that we all have to make a pilgrimage to. The temple of God is God’s people.
This is what Paul writes in another letter, a letter to the church in Ephesus, the same city where Timothy was when he received the letter that we’re now studying. In Ephesians 2, Paul says that there is one people of God, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, who were brought together by Jesus. In verses 18–22, he writes,
18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The whole of the church is a temple, built upon the cornerstone, who is Jesus. The cornerstone determines the shape of the building; it is the most important stone. The temple is built upon God’s word; the New Testament was written by “apostles and prophets.” And this temple is growing, as more and more people are added to it. It is the “place” where the Holy Spirit dwells. It is the “place” where God is worshiped.
The apostle Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 2. He writes,
4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5).
In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were offered to God to make atonement for sin and to bring peace between God and his people. But the fact is that those sacrifices didn’t actually atone for sin. They foreshadowed the only sacrifice that could pay for human sin, which was the death of Jesus on the cross. So, sacrifices for sin are no longer made. But we do make spiritual sacrifices, offerings to God of praise (Heb. 13:15), good works (Heb. 13:16), and finances given to ministry (Phil. 4:18). In fact, our very lives are offered up to God as “living sacrifice[s]” (Rom. 12:1).
Getting back to 1 Timothy, Paul says that the church is also a “buttress.” The Greek word that’s translated as “buttress” only appears this one time in the New Testament, so it’s not clear exactly what it means. It could mean “stay,” “support,” or “bulwark.” It is a support to the truth. Paul has something specific in mind when he talks about the truth. He doesn’t just mean “truth” in general. In the previous chapter, Paul said that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Paul means the gospel, or good news. That is the message of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). And the gospel is a message about him.
The church is meant to support, or uphold, the truth. The church isn’t the only support; that’s why Paul says that the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” and not “the pillar and buttress of the truth.” Even if all Christians on Earth were to die, the message of Jesus would remain the truth, and that truth is witnessed to by the Bible and is supported also by the Holy Spirit. But the church is a guardian of the truth. We need to have a firm grip on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. We need to teach the truth about God and his kingdom. We need to teach the truth about God’s plans for the world, how we can be reconciled to God, and how we should live for him.
That’s what Paul gets to next when he talks about the “mystery of godliness.” That’s an interesting phrase. When Paul uses “mystery,” he doesn’t mean it in quite the way that we do. We usually talk about “mystery” in terms of something we can’t figure out. Paul does mean that, but he doesn’t mean it’s a secret. Paul means that what we couldn’t figure out on our own, God has now revealed. We could not figure out God’s plans through unaided human reasoning. We couldn’t discover on our own how to be right in God’s eyes. But God has revealed that information to us, and that’s what Paul writes.
When Paul writes “the mystery of godliness,” he is stating the reason why we should live godly lives, or why we should be devoted to God. The reason is Jesus: who he is and what he has done for us. This is what the church needs to believe and confess.
What follows is probably a poem or a hymn:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
This is something that Paul probably didn’t write. It was probably an early hymn of praise, a poem that captured some of the important elements of Christianity. If you look at the translation that we use, the English Standard Version, you can see that the hymn is six lines long. The ESV divides it into two stanzas of three lines each. The New International Version divides it into three stanzas of two lines each. There’s some debate about the structure of the hymn, but either way, the message is clear.
The first line, “He was manifested in the flesh,” refers to Jesus’ incarnation, when the eternal Son of God added a second nature and became the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. In John’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus is the “Word of God.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, “he was manifested in the flesh.”
The last line of the hymn, “taken up in glory,” refers to Jesus’ ascension to heaven. After Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, he ascended back to heaven. So, the first and last lines bookend Jesus’ coming to earth and his leaving.
The middle lines indicate what Jesus did and how people have responded to him. They don’t tell us everything about what Jesus did, but they tell us some important things. The second line says that Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit.” This is probably a reference to his resurrection. When Jesus died, it might have looked like he was a failure. If he stayed in the grave, we might wonder if his death had any meaning. But his resurrection vindicated him, showing that he is who he claimed to be, the Son of God. That’s what Paul writes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans:
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1–6).
The resurrection, accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, declared that Jesus is the Son of God, that he has power over sin and death, and that the sins of his people have been paid in full.
The third line of the hymn says that Jesus was “seen by angels.” This could possibly refer to the fact that angels appeared at Jesus’ resurrection. It could be a reference to the apostles, who saw Jesus, because the word “angel” can also mean “messenger.” But it more likely refers to angels in the spiritual realm. The risen Christ was seen by people and supernatural beings.
The fourth and fifth lines seem to belong together. Jesus was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world.” Apostles like Paul and Peter told people throughout the Roman Empire about Jesus, and many people believed in him.
Now, this is just a poem. It’s not a very detailed statement of systematic theology. So, more could be said about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Who is Jesus? He is God. More specifically, he is the second Person of the triune God, the Son of God. And he became man. So, we say he is the God-man. Why did Jesus come into the world? Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ death on the cross. Why did Jesus come into the world? “To save sinners,” as Paul says in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:15; cf. Matt. 1:21). How did he do that?
Jesus saves sinners by fulfilling God’s plans for humanity and then dying for the sins of rebellious human beings. God made human beings in his image and likeness. That means we were made to represent God, to reflect God’s character, to rule over his creation, to worship him, and to love and obey him, the way children would love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, human beings have turned away from God, living life on their own terms instead of his. Instead of building our world around God and accepting the role he has given us, we build our worlds around ourselves, rejecting his authority. The rebellion of the first human beings created a separation between God and human beings.
Jesus is the one who closes that gap. He came to fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He is the perfect human being who always loves and obeys his Father. Yet though he never sinned, he died in the place of sinners, bearing the penalty that they deserve. All who believe in Jesus, who trust him, have their sins forgiven, are adopted into God’s family, and have eternal life. Though they die, they will live with God forever in a new creation, which will be established when Jesus returns to Earth to bring history as we know it to an end.
This is the “mystery” revealed to the church. This is the reason why we should pursue godliness. We do that because God first pursued us.
Our behavior should line up with the reality that we are God’s family, part of his very household. We don’t behave well in order to become part of his house. No, we are chosen by God, the gospel was preached to us, we believed, and we were adopted by God into his family. This is not because of merit. It’s not something we deserved. It’s not because we were so lovable that God just had to come rescue us. It’s not because we’re so good, because we’ve first cleaned up our house. No, it is all a gift from God, because he is love.
As I said earlier, we are God’s temple, the place where he resides on Earth, the place where he is worshiped, where we offer up spiritual sacrifices. God wants a beautiful temple to live in. The fact that he chooses to live in us is amazing. But God wants us to be purified, to become a house fitting for a king.
In his wonderful book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis describes what it’s like to become a Christian. He likens the Christian life to being a house that is undergoing renovation:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and to live in it Himself.
God wants to refashion us so that we are a good house, children who act like our Father, people who represent the family name well, a great building for an even greater God to live in. As Lewis says, sometimes this refashioning hurts.
Our behavior should line up with what we profess to believe. But that doesn’t just mean how we live our individual lives. The way that we “do church” should line up with Scripture. That’s what Paul stresses throughout the letter of 1 Timothy. The problem is that so many churches aren’t organized and run according to God’s word. It’s no surprise that so many churches abandon “the mystery of godliness,” forsaking the truth of the gospel.
The reality is that while the truth should change how we live, often how we live changes what we think is true. Many people forsake the gospel because they don’t want to live the way God wants us to. Some people reject the truth of the Bible because of Christianity’s sexual ethics. They may reject Christianity outright, or they may revise the Bible to suit their desires. In that case, sex is an idol, a false god, and truth is put on the altar and sacrificed. Some people reject Christianity because they worship the idol of power, or of money. They don’t want God to be King, or they don’t want to be told to give money away to the church and to the poor. Some people sacrifice the truth to the idol of being acceptable in the world’s eyes. They are afraid of being seen as backward or foolish, so they alter Christianity so that it fits with the spirit of the age. But, as one person wisely said, those who marry the spirit of the age will soon become widows (or widowers), because that spirit always changes.
When some view of the good life, some view of human flourishing, puts anything other than God at the center of reality, truth will be sacrificed and an idol will be worshiped. This is what we rebellious human beings do. So, we need to hold on to the truth.
Doctrine gets a bad reputation among some people. The straw man argument is that those who care about doctrine have reduced Christianity to some cold, lifeless, dead orthodoxy, a religion of facts but not a living religion of the heart. But doctrine simply means “teaching.” Everyone has doctrine. Everyone has a creed of some kind. And our doctrine will either be true, or some mixture of truth and falsehoods, or completely false.
If we personally know the living God, we will know what he is like. We’ll know facts about him. If we really know God, we can’t fail to know who he is. We’ll know if he is triune. If we really know Jesus, we’ll know he is divine. To claim that Jesus was merely a man or prophet shows that we don’t really know who he is.
A few weeks ago, I was in Washington State, where I used to live. I was there to attend a friend’s funeral. After the service, I happened to meet someone who grew up in my hometown of Wenham. He is the same age as my oldest brother, Ted. I knew that they were in the same high school class and they both played on the basketball team. I also knew he lived somewhere north of Seattle and that he was a firefighter, just as my friend was. But I don’t recall every having personally met this man, named David.
When we met, he told me that both he and Ted put the same Scripture, Proverbs 3:5–6, under their high school yearbook photo; went to Gordon College; and went on the same mission trip.
But what if David started saying some things that didn’t line up with what I know to be true of Ted? What if he said, “Yeah, I remember Ted had that beautiful sister. What happened to her?” If he said that, I would say, “Uh, we didn’t have a sister.” He might say, “Oh, I must have been thinking of someone else. But Ted drove that awesome Corvette, right?” “No, but he drove a 1970s Dodge Dart for a while.”
If this went on for a while, I would start to wonder if we were talking about the same person. Either his memory would be really mixed up or he was thinking about a different person.
And that’s how it is with Jesus. Some people preach “another Jesus,” which is something that Paul noted elsewhere (2 Cor. 11:4). Mormons don’t believe the same Jesus we do. Muslims don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, that he is divine. They don’t believe he died on the cross, and therefore they deny the resurrection. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus isn’t God. Are they really talking about the same Jesus?
If we know Jesus personally, we’ll know facts about him, just the way that if we’re married, we’ll know facts about our spouse. We may not know everything, but we’ll know important things. Christianity is ultimately a relationship, and real relationships must be built on truth and love.
And that knowledge should lead to right behavior. Theology, our knowledge of God, must be lived out. One theologian said, “Theology is all about knowing how to sing the song of redemption: to know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent and when to hope. But in order to enjoy the song and sing it well, we must learn the words and the music.” Think about that for a moment. If you don’t know the Bible and how to understand it, you’re like someone who doesn’t know the words and the tune of the song you’re supposed to be singing. The song is the Christian life. You’re supposed to sing it! But how can you sing it if you don’t know the words and the tune? You’re like the person in the shower singing a song they heard on the radio and making up words as they go. It’s funny when people get the words to a song wrong—“Hold me closer, Tony Danza”—but it’s not funny when people get words about God wrong.
So, know the tune. Know the words. And then sing the song! Sing it at home. Sing it at work. Sing it when you’re running errands. Sing it when we gather. Behave as if you’re God’s house, God’s building, God’s temple. Because if you are a Christian, that’s what you are.
And if you’re not a Christian, I would urge you to put your trust in Jesus. The true Jesus is the one revealed in the pages of the Bible. He is not the Jesus of our imagination. No one could make up Jesus, because he confronts us all. He challenges each one of us. He calls us out on our sin. He teaches us a new way to live. He tells us to lay down our lives and to love our enemies. No one would invent that. Jesus tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that the way we respond to him is truly the way we respond to God. When Jesus prayed to the Father on the night before he died, he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Other hymns in the New Testament include Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 176. ↑
- Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 22-23. ↑
- In an episode of the sitcom Friends, one of the characters mistakenly thought that Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” featured those words. ↑
When you have young kids in your home, you find yourself saying certain things quite frequently. One of those sayings is, “Knock it off!” That’s a favorite saying of my wife. My most often frequent saying is probably quite simply, “Stop it!” There’s another saying I have: “That’s not a toy!” I might say that whenever my sons start to play with something that catches their eye, like a computer or a hammer or a staple gun. Okay, I’m joking with that last item. My sons are now at an age when they’re naturally curious, and there are times when playing with something that’s not a toy can be destructive and even dangerous.
My wife used to allow our kids to play with some items in a drawer in the kitchen. It’s kind of our culinary junk drawer, where we store anything from measuring cups and measuring spoons to spatulas and other assorted kitchen tools. About three and a half years ago, I found Caleb playing with a crinkle cutter. It’s a little tool that makes crinkle-cut slices of potatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables. It’s designed for a purpose: it makes these crinkle-shaped cuts. It doesn’t do anything else. Caleb was running the edge of it along my nice, black, lacquer-finished piano. Now there is a nice, thin, long scratch made by the end of the crinkle-cutter. I guess I should be thankful that his brother doesn’t have a crinkle-cut finger. But I wasn’t thankful at the time. My boy had used something in a way that didn’t line up with its purpose.
Now, that’s not very serious; there are worse things than a scratch in a piano. But there are times when a tool, when used as a toy, could become quite dangerous. And there are times when things that are not used according to their purposes become very dangerous, even deadly. Think about the drugs we call opioids. Many of us have heard that we’re living in the midst of an opioid crisis or epidemic. Opioids are the kind of drugs that trace their origins back to opium, which is made from the opium poppy, a flowering plant. Opium is what makes morphine, a powerful painkiller. It’s also what can be processed into synthetic opioids, prescription painkillers that help people with acute and/or chronic pain. It’s a good thing to have painkillers. Seven years ago, I had a herniated disc in my lower back. The L5/S1 disc impinged on the sciatic nerve on my right side, which created a great amount of pain in my butt, hip, and leg. I spent the better part of three months lying down on the floor. I also took painkillers for three months. They didn’t eliminate the pain, but they reduced it greatly. When I had surgery, I was given some morphine afterwards. I have seen people dying on morphine, which eased the pain of their last days, hours, and minutes. Anything that is safe and can reduce this kind of pain is a good thing.
But some people get addicted to prescription painkillers. Millions of people misuse prescription painkillers. Millions in the world are using them illegally. And thousands die from overdoses every year. In 2016, there were 42,249 people who died of opioid overdoses. Of those, 20,145 died from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) and 14,427 died of natural or semi-synthetic opioids. Opium can also be processed into heroine, an illegal drug, which killed 15,446 people in 2016.
So, something that occurs in nature, the opium poppy, can be produced into chemicals that relieve pain and suffering. Those chemicals, when taken in excess, can also kill. And the same natural thing can be processed into a chemical that is illegal, highly addictive, destructive, and deadly.
This reveals an important biblical truth. Everything that exists in nature can be used for good or for bad purposes. God made these things good. But when they are misused, the result is very bad. We can misuse things by using them in a way contrary to God’s design for them. We can misuse things my making an idol of them. And we can also misuse good things by avoiding them and telling others not to use them.
We see all of this in the passage that we’ll look at today, 1 Timothy 4:1–5. Three months ago, we started to look at the letter of 1 Timothy, a book of the New Testament. It’s a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. Paul left Timothy in the city of Ephesus while he was gone. He wanted Timothy to make sure that the church in Ephesus was healthy. In particular, he wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teaching. In today’s passage, we see some of the content of their wrong teaching. So, with that in mind, here’s what we’re going to do today. I’m going to first read the passage, explain what it means, and then think a bit more deeply about how we can rightly appreciate and use the things that God has created.
