Pastoral Priorities in Dealing With False Teaching
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Pastoral Priorities in Dealing With False Teaching

1 Timothy 4:6–16  (ID: 1979)

Many people are searching for spiritual teachers that will tell them what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. Alistair Begg reminds us that those who teach must be devoted to Scripture and the pursuit of godly character so that they can preach with integrity and confidence. Pastors and church leaders must be nourished in the deep truths of the faith and persevere in godliness, because the salvation of those who listen is at stake.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Timothy, Volume 1

God’s Household of Faith 1 Timothy 1:1–4:16 Series ID: 15401

Sermon Transcript: Print

Leadership is crucial in any organization. I don’t say that purposefully this morning because of the events of the week that has passed, but it is true that the events of the week have confronted us again with the absolute necessity of a kind of leadership that is marked by character more than any other thing. And as true as that principle is in the realm of education and business, etc., it is no less true within the framework of the church. And that is why the Bible has so much to say about the nature of leadership within the company of God’s people. And the New Testament is full of references to it, and the Pastoral Epistles—namely, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—are replete with calls to a consideration as to the nature of godly leadership within the church.

Now, it is within this framework that Paul gives guidance to Timothy here in this first letter, not simply in relationship to what is to be true concerning the church in general and concerning the leadership of elders and deacons in particular but also as a priority in relationship to Timothy himself as an individual. If he is going to be “a good minister of [Jesus] Christ,” which is the phrase that he uses here in verse 6, then it is important that certain things are true of Timothy. And what is to be true of Timothy in that first-century context is then to be true of all who follow in that line of succession in the privileged responsibility of pastoral leadership amongst the people of God.

Now, the immediate context of Paul’s instruction is that of false teachers and their false teaching: ascetic notions, abstaining from marriage, abstaining from certain kinds of food and possibly drink—the idea that by a long list of externals you will be able to nurture yourself in a life of godliness. Paul says to Timothy, “This is an absolute nonsense. It is a devastating idea. You should stay as far away from it as possible.” And then, having outlined that in the first five verses, he goes on from verse 6 to the end of the chapter to give this express instruction.

Now, I’d like to try and gather our thoughts around three words, which have become headings for me in my own notes. The first word is direction, the second word is devotion, and the third word is diligence.

Timothy’s Direction

Well, first of all, then, a word concerning the direction which Timothy is to take. And we learn this from the instruction which Paul provides for him here.

Now, there are a number of ways in which we could try and summarize the principles that are being delivered. What I wrote down in my notes was this: Paul is saying to Timothy, “If you don’t follow, you can’t lead.” “If you don’t follow, you can’t lead.” We might equally well have said, “If you don’t eat, you can’t provide,” or “If you don’t learn, you can’t teach.”

Now, where does this come from? Well, it comes from the sixth verse: “If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you [yourself] have followed.” The word here for “brought up in”—when it is just simply one Greek word—is a reference to a continual process of nourishment. And the nourishment which Paul is prescribing for Timothy, his diet—or to which he is referring rather than prescribing—is that of Timothy’s own nourishment in the deep truths of the faith. He’s been learning it from his grandmother. He’s been learning them from his mother.[1] He has received faithful instruction from Paul, as he’s going to mention it in his second letter, in 1:13. And these things are to be so much a part of Timothy’s life that it is out of the richness of his own growing experience of God that he is able to call others to follow after God. In other words, Timothy must be nourished by the same truths that he is teaching. He must be nourished by the same truths that he is teaching.

How is he to respond to the negative doctrine which is floating around? The answer, says Paul, is by providing a positive answer to this negative teaching. It is not by chasing down the nonsense, it is not by constantly exposing the error, it is not by lambasting those who propound it, but it is instead by making sure that he himself is a follower, is a subscriber to, is nourished by the very things which he is then in turn conveying to those who are under his care.

