The Aim of Our Charge
1 Timothy 1.1-7
Today we’re beginning a series on Paul’s first letter to Timothy. I admit we have an ulterior motive for beginning this series now, especially since we just recently finished going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. You know that for the past year Paul and Arnaud have been going through a process of training and assessment to become elders of the church. We felt the need to teach on what the Bible says on the subject of elders before putting their candidatures to a vote in our members’ assembly in May. So rather than merely doing a stand-alone message on the subject out of 1 Timothy 3, we decided to just go ahead and preach through the entire book, so that when we get to the subject of elders in chapter 3, we’ll do so entirely in context, with a full view to what is being said and why.
That being said, we don’t really need an ulterior motive to preach through this book, as it is one of the most precious guides God has given to his church concerning how the church is meant to function. Paul gives a kind of summary statement of why he’s writing this letter towards the end of chapter 3 in v. 14: 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.
Now, there’s one really important thing we need to address before we get into the thick of Paul’s exhortation. This book is often seen as a kind of instruction manual for order and structure in the church. And this is true: Paul will talk about church leadership, church discipline, and orderly conduct within the church. But if it were merely, or even mainly, an instruction manual for church order, most Christians could write off this letter as kind of unnecessary. After all, Paul is a missionary and a church planter writing to Timothy, the pastor of a local church. But the majority of Christians in the world aren’t pastors, and won’t be pastors. If this letter is an instruction manual for order and structure in the church, only pastors need to read it, because pastors are the ones who set all that up and make sure it’s functioning well. Right?
Wrong. And here’s why: Wrong. And here’s why. At the core of this letter is a theological framework that Paul sets up, and that framework is essentially this: the gospel, rightly understood, will always produce godliness in God’s children; so the motor for the growth of the church, and the framework in which that growth happens, is the gospel itself.
So in our text this morning, Paul’s going to push us to reflect on not only what we do, but how we do it, and why. He’s going to tell us that when we speak to each other, we must keep in mind the faith of the person in front of us: the goal of these instructions is that our love for one another guide how we talk to one another. And it goes a lot further than we’d think.
Let’s look at Paul’s salutation to give us a bit of context. Timothy was the apostle Paul’s protégé, and Paul had left him in Ephesus to pastor the church he, Paul, had planted there. And you can hear the affection and the not only pastoral, but fatherly care Paul has for Timothy as he writes his greeting (v. 1-2): 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. Clearly their relationship was a close one: there are a couple of older men in my life (my own father being one of them) with whom I have a relationship of that nature, and these are men with whom I have spent a huge amount of time, whom I’ve observed in the context of their homes, with their families, in their ministries. It takes a lot of time and experience together to get to this point. And getting a word of encouragement from one of them is always a breath of fresh air—a breath of fresh air that, it would seem, Timothy needed.
1) Useless Doctrine (v. 3-4)
After greeting Timothy, Paul dives right into the subject at hand, and essentially he’s talking about the way in which Christians talk to one another, the way we teach one another outside of the context of corporate worship. I don’t have to tell you that Bible teaching doesn’t merely happen here, in this room, from this pulpit: it happens in every conversation we have. This is why the Bible talks about the tongue so often: it goes so much deeper than simple offense or reconciliation. Proverbs 12.18 says, There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. When wise people speak, it has a positive effect on the people who listen, because as they listen to this person, we are learning to be like him. We are always teaching or learning—every conversation is a formative experience. Paul is going to oppose two ways of teaching in the church, and talk about what those two ways of teaching produce.
Let’s start reading at verse 3: 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. So that’s the setup for what Paul is going to spend this chapter unpacking: the importance of insisting on right doctrine, of true gospel teaching, and of refuting any different doctrine from the one Timothy has received.
We don’t know the exact nature of what Timothy was facing in Ephesus, but apparently there were men in the church there who were teaching false doctrine. And while we don’t know all the details—they probably weren’t organizing meetings or sending out newsletters, but just sharing these things in private conversations—but the details Paul does give are interesting. These people are devoting themselves to myth and endless genealogies, which promote speculations. In essence they are taking what amounts to folk lore, perhaps borrowed from Judaism, and attributing to it the weight of truth (that’s myth). And they are insisting on the importance of genealogies: who’s related to whom, why the fact that so-and-so’s great-great-great-great grandfather was so-and-so is really important.
There are two big problems we see going on here. The first problem isn’t merely in content, but in degree. V. 4: [These people] DEVOTE THEMSELVES to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations. So it’s not just that they’re saying wrong things, but that they’re devoting themselves to these things: they’re following hard after them, they’re preoccupied by these questions. And obviously, since they’re false, they’re not helpful: it’s essentially like those people who gave themselves over to the Atkins Diet and cut out everything but meat and eggs, only to find that it’s actually pretty dangerous for your heart. They’re devoting themselves over to things that sound appealing, but in the end are dangerous, because they’re untrue.