Here is 1 Timothy 4:1–5:
1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
Paul says that the Holy Spirit has indicated that in “later times” people will depart from the truth faith and teach false things. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one God; he is the one who empowers some people to speak the word of God. He is the one who led Paul to write this letter. And he spoke through apostles and prophets to indicate that in “later times,” there would be false teachers.
What does Paul mean by “later times”? Well, he means now. And I don’t mean the twenty-first century. I mean the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. If you look carefully at the New Testament, you’ll see this. For example, Paul writes something a bit similar in his second letter to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:1–5, he writes,
1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
I think that people have always been lovers of self and money, they’ve always been proud, and so forth. But if Paul meant that people would only be this way in the period right before Jesus returned to earth, he wouldn’t say, “Avoid such people.” Timothy wouldn’t have to worry about those people, because they would come much later in time. So, the “last days” and the “later times” are the long period between Jesus’ first and last coming.
Now, what prophecy is Paul referring to? Peter and Jude make a reference to prophecies about false teachers (2 Pet. 3:1–3; Jude 17–18). Jesus said that in the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70, “many will fall away” and “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matt. 24:10–11). Paul may also be referring to something he said earlier in time, recorded in the book of Acts. While speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus (the same city where Timothy was located), he said,
29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29–30).
Paul knew that false teachers would come, now they are in this church, and now they are leading people to depart from the faith. Literally, these people have apostatized. These false teachers are insincere liars, which means that they know they are teaching false things. They’re not just making honest mistakes. They have consciences that are seared, which likely means that they are branded. It’s possible that their branding means they are marked as belonging to Satan, the devil. That would make sense of the why they are associated with “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons.” That may sound extreme, but it reminds us that all lies ultimately come from Satan, “the father of lies” (John 8:44). The Bible teaches us that there is more to reality than what we can see. There are spirits, both angels and demons, who are at work to either support or fight against God’s plans.
False teachers are influenced by Satan, and they can appear to look godly, though their message is wrong. In 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote of other false teachers. About them, he wrote,
13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13–15).
So, what was this “teaching of demons” that these false teachers taught? Was it some secret occult practice? Was it teaching people to bow down before some shrine or statue of a god? Was it the first-century equivalent of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”? No, not at all. These teachers “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” That’s surprising. They were telling people not to get married—and probably to be celibate. They were also telling people not to eat certain foods. They were probably trying to tell people to maintain the dietary laws found in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11). I say that because these same false teachers had an incorrect understanding of the Old Testament law, something Paul mentioned in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:3–11).
In short, it seems like they taught that certain practices could lead people astray, that marriage, perhaps because of the issue of sex, might somehow be inherently bad, that eating certain foods might corrupt people. We would think that false teachers would teach people to go have all the sex they want and eat all the foods they want. But this is quite the opposite.
Yet these false teachers were wrong. “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” The problem isn’t marriage or certain foods. The problem, really, is inside of us, not the created things that we find in the world.
To understand this, we need to have a grasp of the story of the Bible, or what we might call a basic biblical worldview. To get a quick handle on that story, we need to remember four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
First, there is creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). When God made things, he saw that they were good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). There is no hint of created things, or physical things, being bad. God ordered and designed the material world to function in a good way. Other philosophies or religions teach that material things are somehow worse than so-called “spiritual” or immaterial things. But this isn’t what we see in the Bible. The goal of the biblical story is not to escape from the material world.
Second, there is the fall. Something bad happened, something that distorts us and our experience of this world. The first human beings turned away from God. They didn’t trust him and his word. They didn’t listen to his commandments. They believed the lie that God was keeping good things from them. They didn’t accept God’s design for them and his world. As a result, the power of rebellion that we call sin invaded the world. This created a separation between God and human beings, but it also creates a separation between human beings, and within human beings. There is something broken in us. There is something broken in the material world, too. But that doesn’t mean that the stuff that God created is inherently bad.
Jesus taught us what is wrong with us. He said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Then he said,
“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:18b–23).
What is wrong with us is our hearts, our disordered desires. Those disordered desires lead us to commit sins, wrong actions. The things that God made have right uses, but we end up using things the wrong way. And because we have fouled up God’s good creation, and because God wants to restore his good creation, God has every right to evict us from his good creation forever. In other words, he has every right to condemn us. That’s bad news.
But there’s good news. And that is redemption. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God sent his unique Son, the second Person of the Trinity, who became a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is therefore truly God and truly man. Jesus came to fulfill God’s purposes for humanity. He is the perfect image bearer of God, the perfect representative, the perfect human ruler, the perfect worshiper, the perfect lover of God and lover of other people, the perfect Son of God. The fact that Jesus became a real man shows that the material world is not inherently bad. It shows that created things can be perfect. Though Jesus was and is perfect, he was rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. He never did anything wrong to deserve such treatment. But people hated him and didn’t believe him. And yet this was all God’s plan to put the sins of his people on his Son’s shoulders, and it was the Son’s plan to bear the righteous judgment of sin on behalf of those who trust him. All who believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and did what the Bible says he did are forgiven of their sins, adopted as God’s children, and granted eternal life. People who trust Jesus receive the Bible as the word of God and try to live their lives according to what the Bible says we should do in these “last days.”
The end of the is the restoration of the universe. In the end, God’s people won’t live in “heaven.” They will live in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), a new creation. It will be a physical world, a place where there is real food and there will be a real marriage, though not between mere human beings. The real marriage is between God and his people, Jesus and his church. This is a metaphor, of course; not all that occurs within a human marriage occurs with the divine marriage. But it captures something of the beauty, exclusivity, faithfulness, and love of the relationship that God has with his people.
So, the story of the Bible teaches us that created things aren’t inherently bad. Instead, it teaches that sinful people have a way of failing to use the things of God’s creation rightly. We fail when we distort God’s good gifts, using them for wrong purposes. When God says, “That’s not a toy!” we should listen. He knows better than we do. We fail when we make those gifts into an idol, something that is ultimate in our lives, an object of worship. Today, when people take one aspect of creation and build their lives around it, instead of building their lives around God, they don’t think they’re worshiping. They don’t think that thing, whatever it is, is an idol. But that’s really what it is. It is the functional object of their worship. Yet we were made to worship God alone. We also fail when we act as though God’s good gifts are inherently bad.
We can misuse anything. We can turn anything into an idol. And we can overcorrect by avoiding good things.
It’s not likely that we’ll do this with food, but it’s still possible to make that mistake today. People misuse food by eating too much of it, or by eating too much of things that should be eaten in moderation, like desserts. People can turn food into an idol when their lives revolve around gourmet food, or turn to food for comfort and security and happiness, or when they become obsessed about what they eat (probably for health reasons). I’m not sure that people forbid eating certain foods for religious reasons, though there are orthodox Jews and Muslims who abide by certain dietary codes.
We can do this with alcohol. This is what Psalm 104 says about wine:
14 You [God] cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
15 and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Ps. 104:14–15).
Israelites were allowed to have “strong drink” when they celebrated feasts in Jerusalem (Deut. 14:26). And the new creation is described as being a “feast of well-aged wine” (Isa. 25:6). Jesus ever turned water into wine (John 2), so it can’t be inherently bad.
But what do we do with alcohol? Many people drink too much, and this causes great destruction and death. Some people can’t live without it. Others then turn around and overreact, saying that all drinking is inherently sinful. Now, it’s true that the Bible says that drunkenness is wrong (Eph. 5:18 is but one example). But Scripture doesn’t forbid all drinking.
We can do this with marriage. Marriage is a good gift created by God. But we misuse it in many ways. God designed marriage to be a lifelong union of one man and one woman. Yet we redefine marriage; many ancient societies had polygamy: one man had many wives. Marriage is meant to be exclusive, so that the husband and wife do not have sex with anyone else; many people have committed adultery. Of course, there is the problem of divorce. And now there is the problem of redefining marriage, so that it’s not necessarily a union of one man and one woman.
Some people create an idol of marriage. They believe that their spouse will complete them. They believe their spouse will fulfill all their desires and dreams. Spoiler alert: the best spouse will never, ever do that.
Very few people forbid marriage for religious reasons. One group, the Shakers, did. But it’s hard to keep a religious movement growing when you don’t have marriages that produce babies. The last remaining Shaker community in America is located in New Gloucester, Maine, and it has only two members.
We certainly do misuse sex. It is a good gift, meant to be experienced only within marriage. Yet we have it outside of marriage. We reduce other human beings to “sex objects,” as things to be consumed. We turn sex into an idol, the ultimate pleasure or experience. And some people can give the impression that sex is somehow inherently bad, though it’s not.
We can do the same thing with work. We misuse work when we don’t work, or when we mistreat people who work for us. Work is distorted wherever slavery exists. Work becomes an idol for some people; they find their identity and satisfaction in life through work. Some people act as if work is a necessary evil, something that only exists because sin exists. But work existed before sin entered into the world. God gave Adam a job to do (Gen. 2:15). So, work is not inherently bad.
The same could be said of money or possessions. We misuse money by spending it on the wrong things, or by stealing. We’re supposed to use things and love people, but we turn this around and use people and love things. Wealth is a great idol. It makes the false promise to us that if only we were rich, we would be happy and secure. Some people then act as if having money, or owning anything, is evil. But possessions are gifts from God. They can be appreciated. They can be used for God’s glory. We use money to fund ministry. Any church, any missionary endeavor needs some level of funding. We can use our possessions to bless others. For example, we can use our homes to house guests, to have people over to get to know them, to provide a safe place for our family. A home can become an idol when we put too much money into it, when all our thoughts and energies and desires are wrapped up in having the perfect house. But a house is a good thing if used rightly.
As you can see, we can misuse anything. We take the good things that God has made and use them wrongly, or turn them into ultimate things, which then become the center of our lives. That place should be reserved for God alone. If we overreact and then refuse to use the gifts that God has given to us, or if we refuse to enjoy good things, we’re committing another error. We are denying the good things that God has given to us. When we reject the gift, we’re rejecting the Giver.
Our only hope is redemption. Our only hope is turning to Jesus for our salvation. Only Jesus can reconcile us to God. Only Jesus provides forgiveness of sins. And only Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, who starts to change our distorted desires. The Spirit can rearrange our loves so that we enjoy God’s gifts and use them rightly, the way that God designed them to be used. Without God’s help, we turn tools into toys, and toys into tools. Without the Spirit, we turn people into things, and things into idols. But when we come to Jesus, and when we rely on the Holy Spirit and seek to obey God’s instructions for life, we can begin to use the things that God has made in a right way. We can then enjoy a meal and not only think, “This steak is great!” Instead, we’ll also think, “How great is the God who made cows that we can turn into steak!” That may seem silly, but it’s not. The difference is big. If we see all of reality as designed by God, we can thank God for his good gifts and use them rightly.
If you’re here today and you don’t know Jesus, I urge you turn to him. Only he makes us right with God. And when we have a relationship with him, our vision of life starts to change. We start to see things rightly. We start to see everything with reference to God. He alone gives us eyes to see the truth and the power to live according to the truth.
Christians, remember that Paul says that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” Let’s thank God for those good things. They were made good, so let’s not call God a liar by believing they’re not. And they’re made holy through God’s word and prayer. That is, the gospel message—this message of Jesus that we talk about—shows us how all things can be holy, consecrated to God. And when we pray to God, thanking him, asking him to help us to use his gifts wisely, all things can be enjoyed in the right way. Everything, even enjoying a meal, can be an act of worship. Elsewhere, Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Our final hope is the restoration of the world, the transformation of the creation. It will be a feast, a world of good gifts, the greatest of which is God—his presence and his blessing. The prophet Isaiah said,
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
7 And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6–9).
- http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-opioid-overdose-deaths-20180329-htmlstory.html ↑
- https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates ↑
- The phrase “will depart from” is a translation of ἀποστήσονταί (apostēsontai). ↑
The church is God’s household and temple. It is also a guardian of truth. That’s why right theology and right behavior matter in the life of the Christian and the church. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:14-16.
All Christians should serve as members of a church, using their abilities and spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church and the glory of God. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Corinthians 12.
Serving others is just as important as leading. Service is so important to Christianity that the church has officially recognized servants called deacons. What is a deacon? Who can be a deacon? Why do we need deacons? Find out in this sermon by Brian Watson, based on 1 Timothy 3:8–13.
What obligation does a church have to its leaders? The church should respect, esteem, obey, and submit to their leaders, namely the pastors (or elders/overseers). If we recognize Jesus as our ultimate authority, we’ll obey church authorities (as long as they’re following Jesus). Pastor Brian Watson preaches about leaders and followers in the Bible.
As a leader goes, so goes a country, a company, a sports team, or any institution or organization. We realize that with our country, which is why we put so much emphasis on who is the president. The last election was only a year and a half ago, and people are still talking about it, but in a year or less, people will start campaigning for the next election in an effort to be the next president. We probably give too much weight to the presidency, blaming or praising him for almost everything that happens in this country. But we realize that if the president is a bad one, the country is in trouble.
The same is true of corporations. A company needs to have a good CEO to thrive. We don’t own a house right now, so we have some money invested in stocks. I’ve used one stock recommendation service to get some tips on how to invest, and one of the ways they evaluate companies is by evaluating their CEOs. A company with a wise and innovative CEO is more promising than one that has an incompetent leader.
The same is true in sports. Today, the Celtics play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavaliers. Despite whatever happens today, the Celtics have done better than most people would have imagined, since their star player, Kyrie Irving, has been injured for the last two months and won’t play again until next season. The Celtics also acquired another star, Gordon Hayward, last year, but he only played five minutes and scored two points before breaking his ankle. Since he’s getting about $30 million this year, that’s a bad investment. Most people credit the Celtics’ success to their coach, Brad Stevens. The Patriots have had some great players over the last seventeen years, but if you took away Bill Belichick, I don’t how many Super Bowls they would have won.
Leaders are important. And they’re important in churches, too. And that’s why the Bible has some important things to say about the leaders of churches.
Today, we’re continuing our study of 1 Timothy, a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. This book of the Bible teaches us “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15). Paul had left Timothy in the city of Ephesus, an important city within the Roman Empire. The church there was threatened by the presence of false teachers. So, Paul wrote to Timothy to make sure that Timothy did his best to protect the health of the church. One way to protect the health of the church is to make sure its leaders are healthy.
And that brings us to today’s passage, 1 Timothy 3:1–7, which discusses the “office of the overseer.” First, we’ll read the passage, and then we’ll explore what it and another passage in the Bible say about leaders of the church.
But before we read this, I want to say to those who are visiting, or perhaps those who are not yet Christians: This text of the Bible may not seem like it pertains to your life at all. It is about the nuts and bolts of church life, after all. But what I’ll talk about today will give you a sense of what Christianity is all about, why the church is important, and why leaders of a church are important. And perhaps all of that will teach you more about the values of Christianity, the failings of Christians, and why those failings don’t mean that Christianity itself has failed.
Without further ado, let’s read today’s text. Here is 1 Timothy 3:1–7:
1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
I want to ask a few basic questions of this passage. The first one is, what is an overseer? That’s not a term used in churches, though it does appear a few times in the Bible. The King James Version translates the Greek word as “bishop.” But when we Protestants think of “bishop,” we think of the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps the Anglican or Episcopal Church. (The Episcopal Church is named after this Greek word, episkopos.) In those churches, a bishop is an authority over several churches in an area. Is that what Paul is talking about?