Now, it’s the self-same principle that he’s going to expound to him when he writes his final letter, in 2 Timothy, and he says in chapter 4, “There’s going to come a time, Timothy, when people will turn away from the truths. They will turn aside to myths”—which is the same word that he uses here in 1 Timothy 4—“and they will gather around themselves a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”[2] Now, the inevitable response on the part of a young pastor would be “Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to go and try and silence these teachers? Do you want me to go and constantly be pointing out everything that is wrong?” “No,” says Paul in 2 Timothy 4:5, “this is what I want you to do”: “Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, [and] discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

In other words, “Make sure that the words of faith are being diligently studied and perseveringly practiced in your life, Timothy.” Because it is possible for professionalism so to creep into the lives of those who are entrusted with the care of God’s people that one can give the impression of doing that to which one calls others while at the same time not actually doing that which we are urging upon our listeners, in the same way that a mother could make a lovely meal, serve it to her family, and then eat none of it herself. You say, “Well, if it is as good as you say it is, Mom, why are you not eating it as well?” Now, there may be other reasons in that circumstance, but there is no good reason as to why Timothy, in leading others, in seeking to nourish others in the truth, is not himself being nourished by the very things that he conveys. In other words, every sermon must first be preached to the preacher. And until it has been absorbed there, then it should not be conveyed.

If you think about it in another way, Timothy is not to be like the jaded schoolteacher or the college professor who is simply plowing his way through material that is ages old and seldom reviewed. You go in his class, and he has a notebook, and you can tell just by looking at his notebook that it’s been around for a long time. And the holes that used to be in his notes have all been pulled at the edges because he’s gone through them so many times. And there is a listlessness about it. There is a sort of emptiness about it. There’s a sense of old hat about it. The students from previous years will tell you, “You don’t even need to go to his class. He just says the same thing over and over again. He hasn’t reviewed his notes in twenty-five years.”

Every sermon must first be preached to the preacher. And until it has been absorbed there, then it should not be conveyed.

Now, there’s a kind of preaching that’s just like that. You go, and you listen to it, and you say, “This guy is just banging out the same old stuff. I think he’s pulling stuff from somewhere. He did it once here, once there, once somewhere else. He’s got, like, a big tin drum of porridge that he lets go cold, and then every so often he scoops some of it out, puts it in a microwave, and tries to offer it to anybody, any unsuspecting person.”

“Timothy, don’t do that. You yourself, Timothy, you need to be nourished by these things. You need to be dwelling on the great truths. You need to be following the path. If you’re not on the path, you can’t lead others.” In other words, Timothy’s careful investigation is the basis for his public proclamation. No careful investigation, no private application: no ground for public proclamation. Why would anybody ever want to listen? Nobody needs a lecture. But they need to hear from God. “Timothy, if you don’t follow, you can’t lead. If you’re not in the Word, you can’t give out the Word. If you’re not nourished, you can’t nourish.”

Now, the second dimension of the direction that Timothy is to take can be summarized in simply saying, “Make spiritual fitness a priority.” “Make spiritual fitness a priority.” It’s there in the final phrase of verse 7: “Train yourself to be godly.” It’s preceded by a “don’t.” In point of fact, you can go through the whole of this section and discover that it’s just a whole series of dos and don’ts: “Don’t listen to godless myths and old wives’ tales; do train yourself to be godly. Do this; don’t do that.” So on. The whole list of dos and don’ts are vital in order that Timothy’s ministry might be effective. People say, “Well, I don’t like lists of dos and don’ts. That’s not what it’s all about.” Of course it’s what it’s all about! The whole of life is about dos and don’ts: “Do brush your teeth. Don’t leave the tap running. Do comb your hair. Do be here in time. Don’t say one thing and do another.” It’s all about it. It’s about stop signs, and it’s about green lights. And in the relationship of pastor to teachers and teachers to congregation, the whole dimension is clear.

“And the emphasis,” he says, “is to be on training yourself in godliness, not listening to unholy myths that resemble the tall stories that are told by credulous old women.” This is a colloquialism. It’s not a slam on old women, per se, but it’s an understood phrase. It’s common parlance: “old wives’ tales”—the idea of people sitting around listening to tall stories that have got no essential substance. Paul says, “You don’t want to get involved in that stuff.” In fact, he uses a word that is vital. He says, “Have nothing to do with godless myths.” Turn away from godless myths. Refuse godless myths. Don’t be intrigued by them.

