Run to Win

(Isaiah 6:1-5; 1 Timothy 6:11-16, 20-21)

As I think I’ve said before, it’s funny the things that stick in your head. I remember a Sunday school class sometime during junior high school, taught by the father of a friend of mine, in which he was telling us about Paul describing the life of faith as a race; and then he declared, “And Paul says, don’t run in order to win.” I argued with him, because that’s simply not true; Paul says quite emphatically, “Run in such a way that you may win.” If you want to look it up for yourself, it’s 1 Corinthians 9:24. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t listen to me, and he wouldn’t look it up—he told me I didn’t know what I was talking about, changed the subject, and went on with the class, and I perforce shut up; but I didn’t pay much attention after that. Instead, I was off in my own little world; and if Mr. Mouw noticed, he didn’t feel the need to say anything about it.

Partly, I’m sure, my ego was hurt; but more than that, I was taken aback, and I needed to take time to think about it. For one thing, I was surprised that my teacher had gotten that wrong, and even more surprised that he hadn’t even checked, when I challenged him, to see if he’d made a mistake. More importantly, though, the mistake made no sense to me. I’m sure differences in temperament played in to this, since I can be a pretty competitive sort, but why would you want the Scripture to say, “Run, but don’t try to win?” If you aren’t trying as hard as you can to win, why are you bothering to run? Especially when you consider that in the life of faith, if we win, that doesn’t mean that everyone else loses—we can all win together, and in fact, the better each of us runs our own race, the more help we are to all those around us as they run theirs.

Now, as you may have noticed, Paul likes athletic metaphors. I suspect, from this and other aspects of his writings, that he probably had a pretty strong competitive streak; sure, he was a saint, and a brilliant man, and God used him powerfully to do amazing things in and for the body of Christ, but he can’t have been easy to live with. Besides that, though, I think when he looked at the athletes of his day, he had considerable respect for how hard they worked and how completely they focused themselves in order to give themselves the best chance possible to win the prize at the Games—and as he notes in 1 Corinthians, that prize was nothing more than a laurel wreath! Given a week or two, their prize would be no more. If they could work as hard as they did, if they could dedicate themselves as completely as they did, to win a prize they wouldn’t even be able to keep, shouldn’t we as Christians be at least as focused on the prize of eternal life which God has set before us? Shouldn’t we be running to win, rather than dawdling along by the side of the road, wandering off to explore the thistles?

Certainly Paul thinks so, and so he encourages Timothy here. That’s not clear in the NIV, which reads “fight the good fight” in verse 12—but while that is what Paul said back in chapter 1, where he was encouraging Timothy to go head-to-head with the false teachers in Ephesus and not back down, that’s not actually what he says here. Rather than the military metaphor he used earlier, this is the language of athletic competition which he uses in so many other places. Run the good race, Paul tells Timothy; run well, run hard, run with all you have—run to win. Run to win, and stay focused on the prize before you; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, which is already yours but which you need to grab hold of and live into. Don’t let anything else sidetrack you or slow you down, but let everything you do be focused on running as well as you possibly can, to the glory of God and the accomplishment of his purposes.

What that looks like, Paul lays out in verse 11. First he tells Timothy, “Flee from all this”; reject not only the false teaching going around Ephesus, but reject the motives driving the false teachers. Reject their desire for gain, reject their desire to serve themselves and feed their own desires, and pursue a different way. It’s interesting how Paul lays that way out. First, he says, pursue righteousness and godliness. These represent the two dimensions of the Christian life, the vertical and the horizontal—our relationship with God and our relationships with those around us. This is the global statement: rather than living for yourself, focus on being right with God and being right with others. Live your life in such a way as to please God—make that your top priority; and part of the way you do that is to do right by the people you meet in this world. This, of course, looks back in part to some of the things we’ve talked about in the past few weeks, such as taking care of the powerless and the needy, and keeping our relationships pure.

Next, Paul tells Timothy to pursue faith and love. These aren’t virtues exactly, but something deeper—they’re the foundations of the Christian life. This is a strong contrast with the false teachers. Clearly, they weren’t living by faith in God, they were putting their trust in money, and in all the other things in which the world puts its trust. That’s easy to do, since we can see these things and know exactly what we have; we can see our money, we can look at our bank account and know precisely what’s in it, and we can figure out just what we can afford to do. We can’t see God, nor do we have any way to know for sure how or when he will provide for us—or even, some might say, if he will provide for us. To live by faith in God isn’t easy for us, because it seems much riskier than putting our faith in things we can see and touch and hold and count. And yet, this is what Paul says Timothy needs to do, and what we need to do—to set aside the worldly-mindedness of the false teachers and put faith in God. Otherwise, whatever our other virtues, we aren’t living a Christian life in any meaningful sense.

Along with that, Paul tells Timothy to pursue love. Now, the world would agree with that one, but it would mean something very different by it; there are a lot of folks out there who will tell you they’re living their lives for love, when what they’re really pursuing is romance, or lust, or someone to make them feel better about themselves. What Paul’s talking about is something very different—it’s the self-giving love of God, the love which gives of itself for the good of others. The love of God isn’t about getting for ourselves, unlike so many of our human imitations, it’s about giving ourselves away; and so, where the false teachers were all about the profit they could make off the church, Timothy’s call is to give himself away, to lay down his life, for his brothers and sisters in Christ, for the people of God—for the church. To which we may imagine Timothy protesting, “But Paul, look how badly they’ve treated me—they don’t deserve it!”; and in return, we might well imagine Paul saying, “Look how badly they treated Jesus—at least they haven’t crucified you yet. He loves us anyway; you love them anyway.”

In line with this, Paul says, “pursue gentleness.” It can be easy to justify being hard on people by calling it “tough love”; certainly there are times when there’s a need for firmness, and certainly that will usually provoke squawks of opposition. But even when the time comes to lay down the law, as it certainly had for Timothy, it must be done with gentleness, taking care to give no unnecessary hurt. There was no doubt a part of him that would have liked to punish the false teachers who had made his life so difficult—to make them pay for the trouble they had caused. As Paul reminded him, however, there was no place for that in his call to ministry. Whatever he did, he must do with gentleness, seeking only to restore those who had wandered away from Jesus, not to claim even the smallest measure of vengeance for himself.

The other item on Paul’s list is endurance. This is a mixed metaphor, since I’m not sure how you can pursue endurance, but the point is clear: Timothy is not to be one of those who goes a little way and then gives up. This is a critical part of running to win, because it’s not enough to set the pace—you have to be able to keep it up. The best illustration of this I can think of comes from the life of the great Oregon long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Growing up in the Northwest, I heard a lot about Pre; and part of his story was the Munich Summer Olympics. He was always an aggressive runner, and running the 5000 meters at the ’72 games, he shot out of the gate, setting a pace that would have won him not only the gold, but a world record, if he could have sustained it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t, and in the last 150 meters, having led the whole race to that point, he was passed first by Lasse Viren . . . then by Mohamed Gamoudi . . . and then, 15 meters from the finish line, by Ian Stewart. He led most of the way, but he finished fourth. Winning the race isn’t just about doing well for a while, it’s about sustaining the effort, doing well all the way to the end.

This is the key, because it’s not enough to pursue righteousness and godliness for a while, then take a break and chase your own desires for a bit; it’s not good enough to pursue faith and love for a while, then slide back into the materialism and self-absorption of the world for a spell. It’s not good enough to be gentle until things get hard, then give it up. If we’re going to run the good race of faith, if we’re going to run in such a way as to win the prize, we need to be like the Energizer bunny—we need to keep going, and going, and going. What’s more, we need to realize that God doesn’t just call us to run when it’s easy, he calls us to keep running even, and especially, when it’s hardest.

Of course, we can’t do this alone; that’s why athletes always train with partners, and why they have trainers. To grow in endurance, we have to push ourselves beyond our own idea of how far we can go—and we can’t do that alone; we need people to urge and encourage us to keep going, to keep pushing, to go further. I learned this during my last year in Colorado, taking a couple classes from a veteran personal trainer who had semi-retired to Grand Lake and opened a little fitness business to keep herself busy. There were a couple times I keeled over right there in class, but by the time I had to stop I had a much, much better sense of what I could actually do than I had ever had before. Without her example and direction, and without the desire to keep up with her and the others in the class—there’s that competition thing again; running to win is a very different thing when you’re doing it in a group—I never would have done that. I never would have pushed myself, again and again, beyond what I thought my limits were, and so I never would have discovered that I was wrong.

We see the reason this is so important in verse 20, where Paul writes, “Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you.” What has been entrusted to him? The gospel, and the responsibility to lead the church to live it out. Remember what I’ve said all the way through this series—the heartbeat of this letter, which we hear over and over again, is that we have been given the mission to bring the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ to all people in all the world, and everything we do must be to that purpose. The race we run isn’t something we run by ourselves, and it’s not just about us as individuals winning our own prizes; it’s about all of us running together, encouraging each other on, helping each other out, and it’s about the people we attract to run with us. If we stop running for a while, we aren’t the only ones affected—everyone around us is, too. Run to win, not just for your own sake, but for everyone else’s.

True Riches

(Proverbs 23:4-5, Jeremiah 9:23-24; 1 Timothy 6:3-10, 17-19)

I admit it’s a little odd, chopping up the last chapter of 1 Timothy like this; but we have to in order to keep Paul’s thought together. Remember, he wasn’t sitting at a desk writing these letters—he dictated them; and maybe it’s just projection on my part, but I’ve always imagined him walking up and down the room, waving his arms, talking faster when he got more excited. Though for the letters he sent from prison, he was chained to two Roman soldiers, one on each side, so I have no idea how that worked.

In any case, this gives his letters a certain stream-of-consciousness quality, including Paul remembering he’s forgotten something and doubling back to pick it up. I think he did this in chapter 3, interrupting himself for a moment to add a note on women in leadership, and we see it here as well. Paul makes his comments about the false teachers in Ephesus, then goes on to give a personal charge to Timothy—and then suddenly realizes that his comments in verses 9-10 could be taken as an attack on the rich in general, which isn’t his point at all. To prevent that, he changes course for a minute to add say a few more things to those who are rich about how they should handle their riches.

The key thing here is that money is not the problem, and being rich is not the problem; the problem is one’s attitude toward wealth, and that’s something that can be as much of an issue for the poor and the middle class as for the rich. The issue isn’t having money, but wanting money, desiring riches, until that becomes the most important thing in your life, and the dominant factor in your decision-making. That is the kind of attitude Paul is talking about here; that’s the attitude which was the downfall of the false teachers, which led them to their ruin. Remember, these were people who had earned the respect of the congregation, whom the church had trusted enough to accept as leaders; clearly, they were people of great gifts and considerable wisdom—until they went off the rails.