No. We can see that by comparing a few different passages. Let’s look at a very similar passage in another one of Paul’s letters, his letter to Titus. In Titus 1:5–9, Paul writes,
5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Here Paul tells Titus that he had left him on the island of Crete so that he could appoint elders in every town. Then, after giving a few qualifications of an elder, Paul write, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” That’s what Paul writes in 1 Timothy, too. But Paul had first started by talking of elders, so it seems that overseers are elders. The two words refer to the same office.
Some churches use the word “elder,” but some do not. So, we might not be very familiar with this term. It calls to mind older people, though in the Bible an elder was generally the head of a family, not someone who is a senior citizen. And the leaders of churches are not necessarily very old. But the point is that elders are overseers, and overseers are elders. And, before we look at other passages, it’s important to see this: Paul told Titus to appoint elders—note, this is plural—in every town—this is singular. That suggests that in every place, perhaps every individual church, there should be multiple elders, or overseers.
Let’s continue to look at other passages to figure out what “elder” and “overseer” mean. We’ll look more at this passage next week, but in 1 Peter 5, another apostle, Peter, writes,
1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:1–4).
Peter begins with that same term, “elders.” He calls himself “a fellow elder.” And then he says, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” “Oversight” reminds us of the term “overseer.” It’s the verb form of the Greek word translated as “overseer.” But notice that other verb: shepherd. Now we’re getting on familiar ground. The verb could be translated “pastor the flock of God.” The word “pastor” comes from a Latin word that means “shepherd.”
So, now we’re getting somewhere. An overseer is an elder is a pastor. These three terms refer to the same office. That might be confusing, but it’s not different than referring to the President as Commander in Chief. Those two terms can be used of the same office. The President is not someone different than the Commander in Chief. Those titles refer to the same person, or the same office. In a similar way, overseer, elder, and shepherd (or pastor) refer to the same office.
We’ll also see this in a moment when we look at some of Acts 20. When Paul was traveling back toward Jerusalem, he made a stop in Miletus, on the western coast of the province of Asia Minor, and he called the “elders of the church” of Ephesus to come to him. In part of his speech, Paul says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Again, Paul is addressing the elders, and now he says that they are to care, “or shepherd,” the flock, because the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. The ESV says “to care for the church,” but it really should be “to shepherd the church” (as in the CSB and the NASB; the NIV has something similar). So, the elders are overseers, and they are to shepherd the church.
So, that answers our question. Overseers are elders or, more familiarly, pastors. That is one of two ongoing offices in the church. The other is deacon. That’s why Paul mentions both the “overseers” and the “deacons” at the beginning of his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1). It doesn’t appear that there are any other ongoing offices in the church. There is no indication that there should be a pope, a head over the whole universal church. There is no mention of ongoing “bishops,” who govern all the churches in one city or province. The only priests in the new covenant, the church, are all Christians (1 Pet. 2:9, for example). The multiple levels of hierarchy that one sees in the Catholic Church developed in the centuries after the Bible was written, but they are not themselves part of God’s Word to his church.
Now, let’s answer a second question: what are the qualifications for an overseer, an elder, or a pastor? Let’s go back to 1 Timothy 3. Paul says that “an overseer must be above reproach” (v. 2). This does not mean that a pastor must be sinless or perfect. If that were the case, there would be no pastors! But it means there must be no major moral defects in a pastor. Many commentators believe that what follows in Paul’s list provides the definition of what it means to be “above reproach.”
Paul says he must be “the husband of one wife,” or, more literally, a “one-woman man.” Some people think this means a pastor must never have been divorced, or that pastor couldn’t remarry if his first wife died. Paul could have used words like “divorce” to describe a pastor’s qualities. But he didn’t. It’s more likely that Paul means a pastor should be faithful to his wife. Divorce in many cases is a sin, but it’s not an unforgivable sin. Yet the pastor must have a track record of being faithful to his wife.
He should also be “sober-minded” and “self-controlled.” That seems self-explanatory. A pastor should be level-headed, with the ability to control emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
He must be “respectable,” worthy of respecting, as well as “hospitable.” Literally, this means a “lover of strangers.” He must be willing to open his life and his home to new people, which is true of all Christians (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9).
He also must be “able to teach.” Besides the fact that Paul calls these leaders “overseers,” which suggests what the job is about, this is the qualification in the list that suggests what overseers do. They must be able to teach. Specifically, they must be able to teach God’s Word. As we study other passages related to overseers/elders/pastors, we’ll see that not every one of these is a regular teacher. But every overseer must be able to teach. Why is that necessary?
Often, we think of leaders as different from teachers. Think of the Patriots. I don’t know how much Bob Kraft knows about football. I’m sure I wouldn’t want him coaching the Patriots. But he’s the owner and if he wanted, he could fire Bill Belichick. Belichick is more of the teacher. We tend to separate these functions when we think of leadership. But the Bible doesn’t. According to the Bible, the church’s leaders are teachers, even if they aren’t always engaged in teaching. Why is that necessary? Because leaders of a church must lead biblically. They must lead according to what the Bible says. And I have seen that many people don’t know how to interpret the Bible well. That’s why God has given the church some people who can. But it’s often the case that some leaders in a church are not teachers, and that’s probably why many churches are not healthy.
In verse 3, Paul says that an overseer is “not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Much of that is self-explanatory. A pastor can’t be sober-minded if he is drunk. Violence, or being a very argumentative person, is not what Christianity is about. Gentle does not mean never disagreeing, or never saying a strong word. We can say that Jesus was gentle, but he was not afraid to rebuke, to cry out in a loud voice, or to overturn some tables and crack a whip to drive sinful practices out of the temple. But being gentle must be the opposite of being violent and quarrelsome. He must be careful how he treats people. He must be patient and gracious. Again, this doesn’t mean he puts up with just anything, or puts up with problematic people forever. See all of Paul’s letters. He was not afraid to remove people from churches and speak strong words.
A pastor or overseer must not be a “lover of money.” I’ll speak a bit about this next week, too, but it doesn’t hurt to be a bit repetitive. Pastors who are “in it for the money” will be far more likely to do anything to get people into the church, so that the church can grow and more money will come in. Those pastors won’t preach unpopular passages. They may not contradict what the Bible says, but they won’t preach the fullness of what the Bible says. Though, of course, it may be the case that pastors who are in it for the money change their doctrine so that it matches with what the people want to hear. They may refuse to correct or confront people who are wealthy, because the church might lose a significant donor.
This is true of not just pastors, but all of us. Whatever we love the most will dictate the course of our lives. If we love Jesus most, we’ll love truth. We’ll obey Jesus’ commandments. We’ll love God with all our being and we’ll love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But if we love money or power more than we love God, we’ll be willing to make all kinds of compromises. The same is true if our treasure is comfort or entertainment or a relationship. What we love the most is our object of worship, our functional god. And if we worship anything other than the true God, we’ll bend moral rules to keep our god.
The world has many pastors and priests who have compromised in order to please people or to earn money. The world has many priests and pastors who have made sex their god, and have cheated on wives or who have sexually abused children. None of this means Christianity is false. It means that people are sinners, even within the church, and that at any given moment any of us can do what is wrong. That is why we must all be careful to watch what we love the most, what we believe to be true, just as much as we must watch our behaviors. Our desires will dictate our lives. Pastors must love God, and the truth of God, found in God’s Word, more than they love pleasing people, earning accolades, or making money.
There are three more things that Paul says about overseers, or elders or pastors. First, a pastor “must manage his own household well.” The reason is simple: “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” This shows that an overseer is a leader, one who manages the church. If he can’t first manage his own home, including his children, why should we expect him to do better with the church? If his children are unruly, if his home is a mess, if his finances are out of order—well, who would want that for the church?
This does not mean that every pastor must have a wife and children. If that were so, Jesus couldn’t be a pastor, and neither could Paul! But it’s generally expected that pastors will be married and have children. This, too, shows that the Catholic Church is wrong to forbid its leaders to marry. Marriage is a good thing, something that teaches us many lessons about faithfulness and forgiveness and loving someone else when we don’t feel like it, or when that person doesn’t seem particularly lovable. Having children teaches many lessons, too, and both are gifts from God. A pastor must handle these gifts well if he wants to handle the gift of leading a church well.
In verse 6, Paul says, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” I suppose “recent” might be a bit relative. When the church was young, elders must have been appointed to churches not long after becoming Christians. But the point is that the new converts can be proud of their spirituality, or proud of their doctrine. Life has a way of humbling people and tempering their pride over time, and this is true of pastors, too. It’s best for them to have time being led after becoming a Christian instead of jumping into a position of leadership. If not, pastors may become like Satan, whose pride led him to rebel against God and therefore fall into condemnation.
Finally, Paul says that an overseer “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Paul is concerned about the reputation of the church. An overseer who has a bad reputation outside of the church makes the church, and therefore Jesus, look bad. Satan would love nothing more than to destroy the church, to ruin its reputation. So, he has laid many snares, many traps for pastors. Some involve money, some involve marriage and sex, some involve compromising their theology. All lead to a bad reputation for Jesus and his church.
So, those are the basic qualifications for pastors. But, if you think about it, most of these qualities should apply to all Christians. The only one that doesn’t is the ability to teach and, if people are single, the descriptions of marriage and a home life. In other words, pastors should be ideal Christians—not perfect Christians, because there’s no such thing. But they should be model Christians.
These qualities are probably the very opposite of the qualities that the false teachers have. If you read this letter carefully, it’s not hard to see that they were lovers of money (1 Tim. 6:3–10). It’s possible they were sexually promiscuous (2 Tim. 3:6). They were certainly not able to teach, and it seems they were quarreling over foolish things, like myths and genealogies (Tit. 3:9). In order to protect the health of the church, churches first need to have healthy leaders.
Paul knew this well, that’s why he had warned the elders in Ephesus about this several years earlier. We have already asked, “what is an overseer?” and “what are the qualifications of an overseer?” Now we should ask, “what does an overseer do?”
I’ll answer this in more detail next week. But for now, I want us to look at that passage in Acts 20, when Paul addresses the elders of the church in Ephesus. I preached on this a couple of years ago, and you can find the whole series of sermons on Acts online. Therefore, I won’t dig into the details. But I want us to see a few important things in this passage. So, I’ll read Acts 20:17–31:
17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”
I could go on, but for the sake of time, I’ll stop there.
I want to point out four things. First, Paul emphasizes his teaching. He says declared “what was profitable . . . the whole counsel of God.” He probably doesn’t mean he literally preached the whole Bible. After all, the entire Bible hadn’t been written yet. But he taught the fullness of God’s plan for his creation. He taught about who God is, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the perfect, eternal, holy, righteous, loving, merciful, gracious, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient deity. He taught that God made the universe for his glory and that he made human beings in his image, to reflect his glory, to represent who he is, to worship him, to rule over the world, and to love and obey him. He also taught that from the beginning human beings have rebelled against God. They have failed to love and trust him. They have rejected his word. In short, they have sinned. But he taught that at the right time, God sent his unique Son, Jesus, who lived a perfect human life and died in place of sinful human beings. Anyone who turns from sin to Jesus can receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
That brings us to the second thing Paul mentions: his message. He taught “the gospel of the grace of God.” He taught “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He taught that “the church of God” was “obtained with his own blood.” That verse, verse 28, shows that Jesus is God. And it shows that he redeemed a people through his sacrifice on the cross. He made them his own. Jesus died to pay the penalty for their sin. As a righteous judge, God cannot let the guilty go free without someone paying the penalty for their crimes. Jesus paid that penalty in full on the cross for anyone who would turn to him in faith, trusting that his life, death, and resurrection is what reconciles us to God.
The third thing that Paul says is also found in verse 28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” He tells the elders to pay attention to themselves. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). He tells them to shepherd the flock, to care for them. He also says that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers.
The fourth thing Paul says is “be alert.” He says that “fierce wolves” will attack the flock. These “wolves” will include people within the church, even some elders: “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” False teachers, people who “speak twisted things,” can destroy the church. These people may not look fierce at all. They may be the nicest people you know. But anyone who rejects God’s Word, or leads people away from following it, is a “wolf.” People who attack the sheep or who attack a faithful shepherd are wolves.
From this passage in Acts, we get a good sense of what overseers do. They teach God’s Word—the fullness of it, not just popular passages. They care and protect the flock. And they watch out for false teachers or other enemies. Of course, they exercise oversight, too. They lead, teach, and protect.
The reason I spend so much time reading Scripture in my sermons and showing where I get my ideas from is because I want to teach “the whole counsel of God.” Some churches don’t spend a lot of time with Scripture. Some churches focus only on the more “practical” passages, the ones that seem to apply to everyone, not just pastors or people concerned about church leadership. But I think it’s important to teach all of God’s Word to all of God’s people. I think we should view all of God’s world through the lens of all of God’s Word. And that means focusing on the Bible, not spending a lot of time on my opinions or on cute stories.
So, we’ve looked at a lot of Scripture and thought a bit about overseers/elders/pastors. What should we do with this information?
First, I want to speak to anyone who might not be a Christian. Thanks for being here. Today’s passage may not seem to apply at all to you. But I hope it’s given you some insight into what’s important about Christianity. You’ve heard the central message of Christianity: Jesus came to save sinners, people who have been enemies of God. You may not see yourself as an enemy of God, but if you don’t love God more than anything else, and if that isn’t truly apparent in your life, you’re at odds with God. The fact is that all of us start out as rebels. We don’t love, trust, and obey God the way that we should. We have all sinned. And therefore, we deserve condemnation. But God sent his Son, who came willingly, to die on our place, if we would only trust him. I would love to talk to you more about what it means to follow Jesus. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you first have to be perfect. But when we come to Jesus, we must do life God’s way, and that means living the way a model Christian should live. We will not all be pastors, but many of the qualities of a pastor should be apparent in a Christian’s life.
Second, I want us a church to think about what all these passages say. There are two offices of the church: overseer/elder/shepherd and deacon. The two are not the same. They don’t perform the same roles. Deacons aren’t junior pastors or assistant pastors. Deacons are not shepherds or overseers. We need to have a correct understanding of both offices, and this should be reflected in our by-laws. Right now, they are not. If you look at our by-laws, nowhere in the description of the pastor’s role does it include the language of leading, overseeing, shepherding, or watching over. Yet in the description of the deacons, we’re told they should “watch over” the congregation and serve as “overseeing” members of committees. I’ll have more to say about all of this, but the by-laws of this church are not fully biblical, and therefore, they need to change.
Three, I would like to see this church have multiple overseers/elders/pastors. This does not mean the church has to hire more staff. Many healthy churches that are similar in doctrine have multiple elders, some of whom are paid staff, and others who are lay leaders. They all have the same office, though perhaps they don’t all devote as much time to the job. The paid staff do more of the teaching and do more administrative oversight. But all the elders are responsible for shepherding the flock. The role of the deacons is to serve in practical manners, often through physical acts of service, but also through distributing financial aid to those in need. I’ll say much more about these roles over the coming weeks. For now, I just want to have us think about that model, because it’s biblical.
We should all care about the leadership of the church because the church is “the household of God . . . a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Being part of God’s family means being part of a church. And a healthy church needs faithful leaders. Please pray that I would be a faithful shepherd and that we would all follow the chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.