Tremendous amount of stuff on Christian radio at the moment that is all about godless myths: “Tune in, and we’ll give you a half an hour of explanation of godless myths. We’ll explain this myth and that myth and the next myth.” And so we’ve got all these people being instructed in godless myths. We don’t need to find out about godless myths! We need to find out about the Bible! We don’t need to be inculcated in the nature of error. We need to be discovering the basis of truth. And that’s what he’s saying to him: “Don’t get yourself off on this track, because if you spend all your time down there, then you will never be able to nurture your congregation. And if you don’t nurture your congregation, then the congregation won’t grow. And if they don’t grow, then they won’t grow up to be able to discriminate between credulous tales and the truth of the gospel. So Timothy,” he says, “here’s your direction: make sure that you’re following, or you can’t lead; and make sure that your emphasis is on godliness.”

Now, the phraseology is very helpful. The verb is gymnaze, from which we get our word gymnasium, and the noun is eusebeia, which is the word “godliness.” For any of you who are from somewhere beyond the United States and have a modicum of interest in soccer, you will recognize the word eusebeia. It actually comes out as Eusébio, because Eusébio played for Benfica, and he played for Portugal, and he’s one of the finest soccer players in the world after Pelé. And when his mother and father gave him the name Eusébio, they were giving him a name that had a Greek origin because they hoped one day that this young boy would grow up and train himself in godliness. Now, I don’t how godly he was or he wasn’t, but I do know that he trained himself in soccer to the point of extreme excellence.

And that exactly is the principle that is being laid down here. He says, “[Listen,] physical training is of some value, but” spiritual fitness—or “godliness”—“has value for all things.” Phillips paraphrases it, “[Physical] fitness has a certain value, but spiritual fitness is essential both for this … life and for the life [that’s coming].”[3] And you will notice the emphasis on action: “This is something, Timothy, that you need to do. Train yourself to be godly.” In verse 10: “We labor” and “[we] strive” in relationship to this. When he addresses similar issues in 6:11, he says, “But you, man of God, flee from … this … pursue righteousness …. Fight the good fight …. Take hold of … eternal life.”[4] Those are all doing words. Do you get that? “Train yourself, labor, strive, flee, fight, grab, take hold, pursue.” In other words, it is a call to action. It is a clear reminder that our growth in grace calls for an obedience to the will of God which requires strenuous self-discipline. Strenuous self-discipline. Can I ask you a question this morning? How much of your Christian life and mine is marked by strenuous self-discipline?

I’ve told you before that when I was twelve, I got a tracksuit for the first time in my life. I can remember exactly the store I got it in. It’s probably not there anymore. It was on the Paisley Road West in Glasgow. It was royal blue and white—matched the colors of the soccer team that has been my soccer team for all of my life. And I thought the possession of a tracksuit would make me an athlete. I was so dumb that I thought if you wore this thing, you became an athlete. I didn’t realize that this was only something that athletes wore because they perspired so much, and they worked so hard, and they needed it when they cooled down. But I never cooled down, because I never warmed up. So I never needed it except to walk around. Say, “Hey, looks like an athlete!” He may look like one, but he isn’t. “He looks like a basketball player. Look at those high tops—a hundred and twenty-seven dollars, plus tax!” He may look like one, but he isn’t. “She looks like she could run a hundred meters in 9.3 seconds.” She might look like it; she can’t.

“They look like a very, very disciplined, effective, godly, well-trained, energetic group of dynamic Christians.” Are they? Does the fact that we have the manual and can talk a little bit about it mean that we’re really trained in godliness? Does the fact that we know one or two principles mean that somehow or another, we’re really making progress in the faith? Is it not true to say that in most of our lives, there is a sorry disparity between the amount of time we are prepared to spend on that which means very, very little in the light of eternity (namely, physical fitness) and that which matters in the light of all of eternity (namely, godliness or spiritual fitness)?

