Command and Teach These Things
1 Timothy 4.11-16
There’s no rule for the structure of sermons—there’s nothing in the Bible that says, “You must expose the text in three points, preferably points that rhyme, then have an application and conclude with a prayer.” Preachers do this because because it’s easier for us to receive and retain information that way, so it’s a perfectly valid way of doing things; but it’s not something that we see explicitly commanded or taught in the Bible. (And thank goodness, because I’m incapable of coming up with catchy points that rhyme.) But good preachers, even if they eschew the standard format of a three-point-rhyming layout, will still, nearly always, have a moment at the end of the sermon where they say, “What does this passage call us to do? How does this truth apply to our lives?” And they’re right to do so—because while Scripture doesn’t usually have a three-point structure, it is always profoundly applicable. Even those passages which just inspire us to contemplate the greatness of God are calling us to respond to the text, by contemplating the things we’ve just seen.
1) Command and Teach These Things (v. 11)
I said all that because essentially, v. 11-16 of chapter 4 is Paul’s application of what he said in v. 1-10: in this text he gives Timothy six distinct imperatives in response to what he said before. Paul says in v. 11, Command and teach these things. So what are “these things?” If you remember last week’s message, in v. 1-10 Paul returns to the subject of these false teachers which have shown up in the church in Ephesus. He says (v. 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. So these people have shown up in the church telling them, in essence, that the gospel is good, but that it’s not quite enough: if you really want to please God, you need to do these other things: abstain from marriage, abstain from certain foods, etc. Basically they’re saying that in addition to the gospel, if you really want God to love you, you need to do all these other things we want you to do.
And Paul reminds Timothy of the foolishness of such an idea: that God is a good God who creates good things for his children to enjoy, provided they enjoy them as God intended. And Christians have the freedom and the ability to enjoy God’s gifts as he intended because of what Christ did for us on the cross—before, men were required to rigorously keep the law, but were unable to, and so Christ kept the law perfectly for us, in order to free us from our sin and let us pursue holiness without the burden of the law on our shoulders. This is the gospel.
So Paul reminds Timothy of the gospel’s central importance in all that he teaches and in all that he does (v. 6): 6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
This is very serious business—both the life we live, which is shaped by the gospel, and the things we say to others, go to the heart of God’s mission on earth (v. 10): For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
All of that is foundational. Paul is laying down the truth that Timothy needs to remember as he goes to face these false teachers. And now, as he says, Command and teach these things, he’s going to lay out for Timothy what that will look like in his church context: what it will look like to command and teach these things in a church which has been beset by false teaching.
2) Prove Your Maturity (v. 12)
11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. There are two very important things to see here. First, this is an interesting window into the situation Timothy is facing in Ephesus. The situation within churches—especially those churches in which there is conflict or lies which need to be combatted—is very complex. It’s not like these false teachers are simply going around teaching things that are untrue; they (and perhaps others in the church) are coming at Timothy from all different angles.
And one of these angles is given to us here: apparently some of these Christians are rejecting Timothy’s ministry because he is young. I’ve had this experience myself—it’s sometimes difficult for a person over forty to take a young pastor seriously. And it’s kind of understandable: it takes humility to receive instruction from someone who’s ten or twenty or thirty years younger than you.
But Paul says something that goes back to what he already said in chapter 3, when he gave Timothy the qualifications for elders in the church. The qualifications for elders are not qualifications of skill, but of character: what makes an elder qualified is not his ability, but his holiness. In other words, he needs to be advanced not in years, but in maturity. So look at what he says: Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. In other words, young pastor, if you faithfully preach the gospel, AND you live according to that gospel, you will take away all the ammunition of those who say you can’t do your job well because you’re young.
People imagine that getting older inherently means being more mature. And there is a bit of truth to that. Young people walk around with an overconfidence which borders on arrogance—not because they’re horrible people, but simply because life hasn’t had time to beat that arrogance out of them yet. You learn things with experience, and that shouldn’t be denied.
