Putting the House of God in Order

My task in this opening message on 1 Timothy is to orient us in the letter itself as we work through it over the course of the semester. To that end, I’ve got four sections to this sermon. First, I want you to know something about Timothy as the recipient of this letter. Second, I want to reflect on the occasion and purpose of this letter. Third, I want to briefly walk through the structure of the letter in light of that purpose. And finally, I want to step back and offer some macro-reflections that I hope will help us to rightly hear what this letter has to teach us in America in 2019. 

Who Is Timothy?

Timothy is the son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. 2 Timothy 3 tells us that his mother and grandmother both taught him the word of the God in his childhood. It’s possible that Timothy’s family was saved during Paul’s first ministry journey. We first encounter Timothy in Acts 16. Timothy, though young, was well-respected by the disciples in Lystra, and so Paul takes him with him as a kind of apprentice. Because he has a Greek father, Paul has Timothy circumcised, so that he might avoid giving offense to Jews during his ministry among them. Throughout Paul’s ministry, Timothy is essentially his right hand man. Sometimes he is sent ahead of Paul with a letter or encouragement to believers. Other times, he is left behind by Paul in order to continue Paul’s ministry. For example, Paul sends Timothy to Thessalonica to exhort them during a time of affliction (1 Thess. 3:1ff). He sends Timothy to the Corinthians to remind them of Paul’s way of life so that the Corinthians may imitate it, as they imitate Christ. And then of course there are Paul’s words about Timothy in his letter to the Philippians. 

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also. (Phil 2:19-24)

Note the key descriptions: “no one like him,” “genuinely concerned for the good of others,” “proven worth,” “like a son to Paul in the gospel.” Timothy is Paul’s most trusted ministry companion. Based on certain exhortations in the two letters to Timothy, we may learn a few more things about him. He may have been a bit timid (possibly because he was conscious of his youth). He may have had health issues. But whatever bodily or personality weaknesses he may have had, Paul never stopped trusting him to be his messenger and representative. 

One more note: while the letter is addressed to Timothy, it seems fairly clear that Paul expects this letter to be read publicly to the church at Ephesus. We know that because, while the opening salutation is to Timothy, the final greeting in 6:21 is plural: “Grace with y’all.” The implication is that Paul wants Timothy to hear his exhortation, and he wants the Ephesians themselves to hear his exhortation to Timothy.

Occasion and Purpose of the Letter

The first letter to Timothy is likely written after the end of the book of Acts, after Paul has been released from imprisonment in Rome. Timothy has been left at Ephesus to deal with the presence of false teachers among the Ephesian churches. We get a glimpse of the situation in Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20.

28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Paul’s exhortation here is basically an anticipation of the very situation that Timothy is facing now. Timothy is now ministering among the same elders that Paul exhorted in Acts 20. Paul is exhorting Timothy to fight the wolves at Ephesus and to equip the church at Ephesus (and especially the elders of the church) to resist this false teaching. I’ll leave the details of the false teaching for later sermons, but for now, it’s worth noting that Paul addresses false teaching three times in this letter—at the beginning (1:3-7), the middle (4:1-5), and the end (6:3-10, 20-21).

But Paul’s aim in the letter seems to be broader than simply “resist false teachers.” By the time that Paul is writing this letter, the church of Jesus Christ has been in existence for about 30+ years. In that time, it’s primarily been a dynamic movement within Judaism, one that operated largely through the structures and systems of Judaism (like the temple in Jerusalem and the synagogues throughout the empire). But, this new Christian movement or sect is not sectarian. You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Christian. Gentiles are welcome as Gentiles. So by the time that Paul is writing this letter, the church has begun to have a more distinct identity of its own, one that doesn’t fit neatly into Jerusalem, nor into the typical categories of Roman religion. What’s more, the church is undergoing a shift from movement to institution. As a movement, the church was oriented by wonder-working apostles who had known the Lord Jesus personally (or been set apart in a special way, like Paul was). But the apostles will depart to be with the Lord soon, and what will become of this new movement? Paul knows that the longevity of Christianity depends upon it being established institutionally, meaning, there must be structures and procedures for regulating worship, and passing down the faith from generation to generation, and for appointing new leaders and establishing new churches. At the same time, because Christianity isn’t an ethnic or sectarian religion like Judaism, there must be built-in flexibility so that the good news of Jesus Christ can be contextualized in different ethnic soils. And so, I would suggest that part of Paul’s aim in the Pastoral epistles is to instruct the next generation of Christian leaders in how to order and defend the household of God for the sake of God’s mission in the world. This is what Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:14-15.

