Who Has Your Attention?

One of the most valuable things about you is your attention. What sights get before human eyes, and what words get into human ears, influence the image-bearers of God and bring deep and lasting impact in the world. 

In a previous generation, the largest companies sold oil and gasoline. Today, the largest companies sell human attention to advertisers. Facebook and Instagram want your attention. And Google and YouTube want your attention. And Apple, the largest company of all, created the device that turned all of life into endless possibilities for capturing human attention to sell it to advertisers.

In the one sense, this so-called “attention economy” is not new. It’s almost 200 years old, going back to the 1830s when a New York businessman created a newspaper costing only one cent, because instead of selling the content to readers, he planned to sell his readers to advertisers (Cal Newport tells the story in the book Digital Minimalism). Eventually newspapers were filled with ads. Then television came and filled with ads. At first the Internet wasn’t quite as easy to profitably fill with ads, but then came the smartphone. It took the attention economy to previously unforeseen levels, because we carry around these pixelated billboards with us all the time. And the “attention merchants” like Facebook and Google are doing all they can to compete for the scarce and lucrative resource called human attention.

When you hear about this for the first time, it can sound invasive. I thought Facebook and Instagram and YouTube were free services. They are not free services; they may not cost you any money, but you are paying with a more precious commodity: your finite attention.

But more than just resisting the attention merchants, we need to ask the positive question: What will we do with our attention? If we only keep it from Facebook and Google but then pour it all into Netflix and news, have we really done anything worthwhile? 

Today’s Media, Tomorrow’s Man

A question for us to consider this morning, prompted by the message of 1 Timothy 4, is this: Who has our attention? To what, or to whom, are we devoting our time and energy and one of the most valuable things we have, our attention? What sights do we let before our eyes, and what words do we let into our ears? How much of our attention do we give to smartphone screens, and television screens, and the big screen? And most importantly, to what ends? 

And this is not just about what we see, but perhaps just as pressing, if not more so, is what we hear. “Faith comes from hearing,” says the apostle Paul (Romans 10:17; also Galatians 3:3, 5). What voices we allow habitually into our heads have profound shaping power. This passage challenges us to think about how what’s on our screens, and what’s in our podcast feeds today, are peeks into who we will be tomorrow. And not just digitally, but interpersonally. Who has your attention?

 Fix Your Attention

First Timothy 4’s surprising relevance to today’s attention economy starts in verse 1. How do some depart from the faith? “By devoting themselvesto deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons.” Another way to say “devoting themselves” is to say “paying attention to.” There is an attention problem, or a devotion problem, in Ephesus that Timothy must address.

This “devotion” or “paying attention to” is the same word we saw back in chapter 1, verse 4. Paul wanted Timothy to charge certain persons not to “devote themselves” to myths and endless genealogies and speculations. And it’s the same word that comes back in our passage this morning in verse 13: “Until I come, devote yourselfto the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” Devote yourself. Pay attention to. Do not give your attention to false teaching and empty myths and speculations. Rather, invest your attention in what’s true, solid, and anchored in God’s word. 

Verse 16, then, summarizes the whole of our passage this morning, and this will be our jumping off point: 

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Another way of saying “keep a close watch” is “fix your attention on.” In fact, Paul had said something strikingly similar to the elders of this same church in Acts 20:28: “Pay careful attention(same word as 1 Timothy 1:4; 4:1, 13) to yourselves and to all the flock.” So, first, pay attention to yourself; second, pay attention to the teaching. Why? Third, salvation is at stake.

Now, this passage is especially for pastor-teachers like Timothy. However, Paul did not write this just for Timothy but for the whole church over his shoulder. The whole church needs to know what’s expected of Timothy, and he needs to know they know. And pastors are first and foremost sheep, so what Paul says to Timothy is not irrelevant to the whole flock personally. The devotion expected of Christian teachers is not fundamentally different than the devotion expected of all Christians. The whole flock needs to pay attention to God and fix their attention on healthy teaching. The gulf between pastors and nonpastors is not great. In fact, there is no gulf. So every Christian has something to learn here. So, let’s have verse 16 guide the way as we approach verses 11–16.

1) Pay Attention to Yourself (verse 12)

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

One aspect of Timothy’s paying attention to himself, or personal devotion, has to do unavoidably with his age. “Youth” here does not mean child or teen. Timothy was in his late 20s or early-to-mid 30s. The term “youth” here was used two millennia ago for twenty- and thirty-somethings.

There are two sides to Paul’s charge in verse 12: first to Timothy, the young leader, but then, second, implicitly, to the church. Paul knows that Timothy will be reading this letter aloud to the church. It’s for the church, not just for Timothy. 

Timothy as the leader, and as the young man in his thirties, should do his part to rise above the low standards of his peers and the low expectations of the older generation. There can be a tendency in some older adults to despise youth. They’ve seen youthful arrogance, and youthful zeal that is not according to knowledge, and youthful folly. Some of it may be founded, but most of it may be simple hard-heartedness and pride.

