We heard last week that the context of Paul's first letter to Timothy is that the apostle Paul is writing to Timothy at Ephesus, about how the church needs to be run, especially in light of the fact that false teachers were beginning to have an influence. In Paul's own words in the third chapter of the letter, he tells Timothy he is writing 'so that you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.'
We also saw how Timothy needed to watch closely over his doctrine, meaning his teaching, and also his life, meaning his conduct, and how his doing so would benefit the congregation. As Dim said, the greatest need we have as a congregation is the holiness of our leaders; and we were exhorted to pray for our leaders here at HTG.
In the first two verses of chapter 5, Paul has instructed Timothy on the right way to treat men who are older than himself, namely that he should respect them as fathers. Likewise, older women should be treated as mothers; younger men are to be given the affection of brothers; and younger women treated with the affection and purity shown to sisters.
And now in verse 3, Paul begins to instruct Timothy on the right way for the church to treat widows.
Widows in need, verses 3-8
Let's reread verses 3 and 4:
Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.
In this passage, Paul describes widows who have a range of different circumstances and different characters, and his instructions vary depending on these factors.
The first group he describes is those who are 'really in need' or 'truly widows', that is women who have not only been bereaved, but who have no financial support. The culture of the day meant that women were dependent on men. If a woman's husband died leaving her without money and without children who could look after her, that woman would have no means to sustain herself. She would be utterly destitute.
The 'proper recognition' that Paul instructs Timothy to show to such widows, can also be translated as 'honour', so it clearly means that the attitude that Timothy and the church are to hold is to be one of respect for these women. In fact, one commentator translates it with the idea that the church is to 'prize' such widows. That in itself is important. As John Stott says in his commentary on this passage, 'Too often a married woman is defined only in relation to her husband. Then if he dies, she loses not only her spouse but her social significance as well.'
So an attitude of respect for these widows in need, would ensure they were treated as significant. The wider culture might look down on them, and even exploit them; but the church would treat them as having value and worth, because the church is a counter cultural institution, whose heart is meant to be God's heart. Paul also intends the church to give practical support to such women.
But in the case of the widows who do have family within the church, Paul is very clear: the family, and not the church, have the responsibility to look after both their parents and grandparents. Paul gives three reasons why this must be done.
First, in verse 4, Paul says that Christians need to 'put their religion into practice'. As Dim said last week, not only church leaders, but all Christians need to keep a close eye on what we believe, and on our life, or our practice. We should think of the Christian faith as involving the head, the heart, and the hands. The head takes in and dwells on the truths of the gospel – that Jesus died for us sinners. Our hearts are to be fired up by that truth, and then our hands respond in service, out of appreciation for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We should never play down the role of the head, as we've already seen – doctrine is vital – but neither must we be satisfied with what is in the head, or even in the heart; no, we are to express the truth and our gladness about it in practical ways.
Second, it is only right for children to repay their parents when the need or opportunity arises. Sometimes parents may be afraid of becoming a burden to their children, but if they have raised their children, there is a natural debt that they are owed. This much even unbelievers would do.
Thirdly, in paying something of this debt, the children are doing what pleases God. They are honouring their parents, which we know from the Ten Commandments is God's will, and a source of blessing for the children themselves, as well as the parents they care for, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6.2. And this motive of pleasing God is the difference between the Christian son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter from their unbelieving counterpart. The Greeks, for example, would show respect for their parents by seeing that they ate before the children did, because it was right to nourish those who had given nourishment in the past; they had a well-developed system of virtue. But the essence of their system was on the horizontal or social plane. Everyone had to give what was owed to others depending on their place in the system; everyone would receive from others according to their place in the same hierarchy. But Christians do things for God's sake, or for Jesus' sake. That overarching motivation gathers up all our lesser motivations such as love for others, and enriches and ennobles them, making them truly and eternally significant.
So widows in need are different from those whose family can support them. But they are also different from a third kind of widow. Look at verses 5-8:
The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
The true widow in verse 5 is one like the prophetess Anna in Luke 2, who lived in the temple at the time when the Lord Jesus was born. She is one who is constantly praying, serving the church through prayer. She is one who has cast all of her considerable cares on God and looks to him for help, having no one else to turn to.