Now, don’t feel uncomfortable. Let me apply it to myself. In a good week—and I would like to have a good week sometime soon—in a good week, then I’m going to run on the treadmill four times for a minimum of forty-five minutes. So that’s—four fours are 160. Four fives are twenty. That’s 180. That’s three hours running so that my trousers will still fit. That’s essentially it. We’ve long since given up the idea of Charles Atlas. That’s in another life. This is just so that your trousers fit. Three solid hours! “Okay, Alistair: train yourself to be godly. Have you spent three hours praying in a week lately?” “What? Three hours praying? Are you crazy or something?” Now, I’m sure you folks do much better than me in relationship to this. But I think you get the point.

“Train yourself.” “Train yourself? What?” Yeah. You want somebody else to run on the treadmill for you, so that vicariously, you get fit while I exercise? That would be good. I do the running; you lose the weight. Or you do the lifting; I get the muscles. Good deal! Now, we want to do everything that we can to disciple our congregation: men’s ministry, women’s ministry, youth ministry, children’s ministry—any kind of ministry that’s on the globe. But I want to tell you this: train yourself. Train yourself! Read your Bible! Say your prayers! Buy a good book, read it, underline it, ask questions, make notes. Get your own program going. “Train yourself to be godly.” That’s the emphasis.

Spiritual training is painstaking, dogged commitment to doing the right thing and saying no to the wrong thing. There is no other way.

If that’s the emphasis in pastoral ministry—and what a salutary challenge it is—then it is not in order that the pastors may somehow or another become an elitist group amongst the congregation, but it is only in order that they may in turn be able to help others. If you take the picture of exercise, the guy in the exercise club is supposed to have muscles, for goodness’ sake. He’s not supposed to be there with a gigantic, big beer belly, sitting around. They’d fire his butt out the door if that’s what he looks like. He shouldn’t look like that! Because he’s supposed to be an example! We’re supposed to come in and say, “I’d like to look like you! How do you get to be like you?” The answer is: “Well, let me tell you.”

That’s what he’s saying: “Timothy, you’re going to help other people? They’re going to want to get like you. Now, you know what you’re like, Timothy. Do you really want people to get like you? Well, then you’d better get serious about training yourself.” Nobody’s going to spoon-feed it to you. Nobody’s going to make it happen for you. There is no special program. There is no spiritual ab roller out there that turns you into some spiritual genius within a week and a half. And there are no pills; there is no nothing. Let me tell you what it is: it is painstaking, dogged commitment to doing the right thing and saying no to the wrong thing. There is no other way to spiritual fitness. By God’s enabling, yes, but he employs means as we obey his will and as we persevere in righteousness. He’s not talking about a self-centered ascetic struggle, a kind of externalism that he rebutted last time. He’s talking about the training that is necessary for unhindered progress in the pursuit of God’s purposes.

Now, this statement here in verse 8 he refers to in verse 9 as “a trustworthy saying.” Well, you’re looking at this carefully, and you’re saying, “Well, is it verse 8 that’s the trustworthy saying, or is it verse 10 that’s the trustworthy saying?” Well, it could be verse 8, and it could be verse 10. I personally decided that I was going to tell you that it is verse 8. If, however, it turns out to be verse 10 when we get to heaven, I don’t think I will have harmed you in any way, all right? In fact, if you want to conclude that it is verse 10, then that’s okay. You understand? Because it doesn’t actually alter the truth of either verse 8 or verse 10 whether verse 9 points back or points forward. They’re both true, because they’re both God’s Word. But which is the little statement here, as in 1 Timothy 1:15? I think verse 8 sounds like a trustworthy saying, don’t you? “[Physical] fitness has a certain value, but spiritual fitness is essential both for this … life and for the life to come.” That’s got a kind of ring to it, doesn’t it? That’s the kind of thing you can imagine being repeated around. People say, “Now here’s a trustworthy saying.”

