One of the most basic, most practical and perhaps most important questions a Christian can ask is the question “What does God want me to do with my life?”
It's a question asked by teenagers as they consider issues of career, of marriage, of where to live and more. But it's not just a question for teenagers. In an age in which people no longer stick to one career for their whole working life, in which the divorce rate among Christians is not much better than that of non-Christians, people often ask these questions more than once in their life.
Asking “What does God want me to do with my life?” is not only a question for these particular times, however. As Paul writes to Timothy, Timothy is not in any sort of crisis regarding his ministry. Paul is simply encouraging him. But the apostle still gives Timothy – and us, by God's grace – clear-cut guidance on God's will for Timothy's life and ours.
We shouldn't be surprised by that. The whole Bible makes it clear that God isn't only interested in what you do for an hour on Sunday morning or evening. He doesn't only want your brief prayer of thanks at meal times. He's not interested in merely being consulted for his opinion on issues of what you do in career, marriage, retirement or whatever else.
God isn't interested in mindless, heartless religion. He wants all of your and my heart, soul, mind and strength to be used, above all else, to express love and devotion to Him, every moment of every day. And this is what Timothy is called to do, in a nutshell.
We can divide these verses into three main sections. First, in verse 12, Timothy is called to serve as an example for other believers in every aspect of life. Second, in verses 13 & 14, he is called to continue to make use of the particular gifts and tasks that he has been given. Third, in verses 15 and 16, he is called to wholehearted diligence in these things, for the welfare of both his own soul and those who witness Timothy's progress. Let's look at each of these in turn.
First, verse 12.
We don't know hold old Timothy was when Paul wrote to him, but he was apparently young enough for his age to be an issue in the eyes of some people. We all know that experience, perhaps even from both sides of the coin. “What does he know? He's barely out of nappies!” “What right does she have to tell me what I should do? I'm old enough to be her grandmother!”
Whether Timothy was 18, 28 or 98 is irrelevant, however. Paul says “Don't let anyone look down on your because of your youth. Instead, be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” The age of a minister is irrelevant to his ability to faithfully carry out his work. What matters is the quality of his labours, and this is what Timothy is called to focus on, firstly by being an example for other Christians. Paul uses an interesting word here – the word tupos – from which we get words like typewriter, typology and typecast. This word speaks of there being a faithful correspondence between an original and a copy, in all of the important aspects. Timothy is being called to seek to live a life that you and I can emulate. When we look at the words, the conduct, the love, the spirit, the faith and the purity of Timothy, we're supposed to see things we can and will want to copy.
But Timothy is long dead. How are we supposed to validly apply this today?
Well, for modern preachers, the application is straight forward: God's expectations of preachings in the first century in these areas are the same as his expectations today. As you look for a minister to serve you in years to come, you should be looking for a person who is seeking to be a good example in every aspect of their life. You should not expect perfection – no minister is faultless. But the overall picture of this person's life should be what we saw in 1 Timothy 3 – that they seek to be and actually are an example to follow.
This in turn makes the application to the rest of us straightforward.
First, seek to emulate the example of godly ministers you've had in the past. Paul says in Philippians 4:9: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice”. We do of course need to be discerning. We don't blindly follow the practices of our leaders without checking them against God's word, and we also need to be careful to avoid confusing cultural practices and norms with Scriptural practices and norms. But the general principle remains valid – the godly things you see in past and present ministers are things you and I are called to emulate.
More than that, though: if we're true copies of the originals then we ourselves will be providing an example for others to follow. So even if there's no minister around for you to emulate, Peggy can emulate the godly traits she sees in Bert. David can validly be challenged by the work of God's sanctifying Spirit that he discerns in Cliff, and everyone can benefit from considering Helen's doctrine and life, without prejudice to the fact that Helen is one of the youngest people here.
Notice the wide range of aspects that are listed. Does your speech – does mine – provide a good example to others? Do our words reflect godly wisdom? Love? Kingdom priorities? Do we cut people down when we should be building them up?
What about our conduct? Do we say one thing and do another? Do we ask one thing of others and do a different thing ourselves? Do we conduct ourselves in a way that says God is the most important thing in our lives?
Love. Do we care about others – especially those in the body of Christ? Do we want what is best for our brother or sister in the Lord, and do we do what we can to make that happen? Do we speak the truth in love to them, or tell it like we see it without any concern for their reaction?