On the other hand, there were those widows who lived for pleasure and Paul describes them in verse 6. Possibly these were women who had turned to prostitution, but at any rate, they were women who had their priorities wrong, and so they receive Paul's condemnation as being a kind of living dead. Sinners, in the Bible, are dead in their sins. They are spiritually dead before God. These women are a picture of that state of spiritual death, living for the moment, for this life, but not for eternity. We need to ask ourselves where our priorities lie, don't we?
And Timothy needs to teach these things to the church, because Paul wants the people to be blameless. The church and the gospel have enemies, and if we do what is blameworthy, people will see and people will point it out to us. That includes living for pleasure; it also includes neglecting our duty to our family, which in Paul's eyes would mean we had 'denied the faith' and would make us 'worse than an unbeliever.' Or, to put the matter positively, when we do what is right, when we show love and care for our own, we are showing what Francis Schaffer called 'the final apologetic'. This means that the love Christians show for one another, and for people outside the church, is the single most powerful argument for the truthfulness of Christianity. Let me repeat that: The love that Christians show for one another and for those outside the church, is the single most powerful argument for the truthfulness of Christianity.
So far then, we have the widow who has nothing and no one, the widow whose family must take responsibility for her, and the widow who lives for pleasure. As Paul continues his letter in verse 9, he focuses on what seems to be yet another class of widows. That brings up our second heading.
Widows who serve the church, verses 9-15
Let's reread verses 9 and 10:
No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband,and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord's people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
There's some degree of disagreement between experts as to whether Paul is talking about the same group mentioned in verses 3-8, or whether this is a separate group. The most sensible solution seems to be that they are two different groups, but that they overlap.
What we can be sure about is the kind of person who belongs to this group and so is entitled to be 'put on the list of widows'. Aside from being over 60, we read at the end of verse 9 and into verse 10 of a woman who is servant hearted; a faithful wife and loving mother; hospitable and humble enough to be found 'washing the feet of the Lord's people'; looking out for people 'in trouble'; and generally devoted to good works. This is a woman reminds us of the wife of noble character from Proverbs 31, our OT reading. She too was a faithful wife, a loving mother, and a person who reached out to those in need, concerned for the spiritual, and the physical well-being of other people. It's thought that widows of this kind made up a group who held some form of ministry within the church. As a point of history, in later centuries, actual orders of widows who ministered to the sick and needy are documented, but we have no compelling evidence that such an order existed in NT times.
As we read on in verses 11-15, we find that Paul once again makes a distinction according to the circumstances and character of different widows:
As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge.Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.
Paul here is obviously referring to previous experience of younger widows who were enrolled by the church, who committed themselves to a life of singleness and service, and then failed to live up to that commitment. Paul gives a frank explanation of this in the second half of verse 11, where he says, 'their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ' so that 'they want to marry'. Now it's clear that Paul is not against marriage as such because back in 1 Timothy 4.3 he gives the strongest criticism of those who 'forbid people to marry'. But these women had made a 'pledge' in verse 12, and then had broken that pledge. In addition in verse 13, such younger widows seem to have been taking advantage of their situation, going from house to house perhaps with a pretense of serving people, but actually they were becoming idle and gossiping or 'talking nonsense, saying things they ought not to.'
And so, as Paul had earlier written to the Corinthian church advising widows that it was good for them to remain single, but that if they were unable to really commit to a single life, they should marry again, so here he says in verse 14
I counsel younger widows to marry, have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.
To our modern ears, this could sound slightly insensitive of Paul, but actually he is just being realistic, and some of us will recognize that in our own lives, we need to have the discipline of family life to keep us from going off the tracks. This brings to mind a conversation on Friday evening when I was talking with a friend from work, and I was bemoaning the fact that before marriage and children, things had seemed very open and exciting for Carla and me. We actually expected to be working in a ministry situation in Portugal. Meanwhile our present life seems to be filled with the constant demands of children, not to mention of things like leaky pipes under the bath and other features of domestic bliss. My friend sympathized, but his conviction was that leaky pipes and all such humdrum aspects of life were blessings in disguise, keeping us anchored in reality and out of mischief. That is something like the realism Paul employs here, I think. These women need a way of life that will make use of their energies and human drives. And if we add in verse 15, that some of the younger widows had turned away from the faith to follow Satan, we can see that Paul is not being harsh, but is showing a proper pastoral concern for these women, and for the church as a whole.