- https://wbcommunity.org/acts. ↑
As a leader goes, so goes any organization. The same is true for the church. That’s why the Bible has some important things to say about the qualifications for church leaders. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:1-7, with a quick look at some of Acts 20:17-31. This message takes a look at the office of overseer/elder/pastor and why this matters for the church.
I think most people would agree that there is problem with men and women in our culture. That is particularly true in light of the many different accounts of sexual abuse and harassment that have come to light within recent months and years. How men and women relate to each other in this country is problematic, to say the least.
Though most people would agree with that, we don’t seem to agree on the solution to this problem. Some people think the way forward is to have more female leaders. Many people think every other president should be a woman, that half of Congress should be female, and that there should be more female governors, mayors, and judges. The same people think that there should be far more female CEOs, board members, principals, professors, military officers, and so on. They might think that for every male role in a movie or television show, there should be a female role. I suspect that if the people who hold these opinions thought about religion, they would think there should be a female Pope and priests, too.
In other words, some people think that the way forward is to have equal roles for men and women. Not only are they equal in value, worth, respect, and dignity, but they also should be able to perform all the same jobs. The only difference is biological. And those biological differences are generally only concerned with reproductive organs and size and strength.
But what if this isn’t the way forward? What if the way forward is to go backward? And I don’t mean that we should go back to the nineteenth century, when women couldn’t vote. I don’t mean we should go back to, say, a thousand or two or three thousand years ago, when women were often treated like property. What if the way forward is to look back to a time when the world was uncorrupted by the forces of evil? What if the way forward is to look back to the way God designed the world to function, before sin invaded the creation and distorted everything?
I realize that many people think such an idea would be foolish. Many people would believe such a move to be regress, not progress. I understand that. The reality is that Christianity has always been countercultural. Christianity is more than just a way to be forgiven by God. Christianity is a way of looking at all of reality. It’s a worldview, a story that gives shape to our lives, a map that shows us where to go, a set of lenses that helps us to see the world as it really is. And the Christian worldview will always be at odds with elements of the prevailing culture’s worldview. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of men and women.
We’ll see that today as we continue to look at a book in the Bible called 1 Timothy. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy, who was in a city in the Roman Empire called Ephesus.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that Paul encouraged Timothy to stop people who taught false doctrine. Now, he tells Timothy that men and women have different roles to play in the church.
What we see in this passage will challenge some of us. At first, some of us might think this couldn’t possibly be right. That will likely be true if you’re not a Christian. But I would ask that you keep an open mind. I also ask you to think about this: There has never been a country that has had as much wealth as America has right now. There has never been a people with as many choices as Americans have now. Despite all of this, we are, on the whole, unhappy. The number of suicides, drug overdose deaths, various addictions, and drug prescriptions for depression and anxiety speak to that fact. Perhaps there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re doing things. That’s something to consider as we explore today’s passage.
Without further ado, let’s turn to 1 Timothy 2:8–15:
8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
There are four points to this passage. The first two concern appropriate behavior for men and women, respectively. The third point states what women should not do. And the fourth point provides the reason.
The first thing that Paul says is “I desire.” You might think he is simply expressing his own opinions or wishes, and that these are not necessarily commands from God. But at the very beginning of the letter, Paul describes himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). Paul was commissioned by God—commanded by God—to be the official messenger of Jesus. God appointed him to this role (1 Tim. 2:7). In 2 Timothy, Paul says that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16)—it’s ultimately written by God through human beings, which is what the apostle Peter says, too (2 Pet. 1:21). Peter also refers to Paul’s letters and then speaks of “other Scriptures,” which means that Paul’s letters are Scripture, too (2 Pet. 3:15–16). So, this isn’t just a letter from Paul. It’s also God’s word. The Holy Spirit wrote these words through Paul. The point is that these aren’t just Paul’s opinions.
Paul says that he desires “that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” It seems the men in the church in Ephesus might have had trouble getting along. Paul says that not only those men, but men in “every place” should pray. This shows that Paul’s words in this letter are not just directed to the church in Ephesus, but to all Christians. And it’s clear that Paul’s instructions here have to do with public worship meetings. Instead of lifting hands to fight among themselves, they should lift “holy hands,” hands that are pure, hands that reach out to God, as it were. Perhaps they should be praying for all people, as Paul says at the beginning of chapter 2.
Then, Paul moves on to discuss what is appropriate for women: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” It’s possible that in Ephesus, some women were showing off their wealth by wearing a lot of jewelry and “costly attire.” Paul doesn’t want anyone in the church to draw attention away from God and to themselves. When we gather as a church on the Lord’s Day, it’s not a fashion show. Our attention should be directed toward God. Anything that distracts from that focus is a hindrance. This is not a time to show off expensive clothing or jewelry.
There may be another reason why Paul doesn’t women to dress in a showy way. Women might have dressed that way to get attention from men. Even if they weren’t intending to attract or seduce men, if they dressed in an immodest way, then the men of the church might have been distracted.
As a man, I can say this: I don’t know any man who doesn’t struggle with lust. Perhaps there are some men who don’t have such problems. But every man I know who was talked on the subject has some struggles in this area. If attractive women are wearing revealing clothing, that can not only be a distraction, but it doesn’t help men who struggle with that issue. Now, it’s a man’s fault if he can’t control his thoughts and desires. But a sister in Christ should want to help her brother out, and not be a stumbling block to him. And if a woman is dressing in a showy, revealing way, there has to be some question as to why she is doing that. Is she at a worship service to worship God, or to attract attention to herself?
I don’t see this being a problem at this church, so I won’t linger too long here. The point is that women shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Instead, they should focus on doing good works, the source of real beauty. That doesn’t necessarily mean women can’t wear any jewelry or makeup, or that they can’t wear something fashionable. But the point is that the focus should be on God and on living for him.
Of course, the same could be said of men. I don’t know that men tend to be so distracting in their looks. But I’m a man, not a woman, so I can’t speak for how women might react to a very attractive man wearing something that was form-fitting or revealing. But men don’t tend to do that, and that was probably true in Paul’s day, so it doesn’t seem to be much of a worry.
Let’s move on to verses 11 and 12, for this is where things get quite controversial. Paul says, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” This is where Paul’s words grate against so many today. What does Paul mean? There seem to be two general understandings of what Paul writes here. One is to take Paul’s words at face value. Women shouldn’t teach in a church meeting or exercise authority over men in a church. Instead, they should be submissive and generally quiet. The other is to claim that Paul was addressing a particular cultural issue in his time. The claim is that in Ephesus, all women were uneducated and therefore not fit to teach. Since Paul was concerned about false teaching, and since the women there were uneducated, Paul tells them to learn and not teach or lead. But maybe if the cultural conditions were different, Paul wouldn’t place such restrictions on women.
I don’t have enough time to refute that second position thoroughly. All I can say is that Paul nowhere hints at a claim that all women in Ephesus were uneducated and that’s why they shouldn’t teach or lead men. Paul could have used words to communicate such an idea. He could have framed his argument in that way. But he doesn’t. In fact, since the false teachers were likely male, telling women not to teach wouldn’t stop the false teaching. But it probably was the case that some women decided they, too, could be teachers. Perhaps they thought that since Jesus had come, all gender distinctions were no longer valid.
I do think that Paul means that women should not lead men in a church. In other words, they shouldn’t be pastors, elders, or overseers. The Bible uses three different terms—shepherds (from which we get “pastors”), elders, and overseers—to refer to the leading and teaching office of the church. What Paul says means that women are not qualified for that office. But that doesn’t mean women can’t teach at all. In Titus, Paul says that older women should teach younger women (Tit. 2:3–5). And when Paul says that women should learn quietly, he can’t mean absolute silence, for at least two reasons. First, Paul uses the same word in verse 2 to speak of all Christians leading a quiet life. He hardly means all Christians should be absolutely silent. Second, in another letter, 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women can pray and prophesy in church (11:5). But I do think Paul means women should submit to male leaders and teachers—pastors—and shouldn’t be pastors themselves.
Again, this is where people start to claim that the Bible presents a regressive, backwards “patriarchal” view of men and women. How can we respond to this type of claim?
Well, let me say two things before we continue to look at verses in the Bible. One, I find that labels are often not helpful when dealing with controversial subjects. People who tend to oppose this passage will often bring up the word “patriarchy,” as if that’s some kind of argument in and of itself. Some people now talk about “toxic masculinity,” which is kind of an unclear concept. I’m sure there are false views of masculinity that are toxic. The Bible does not teach that men should be abusive or treat women like slaves or playthings. But I think a lack of biblical manhood is also toxic. When a man refuses to accept the role that God designed for him, that could be just as toxic as the domineering, abusive man. Likewise, I don’t think it’s helpful to rail against “feminist” or “leftists.” Good arguments don’t call names, mock people, or just make quick, baseless assertions. Christians, we need to do better in all of our conversations than resorting to these cheap, easy moves. We need to be more thoughtful and careful.
So, we need to dig deeper and think. That’s one issue.
The second issue is that how we read, interpret, and react to the Bible is going to be shaped by our worldview. No one comes to the Bible objectively. We all have various beliefs, heart inclinations, philosophical commitments, and presuppositions. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of those things. We often assume that we’re in the right, and we look at the Bible to see if it matches what we already assume to be true. Before we assume our generation has things right, we should examine our own beliefs. By what standard have we judged them? Why do we assume that we’re right and others in the past have been wrong?
Some people assume that Paul was culturally conditioned. In other words, he was just a man of his times and his views reflected his own culture. All the while, these same people never assume that they are culturally conditioned, and that they are just men and women of their own times, with views that reflect nothing more than the passing fancies of their own culture.
If the basic story of the Bible is true—that a holy, perfect, good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God created us to function in a certain way, and that we have rebelled against him and his design for our lives—we should assume that there will be times when the Bible rubs us the wrong way. That’s because God will be using his written word to challenge our assumptions and correct our views. That has always happened. The Bible has always been countercultural. The exact ways it challenges various cultures will change throughout time, but there was never a time when everyone in one country said, “Yup, everything in that book is exactly what I’ve always believed.”
Now, back to this passage: to understand what Paul is saying, and why it makes sense, we have to see how he grounds his argument and how that shows us some important points regarding the Christian worldview.
This is the reason why women should not teach and exercise authority over men in church: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” What Paul is doing is reminding us of the beginning of the Bible.
So, let’s think about the beginning of the story of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The crown of God’s creation was humanity. In Genesis 1:26–28, we read this:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
It’s very important to see that God made both man and woman in his image. That means that both have the same value and worth. They were both tasked with representing who God is, reflecting his glory and attributes. And man and woman were made to rule over the rest of creation by coming under the authority of God and his word.
Genesis 2 gives us a different perspective of how God made human beings. It’s not a contradictory account, it’s just different. The Hebrew way of thinking often examined one truth from different angles. In Genesis 2, we see that God makes the man first. God also gives the man a task, to “work and keep” the garden of Eden, as well as a commandment not to eat one type of fruit. All of this is loaded with meaning that I don’t have time to explain this morning. Suffice it to say, the importance of all of this goes far beyond gardening and eating.
After this, God makes a woman to be with the man. God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). The ESV has a footnote that says, “corresponding to.” The idea is that God wouldn’t make a clone of the man, someone identical to him. No, God would make a woman who would correspond to and complement the man. She would be different in some important ways, but they would both bear God’s image.
It’s true that different faithful, Bible-believing Christians interpret the opening chapters of Genesis differently. There are different views about how old the universe is, or how literal and how figurative various things are in the text. But I think all faithful Christians must believe that God created two human beings, Adam and Eve, intentionally and for a particular purpose. He made them for each other, different from one another yet corresponding to one another and, obviously, both human and both in God’s image. It’s also important to see that the commands were given by God to the man, and that this happened before sin came into the world. This implies that the man was the head, or leader, of the woman even before sin entered into the world.
This picture of peace and harmony between God and humans, and between the first two human beings, is marred in Genesis 3. There, a serpent, an embodiment of Satan, tempts Eve by getting her to question God’s word and his goodness. She disobeys God’s commandment not to eat the forbidden fruit, and Adam goes along with her. As a consequence, all of creation is under a curse, a partial punishment that God imposed against his rebellious creatures.
Though Eve was the first to sin, Adam is the one who is held accountable by God. We’re told that God specifically addressed the man and questioned him about what happened. This is because Adam was the leader, the head. Theologically, we know from the whole of the Bible that Adam was the covenant head. He represented all of humanity. This is a difficult concept for people who aren’t familiar with the Bible to grasp, but the idea is that we are all represented by someone, just as we’re all represented in Congress by politicians, whether we voted for that person or not. Even before the fall, Adam is the leader.
Part of God’s curse is that men and women would struggle against each other. God told Eve,
Your desire shall be contrary toyour husband,
but he shall rule over you (Gen. 3:16).
If we compare that language to what God says to Cain in the next chapter of Genesis (see Gen. 4:7), we see that this means that the woman would want to dominate or master her husband, and that he would respond with a harsh rule, not loving leadership. God was saying that this would happen to all women and men in the future.
Let’s now get back to Paul’s argument. He says that Adam was formed first, then Eve. I believe the implication is that God made Adam first because God intended to have man be the head of the family. This is what Paul says in a letter to Christians in this same city of Ephesus. In Ephesians 5:22–24, Paul writes,
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Paul says clearly that the husband is the head of the wife, and that the wife should submit to the husband.
But let’s not forget what Paul says next. In verse 25, he says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That’s a high calling. Men are supposed to love their wives in a leading but sacrificial way. You can see how there is no hint of abuse or domineering here.
Paul also says that Eve was deceived first and sinned. Does Paul mean that women are more easily deceived or more easily given to sinning? Does Paul mean that if the serpent talked to Adam instead of Eve, sin wouldn’t have entered into the world?
I don’t think Paul means those things. But the fact is that the serpent did talk to Eve, not Adam. Why would that happen? Why would Satan work through a serpent, anyway? There’s some mystery here, but it seems that Satan quite intentionally worked against God’s created order. Genesis 1 says that human beings were to have dominion over all animals, including things that creep on the earth. Satan spoke through a creepy-crawly animal, getting a human being to trust him instead of God. Already, he was subverting the created order. And since God made the man first and gave him the commandments and held him accountable for the rebellion, it’s clear that God made the man to be a leader over the woman. Satan must have known that, but he continued to subvert the created order by tempting the woman. And the woman then tempted the man. We should also see that in Genesis 3, Adam was “with her” (v. 6). He clearly didn’t do a good job of leading or protecting his wife, so he is just as much to blame.
Now, that all seems to be clear. But perhaps that doesn’t answer why God doesn’t allow women to be pastors. Why shouldn’t they be?
It’s hard to answer that question in a way that will satisfy critics. We must say, though, that God made men to be leaders and women to serve alongside, but not over, men. And I think we can make some generalizations about men and women. There will likely be exceptions to these generalizations, but I think they are for the most part true. Women tend to be more nurturing. It’s no surprise that most nurses, school teachers, and other children’s workers have been women. I think women tend to be more patient with children, and I think this is by design.
From what I have seen in churches, men are more interested in doctrinal formulations, in systematic theology, and are not as afraid to make tough decisions. They are less likely to be driven by emotions.
