A Good Servant of Jesus
So the main point of today’s passage is what it means to be a “good servant of Christ Jesus.” Let’s look at that phrase together in verse 6. I want us to see this together. So maybe look over at your neighbor’s Bible if you have to. This is 1 Timothy 4, verse 6. Paul says: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus.” That phrase, that idea of being a good servant of Jesus is the heart of the passage that is expounded in verses 7–10. And so for the sermon I want to give you three truths about being a good servant of Jesus:
A good servant of Jesus clarifies what matters most.
A good servant of Jesus believes rightly and lives rightly.
A good servant of Jesus has their hope set on the living God.
We’re going to spend a some time on each of these, but first, let’s pray:
Father, by your grace, in this moment, we bow our hearts before you to humbly receive what you have for us. We trust that it is your good pleasure to teach us, in Jesus’s name, amen.
#1. A good servant of Jesus clarifies what matters most (verse 6).
Well, to understand what Paul is saying here we need to back up for a minute and remember his train of thought, which goes back to the end of Chapter 3.
In Chapter 3, verse 15 Paul describes the church as the “pillar and buttress of truth.” The church’s mission, remember, is to advance and defend the gospel. And then in Chapter 4, verses 1–5, we see the environment of that mission. It’s both negative and positive — we live in a world hostile to truth, and we live in a world full of good things that God created for our thanksgiving.
And all this is what Paul has in mind in verse 6 when he says, “If you put these things before the brothers” — if you are presenting these things, if you are teaching …
about the gospel we confess,
and the opposition we face,
and the goodness of creation we sanctify …
In other words, verse 6, if you are “trained in the words of the faith and in the good doctrine that you have followed” — and you are presenting these things to the church — it means you are a good servant of Jesus.
The Shared Value
Then in verse 7 Paul is going to explain more about what that means, but I think, first, we need to stop and realize that when Paul says the words “good servant of Christ Jesus” there is an implied value that Timothy shares with Paul.
In other words, when Timothy is reading this letter way back around the year 65, when he gets to this part of the letter, he’s not checking out, but he’s leaning in. When he reads “good servant of Jesus” Timothy thinks Yes, that is what I want to be! And so Paul has his attention, and Paul knows that. Paul knows that he is appealing to a good aspiration in Timothy. Timothy had already aspired for a good task in wanting to be a pastor (that’s Chapter 3, verse 1), and now the question is: how can he be good at that good task?
That is the main issue with Timothy here, and it’s the first thing we need to see.
But notice: although Paul is talking to Timothy here in reference to his office as overseer, Paul does not use that word. He doesn’t say “if you present these things you will be a good overseer of the church.” He doesn’t say you will be a “good pastor of the truth” — instead he says “you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus.” And one reason he does this is because what he says in these verses applies to all Christians.
Remember Paul intends for the whole church at Ephesus to read this letter. Although it’s addressed to Timothy, he is giving instructions for everybody, and so he uses a phrase with wide application. Every Christian is a servant of Jesus, and every Christian should want to be a good servant of Jesus. Which means, this is not just a section in the letter when Timothy leans in, but this when everybody in the church leans in. For all of us who follow Jesus, verse 6 gets our attention.
The Most Fundamental Thing You Do
And that’s because being a good servant of Jesus clarifies what matters most. Here’s why: Serving Jesus is more fundamental than anything else any Christian could ever do.
Timothy was an overseer of the church in Ephesus, and he was an apprentice of the apostle Paul. Those are both wonderful callings — both are important ministries — but before both of those ministries, most fundamentally, Timothy was a servant of Jesus Christ. Before anything else, Timothy, you serve Jesus.
Paul that says to us: You are not your job title. You are not your relationships. You are not your gifts. Before anything else, you are a servant of Jesus.
And Timothy says, and we say: “Yes, I am a servant of Jesus. I am a servant of Jesus. I am a servant of Jesus!”
Living As a Servant of Jesus
And it’s one thing to say that, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually live that way. …
I’m talking about a Godward-orientation that is so concerned and focused on God, so conscious of God’s realness, so convinced of God’s truth, so enamored by God’s grace and enthralled with God’s glory, that you live freely.