However, if we assume that young people can’t be mature because they’re young, we are overestimating one thing and underestimating another. We mustn’t overestimate the transformative power of experience. Godly character isn’t just knowing what God calls us to do; it’s doing what God calls us to do. My paternal grandfather had a rough life; he had been through some mind-blowing experiences in his time. If experience was a guarantee of maturity and wisdom, he would have been remembered as one of the greats. But in his case, as in many cases, those experiences did nothing to change his character or his heart; I loved my Pop more than most of the men I’ve loved in my life, but he was a hard man, in many ways a cruel man, and he died quite a bitter man. We mustn’t overestimate the power of experience.
But on the same token, we mustn’t underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit takes dead sinners and makes them alive again; he is more than capable of making young men and women wise for godliness, despite the fact that they haven’t experienced much. I know some young people who are far wiser and more mature than many people twice their age. This isn’t because they are better people, but because the Holy Spirit has done a work in them that in many ways makes up for their lack of experience.
So Paul reminds Timothy, not of his greater worth as a man, but of what the Spirit has done in him, as we’ll continue to see. He says, Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. You know what God has done in you—so show that. You will prove your legitimacy through your life. It is through your speech, conduct, faith, love, and purity that you will show everyone watching that you truly are qualified to be doing this work. That won’t stop people from criticizing, but at least it will allow you to freely and confidently practice your ministry; for no matter what they say, you will be able to stand before God with a clear conscience, knowing you fulfilled your charge.
3) Be an Example (v. 12)
Again, v. 12: Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Secondly, Paul expects Timothy to set an example for the believers to follow—and this is important for all of us. Paul expects that the care Timothy takes to remain faithful to the gospel, and the way in which he lives his life, to be imitated by the members of his congregation.
It’s a simple truth that the pastor can’t see everything that’s going on. These false teachers are probably not going to broadcast their false teaching to the pastor; they’ll whisper it behind the scenes. So you, the believers, no matter how old or young you are, are also called on to keep the gospel central, and to persist in godliness and faithfulness, even when someone comes in to try to pry your eyes away from that gospel.
My dad was in ROTC—a kind of marching club, to initiate young men to the military—when he was young. He had a leader who was the same age, but who was named the captain of their team, and this guy worked hard to make sure he had those marches down, that he was always in step, always where he needed to be. Now, occasionally he would have them sit back and watch him, to know what to do; and watching him march by himself was a little ridiculous. It didn’t work, because everyone was meant to do it together. But when everyone did followed his lead, and did the same thing together, it became something else: it’s an impressive thing to see a hundred people marching exactly in step, precisely synchronized with one another. It’s beautiful.
This is a little like what a pastor does. He sets the example. He works hard to honor Christ in his own life, in a visible way that others can see. But it means nothing (except for his own personal good) if the rest of the church doesn’t follow that example. Because godliness is not something we do in isolation; satellite Christians are unbiblical. We are not called to pursue holiness merely as individuals, but as a body; the church is the body of Christ, and it is through the church that God chooses to glorify himself and testify to his grace in the world.
So just think of it: if we do this—if we the elders do what Paul is telling Timothy to do and set an example, and if you follow that example, what will our church look like? It will be a church in which all the members, collectively, strive to keep the gospel central, and live lives in keeping with that gospel. We will speak in ways that honor Christ and faithfully defend the truth (in speech); we will vigorously pursue holiness (in conduct); we will love each other fiercely (in love); we will hold fast to what we know to be true (in faith); and we will keep themselves from anything which would dishonor God and hinder us from pursuing him (in purity). In other words, we will prove the gospel’s worth by the visible change it produces in us as individuals, and as a body. This is what I pray for Église Connexion. We are, by and large, a young church; the average age here is somewhere between 25 and 30. But there is no reason to believe ours cannot be a church which shines as an example for others, in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.
Now, there’s a problem in what I just said, a big one: if you asked a hundred different people what they think holiness looks like, you’d probably get a hundred different answers. There are some aspects of basic morality we all agree on. We shouldn’t kill other people. We shouldn’t betray people we love. We shouldn’t take things that belong to someone else. We should be compassionate toward others. We know we all agree on these things because they’re things that makes us all angry if it’s done to us. But there are a lot of other subjects which are up for debate. There are vast disagreements on a lot of issues. And that’s exactly the problem in this passage—these people are saying that Christians shouldn’t get married, shouldn’t eat meat, and they probably have convincing reasons for saying so. So how can we tell if they’re wrong or right? Do we have any safeguards to protect us, to give us solid footing to stand on, which will tell us what it looks like to be pure in speech, in faith and in conduct? Of course we do. Paul tells Timothy next to devote himself to the Scriptures.
