1 Timothy 4:6-16

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We considered the previous paragraph last Lord’s Day evening with its positive view of God’s creation. Paul begins this new section by urging Timothy to teach the Ephesian believers the “things” he had just mentioned. Paul characteristically uses the word translated “these things” to refer to his previous discussion. He uses that term three times in the short paragraph we are about to read. [Mounts, 248]

Text Comment


Do you get his point? A good or faithful minister of Jesus Christ is someone who faithfully imparts the truth as that truth was laid down by the prophets and the apostles in the Word of God. There are a lot of so-called Christian ministers who don’t do that and, for that reason, they are not good ministers but bad. In the twentieth anniversary booklet that was prepared by our Evergreen Presbyterian Church in Beaverton, OR, I read of a Presbyterian minister down the street from the Evergreen building. Early on they had been a little concerned about locating their church on the particular piece of property they had found because another Presbyterian church, albeit that of another denomination, was just down the street. Why advertise our disunity? But the minister of that other church was asked, “What is the most significant contribution you have made in your many years as minister at Southminster?” He replied, “I took a little Bible believing congregation and turned it into a multi-faith community. The greatest moment in my personal spirituality was the moment I discovered that Jesus is not God, not Savior, not even a historical individual, but the concept of love.” [p.42] No wonder “Presbyterian” is a synonym for “unbeliever” in many Christian minds. In any case, no one can think Paul’s exhortation to Timothy unnecessary!

This encouragement was all the more necessary because of the opposition Timothy was facing in the Ephesian church. His teaching, even his presence probably, was being actively criticized by one party in the church.


Paul, as so often, puts the obligation both negatively and positively. We’ll attend to the negative later, but note the positive: train yourself to be godly. The words Paul uses are variations of the word from which we get gymnastics and gymnasium. Paul is employing a metaphor. One can train himself in spiritual things as one can train himself or herself physically. What is the training? Well, in this context it is the mastery of the teaching of the Word of God, as we see from Paul’s use of a similar term in v. 6: “being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine…” A Christian trains in godliness by digesting the Word of God, mastering its teaching, and taking it to heart, and then by practicing it in his or her life.

In our world we often see people going to great lengths to train their bodies — whether to make them look better or to run a marathon — but how many are doing anything at all to train their souls? But, says Paul, train your body all you want, the effect is temporary. You can’t stave off death. But the effect of godliness is eternal, both because it is part of God’s salvation that delivers us to eternal life and because in the next world it will receive its reward. It is akin to the promise Jesus made that those who give up things for his kingdom’s sake will receive a hundred fold return in this life and in the world to come eternal life.


We expect the saying to come after the “It is a trustworthy saying…” but in this case many think it comes before and is the statement of v. 8 about training for godliness holding promise for both the present and the future. Others argue that since most of the other so-called “faithful sayings” have something to do with salvation it refers to v. 10 and especially the last half of that verse: God is the savior of all people, especially of those who believe. [Mounce, 247-248] That would be quite like the first faithful saying in 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” and, as well, quite like the statement in 2:4: “God…desires all people to be saved…”


The statement that God is the savior of all people, especially of those who believe has perplexed readers of the Bible through the ages. In what sense is God the savior of all? How is he in a different way the savior of believers?

Paul seems very clearly to be talking about salvation as generally understood, that is, deliverance from sin and death and entrance into eternal life. He’s been talking about the life to come in the previous verses. So though some, including John Calvin, have suggested that the statement is about God’s common grace, about God as the giver and preserver of life for all people, which common grace, provision, and protection is even richer for those who are his children by faith, the context does not really favor that interpretation.

Recent scholarship has proposed another solution, that the Greek word here translated “especially,” (malista) can be and here should be translated “that is” or “namely.” God is the Savior of all men, that is of those who believe. Even my professor from Aberdeen, Howard Marshall, who as a Methodist is an advocate of a universal atonement, takes this view of Paul’s statement. God is the savior of those who believe. The “of all people” is added precisely to contradict the elitism and exclusivism of the false teachers, as before in 2:3-4 where there was again this emphasis on the Lord’s interest in all.