And I mean freely as in: imperturbable; untouchable; unshakeable. We have the resources in the gospel, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to live this way — Romans 8 spells this out — but we all know it’s still not easy. Jesus is the only person to ever do this perfectly, and here we are, like Paul, just stumbling our way in the footsteps of Jesus, trying to connect his truth to our lived experience. An I love Paul because we can see him doing this in his letters. For example:
Paul says in Galatians 1 that in his ministry he’s not seeking the approval of man and he’s not trying to please man, because if he was, he would not be a servant of Jesus. Seeking the approval of man and serving Jesus contradict one another (see Galatians 1:10). And so Paul bears down: I am a servant of Jesus.
he says in 1 Corinthians 4 that when people judge him it means nothing to him. In fact, Paul says he doesn’t even judge himself, instead, Jesus is the one who judges him. Paul says, I don’t care what you think, and I don’t even care what I think — What matters is what Jesus thinks, and Jesus sees everything (1 Corinthians 4:1–5). I am a servant of Jesus.
he says in 2 Corinthians 5, talking about the hardship of this world compared to the glory of heaven, he says that whether we are here or there, whether we are in this world or in the next, “we make it our aim to please Jesus. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ…” (2 Corinthians 5:9–10). I am a servant of Jesus.
Everything else can go for Paul; all the other stuff will eventually end; but not serving Jesus. Paul’s aim, no matter what and no matter where, his aim is to please Jesus. Paul knows who it is he’s going to answer to, and he lets that shape the way he lives. And he commends the same way of life to Timothy … and to us.
Timothy, Paul would say, church, brothers and sisters in Christ: more fundamental to anything else you do, you are a servant of Jesus. This clarifies what matters most, right? You will stand before Jesus. You answer to Jesus. And so in your life, right now, let us live unto him. Let us live like Jesus is more real than anything else. Because he is.
#2. A good servant of Jesus believes rightly and lives rightly (verse 7).
We see this in verse 7. Paul is just continuing to explain what it means to be a good servant of Jesus. Actually, in the original there’s the conjunction “and” between verses 6 and 7. Paul says, verse 6, that a good servant of Jesus teaches, or puts forward, the words of the faith that he’s been trained in, and the good doctrine that he’s followed, and, verse 7:
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.
So Paul is both exhorting here, and he’s explaining what a good servant of Jesus is. And he tells us two actions that target two interconnected categories.
First, notice the actions. He says, “have nothing to do” (which means avoid), and then he says to “train.” So there’s a negative verb (to avoid) and a positive verb (to train). Avoid and train. Say No to one thing and Say Yes to another thing.
Now look at what he’s referring to.
Having nothing to do — avoid — irreverent, silly myths (which means bad beliefs). And then, train yourself in godliness (which means good behavior).
Okay, so get this. There are two actions and two categories:
the negative avoid the positive train
category of belief category of behavior
A good servant of Jesus avoids bad beliefs and trains for good behavior. Or in other words, a good servant of Jesus believes rightly and lives rightly.
Avoiding Bad Doctrine
And part of believing rightly is avoiding bad doctrine. Paul calls it here “irreverent, silly myths.”
And this is really interesting. Y’all ever heard the phrase “old wives’ tale”? It’s an idiom in English that means something like a fable or superstitious story. Well, the phrase has been around in English for hundreds of years, and if you have ever wondered where it comes from, it comes from 1 Timothy 4:7.
The Greek word translated “silly” in verse 7 is an adjective that literally means “old womanly.” This is the only place where the word is used in the New Testament. It’s an odd word. Well, back in 1611, when the King James Version was first translated, which is a very literal translation, they translated this phrase “silly myths” as “old wives’ fable.” That’s just the literal translation of the Greek, and that how’s the phrase got stuck in English and became an idiom. So if you wondered where that phrase comes from, here’s where. 1 Timothy 4:7.
The idea is that it’s a superstitious story — almost like an urban legend, except that it was profane. This was an irreverent, twisted kind of myth that apparently had seeped into the church, and Paul says that a good servant of Jesus has nothing to do with that kind of stuff.