Now, if that’s the case, then this is how it goes: “Here’s a trustworthy saying in verse 8; this deserves full acceptance”—verse 9. “On account of this we are laboring and we are striving”—and the conjunction is not “that” but “because,” which is a justifiable translation. You’ll find it in some versions. “Here’s a trustworthy saying: verse 8. It deserves our full acceptance”—verse 9. “We’re committed to it. We labor and strive in relationship to it.” Why? “Because we have put our hope in the living God. Our lives have been transformed by the power of Christ; therefore, we have a full-blown commitment to spiritual fitness. And the God in whose hands we have placed our life and in whom we hope is the living God who is the Savior of all men potentially and of those who believe actually.” Or, if you like, what the New Testament is teaching here is what it teaches throughout: that the divine mercy of God is universal in its scope, and it is particular in its application.

Now, what follows from that point at the end of verse 10 is a string of imperatives—ten of them, in fact; a succession of commands directly related to Timothy’s life and ministry. And if you were summarizing it—indeed, Paul does summarize it in one phrase at the beginning of verse 16. It is this: “Watch your life and [your] doctrine closely.” “Keep a critical eye on the way your life’s going, and keep a critical eye on the way that your teaching is going.”

Timothy’s Devotion

Now, we know that Timothy was diffident. We know that Timothy, when he went to the Corinthians, was ill at ease.[5] We know that he was physically frail. We know that he was naturally timid. We know that he had to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake, as we’ll see in chapter 5.[6] “But,” says Paul, “any sense of diffidence that you might feel in relationship to the awesomeness of this responsibility you’re going to have to set aside.” And in verse 11, “I want you,” he says, “to command and teach these things.” Even though he may only be in his midthirties, he’s not to allow that to prevent him from being effective in leadership. One rabbi said at thirty, a man is fit for authority; at forty, he is fit for discernment.[7] Well, Timothy was somewhere in this region. And Paul says, “Instead of people looking down on you, they are to look up to you.” How are they going to look up to you? That brings us to our second word, devotion. “Don’t let them look down on you,” he says, “just because you’re a young man.” And many of his elders would have been much older than him—many of them twice his age. And he says, “This is what you need to do: you need to be devoted.”

Now, in verse 13, he makes reference to a devotion which is to three particular areas of responsibility. But we mustn’t jump verse 12, because there are five areas of life and ministry to which he must pay the most careful attention. The first two are particularly public: “speech” and “life.” And then the next three—“love” and “faith” and “purity”—are somewhat more private, but they have public dimensions to them.

Now, here’s the issue: the authority with which Timothy is called to speak is not based upon age and experience but is based upon character. His authority is based upon character. Yes, it is based upon the fact of God’s call. That has preceded these statements. That follows it. It says it again in 2 Timothy.[8] We understand that. But in relationship to the call of God, the character of the man is directly related to the nature of that call. And that’s what makes this so devastating in its challenge.

To Timothy and to all the Timothys that follow: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you[’re] young, but set an example for the believers in speech.” “Speech.” Why did “speech” have to come first? Especially for somebody, as Timothy and those who follow him, whose essential ministry is directly related to the use of their tongues? It’s always intrigued me that when Isaiah, confronted by the holiness of God in chapter 6 and involved in a responsibility of prophetic ministry, that when he is confronted by the holiness of God, what does he say? “I am a man of unclean lips.”[9] In other words, the very means whereby God is getting glory to himself has become, in Isaiah’s life, if he is honest, the very foundation of his own shame.

Now isn’t that often true in your life? That your area of greatest usefulness is at the same time the greatest potential for your downfall? For the danger is that you would take to yourself some esteem as a result of what it is that you’re good at, and then, as a result of that, that would be the very means of your collapse? And Paul says to Timothy, “It’s going to be with your mouth, first of all, that you’re going to be an example. In other words, Timothy, that out of your mouth there don’t come lies and anger and bitterness and double-talk and slander and malice and abuse and filthiness, but out of your mouth comes edification and admonition and tenderness and forgiveness and thanksgiving. For as Solomon says, ‘He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.’”[10]

Loved ones, I’ve got to tell you that I get as far as this, this week—just to speech—and I’m done. I find myself saying, “‘Who is sufficient for these things?’[11] Let somebody else go up.” And just while I’m wrestling with the challenge in relationship to speech, then it comes to “life,” to conduct, to behavior, to lifestyle, to the kind of life that is putting off the old and putting on the new—Colossians 3 or Ephesians 4.[12] And then when you’re just trying to handle that, then it comes to agape love, the self-giving love of the Lord Jesus; and then immediately to the issue of faith, a commitment to the faith, and a commitment to be a man of faith—pistis: that commitment to that which is faith before God, believing that God is able to do exceedingly beyond all that we can ask or even imagine.[13] And then purity!