I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.

If the church is a body, Paul wants it to be a healthy body, a sound body. A well-ordered body digests food, pumps blood, moves oxygen around freely, and all the parts function in the way that they were designed to function. A healthy body has integrity and wholeness, and as a result, it has a healthy immune system which is able to fight off and resist infection. And more than that, a healthy body is able to accomplish the work that God has given it: the advancement of God’s mission in the world.

In other words, Paul is exhorting Timothy to put God’s house in order for the sake of God’s mission. And as we work through the book, I want you to notice how Paul expects Timothy to order God’s household. So there’s false teaching at Ephesus: predatory false teachers and heretics have arisen from their own ranks. They are derailing the mission of the church through useless speculation, false asceticism, demonic teaching, and irreverent babble. Paul’s way of addressing it is by exhorting Timothy about his own holiness and conduct (Don’t let them look down on you because you are young; set an example for all the believers; watch your life and doctrine closely; flee immorality; guard the deposit entrusted to you). Timothy cannot put God’s house in order if he himself is not in order.  And then, Timothy is to ensure that the elders, who are basically the immune system for the congregation, are godly men who love the truth: sober-minded, self-controlled, not quarrelsome or covetous; men who manage their own households well and are therefore qualified to manage and care for God’s household. Leaders protect sheep from false teaching by their own godly, stable, sober-minded conduct, out of which they teach, and exhort, and persuade. And this teaching and exhortation, flowing from the godliness and stability of church leaders, serves to order and structure the relationships in the church, so that the church is not derailed by ungodliness or false teaching or division, but instead continues to worship God rightly, serve each other faithfully, and seek the good of the cities so that God’s mission is accomplished in the world.

Structure of the Letter

To solidify that theme, let me give a brief overview of the structure of the letter, so that you can be prepared to listen and hear the message of this book. I’ve already mentioned the opening section where Paul mentions the false teachers at Ephesus and charges Timothy with addressing the issue. After reflecting on his own calling and ministry (1:12-20), Paul turns to the various issues in play. The first issue (2:1-15) involves the corporate worship of the church, and includes teaching on how the church should relate to the governing authorities, as well as on the place of men and women in the corporate gathering. Paul tailors his exhortation to the specific tendencies of men and women. Next, Paul deals with church organization, and especially leadership, providing qualifications for elders and deacons. Third (4:1-16), he presses on the particular false teachings in view and exhorts Timothy personally about how he ought to conduct himself so as to help the churches resist the demonic teaching. Fourth, he addresses particular relationships in the church: multigenerational relationships (5:1-2), the place of widows in the congregation (5:3-16), how the congregation should orient to the elders (5:17-25), and the relations between slaves and masters (6:1-2). Finally, he turns to the issue of wealth and money, warning against covetousness and greed, and exhorting rich Christians about their wealth (6:3-19). Throughout the letter, he repeatedly uses trustworthy sayings and proverbs (1:15; 3:1; 4:9); he breaks out in doxologies (1:17; 6:13-16) and offers short summaries of gospel truth (2:3-6; 3:16; 4:10); he reflects on how the various institutions of society intersect with one another (home, church, state); and he repeatedly emphasizes godliness (2:2; 2:10; 3:16; 4:7; 4:8; 6:3, 6:5; 6:6; 6:11) and its connection to sound doctrine (1:8-11; 4:6; 6:3).