One part of embracing good doctrine is knowing how to reject the bad. Is this doctrine — is what I’m hearing — is it the teaching of demons? Is this doctrine some kind of profane superstition? Those are the questions we ask. To believe rightly means we need to know which false doctrines we must to have nothing to do with.
But here’s the thing: Paul understands that we cannot know the bad doctrines we should reject unless we know the good doctrines we should embrace. And we can actually see him doing this in verses 1–5 from last week.
This is just a simple observation going back to verses 1–5. Notice that Paul doesn’t just mention the bad doctrine in verse 3, but he also puts forth the good doctrine in versos 3, 4, and 5. In other words, Paul doesn’t just tell us what not to believe, but he’s tells what we should believe. He warns us about what is false, but then he commends to us what is true. And that is Paul’s practice in all of his letters, and it has a shaping effect, I think, for a church.
Homes Without Air
And this is where maybe the metaphor of the church as a family can help us. . . .
Sometimes in a home, in a family, there is a kind of parenting that does a better job at saying what you’re against than at saying what you’re for. In some homes, prohibitions happen more frequently than affirmations. [Do you get what I’m saying?]
We can call these homes with little air — they’re heavy with law, but light with love, and of course nobody wants that, and nobody intends that. But it can be very subtle.
I think about this for my own home. We have at my house just three main rules. And we get this from God. God has hundreds of moral laws in the Old Testament — around 613 — but then God can summarize all of those laws into just ten, and then he can summarize those ten into just two: love God most, love people second. Those are the two greatest commandments (see Matthew 22:36–40). So it’s simple.
And we’re trying to do a similar thing. We have just three rules at our house: Obedience, Honesty, Respect. And we try to teach this with grace. By the power of the Holy Spirit, in faith, because you have been rescued by the blood of Jesus, be obedient, tell the truth, respect others. That’s the positive way to say it, but you know, there is another way it could be said, and sometimes I can find myself doing this. It could be said: Don’t Disobey, Don’t Be Dishonest, Don’t be Disrespectful. Don’t; don’t; don’t. No, no, no. And we could frame our entire home around the negatives — around what we don’t do. And just like households can be framed that way, churches (the household of God) can do the same.
Healthy Churches Know What to Celebrate
Some local churches are great at knowing what they’re against: Well, we’re not like that other church. We don’t believe that way. We avoid those things. That kind of thinking is dangerous because it makes the church become so inverted that it’s identity become its distinctives, and its distinctives become all the things that it’s not. And that’s not good.
But the healthiest of churches, just like the healthiest of homes, are the ones who know what to celebrate. These are churches who are more energized by proclaiming the glory of God than by trolling for deficient orthodoxy. And that’s the kind of church we want to be, because that’s where Paul takes us here. Paul never only says: Hey, don’t believe this false teaching!
There’s always more to say. Believing rightly does require avoiding bad doctrine, but there is always good doctrine to celebrate, and we should celebrate it. That’s what it means to believe rightly.
Training for Godliness
But also a good servant of Jesus lives rightly. And these are interconnected. Good beliefs lead to good behavior, although it’s not automatic. This is something we have to work on. The word for “train” here means to train as in condition yourself or to exercise discipline. It’s the word gymnazo, which is where we get the English word gymnasium. This is the only time the word shows up in the New Testament. It’s an athletic word, and Paul completely highjacks this word from the athletic realm and applies it to godliness. And godliness is a shorthand way of saying behavior that is in line with the gospel.
I wonder what the word “godliness” sounds like to you. I think for how the word is used today, godliness can sound like a very pious word. The image is moral uprightness, but maybe a little smugness too. Maybe you’ve thought something like that …
… so I just want to be clear: Paul uses the word very differently than how we might think. If you want the right image for the word godliness, Paul gives us one. It’s Jesus. This goes back to Chapter 3, verse 16: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness …” — and then what does he say? — “He was manifested in the flesh.” True godliness became a person, and his name is Jesus.
So when you hear the word godliness, think Christlikeness. When Paul says train yourself for godliness he is saying work hard, discipline yourself, put forth effort, to become more like Jesus.
And then Paul tells us why. This is our third and final point.