Finally, Paul ends this section by restating the basic responsibility of families:
If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.
The church needs to reach out to those in genuine need; but with its limited resources, it can only do this if those who are able to do so care for their own families. And so he rounds off what would have been for Timothy a very practical section of this letter, as Timothy sought to lead the church at Ephesus.
But what about us? How can we apply Paul's instructions to our very different cultural situation? Unlike widows and other vulnerable groups in Paul's day, people today have the welfare state to look after them. Perhaps Paul's words here are less relevant then?
I don't think that can be true. At Paul's time of writing, the idea of showing concern for widows and orphans and foreigners was well embedded, at least in the Jewish consciousness. Right back in Deuteronomy, where Moses explains the law to the newly formed Israelite nation, there are commands to look after widows and these other vulnerable groups. In the Psalms God is described as 'a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows'. In Isaiah's time, God's people had become slack in these duties, and Isaiah addresses them as Sodom and Gomorrah, identifying them with places of wickedness, urging them to plead the case of the widow as evidence of repentance, of getting back in line with the heart of God. We would be foolish to think we can sidestep the issues Paul addresses Timothy on here just because of some social changes. Let's look at some applications.
Firstly, we should recognize that in the worldwide church, there will be many, many widows who are in poverty. For them and their churches, these words are directly relevant and bang up to date.
Secondly we should be careful not to assume too much about the financial state of people in our own circles at HTG. There could well be people who struggle or have anxieties about their finances, and we need to be sensitive to that, and mindful of the church's ongoing responsibility to those who are part of Christ's body. And though Paul doesn't speak here of the individual believer's responsibility, we surely can't assume that 'the church' must do everything. Many of us have received all manner of support in the past from brothers and sisters in Christ, and we should be alert to opportunities to give support where we can.
Thirdly, we might be living in a day when at least in theory no one needs to starve, but we are also living in a day when people are increasingly isolated from one another. In the time of the New Testament, even a penniless widow would likely have regular contact with people in her community. But things are different today, and we need to work hard to ensure that we are not a church family in name only, but also in practice. And there are plenty of ways that we can support our brothers and sisters apart from financially, for example we can help people with our skills and knowledge. Thabiti Anyabwile, an American pastor, spoke a year ago at 'New Word Alive' about someone in his congregation who went through income tax forms with a widowed lady whose husband had handled that role in the past. Of course, the needs will differ according to the person.
We must also all recognize our familial obligations, and this is directly applicable to our modern setting. I don't want to be simplistic here, and I haven't faced this situation personally, but Paul is clear that we can't be Christians unless we put our religion into practice, and that not to do so makes us deniers of the faith we profess. I can think of people I know who have left work at an early age to care for elderly parents, and these are not Christian people. I need to be challenged by that as I think about my own family and my wife's family in the future.
But I see another application here as we think of the widows who served in the church, which was our second heading. I think we live in an ageist society, and that we are losing a sense of reverence for our elders which is very sad. The church must be different. We should really cherish the older brothers and sisters in our midst. To return to John Stott's observation that widows – and I would add older people in our culture – lose their social significance, we need to be those who honour widows, widowers, and those who are ahead of us in the faith and in the journey that is life. Weave so much to learn from those who are more experienced than ourselves, and they have so much to offer in terms of ministry, just as in Paul and Timothy's day. I quoted the evangelist and Christian thinker, Francis Schaeffer earlier. Schaeffer went to be with the Lord in 1984, while his wife Edith died just a year ago in 2013, almost thirty years later. I'd like to finish with a quote about Edith Schaffer taken from a short biography of Francis and Edith Schaeffer that was written 12 years into Edith's life as a widow:
By his spirit, God often gives widows or widowers more opportunities to serve him, and God demonstrates his power to overcome their tragic loss and bring good out of evil…
By his grace , God has given Edith Schaeffer a wider ministry as a widow than when Fran was alive. To demonstrate the reality of prayer and to show that God is all sufficient to meet every need, God allowed Fran to die before Edith. And God has shown through her that he can accomplish great things through single or widowed individuals who are devoted to honouring him.
In Schaeffer's words, there are 'no little people' when people trust in God and he works through them, because his power is made perfect in our weakness. I pray that this would be an encouragement to all of us to emulate the widow who 'puts all her hope in God', and to know that however humble we might be in the world's eyes, we are the very apple of God's eye.