By the time Paul writes this letter, of course, the false teachers have fallen a long way; their wisdom and understanding have faded to clueless foolishness, they’ve grown conceited, and they’re the sort of people who start arguments for the fun of it, simply because they enjoy making trouble, especially if they can make other people look silly in the process. And what was the root of their fall? Greed. They wanted to use the church to get rich. The irony of it is, they were probably being paid by the church—they were already making money off their position. It would be bad enough if some of our elders and deacons started doing this—not that I can imagine it—when they put a lot of blood, toil, tears and sweat into this church, and we don’t give them a whole lot back; but these folks were drawing a paycheck for being leaders in the church, and that still wasn’t enough for them. They wanted more; they wanted to be rich. And following that desire, following their greed, led them away from Jesus, and to their ruin.

But then, as Paul notes, if the desire to be rich is driving your thinking, if that’s what’s controlling your decisions, you’re going to wreck yourself sooner or later. The proverb he cites in verse 10 has often been misinterpreted, as if he were saying that the love of money is the source of all sin, or as if money were the root of all evil, neither of which is the point; indeed, letting ourselves be captured by any sort of strong desire, whether for wealth, power, praise, sexual pleasure, revenge, or anything else, will lead us into ruin. Paul’s point here is simply that greed falls into that category, and that the love of money doesn’t lead to good things, but only to evil. If we seek true wealth, and a truly good life, we must put aside the desire for money and look elsewhere.

This isn’t always easy for people to believe, especially with the current economy; but last fall’s crash underlines the truth of our text from Proverbs that financial security is really just an illusion, because material wealth is all too likely to disappear before your eyes. It’s simply too vulnerable to the vagaries of this world for us to count on it. Jesus doesn’t promise us that we’ll have a lot of money, or that we’ll be rich in things—instead, he promises that we’ll have enough in this world, and that in him we will find true gain, something this world can’t take away. As Paul defines that here, the true gain offered in Christ is godliness combined with contentment.

That word “contentment” is an interesting one, because in its normal Greek usage it meant “self-sufficiency” of the sternest kind, the ability to rely completely on one’s own internal resources Paul defines it in Philippians 4, where he declares, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” What Paul means by “contentment” is not self-sufficiency but Christ-sufficiency; it’s the power Christ gives us to trust him completely to meet our needs, rather than relying on our own efforts and abilities and possessions. Contentment is living free, emotionally, from our circumstances, whether we’re rich or poor, married or single, powerful or powerless, praised or scorned; it’s depending wholly on Christ, trusting wholly in him that he is with us taking care of us, that he knows where he has led us, and why, and what he is doing in and through our lives.

This, Paul says, is true riches: to be content in Christ, to know that Christ is sufficient for us in all circumstances, and to be living in accordance with his will. Anything else is less, and to spend our lives pursuing anything else is not to enrich our lives, but to impoverish them. Thus in verse 17 Paul turns to those in the church who are rich, and whose help in supporting the church is no doubt of great importance, and applies it specifically to them. There’s nothing wrong with their being rich; indeed, what they have, God has given them to enjoy, and to use to help others, as he gives us all good things. There is no moral status either to wealth or to poverty; but both create certain responsibilities and challenges. The rich must be careful not to look down on others, and they must be careful not to put their trust in money instead of in God. They must remember the words of Jeremiah, who warned us not to take pride, or put our stock, in earthly things: “Let not the wise boast in their wisdom, nor the strong boast in their might, nor the rich boast in their riches; but let them boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD.” That’s the only thing, really, that matters; the rest are just tools God has given us to use in his service, nothing more.

And so, to the rich, Paul says, be diligent to use your riches in that way—do good works with your money, and be generous to others, and in that way, store up treasure for yourselves in heaven, which is the only treasure that will last. They need, as we all need, to be able to say to God—and mean it!—“Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold. Take my life—take all of me, everything I am—and may it be ever, only, all for you.”

Worthy of Honor

(Deuteronomy 19:15, Deuteronomy 25:4; 1 Timothy 5:17-6:2)

One of the subtler issues facing the American church is the way we regard our leaders. This is one of those areas in which we’ve so internalized the world’s values and ways of looking at things that not only are we not aware of the problem, it’s not even easy to see when it’s pointed out. You see, we tend to look at our leaders—even those of us who are leaders do this—from a human perspective, the same way we look at leaders in any human organization. We look at pastors as professionals, or employees, or experts, or whatever—and we pastors tend to look at ourselves in the same ways, and at our calling as a career, to be pursued accordingly—and we look at elders and deacons as just another set of volunteers. And there is some truth to that; but it’s not the most important truth, and focusing on it leads us into bad habits.

What Paul understands is that leading the church isn’t the same as leading any other organization; to be a deacon, or an elder, or a pastor, is to accept a very different sort of responsibility. (Paul is talking about everybody in this passage; the word translated “elder” here seems to have been an umbrella term covering both overseers and deacons.) Those called to lead the church aren’t called to run it like a business, or according to any standard set of worldly principles. Rather, God calls us to lead his church according to only one thing: his will. Elders, deacons, pastors, all of us, it’s not our job or our place to decide what we think ought to be done, much less to insist on what we want done—our job is to discern, together, what God wants us to do, and where he wants the church to go, and then to follow as he leads us, leading the church to follow him as we follow him. Our job is to be, collectively, the voice and the guidance of God for the people of God.

That’s why Paul is so concerned about those leaders in Ephesus who are misusing their position to mislead the church; and it’s why he lays out such careful instructions here as to how to handle this situation. Yes, those who have sinned must be disciplined—publicly, not sweeping anything under the rug, since their sin has had public consequences in the church—but notice his overarching focus here: this must not be allowed to weaken the rest of the leaders in the church in Ephesus. For one thing, it must not become an opportunity for people to work out grudges by making false accusations; and at a deeper level, there’s the danger that the congregation will end up disgusted with all their elders and deacons, and that can’t be permitted either. Even as Timothy is trying to deal with the false teachers in his congregation, he must work to build up and support those elders and deacons who have remained faithful to the gospel and to their calling as leaders in the body of Christ, or else the church will only be worse off in the end.

Thus Paul sets out certain rules for how Timothy is to proceed. First, he says, don’t listen to any accusation against a leader of the church unless it’s supported by two or three witnesses. No hearsay, no whispering campaign, no anonymous charges, no chance for one disgruntled person to pop up and ruin someone they don’t like—these kinds of things are how the world takes people down, and are not to be allowed to happen in the church. When you’re talking about an elder or a deacon, Paul tells Timothy, you don’t even listen to a charge unless you have strong evidence, and two or three people who are willing to step up, put their names on the line, and testify.

Second, this applies especially to Timothy, who must not play favorites. There were no doubt leaders in the church in Ephesus whom he liked quite well, and others with whom he didn’t get along, but Paul tells him he must be careful not to let that get in the way. Paul underscores this point by invoking the heavenly court, the presence of God and his angels; he reminds Timothy that to use his authority unjustly, to favor some or to hurt others, would be a sin, and that God would judge him for it. It doesn’t matter how Timothy feels about anyone; the only thing that matters is the truth, and Timothy is called to find and uphold and proclaim the truth, wherever it may lead.

When anyone is disciplined, Paul says that their discipline is to be public; and there are, I think, a few reasons for this. One, which Paul notes explicitly, is the deterrent effect on others in the congregation. Two, if you have to punish someone publicly or not at all, you’re going to make sure you know exactly what you’re doing, and make sure you’re justified, before you go forward; kangaroo courts are impossible under those circumstances. And three, this is all part of keeping things above board. You don’t charge people in secret, you don’t allow anonymous complaints, and you don’t punish people secretly, either; everything must be done openly, so that the congregation knows what’s going on and everything may be scrutinized. That’s how the church is supposed to conduct its business.

We have to do this because pastors, deacons, and elders are sinful human beings just like everyone else; ordination does not remove sin or make us immune to temptation. Unfortunately for Timothy, he was confronting the kind of situation no pastor ever wants to face: a group of elders who were in full revolt, not against him—that would have been a personal matter, not necessarily a sin issue—but against God. That was far more serious, and it had to mean disciplining some people, and removing them from office; which, obviously, would also mean finding new elders to replace them. As a consequence, Paul gives Timothy one other major piece of advice: don’t ordain anyone hastily, but make very sure you know them first. Choose people who have a track record, who’ve been around long enough for both their sins and their good works to come to light, so that you know who they are and what they bring to the table. People always retain the right to surprise you, but the idea is to keep the unpleasant surprises to a minimum.

Now, it’s painful to have to discipline a leader of the church; we, sadly, have reason to know that. God willing, we will not become experienced in that pain. Even so, there are a couple important principles for us to take away from this passage. The first, as I noted earlier, is Paul’s concern that the church conduct its business openly—not that every detail has to be published, certainly, but that what can be fairly and reasonably told must be told; the picture we give people, however incomplete, must be true and sufficient as far as it goes. Lies breed in the shadows, but we are called to be a people of truth and light, and we should do our business accordingly. There should be no room in the church for anonymous complaints, backstabbing, or any of those other things so characteristic of our world; we should make decisions openly and honestly, or not at all.

Second, the work of the leaders of the church is worthy of honor, and they are worthy of honor for doing it. As I said earlier, we tend to get this subtly wrong, because we tend to look at their work from a human point of view; it’s not that we don’t honor our leaders, but that we tend to honor them for their importance, or because we agree with their decisions, just as we would honor the leaders of any other human organization. As chapter 6 makes clear, however, this isn’t the way we ought to look at things.

If you were wondering what those verses about slaves are doing here, or what they have to do with anything else, the best answer to that question is that Paul is still talking about elders and deacons in the church. Specifically, he’s offering a comment addressed to elders and deacons who were slaves, commanding them to treat their earthly masters with honor and serve them faithfully; at the same time, as Paul has said, their masters were to treat them with honor, as leaders of the body of Christ. What really mattered wasn’t their status as servants to the people who owned them under Roman law; what really mattered was their status as servants of Christ, called to lead the people of God according to his will.

Those whom God has called to lead his church are worthy of honor because they are his representatives to his people, called to lead in his name and for his sake; and those who lead well, Paul says, are worthy of double honor. Interestingly, in the Ephesian church, part of that honor was monetary; at least some elders and deacons were paid for their service to the church, and it’s clear from verse 18 that Paul felt they deserved it if they did their jobs well. We don’t know if they were all paid, or how much, but it’s an interesting point to note. Beyond that, Paul makes clear that those who lead well deserve the respect of the church—this, too, is part of fair compensation for the job.

