In v1-2 of chapter 5 Paul has just mentioned the older and younger men and women in the Ephesian churches and how Timothy should relate to them. He now goes on to look at what the churches' responsibilities are towards widows in the church. In particular he's concerned about the need to support widows who are really in need (v3-8,16) and the widows' qualifications for ministry (v9-15).
The Bible has much to say about widows. And we all need to listen to what it has to say because some of you will be widows at some stage, unless the Lord returns first, if we're not already, and many of us will have dependants who are widows. And indeed the first thing we need to note is that the Bible honours widows in a way which most cultures do not. As John Stott remarks:
"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."
But in the Bible widows, along with orphans and aliens, are valued for who they are in themselves and are to be honoured, protected and cared for. In Psalm 68:5 God is described as a 'defender of widows'. In Exodus 22:22 his people are commanded to be the same:
Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused…
Jesus honoured and was compassionate towards widows throughout the Gospels. In Luke 7:11-12 Jesus restored to life the only son of the widow of Nain. In Luke 18 Jesus commended the persistence of the widow who pursued the unjust judge until he acted. In Mark 12, which was our Gospel reading, Jesus commended the generosity of the poor widow who gave all she had. Also in Mark 12 Jesus warned that those like the scribes, who devour widows houses while at the same time showing off how religious they are, will be punished most severely. From the cross, we read in John 19:25-27, Jesus commended his widowed mother to the care of the disciple whom he loved. John writes:
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother… When Jesus saw his mother there and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son," and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
The early church also showed concern for their widows who had no one to care for them. In Acts 6:1-7 seven gifted leaders were appointed to supervise the daily distribution of food to the widows in the Jerusalem church, leaving the Apostles free to give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. And James 1:27 states this:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Now James is not saying that looking after orphans and widows will earn us a place in heaven. No, the only way to heaven is through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible says in Ephesians 2 that we are saved [from hell] by grace, through faith in Christ, and not by works. Who here this evening needs to put their faith in Jesus Christ for the first time? You may be a widow or a widower who's never done that, but like the widow in v5 of 1 Timothy 5 you now realise that you need to put your hope in God and depend on him. Maybe you've been living for pleasure as in v6 of 1 Timothy 5 but now you realise the emptiness of that and now want your deepest need met. You may be someone who's recently arrived in this country but you've been asking questions about the Christian faith and you know you need to trust Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord. Why not tonight simply ask him to come into your life and to change you from the inside out? Without Christ we are all spiritual orphans defenceless against sin and death. In Christ we are adopted into God's family forever.
What James is saying is that looking after orphans and widows and keeping oneself from being polluted by the world are evidences of true faith. In the next chapter of his letter James says, "Faith without works is dead." We are to be doers of the Word of God not just hearers. We are to look after orphans and widows in their distress. It is pleasing to God. It is religion which is pure and faultless in God's sight.
So it is clear that the church is to give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. We read that in v3 of 1 Timothy 5 where Paul charges Timothy and the church (v7) to 'give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need' and it is my first heading.
The church is to give proper recognition [literally honour or support] to those widows who are really in need.
This verse begs two questions. First, what does it mean to give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need? And second, who are the widows who are really in need?
So, first, what does it mean to give proper recognition or honour to those widows who are really in need? Well looking at v3-16 as a whole it means more than giving respect and emotional support. It also means financial support. Jesus, in Mark 7:9-13, shows that the honour due to parents required by the fifth commandment includes financial provision. Jesus said this to the Pharisees and teachers of the law in those verses:
You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions. For Moses said, 'Honour your father and your mother,' and, 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban' (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.
So honouring widows, whether it is the church or the family, includes material provision.
But which widows qualify for such support by the church? Well Paul makes it very clear to Timothy: only those who are really in need. In fact he makes it clear three times in verses 3, 5 and 16. The church's financial support should be limited to widows who are really in need. So, secondly, who are the widows who are really in need? Verse 5 tells us this:
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.
So the widow who is really in need is destitute, unable to support herself and has no dowry or insurance policy or relatives to support her. She puts her hope in God and asks God for help, like Anna, the prophetess and widow of Luke 2:36-38, but in contrast to the widow in v6 who lives for pleasure and so is spiritually dead even while she lives. Loss of a spouse is very hard. My grandmother was a widow for 50 years and she found it hard at times. But we see here that loss is not an excuse for self-indulgence but should lead us to greater dependence on God.
So v5-6 teach us that there are both material and spiritual conditions to the church financially supporting widows. The material condition is destitution and the spiritual condition is godliness. The church is not required to financially support all widows. The church at Ephesus was obviously supporting some widows whom their own family should have been maintaining. However the care of those widows who are really in need is not to be a personal ministry of Timothy, says Paul, or today David Holloway, but is to be a church responsibility. Look at v7. Paul says to Timothy:
Give the people these instructions, too, so that no-one may be open to blame.
Therefore the church is to develop a practical programme for the care of widows.
But we need to ask what does this mean for us as a church in Britain today when there is a social security system? And what about widowers?
