1 Timothy 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Good Minister of Christ Jesus
Just as a skillful coach will often return to the basics of the sport to pull the team or a player out of a slump, Paul returns to the basics to keep this church on track. As he seeks to counteract the influences of the false teaching here, he emphasizes one of the most important practical lessons of the Pastoral Epistles: the soundness of a church depends on ministers and leaders who are sound in their faith and practice.
But wait! This teaching applies to all Christians. Yes, in this section Paul focuses on Timothy, the paradigm of the good minister or Christian leader, who must pursue spiritual priorities and pay attention to his lifestyle and calling. But we shouldn't be fooled by the term minister--the principles apply to all believers, just as all believers are to be vitally involved in ministry. The leader or minister is to be a model. In the leader's ministry and life God's Word and its application must be central. Attention to these basics will make a critical difference. As we saw in chapter 1 of this letter, the minister and ministry that accord with God's will are exact opposites of the "enthusiasts" and their version of the faith.
Of course, there are many things that could rightly be identified as "spiritual priorities." Here Paul selects three that are most essential for the development and maintenance of a sound spiritual life.
1. Nourishment from God's Word (4:6). Perhaps the most basic of all is the first, spiritual nourishment. The good minister, the one who will faithfully and ably confront false teachers, will have been brought up in the Christian faith. This might be mistaken as limiting the ministry to those reared in a Christian family, but that is not the meaning. The image is of taking nourishment, and the present tense emphasizes continual action or lifestyle. However, this lifestyle is rooted in firm decisions made in the past, for the good minister has followed the teaching of the faith into the present. Both the faith and the good teaching identify the true gospel or faith in contrast to the perverted doctrines current in that church. This includes not just doctrine but also the practical principles for godly living.
The implication is clear: the Christian leader must be one who has habitually taken nourishment from God's Word and continues to do so. Yet reports from an alarming percentage of pastors and missionaries, among other Christian workers, show that under the weight of ministry responsibilities time spent in the Word of God (and in prayer) becomes irregular and haphazard. This passage makes the dangers of this neglect clear; God's servants must reverse this trend to maintain spiritual health. At the same time, the mature leader must choose carefully the spiritual food to be taken. Godless myths and old wives' tales (v. 7), a certain reference to the false teaching identified in 4:1-3, must be avoided. This does not mean that the minister should be unaware of the competing claims of other popular movements and religions. In fact, Christians ought to understand clearly the trends of thought that are influencing society and its values. But it must be an understanding arrived at and constantly examined through a careful weighing of these trends against God's values. In order to carry out this evaluation, the minister and all believers must be absorbed daily in the good teaching of the faith.
2. Training in godliness (4:7-9). The second priority is that of spiritual training--that is, training in godliness (4:7). The heretics' false teaching (the myths and wives' tales) supported a system of asceticism (the abstinence from certain foods and disparagement of marriage, 4:3). Godliness for them apparently had mainly to do with knowledge of "spiritual" things. The body, they held, could be controlled by rigorous self-denial (physical training, 4:8). But genuine godliness is the life of faith strengthened by training in the Word of God (4:7)--that is, a lifestyle lived in obedience to the good teaching. Paul admits that physical training does have a certain limited value; by means of it one can learn to control physical urges. Godliness, on the other hand, has unlimited value, for it is that life in the power of the Spirit (compare Gal 5:16-24) in which the "whole" believer, in body and spirit, comes to experience the resurrection life of Christ (compare Phil 3:10). Through it the physical passions and propensity to sin can be brought under control, and the reality of the Holy Spirit's operation in the life of the believer becomes evident.
This genuine godliness holds promise for both the present life and the life to come (4:8). So strong was the emphasis on the pursuit of this life in the Spirit in the early church that verse 8 had become a widely accepted saying: the trustworthy saying referred to in verse 9 is verse 8.
3. Mission (4:10). It is the reality of this life-changing salvation that forms the third priority of the good minister and every faithful Christian--the spiritual goal of mission. Spiritual nourishment and spiritual training draw meaning from the hope of salvation. All of the minister's efforts (for this we labor and strive, v. 10) are to be tied to the certain hope in the God who saves. Labor and strive ought not to be placed in parentheses in verse 10 (as in the NIV); these Greek terms together express the idea of "making every possible effort," which suggests a very urgent goal. And, just as in 2:3-4, it is the universal scope of God's plan of salvation (Savior of all men) that compels participation in the mission. Again, as in the earlier passage, the salvation of all is not automatic or unconditional. The qualification that follows (and especially of those who believe) links the execution and success of the mission to the preaching and specifically belief in the gospel (see notes as well as 2:4 commentary). An undertaking of this magnitude urgently requires the participation of every Christian. Why "urgently"? Because all people must be given the opportunity to respond to God. As Paul wrote elsewhere, "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom 10:14-15).