Which raises the question, who are the elders who rule well? What does that mean? Well, flip back to chapter 4—if you were here three weeks ago, you may remember me saying (I hope you do) that being a good leader of the church is first and foremost about being a good follower of God. As I said then, this is captured in Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” Leadership is about imitation, because the Christian life is not merely a series of dos and don’ts that can be taught in a classroom—it’s a way of life which must be lived to be fully understood. To learn to follow Christ, we need to see the lives of others who are following Christ. Good pastors, good elders, good deacons, are people who set good examples—and in particular, a good pastor is one who helps the elders and deacons set good examples and thus be good elders and deacons. That’s something I only realized recently, that part of my job is to disciple our leaders as leaders, to lead them well to lead well.

So does this mean that the only good leader is a sinless leader? No; which is a good thing, because there aren’t any of those. Rather, the point is that those of us called to leadership in the church need to have our eyes, our minds and our hearts, firmly fixed on Jesus, and to be dedicated to putting to death the sin in our lives, as Paul commands in Romans 8:13. We need to be all about Jesus and the gospel and the ministry of the kingdom of God, not about ourselves and what glorifies or satisfies us. We need to model in our lives the hard work of spiritual growth—of honesty and repentance when we sin; of the willingness to humble ourselves to make things right when we do others wrong; of resisting temptation rather than just giving in to it; of putting our money and our time where our faith is, setting aside the first portion of both each week for God rather than spending it all on ourselves; of spending time studying the word of God; of asking God to search out the darkness in our hearts and our minds, and to show us what he sees. We need to be people in whose lives others can see what it means to follow Christ, and that for all the struggles that come on that journey, there’s great joy in it; we need to be people whose lives draw others to follow.

Take Care of Your Own

(Psalm 94:1-15; 1 Timothy 5:3-16)

Our passage from 1 Timothy this morning is a complicated one; there’s a lot here that Paul is just assuming, because Timothy already knows exactly what’s going on in Ephesus—but we don’t, and so there’s disagreement as to the exact situation Paul was addressing. Two things are clear, and then from there we sort of have to figure it out for ourselves. First, the church in Ephesus was committed to supporting its widowed members financially. Second, the false teachers in Ephesus had had a lot of success among the younger widows in the congregation. That much we know; the rest is disputed.

For my part, let me give you my best understanding of what was going on here. It seems clear that there was some sort of formal roll of widows in the church who were supported by the congregation; and from the language Paul uses, it appears that the widows on this roll were expected to devote themselves to the work of the church, such as they were able, and especially to prayer. It seems likely from verse 12 that they made some sort of pledge that if the church provided for their needs, they would dedicate themselves to the church. Some commentators have even gone so far as to describe these widows as ordained officers of the church; that’s too strong a statement for the evidence we have, but it does seem clear that they were working right alongside the deacons in ministries of service, whether they were officially ordained to that work or not.

Now, I can’t be sure, but this might give us insight as to why the false teachers in Ephesus had such success recruiting younger widows. It sounds like priority for support was given to older widows in the congregation—as Paul is clear that it should be—both because the older widows who lacked family support were in greater need, and because they showed greater spiritual maturity and stability; the younger widows as a group were less mature, and also much likelier to remarry and thus to come off the list. This doesn’t mean that the Ephesian church didn’t provide for younger widows to ensure their needs were met—especially if they had children to support—but that they didn’t have the same status as the older widows, and that their support wasn’t as high a priority. I suspect that some of the younger widows resented this, and that the false teachers played on their resentment to win their support; thus Paul feels the need to point out the behavior of some of the younger widows (who were taking advantage of the help they were receiving to live irresponsibly) to reaffirm the church’s policy in this area.

Now, there are two threads running through this passage, and we don’t have time to address them both this morning. The first is Paul’s concern for the behavior of some of the younger widows, who are following the false teachers and in consequence are acting in ways that make the church look bad; we’ve talked about this to some extent in the last few weeks. The second is new in this passage, and so that’s where I’d like to focus our attention this morning, as we also see here Paul’s concern that the church in Ephesus do the best possible job of providing for and taking care of those in their midst who were in need. This concern follows quite logically on Paul’s instructions to Timothy, which we considered last week, to train himself in godliness and to lead the congregation to do the same: one of the ways in which we do so, one of the ways in which we grow spiritu-ally and bear witness to the truth of the gospel, is to take care of our own.

There are several points to note here. One, the first responsibility for widows in the church belonged to their families, if they had families to support them. Partly, this was for financial reasons, to enable the church to use its resources as effectively as possible; after all, the church in Ephesus probably wasn’t swimming with money. This is an issue we deal with as well, as we have money to use to meet people’s needs, but we don’t have enough to do everything for everyone—especially in the current economy; we have to think about how much we give, and to whom, and for what, to make sure we don’t just run through the money we have. It’s hard, since we don’t know what needs are going to come down the pike a week from now, or a month, or three months. That’s a tough call to have to make, to say, “We can do this much and no more”; to be able to do that consistently, you have to set up guidelines. For the early church, this was one of them, that the priority for church support went to widows who didn’t have families to support them.

Beyond the financial reason for this policy, though, is a deeper reason: it’s a religious duty, it’s our Christian obligation, to provide for family members in need, and especially if it should be our parents who are in need. You might think that’s strong language, but that’s exactly Paul’s language. It’s ironic in a way; Christianity was accused in its early days of undermining the family structure, since it called people to honor a higher authority than their parents (or, for that matter, the government). Here, Paul proves the falsehood of that charge, coming down hard on people within the church in Ephesus who were neglecting their responsibility to provide for their parents. People who don’t take care of their relatives, and especially their immediate family, Paul says, are worse than unbelievers—since after all, those outside the church at least accepted this responsibility, whatever else they got wrong; and in acting worse than the world, worse than those who have no faith in God, they have rejected their duty to God and effectively denied the faith. That’s how serious a thing it is to refuse to take care of those who have taken care of you, to whom you owe responsibility as your family.

Now, for those who don’t have children, grandchildren, or other family to support them—or whose family is outside the church and has rejected them—that responsibility passes to the congregation; and as we’ve noted, Paul spends a little time here on how this responsibility ought to be handled. One main consideration, of course, is financial, as the church should give the greatest help to those in the greatest need; that’s only logical. Along with that, however, Paul is concerned with the spiritual state of these widows, and their commitment to the church. This again was probably in part to focus the church on helping those who were truly its own, rather than having people drift into the church just to get help, with no real interest in being a part of the body of Christ; and if we’re right that widows on the list were expected to devote themselves as best as they were able to prayer and works of service, then it only makes sense to give priority to those who will take that commitment seriously, and who have demonstrated their concern for others.

The key in all this, once again, is that the church should embody and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ; and we see this concern here from three different angles. The first is that the church needs to focus its resources on that mission, that everything the church spends and everything it gives away should in some way further the work of Jesus in this world—as giving to those in need obviously does. Second, taking care of our own, providing for those to whom we’re related—whether by blood, or as brothers and sisters in Christ—is part of training ourselves in godliness, which we talked about last week; it’s part of our call as Christians to care for others before ourselves, and to put the love of Christ into practice in a meaningful way. After all, as Jesus told us, we can’t claim to love other people if we aren’t willing to give of what we have to help them. God brings us into relationship with others—through our family, through his body, the church, and by other means as well—and then he calls us to love each other, and part of that is taking care of each other; we cannot refuse to do so.

And third, we see here an abiding scriptural theme, God’s concern for the powerless, of whom the archetypal examples are the widow, the fatherless, the homeless foreigner, and the stranger. Under Roman law, these were people who had no rights, no ability to defend themselves, and no real opportunity to earn a living We see this all through the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, as God declares himself the God of the weak and the powerless, and condemns the evildoers who “kill the widow and the stranger, [and] murder the orphan.” Again and again, we have the affirmation—which Paul echoes in 1 Timothy—that God is a God of justice, and that those who exploit the poor and defenseless will be punished. The psalmist may ask, “How long shall the wicked exult?” but he does so in the certainty that the one who disciplines the nations will dig a pit for the wicked in the end. Those who build their mansions on the backs of the needy may prosper for a time, but not forever.

And in the end, though talk of God as a God of justice and judgment rings a harsh note, it’s important for us to remember that the judgment of God comes on those who do evil, on those who reject his ways; it’s important to remember that it’s rooted in his insistence on making right all that is wrong, and on his concern for the powerless—and that his concern includes us. The highest and greatest expression of this concern came in Christ, in his death and resurrection on our behalf, taking the punishment for our sin and paying the price that we were powerless to pay, winning for us the freedom we were powerless to win. In a sense, God’s greatest act of mercy was also his greatest act of justice. We worship a God who did not love from a distance, but came down to bear the weight of human need through humble service, and who calls us to do the same—to show his love not just in words, but in our actions, in care for those who are weak and needy and defenseless, and especially for those who are close to us. His love opens us to see the needs and burdens of those around us, and his compassion calls us to bear them in his name and for his sake, to share the gift of his self-sacrifice with others.


(1 Samuel 17:32-40; 1 Timothy 4:6-5:2)

Our passage from 1 Samuel this morning is, of course, from the middle of one of those Bible stories that the church knows and loves—the story of David and Goliath. At first blush, it might seem odd to take this story and pair it with this morning’s text from 1 Timothy; but there are a few things in this story worth thinking about as we consider Paul’s words in this letter. First, there’s something in the backstory here that David knows and Saul doesn’t, which is critical to understanding what’s going on. You see, in chapter 15, Saul disobeys God, and Samuel declares that God has rejected Saul as king of Israel. Saul of course knows that, but what he doesn’t know is that God has already chosen his replacement: David, whom Samuel anoints as king of Israel in chapter 16. What we see here in chapter 17, then, is David taking his first steps into the new call and the new responsibility God has given him, stepping into the leadership vacuum left by Saul’s unfaithfulness. In other words, this story isn’t just about who’s going to kill the big bad giant—it’s about leadership, and what it means to lead the people of God.

Second, both Saul and David know that leadership requires training. When David volunteers to go out against Goliath, Saul says, “You can’t do that—he’s a trained, experienced warrior, and you’re an inexperienced, untrained boy.” David responds, “I’m not that inexperienced. You might think being a shepherd doesn’t count for much, but God has been using it to train me for this new responsibility to which he’s called me. As a shepherd, I’ve had to fight lions and bears single-handed to protect my flock, and I’ve killed them every time and rescued the sheep they tried to carry off. I’m no stranger to fighting, and so far, I’ve never lost a fight; I have been prepared by God to fight Goliath.”