“Timothy, don’t let anybody look down on you because you’re young. Let me tell you what to do: be an example.”

“Well, what do you have in mind?”

“Well, your mouth, your lifestyle, your loving heart, your faith, and your purity.”

Small wonder that James says, “Let not many of you become teachers, for he who teaches will be judged with greater strictness.”[14] Cross-reference this in your mind with what we were discovering in Hebrews, where it says, “Obey your leaders,” who “keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, [and] not a burden, [because] that would be of no advantage to you.”[15] In what way will the leaders and teachers and elders and pastors give an account? Well, in a multivarious way, but at least in this: we will give an account for our speech, for our lifestyle, for our love, for our faith, and for our purity. Set yourself up against this standard, and ask how well you do. You do bad.

We’re not talking now about public persona. We’re talking about behind closed doors. We’re talking about the reality, the gut-wrenching reality, of where we stand before God. When we drive our cars, when we watch TV, when we read, when we speculate—all of those things—“Hey, this is what I want you to do: be an example. And Timothy, if you’re not going to be an example in this—if you don’t follow, you can’t lead, you are set aside. If you flunk out in this area, Timothy, you’re done!”

“Devote yourself… Once you’ve concluded that you’re going to try and be an example in these things, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.”

“Okay, well I can read the Bible up front. Can do that.”

“And make sure that you devote yourself to preaching.”

“Well, I can go at that.”

“And to teaching.”

“I can give that a go.”

But you see, it’s character, not skill, that’s the issue here. It’s not the brilliance of one’s exposition. It’s not the charm of personality. It’s not the extent of qualifications. It is progress in godliness.

Now, don’t you find that sort of heart-wrenchingly devastating? That “as you minister,” he says, “as a pastor here, Timothy, people are going to watch your progress. And this is the progress that they’re supposed to see: not that you become more able as a communicator, not that you become better at doing this or doing that, the next thing, but that you make progress in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity. ’Cause what you do is what you are.” Unlike politics, unlike sports: “Well, he performs on the court, and what he does behind closed doors on his own time is up to him.” “Well, he’s effective, and the economy is okay, and what happens beyond that is up to him.” Bogus nonsense! And it certainly isn’t true in pastoral ministry.

Now, loved ones, if this means nothing else, it should mean this: that if we’re going to take seriously the Word of God, then we have to earnestly pray for those who are entrusted with the responsibility of facing up to this standard.

It’s character, not skill, that’s the issue here. It’s not the brilliance of one’s exposition. It’s not the charm of personality. It’s not the extent of qualifications. It is progress in godliness.

The public reading of Scripture was the pattern from the synagogues. You can read that in Acts chapter 13. They read from the Old Testament, and then the question from the people in the synagogue was “Does anyone have a word of exhortation?” And so the apostles stood up, and they preached.[16] And their exhortation was to take the instruction and to apply it. If the instruction was a word of comfort, then they brought comfort. It was a word of rebuke: they brought rebuke. Whatever it was, they were bringing the application to bear, and in such a way that the people’s minds were being taught. Didaskalia is the verb here. You see, to preach is not less than teaching. To preach is actually more than teaching, because true preaching is teaching plus explanation and application.

So by what means, then, is error to be refuted? The answer is by the reading, preaching, and teaching of the Bible. “When the congregation is gathered, you’re to read the Scriptures to them, you’re to exhort them to respond, and you’re to teach them its principles.” And anyone, including Timothy, facing the awesome challenge that is conveyed in verses 12 and 13 must inevitably be asking themselves whether they have any basis whatsoever for fulfilling such a task: “Do I have the knowledge? Do I have the ability? Do I have the sound judgment? Is there any progress whatsoever?”

