The New Testament institution is not, as we have seen, a pure democracy. Neither is it an autocracy. It is the simple truth that singularity has no place in the government of Christ’s church. In every case the singularity exemplified in diocesan episcopacy, whether it be in the most extreme form of the papacy, or in the most restricted application of local diocesan bishops, is a patent deviation from, indeed presumptuous contradiction of the institution of Christ. Plurality is written in the boldest letters in the pages of the New Testament, and singularity bears the hallmark of despite to Christ’s institution.
It is not for us to question the institution of Christ even when we are unable to discover the reasons for it. But in this instance it is not difficult to see the wisdom and grace of the head of the church. Plurality is a safeguard against the arrogance and tyranny to which man has the most characteristic proclivity. And plurality in this sphere always differentiates the singularity that belongs to Christ and to him alone. It is no wonder that failure to adhere to the plurality that must be maintained in the government of the church has, by logical steps, resulted in what on all accounts is the greatest travesty ever witnessed in the history of Christendom, namely, the pretensions and blasphemies of the Roman see. —John Murray, “The Form of Government“
In the first half of this little letter, all that we explicitly know is that Paul is appealing. We are not told what Paul is appealing for, only how and for whom he is appealing. Instead of speaking as one with authority, that is, instead of speaking as an apostle of the Lord Jesus, Paul appeals as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
In line with this, though Paul would have liked to have kept Onesimus, he is sending him back to Philemon so that Philemon can act freely. Parents should long for that time when law-like commands transition to Proverbs-like appeals. Obedience is the glory of children, but there is a kind of obedience that exasperates. “Bring me my glass son.” “Ok, which hand should I use? Where should I touch the glass? Do you want me to fill it up? How full?” When a child is older you can say “mow the lawn,” and walk away with confidence. While they’re younger, you have to stick around to direct and answer questions. Likewise, shepherds may speak more gently to mature sheep. They make appeals so that the sheep may act freely. A sheep that can be led with the slightest touch is a joy to the shepherd.
Shepherds shouldn’t coddle the sheep into immaturity. Sheep shouldn’t cultivate a Toys-R-Us attitude wherein they play the day away unless commanded to do something. Maturity in Christ means that not everything needs to be spelled out and that appeals come as powerfully as commands.
Perhaps no doctrine of the New Testament offers more sanctity to this fact than that the church is the body of Christ which he has purchased with his own blood. That which elders or bishops rule is the blood-purchased possession of Christ, that which cost the agony of Gethsemane and the blood of Calvary’s accursed tree. It was that which was captive to sin, Satan, and death, and Christ redeemed it as his own precious possession. It is now his body, and he is the head. How shall we dare to handle that body, how shall we dare to direct its affairs, except as we can plead the authority of Christ? The church as the body of Christ is not to be ruled according to human wisdom and expediency but according to the prescriptions of him in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” —John Murray, Government in the Church of Christ.
Timothy is a tree farmer. The species “elder,” calls for special notice, so Paul instructs Timothy to water the good, chop the bad, and test the saplings. So simple, but, alas, this arboreal wisdom doesn’t translate to ecclesiological wisdom, or, in other words, we’re naturally better tree farmers than elder farmers.
Here is a good tree, what are we to do with it? Many Christians think, “Leave it be. Don’t want to mess it up.” There are two plants, one is thriving, and one is dying. So they put all their efforts into the bad tree, a tree that any unbiased arborist could see was beyond hope. What happens? Now they have two dead trees. Water the good tree and you get more good fruit. Water the bad tree and you get more rottenness. It is true that if there is no water, there will be no fruit, but it isn’t true that if you just keep watering, then there will be fruit. When a tree is bad, more water won’t make it good. Therefore, following “no water, no fruit,” the second lesson of spiritual dendrology is “no fruit, no water.”
If the tree is bad, chop it down. Of course, first you check to see if pruning and fertilizing might suffice. But if an elder persists in sin after you’ve lovingly sought his repentance, he is to be publicly rebuked. The reverse is regrettably frequent. Satan loves to redirect the water that the good is worthy of, channeling it to the bad. The honor good elders deserve is directed to the bad; the rebuke the bad deserve, he heaps on the good. Petty accusations weigh down the good, while the sinful elder is not only overlooked, but honored as if here were no mere elder, but an apostle. The church was founded on the apostles, grand redwoods of grace and revelation, he isn’t one, by a long shot, but they treat him as though he were. This isn’t without reason. The only way such a poser’s ministry could carry any clout is if his word was regarded as the Word, because they bear no resemblance otherwise. He has to play an apostle because he is so far from them. Such a tree makes for putrid fruit, but excellent fire wood (Matthew 7:15–20).