Third, and most important, is one more thing that David knows and Saul really doesn’t: the battle belongs to the Lord. Saul puts his faith in the strength of his armor and the edge of his sword—which is why he’s hiding in his tent, afraid of Goliath, instead of leading his people. David, by contrast, puts his faith in God, trusting that “the Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” Why? Because the Philistine has mocked and dishonored the name of God, and God won’t let that slide; the Philistine must be defeated, and God is going to make that happen. As the world normally judges these things, young shepherd vs. experienced warrior giant is a severe mismatch—Hoosiers has nothing on that one; but David understands that the world is missing something, and that if the Lord of creation is on the side of the shepherd, then it’s the giant who’s out of his weight class.

In these first and third points, I believe, in the things Saul didn’t understand, we see the basic reason for his failure as king of Israel. He didn’t really know what it means to be a leader under God—he didn’t understand what leadership really is, or what it’s about. That’s a common mistake, to be sure; we tend to look at leadership positions as a chance for people to make sure things are done their way, to realize their own vision and make their priorities everyone else’s priorities. That’s certainly how we see things done time after time in our politics—frequently with disastrous results, especially for politicians who are unwilling to listen to those who disagree with them and take their concerns seriously. The results were certainly disastrous for Saul, bringing both his reign and his life to a premature end. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you see leadership as a form of self-expression and self-actualization.

What David understood that Saul didn’t is that in God’s view, being a good leader is first and foremost about being a good follower—specifically, a follower of God. He was confident against Goliath not primarily because of his own skills—though they played their part—but because he was close enough to God to recognize what God was doing in that situation, and what God wanted him (as the newly anointed king of Israel) to do. Godly leadership isn’t about imposing our will on our circumstances, but about seeking and following God’s will in our circumstances, and doing so in a way that makes it clear to others so that they can follow us in turn. It’s the sort of thing Paul’s talking about in 1 Corinthians 11:1 when he says, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” That’s it in a nutshell. In the Christian view, leadership is mimetic—which is to say, it’s all about imitation. We learn to follow Christ by imitating others who have learned to follow him more closely than we do, who in turn are following others who are yet further along in their Christian walk, who in turn are following others who went before them; and each of us, as we learn to follow Christ more nearly, lead others in turn to do the same. That’s leadership; that’s discipleship; that’s the Christian life right there.

Of course, as human beings, we need structure, and the Christian community needs leaders with certain skills—the interpretation of Scripture, administration, leading worship, teaching and caring for children, and the like—and so we establish certain specific positions to insure that we have set leaders who bring those skills to the table; so it has been ever since the beginning, which is why Paul had established Timothy in Ephesus. God gives those gifts to the church, and they’re important—I’m much better at this job than I ever would be at Pam Chastain’s, for example, and while Alice Seiman is a wonderful deacon, that doesn’t mean she’d be happy to come up and preach—and continued use and development of our gifts through training is important as well; but you can see here the same thing we saw in chapter 3, that Paul’s primary concern for Timothy and for the other leaders of the Ephesian church is not their skillset but their character. Implicitly, Paul would rather have a pastor who’s a mediocre preacher but whose life shines with the love and goodness and holiness of Christ than a brilliant preacher living in serious unrepentant sin—and so would I, and so I’m sure would any of you. The most important thing about our leaders is not that they talk well, but that they live well.

This is why Paul says, “Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Train yourself to be godly. This is something of an unfamiliar concept for much of the American church. We tend to have the “In His Steps”/WWJD sort of mindset that says, the way to live a godly life is whenever you come up to a decision, ask yourself what Jesus would do and then do that. That’s great in theory, but it doesn’t really work all that well in practice. Sometimes, it’s not really that obvious what Jesus would have us to do; and when we face temptation, we probably know full well that Jesus wants us to resist it, but that doesn’t make it any easier for us to turn and walk away—especially if we’ve developed a pattern of giving in to that particular temptation. Then too, there are lots of times when the decision goes by too quickly for conscious thought—one of your kids misbehaves, or someone cuts you off in traffic, or a co-worker insults you, and you react, just the way you always react when that happens. Looking back, you might well realize that that wasn’t what Jesus would have wanted you to do, but you’re not thinking about that at the time—you’re not thinking beyond the situation.

The truth of the matter is, performance requires preparation—and this is true of any kind of performance. If you want to go out and compete in our little mini-triathlon here, you need to train your body to be able to go the distance. One of my favorite colleagues out in Colorado, Rob Wilson, is the pastor at Eagle River Presbyterian Church, out west of Vail. He’s also an avid triathlete who used to keep himself in shape by biking the 24 miles back and forth from his house to the church; when we had meetings in Summit County, the next county east of Vail, sometimes he’d bike there, going up and over Vail Pass, which is about 12,000 feet. One summer he went up and did the triathlon in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and as he was telling us about this, he mentioned off-hand that they’d moved the triathlon from Salt Lake City to get away from the bad publicity after one of their racers died. We wondered if he was sure he wanted to be competing in an event that killed its participants, but he shrugged it off, because he knew he was up to it.

Or take another test of endurance, of a sort—think of MasterWorks. Poor Gert, with a major recording project right in the middle of that—I can’t imagine how he stayed on his feet the whole time. I don’t know how many of the concerts you made (for me the answer was the same as last year: “Not enough”), but there were some truly brilliant performances. The closing weekend was especially memorable, with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Mahler’s First—I was rather amused, actually, that Saturday night, because it didn’t look like the audience wanted to let the orchestra out of the building. I know Dr. Kavanaugh was exclaiming for months over how good this year’s students were, and there’s no question from their performances that their talent was amazing. But they didn’t just show up each weekend and play; they spent long, long hours rehearsing, alone and together, to get the music right so that they could perform at that rarefied level.

We understand this, when it comes to physical disciplines. Certainly, if I announced that I was going to go out and do a triathlon this week, you’d be justified in questioning my sanity, since there’s no way on God’s green Earth I’m up to that. We get that for a Michael Phelps or a Michael Jordan, for a Peyton Manning or a Michael Johnson, that their athletic success in the big moments is just the visible part of a massive iceberg labeled “training”; we understand that if they don’t put in the work the other six days, when it comes to game day or race day, they’re not going to get the results.

The problem is that too often, we forget that this applies to our performance as spiritual beings, too. If we’re going to perform when our faith is tested, when temptation hits us, when we have the chance to talk about Jesus with a non-Christian friend—if we’re going to be like Jesus in those moments when we can see it matters—then we need to lay the groundwork for that with the rest of our lives. We can’t just roll out of bed and go out and live like Christ; we need to train our minds and our bodies to operate in that way, to let him reshape our ways of thinking and reacting, to let him remake our habits and our patterns and our accustomed behaviors in his image.

That’s why Paul tells Timothy to reject the myths and nonsense of the false teachers. Their twisted version of the gospel empty, vacuous, devoid of anything of value—it was little more than a trap to catch the credulous and the foolish. There was simply nothing in it to build spiritual strength and wisdom. Instead, Paul tells Timothy to continue to nourish himself, to continue to feed himself spiritually, on the words of the faith and sound teaching—which is to say, on the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and the teachings of Paul and the other apostles—and then to put that to work by teaching and leading the church in Ephesus accordingly. Just as we develop physical fitness by eating good food to give our muscles the energy and the nutrients they need, then using that energy and those nutrients to strengthen them through exercise, so we develop spiritual fitness by feeding our souls on the truths of God and his word, and then teaching those truths to others and working to put them into practice in our own lives.

This is what it means to train ourselves to be godly—it’s to organize our lives in such a way that everything we do and everything on which we spend our time contributes to the goal of making us more like Christ. Is that book, or that magazine article, or that TV program, good food or junk food? Is it contributing in any way to our growth in Christ and the strength of our spirits, or is it weakening and undermining us? As Dallas pastor Matt Chandler rightly says, it’s not just a matter of whether something is sinful or not—it’s a broader question: does this feed our love for Jesus, or does it draw our love away from Jesus? Most of the things that cause us to love Jesus less aren’t sinful in and of themselves—but our love for them overgrows its proper bounds, and they take an improper place in our lives. Baseball was a big one for me that way, as I used to plow a great deal of time and effort and mental energy into following the game; I had to prune it back a long way, I had to redirect a lot of that time and effort and energy, because baseball—which I continue to affirm is a good thing—was taking my heart away from God, and also from my family, and interfering with my spiritual growth.

The responsibility of leaders like Timothy, then, is to model this: to train ourselves in godliness so that others can see the value of such training in our lives, and be inspired to follow us. It’s not enough just to say that this is good and worth doing, especially when the culture around us is saying otherwise, because quite frankly, the culture has a bigger megaphone than the church. People need to be able to see that training in godliness has value in this life; the culture needs to see that from the church, which means that the church needs to see that from its leaders. It’s essential to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it’s not enough just to say it; how we live needs to back up what we say if we want anyone to believe it, or to care.

This is especially true when we face opposition, as Timothy was. It seems pretty clear that his relative youth was being used by the false teachers as an excuse not to listen to him, when the real problem was that they didn’t want to hear what he was saying; this was no doubt highly frustrating, and it was a real challenge to figure out how to respond in a way that was actually constructive. Paul gives him three answers to that challenge. One, don’t give in—continue to preach the gospel, and to call the church to live in accordance with the true will of God. Two, don’t give up—don’t let anyone look down on you, but be diligent in doing what you’ve been called to do; hold on, hold fast, persevere. And three, rise above the fray—don’t try to fight fire with fire, but instead, set an example that your opponents can’t ignore.

It all comes back to this: Timothy’s job is to preach the gospel faithfully, whatever may come, doing everything possible to make sure that people get the message, which means living in such a way that they can see the gospel at work in his life. This is why he needs to be spiritually fit, and why I need to be spiritually fit, and the elders, and all of us, because we have a job to do, and a mission to carry out: to be a pillar to uphold the truth of the gospel, to keep it as the vision before our own eyes and to lift it high for all the world to see. We are called to proclaim to all the world, in our words and in our silence, in our actions and in our stillness, the mystery of our faith, who was revealed in a body, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory. We are called to hold up this truth and shine his light; we’re called to preach this good news, that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost, to proclaim it and live it out, until in the end, Jesus Christ alone is our vision, and our wisdom, and our wealth, and our home.

Led Astray

(Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 1 Timothy 4:1-6)

One of the enduring myths of modern times is the idea that lemmings have a suicidal streak. Apparently, we have Disney to thank for this, at least in part. During the shooting of their 1958 nature film White Wilderness, the crew purchased a few dozen lemmings, shot footage of them from a number of different angles to make them look like a large herd, then drove them off a cliff in order to show them “hurling themselves into the sea.” It apparently convinced a lot of people—after all, would Disney lie to you?—but it just isn’t so; the real reason for mass lemming extinctions is quite different. You see, in the absence of sufficient predators to keep their numbers in check, lemmings tend to breed out of control and literally eat themselves out of house and home; when there’s no more food, they pack up and move, migrating en masse, looking for a new place with enough to eat. The problem is that lemmings don’t see very far, so if they come to a cliff, or a lake, or the ocean, then yes, they keep right on going and end up dead; but their deaths are accidental, not the result of some long-tailed death wish.