And Timothy, by virtue of his personality, I’m sure had all of those questions. And Paul, it seems, almost anticipates it, and he says, “Listen, I don’t want you to neglect your gift”—verse 14—“which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.” In other words, “Timothy, remember that your subjective sense of God’s hand upon your life was matched by the objective response of the elders and of myself when, in various contexts, we laid hands on you, and God poured out his giftedness upon you. And he has given you the necessary requisites. Now you, Timothy, in light of what he has given, need to train yourself to be godly, because that’s the area of your progress that is most crucial. But when you’re tempted to self-doubt, remember this, and keep going.”

Timothy’s Diligence

That brings me to the final word, which is the word diligence, which you will find in the second word of verse 15: “Be diligent in these matters; [and] give yourself wholly to them.” “Give yourself … to them.” In other words, “Let your mind be absorbed in these pursuits as the body is absorbed in the air that it breathes. Study. Practice. Lose yourself. Be a man of intensity, of total involvement.”

In September, when I was spending a couple of weeks trying to write this manuscript, which I just delivered up, I was in a context where there were a number of the United States Golf Team preparing for the Ryder Cup. And I would give myself the luxury, every so often, of walking up to a corner of the property and watching a number of the United States Ryder Cup team preparing for the event. And I watched them hit the same shot again and again and again and again ad nauseam.

On one occasion, I watched one particular individual, having hit balls for two hours, gone out and played eighteen holes, return to the practice putting green. He walked onto the putting green as I went running. I ran for forty-five minutes, I came back, I took a shower, I got dressed, and about an hour and a half after I had gone out, I went out to dinner. And as I passed the putting green, the same individual was in the exact same spot, eight feet from the cup, still putting—one and a half hours of doing the same thing over and over and over again. And that’s why when you listen to the commentary, one of the commentators will say, “Oh, he has hit this shot many times.” Why? Because he is absolutely diligent. It is an all-consuming passion for him. He is so consumed with it that it’s like the very air that he breathes.

And Paul says, “Timothy, you want to make progress? You want to understand that people see your progress? This is what it’s going to take, son: it’s going to take all of your blood, your sweat, your tears, your dependence upon God, and your absolute commitment to go for the gold. You want to be a good minister? Then your progress will be obvious to all.”

It’s part of the challenge, isn’t it? “So that everyone may see your progress.” The trouble is everybody does see your progress. Everybody’s got a comment about your progress. And so he says, “Watch your life and [your] doctrine closely.” In other words, holy living and sound teaching need to be held together. Or, if you like, personal piety and public ministry have to be the focus of perseverance. It’s not a matter of marginal concern. It’s of crucial importance. And the reason for Paul’s concern that he will be persistent in these things, that he will persevere in them, is because salvation of people’s lives is at stake—first of all Timothy’s, and then those under Timothy’s care.

Now, here’s a little question—you know, a sort of fun thing you can ask somebody at a party: “Do you believe that it’s possible to save yourself?” Any good conservative evangelical will answer, “Absolutely not. It’s not possible to save yourself.” Then you’ll say, “Well, why does Paul say to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, ‘You will save yourself’?” Now, what are you going to say to that? Not a lot at the moment, judging by your faces. So let me tell you.

Clearly, it is the grace of God which saves. But God, who is the author of our salvation, uses means to accomplish his purpose. Right? He doesn’t save in a vacuum. He could. He saves by means. What are the means he uses? He uses the preaching of the Bible. So if you have a pastor that doesn’t preach the Bible because he has no conviction about its rightness and he buys into old myths and funny, funny tales by old women, then he himself will not be saved, and the people who are under his care, they won’t be saved either. Because the means whereby they’ll be saved is in the faithful, continual, persistent reading, preaching, teaching of the Bible. That’s the means that God is prepared to use to bring people to salvation. And therefore, for a pastor to be negligent, first of all, he calls in question his own faith, and then he jeopardizes the potential for faith of others.