4) Remember the Scriptures (v. 13)
13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. It’s significant that Paul says, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” This is why on at least three occasions in every service we do, Scripture is simply read aloud. We don’t stop at reading, but we read: before saying anything that we want to say, we submit ourselves to God’s Word and listen to what he has to tell us. And then we expound on that; we encourage and exhort one another, using the Scriptures to back up what we’re saying. We teach the Scripture, we talk about what it means and how to apply it. In all of this, the Bible is the authority; God’s Word always gets the last word.
And that’s so important because Scripture will always lead us back to Christ. From the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation, every page speaks of Christ. I recently spoke to a young man who is pursuing pastoral ministry, and who is a bit unsure of the pastoral part of it, because while he’s very comfortable with unbelievers, Christians make him crazy. Because Christians are disappointing. A pastor preaches week in and week out; he proclaims truth week in and week out; and often it does nothing! These Christians never live up to what God calls them to; so this young man was angry and struggled with patience, thinking that if Christians understood these truths they should live by them!
I told him I have that same struggle; I struggle with patience too, I struggle with anger too. But if we are attentive to Scripture, what does Scripture tell us? It doesn’t just give us a list of rules that God calls us to, does it? It tells us that God is angry against sin too…and it tells us how he dealt with that anger. How he didn’t pour out that anger on us, though he deserved it, but he poured it out on his Son, in our place. It tells us how Christ is patient with us, when we are so painfully slow to change. He is not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4.15), but one who is always faithful and just to forgive us (1 Jn 1.9), and who actively intercedes for us before his Father (Rom. 8.34). Jesus Christ is infinitely patient with us—he is infinitely patient with you. So what does that knowledge make you want to do, when you’re in front of someone who is having a hard time changing?
You see, Scripture is the antidote for legalism. The Scriptures tell us plainly what God expects of us, and how Christ fulfilled those expectations for us, and frees us to follow him courageously in that life. And if Timothy, if we, devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching, then we, in the face of all these false accusations and legalistic pressures, will be able to remember what is central: Jesus Christ, his life, death, resurrection and ascension.
Now, put yourself in the shoes of a young pastor: all of this can be a little complicated to navigate. If you look at the wide range of situations and issues that could demand your attention—which is pretty much every situation and issue imaginable—it can be very easy to be disheartened, and imagine that you’ll never be up to this task. Which is absolutely true. You aren’t up to this task. And right now, young pastor, young Christian, you probably are unable to handle 90% of the problems that will come at you. You probably are unable to see, right now, how Scripture speaks into this situation, or that situation. Which is why Paul continues with v. 14.
5) Work With the Spirit (v. 14)
14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. This particular encouragement is vital for Timothy at this point, because he is facing such harsh opposition. Taking a stand on an issue, especially if it means identifying certain people who are dangerous to the church, is bound to create enemies. So Timothy needs to know what footing he stands on, and why he must persist in spite of opposition.
Now, the Bible doesn’t actually tell us what this “gift” is, or what was contained in the prophecy that went along with it. Which is completely normal, because Timothy knows; he was there. (Remember, this is a letter.) But even without knowing those things, we can understand why Paul says what he says. Timothy has been given promises by the Spirit concerning his life and ministry; Timothy has been given what he needs to do what God is calling him to do; Timothy has been approved by the church (the council of elders laid their hands on you). So he needs to work, but he doesn’t need to worry.
Do not neglect the gift you have. I have a naturally high metabolism. I got it from my dad. You can see it if you look at me; I’m a skinny guy, and it’s not because I do a lot of sports (I don’t), or because I don’t eat junk food (I do). Caring for my body is actually a struggle for me, because (aesthetically, at least) I don’t have to. I can eat pretty much whatever I want without gaining weight. Can we all agree? This is a gift. And I’m not glib about that gift. But Loanne could tell you that the older I get, the less effective that gift is. I’m starting to go a little soft around the middle—it’s not fat, but it’s definitely muscle either. I can’t eat the same things today, at 36, as I used to when I was 20.