The upside of this myth, at least for lemmings, is that at least we’ve heard of them. If I asked you to name another animal that lives on the Arctic tundra, how many of you could? Granted, it’s not that lemmings themselves are all that interesting, it’s their symbolic value; but the symbol is powerful enough that it doesn’t much matter that the actual animal is really rather nondescript. When we hear “lemming” we don’t think “tundra rat,” we think of someone who’s easily led, who follows the crowd wherever they go; we have an image of an individual who lacks the foresight to see trouble coming, or the insight to ask where their leader is going. We think, in other words, of the kind of person who would blindly follow someone right over the edge of a cliff and not even think twice until they were halfway to the bottom.

Now, there are those who will tell you that lemmings are in the majority, that most people are mindless followers; they might even be right, though I’ve noticed that people who say that tend to be pretty arrogant about their own independence. In the last analysis, though, I think the real lesson to be learned from the lemming is that leadership matters, because the direction in which you go matters. Indeed, that’s even truer for us than it is for lemmings: unlike the rodents, we know there are obstacles out there, we have some idea what they are, and we can plan for them. The downside, obviously, is that our knowledge isn’t perfect—we make mistakes, and though we know problems are out there, we don’t know when we’ll meet them; but though our knowledge isn’t sufficient to guide us, God’s is. He knows perfectly what we need, what’s best for us, and what difficulties and struggles we face, and will face; if we want to get where we need to go, he is the leader we need to follow, and his are the instructions we need to obey.

To that end, God has raised up his church, and raised up leaders for his church, so that we aren’t trying to follow him alone—we travel through life together, with others to catch us and correct us when we wander from the path, and people in our midst who have been given special gifts and a particular responsibility to help us on the way. Together, we have the responsibility and the calling, as we talked about last week, to invite others to join us, to teach them where we’re going, and why, and how we’re getting there together—how to live along the way. We’ve been given a great and wonderful truth—that God became a human being, that he lived and died and rose again on this earth, for us sinners and for our salvation—and we’ve been given a goal and purpose to our life’s journey; we need to live together in such a way that people see that truth, feel that purpose, and are inspired by that goal.

The problem is, it’s a lot easier to wander off the path than it is to stay on it, because there are a lot more wrong directions than right ones. There are folks out there who believe that all professed attempts to seek God are equally valid; there are those who will tell you that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere (and as long as your beliefs don’t lead you to do something they find offensive). Unfortunately, it just isn’t so. If you think driving over to 15 and turning north out of town is going to get you to Indianapolis, I don’t know what to tell you. You may be completely sincere in your belief, but it doesn’t change the fact that something’s wrong with your map. What we believe matters, because it shapes how we live, the choices we make and the turns we take; and so what we’re taught matters, because it shapes what we believe.

That’s why James writes, “Let not many of you seek to be teachers, knowing that we who teach will be judged far more strictly,” because those who teach things that aren’t true don’t just hurt themselves, they hurt all those who listen to them; it’s why God uses such strong words in Deuteronomy against false prophets in Israel; and it’s why Paul speaks so sternly about the false teachers in Ephesus. There are two points in this passage that are particularly worth noting, I think. First, Paul says that those who follow these false teachers have “renounced the faith.” This is why he’s so concerned about this situation, because it’s not just a matter of people having a few things wrong. We’re not just talking, let’s say, the difference between Presbyterians and Baptists. My Baptist colleagues and I have our disagreements, and I might point out that I think they’re mistaken not to baptize infants, but I’d never call them false teachers just because I believe they’re a little off on one thing or another. The lies of Timothy’s opponents in Ephesus, with their skewed understanding of God’s law and their strange little myths and behavior codes, went right to the heart of the gospel; their version of Christianity was far enough off that to believe it was to trade in the true faith for another faith. Their picture of God was so far off the mark that they were no longer really worshiping God at all, but instead another god of their own invention. Their map was too inaccurate to get them where they were trying to go; it could only lead them astray.

This is an important thing for us to understand: it matters when we believe things that aren’t true because they skew our view of reality. We don’t need to understand everything perfectly—which is a good thing because none of us does—but as we keep choosing to believe things which aren’t true, at some point, what we think is so far off the truth that it has major spiritual consequences. At some point, the content of our faith is so warped and twisted by falsehood that it just isn’t true faith anymore, because our understanding of God no longer bears any meaningful resemblance to who he really is. The false teachers in Ephesus had done such damage there that some in the church had reached that point, and passed it, and so Paul says of them that they have renounced the faith. Now, he isn’t surprised by this; in point of fact, as he alludes to here, he predicted this in his farewell sermon, back in Acts 20. The church has a great and glorious mission, but there will always be those who turn their back on it to pursue something else instead; it was no surprise to Paul, and it shouldn’t be to Timothy, either.

The other point to note is just how strongly Paul speaks against the false teachers. In Acts 20, he refers to them as “ravening wolves”; here he calls their teachings demonic and the product of deceitful spirits, and accuses them of hypocrisy and falsehood. “Liars” may not be quite the right translation there—the word only means one who speaks that which is untrue, not necessarily one who does so deliberately; Paul’s emphasis at this point is not so much that they’re intentionally lying to people as that they are agents of the lie, that they are serving lying, demonic spirits. That’s the point of verse 2, which says that their consciences have been seared with a hot iron. We’ve noted that their consciences are so badly burned that they no longer function, but the way in which they’ve been burned is also important: literally, the Greek says that their consciences have been branded, like cows. They have Satan’s brand on their souls, and their consciences now belong to him, not to God; they are no longer servants of the truth, because they have become slaves of the lie. Whether they realize it or not, they are Satan’s agents in the church in Ephesus as he works to bring that congregation down from within.

It’s worth noting here the two examples Paul gives in this passage of their false teaching: they forbade their followers to marry, and they reinstituted some version of the Old Testament food laws. These were both things Paul had dealt with in other churches before, and the whole idea that following God meant refusing to eat certain things was a point of particular annoyance to him; as he told the Colossians, to make that mistake is to trade in Christian freedom for a renewed slavery to this world, which itself is in slavery to sin. Here, he makes the further point that everything created by God is good; as long as we give him thanks for it and use it as he intended, there is no reason for us to reject anything that God has made, because it’s all good. We might need to refrain from some of it for our own sake, as the alcoholic needs to keep away from alcohol, or the diabetic needs to avoid sugar; but that’s about us, not about God.

Now, mark this: the Devil was at work in Ephesus, through these false teachers, to get people in the church to deprive themselves of good things. That might seem like a strange thing to say, when so many people’s idea of Christian living is “thou shalt not do anything fun”—but it’s the truth. Despite what some might think, God is the one who created pleasure, and he’s the one who wants you to live a really good life; Satan, by contrast, might use pleasure to get you hooked, but his ultimate goal is to deprive you of everything worth having. Just look at drug addiction—the real pleasure, the real fun, is all in the beginning; after a while, all that’s left is desperation, craving and need.

That’s the pattern of sin, and the pattern Satan wants to get people into—the minimum pleasure necessary for the maximum slavery; and whatever they might think themselves to be doing, even if they proclaim themselves agents of liberation, that’s ultimately the end that all the false teachers of this world serve. By contrast, and we see it here in Paul, the Christian faith calls us back to see the true goodness of God, and the true goodness of all that he made, through the deception and confusion of all this world’s counterfeit versions. To use Paul’s examples here, he calls us to see the true goodness of marriage through the counterfeits of free love, hooking up, and whatever else this world can spin out there, and to see the true goodness of food through all the ways we misuse that. Our issues with food are rather different from those of Paul’s day, but no less significant for all that. The key here is that this is our Father’s world, which he created good, despite all the ways we misuse and abuse it; when we treat it as anything less than his good creation—whether by rejecting it or by worshiping it—we harm ourselves, we dishonor God, and we distort his truth. But though there are many who would try to trick us into doing so in order to lead us astray—and though we need to learn to recognize them when they show up—we have this assurance: this is indeed God’s world, and however strong evil may sometimes seem, he is still the ruler, and the one in control.

The Heart of the Matter

(Jeremiah 10:6-16; 1 Timothy 3:14-16)

A lot of people will tell you that Christianity is all about following a set of rules—the only thing that matters is that you do x and don’t do y. That’s always been a popular view. After all, if Christianity is just about measuring up to particular standards of behavior—whether it’s the “we don’t smoke, we don’t chew, we don’t go with those who do” variety, or the “be nice to everybody” variety, or whatever—then it’s easy to tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t; and perhaps even more importantly, it’s easy to look at yourself and tell how you’re doing. The nice thing about a fence, after all, is that you always know which side of it you’re on. Or perhaps I should say, one nice thing about a fence; the other nice thing is that you know exactly how far you can go before you’ve crossed it. The fence tells you what you can get away with, as much as what you can’t.

I suspect that was part of the appeal to the folks in Ephesus who were following the false teachers there; we know that the false teachers were quite strict in some ways, but it seems likely that they were quite loose in others, such that things like infidelity and drunkenness were becoming problems among the leadership of the congregation. More than that, I suspect it’s a lot of the appeal for people who have followed false teachers like that down through the ages, right up to our present day. As I’ve said before, the longer I do this, the more convinced I become that we really don’t want grace, and we don’t want to live by grace. We may say we do, and we may sing about it, but at some level, we’d rather live by some form of law. After all, if you ask the law, “How many times do I have to forgive somebody before I can give them the punishment they have coming,” the law will tell you, “Three times,” or “seven times,” or whatever; it will give you a standard you have a chance to live up to. If you ask Jesus the same question, he’s going to say, “Seventy times seven”—which is to say, once you lose count, you’re just getting started. Law gives you a limit to what you have to do; grace is like the Energizer bunny—it just keeps going, and going, and going, long after we want to quit.