Nature, Scripture, Culture

In the remaining time, I want to step back and think about three distinct but interlocking sources of authority that I want you to keep in mind as we work through the book. They are nature, Scripture, and culture. By nature, I mean the built-in tendencies and trajectories that make us what we are as human beings. By Scripture, I mean the promises and commands of God recorded in the Bible. And by culture, I mean customs and traditions in particular times and places. Now these three authorities are often interwoven. A pastor friend of mine relates customs and nature in this way: “A custom is a prudential application of a natural law principle in a concrete setting.” Notice that beneath customs is a natural law principle (a tendency or trajectory). A custom is a wise application of that principle in a particular time and place. For example, nature teaches that you should honor your parents; there is a built-in tendency of children to respect and obey their parents. Scripture, because of human sin, reinforces and ratifies this natural law, in the 10 commandments, and in the New Testament. Culture gives expression to this natural and biblical obligation in particular customs that may vary from era to era and place to place. Let me get more concrete by widening out from “honoring parents” to “honoring people who are older than you.” This is a natural tendency (flowing from the natural obligation to honor parents). It’s reinforced in various places in the Scriptures (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:1). But it might have different customs that express this honor. For example, in some places, all non-familial adults are referred to as “Mr. Last Name.” In other places, it’s “Mr. First Name.” Honor is being expressed in both cases, but not in identical customs. Or widen out further and consider the obligation to honor those in authority. In some societies, that honor is expressed by bowing; in others, by saluting; in others, by kneeling. And there might be a great variety of variations even within these. Last example: Paul closes four of his letters (1-2 Corinthians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians) with an exhortation to greet one another with a holy kiss. This is a biblical exhortation to express natural affection through a particular cultural custom. In our culture, we express the same affection through different customs: a hug or a handshake and a warm smile. 

The Bible refers to traditions and customs in a number of places. Customs can be individual in the sense of habits (Jesus teaching in the synagogues in every town; Luke 4:16). Or they can be corporate and communal. It was the “custom of the priesthood” to draw lots to see who would enter the Most Holy Place (Luke 1:9). It was the custom of at least some Jews to take a yearly trip to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41-42). The Jews have burial customs (John 19:40). Paul is accused of attempting to change the customs of Moses (Acts 15:1; 21:21), as well as advocating non-Roman customs among the Gentiles (Acts 16:21). Customs can refer to legal practices, such as due process when accused of crimes (Acts 25:16). 

We see similar things with the use of the term “tradition.” Paul urges the Corinthians to maintain the traditions as he taught them (1 Cor. 11:2). He exhorts the Thessalonians to stand firm in the traditions that he brought them (2 Thess. 2:15), and to keep away from brothers who don’t (2 Thess. 3:6). At the same time, traditions can be used wrongly, as we saw when we preached through the gospel of Mark. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for elevating their traditions and customs above the clear teaching of God’s word (Mark 7:3-13). The problem in that case was not the existence of traditions, but the elevation of human traditions above the natural and biblical law.  

Now what does this have to do with 1 Timothy? A key aspect of customs is propriety or fittingness. Because customs express a natural law principle, there ought to be a fitness or propriety between the custom and God’s design. And the word “proper” shows up in a key passage in 1 Timothy about the adornment of women. “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” So there’s a propriety between good works and a profession of godliness, and there is an impropriety between a profession of godliness and immodesty and ostentatious dress.