The protection of the church from dangers such as heresy, as well as its return to order, has much to do with the soundness of its leaders. Paul advises his readers to concentrate on the basics: steady nourishment from the Word of God, pursuit of the godly life in the Spirit and the priority of mission. The false teachers in Ephesus had established different priorities as they pushed the church to the brink of destruction.
Timothy remains in view as the instructions address other aspects of the leader's life and the essentials of worship in relation to the effectiveness of ministry.
1. Exemplary Christian lifestyle (4:11-12). After the principles above are considered, the first requirement for an effective ministry is an exemplary Christian lifestyle. On one level this holds true particularly for those who, like Timothy, find themselves in leadership positions in ministry among those who are older and (perhaps) wiser. Nothing bridges the generation gap in the church like the spiritual maturity of the younger. At a more important level, nothing proves the veracity of the gospel as well as evidence of its life-changing power. The example Paul calls for here is that very proof: an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity (v. 12).
Speech and life (better, "conduct") encompass most of the observable life--the visible dimension of godliness. In fact, James places first importance on control of the tongue, which will then provide for control of the rest of one's behavior (Jas 3:2). Through what a Christian says and does the truth of the Christian faith will be either demonstrated or denied, for true spirituality (godliness) is the composite of faith or knowledge of God and its outworking in the believer's life.
Love and faith summarize the Christian life. Paul frequently aligns these two qualities, faith referring to the relationship with Christ and love to activity generated by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:6 explains that genuine Christianity is "faith working through love": a proper knowledge of and commitment to Christ which controls the life of the believer (see 2:15 notes).
Purity alludes to sexual conduct (compare 5:2). Paul singles out this concern undoubtedly because questionable conduct here will ruin the Christian leader's reputation and ministry.
As the list suggests, effective ministry and godliness are inseparable. Remember, as Paul gives these instructions he warns the readers away from the heretics' one-sided, totally subjective concept of spirituality and encourages leaders to be models of the true life in the Spirit that involves the whole person.
2. God-centered worship (4:13). The second requirement for effective ministry is God-centered worship. Under the false teachers' influence, gatherings for worship were degenerating into speculation about "myths" and strange doctrines (1:3-4) and debate about their meaning (1:4; 6:4-5). Paul responds by refocusing attention on God's Word as the source of knowledge about him and the life of faith.
First, he urges consistent practice of the public reading of Scripture (v. 13). This is by no means an innovation; it was already part of Christian worship, having been adopted naturally from Jewish synagogue worship (Lk 4:16; Acts 15:21; 2 Cor 3:14). Its import lies in the way it centers attention on God, who, communicating with his people, initiates and sustains a covenant relationship. Practically, the reading of the lesson also prepares the people for the exposition and application of Scripture.
Second, proper Christian worship will include preaching. The term used here could mean exhortation, encouragement, comfort or an appeal, and it is linked to the Scriptures in Romans 15:4 and Hebrews 12:5. Romans 12:8 reveals that preaching is a Spirit-directed activity (that is, a charisma) of communicating God's message to the people (compare 1 Cor 12:8). The starting point is the conviction that Scripture is always relevant to God's people (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Teaching is the third activity to be consistently practiced in the worship assembly. As with preaching, a special gift is associated with this activity (Rom 12:7).
But how do these two activities differ? Passages such as this one and 1 Timothy 5:17 and Romans 12:7-8 (see also 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11) seem to make a distinction between preaching and teaching, though the Greek terms may vary. But the precise distinction is difficult to pin down. The term used here for preaching (paraklesis) refers to appeals made to believers (Rom 15:4; Heb 13:22) and unbelievers (see 2 Cor 5:20). Teaching, however, is usually linked to the church. Knight may be correct to see the distinction in terms of purpose, preaching being the call to respond to God's Word (which would fit an audience of believers or unbelievers), teaching being the more intellectually oriented communication of Scripture's principles (1992:208). It may be also that the two activities differed in style and tone of delivery. But distinctions based on content (for example, limiting teaching to Christian ethics and preaching to theology) do not seem to be in mind (see Tit 2:10-14). Yet often the two activities must have overlapped considerably: it is hard to imagine teaching without leading the people to response, or preaching without providing a reasoned exposition of a text's principles. Nevertheless, as long as we make room for overlap and avoid distinctions that are too rigid, it seems safe to think of preaching and teaching as two applications of God's Word in the church: (1) the call to response, whether that entails confession, receiving God's encouragement or appropriating his promise, and (2) the building of a solid foundation for living through the systematic teaching of biblical principles that coherently and practically express God's will.