The fact of the matter is, whatever version of the law we come up with, whatever standard of behavior we set, if it’s our idea and our standard, we’re going to start defining it as something we can meet, something we can live up to in our own strength; we inevitably make it far too small a thing. It sounds all very well to say, for instance, “Christianity isn’t about believing certain things, it’s about living a life of love”; but how do we know what love is? How do we know what it means to live a life of love? The classical Christian answer is to say that we know what love is because God is love, and because he has revealed himself to us in his word—in his living Word who is his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the words of Scripture, which his Spirit inspired to show us the living Word. Our understanding of love is grounded in the truth of Scripture, which shows us the truth of who God is, and thus what love is; we take our definition of love from these pages. If we set this aside, or say that those truths don’t matter, then we’re left to define love for ourselves, according to our own preferences, prejudices, and preconceived ideas; we get to decide for ourselves what’s appropriate and act accordingly, and then pat ourselves on the back for being such good Christians, without ever even asking ourselves what God wants us to do, let alone submitting ourselves to his will.

In the end, that leaves us in the same place as the false teachers who were giving Timothy such fits in Ephesus: elevating our own desires over the demands of the gospel. In this letter, as we’ve seen, Paul shows a fair bit of concern for what we might call “community standards”; some of the women in the church were offending the community with their dress, some of the leaders of the church were scandalizing the community with their behavior, so Paul tells them that what they’re doing is inappropriate. Why? Because the church needs to conform to the standards of the community? No, but because what they’re doing is hindering the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. If people are scandalized by the gospel itself, if they’re offended by the call to holiness—as many were then, and are now, and will be in every age until Jesus returns—that’s one thing; but if anything else gets in the way of the preaching of the gospel, then we need to set it aside, no matter what it might be.

We saw this in chapter 2, but Paul makes it explicit here. As he writes, he hopes to come to Ephesus soon to make these points to the church in person, but in case he can’t, he’s sending this letter—why? Because people in the church have forgotten what sort of behavior and what sort of lifestyle are appropriate for a member of the household of God. Any parent expects certain things out of their kids, and God is no different with us, but people in Ephesus have lost sight of this fact. As a consequence, their behavior is casting God’s name into disrepute. The church in Ephesus, like every congregation everywhere, is called to be a pillar and a bulwark of the truth, and they’re falling down on the job, betraying that truth by their behavior. Paul wants them to understand that they have a responsibility to fulfill, and they’d better start taking it seriously.

As every congregation needs to do, including us. We are part of God’s temple on earth—God makes his home on earth in us by his Spirit who lives in us—and that gives us a profound responsibility indeed. The mission of the church is to be a pillar to uphold the truth, and a bulwark to protect and defend it—to speak the truth to a world that too often doesn’t want to hear it, to proclaim and uphold the truth by our words and by our actions, to defend it against those who would rather attack it (and us) than listen. If at any time our behavior undermines or weakens the church, then we are threatening that mission, and we must stop. That’s why Paul rebukes men in the church for their anger and disputes, which were wrecking their prayers and disrupting their worship; that’s why he calls women in the church to restrain their use of their Christian freedom, since their behavior, too, was becoming disruptive. That’s why he rules out leaders who lacked the maturity to lead, because such leaders were drawing the church away from its mission and damaging its reputation in the community, undercutting its credibility in proclaiming the truth. Everything else had to be, and must be, secondary to the mission.

And if that mission was, and is, to uphold and defend the truth, then what truth is that? Some of us would probably start giving a list of details, but Paul goes right to the heart of the matter. “The mystery of godliness is great,” he says—which doesn’t, by the way, mean that it’s very mysterious; indeed, this is a mystery, something hidden from human sight, which has now been revealed. What has been revealed is very great—it’s something no human mind could ever have conceived, or would ever have predicted. That mystery is Jesus Christ—God revealed in human flesh, and the plan of God revealed in human history; and that truth is the truth we uphold and defend, that God was born as a human child. As the British poet John Betjeman put it, “And is it true,/This most tremendous tale of all,/Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,/A Baby in an ox’s stall?/The Maker of the stars and sea/Become a Child on earth for me? . . . No love that in a family dwells,/No carolling in frosty air,/Nor all the steeple-shaking bells/Can with this single Truth compare—/That God was man in Palestine/And lives today in Bread and Wine.”

That is the truth of which the church is a pillar and a bulwark—it is the truth which has been entrusted to us to proclaim to the nations, to preach in season and out of season, in every word we speak and every step we take; not that Jesus was a good man, or a kind man, or a great teacher, or a loving person, but that he was God in the flesh come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. It is the truth that when we look at him we see God, and that in him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. And it is indeed a truth with which nothing else can compare, and one which is well worth giving our lives for; there is simply nothing we can do which is more important than to let people know that God became a human being, with human skin, human bone, a human mind and a human heart, for them, because he loves them, and to help them grow into a full understanding of what that means for them and their lives.

We’ve heard this so often that familiarity dulls the message, but stop and think about it and you’ll realize what a staggering thing it is: the God of all worlds and all ages, the God who created everything that is and who holds the universe in the palm of his hand, the God who holds all that was, and is, and is to come as a thought in his mind and who keeps it all going by his will, humbled himself to step down into the small space of one human body, living one messy human life, suffering one very messy human death—for us; and then he turned that defeat into the ultimate victory by rising from the dead, in his own power—for us. And then he ascended into heaven—for us—and did he send his angels to trumpet the news across the sky, so that everyone would believe? Did he write a message in the stars and blind the world with his glory? Did the voice that spoke the world into being announce his victory with a deafening thunder that would drive people to their knees? No; he rose from the dead, he returned to heaven, and he left that job—for us. In his great plan for this world, he left us to carry out that part, so that this wouldn’t all just be something God did to us—so that we would have something we could do; and while nothing prevents him from working directly, he lets us do it most of the time, leaving us with the responsibility to tell the world what he has done.

This is our job to do—not in our own strength, to be sure, for he enables and empowers us by his Spirit; but in our own lives, and by our own words and actions, to tell the world that God loved them in this way, and this much, that he sent his only Son into this world, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life. This is our job to do, and our song of praise to sing—with our words, with our voices, with our whole lives—for all the world to hear; it is ours, in the fullness of our hearts, to sing our great Redeemer’s praise, and to sing through all the earth the honors of his name. May our hearts be so full of praise that as we sing, we can only wish that we had a thousand tongues, a thousand voices, to sing his praise that much more.

The Character of True Leadership

(Exodus 18:13-23; 1 Timothy 3:1-13)

We’ve seen a spate of high-profile sexual scandals lately; among pastors, the big name was Gary Lamb down in Georgia, and of course in politics we’ve seen the revelations about Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. I have to say, even as strange as politics can get sometimes, the whole story with Sanford is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a long while. Usually those sorts of affairs are targets of opportunity—but Argentina isn’t exactly the next office over; and then to abandon his wife and four sons and the government of South Carolina to sneak down to Buenos Aires for a week (over Father’s Day, no less!), turning his disappearance into the talk of the tabloids . . . it’s hard to imagine how a man that smart could be that stupid. And this was a guy who would have been a real player in the presidential primaries next time around, if his life had matched his image; but now he’s wrecked himself.

The thing that blows my mind, though, is to see people popping up and defending these wretches on the grounds that “people deserve a private life,” and “what they do in private is nobody’s business but their own.” To which I say—and not just me; I say it with St. Paul—no! That is, and I say this very precisely, a damnable lie, because it’s a lie that can bring damnation. The first job of leadership is self-leadership; the first challenge of leadership is whether one can keep in honor the vows one swears. Someone who has failed in leading themselves to the extent of breaking the highest and holiest vow they will ever swear cannot be trusted to lead anyone else, or to be faithful to any other task.

Now, is that permanent? Does that mean that if your sin is bad enough, you can never be trusted to be faithful? No, for there is forgiveness and redemption with the Lord; restoration is possible, with repentance, and time for growth. But leadership isn’t a right, it’s a privilege, and the first qualification is real and demonstrated character. 

That’s why, when Paul lays out what must be expected of the leaders of the church—overseers, whom we would call elders and pastors, and deacons—he doesn’t talk much about gifts or experience or skills; indeed, even though we know overseers were expected to teach, he doesn’t even focus on their knowledge of God’s word, though that’s mentioned. Mostly, he talks about character; he talks about what kind of people should be overseers and deacons. Put another way, he talks about leadership not as a job but as a way of life, and how it must be lived, and what people must be like to be ready to live it.

This goes to the heart of the problem with the false teachers in Ephesus. The crisis in the church was, at bottom, a question of leadership—who would the church follow? Who should the church follow?—and the issue with the false teachers was at its root not an issue of intellect but of character. The folks pushing the heresy in Ephesus weren’t innocent seekers after truth who’d gotten a few of their points wrong—they were doing it deliberately. They were people like the late science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, who said repeatedly that he wanted to get rich, and that the best way to do that would be to start a religion; thus we have Scientology, and Tom Cruise has never been the same since.

 The false teachers in Ephesus had much the same approach, and much the same spirit. They had been given some authority—it seems pretty clear that at least some of them were among the leaders of the congregation—but they wanted more; they wanted to take the church away from Timothy and run it themselves. What their reasons were, we don’t know; but it’s clear that they were determined enough to refuse to listen to any voices telling them they were wrong, even the voice of God.

As such, Paul sets out to tell the church what kind of people they ought to listen to, and what kind of people they ought to follow. He’s already made it clear what message they ought to follow—namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, which he had proclaimed to them and which Timothy was continuing to preach; now he connects the character of the gospel to the character of those who are fit to lead—namely, people whose lives incarnate the gospel, showing its truth by the way they live. Overseers, Paul says, most be “above reproach,” and deacons must be “worthy of respect”; the whole picture of their lives has to add up, with no glaring flaws and nothing that dishonors God—to the extent that even those outside the church honor and respect them.

This is not to say that only perfect people are qualified to lead—were that so, no one would be qualified—but it rules out those who are living unrepentantly in sin of some kind or another, and those who have simply surrendered to their sin. A certain level of maturity in dealing with one’s own sin is necessary for anyone who would lead others in confronting, turning away from and refusing to turn back to their sin. We don’t need sinless leaders, but we do need leaders who show us by their honest example that growth in holiness is possible.

This is true across a range of areas. Sexual morality was a major one in that day, which tolerated a broader range of sexual sin than even our own; as the Presbyterian pastor-scholar Philip Ryken says, “Marriage was undermined by frequent divorce, widespread adultery, and rampant homosexuality.” Thus Paul insists that leaders in the church must, in the words of our denomination’s Book of Order, “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” (Not the most elegant way of putting it, I know, but it does make the point perfectly clear.) Sexual morality is not optional; it’s not something where you can say, “The culture knows better than that dusty old book”; it’s not something that’s private and has no bearing on one’s fitness to lead. It’s a necessity; it’s a requirement; it’s non-negotiable.