Again, I’m sure there are exceptions, but God has created men and women differently. Listen to the words of a female physician, a cardiologist named Paula Johnson: “Every cell has a sex—and what that means is that men and women are different down to the cellular and molecular level. It means that we’re different across all of our organs, from our brains to our hearts, our lungs, our joints.” Men and women are different by design, and God made men to be leaders, to be heads. This does not mean men are inherently better or more intelligent. It just means men and women are different, fitted for different roles. That’s why God did not intend women to be pastors. For example, how could a husband be the head of his wife if his wife were his pastor?
Before I make a few more general comments on this whole topic, we do have one more verse to explore, and it’s a hard one to understand. In verse 15, Paul writes, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” There are three different ways to take this. Some people think the “she” in the first part of the verse refers to Eve. Salvation came to the world through her bearing children, because the distant offspring of Eve, Jesus, is the Savior (Gen. 3:15). It’s certainly true that even though Eve sinned, she became “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20)—that’s what her name means. God used a sinful woman to bear children, who had children, who had children . . . which eventually led to the birth of Jesus. So, there is great value in bearing children, and only women can have children. Mothers should be honored greatly. Having children is no less of a task than pastoring a church. Obviously, we wouldn’t be here without mothers.
That being said, I don’t think this is what Paul means, because the second half of the verse, “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control,” doesn’t fit this interpretation.
Some people think that this verse doesn’t speak of spiritual salvation, but of physical deliverance through the process of having a child. In the Bible, the word “saved” sometimes refers just to a temporal, physical deliverance (as in Acts 27:20, 31). In the ancient world, mothers often died in childbirth. Some people think that if women gladly except their God-given roles and live godly, faithful lives, they wouldn’t die in the process of giving birth. That’s a possible reading, but we don’t have any evidence that faithful Christian women didn’t die giving birth, while only those unfaithful, ungodly women perished.
A third reading, and probably the right one, is that women will be saved in an ultimate, spiritual sense, if they accept their God-given role, which is represented here by motherhood, and if they continue in faith and godly living. Now, this doesn’t mean that every woman is going to give birth. Being single is a gift from God (1 Cor. 7:7–8). But only women can get pregnant and give birth, and Paul refers to this as one unique aspect of womanhood. And this also doesn’t mean that salvation is earned. Salvation is a gift from God. But we have to think about it this way: If God has saved a person from sin and ultimate condemnation, he has also given that person the Holy Spirit to change that person, to transform that person. A changed heart responds to Jesus in faith, trusting him not only for salvation, but also trusting his words, his authority, and his design for our lives. The proof that a person has been changed is faith, godly living, and an acceptance of God’s design. This is true of both men and women.
The truth is that we all have limitations and limited roles to play. We all must submit to authorities. The word “submit” is not a four-letter word; it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Unfortunately, in America we tend to be allergic to authorities and see submission as a curse instead of a gift. Honestly, I think this is a source of unhappiness. If we learned to embrace God’s design instead of fighting against it, we would be more content.
God has designed authority and submission on many levels. Children must submit to parents (Eph. 6:1–3). Employees must submit to employers (Eph. 6:5–8). Yes, wives are told they should submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22). In the church, people should submit to pastors (Heb. 13:17). All of us should submit to civic leaders, to governing politicians (Rom. 13:1–7; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). And everyone should ultimately submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, who even submitted himself to his Father. The fact that Jesus submitted to his Father doesn’t mean he is less in value. Jesus is God the Son, no less divine than God the Father. But even the God-man knows what it’s like to submit.
And Jesus shows what it’s like for a man to lead in love. He was and is authoritative. He wasn’t afraid to speak hard truths or perform hard tasks. But he laid down his life for his people, both men and women. He died for them. A real man doesn’t rule with an iron fist. A real man leads, but he also sacrifices. The fact that Jesus did both shows that we can trust his him and submit to him as our King and Savior. And if we submit to Jesus, we’ll trust what he says about submitting to merely human authorities.
This sermon has already been long enough, and though I would love to save more to defend what the Bible says, all I can say now is something that Jesus said: “wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35). If we all trusted God’s words regarding men and women, I believe we would see a more just, well-ordered world. But it will take some time to see the results of what we do, just like it takes time to see what kind of adults children will become. I firmly believe that the fruit of our culture will be rotten. Literally, the children of a culture that rebels against God will be worse off. If we trust what God has spoken and lived accordingly, things would be better.
Here’s a closing word to men and to women. Men, embrace your role as leaders, but lead lovingly. Lead in prayer. Don’t dominate women, but don’t also abdicate your role as leaders. I think the reason why women have become leaders is often because men refused to lead or were simply lousy leaders. All of us will lead somewhere in life. If you’re married, love your wives as Jesus loved the church. If you’re a leader in the church, lead according to God’s word and the example of Jesus. If you’re a leader at work, do the same.
Women, you are in no way inferior to men. You are made in God’s image. You are very valuable in God’s kingdom. Though Jesus was and is male, and though he chose male disciples, his ministry was supported by women and they witnessed his burial and his empty tomb. Women can serve in all kinds of ways in the church. They are really only barred from being pastors, or from preaching—which isn’t just imparting information, but is also an authoritative task. But women can teach women and children, women can mentor women, women can serve in a variety of ways, and women have served and can serve as missionaries. Eve was told she could eat all kinds of fruit except one. Women, you can choose to serve in a variety of ways except one. Will you embrace that limitation, and look at what you can do and not at what you can’t? Or will you not trust God and look at that forbidden fruit as something that is good and kept from you by God?
Really, that’s a choice for all of us, both men and women. Will we trust what God’s word or not? Will we accept what he has offered us, or will be bitterly want what he has forbidden? That is the great struggle for all human beings. If we trust Jesus for salvation, we will also trust God’s word and design. God gives us good gifts, including the gift of being a man or a woman. Let us accept his gifts with thankful hearts and serve him in love and humility.
- Or corresponding to; also verse 20 ↑
- Or shall be toward (see 4:7) ↑
- Paula Johnson, “His and Hers . . . Healthcare,” TED talk, December 2013, quoted in Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 196. ↑
- There are too many verses that speak of Jesus’ lordship, his reign and rule over everything, to list here. ↑
Can we take what the Bible says about gender roles seriously? Pastor Brian Watson takes a look at a controversial passage, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, that discusses the roles of men and women in the church.
I’m sure we all have people in our lives whose names cause us to go “ugh.” I don’t mean that literally, of course. But when we think about certain people, whether we know them personally or only because they’re famous, we tend to have negative reactions. That seems to be the case when it comes to politicians. Donald Trump could cure cancer tomorrow and some people would still hate him. Barack Obama could have brought about world peace, and others would continue to speak poorly of him. Hilary Clinton lost an election and is no longer in any government office, yet I still see people who claim to be Christians post negative memes about her on Facebook.
If we’re honest, we all have a list of people who we don’t like, people who we think belong in a “basket of deplorables,” people we think we’re better than, people we think are beyond redemption. I don’t think we consciously think this way. But the reality is that we don’t treat people equally, we often forget that everyone is made in God’s image and that no one is beyond being saved by Jesus Christ from sin, death, and condemnation.
Christians, how often have we prayed for politicians we dislike? How often have we prayed that they would come to a true knowledge of God? How often do we pray for our favorite athletes? We may love watching Tom Brady play, but how often do we pray that he would know Jesus? We may hope our doctor can heal us, but we often treat him or her more as an instrument, a thing that exists for us, instead of a soul in need of salvation. The same is true for that neighbor we don’t care for, or that in-law who we might be happy never to see again. Whether we realize it or not, we seem to act as if these people don’t need Jesus. Or, if we realize it, we don’t care to do anything about it.
Throughout history, there have been people who have rather consciously thought that certain types of people could never be right with God. That seems to have been the case almost two thousand years ago in the city of Ephesus, part of modern Turkey and then part of the Roman Empire. In that city, there were people teaching that only some people could be God’s people. It appears they might have thought that only law-abiding Jewish Christians could be God’s people. But since this is not the case, the apostle Paul wrote to his younger associate, Timothy, to tell them that this is not the truth.
Today, we’re continuing our study of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. And in today’s passage, 1 Timothy 2:1–7, we’ll see that Paul tells Timothy a few important truths. One, Christians should pray for all people. Two, God desires all people to be saved. Three, there is only one God and one way to God, Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. And, four, Paul was sent by God to preach the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, which shows that not only Jews could come to know Jesus. All of these points focus on the fact that all people need salvation from the condemnation that comes along with our sin and that Jesus is the only way to be saved. Since condemnation is our biggest problem, and salvation our biggest need, and since there’s only one way to be saved, we should put great emphasis on the gospel in our prayers, our personal lives, and in the life of the church.
Let’s read 1 Timothy 2:1–7, and then I’ll explain those points in more detail.
1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7 For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
At this point in the letter, Paul begins to tell Timothy how people in the church should behave. He says that they should pray. He uses various words for prayer—supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings—that cover the range of prayer requests. The point is that we should pray on behalf of others. We should plead with God on their behalf. If these people aren’t Christians, they probably aren’t praying for themselves to the one, true God. They certainly aren’t praying for their own salvation. We may be the only ones praying for those people, whoever they are.
Though Paul doesn’t mention this idea here, all Christians are royal priests, priests of the king. The apostle Peter tells Christians, in 1 Peter 2:9–10:
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Priests intercede on behalf of others to God. They mediate God’s blessings to others. That’s what Paul has in mind here.
Paul stresses that they should pray for all people: Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, men and women, rich and poor. We should pray even for civic rulers, “kings and all who are in high positions.” We should pray that they would rule wisely and righteously. We should pray that they would fulfill the God-ordained purpose for government. Peter, in 1 Peter 2:13–17, says,
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Paul writes about the government in a similar way in Romans 13:1–7. The government has been established by God to punish evil, to provide order. We should pray they do their job.
Keep in mind that the emperor of the Roman Empire at this time was Nero (ruled 54–68). He was, to say the least, a sketchy character. His mother, Agrippina, was from the imperial family of Augustus. It’s rumored that she had an incestuous relationship with her own brother, Caligula, who was emperor (37–41), and whom she plotted to kill. She later married her uncle, Claudius, who was the emperor after Caligula (41–54). It seems that she poisoned Claudius so that her son, Nero, could become the next emperor. Nero had been adopted by Claudius and married Claudius’s daughter, Claudia Octavia, his step-sister. When he had been emperor for five years, he had his mother killed. He cheated on his wife with his mistress, Poppaea, and had his wife banished and then killed. It’s possible that he also killed Poppaea, his second wife, by kicking her in the abdomen when she was pregnant, though we may never know the truth. There were many other sexual misdeeds and murderous intrigues in his life, but he might be best known for blaming a raging fire in Rome, which occurred in 64, on Christians. This is what the historian Suetonius says about Nero’s treatment of Christians:
They were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and torn by dogs; were crucified, and set on fire, that they might serve for lights in the night-time. Nero offered his garden for this spectacle, and exhibited the games of the Circus by this dreadful illumination. Sometimes they were covered with wax and other combustible materials, after which a sharp stake was put under their chin, to make them stand upright, and they were burnt alive, to give light to the spectators.
This was the “king” that Paul wanted Christians to pray for! Paul surely wrote this letter before the year 64, but he was aware of the emperor’s bad character. He must have known how corrupt kings could be. Yet, still, he asks that Christians pray for these people. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, not just the people we like or agree with (Matt. 5:43–48).
Praying for these people can have many positive results. Though Paul doesn’t mention this here, praying for people who, we don’t naturally like can reduce feelings of hate. Also, God hears our prayers and will act on them to help these people. That’s what John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), a famous preacher around the time of Augustine, said. In one of his sermons, over sixteen hundred years ago, he said this about praying for all people, including kings:
From this, two advantages result. First, hatred towards those who are without is done away; for no one can feel hatred towards those for whom he prays: and they again are made better by the prayers that are offered for them, and by losing their ferocious disposition towards us. For nothing is so apt to draw men under teaching, as to love, and be loved. Think what it was for those who persecuted, scourged, banished, and slaughtered the Christians, to hear that those whom they treated so barbarously offered fervent prayers to God for them.
Imagine how different things would be if we were known more for praying for people who are opposed to us.
Paul says here that the purpose of such prayers is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” I believe that Paul means that we should pray that these rulers—whether presidents, congressmen, governors, Supreme Court justices—would do their job so that there can be peace and order in our time. And if we have prayed for them, we can rest knowing that we have done what is godly.
We shouldn’t just pray for peace so that we can live easier lives. We should pray that there would be peace and righteousness so that the message of Jesus can be freely communicated. Evil regimes have a way of hindering the progress of the gospel. Yes, nothing can stop the word of God from being spread, but when governments make it illegal to own a Bible or to gather together in a church, it’s a lot harder to disciple new Christians or to tell others about Jesus.
If you read the book of Acts, you can see that there were times when even Paul benefitted from the protection of the Roman Empire (Acts 19:23–41; 21:27–36; 23:12–35). Of course, Paul was also imprisoned by the Romans and would eventually die at their hands. But he knew that when the government functioned according to God’s revealed will, things go well for the gospel.
I think Paul wants us to pray for all people because God wants all people to be saved. That’s the second point we see in this passage. What does this mean?
Does God want each and every person to be saved? If that is the case, God certainly has the ability to save each and ever person. He can direct their hearts to believe in Jesus. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” If he can direct the king’s heart where he wills, he can direct our hearts.
Well, it’s possible that Paul means God wants each and every person to be saved, and yet he can’t save each and every person for some good reason.
Some people believe that God can’t save all because he must respect each person’s free will. These people will say that real love cannot be forced, that God must allow us to make the choices. So, free will is more important than the salvation of each and every person.
The problem with this view is that it rests on things that aren’t in the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible is there an extended discussion on free will. Are we truly free to make any choice? The Bible does say that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). The fact is that because the power of sin has corrupted the world, our hearts are corrupted as well. If we are left to our own free choices, we would never choose God or love him.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that no one can come to him for eternal life unless God the Father has drawn that person. And if God the Father has drawn that person to Jesus, that person will be raised to eternal life on the last day, the day of judgment (John 6:44). That means that only those who will receive eternal life are drawn by God to Jesus. Jesus also says that unless one is first born again by the Holy Spirit, that person can’t even see the kingdom of God, much less enter into it (John 3:1–8). The only way we can choose to believe in Jesus, love him, and obey him, is if God empowers us. And the one who is empowered will do that.
Others who acknowledge the language of God choosing and predestining people believe that God wants to save everyone but can’t because his plan to save only some, the ones he predestined to salvation, brings him greater glory. While this may be hard to digest, I think there is truth to this.
But this ongoing debate probably isn’t what Paul has in mind.
I think we get confused by the language of “all.” We tend to think it has to mean “absolutely all” or “each and every.” But look at the way “all” is used elsewhere.
In just a moment, in verse 6, we’ll see that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all.” That means he paid the penalty for sin, he paid the price for our redemption. Yet it can’t mean that Jesus redeemed each and every single person. If that were true, no one would be condemned. No one would go to hell. But the Bible clearly states that there will be some—many, really—who reject Jesus and stand condemned. We don’t revel in that truth. It’s something that should bother us. But it remains the truth.
In 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul says that God “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” If God is the Savior of each and every single person, then all would be saved from condemnation. But I think Paul doesn’t mean that. Again, in Titus 2:11, Paul writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” I don’t think Paul means “each and every person is saved.” So, what does Paul mean?