 In most churches, this would be a great place to pause and address the older generation, and say, “C’mon, let’s give our younger adults the benefit of the doubt. Let’s not be suspicious and skeptical and condemning of youth. Remember what it was like to be in your twenties and thirties.” 

But thankfully, at this very young church of ours, we don’t have any older adults who don’t like young people, because we have so many 20s and 30s here. Elders who don’t like youth don’t come to Cities Church. At least not yet. We’ll see what happens as this younger generation ages. Will we be like the examples we have among us of older saints who lean in, and give benefit of the doubt, and hope for the best from young adults? We are so thankful to have the older adults we do at this church. Pray that God would send us more of the same spirit of the precious ones we have, and make us all like them as we age.

But mainly Paul’s charge here addresses the youth, not the aged. And it doesn’t just say “don’t be despised” but goes further: “be an example.” Don’t just keep yourself from the folly of youth, but seek wisdom. Pursue maturity. Be exemplary. Don’t assume that you have to get old to get wisdom, that wisdom requires or comes automatically with years. It does not. Foolish youths don’t become wise adults simply by getting old. Wise elders typically come from wise, mature youths. Let Elihu be your example.

At a key juncture in the book of Job, a youth named Elihu steps forward. He has been silent (for 31 chapters) while Job’s three aged friends, and even Job himself, have waxed eloquent and shared their wise-sounding folly. Finally, Elihu speaks, and gives this defense when he does, in Job 32:6–9:

I am young in years, and you are aged; therefore I was timid and afraid to declare my opinion to you. I said, “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom.” But it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand. It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right. 

It is not the mere passage of time, but the Spirit of God who makes one wise. So, Timothy, in your youth, don’t just avoid the follies of youth but set the church an example in both your outer life and inner life. In speech and conduct (the outer life). And in love and faith and purity (the inner life). Pay attention to yourself. Don’t get slack with your words and actions. Don’t let your heart cool. Don’t settle in with the world. Keep a close watch. Pay attention to yourself.

 But Paul calls Timothy to more than simply vigilance about himself. He also says to pay attention to the flock (Acts 20:28) and to do that through fixing his attention on teaching.

 2) Pay Attention to the Teaching (verses 13–15)

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.

Now the focus turns to Timothy’s role as a pastor and teacher. And there are three particular questions, among others, to ask about verses 14–15: (1) What are the “these things” Timothy should practice and immerse himself in? (2) What is this ancient ritual called “the laying on of hands”? And (3) what is “the gift” Timothy received by prophecy when the elders laid their hands on him?

First, what are the “these things” in verse 15 that Timothy should practice and immerse himself in? This phrase “these things” appears seven times in this letter (1 Timothy 3:14; 4:6, 15; 5:7; 6:2, 11). Sometimes “these things” refers to the true teaching (what Paul is writing) versus “those things” that the false teachers are saying. But here it refers back to verse 13. Timothy should practice and immerse himself in the threefold pastoral task of the public reading of Scripture, exhortation, and teaching. Paul’s strategy for Timothy, to counter the false teaching and produce a healthy church is this: read them God’s word, exhort them based on God’s word, and teach them God’s word.

Because of this, very early on Christians became known as people of the Book. This is whythe church is called “hearers” in verse 16 because of how central to the church is the word of God read, preached, and taught. God chose to reveal himself to us in the words of apostles and prophets, and preeminently in his Son, who is the Word, and so, what this means for Timothy as a pastor is that he must be a man of the word — not just personally but pastorally. He must devote himself in study, indeed devote his life, to God’s word. He must “immerse himself,” literally “be in” these things, be ready in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2), and practice these things.

In fact, Timothy should be so devoted to God’s word and to teaching it that “all may see your progress” (verse 15). The apostle Paul will not suffer a lazy pastor. He will say in 2 Timothy 2:15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” And in verse 11, when he says to Timothy, “Command and teach these things,” the “these things” he has in view is what he’s just said in verses 7–10: train yourself for godliness; toil and strive. In other words, work hard at the Christian faith. Which is not just a word for Timothy but for all Christians reading this letter over his shoulder. Paul expects a kind of grace-empowered Christian work ethic that produces discernable progress in godliness over time that others can see.

Which means we do well to ask ourselves from time to time, Am I working at the Christian faith, and how? Not working for, but working at. How am I training myself for godliness? Are you toiling and striving in your faith? Are you just showing up here on Sundays, and perhaps dragging yourself into community group and life group, but are you proactively, daily seeking out God’s voice in his word, and bending his ear in prayer, and pursuing spiritual conversation and fellowship with family and friends?

Next, then, come the laying on of hands. What is it? It’s an ancient Christian ritual that accompanies prayer and words of commendation in formally and publicly commissioning a leader for the church. The practice in the early church and today is rooted in two texts in the book of Numbers (8:10 and 27:18), and two in Acts (6:6 and 13:3), and then two in 1 Timothy, this one and 5:22, with 5:22 being the most normative.