How about faith? Do you trust in God, by His grace, through the tough times as well as the good? Is your faith firmly grounded, or are you unsure of the reason for the hope that is in you, relying more on other things than on the Lord to see you through to the end?
What about purity? In a world that views holiness as undesirable and outdated, are you unashamed about seeking to avoid things that are the outworkings of ungodly and impure desires and motives? Do you carefully discern what's good and bad in the world around you, embracing the right and firmly rejecting the evil?
In verse 13 & 14, Paul calls Timothy to continue to faithfully serve as a minister of the Lord – to make use of the gifts he has been given and fulfil the calling he has received. Notice three aspects to Timothy's ministry – the reading of Scripture, preaching and teaching.
In Timothy's day, Scripture would have been thought of primarily as the Old Testament, but Peter does refer to Paul's letters as Scriptures near the end of his second epistle. Timothy, then, is certainly not to neglect the public reading of the Old Testament, together with the preaching of the gospel and the teaching of the congregation in other settings. This command should lead us to ask whether we today pay enough attention to the reading of the Scriptures, both at home and in public worship, and whether give the Old Testament the focus it deserves alongside the New.
Verse 14 doesn't say what gift Paul is referring to, but back in chapter 1, verses 18-20, we read:
18 Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, 19 holding on to faith and a good conscience.
This fits perfectly with the context, so we should understand v14 as underscoring v13. Timothy is to devote himself to the reading of Scripture, to preaching and teaching because his gift is a God given gift. God doesn't give us skills and gifts so that we can leave them unused. He gives them, as Ephesians 4 says about leaders in particular for the benefit of the church – so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Timothy can have no valid doubt about his calling to serve.
Timothy's gift, we're told, was given on a particular occasion, connected with the laying on of hands by the elders. We might not expect such gifts to be instantaneously given in the same way today, but we can be reasonably sure that our process of ordaining ministers is not fundamentally different to that of the early church.
Passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Acts 6 show us that the early church looked for evidence of giftedness as well as godliness prior to ordaining men to the ministry. Timothy would not have had a huge change in his speech, conduct, love, faith and purity as a result of this gift.
So then, we too are right to look for God's gifts in people even before they're ordained. And when we recognise gifts in ourselves and others – regardless of whether the work involves ordination or not – we need to seek good and godly ways in which to use them for the glory of God and the good of His people. Where Ephesians 4 focuses on leaders in particular, 1 Corinthians 12 focuses on the whole body of Christ, applying the same principles on a wider scale. So a woman with a gift of teaching should use her gift to teach other women and to teach children. A man who is gifted with administrative skills should use them for the good administration of the church. A child who is good at encouraging others should themselves be encouraged to develop that gift for the good of God's people.
In the last 2 verses, Paul calls Timothy to be diligent in these matters; to give himself wholly to them. As we said at the start of this sermon, God wants wholehearted devotion, wholehearted service from his people. How much effort do you and I put into obeying God's will for us?
And so Timothy is called to seek to obey these commands as carefully as he can. When Paul says “that your progress may be evident to all', we shouldn't imagine that the point is for people to look at Timothy and think what a great guy he is. The “that” (or “so that” in other versions) is not talking about purpose but about result. Seeing progress in Timothy is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Timothy's progress is supposed to spur on others in their devotion to the Lord and their willingness to heed Timothy's reading, preaching and teaching.
That's why he's also called to take heed to himself and to his doctrine – there's a parallel to verse 15 that's designed to underscore the importance of what Paul is saying. Obedience to what Paul is writing isn't a take it or leave it thing. It's a matter of doing what is necessary to be saved, from our point of view, or not. It's not that we're saved by our own works or that we save ourselves in any way. Rather, the person who truly is saved by God shows it by faithfulness belief in the gospel and by faithful obedience to the commands of the gospel.
So how are you and I doing? In our lives, are we looking at the gifts and skills God has given us, and seeking to use them above all else for the glory of our Lord? Are we looking down on others because of their age, or being excessively worried about our own age and being unwilling to serve because of it? Are we even asking these sorts of questions.
It's worth reminding ourselves again this morning as we close this sermon that all of our service, all of our obedience to what is written here, doesn't flow or ought not flow out of our own strength and willpower. We love because God first loved us. We serve because He justified us and sanctified us and equips us and calls us. We serve, if we do so rightly, out of gratitude for what God has done for us, never as a means by which we seek to make ourselves right with God or earn our salvation.