Let’s explore the category of “propriety” and “fitness” a bit more. Fitness has to do with the “fit” or connection between one thing and another. If you’ve ever said, “That ain’t right,” you’ve been operating with some notion of fitness. Proverbs 26:1 says, “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool.” Snow is “out of place” in summer. Fitness can be a moral category: “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:3-4). In Titus 2, Paul says that there is a kind of conduct that “fits with” or “accords with” sound doctrine, and then proceeds to give moral instruction to different groups in the church: older men, older women, younger men, and so forth. This fitting conduct is passed down from generation to generation, from older to younger, through modeling and teaching. In 1 Corinthians 11:13-15, Paul asks, “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Now this is a confusing passage, but I just want you to see that this is Scripture in which Paul appeals to nature in order to get at what is culturally proper. 

I bring these categories to your attention, because we really struggle with them in the modern world, especially how to think about the authority of customs and culture. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, because we clearly see different customs and cultural expressions, we conclude that they are completely arbitrary. “Who’s to say which is the correct way to salute, or the proper form of address, or whether we should wear hats indoors?” Because we rightly recognize the difference between nature and Scripture on the one hand, and culture on the other, we assume (wrongly) that culture is just relative and doesn’t have any binding force upon us. We want clear and absolute laws in the Bible, or we want total freedom. We think that if something is culturally conditioned, anything goes. In other words, when it comes to customs, traditions, and culture, Americans are highly individualistic and relativistic. We substitute fashion (which is an individual choice rooted in market transactions) for custom (a communal practice or habit that endures over time). A second factor that makes it difficult for us to rightly understand customs and culture is the simple fact of mobility. Customs require stable communities, communities where people are born, grow up, live in, and die, passing on the customs of their people from generation to generation. A highly mobile society militates against custom and tradition, because people are always moving in and out, and because groups tend to segregate by age, and the endurance of customs over time generally requires them to be handed down over multiple generations. Finally, customs don’t behave like commands; for them to work, you need a lot of corporate approval and buy-in, so that they are informally enforced. But, in the modern world, we resist anything that smacks of social stigma (at least we think we do; we’re actually very judgmental); we don’t consciously operate in categories of fitting and unfitting, honorable and dishonorable, proper and shameful.

At this point, I simply want to introduce these categories. And the reason is that we’ll see them at work in 1 Timothy. In Paul’s instruction about men and women in the church in chapter 2, he’s going to offer biblical commands and exhortations. He’s going to root them in God’s design, in our nature and tendencies as men and women, and he’s going to identify some cultural expressions of that nature in his own day. And we’ll need to be able to distinguish and relate them. And the same thing will be true in his discussion of the qualifications for elders and deacons, in his exhortation about training in godliness, in his instructions about widows, in his exhortation to slaves and masters. In each of these cases, we need to see the natural law principle beneath the biblical command, or the reasons beneath the rules (so that we don’t treat them as arbitrary), and we need to be able to distinguish the natural and/or biblical principle at work, from the various cultural expressions that those principles might take (so that we don’t make cultural applications into divine laws). 

I realize that may sound complicated and confusing. Because it is. Properly distinguishing and properly connecting nature, Scripture, and culture takes maturity and it takes work. But we won’t be able to understand the Scriptures, or rightly apply them, if we don’t grow in our ability to work within these categories. (NOTE: I have been tremendously helped in thinking through these issues by a sermon series on 1 Corinthians 11 by Pastor Steven Wedgeworth; I’ve linked to it below). 

The Table

Let me close by connecting some of these categories to our liturgy here at Cities and to the opening of the letter. At our church, we practice weekly communion. And when it comes time for us to drink the wine together, we lift our cups during the words of institution. Why? The main reason is a biblical one: the Bible regularly speaks of lifting up the cup of salvation. “What shall I render to the Lord for all of his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:12-13). And so, we find it to be a fitting way to embody verse like that. There’s a propriety between that biblical command and our communion practice. And, as a bonus, in American culture, there is a tradition of “raising a glass” in a toast or salute during times of celebration. So our attempt to fittingly express the biblical language of lifting the cup happens to dovetail nicely with a custom in our society.

And so with that, let me invite you to the Table with Paul’s opening words. Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, to Timothy (and to all of you), true children in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, offered to you at this Table.