The “these things” refers to all that Paul has so far told Timothy to teach the Ephesian believers.


Let’s assume that Timothy was at this time in his thirties, perhaps mid-thirties (it has been some thirteen years since Timothy was added to Paul’s entourage on the apostle’s second missionary journey). He had been entrusted with important responsibilities long before this, but it was a culture that revered age and trusted the senior members of a community to be both the most wise and the most reliable. We have the same problem today, at least from time to time. Older people have difficulty accepting the authority of men much younger than themselves. Younger people often expect to be taken seriously when they have frankly done little to deserve such a measure of respect. Paul advises Timothy not to demand obedience on the strength of his office or his connection with the apostle, but rather to prove to this community of Christians by the character of his life and work that he deserved the same confidence from them that Paul had obviously placed in his younger assistant. If you remember, Peter gave similar instructions to elders in his first letter:

“…do not lord it over those in your charge, but [be an] example to the flock.” [1 Peter 5:3]

You’ll notice that the first two terms are spheres of conduct, speech and behavior, while the last three are qualities or virtues. That is, he should put on love, faith, and purity both in his speech and in his behavior. [Mounts, 259]


We are given here a glimpse into a worship service in Ephesus in the middle of the first century. Part of that worship was the reading of the Word of God and a sermon devoted to what was read. We know that in first century Christian worship services the OT was read in Greek translation (LXX) but we also know from statements in the New Testament that the letters of the Apostles, those writings we now know as books of the New Testament were also read. Many churches still today have in their Sunday morning worship a reading from the OT and one from the NT. We do not follow that practice in part because in my view the NT does not teach us to think that the Bible has two parts. That distinction between the OT and the NT is artificial, that terminology — Old Testament and New Testament for two parts of the Bible — originated a century later than the time of Paul, and the inevitable suggestion of such a practice is that there is something significant about whether a passage in the Bible is found in the first 39 books or the last 27. But I do not find such a thing taught anywhere in the Bible. Still, and obviously, we read a lot the Bible in our worship services. We read the law from Ephesians this morning and the sermon text was read from Luke 18. We also sang the 103 psalm after the choir had sung a portion of that psalm. This practice of reading (and singing) the Word of God in worship goes back to the very beginning. Justin Martyr, in the description of a Christian service of worship he provides in his First Apology, writes this among other things:

“On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader is finished, the president speaks, instructing and exhorting the people to imitate these good things.”  [I, 67]

That description sends a chill down my spine. Don’t you like it to? I’m referring, of course to Justin’s description of the minister as “the president!” You may now refer to me as “Mr. President.” If you do, I’ll start addressing you as “Your Holinesses” or “Your Graces” as Augustine occasionally addressed his congregation. [Essential Sermons, 30, 38, 76]


Timothy should be confident of his authority to teach because 1) he has the gift of a teacher/preacher; 2) a divine utterance was received to that effect at the time he was set apart to the work of the Christian ministry; and 3) the church had authorized him to conduct this ministry when he was ordained.


Like every Christian, Christian ministers must likewise grow in grace and usefulness. That growth is the proof that the Lord is with the man and that he should be listened to and his teaching followed. “Practice” and “immerse” give some sense of the effort necessary, the concentration, and the intention that is required to grow in true godliness.


It is an extraordinary statement that Paul makes about the work of the minister of the Word in summing up what he has so far said. Timothy is to train himself with a view to greater godliness and devote himself to his teaching. By so doing he will save both himself and his hearers. We are not used to such a stark reminder of the importance the Lord attaches to means and especially to the means of grace. We read in Malachi that the faithful priest is “the messenger of the Lord of hosts,” and that by faithful attention to his life and his teaching the faithful priest turns many away from iniquity. [2:5-7] But, though the meaning is the same, it doesn’t there say that the minister will save his hearers! This language, however, is not that unusual. In 1 Cor. 9:22 Paul speaks of his becoming all things to all men that he might save some.