#3. A good servant of Jesus has their hope set on the living God. (verses 8–10)
Look at verse 8. Paul follows up verse 7 with the grounds for why it’s worth it. Train yourself for godliness for this reason. Here it is:
for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
Paul is making a solid argument here. First notice the comparison between physical training and spiritual training. Paul puts these two things beside each other. There’s physical exercise on one hand, and then godliness, or spiritual exercise, on the other hand. So he puts them side by side, and then he evaluates them.
Over here: physical training has “little value.” That’s the literal meaning (cf. James 4:14). Most translations say “some value” — it’s the same idea. There is some value in physical training. Everybody would agree with that.
But then over here: godliness — spiritual training, working toward Christlikeness — that has value in every way.
And “little” and “every” are the two adjectives juxtaposed. There’s a some value over here, and every value over here. Now why is there the difference? Why is godliness valuable in every way? Well it’s because godliness “holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Spiritual exercise has a two promises, but physical exercise only has one.
Physical exercise is good — it has benefits in this present life. But spiritual exercise, becoming more like Jesus, it has benefits in this present life and in the life to come. So it’s a double promise. … Like a double rainbow … “Oh my God. … It’s a double, complete promise. … What does it mean?”
Here’s the thing: the comparison Paul makes only means something if you really believe there’s a life to come.
The Problem of Near-Sighted Godliness
The life to come is what sets the pursuit of godliness apart from every other pursuit in this life. And so if there is no such thing as a life to come, then we shouldn’t waste our time. If there’s no life to come then we should only invest in the things that pay off now. That makes sense, right? If all we have is this present life, then we should only do the things that benefit the present life.
And so, say you’re living that way. Say that you’re investing only in the present life — well, according to Paul, godliness benefits this present life too. He says godliness has value in every way, which includes value in the present life. Which means, you know you can’t completely throw godliness out because it is helpful here. So then what does that look like? What does godliness look like when people know it will benefit them now but they don’t really believe in the life to come? What does that look like?
It looks like a lot of American Christianity.
It means checking the box on godliness just so you can collect in the here and now.
It looks like trying to be as morally upright and comfortable as possible.
It looks like working hard to learn more about the Bible while doing the bare minimum of loving your neighbor.
It looks like being sort of generous, but only after you’ve consumed everything you want.
This is partial-promise, half-hearted, near-sighted godliness, and it’s all over America. And it makes sense if there is no life to come.
But there is a life to come!
The Living God Who Saves
And that is really what makes the difference. That’s Paul’s point in verse 9. Hey, look, he says, “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.” This is completely true and you should embrace it. This is something you can build your life on.
And Paul says, we actually do.
Verse 10: “For to this end we toil and strive…” All the hard work we’ve done, all that I’ve suffered, I’m looking to the life to come. That’s what we’re about. That’s what I’m doing here, Timothy. That’s what it means to be a good servant of Jesus.
And it’s “because we have our hope set on the living God.”
And at this point, Paul wants to be clear. When he talks about the life to come he’s not talking about some generic afterlife. His hope in the life to come is a hope in the living God. His hope is in the God who is over all life, whether the present life or the life to come. The living God is over all life, and then Paul gets even more specific.
The living God — “the God who gives life to all things” — is also the God who saves. He is the God who is the Savior of all kinds of people, that is, of those who believe. So Paul is closing in his focus on believers. Our hope as believers is in the living God who saves us.
I think this brings it all together for us. Paul is telling us what it means to be a good servant of Jesus. That’s more fundamental than anything else we do, and yet, more fundamental than that is not our relation to Jesus, but it’s Jesus’s relation to us. It’s that he’s our Savior. Like Paul says in Chapter 1, verse 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” So before we can be his servant, he must be our Savior. And he is.
And that’s something to celebrate, which is what we do at this Table.
At this moment of our service, and also with today as Palm Sunday, we enter into a time now and this week, of remembering what Jesus did to save us. It’s that we were lost and destined for wrath. We were servants of sin and without hope in this world. But Jesus, by his grace, because of his great love, not because of anything we’ve done, he came to this world, and rode into Jerusalem on this Sunday, to die for us. He took our sins upon himself, absorbed our punishment, paid our debt, and then on the third day he was raised from the dead. Jesus came to save sinners, and this morning if you trust him, if he is your Savior, we invite you to give him thanks at this Table.