The second problem is that not only are they devoting themselves to myths and genealogies, which produce speculations, they’re not devoting themselves to the truth. V. 4 again: [These people] devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations, RATHER THAN the stewardship from God that is by faith. A heavy theme of this letter is that God has entrusted something to us, a mission that we are called to serve. Our mission is to serve his plan of salvation with others, by sharing the good news, and by caring for the faith of our brothers and sisters, by helping one another grow as disciples.
One pastor said it this way: “If you want to be truly biblical, it’s not enough to say what the Bible says; we must also emphasize what the Bible emphasizes.” The main emphasis of the Bible is this one truth: that God sent his Son to pay the price of the sins of his people and reconcile them to himself. That is the central truth of the Bible. That central truth is what we celebrate, and on which we’re called to base our lives. This good news God has entrusted to us, his plan of salvation that we are to steward, must be accepted by faith: it is the stewardship from God that is by faith. When the gospel is proclaimed in accordance with his Word and with the intervention of the Holy Spirit, it produces faith in its hearers. So here’s the problem: by being distracted by these other interests, people were (either intentionally or unintentionally) casting doubt rather than encouraging faith.
Now, there aren’t a lot of people in our church who devote themselves to genealogies. Myths, on the other hand… That’s trickier. Because sometimes myths are evident, and other times they seem more persuasive, because they’re dressed up in statements that actually are true. For example, people will take promises of blessing from the Bible (and they are there), and they’ll say, “You see? If you come to Christ, you’ll be blessed! Your life will be so much better! You’ll be fulfilled, he’ll give you the things that you want!” So people come to Christ (because who wouldn’t want that?), and then they see that their lives don’t get better but actually, in some ways, get even harder, because now not only have they not gotten everything they asked for, but they’re being asked to resist temptation to sin on top of that! The inevitable result is either that we create miserable Christians, or people who reject the gospel altogether because the church lied to them. Who can blame them for rejecting us? They were promised God would be the answer to all their problems, and none of their problems went away. This prosperity gospel, as it’s called, is a modern myth.
If you want to be truly biblical, it’s not enough to say what the Bible says; we must also emphasize what the Bible emphasizes, and say it in the way the Bible says it. Yes, the Bible does tell us that blessings and joy abound for those who are in Christ, but it also says that those blessings are in fact all that he is for us and all he has already done for us. We’re not expecting God to give us everything we want today because he’s promised us infinitely more than that once we finally go to be with him: an eternal life far better and richer and more joyful than any of the pitiful things I could ask him for on this earth! The blessings we are promised spring from, and orbit around, the gospel.
So again, the issue here is not merely that these people are devoting themselves to false teaching, but also that they are not devoting themselves to the mission God has entrusted to them.
2) The Aim of Our Charge (v. 5-7)
And Paul gets to the heart of this mission in v. 5: 5 The aim of our charge is LOVE that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. This is such a wonderful, loaded sentence. What he means is that the goal of apostolic instruction, the reason we teach right doctrine and insist on right doctrine, is that love might be produced in our hearers.
There is a point in every Christian’s life when the Holy Spirit opens his eyes and gives him faith: this is called conversion. At that moment of conversion, you believe two things that the gospel has told you: first, that God is holy, and second, that you are a sinner. Our awareness of those realities is pretty small at the beginning—we don’t fully realize what it means for God to be holy, and we don’t really see ourselves as all that sinful. But the more we grow in faith, the more we realize how wide that gap is.
Now, without the gospel, that realization would lead us to despair. But the gospel also tells us that our sin was put on Christ when he went to the cross, and he paid the penalty for that sin, so that we might be declared righteous. So the more we realize how wide the gap is between our sinfulness and God’s holiness, the more astounded we are by the grace he showed us at the cross, and the more we come to depend on it for everything we are and everything we have. And that profound gratitude for the cross actually changes us: the more we see the immensity of what Jesus did for us at the cross, the less we want to keep doing those things that sent him there! Our faith from the Spirit opens our eyes to believe the gospel; the gospel heals our broken conscience; and our hearts are made purer and purer as we grow in our knowledge of what Christ has done for us. These things, which will all happen in everyone who is truly a child of God, produce love: The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Now, this is hard for us to grasp. Our culture has taught us to consider ourselves primarily as thinking beings—remember Descartes? “I think, therefore I am.” And Paul does insist on the importance of right thinking, obviously—he warns against false teaching and encourages Timothy to be diligent to teach right doctrine. But here’s the thing—the aim of that teaching is not primarily knowledge. He doesn't say, “The aim of our charge is a well-founded argument with which we will be able to convince our pagan critics.” He says “The aim of our charge is LOVE.” All Christian teaching is not primarily concerned with teaching us to think rightly, but with reforming our hearts. Right thinking is clearly a crucial part of that, but it is not an end in itself. The end in view, the aim of our charge, is love.