Finally, there are saplings that potentially could be either good or bad. Saplings are to be slowly and thoroughly tested, so as to ensure that good trees are planted, because, honestly, chopping is painful and hard work. Whereas chopping is an occasional work, planting is to be a continual work. No one wants to chop. We should want to plant. Unfortunately, many don’t value planting because they don’t value trees. They don’t value trees because they’ve invested too much in bad trees and are sick of rotten fruit. Score have only experienced a dark forest of spiritual leadership bearing fruit that leaves you in your deadly slumber. Further, say you wanted to plant some good saplings, sadly, many Christians have never seen one, so how are they to recognize them? Aha! Paul has given Timothy the identifying markers. The arborist’s check list is in 1 Timothy 3:1–7. There Paul tells Timothy what a good tree looks like. He looks like Jesus.
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
First Timothy, like all the Bible, is a two edged sword. The instructions written to Timothy are also written for the church. If we could translate the last sentence of the book into Texan this would be clear, “Grace be with y’all.” This means when Paul tells Timothy to let no one despise his youth, but to set them an example, that the church isn’t to despise Timothy’s youth if he sets them an example. Maturity in the faith, not in years, is the better instrumentation to observe and keep from crashing.
But just because a church is to value maturity over age doesn’t mean that the church is to disregard age altogether. Again, Timothy is instructed on how to relate to those older than him, notably when he has to confront them due to some sin. But, in so doing, Timothy is setting the Ephesians, and us, an example of how the church should relate to those older and younger.
Timothy is to treat those older as a father or mother. Paul was Timothy’s father in the faith (1 Timothy 1:2). In between all the lines of 1 Timothy you can read Timothy’s love for Paul. Imagine that Timothy saw a sin in Paul, a sin Paul was blind to, can you hear Timothy’s respectful, humble tone? Timothy also had a model of faith in his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5). How Timothy would approach his mother, to whom he was so indebted, is how he ought to treat older women in the church?
We live in an age that idolizes youth and has forgotten the dignity of age. Proverbs 16:31 tells us that “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” Here is the general principle, when you see a seasoned gray head, it often got there by being less a fool than other heads, and gained wisdom in the process. We’re fools for treating glory as faded goods to be discarded. The elderly are treated as dead weight or a detriment, when, they are really a blazing sunset that we should pause and appreciate, for the blaze will soon be gone and the world will be a darker place for the setting.
The old are to be looked up to, but the young are not to be looked down on. Concerning those younger than him, Timothy is to see them as peers. God is our Father. We are all sinners saved by grace, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. When you see someone younger in sin, don’t give them a scolding, but speak with them as one who knows the discipline of the Father as a good thing.
Here is a good principle for us all, for this sword is two edged eternally, look up to those older than you, across to those younger than you, and down upon none.
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.
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. —1 Timothy 4:6 (ESV)
Gospel ministers are waiters who eat what they serve. They don’t work at one restaurant and then leave to eat at another. The word used to describe the minister of God’s Word here is the same word translated “deacon,” in 3:8. It originally referenced one who waited tables. Here the good table waiter puts “these things before the brothers.” What are these things? They are “words of faith and of the good doctrine” that they follow. The good servant serves the brothers these things, having feasted on them himself.
The gospel pastor is like one of those TV chefs who must be full by the time they finish cooking because the preparation was filled with “mmm’s” and “that’s so gooood.” What was a recipe meant to serve six is whittled down to four by their “taste testing.” When the plate arrives they apologize that the portions aren’t full—they couldn’t resist themselves. What would be disgusting in any restaurant is what is only acceptable in God’s house, the feast must come to you once eaten. In the preaching of God’s Word the truth comes to you the same way that the worm comes from mommy bird to baby bird.
Unfortunately too many ministers spend too much time concerned with their presentation instead of their digestion. They are obsessed with their flare, not God’s fare. They want people to leave praising them, not the chef. They forget people come to a fine restaurant ultimately to enjoy a fine meal, not fine service. The service should maximize the enjoyment of the meal, not seek to substitute for the lack thereof. Many do long for the saints to enjoy the feast, but fail to see that the brothers will most do so if they themselves have first relished all the courses themselves.
Faithful elders are fat on the Word and fit in godliness. They are men who you can see eat well by their living. They are connoisseurs, lover’s of God’s menu who eschew spiritual junk food. They whet you appetite by their very delight in the Bread of Life and thus movingly declare, “taste and see for the Lord is good.”
A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us. And no man lives in a more woeful condition than those who really believe not themselves what they persuade others to believe continually. The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit. —John Owen