We’ll say more in three weeks when we come to 1 Timothy 5:22, but for now, this “laying on of hands” is a kind of commissioning ceremony. The visible sign of the laying on of hands publicly marks the beginning of a new formal ministry, when Timothy came officially into Paul’s service. The official leaders who put their hands on the new minister are putting their seal of approval on him; they will share, in some sense, in the fruitfulness and failures to come. It’s the opposite of washing your hands of someone like Pilate. It’s not just a commission to a particular ministry but also a way of commending the person to others as a trustworthy minister and signaling fitness to bless others. Like baptism, it’s an outward act designed to make the otherwise invisible commission visible, public, and memorable.

Finally, then, last question under point 2, what is “the gift” Timothy received through prophecy when the elders’ laid their hands on him? We don’t know for sure what this spiritual gift is; however, given the immediate context, and the larger context of the whole letter, I think we have some really good clues. It sure seems to me like it’s teaching. The previous verse ends with teaching. And the next thing Paul will say, in verse 16, is to pay attention to yourself and the teaching. The problem in Ephesus is unhealthy teaching, and the main task Timothy has is to address it with healthy teaching.

But whatever the particular spiritual gift of verse 14 is, the main point of the passage is clearly the centrality of teaching, both in Timothy’s calling and in the life of the church. 

Paul wants Timothy to work at his teaching. Don’t neglect it. It should be toil and labor. He should sweat emotionally over it. Don’t just get up and wing it. Plan ahead, study hard, prepare well, stay up late, work on it as a lifestyle. Be the message you continually teach.

When Paul says, in verse 11, “Command and teach these things,” he echoes the twin calling of pastoral ministry we saw back in 1 Timothy 2:12: feeding and oversight, teaching and leading. Command and teach. Pastors must do both. Not just command as overseers, but teach as pastors. And not just teach as pastors, but command as overseers.

And just as there was an implicit charge to the church to not look down on Timothy’s youth, so also there is an implicit charge here. Pay attention to Timothy’s teaching. Not just on Sunday mornings, but pay attention to the word of God through patterns and habits of everyday life.

So, pay attention to yourself and to the teaching. And finally we come to why. What’s the importance?

 3) Because Salvation Is at Stake (verse 16)

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Verse 16, as we said at the beginning summarizes the two parts of the passage: the focus on Timothy himself (in verse 12) and the focus on his teaching and the church (verse 13–15). And now Paul adds, “Persist in this.” This personal and pastoral vigilance and devotion and paying attention, to which Paul charges Timothy, is not to be a flash in the pan. It’s not a one-time event. He must endure. Remain. Persist. And Paul gives the reason. 

See the word “for” in the middle of verse 16. This passage has been one charge after another from the apostle to the pastor. But now he explains why. He gives the sobering reason underneath the practices he’s commended. This is why Timothy should pay attention to his inner and outer life. And why Timothy should pay attention to the Scriptures, and work hard at his teaching, and think hard about it, and sweat over it, and stay up late, if he needs to, to get it ready: “for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

How will Timothy’s personal and pastoral devotion savehim and his hearers? It is not by Timothy’s speech or conduct earning his acceptance, or the church’s, before God. This letter has already been very clear, like the rest of Paul’s ministry, about the grounds of our being saved. Chapter 1, verse 15: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to savesinners.” Jesus saves sinners. The initiative and action of God, in the person and work of his Son, is the sole ground of our salvation. And faith is the sole instrument in us of that great salvation coming to us.

What role then does Timothy’s ongoing vigilance and attention to God’s word play? Timothy’s efforts, under the sovereign plan and power of God, serve to guard and feed his faith, and the faith of his hearers. Just as much as God ordains Timothy and his church (and us) to salvation, so he ordains that we keep watch on ourselves and on the teaching and the faith it feeds, which alone justifies us before God.

Teaching in the church is a matter of life and death, because “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10:17). Not just one-time hearing, but ongoing hearing. Who you pay attention to matters. Those who regularly have our eyes and our ears are leading us somewhere, whether towards life or towards death.

So, as we close, let me ask once more: Who has your attention? Who has your devotion? What are you giving your attention to? You are devoted to something. Someone has your attention. What’s on your screen? Who’s in your ear? Who gets your attention? My plea with you this morning is that Jesus is worthy of your ear. Christian teaching, God’s truth, the word of God, culminating in Jesus himself, is worthy of your attention. He will not disappoint, both in this life and in the life to come.

Remember the Youth

 Now we turn our attention together to the Table, which we do each week after the public reading of Scripture and exhortation and teaching. The call to worship is a way of bringing together our collective attention. Then the various elements of our liturgy require our attention in various forms and expressions. Then in particular in the reading and preaching of God’s word we collect our attention together to listen. And then we turn our attention here to the Table.

Here we remember the youth, about Timothy’s age, in his mid 30s, who devoted himself utterly to his Father. He gave no one any righteous reason to despise youth. No one has ever perfectly paid attention and fixed their attention like Jesus. In our many failures to fix our attention on him like we should, he remains faithful. He is not distracted. His Father’s omnipotent attention is fixed perfectly on his beloved, and he invites us in this moment to eat and drink with him.

David Mathis