So that says a lot about these false teachers, doesn’t it? It says a lot about both their motivations and what they are producing. 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. In other words, they want the attention, the prestige, the recognition, the respect: they desire to be teachers of the law. But they have no idea what they’re wading into. You can’t teach a message you don’t understand. If you understood the message, it would have produced love in you, and clearly you’re not acting out of love. If you were acting out of love for God, you would be concerned with protecting the message he has entrusted to you. And if you were acting out of love for others, you would be concerned about not distracting them of the one thing they need the most.
3) Staying Faithful to Our Charge
Brothers and sisters, teaching is not limited to what we say; it is also transmitted by how we say it, and why. The aim of these instructions is not just right teaching, but love. Now I know most of you here: I don’t know of anyone in this church who would actively go about sowing false doctrine (though who knows—I’m not so deluded as to think it won’t happen one day). Most of you will fight for the truth, tooth and toenail. And that’s wonderful.
But is your passion for the truth, and the way you communicate that truth, motivated by the love you have for those in front of you? This is hard for folks like me who love theology: sometimes people who love theology can seem like we love theology more than we love people; we love ideas more than those actual human beings are around us, and we excuse ourselves because those ideas happen to be true.
Here’s an example, and the guilty party here is the church at large, no one individual Christian. It’s what I call ‘the Victory Syndrome.’ So much of the way Christians talk when they’re together, and even the language and songs of the church, very often turn around this notion of victory and joy and peace that the Christian finds in God. Now, these things are all true: in Christ we do have victory over sin, we do have joy in suffering, we do have peace in conflict—and we should sing about them, we should celebrate them. But isn’t it also true that most of us don’t always feel all that victorious or joyful? Historically, the liturgy of the church was much more honest about life than modern Christian worship is: they had songs of lament and confession and contrition before the Lord—not because lament is where we’re meant to stay, but because before we can feel the relief of the hope we have in Christ, we need to be honest about how broken we are. Before we can know the joy of grace, we need to feel the depth of our need.
But in modern Christianity, we have mostly swept this under the rug, choosing to only speak about how victorious we are in Christ. And while our intentions for this are quite good, the unintended result of only talking about our victory and joy in him is that it transforms church into a place where we don’t feel free to be broken. We don’t feel free to show our weakness. If church is a place where people are meant to be victorious and joyful, those who are struggling with depression or sin or suffering feel woefully out of place amongst us (when in fact, we’re just as broken and screwed-up as they are). Rather than welcoming people to be open about their brokenness, in order that they might find the relief of grace, we unwittingly set an impossibly high standard for them—a standard not even we are able to meet.
Here’s one more example. Think of how we talk about theology. We love theology. We love doctrine. It is good and healthy to affirm and embrace this. At the same time, we need to be careful about how we talk about theology and doctrine: not only what we say, but also in what context. Several times I have approached a conversation in progress between two people who clearly know their stuff. And almost inevitably (since the church is so much bigger now), there’s one person standing on the outskirts of the conversation, just listening in. And as they listen, you can see them visibly shrink—their shoulders slump, their eyes glaze over, and you can see what they’re thinking: I have NO IDEA what they’re talking about.
This person may be a new Christian, or simply may not be as well read as the other two, but the prospect that is now before them is incredibly daunting. They are looking up to their two older brothers or sisters in the faith, learning what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and what they’re learning is: You’d better start studying your Trinitarian theology! Rather than learning that they need to lean on the grace of Christ in their lives, growing in their knowledge of what it means to be a sinner saved by grace, the message they hear is that in order to be a good Christian, you need to be able to explain all this stuff. So you see—it’s not enough just to say true things (and hopefully, all of the deep theology we discuss is wonderfully true). If our only motive when we speak to one another is the fun of it, the joy of intellectual stimulation, we may end up marooning one of our younger brothers and sisters who simply need us to turn to them and ask, “How has God been good to you this week? What have you learned about him in his Word? Is there anything I can do to help you navigate these things?”
So Paul sets up these two ways of doing things: one which he heartily approves, and one which he violently opposes. On the one hand, he tells Timothy, “Remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations… Those who devote themselves to these things have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” On the other hand, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. So we must devote ourselves to the stewardship from God that is by faith.”
Brothers and sisters, there is a heavy pastoral instinct that all Christians should have toward one another: it’s not merely the pastor who is called to care for the church. We have all been entrusted with this stewardship which is by faith, and we have all been called to protect it and carry it out into the world with us—not only by resisting the urge to get drawn into useless debates, but by always asking ourselves, How am I promoting the gospel in this conversation? How am I loving my brother or sister in this conversation? How am I protecting and passing on the good news that has been entrusted to me?
Knowledge is an important step on that road, but it is not an end in itself. The aim of our charge is not knowledge: the aim of our charge is love. In all that we do, let us love one another; let us ask ourselves how we can serve those in front of us, how we can love them, how we can glorify the God we love by the way we care for them.