Paul obviously doesn’t mean that a man is his own savior or that we are saved by our minister in the sense in which we are saved by Christ. But it is the truth that sets us free and the gospel by which we are saved and the minister is the one who teaches that truth and who preaches the gospel. And the more faithfully he teaches the truth and the more effectively he backs it up by his life, the more he is the power of God unto salvation. I read texts like that and think I should apologize to all of you.

Taking the entire chapter, that part of which we considered last time and the part we have read this evening, it appears that Paul has given us two tests, or perhaps three, by which to judge the teaching that we hear. The first is whether it is consistent with the divine creation. Does it honor God as the maker of all things and the giver of all good gifts? The second: does it agree with the teaching of the Word of God, which teaching we might further divide between doctrine — that is, the message of God, sin, and salvation — and ethics. Does it lead us to Christ as the savior and does it encourage us to live in a manner worthy of the grace we have received.

The Bible is a big book and it contains a wealth of material of all kinds: a great deal of history, lengthy sections of laws, many hymns, some love poems, proverbs, numerous prayers, sermons, letters, apocalypses, and so on. And it has teaching in it that bears on every conceivable interest and issue of life. But, its fundamental message is quite simple and most of what it contains recapitulates and develops and repeats that single message.

The Triune God created the world, everything in it, and man in his own image. Man rebelled and is now living as a sinner, alienated from God, subject to the curse visited upon him for his rebellion. God, in love, intervened to save man from his sin and guilt by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God the Son. That salvation becomes the possession of a person when he or she believes in Jesus and with that faith comes love: love for God and love for one’s neighbor. Such love expresses itself in a desire to live a life pleasing to God and useful to his kingdom. That life is a life lived in obedience to God’s commandments.

Think of the Bible’s message objectively as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Think of the Bible’s message subjectively as sin, forgiveness in Christ, a new life of love and obedience, and the promise of heaven.

Everything else in the Bible is detail. But again and again throughout the ages men have found other things to emphasize, other teaching to place in the center, other subjects to preoccupy our minds and by which to shape the Christian life.

All through Israel’s history, as that history is recorded for us in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible, the people of God were succumbing to the temptation to turn their attention away from what God had taught them of their sin, his grace, and their calling to be a people holy like he is. They were diverted by the sensual worship and lifestyle of the peoples around them. They added to their doctrine and practice all manner of ideas and behaviors that God had never taught them and this became eventually their undoing, as the God who called them to be his own people, forsook them and punished them.

The Gospels bear their concerted witness to the fact that in Jesus’ day, all manner of things, had been placed in the way of that simple biblical message of man’s sin, God’s grace, and the believer’s response of love. The commandments had been spun out into an unending maze of rules to be kept. Divine grace had been domesticated into a system of merits and demerits, by which one climbed the ladder to heaven largely by himself. So much had human effort replaced the divine initiative in the Jewish mind, so much had obedience been detached from love and gratitude for unmerited grace, that when Isaiah’s promised Servant of the Lord appeared among them, the Jews had no place for him in their system. For this rejection of Jesus Christ they too, as generations of their ancestors before them, were rejected and punished.

Later the same thing would repeatedly happen in the Christian church. Rituals would replace living faith as the key to salvation, as they had in the days of Israel’s prophets. Other people, other figures would replace the Lord Jesus Christ himself who had promised to be with us to the end of the world. I still think one of the most phenomenal moments in the history of the modern Christian church was when Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s square. He was put in the ambulance and rushed off to the hospital for the surgical removal of the bullet and all the way, the entire trip he was repeating one word, “Madonna, Madonna.” The chief priest of a large part of the Christian Church was praying to Mary, not to the Lord Jesus, when his life was on the line. Legalism would replace divine grace as the principle of salvation, or antinomianism — indifference to God’s commandments — would replace the striving for godliness and a life of obedience to God’s commandments.