You say, “Well I’m not so sure that some of the Reformers would like that kind of line of thought!” Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. Listen to what Calvin said:

Nor should it seem strange that Paul ascribes to Timothy the work of saving the Church, for all that are won for God are saved and it is by the preaching of the Gospel that we are gathered to Christ. And just as the unfaithfulness or negligence of a pastor is fatal to the Church, so it is right for its salvation to be ascribed to his faithfulness and diligence. It is indeed true that it is God alone who saves and not even the smallest part of His glory can rightly be transferred to men. But God’s glory is in no way diminished by His using the labour of men in bestowing salvation.”[17]

Lenski: “God alone saves …. Yet he saves by means …, and it is thus that one who uses and applies these means can very properly be said to save both himself and others.”[18]

What does it mean to be a good minister? It means you’d better follow, or you can’t lead. It means you’d better pay careful attention to training yourself in godliness; that will have immediate ramifications in relationship to your mouth, your lifestyle, your love, your faith, and your personal purity. And in terms of the function, you’d better be diligent and devoted to reading the Bible, preaching the Bible, and teaching the Bible. And if that’s going to be the all-consuming passion of your life, then you’re not going to be able to talk to every person that wants to talk to you. You’re not going to be able to attend every meeting that everybody conceived of. You’re not going to be a part of every request that comes your way.

If you do that and if you want that, then you diminish the ability under God that I have to convey to you the truth that is necessary, to which I’ve been called. Now, you want me to do something else? That’s fine. But every time you call and say, “You’re the only one with the answer to the question,” number one, you’re wrong; number two, you’re diminishing the nature of plurality in the eldership; and number three, you are severely hampering the potential for you to be nurtured in the deep truths of the faith. Because if I myself do not have the opportunity to be nourished, there is not a chance in the wide world that you will be nourished simply because I stand up and talk from behind this box. ’Cause I am not up here to give lectures or to pontificate, but I am somehow or another to unearth the truth of God’s Word and convey it to you in a way that, after my departure, you will be able to bring these things to recollection, and you will continue in the faith.

“Who is sufficient for these things?” No wonder Paul says, “[Don’t you] know that in a race all the runners run, … only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.” You’re in the game, you train. If you’re not training, you’re not really in the game. “They do it to get a crown that will not last;… we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” They’re going to go in a box, and their biceps will disintegrate. “Therefore, I do[n’t] run like a man running aimlessly; I do[n’t] fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body … [I] make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”[19] “That after [having] preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified [from] the prize.” Rhetoric on Paul’s part? Reality. Significant for Paul, significant for Timothy, vital for us.

Let’s pray:

Father, take your Word, we pray, and write it in our hearts. Make us a people of the Book. Make us a people that genuinely care. O God, help us in our speech, lifestyle, love, faith, purity. Forgive us our sins. We’re sorry, Lord, for how easy it is for us to make a hash of it, how easy to hide behind giftedness, to be satisfied with splash rather than substance. Help us, we pray, in relationship to the things that we’ve considered, so that out of our discovery of the riches of your grace we may be an encouragement to those who are with us and alongside us, that we may care for those who are in need, for our nation, for our homes, our families, our church.

Thank you for providing so wonderfully for us in every way, materially and practically and spiritually, in the Lord Jesus Christ. Grant that we might worship you with all our hearts, even as we bring our offerings to you now. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] See 2 Timothy 1:5.

[2] 2 Timothy 4:3–4 (paraphrased).

[3] 1 Timothy 4:8 (Phillips).

[4] 1 Timothy 6:11–12 (NIV 1984).

[5] See 1 Corinthians 16:10.

[6] See 1 Timothy 5:23.

[7] m. Avot 5:21.

[8] See 2 Timothy 1:6.

[9] Isaiah 6:5 (NIV 1984).

[10] Proverbs 21:23 (NIV 1984).

[11] 2 Corinthians 2:16 (KJV).

[12] See Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9–10.

[13] See Ephesians 3:20.

[14] James 3:1 (paraphrased).

[15] Hebrews 13:17 (NIV 1984).

[16] See Acts 13:15–16.

[17] John Calvin, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. T. A. Smail, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 248–49.

[18] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (1946; repr. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 650.

[19] 1 Corinthians 9:24–27 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.