Why? Well, in the first place, because wrong is wrong, whether we like it or not. And as a practical matter, there’s probably no sin short of open idolatry that damages people as deeply as sexual sin; it warps us at the core of our being, and has power like few things do to pull us loose from the vows and commitments and promises that anchor and buttress us for godly living. We can’t simply accommodate ourselves to the way the culture wants to do things—which means we can’t afford to follow people who do. Christian leadership is, in part, an act of standing up to the world and saying, “There’s a better way—let me show you.” We need leaders who are willing and able to do that.

You can see this theme in other qualifications Paul lays out for leadership as well. Leaders must not be greedy—aside from an uncontrolled libido, there’s likely nothing that corrupts leadership faster than greed—but must be able to manage themselves; sins of lack of self-control are explicitly ruled out, and so Paul says that leaders must not be drunkards, must not be violent, must not be quarrelsome. Rather, they must have proven their ability to lead themselves and others, beginning at the most intimate level—with their households. (Even those who were single might well have had households, by the way, of servants or slaves.) As Paul says, if you can’t handle the people who are closest to you, those for whom you bear the most immediate and intimate responsibility, and if you can’t lead them in a godly way, how can you claim to be able to lead God’s church?

There are other things here as well—deacons must not be double-tongued, for instance; this makes sense, because the church entrusts its deacons with the care of those who are vulnerable. Elders must not be recent converts—it’s important to give people time to steady down and grow a bit before handing them that responsibility; name someone an elder before they’ve had time to learn how much they have to learn, you run the risk that they’ll figure they’re mature already and never learn otherwise. Elders must be hospitable, which seems odd to us because we undervalue the gift of hospitality; but it makes sense, because the leaders of the church should be people who make others feel welcome here. And most of all, elders must be able to teach, and deacons must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience: the leaders of the church should be people of the truth, people who know Jesus Christ and his gospel and are able to communicate that with others. That’s what this all comes back to, because that’s what this is all about. This is why Paul cares, because the church is being led astray by people teaching lies, and they need to sit up, realize what they’re doing, and start following the right leaders.

The bottom line here is that those who lead the church need to be people who embody what it means to live the gospel life, and who model that for the church as a whole. Elders, including pastors, and deacons need to be people who understand what it means to do all these things that Paul talks about here—sexual morality, gentleness, hospitality, not being greedy, honesty, integrity, the whole ball of wax—not out of a sense of duty or morality or compulsion, but out of gratitude for grace received. The people whom we call as leaders—whom God calls through us—need to be people who don’t just know the gospel up here as a bunch of things we say, but who know it down here, and in our guts; we need to be people who are viscerally aware of our own sin, and who feel the power and the significance of Christ’s redemption and God’s grace all the way down, and for whom love and gratitude for what God has done for us are driving factors in how we live each day. We need to be people for whom that reality shines through, so that others can see it in what we say and how we live our lives. That’s what it means, first and foremost, to be a pastor, an elder, a deacon; that’s our first and greatest responsibility.

Additional note on the text:

For reasons of length, I opted not to take time in the sermon to address one much-disputed question on this passage:  when Paul addresses women, what wo­men does he mean? Most people offer one of two answers:  either wives of deacons (which makes no sense to me at all), or female deacons. These answers attempt to make verse 11 part of the flow of the paragraph, which is understandable—but, I believe, misguided. It doesn’t fit, and it doesn’t need to.

Remember, Paul didn’t actually write his letters, he dictated them—which meant he had a tendency to forget to say things at one point and then stick them in later. I think that’s what happened here:  in the middle of talking about deacons, Paul remembered something he’d meant to say and just stuck it in. On my read, this is a general comment about women in leadership (whether as deacons or as overseers) which is prompted by the fact that the false teachers in Ephesus were particularly successful among the women of the church.  In describing the qualifications for Christian leadership, he adds a comment specifically about women, not because he’s saying anything new or different—he isn’t—but just to underscore the point that under the circumstances, any women in leadership positions needed to be particularly careful.

The Gospel for All

(Malachi 1:8-11; 1 Timothy 2)

I said a few weeks ago that our big problem with 1 Timothy is that we read it as a manual for how to run a church; we reduce it to a practical handbook of disconnected instructions on church government. To be sure, this letter says a lot about how the church should be led, but to read it in that reductionist way is to miss why Paul is concerned about that; it’s to read these commands right out of their Ephesian context, and to fail to see that everything Paul says here is for one purpose: defeating the false teaching that is turning the Ephesians away from the gospel and destroying their relationship with Christ.

That’s true no less of this passage than of the rest of the book. We tend to read it, as we tend to read a lot of the Bible, as if it was written about five years ago to the contemporary Western church to address what we think are the most important questions—and it wasn’t. It applies to us and our situation, it’s the word of God to us and we must listen carefully and obey it, but it was written to different people in a different time and place and culture who had different issues and were asking different questions.

If we lose that and try to read this as a random collection of practical instructions, we miss the heart of this passage, because it follows right on from Paul’s concern in chapter 1. False teachers have arisen within the church in Ephesus, and they have set themselves above the authority of Timothy and the faithful elders of the congregation; they probably gave a wink and a nod to Paul, but only to try to convince people that they were teaching a higher form of what Paul had taught. In truth, though, it was nothing of the kind. According to the false teachers, only those who followed their teaching and the practices they prescribed could know the truth—they were the spiritual elite, and everyone else was cut off from salvation. They were preaching a religion that was elitist and exclusivist; it was only for people who were good enough for them, and smart enough to follow them. Against that, Paul hammers back that salvation is for everyone, the gospel is for everyone. That is what this chapter is about.

So, then, what’s all this about women? The answer is, not as much as you might think. The core of this passage is the first seven verses, which set out the basic imperative: God desires all people to be saved, salvation comes only through Jesus Christ, and the church’s job is to get that message out. Verses 8-15 address issues in the church that were getting in the way. It’s not just issues with the women, either; Paul has to tell the men of the church that they need to gather to pray without anger or fighting. This doesn’t mean they were fighting while they were praying (though they might have been); the point, rather, is that their arguments were dirtying their prayers. That’s the reason for the reference to “lifting up holy hands”; the standard posture of prayer in those days was standing with hands raised, and you were supposed to have purified them before worship began. Paul’s concern is that the men in this church were praying with hands that had been made unclean by their anger and their fights, and that they need to clean up their act.

With the women of the church, he addresses a different concern, because their behavior was interfering with the work of the church in a different way. It’s important to note a couple key things here. First, where the NIV reads, “A woman should learn in quietness,” the Greek word here and in verse 12 is the same as in verse 2, where Paul says to pray for those in authority “so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.” His point here is about having a quiet and peaceable demeanor, not being noisy, disruptive, and quarrelsome—much the same as he told the men in verse 8. Second, in verse 12, the NIV reads, “I permit no woman to teach,” which sounds like a general command that applies everywhere—but that translation gets the tense wrong. A more accurate one would be, “I am not permitting a woman to teach”; you can still read that as a general command that applies everywhere, but it doesn’t have to be. Given the context, I don’t think it is; I think it’s here because it bears on Paul’s primary concern, which is the spread of false teaching in Ephesus.

If so, though, how, and what does dressing up have to do with it? It may seem strange to us that Paul should take the time to tell the women of the church not to dress expensively, braid pearls in their hair, and wear jewelry, but his audience knew why he said it. Every culture has its own set of signals. In that culture, for a woman to dress up and wear jewelry was the equivalent in our culture of wearing the miniskirt and the bikini top: it was understood that she was declaring herself available, or even intent on seduction. Thus for instance the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote, “There is nothing that a woman will not permit herself to do, nothing that she deems shameful, when she encircles her neck with green emeralds and fastens huge pearls to her elongated ears.”

Now, granted that what we wear affects how we feel about ourselves, that’s over the top; I suspect that many women really felt that as unfair and unreasonable, but there wasn’t much they could do about it; legally, a woman belonged to her father as long as he was alive unless she was married, in which case she belonged to her husband. Roman women didn’t even get names, they got numbers. You can see why the message of the gospel, of freedom in Christ and a God who loves us all as individuals, was liberating and greatly appealing to women in that culture; and you can see, I think, why the false teachers in Ephesus would have particularly targeted women, and why they found their most receptive audience among the young women, and especially young widows, of the congregation. Under the influence of those false teachers, it seems clear that some of the women of the congregation were using using their freedom and equality in Christ in ways that were extremely unwise and disruptive; combined with that, they’re spreading a false version of the gospel within the Ephesian church. Paul knows that Timothy has to put a stop to that and shut them down if he’s going to keep from losing the church entirely.

His concern, then, isn’t gender roles in the abstract—his concern is what people’s behavior is doing to the teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ in Ephesus. He’s focused on the particular need to root up and stomp out the false teaching there; to that end, he tells the women of the church that they need to back off, settle down, stop talking, and find their bearings again—just as he tells the men of the church much the same thing, in a different way. The key here is that whatever the people of Ephesus are doing that’s disrupting the church and its work and worship, they need to stop doing—right now.

That’s because, as I said a minute ago, the church has a mission, with which nothing must be allowed to interfere—and the false teachers are doing just that, and so are the men and women Paul addresses. The mission is to bring the message of salvation through Jesus Christ to all people in all the world. Paul makes this clear in verses 5-6. There is only one God, and there is only one mediator, Jesus Christ; there is no other God in whom the peoples of this world may find life, and no other mediator through whom they may find salvation, and if they do not find this way, there is no other to be found. And this Jesus gave himself a ransom, not for some, but for all, for God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The good news of Jesus Christ is for all, because his salvation is for all—all peoples, all nations, all languages, all times, male and female both—and the job of the church is to proclaim this truth to any and all who will listen, wherever they may be found and whatever they may be doing.

This is why Paul says to offer every kind of prayer—he uses four different words there, just to make sure his hearers get the point that he means every kind of prayer—for everyone. The false teachers in Ephesus were preaching a religion that was only for “special” people, and so bred a narrow, superior attitude. I suspect from Paul’s command in verse 2 that they even considered themselves superior to the rulers of the day; they saw themselves as the true elite, while the people in positions of power and authority didn’t deserve their eminence. In any case, it seems clear that they lacked any real concern for anyone but themselves, and so they only prayed for those whom they considered worthy of their prayers; the rest of the world could go hang, and in fact deserved to.

Paul has no use for this, and so he says, “Every kind of prayer shall be offered for everyone, without exception; and indeed, you should especially offer every kind of prayer for all those in positions of authority, not only for their own sake, but so that we may live quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and proper conduct.” The command to pray for those in power is a slight digression, but well taken: if the authorities are opposed to the work of the church, it can be extremely difficult to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. At that point, it’s possible to have a peaceful and calm life, or to live life in accordance with the will of God, but not to do both. For those in authority, then, we pray not only for their own sake, but also that they will use their power in such a way as to help the mission of the church, or at least not to hinder it.