Some of the time other preoccupations would either accompany these great shifts away from the Bible’s great emphases or would distract from them. We don’t know, for example, precisely what “silly myths” Paul was talking about, which apparently featured significantly in the teaching of these men who were undermining the gospel in the Ephesian church. We might wish that Paul had done what Origen would later do two centuries later in refuting anti-Christian teaching, viz. quote the enemy at length and then provide his refutation. Obviously Timothy and the Ephesians knew full well what Paul was talking about. In any case, the teachers in Ephesus apparently spun tales or employed already circulating legends and drew from them what they imagined to be lessons or teachings about the spiritual life. In the Bible serious history may teach important lessons, but myths and legends are resolutely rejected as the source of any important truth.

Christians have often been distracted by silly myths, sometimes less sometimes more dangerously. I suspect there are some of us in this sanctuary who would have to admit that we have been distracted by some silly teaching. For some Christians numerology took on immense importance and they scoured the Bible for the secret codes that it was supposed to contain. Perhaps you’ve heard that the World Trade Center towers looked like an eleven. They had 110 stories, a multiple of eleven. The first flight to hit them on 9-11 was Flight 11. There are Christians who think this is significant and many through the ages who have looked in the Bible for secret clues to the present and the future. The biblical genealogies, for example, have been ransacked for numerical clues. As we learned in chapter one, the false teachers in Ephesus also made a great deal of genealogies. All of this is genuinely silly and is nothing but a distraction from the Bible’s great message.

In the same way eschatological scenarios have been a major distraction from the Bible’s central teaching. Ezekiel 38 and other passages were thought to be fulfilled by the Crimean War, and then by the First World War, and then the Second, and then the European Common Market and on and on. This political or military figure was the anti-Christ; after he died it was someone else. Charts were published purporting to tell us how the end times were going to unfold, almost always quite soon. Christian people, who should have known better, concentrated on all of this to a degree they did not concentrate on training in good doctrine or godliness.

I have been reading this past week a book recommended to me by Kirk Bentson. I had not heard about it before though I know some of you had read of this woman in World Magazine. The author, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, very thoughtfully and intelligently relates her transformation from a lesbian, tenured professor of English at Syracuse University to the wife of a Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America pastor and the home-schooling mother of four adopted children. The RPCNA, you may remember, is the church of the Covenanters, who sing only psalms in church and without musical accompaniment. Could anyone take a longer journey in this world than from where this woman began to where she ended? This is no ordinary conversion story! I urge you to read The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.

Now there are many things to say about this intriguing personal history. It is a very instructive account of how some wise and loving Christians skillfully related to a woman who had nothing but contempt for historic Christianity. It is a record of the power of the Word of God. She read the Bible to prepare to write a book on Promise Keepers, a book that would be a critique of what she thought of as their “gender politics.” Little did she know what dynamite she was holding in her hands and taking into her mind! And it is the story of how dramatically and inexorably her life began to change once she recognized that Jesus was not an idea or an ideal but a living person of love and power. Her life was turned upside down, every aspect of her life. She was a lesbian activist, a post-modernist advocate of feminism in her classes; her academic specialty was what is called Queer Theory. Every Thursday night she hosted a meeting of the gay community of Syracuse in her home. She was, with her lesbian partner, a member of a Unitarian Universalist Church.  In fact she was a faculty advisor of the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgendered Student Group on campus. She had a butch haircut and wore the clothing associated with the lesbian lifestyle. She says that when she became a Christian she started to grow out her hair — she just realized that she should, nobody told her to grow it out — but she said that when she did every day was a bad hair day!