I think Paul means that Jesus is the Savior of all types of people, Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, people of all nations and languages. Sometimes this is expressed as “all without distinction.” Jesus is the world’s only Savior. There is no other. If Paul meant “all without exception,” then you would have to believe in universalism, the idea that every single person will be saved, that no one will remain in hell. We might wish this to be true, but it’s not.
The truth is that God will save whom he wants to save (Rom. 9:15, 18, 19–24). But we don’t know who those people are. We should strive to bring all people to the knowledge of the truth, even if we know that not all people will believe.
That brings us to third point in this passage. Look again at verses 5 and 6: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
There is only one God. Paul is probably making an allusion to the great Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” There is only one God—not a god of the Jews and another god of the Romans and yet another god for Americans. And there is only one way to God, and that is Jesus. He is the only mediator. Here, Paul stresses that Jesus is a man. But Jesus is also God. In Titus 2:13, Paul says that “our blessed hope” is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Jesus is the God-man, the only one who can stand in the gap between God and human beings. Because Jesus has two natures, a divine one and a human one, he can unite both parties.
And that indicates what our problem is. We are separated from God. The reason that is so is because the first human beings rebelled against God. They didn’t trust him. They turned away from God, and the world has been a mess ever since. We are born with hearts that don’t love God the way we should. As a result, we do ungodly things. Our hearts and our actions separate us from God. And the only way back to God is through Jesus.
Paul says that Jesus gave himself as a ransom. The language of “ransom” refers to a price that is paid to bring us freedom. We are in bondage to our sin, enslaved by our desires, and bound in the chains of condemnation. We cannot free ourselves from this position. But Jesus offered his own life to pay the penalty for our sins. God is a righteous judge. He must punish sin and sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. So, he gave his only Son, and his only Son laid down his life for his people. That’s why Jesus says of himself, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Notice that he said he gave his life as a ransom for “many”—not all.
As a man, Jesus could die for other men. (To be clear, Jesus was a human being who died for other human beings, not just males.) As God, his sacrifice can pay for a vast number of sins and sinners, throughout space and time. The fact that it took the death of the Son of God to pay for our sins shows how problematic sin is, and how our salvation comes at a great cost.
And since there is only one God, there is only one way to receive the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes,
28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Rom. 3:29–30).
We are not saved through our own efforts, obedience, or goodness. We can only be right in God’s eyes by trusting in his Son. The same is true for Jews and Gentiles, for Romans and Americans, for emperors and presidents and illegal aliens, for straight and gay, men and women, adults and children. The only way to be made right in God’s eyes is to receive the perfect status of the only sinless man who ever lived, and to trust that this man’s death wiped away our sins.
Since Jesus is the only way to God, we should strive to bring people to a true knowledge of Jesus. That knowledge is more than knowing facts about Jesus. That knowledge is a relationship of trust, love, and obedience. Real faith leads to knowing facts, but it also leads to trusting a person, the God-man Jesus Christ.
Paul could say all of this because God appointed him to be a preacher of the gospel. He was sent to the Gentiles to tell them about Jesus. That’s the fourth point he makes in these verses.
Paul knew he couldn’t reach everyone, but he did what he could so that many souls could be saved. In another letter, 1 Corinthians, he writes this:
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19–23).
Paul didn’t sin to reach sinners, but otherwise he set aside his personal preferences in order to reach others. He didn’t let his own culture be an obstacle to reaching others. Though he was Jewish, he wasn’t afraid to break with the old traditions of Judaism in order to reach Gentiles. He didn’t break God’s moral law to do this, but he broke with the way “things were always done” in order to carry out his mission.
I want to close this message by thinking about what all of this means for us. This passage focuses on salvation, and we should, too. That is particularly true of how we think about the church.
When we don’t focus on salvation and the gospel first, we forget that our greatest problem is our sin. We forget that our real need is salvation. And we forget that this is the need of every human being. A church that isn’t focused on the gospel forgets that each and every human being is a sinner in need of a rescue. Instead, we become inward focused, dwelling only on creating a nice church environment in which everyone is “happy” and “comfortable.” We focus on our personal preferences. It’s all talk of “I like this” type of music and “I don’t like that” song or sermon or whatever.
A church that has pushed the gospel to the sidelines might seem very nice and peaceful. It may seem very loving, because no one is stepping on the other person’s toes. But if the gospel isn’t front and center, that peace is superficial. That’s because the only true peace is brought about by Jesus. True peace—reconciliation between God and people, and even between one human being and another—comes only through Jesus. And if we’re not concerned about the souls of the lost, focusing our prayers and our deeds toward their salvation, we’re not loving them at all. We might even say it’s a form of hate.
Imagine this: if you had a person in your life who desperately needed a cure for a disease, and you knew where that person could get that cure and refused to tell that person where to get it, you wouldn’t call that love. You would call it hate. Christians are beggars who know where to get the bread. We should tell others where to get it. We should pray that they would take that gift.
Perhaps we need to realign the way we think of other people. Perhaps we have unconsciously thought of others as being beyond God’s reach. We may have thought, “Oh, that person will never become a Christian.” When we do that, we deny God’s power to save even the worst of sinners. When we do that, we act superior to non-Christians. We may start to think we are Christians because we are better, purer, wiser, or whatever. And when we do that, we fail to see that lost people are God’s image bearers who need a rescue just as much as we did.
If you’re not a Christian, I want to apologize if you’ve run into Christians who act as if they’re better than you. I want to apologize if you’ve never heard the message of Jesus before. And I want you to know that you have a problem. Your life isn’t centering around God. That means it’s centered around something else. Whatever that is—you, your job, your possessions, entertainment, politics, a relationship—that’s your functional god, the object of your worship. But you were made to worship the one, true God. All of us don’t worship him the way we should. We fail to love and honor our Creator, the one who upholds the universe and everything in it at every moment, the source of life and love and goodness and beauty. God is patient with you. He is putting up with your rebellion. But he won’t do that forever. God wants to restore his creation. He can only do that by removing sin from the world. And he will one day. But he will remove all sinners, too, unless their sins have been paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice. And the only way to have your sins paid for by Jesus is to trust him. You need to believe in Jesus, to be united to him by faith. That is the only way to have a relationship with God, to have eternal life. It’s the only way to have true peace. I urge you to follow Jesus. And I want to help you in any way that I can.
But turning back to the church, I must say this: When we as a church don’t focus on salvation, we lose our way. We get caught up in, and hung up on, our little traditions. We think church is about having our way. We fight about silly things. I think that’s why Paul says, in verse 8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” The men in Ephesus were fighting because they had lost their way. Again, if we take our focus off of the gospel, we focus on ourselves, our comfort, our personal preferences.
Now, this doesn’t mean that everything in the church should be geared only towards evangelism. The church isn’t just about salvation. We need to teach new believers, equip all believers for ministry, and worship together. We need to encourage and challenge each other, and even discipline people who have gone astray. But if we don’t lead with the gospel, we will drift away from our mission.
And if we don’t focus on the gospel, our worship will suffer. When we are think often of our salvation, we should remain in a state of gratitude. We have been saved by God, through no merit or effort of our own. The fact that God would save anyone at the cost of the death of his Son should lead us to praise God all the more. God’s grace should lead to our thanksgiving.
If Jesus is the only mediator to God, and if he gave his life as a ransom for all kinds of people, and if God wants all kinds of people to be saved, shouldn’t we do what Paul did and what he asked Timothy to do? Shouldn’t we prioritize evangelism? Shouldn’t we forget our personal preferences and become all things to all people? Shouldn’t we pray for lost souls?
May the Lord help us to get back on track and stay there. “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
- C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 57, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889). ↑
- John Chrysostom, “Homily VI,” “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff, vol. 13, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 426. ↑
There is only one true God, and there is only one mediator between God and sinful human beings. God wants all kinds of people to be saved and he commands us to pray for all people. So, shouldn’t we pray that people would come to believe in Jesus and be saved? Shouldn’t we prioritize the gospel in the church and in our lives. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 2:1-7.
Paul tells Timothy to remain in Ephesus and make sure people don’t teach a different message than the gospel. False teachers were obsessed with myths and genealogies, and they used the Old Testament the wrong way. Find out why we need to know the gospel, why we’re not saved by our obedience, but also why the moral law still matters.
If we lose our focus, bad things can happen.
Our youngest son, Simon, started playing tee-ball recently. It’s not a very competitive league, as far as tee-ball goes. It’s mainly an opportunity for the kids to try to hit pitches and use the tee if they fail, and for them to do some very basic fielding. The kids are just getting their feet wet in baseball and most of them lack skills. They tend to lack focus, too. That’s the case with Simon. He’s just happy to be out doing something. When he gets on base, he hops and dances on it. When he’s fielding, he’s talking to his friends. But I try to teach him to focus on the ball the whole time, even when he’s not batting. I figure it’s only a matter of time before a ball is hit at him when he’s not looking. And if he’s not focused on the right thing, he could get hurt.
The same thing is true when it comes to the things of God. We can easily lose our focus. I assume that we are here today because we want to refocus our lives on God, or perhaps get a better sense of who God is and what he requires of us. But if I asked you what the focus of Christianity is, what would you say it is?
If you asked that question to many different people on the street, you’d probably get a variety of answers. Some non-Christians might think Christianity is all about rules, a set of dos and don’ts—particularly the don’ts. Others might say that Christianity’s focus is on helping the poor and oppressed. Some Christians might say that the focus of Christianity should be on theology. In that case, Christianity is reduced to a set of beliefs. Christians must give mental assent to the right statements about God. Others would say that Christianity is focused on endless Bible studies. And still others would say that Christianity isn’t about beliefs as much as it’s about a relationship with Jesus.
There is truth to all these things. Christianity does involve rules. Christians should help the poor and needy. Christians should have right theological beliefs. Christians should read the Bible. And Christianity is about a right relationship with Jesus. But all these things are not equal, and it’s easy to focus on only one of them. Sometimes people focus only on the rules, or they focus only on studying obscure passages in the Bible, or they focus only on certain theological teachings. If we lose our focus on the core of Christianity, which is Jesus Christ himself, bad things will happen. Our faith will be distorted. It won’t be healthy.
That was certainly the apostle Paul’s concern. He wrote the letter of 1 Timothy to a younger associate, warning him that false teachers were trying to teach something different than what Paul taught. Their teaching was unproductive and unhealthy. It was even destructive. So, Paul told Timothy to hold fast to the truth, and to teach it in love.
We’ll see this today as we look at 1 Timothy 1:3–11. Last week, we started to look at 1 Timothy and I gave an introduction to the book. If you missed that message, you can find it online. Today, we’re moving ahead into the body of the letter. Let’s first read verses 3–7:
3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
We don’t know where Paul was when he wrote this letter. He was headed to the province of Macedonia, where the city of Thessalonica was located. But he told Timothy to stay in the city of Ephesus. Timothy wasn’t the pastor of the church in Ephesus, but he was an apostolic delegate. He was there to help a relatively new church maintain its health.
Paul told Timothy to tell “certain persons” not to teach a different theology. “Doctrine” simply means teaching. Paul must have had in mind a definite group of false teachers, people who were off track in what they were teaching. They might not have been the pastors of the church, but they were leading others astray.
It’s hard to know exactly what these people were teaching, because Paul doesn’t get very specific, probably because he had already told Timothy these things. When we read letters in the New Testament, sometimes we have to do something called mirror reading. It’s like when you hear someone talking on the phone. You only hear one side of the conversation, but based on what you hear, you can guess what the other person is saying.
The false teachers were focusing on myths and genealogies. We’ll also see that they were using the law that God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai in a wrong way. So, these teachers were likely Jewish Christians.
Some Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament became very fanciful. When I was studying a bit about Islam, I found out that some Jewish myths even made their way into the Qur’an. One fanciful Jewish story, which is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish writings from after the time of Jesus, concerns what happened at Mount Sinai. According to the Bible, after God rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brought them to Mount Sinai, where he made a covenant with them and gave them the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law. In the Talmud, the story becomes something rather interesting: God had searched the nations for one that would accept his covenant. But only Israel did. And they accepted his covenant because God lifted Mount Sinai over the Israelites, threatening to drop it on them if they did not accept his offer. One rabbi is quoted as saying, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over Israel like a cask and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good, and if not, then there is where your grave will be.’”
This is obviously legendary material. It’s a myth. But this myth made its way into a few passages in the Qur’an (2.63, 93; 4.154; 7.171), which shows that the Qur’an has historical errors and is likely based on what Muhammad thought the Jewish Scriptures actually taught.
There was also a tendency in Judaism to fill in the supposed “gaps” of the Old Testament, particularly in genealogies. There’s a document called The Book of Jubilees, probably written in the second century BC, which chronicles the time between the creation of the world and the giving of the law. Among other things, it says that Adam and Eve had many children not mentioned in the Bible, and it gives their names, indicating who married whom.
All of this may seem strange to us, but there is a tendency even in Christianity for people to try search the genealogies of the Old Testament for some hidden wisdom, or to become obsessed with figuring out timelines. This can be seen in the book called The Prayer of Jabez, which builds a whole theology on one verse tucked away in the genealogies at the beginning of 1 Chronicles. First Chronicles 4:10 reports that Jabez prayed, “‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”
Now, that is what the Bible says. But what is descriptive in the Bible is not always prescriptive. God does not always promise to “enlarge our borders.” But people who didn’t know the Bible well touted this prayer as the key to God’s blessings.
There is also a tendency in some circles of Christianity to focus almost entirely on certain doctrines, particularly end times issues. Usually these people come up with fanciful and fairly ridiculous readings of the book of Revelation or perhaps Daniel, readings not based on carefully study of history or the original languages. Their readings tend to sound more like science fiction or fantasy.
We’ll learn a bit more about what these false teachers were promoting as we continue to study this book. What matters is that Paul wanted Timothy to make sure that the church didn’t go off the rails.
In verse 5, Paul states his goal: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” He and Timothy had good motives and they wanted the Christians in Ephesus to experience love, pure hearts, good consciences, and a sincere faith. The greatest command is to love God with all our being. The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love fulfills the law (Matt. 22:34–40; Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). This love is at the core of Christianity, and it’s likely that the false teachers were missing it.
Paul also says that the false teachers taught in vain. They claimed to be experts in the law, but they didn’t really understand it. Yet they made “confident assertions” about the law. And that leads us to the next paragraph. Let’s read verses 8–11.
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
The false teachers were using the law unlawfully. That’s ironic, isn’t it? The law is not for the righteous, but for the lawless. The law has a right and a wrong use.
Paul has in mind the law given to Israel. We know that because his vice list summarizes most of the Ten Commandments. We’ll explore that in just a moment.
In the rest of Paul’s writings, he says that the Old Testament law had a limited use. In the book of Galatians, he said that the law had held people captive until the time of Christ. This is what he says:
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Gal. 3:23–26).
In Romans 3:20, Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” No one ever became acceptable to God through obedience to the law, because no one other than Jesus obeyed it perfectly. Part of the law’s intent was to reveal how sinful we are.
The topic of the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai is complex and it is often misunderstood. I’ll try to make it as simple as I can.
Before we talk about the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai, we should know that there is an objective, universal, eternal moral law. Murder is always wrong, for example. This isn’t said in very explicit terms in the Bible, but it is presupposed. The nations that did not receive the law are still held accountable for their sins, which means there must be some moral or natural law that they transgressed.
But the law in the Old Testament, which we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, was given to Israel, God’s covenant people. This law was given only for a limited period of time, though that period of time was over a thousand years. And the law was given for limited purposes.