Certainly a worship service includes a good deal more than these three activities, especially elements that are response-oriented: prayer, the singing of hymns, testimony and practical ministering of one to another, observance of the Lord's Supper. Paul was here correcting tendencies introduced by the enthusiasts, and he focuses on the primary tasks of the minister. God's Word, through its reading, preaching and teaching, initiates and sustains spiritual life, and its place in Christian worship is central. Without it there can be no effective ministry.
3. Exercise of spiritual gifts and calling (4:14). A third requirement for effective ministry is the faithful exercise of spiritual gifts. Paul's instruction to Timothy in verse 14 is logically connected with the reference to preaching and teaching.
First, the fact: Timothy has a gift (charisma) for ministry. We know that God has chosen to build and maintain his church by empowering believers to carry out this ministry. The source of power is the Holy Spirit, who manifests himself and releases his power through the spiritual gifts and abilities he distributes to believers (thus the passive was given probably refers to the Spirit's act of giving; see 1 Cor 12:7, 11). It is probably not possible to specify a particular gift here (such as teaching, preaching or leadership--Rom 12:7-8), though we are at least to understand a reference to Timothy's Spirit-given abilities for ministry.
But with the gift comes the responsibility to exercise it for the church (1 Cor 12:14-20). Paul's admonition to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-7 (whether or not the "gifts" and situations are identical--see 2 Tim 1:6-7) underlines the personal responsibility that rests with the "gifted" individual. The gift does not operate independently but finds its release into the church and into the lives of other people through the obedient Christian's decision to serve. And failure to use one's gifts does not affect just the individual, for the ministry of the church as a whole depends on the responsible use of each believer's gift.
Furthermore, the one called to leadership in the church has received God's special appointment. God's choice of Timothy was announced or verified through prophecy and then publicly recognized as the elders laid hands on him (compare 1:18; Acts 13:2-3). Thus both the servant and the congregation were bound to one another in the acknowledgment of God's selection. Ordination in most Christian churches today functions similarly, to recognize God's binding choice and publicly bless the minister for service. The gift makes ministry possible. The calling makes ministry obligatory.
4. Diligence and growth (4:15). Finally, effective ministry requires diligence and progress. Paul describes diligence in two ways: be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them. He is referring to the pattern of lifestyle and ministry just outlined. The first verb means to practice with diligence and carries similar connotations to the "training" metaphor in 4:7. The second phrase means, literally, to "be in these things"--that is, to be absorbed in them. In modern idiom, the minister must "live and breathe" these things.
One reward for dedication like this is progress. Progress in the faith (compare Phil 1:25) would close the mouths of Timothy's older critics. But more important, progress of this kind is evidence of a vital and deepening relationship with the Lord. If the leadership of a church pays diligent attention to personal spiritual priorities and sound worship principles, its ministry is bound to bear fruit.
Following a summary reminder that takes in all of 4:6-15 (Watch your life and your doctrine closely. Persevere in them), Paul describes the end result of the good minister's efforts in Christ as salvation: you will save both yourself and your hearers.
But isn't this rather shortsighted? Not at all. Salvation is indeed the goal, but it must be properly understood. In biblical parlance it signifies a process of development that begins with belief in Christ (conversion) and the gift of new life in the Spirit (regeneration) and will end (our glorification) with the return of Christ. In this life we experience the process of salvation as stages of growth in "Christlikeness," "putting on the new self" (Col 3:11), working out our salvation (Phil 2:12); and many things can impede growth. Essential to growth, however, is the ministry of God's Word in preaching and teaching in the church, from which we draw spiritual nourishment, as well as the modeling of godliness by the more mature for those younger in the faith. Important, too, for the salvation process (especially for the Christian leader) is faithfulness in carrying out the calling of God. Effective ministry is ministry in which the Word of God is applied to individual lives and to all situations in life.