The point is this: every gift will deteriorate if left unused. The Holy Spirit gives us what we need to do what God calls us to do—he applies the work of Christ to our life, reminding us that we are free from sin and sons and daughters of God. He shows us Christ’s patience, and so gives us patience; he shows us Christ’s love for us, and so gives us love for others; he shows us why our salvation is good news, and so gives us joy in our salvation. But these gifts are not to be taken as a given—we have them, but we need to work to develop them further. Here’s the big difference between Christianity and other religions: in Christianity, we work to obtain nothing. Everything we have is a gift. You don’t drill holes in order to obtain a power drill; you get the power drill so that you can drill holes. The Holy Spirit has given us everything we need, all the tools necessary, for life and godliness; and because we have those tools, we use them; we work with those gifts; we don’t neglect them. So that’s the first thing: when Paul says, Do not neglect the gift you have, he’s calling Timothy to work.
But at the same time, Timothy needn’t worry. Because that gift was given to him by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. The Spirit gave him this gift; the church formally approved of Timothy’s ministry. He doesn’t need to impress anyone. He doesn’t need to succeed. He doesn’t need to make sure all of this works; he can’t. This gift doesn’t come from Timothy, but from the Spirit—so the Spirit will make sure the intended work gets done. Timothy can do what he is called to do, and he can do it confidently, knowing that the Spirit has given him the tools he needs, and the church has recognized his ministry. He need not fear.
And having said all that, Paul gives one final imperative which summarizes the rest: preach the truth and live the truth.
6) Preach the Truth and Live the Truth (v. 15-16)
15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. It is the proclamation of the truth of the gospel that the Spirit uses to change people’s hearts. And it is that truth, lived out practically by the church, which gives proof that these things really are true.
If Timothy immerses himself in the gospel, if he immerses himself in the truth, if he practices these things, then he will grow. That’s how God designed it to work. And as he grows, as he lives out the truth he believes, other people will see that. And when he preaches the Word to them, they won’t merely have the subjective experience of the Spirit to back up their beliefs (which is already enough); they will have the living proof in front of them of what that truth can do.
In other words, the two greatest tools at Timothy’s disposal to combat these false teachers are the gospel and his own life. The people in his church will hear trustworthy truths being proclaimed by a man who has proven himself trustworthy. So when opposition comes, when false teachers come and try to dissuade them or distract them from the truth of the gospel, they will know whom to listen to, whose words carry more weight. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. Our two greatest weapons against false teaching are the gospel, and our own lives, changed by that gospel. We have his Word; we have the Spirit; we need nothing else.
I’d like to say one last thing, to those here who may not be Christians. I understand that everything I have said today, everything that Paul says in this passage, is geared toward Christians—those who already believe the gospel. And I understand that some of you may hesitate to believe any of this, specifically because you have seen a wide gap between what some Christians say they believe and the way they live. I wouldn’t for a moment try to deny that this happens, and that it happens in the best of us.
But just consider this: why do you think Paul says this to Timothy? Why bother telling him over and over again to hold fast to what is true, and to live what he believes? Because he knows it’s going to be hard. Because he knows Timothy will make mistakes. Because he knows Timothy will sometimes be tempted to act hypocritically. He reminds Timothy to do these things, not as a way of saying that Christians will always do a great job, but precisely because Christians won’t do a good job, and they’ll need help.
We are all hypocrites. None of us perfectly lives everything we believe. The difference for Christians is that they are no longer required to be perfect. That weight is off of our shoulders. Christ was perfect for us; he was punished for our imperfections; so now, free from the condemnation which we deserve because of our hypocrisy, we can pursue him joyfully and willingly, we can grow in our ability to live what we believe—not as a way of saving ourselves, but as a response to the salvation we already have.
Think about how freeing that would be! To know that our worth is not determined by how successful we are in being authentic! This is what the Bible is proposing. It is not saying, “If you believe this, you will be perfect.” It’s saying, “You’re not perfect! But Christ was perfect for you. HERE’s the ideal, and you’re HERE—but his sacrifice is always big enough to fill that gap. So in that freedom, live what you believe. When you fall, pick yourself up, thank him for his faithfulness to forgive, and keep on living what you believe.” This is the call of the gospel. This is how we are changed. And you are invited to believe it and pursue it, every bit as much as we are.