You can well imagine the sense of betrayal her friends and colleagues felt at the news that Rosario was a Christian and the next year was very difficult for a number of other reasons. At one point she wonders if Christians realize what they are asking God to do when they pray for the salvation of the lost. As she puts it, “My life as I knew it became train wrecked in April of 1999, at the age of 36 — just a few weeks shy of 37.” Later, describing the end of that tumultuous early period of her Christian life, as she drove away from Syracuse to new employment and a new life,

“Murphy licked my face again and I laughed out loud. This was my conversion in a nutshell: I lost everything but the dog.” [63]

In another place in the book she comments on some of the Christian “testimonies” she had read or heard and what she didn’t like about them as a reflection of her own experience.

“I didn’t choose Christ. Nobody chooses Christ. Christ chooses you or you’re dead. After Christ chooses you, you respond because you must. Period. It’s not a pretty story.” [81]

That, your holinesses, is Christianity in its apostolic form: that new life in Christ, that forgiveness of sins that wipes clean the record of our past and that transformation of life — radical, sometimes deeply painful — leading to still more transformation. Our Christian faith is that godliness that is defined by obedience to the King of Kings who loved us and gave himself for us. That is our holy faith. That and nothing else. Paul is instructing Timothy here concerning what has to be front and center in all that he teaches and all that he does and so front and center in the church’s life and in every Christian’s life. And what does he say: in effect he tells him to concentrate on good doctrine and godliness, the great gospel message and an obedient life. What Paul says here to his young assistant is the same thing Rabbi Duncan once wrote about the preacher’s task.

“The best preaching is believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and keep the Ten Commandments.” [In Moody Stuart’s Life, 210]

Christ as our Savior and the godly life. Put those two great interests front and center in your life every day and attend to everything else in your spare time.

There is to be sure much else that may be interesting to us, even have some importance in its own way. There are aspects of life to which we are certainly free, some of us even called, to devote time and attention: whether thinking and talking about the length of the creation days in Genesis 1 or the age of the earth or some other matter of biblical interpretation such as the Bible’s teaching about the end of the age; or thinking and talking about very different things, such as politics, various approaches to education, the principles and practices of business and on and on. Surely in their own way Christians must and will apply their faith to such issues, though, as we know well enough, they will not always agree as to the implications of their faith for this question of interpretation or that political issue.

But the disagreements will matter little if Christians are of one mind regarding the core of the Christian faith: a reconciling God, a redeeming Savior, a new life transformed in ever increasing measures of obedience to God’s will. “Command and teach these things Paul says.” But watch against the inroads of silliness. And be on your guard against the substitution of anything for this fundamental message of salvation by grace through faith and a holy life defined by the commandments of God.

It is the right way to keep our heads clear and our wills devoted to the right things: the knowledge of God who saves those who trust in him and the training of ourselves to be godly. Make sure, make very sure that you are toiling and striving after those things; that you are practicing, immersing yourself in those things so that all may see your progress. Nobody’s going to care whether you progress in the silly stuff, but if you progress in this, everyone’s going to know. What do you get when you put “practice” and “immerse yourself” together? A person who is concentrating, thinking about, and working out in life the great realities of divine grace and the consecration of his or her own life to God as we are taught to do that in the Word. Every day, day after day, faith in God and loving living obedience to him is the Christian life.

Two brief remarks in conclusion. Timothy is being told what to teach Christians. So this is instruction for each one of us as individual believers. Don’t be distracted, your holinesses. The Christian life isn’t a million things, or a thousand things, or even ten. It is two things. Faith in God — that is, constant personal and intimate reckoning with God present with you as Creator, Redeemer, and Indweller — and your own changing, growing, purifying, ever more useful life as he transforms it in the image of Christ in and through your obedience and service to him. If you and I would simply concentrate our attention and our longings on those two realities, we would find out what God will do with little people like ourselves!

But Timothy is also a minister who was under obligation to set the agenda for the Ephesian church. The congregation as a whole is to attend first and primarily to these two great matters: faith in the Savior and life lived for his sake. We are to rally around one another, we are to find our unity with one another in the gospel and the life we are together aspiring and working to live. Let that be our common life and we will be such a church as Christ will be honored to call his own.