Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. —1 Timothy 4:12
Along with any verses in the Bible that mention fire, 1 Timothy 4:12 ranks high on the list of verses mangled by youth groups. But for a teen to spout off this verse is akin to a high school quarterback bringing an edited copy of a NFL contract to his coach saying, “Here are my terms.” Sure, there is some correspondence between the document and your reality, but you’re trying to put a kitty in a lion’s den. Timothy is a minister of the gospel, an apostolic delegate. Can you wear those tennies? Further, “youth” here refers to a man under forty in contrast to the older men Paul mentions in 5:1. Basically, by youth, Paul intends men who aren’t sage grandpas; men who don’t have enough salt in their pepper to be a respect magnet in the way that Paul was with all his gospel battle scars. Taking what we have in Acts, and our best guesses at when Paul wrote this letter, Timothy was probably in his mid thirties at this time.
Dear teen, I’m not scolding you as much as I’m wanting to take this sword from your hands so that the weight of it rests against my own big fat head. Hilt in hand, blade to my noggin. This isn’t suicide; this is surgery. Are there principles that a teen could glean from this field? Yep. But this food is meant for the “clergy,” young ministers to be more exact. All may get nourishment here, but ministers are to get full. Full on humility, which means empty of themselves. The gospel minister wants respect not because he is a big deal, but because the Word that he is to command and teach is (1 Timothy 4:11). See the connection between v. 11 and v. 12? The young godly pastor wants respect so that he won’t be hindrance to the ministry of the Word. He wants respect so that he isn’t a big deal.
If you quote this text in an attempt to garner some R-E-S-P-E-C-T, be you a seventeen year old who is on fire for Jesus, or a young pastor, you’ve demonstrated your stupidity and shown that you don’t know what you’re talkin’ bout. You’ve not only failed to understand the text, you’ve sinned against it. Rather than standing under the Word, you’re trying to stand over it and use it for unholy purposes and the seasoned saint is wise to warn, “Kid, put that thing down before you hurt yourself.” The Word of God is a holy sword. Woe to those who try to wield it for unholy purposes. You aren’t Arthur, and Excalibur is a butter knife by comparison. The Sword of the Spirit is for His glory, not
Timothy is to see to it that no one despises his youth, but how is he to do so? By setting an example. So when the arrogant lad demands, “Don’t look down on me for my youth!” it is good to lovingly and firmly respond, “It’s not because you’re young. It’s because your speech is often foolish or filthy, it’s because your conduct is erratic, it’s because your love is selfishly conditional as demonstrated by your demand for respect, it’s because your faith comes in spits and spurts, and it’s because any purity you do have clearly seems owing to lack of opportunity. You’re not respected for the same reason the fifty year old man who lives just like you isn’t—you’re not respectable.”
John Stott summarizes the point well, “People would not despise his youth if they could admire his example.” Young minister—self included, I know I’m pressing this blade most firmly to my own skin, trying to act like a man by shaving with it—if you don’t want to be looked down on for your age, live so that you are looked up to for your maturity in Christ. That’s a principle that will apply across the board, and that’s so, because in living this way, Timothy would be an example.
By grace, as I look at this text, I don’t see it as something my church needs to read. I get more cred than I should. They are a loving and generous people. As I read this I pray “God help me!” because I want them to be better than I am, and that means that I must be better than I am. God help me.