One purpose of the law was to give specific descriptions of how the moral law should be employed in that particular, ancient society. So, the law taught general moral principles (particularly the Ten Commandment) and applied them in specific ways to that specific time, place, and culture. We can see that in the many specific laws about paying for damages caused to a neighbor’s property (for example, Exod. 21:33–22:15).
Another purpose of the law was to teach certain principles, such that sin is such a serious crime that it deserves death. Sin is rebellion against God. It’s a failure to love, trust, and obey God. The law also taught that sinners can find atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice. When animals were slaughtered to pay for the penalties of sin, the idea was that the sins of the people were transferred to those animals, who died in place of sinners. Certain laws provided pictures of what separation from idolatrous people would look like. They were pictures of having different practices. That’s why we there are dietary restrictions and laws regarding not wearing garments made of two kinds of fabric, or not sowing two kinds of seeds in one field. Israel was learning how to make distinctions, and to be separate from the nations that surrounded them, because those nations worshiped false gods.
And a third purpose of the law was to reveal how sinful humans are. The law showed Israel that they did not measure up to God’s standards.
But here’s the key thing: we are not saved by obeying the law. No one is. That’s because we don’t obey perfectly. The Israelites failed, time and again, to keep the law. And if we were in ancient Israel, we would have failed, too. So, we do not become right in God’s eyes by first obeying his law. If that were the case, we would never have a right relationship with God.
Even after salvation, we are not bound by the law given to Israel. We are bound by the “law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17–18). We must understand the law through the lens of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. That’s why we don’t offer up animal sacrifices—Jesus is the only sacrifice for sin ever needed. That’s why we don’t have to worry about which animals we eat, or whether we’re wearing a poly-cotton blend. The moral principles of the law are still in place, because they are part of God’s unchanging, universal, eternal moral law. But we can’t simply read a law in the Old Testament and apply it to our lives without first thinking about how it is understood in the light of Christ.
Does that mean we can do whatever we please? No. Certain things are always wrong and continue to be wrong for Christians. Look again at that vice list in verses 9 and 10. This vice list shows us some things that are still wrong. It is always wrong to be “lawless and disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners, . . . unholy and profane, . . . those who strike their fathers and mothers, . . . murderers, . . . sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and [to do] whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”
Why are these things wrong?
Some people might conclude that God gives us arbitrary rules. Think again of sports. A lot of rules in sports are fairly arbitrary. Why must a football team advance ten yards to get a first down? Why not nine or eleven? Why do they only get four downs to get those ten yards, instead of just three or perhaps five? There’s no great reason. Them’s just the rules. Why three strikes and four balls? There’s really no great reason. It’s just that there needed to be some number that wouldn’t make the game too easy or too hard. Are God’s rules arbitrary? No. There are reasons for them.
Some people assume that if there is some eternal moral law, then that law is greater than God, because even he is bound by it. That’s something captured in a philosophical dilemma called the “Euthyphro dilemma.” The idea is that some things are morally right either because God says them, or because the moral law exists outside of God. If the first option is right, then God could say that murder was morally good. If the second option is right, then the moral law is greater than God.
But there’s a third option. God’s moral law is a reflection of who he is. God says, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). God’s laws can also be viewed as something like an instruction manual. God is the creator of life. He designed things to function in certain ways. He knows how his creation works best. He doesn’t give laws to oppress us or rob us of joy. His laws are for our good. And if we love God, we will obey his commandments. That’s why the apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2–3).
We were made to know, love, trust, worship, and represent God. The first four of the Ten Commandments tell us something about how to relate to God: We should have no other Gods, we shouldn’t have any false gods, or idols, in our lives, we should take God’s name seriously, and we should find our rest in Jesus, his Son (Exod. 20:3–11, interpreted in the light of Christ). So, to be “disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners” is always wrong. When we rebel against God, we are rejecting the very best “thing” there is, God himself. It’s like trying to fight gravity. It’s foolish and harmful.
The fifth commandment is to honor father and mother (Exod. 20:12). Striking parents or disobeying them is wrong because God designed the family as the basic building block of society and parents are the authorities in the family. Families precede cities and governments and businesses. That’s why Christians care so much about the structure of the family.
Parents were also designed to point us toward a greater Father. Strange as it may seem, God could have designed life so that people reproduced asexually, so that only one parent was needed, or he could have created a world in which no reproduction was necessary. He could have created one generation of a billion people at once, who each lived for thousands of years. Or he could create people out of nothing every once in a while. But he created parents who could create children. And this is a shadow of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity, and of the Father-children relationship of God and his people. Those who dishonor their parents are more likely to dishonor God.
The sixth commandment is against murder (Exod. 20:13). Murder is wrong because it’s killing someone made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5–6). To kill an innocent person is a great insult to God, because human beings are the height of his creation.
The seventh commandment is against adultery (Exod. 20:14). Strictly speaking, that prohibits a man from having sex with another man’s wife. But it was interpreted more broadly to prohibit any sex outside of marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7; Eph. 5:31). Jesus even interprets lust as a violation of this commandment (Matt. 5:27–28).
Why is any form of sexual immorality, including homosexual activity, wrong? Are these just arbitrary commandments designed to take away fun? No. God created sex, and he created it to be enjoyed only in the context of marriage. God’s design for marriage is found in Genesis 2, before sin entered into the world and caused all kinds of disordered sexual desires. The definition of marriage in Genesis 2 is also affirmed by Jesus (Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7). The reason why God’s laws regarding sex and marriage are so serious is because God designed both to be a shadow of the exclusive, faithful, relationship of God and his people (Eph. 5:31–32). In a marriage two parties who are different come together. In the marriage of God and his people, it’s two different parties. It’s not God and God, or humans and humans. It’s God and human beings. Or, if you like, it’s the God-man, Jesus Christ, and his people. But what matters is that Jesus is God, and he is united to mere human beings. That is best reflected in a heterosexual relationship.
Of course, I realize that what the Bible teaches about homosexuality is rejected by most Americans today. But just because a majority of people hold an opinion doesn’t mean that opinion is right. It’s often the case that what is right is rejected by many people.
The passages in the Bible regarding homosexuality are rather clear. Revisionist scholars try to say that those passages are really about something other than committed, consensual homosexual unions that we find today. They say they are about men dominating teenage boys, which certainly was common in the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and Paul. They say those passages really are about some strange sexual rites performed at pagan temples. They say these passages really prohibit excessive lust. But the passages don’t discuss these issues. Most of the passages are rooted in God’s design for men and women, and they often echo Genesis 1 and 2. (The language of Rom. 1:18–23, which precedes descriptions of homosexual activity in Rom. 1:24–27, echoes Genesis 1:26–28; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, which also includes homosexuality in a vice list, comes before a quotation of Gen. 2:24 in 1 Cor. 6:16.)
If the biblical prohibitions in the Bible are regarded as arbitrary, it’s hard to provide a reason why there can’t be three people in a relationship instead of two, or why two brothers or two sisters couldn’t be in a sexual relationship. Yet most reasonable people realize there are boundaries to sexual relationships. So, why not trust that the boundaries that God has drawn are the right ones?
The fact is that most of us are sexual sinners. Even if we have never had sex, or have only had sex with our spouses, we have likely sinned or coveted another person’s husband or wife. The Bible focuses a lot more on heterosexual sin than homosexual sin. And there is hope for heterosexual and homosexual sinners. In another one of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
Any sinner can be made right with God. The question is whether that person will turn to God and away from sin. Not one of us will be perfect in this life. We will struggle with sin even after becoming Christians. Remember, we’re not saved from condemnation because of our perfect obedience. But salvation comes to those who trust in Jesus, and that requires repentance, a turning away from our old ways.
Getting back to Paul’s vice list in 1 Timothy, he makes reference to the eighth commandment, which is against stealing (Exod. 20:15). But he does that by mentioning “enslavers,” those who kidnap people and make them slaves or sell them as slaves. Stealing someone else’s property is wrong, because it harms that person. It elevates things above people. But this goes further: stealing a person is wrong because it treats a person as a thing. Philo, a Jewish writer of the first century, said, “A kidnapper also is a thief; but he is, moreover, a thief who steals the very most excellent thing that exists upon the earth.”
Some people have claimed that the Bible doesn’t say anything against slavery. But that’s not true. This verse says otherwise. So does the book of Philemon. But we’ll talk more about slavery when we get to 1 Timothy 6:1–2.
Paul also references the ninth commandment, which is against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor (Exod. 20:16). Paul says “liars, perjurers,” which deals both with legal false witness as well as a broader category of deceit. God is a God of truth and Jesus himself is the truth (John 14:6). So, lies are contrary to God and his ways.
Paul doesn’t mention the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (Exod. 20:17), but he does give a blanket statement that sinners are those who practice “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
The word “sound” means “healthy.” Sins aren’t healthy. Right theology leads to health. Bad theology leads to disaster.
We can be unhealthy by believing false things about God. We can be unhealthy when we focus too much on true things. When we get obsessed with minor doctrines and make those ultimate priorities, we can quickly become unhealthy. We shouldn’t major on minors and minor on majors.
The center of Christianity is the gospel, the good news that God saves sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who also became a human being. The gospel is healthy, because it restores us to spiritual health. And it glorifies God because God gets all the credit for saving sinful wretches like you and me. If we were saved by our own obedience, we would be glorified. But the gospel says that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). The gospel says that only Jesus lived the perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22), yet he died to pay for our sins. He is the true substitutionary, atoning sacrifice. We must never forget that we are not saved by our knowledge, our obedience, our goodness, or our strength. No, Jesus “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
Today, I urge us to know and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus brings true, eternal health. Christianity involves knowing right things about God, but it’s more than that. It is about a relationship with Jesus. If we truly know Jesus, we will know facts about him, and we will live a life that is pleasing to him. That means turning from sin and embracing God’s moral law, not as a means of earning God’s favor or maintaining a relationship with him. No, our standing with God is based on whether we trust Jesus or not. But if you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments, and you will find that they are not burdensome, but they are intended for your good.
- This is quoted in James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2013), 233. It apparently comes from section BB of Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011). ↑
- Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2000). ↑
- “In line with Pauline thought elsewhere, but not expressed here, the law functions to reveal sin (Rom 3:20; 5:13; 7:7–12; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:19). The law is good (Rom 7:7, 12, 14; 3:31), but human sin has made it ineffectual (Rom 7:13–25; 8:3) because it could not empower a person to follow the law. The righteous have outgrown the law (Rom 7:1–4; Gal 3:19, 23–4:7), have died to it (Rom 7:6; Gal 2:19), and are now captive to the law of Christ (Rom 7:4–6, 22, 25; 8:2, 7), slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:18) and of God (Rom 6:22; Gal 2:19), not under the law but under grace (Rom 6:14).” William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 34. ↑
- Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 617. ↑
- MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell made that claim in 2013. See Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible, NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration. ↑
Does anyone here receive letters anymore? It seems like most of our correspondence is done through emails, texts, and phone calls. When we go to check our mail, we usually don’t expect letters. We’re prepared to deal with junk mail, advertisements, bills, and perhaps a package. But occasionally we’ll still receive an important letter in the mail.
Last Tuesday was Tax Day, and whether you had filed your taxes in February or at the last minute, you know it’s an important thing to do. And whether you owed the IRS money or received a refund, you hope not to hear back from them. But sometimes we do receive a letter from the IRS, and that will surely get your attention. Last year, I received a letter from the IRS in May which said I owed money. I had received a small refund in April, but my tax preparer neglected to include a form that dealt with the tax credit I received to help pay for health care. I had received too large of an advanced credit and had to pay pack the difference to the government. You can be sure that letter got my attention.
Now, that’s a letter concerning tax obligations to the government. That’s an important thing. We usually pay attention to issues regarding money and possibly getting into trouble with the government. But what if we received an even more important letter?
What if we received a letter from God, telling us how “to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15)? Shouldn’t we pay more attention to that letter? If we are God’s people, shouldn’t we want to know how to behave in his house, the church? Shouldn’t we want to know how God expects his church to operate?
I think the answers to those questions should be, “Yes.” And today we’re going to start to look at such a letter, the book of 1 Timothy.
Today is going to be an introduction to the book. Since we’re going to spend about four months in this book and some related passages in the New Testament, I thought it would be good to help us understand its background. Today may feel more like a lecture than a sermon, though I hope what I say today will inspire us to worship God and to be confident that what we read in the Bible is truly God’s word.
There are three things that I want to address today. First, I want us to know who wrote this letter. Second, I want us to know to whom the letter was written. And then, third, I want us to get a glimpse of what this letter is about.
So, without further ado, let’s start by reading the first two verses of this book. Here is 1 Timothy 1:1–2:
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope,
2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
These verses clearly state that the letter is from the apostle Paul. So, let’s discuss who Paul was.
A lot of us know something about Paul, but I don’t want to take that knowledge for granted. So, here’s a quick background. Paul was a Jewish man, born sometime around or shortly after Jesus was born. He was born in the city of Tarsus (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3), one of the more significant cities in the Roman Empire and now part of Turkey. He had two names, one Hebrew and the other Latin, so he is sometimes referred to as Saul, and then mostly later as Paul. (His name didn’t change at the time of his conversion.) He was educated in Jerusalem under a rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Later, he became a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5; Phil. 3:5), one of the prominent sects of Judaism. Pharisees weren’t the official religious leaders—those were the priests—but they were lay leaders who were experts in the Torah, the law of the Old Testament.
That was Paul’s position at the time when Jesus died and then rose from the grave. And as the Christian movement started to spread in Jerusalem, a man named Stephen was killed. The Jewish people thought that he was blaspheming, speaking against the temple, so they killed him. He was the first Christian martyr. And when that happened, we read this in Acts: “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). When Stephen died, we read, “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1).
After Stephen’s death, Saul persecuted other Christians, arresting them and bringing them to prison (Acts 8:3). Paul apparently approved of the deaths of other Christians, casting a vote against them (Acts 26:10–11).
Saul was so against Christianity, surely thinking that this new religious movement was blasphemous, that he even traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus to try to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem, where they would surely die. We read this in Acts 9:1–5:
1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
From that time on, Paul’s life was changed. He would then become the greatest of Jesus’ special messengers, his apostles. He traveled throughout the Roman Empire, going to major cities to declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the long-awaited King that God promised would come. He declared that Jesus is Lord, the one who lived a perfect life and died on the cross in place of sinners and then rose from the grave.
Paul went from being a zealous persecutor of the church to a zealous church planter. He was so convinced that his message was true that he endured great hardships, including beatings and imprisonments. And he would later die in Rome. The church historian Eusebius says that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero, who died in the year 68. It is even claimed that Paul and Peter died on the same day. Paul probably wrote 1 Timothy a few years before his death, but after he was released from his first imprisonment in Rome, which is described in the book of Acts.
So, that is a brief biography of Paul, the man to whom thirteen letters in the New Testament are credited.
But some people don’t believe that Paul wrote all those letters, including 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Now, I want you to know this not because I believe it. I believe that Paul wrote the letters that bear his name. But it’s common to hear doubts about Paul’s authorship in some prominent places. When you hear a story about the Bible on NPR or read about it in Time magazine, it’s often a story that casts doubt on the truth and authority of the Bible. If you go into a secular bookstore and make your way to the religion section, you might see books by a scholar named Bart Ehrman, who wrote a booked called Forged. Ehrman claims that many of the books in the New Testament were not written by the people we think they were written by.