And to those in the church, he says that we, too, must do everything in our power to carry out that mission, and not to hinder it in anything we do. That’s why he tells the men of the church to set aside their anger and their quarrels, which are hindering their prayers—and no doubt turning off people who might otherwise be open to the message of the gospel. That’s why he tells the women of the church not to flout the social conventions of their day, but to adorn themselves instead with their good works—not because jewelry and nice clothes are sinful, but because their dress and behavior was sending the wrong message to people outside the church, giving the enemies of Christianity something to use against it. Believe me, more than one book was written against the church, and more than one law decreed against it, on the grounds that Christianity was undermining the morals of the Roman Empire. And finally, as many of the women in the church were preaching the false gospel of Timothy’s opponents, Paul forbade the women of Ephesus to teach. Anything to keep the false teaching from spreading.

The fundamental point here is clear: we’re called to be people of the gospel, and only of the gospel. We can’t change the message we’ve been given, and what it reveals about God, to conform it to someone else’s expectations or desires—not even if we think it will help us attract more people, since if we’re attracting people to something that isn’t the gospel, we’ve done nothing good. And we can’t let anything other than the gospel get in the way of proclaiming the gospel message—we need to be committed to doing whatever we can to reach whoever we can reach with the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that they will listen. We need to be committed only and wholly to the service of the Lord, and to doing whatever is in our power to ensure that people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus are introduced to him in the fullness of his truth and love.

Which means that we need to be clear on what’s worth fighting about—and for—and what isn’t. Anything that diminishes the gospel, anything that seeks to take away from the seriousness of human sin, the glory and holiness of God, or the greatness of his grace, we have to fight that, as Paul fought the legalists in Ephesus. That fight’s going on right now in this denomination, and we’re committed to staying Presbyterian so we can keep standing up for the gospel. But what about the other things we fight about—such as the role of women in the church, which drives most of the preaching on this passage? I had somebody call me a heretic in print a few weeks ago because I don’t believe, on my best reading of Scripture, that the word of God forbids women to lead and teach. I don’t claim to be infallible—we’re all fallen, we’re all sinners, none of us get everything right, and I’m no different—and if I’m wrong, I pray God shows me differently, but as I’ve studied the word of God, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to; and in the meantime, does it advance the cause of the gospel for Christians to beat each other up on this issue, or baptism, or communion, or how we do worship, or other such issues?

No, it doesn’t. Those sorts of fights don’t draw people to Jesus Christ, they just draw lines that people won’t cross. That’s not to say that those issues don’t matter, just that getting them wrong doesn’t keep people from perceiving and being captured by the heart of the gospel, that there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all so that we might be saved from the power and penalty of sin and brought to the knowledge of the truth—which needs to be the heart, the essence, the focus, of our preaching, our teaching, and everything we do. It all needs to be about the gospel, for the sake of the gospel, in the service of the gospel, so that when people look at us, yes, we have beliefs about what women should or shouldn’t do, and how we should do baptism and communion, and how we do worship, and all sorts of other things, but so that people recognize that those things aren’t what we’re about: what we’re about is Jesus Christ and him crucified.

God’s Grace, Our Counterfeit

(Psalm 103:8-18; 1 Timothy 1:12-20)

“Conscience” is a problematic word. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but it’s true. It’s not the word’s fault, mind you—what the word is supposed to mean is plenty clear. In the New Testament, “conscience” means the awareness God has placed within us of his character and will, and thus of right and wrong; literally the word means “to know together with,” and it refers to the things we know together with God about the way the world is supposed to be and the way we’re supposed to live. We might even call it a sixth sense of sorts, as it gives us the ability to perceive reality in its moral aspect.

The problem, rather, is in us. Our sinful nature resists this—this isn’t what we want the word “conscience” to mean. We don’t want our conscience to be something that pokes at us and makes us face the fact when we’re doing something wrong; we tend to want to do what we want to do, and we want to believe that if we can convince ourselves we feel good about doing what we want to do, then it must be OK. And so what a lot of folks in this world end up doing is essentially turning their conscience off—refusing to pay attention to its promptings, finding ways to dismiss it, teaching themselves to feel good (at least on the surface) about doing what they want to do, and then calling that good feeling their conscience. That way, they can tell themselves (and whoever else might happen to come around) that their conscience is clear about their actions.

That, I suspect, is what Hymenaeus and Alexander had done. If you’d asked them, I’m sure they would have said their consciences were clear, but Paul says no; they are, he says later on, “liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron”—so damaged by the lies they’ve told and believed that just like a badly-burned hand, the nerves no longer work and they’re no longer capable of feeling. Their consciences aren’t clear, they’re dead. Determined to do what they want to do and believe what they want to believe, they have closed themselves off to the voice of the Spirit of God speaking within them to tell them they’re doing wrong; they’ve rejected conscience in favor of their own counterfeit, and therefore have shipwrecked themselves, and Paul is writing this letter to help Timothy stop them before they do the same to the whole congregation.

Unfortunately, we see this sort of thing a lot; and it can be hard to distinguish from true acts of conscience. Martin Luther launched the Reformation, in part, with an appeal to conscience, refusing to bow to the power of the Roman church because “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe”; these days, there are a lot of folks running around who want to be little Luthers, condemning the church for its teachings and declaring, “Here I stand.” Some are very convincing. What too many people lack, though, is the central point of Luther’s statement: “My conscience is captive to the word of God”; this is the foundation for everything else. If your conscience is captive to the word of God, if your focus is on obeying God even when it’s the last thing you want to do, if you’ve been training and strengthening your conscience in faithful study of the Scriptures and in prayer—as Luther had—then yes, to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. If not, then you may very well be going against conscience and not even know it.

The issue here is that at some level, we don’t want the conscience God gave us because we really don’t want what God is offering—we don’t want his solution because we don’t want to believe what he’s telling us about the problem. The word of God tells us we are sinners, rotten at the core, who need to accept the mercy of God, to be saved by his grace, through none of our own doing and none of our own merit, and we just don’t want to hear that. Paul pours out gratitude for the great mercy God showed him, giving thanks that “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus”—and too often, we look at that and we want no part of it. We want to believe we’re basically OK—and if we run up against something we can’t get around, that everyone agrees is bad behavior, we want to redefine it as a disease; that way, we’re not bad, we’re just sick. We don’t need to repent, we just need treatment.

The Bible tells us we’re sinners, that we do bad things just because we like to do bad things, that the purpose of our conscience is to convict us of our sin, not to justify our behavior—and we don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to hear the good news Paul preached, that we’re sinners saved despite the fact that we do not and will not ever deserve it, solely by the loving grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ; we don’t want to hear that because we just don’t want to believe that anything’s all that seriously wrong with us. That kind of thinking is for losers, and we all want to think we’re winners; we want to believe that God saved us because we’re such all-fired wonderful people that we just had it coming. And the truth is, we aren’t, and we didn’t, and he didn’t. The truth is, Christianity is for losers—and that means us. Even the best of us.

The apostle Paul understood this, because he understood far more clearly than we do the depth and significance of his own sin. This was a man who, by worldly standards, was a clear winner, a powerful and accomplished person; he was a highly-trained and successful intellectual—in our day, he’d be a tenured full professor at a major university or graduate school, with a list of publications as long as your arm—who’d had an amazing record as a church planter, starting more churches in his career than most denominations can manage in a year, or three, or even five. He was an unrelenting and indomitable voice for truth whose authority was felt across the Roman world. No one in the church today has anything even close to the sort of wide and deep influence Paul had. And yet, when he looked at himself, what did he see? Anything God should be impressed with? No, he gave all the credit for all his success to the power of God. For himself, he said this: “It is a true statement and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” Now, was Paul really the worst sinner who had ever lived to that point? Not likely, no; but his sense of his own sinfulness and his need for God’s mercy was so great that it drove him to make that statement—as it would for any of us who saw ourselves as clearly as Paul did.

This is important, because this last statement is not just Paul’s personal testimony: it’s the point where he broke with the false teachers who were plaguing the church in Ephesus, and where he called the church to do the same. We don’t know the details, but it’s clear that the likes of Hymenaeus and Alexander were preaching a religion of “you can be good enough”; if you just obeyed their particular version of the law of God, if you believed the myths they spun out of the Old Testament and lived according to the rules they laid down, then you didn’t need this “mercy” stuff—you could be good enough to please God on your own. You could earn your salvation.

The proper term for this, of course, is legalism; and though a lot of folks would be surprised to hear it, legalism is just as much a problem now as it was then. The difference is, most of our legalists take sin far less seriously, and so they tend to offer a lot of warmed-over self-help principles combined with a counterfeit version of grace—one that doesn’t actually require things like repentance, and mercy, and being agonized by our own sin. Instead of understanding that the grace of God to us is his free gift of salvation despite our unworthiness, they see God’s grace as saying to us, “No, no, it’s really not that bad—if it makes you happy, you go right ahead.” They fail to understand that God’s grace isn’t about what we deserve—that’s justice. God’s grace is all about what he gives us that we have not earned and could never even begin to hope to earn. Confusing the two is a major theological error, a fundamental misunderstanding of who God is and who we are (and pretty much everything in between).

And yet this idea that we deserve grace, that we deserve to be forgiven, pops up all over the place. We seem to think that if we don’t think something’s all that big a deal, God shouldn’t either; that if we have an excuse or some kind of justification for our actions, he should be happy to accept it; and that if it happens that there is something that needs to be forgiven, that God should just say, “That’s OK, no big deal,” and let it go, no cost to us or anybody else. It’s the idea that God just wants us to be happy and fulfilled on our own terms, and that he’s good with anything we think will get us there. It’s an idea which is appealing, and widespread—and straight from the pit of Hell.

There are all too many people who want to believe, as the great Christian thinker H. Richard Niebuhr put it, that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross”; but that isn’t the truth. Our sin is real, whether we want to believe it or not, and so is God’s inability to tolerate it; and Christ didn’t come to tell us all we’re OK, he came to save us from the fact that we’re not. The good news of the gospel isn’t “I’m OK, you’re OK”; it isn’t that if you really want to do something, and you feel good about doing it, God will tell you to go ahead; it isn’t that we’re good enough for God, or that we can make ourselves good enough for God, or even that God’s too good to let such wonderful people as us go. The good news of the gospel is that yes, we are sinners, yes, there really is a problem with us, and that God has fixed that problem, because Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. The good news of the gospel has nothing to do with lessening our sin and our guilt; it has everything to do with the marvelous, infinite, matchless grace of God, this spectacular gift we have been given, which overwhelms our sin and guilt, washing it all away through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the power of his Holy Spirit.