Now, this is quite a serious claim. Think about what would happen if you got a letter from the IRS claiming that you owed them money. You would want to know if the IRS actually wrote and mailed you that letter, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, it would be a scam. If the books of the Bible were not written by apostles or people who had access to eyewitness testimony, then how could we trust that what they said was true? How could we believe that such letters were God’s word?
Well, Ehrman doesn’t believe the Bible is from God. His whole project is to get people to doubt the claims of Christianity.
But there are some people who are Christians who believe that such books of the Bible like 2 Thessalonians, the so-called “Pastoral Letters” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and 2 Peter weren’t written by Paul and Peter. Sometimes other books (Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter) are often on that list. These Christian scholars believe that there was a known practice at the time of some people writing in the name of others. They say that students of a more famous person wrote in the name of their deceased teacher. They say that as long as the content was generally the thoughts of the one whose name is used, and if people understood this practice of writing in another’s name, then it wasn’t deceptive.
What are we to make of these claims? Can we trust that this letter of 1 Timothy was actually written by Paul?
Well, when we hear claims like this, we have to think about evidence. Whenever you hear a claim made about the Bible, such as that it contains contradictions or false statements, you have to ask for the evidence behind these claims. So, what is the evidence that Paul did or didn’t write this letter?
There are two types of evidence that scholars consider. One is called external evidence. That’s the kind of evidence that is outside the actual text of the book. External evidence concerns things like what the earliest writers outside the Bible said about this book. It also deals with what kind of manuscript evidence we have.
The fact is that we don’t have the original copies of any ancient documents. We don’t have video of people writing them. So, we lack the kind of “proof” that many modern people would like to have. But that doesn’t mean we have no evidence. We have copies of the original text and we have the writings of early Christian theologians who make references to the books of the Bible.
As far as 1 Timothy goes, we don’t have anyone in church history doubting that Paul wrote this book until the nineteenth century. Think about that. For almost eighteen hundred years, everyone assumed that Paul wrote this letter. For someone to change their mind about this issue and fly in the face of eighteen hundred years of church history, there should be some pretty strong evidence that Paul didn’t write this book. But there’s no evidence that anyone else wrote this letter, no early document that claims something like, “There’s this letter going around addressed to Timothy, but we all know Paul didn’t write it.” As early as the beginning of the second century, we have Christians quoting from 1 Timothy. Polycarp (69–155) wrote his own Letter to the Philippians at the beginning of the second century. And in one section he seems to quote from 1 Timothy and Ephesians:
“But the love of money is the root of all evils.” Knowing, therefore, that “as we brought nothing into the world, so we can carry nothing out,” let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness; and let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord.
So, all the external evidence seems to point to the fact that Paul wrote this letter.
The other type of evidence that scholars consider is internal evidence. This refers to the actual text of the document. Some scholars notice that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus use different vocabulary than Paul’s other letters. In addition to different words, there are differences in grammar, syntax, and ways of making an argument (rhetoric). So, these scholars can’t believe that one man would right, say, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans, and also 1 Timothy.
But there may be good reasons why Paul used a different writing style in the Pastoral Letters. One reason may be that he was addressing different concerns. The issues he was dealing with in 1 Timothy were different than the issues in Galatians. Also, Paul was writing to a specific individual (though in a public way, as we’ll see), not to a whole church. Additionally, Paul’s vocabulary might have been affected by learning the Latin language. “Paul could have learned Latin during his first imprisonment in Rome in order to extend his ministry westward” to Spain. Finally, Paul might have used a different secretary to write the letter.
It was common for writers to use an amanuensis, or a secretary. If I asked you who wrote the book of Romans, you would probably say Paul. And you’re not wrong (Rom. 1:1–7). But take a look at Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Tertius was the man who actually put pen to paper (or stylus to papyrus, technically). Paul probably dictated the content of the letter. It was possible for secretaries to have some input into the actual wording of the letter. This still happens today. Letters from various authorities are often written by their assistants. The content of the letter and the final format of the letter are approved by their bosses, but the one doing the writing was someone else. That might have been the case in Paul’s last letters, though no person is specifically mentioned. Some think Luke might have been the actual writer of the letters, while Paul was the author, the one dictating the basic content.
At any rate, the point is that there is no good reason to believe the author is anyone but Paul. If it wasn’t Paul, it was someone trying to deceive. Paul says that Timothy is his “true child in the faith.” Paul wasn’t Timothy’s biological or even adoptive father, but his spiritual mentor. And if someone other than Paul were writing this, it would be false.
A scholar named Lewis Donelson wrote a book on the issue of falsely attributed letters in ancient Greece and Rome. I don’t think he’s a Christian and he believed that there are pseudonymous letters in the New Testament. But he said this, “No one ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know a single example.” He later adds, “We are forced to admit that in Christian circles pseudonymity was considered a dishonorable device and, if discovered, the document was rejected and the author, if known, was excoriated.”
So, if this letter wasn’t written by Paul, it’s a forgery, and it should be rejected. But since we don’t have good reasons to believe anyone other than Paul wrote it, we should go along with the vast majority of Christians and accept that it comes from the apostle himself.
And I take time to say all of this because we should be confident that the Bible is the word of God. It’s not something that some deceptive or misguided people concocted. It’s not a fabrication or a forgery. Yet we often hear that the Bible wasn’t written by the people who allegedly wrote it, or that it’s full of errors or contradictions. Don’t buy into those claims. Ask people who make those claims, “What is the evidence? Can you prove that to me?”
The letter was written by Paul to Timothy. And that brings us to the second issue, the letter’s initial audience. Who was Timothy? Timothy was Paul’s younger associate. We first meet Timothy in the Bible in Acts 16. He had a Gentile father and a Jewish-Christian mother. In Acts, we’re told that Timothy was already a disciple, a Christian, when Paul took him on his second missionary journey. It’s likely that he became a Christian because of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14). From the time of his second missionary journey onward, Timothy was either with Paul or represented Paul in places where Paul couldn’t be. Paul said of Timothy, “I have no one like him” (Phil. 2:20). In fact, six of Paul’s letter are said to be from Timothy as well as Paul, though they are obviously authored by Paul (see 2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Philem. 1).
So, Timothy was Paul’s coworker. We might say he was an apostolic delegate. And at this time, he was in the city of Ephesus, where Paul had preached years earlier. Paul had spent about two-and-a-half in that city (Acts 19), and even after he left, he met with the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20). Paul obviously had a lot invested in that city. It was a significant one in that part of the Roman Empire, in a province called Asia Minor, in the western part of what is now known as Turkey.
Timothy had the responsibility of making sure the church in Ephesus was in good order. But Paul didn’t write to Timothy only. At the very end of the letter, Paul writes, “Grace be with you” (1 Tim. 6:21). In the original Greek language, the “you” is in the plural. We might say “you all” in English. So, the letter isn’t written to just Timothy. It is written for the whole of the church in Ephesus. The whole church should know what Paul has written.
And that brings us to the final issue we’ll look at today. What is this letter about? Let’s look at 1 Timothy 3:14–16:
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
First, notice that Paul gives the reason why he is writing. He hopes to visit Timothy in Ephesus soon, but he’s writing this letter so that if he can’t get there soon, Timothy will know how people ought to behave in the household of God. The church is the living God’s home. It is a pillar and buttress of truth. If we care about God and about the truth, we’re going to pay careful attention to how the church should operate, and how we should behave in God’s house. (God’s house isn’t this building, it’s a people!) That’s why studying this letter is so important.
Second, notice that Paul presents a short confession of faith. This is probably some kind of statement—whether it was a hymn or a creed—about Jesus that Paul was quoting. Jesus is the God who took on flesh, he is the God-man. His identity and his ministry were vindicated by the Holy Spirit, particularly when he rose from the grave after dying on the cross. Paul doesn’t give us a clear message of Jesus’ death here, but the reason why Jesus died was not because of his sin. He didn’t have any. He was the only perfect person, the only one who ever walked this earth and lived a perfect life. Yet he was treated like a criminal, dying on an instrument of torture and death, so that the penalty for our sin could be paid.
Yet Jesus was vindicated by his resurrection. He had been sealed in a tomb on the first day, the day of his death. But on the third day, he rose from the grave in a body that is immortal and indestructible. His resurrected body is the first installment of something that will come later, the new creation. This old creation has been tainted by sin, our rebellion against God. Everything that we think is wrong with this world, whether fighting between people, natural disasters, our own feelings of depression and anxiety, and even death itself, can be traced back to sin. Worst of all, our sense of being distant from God is the result of human rebellion against him. Jesus’ perfect life and his sacrifice on the cross remove that distance for all who trust in him. We can truly be reconciled to God. Yet we still live a hard life in the old creation. But when Jesus returns to Earth, he will renew it. It will be a day of judgment for those who reject Jesus, but it will be a day of glory for those who trust in him. The best part of Jesus’ return is the resurrection of his people. We who believe in Jesus will have resurrected bodies. And the universe will have its own resurrection. There will be no more famine and flooding, no more weeping and sadness, and no more death.
This confession of faith also says that Jesus was seen by angels, presumably after his resurrection. And he was seen by many human witnesses, too. They proclaimed Jesus throughout the Roman Empire. Paul had a large role to play in that mission. Many Jews and Gentiles came to believe in Jesus. And Jesus was taken up into glory. He ascended to heaven, where he is right now with God the Father. He serves as the high priest of his people, pleading his sacrifice on their behalf, so that their sins are covered. He intercedes for us, praying for us, just as the Holy Spirit intercedes for those who don’t know how to pray.
This is the core of the Christian faith. That is why Paul says in the very first verse of this letter that Jesus is “our hope.”
Part of the reason why Paul wrote this letter to Timothy is because there were false teachers in Ephesus, people who were teaching something contrary to the message that Paul taught. From the beginning, there were false teachers who invaded churches, just as there are false teachers today who pervert and corrupt the message of Christianity. Part of Paul’s concerns in this letter is to make sure that sound doctrine is taught. As we go through this letter, we’ll see that.
I suppose that is why Paul begins this letter by stating that he is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus.” An apostle is a special envoy or messenger. The apostles were the ones who were commissioned by Jesus to be his messengers, the ones who saw Jesus in the flesh, particularly after his resurrection. These false teachers weren’t apostles, certainly not by the command of God the Father and Christ Jesus, God the Son.
And Paul mentions that Timothy is his “true child in the faith.” The false teachers were not brought up in the faith the way that Timothy was. Timothy was Paul’s true spiritual heir, his true representative. Not everyone who claims to speak for God is God’s messenger or mouthpiece. But Paul was, and so was Timothy.
Finally, this letter is also about the grace, mercy, and peace that come from God. Notice that these things come from both “God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” This shows that Jesus is God. The very word “Lord” indicates that, but the fact that God the Father and Jesus are both the givers of grace, mercy, and peace indicates that they act as one.
The word “grace” refers to the fact that salvation is a gift from God. We are not in the right with God because we are good people, because we’ve earned his favor, or because we’ve followed all the rules. Christianity teaches that it is impossible for us to earn something from God and that it’s impossible for us to be perfect, which is what God’s perfect standards require. But God is generous. He gives us what we don’t deserve. God doesn’t forget our sin, though. He doesn’t just shrug it off or sweep it under the rug. No, God is a perfect judge, and judges don’t ignore the evidence in front of them. But God sent his Son, who came willingly to take on the punishment that our crimes deserve. All of this is a gift.
The word “mercy” can refer to acts of pity. If grace is a gift, something we don’t deserve, mercy is not giving us over to what we do deserve. But the Greek word translated as “mercy” was used to translate a Hebrew word in the Old Testament that is often translated as “steadfast love” in English. The idea is that God is faithful to the covenant he has made with his people, and his love for his people endures even in spite of their sin.
And the word “peace” doesn’t refer to a feeling, but an objective reality. We can be at peace with God because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. This implies that before coming to Jesus, we’re at war with God. We start out life as God’s enemies, ignoring the King of the Universe, and even rebelling against him, acting as though we are little kings and queens. But once we come to Jesus, that war against God is over. We submit to his loving rule, and he does not treat us according to our rebellion.
Even in these three words, we get a sense of the core of Christianity. Yet Christianity doesn’t do away with all rules. God has designed our lives. He is, after all, the Creator of everything, including the church. He knows best how the church should operate. In order to be a church that accurately reflects the God of order, we need to conduct the church according to God’s rules.
To be the church of Christ, we must maintain this confession of faith. We must hang on to the truth that God has revealed to us.
In order to be a church of grace and mercy, we must know the gospel and act according to it.
That’s why this letter matters so much.
If you don’t know what Christianity is about, I invite you to come back. The rest of the sermons in this series won’t be like this one. But we’re going through this letter because it’s important for the church. And you really can’t separate a right relationship with God from a right relationship with a local church. If you want to know more about Jesus and the Bible, I would love to talk to you personally.
For the rest of us, there will be plenty for us to consider, for as we move through 1 Timothy, we’ll find that all of us will be challenged. God’s word has a way of doing that. But it leads us to truth, and when we follow God’s instructions, we find that his commands are not burdensome. Instead, we find grace, mercy, and peace in the household of the living God.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25. ↑
- Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). ↑
- 1 Tim. 6:10. ↑
- 1 Tim. 6:7. ↑
- Eph. 6:11. ↑
- Polycarp of Smryna, “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians” 4, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 34. ↑
- William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), c. ↑
- This is also why, at the end of some of his letters, Paul personally writes a greeting, to verify that the letter is actually his. See 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11. ↑
- Lewis R. Donelson, Pseudepigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles, Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie 22 (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1986), 10. ↑
- Ibid., 16. ↑
- The Greek word is ἔλεος (eleos) and the Hebrew word is חסד (ḥesed). ↑
Pastor Brian Watson presents an introduction to the book of 1 Timothy. Who wrote 1 Timothy? To whom was it written? What’s it about? Find out and learn more about the Bible.
Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 5:1-15 on August 23, 2015. This passage speaks about our freedom in Christ and how that freedom is threatened by legalism and licentiousness.
This is a recording of a sermon preached on June 21, 2015. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Galatians 1:10-24, in which the apostle Paul discusses his own background, how he came to faith, how he received the gospel, and how he became an apostle. Pastor Brian considers how God reveals himself to us and changes us.
Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 1:1-9 on June 14, 2015. What is the gospel? Why is this good news? How does it differ from other religions or ways of thinking about life? Listen to find out.
In this Bible study, Pastor Brian Watson presents some principles for reading the letters of the New Testament. He uses 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as a test case.
Pastor Brian Watson finished preaching through the book of Acts with a message based on Acts 28. He talked about Paul’s arrival in Rome and how Paul, though in chains, was free to preach the gospel. Learn about true freedom in this sermon.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 27 titled, “There Will Be No Loss of Life among You.” The apostle Paul’s journey from Caesarea to Rome was dangerous, but even though his ship went through a great storm, he reached safety. Our lives are a lot like that. We sail through uncertain waters, but we’re able to make it to the other shore because of Jesus. Listen to this sermon to learn about how Acts 27 is a picture of Jesus’ sacrifice, and how the life of faith is like a journey.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 21:1-23:11. This passage is about what happens to the apostle Paul when he returns to Jerusalem. He faces opposition from non-Christian Jews at the temple (much like Jesus had). We can learn from Paul how to follow Jesus no matter the cost.