Yes there are widow's benefits available from the government to provide financial support following the husband's death, one of which also applies to widowers. There are conditions - they are dependent on the late husband's National Insurance contributions. So there could be widows in our congregation who need financial help. There could be widows who come from overseas who need financial help. And I see no reason why destitute, godly widowers could not be assisted too. We are to honour fathers and mothers. And Galatians 6:10 says:
… let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
However widowers have traditionally been less financially needy than widows.
We can also be helping to provide for destitute but godly widows in very needy areas of the world through organisations such as TEAR Fund. One American Christian charity called HOPE helps to support widows in the Middle East. One widow they helped was Sheikha who recently became a Christian. This is their report:
'Sheikha has no idea where or when she was born, though it was about 60 years ago. Her Bedouin family roamed across vast areas of the Middle East. Today, her tribe is forced to live in a fixed location because their nomadic ways are unwelcome by landowners and considered a security threat by governments.
Sheikha's life fell short of the noble designs her parents had for her.
Where she lives is not really part of any country. There is barely a government. Fierce fighting flares between Jews and Arabs only a few miles away. On top of all that, the husband with whom she had 6 children died, leaving Sheikha to fend for herself and a severely disabled daughter.
Though uneducated, Sheikha is resourceful nonetheless. She scraped together all the cash she could, bought a couple of junkyard buses, and had them towed to her village of 1,500 people. Sheikha and her daughter live in one old bus. She wanted to open a little convenience market in the shell of the other. What made her plan work was a loan from a Christian organization called HOPE.
She borrowed the money she needed to fill her shop with practical, small items like soap, school supplies, and basic medicines. It is a great service to the village that didn't have a store, and a great way for Sheikha to make a living. The fact that HOPE is reaching out to her Muslim village makes a big impression. Sheikha said, "I prefer to be with Christians because they feel for the poor who need help. The others didn't look after me, not even my husband."'
We can also help the destitute widows and widowers at Mburi in Kenya. Some go to a group at St Philip's Community Centre which provides them with food, fellowship and an opportunity to earn a little money. But the funds have dried up. The project costs about £50 per week to run. Navajeevana and Lamb Hospital in Bangladesh also reach out to needy widows.
But widows don't just have financial needs. Widows and widowers without family can be especially lonely. Following the death of their spouse they need emotional and spiritual support. Visits, hospitality and fellowship are important. Here at JPC the Monday Group provides daytime fellowship for anyone in their later years including widows and widowers.
But if the widow has family then they should be supporting her financially, not the church, which brings me to my second heading:
Families are to take care of their widows
Look first of all at v4. Paul writes:
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.
Children or grandchildren of widows are to put their religion into practice by caring for them, including financial support if necessary. It is a way of repaying their parents and grandparents who cared for them when they were young and it is pleasing to God. God commands us to honour our parents and says that he has a concern for widows. His people are to obey his commands and share his concerns.
Look secondly at v8.
If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, [he sinks below the level of pagans]; he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Do any of us need to wake up to what Paul is saying? We are to express the faith, not deny the faith. And in an age when the average age of the population continues to rise this is an important issue. Verse 8 tells us that it is a fundamental Christian duty to provide for our relatives. As someone has said: "This is a plain biblical warrant for a life assurance policy." For a life assurance policy is only a self-imposed savings plan for the benefit of our dependants when we die. I've heard some Christians say that we should just trust God about such matters. Well we should trust God but in Matthew 6 Jesus prohibited worry not prudence. So if we have dependants we should take out a life assurance policy. One pastor in Edinburgh used to 'tent make' by selling life assurance to his congregation partly so that widows or orphans would be provided for. And while we're on finance we should all also have a will that provides for dependants and for gospel ministry.
Believers are to spare the church an unnecessary burden by providing for their relatives. Look at v16:
If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.
Well let's now move on to v9-15 where we come to a different issue regarding widows - those who are eligible to be put on a list for 'accountable', 'official' or 'accredited' church ministry and those who are not eligible. Which brings us first to my third heading:
The list of widows
Now some take this list of widows to be referring to those who are eligible for financial provision. But it would appear that some different qualifications apply to v9-15 compared with v3-8. For example, v9-15 includes an age criterion. Later in the early church the 'registered widows' gave themselves to prayer, nursed the sick, visited Christians in prison, evangelised and prepared women for baptism.
Yes there would have been some overlap between widows in v3-8 and v9-15 but I believe that verses 9-10 make it quite clear that Paul is not writing here about a list of widows needing support but about a list of widows capable of offering service. You see loss does not equate with uselessness. Look at those verses and note the three qualifications for being on the list. Paul writes:
No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty
[so the first qualification is seniority and the fact that she is therefore unlikely to marry again (and notice no retirement from Christian work at 60!), the second qualification is that she must have]
… been faithful to her husband, and [thirdly] is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
Such humble, unselfish and costly service would qualify a registered widow to undertake similar ministries to an accredited church worker. She would also need to take a decision to remain unmarried, indeed as we can see from v12, she would need to make a 'pledge' to do so and so be fully available for service. So widows are not just to receive but also to give. Even needy widows can give financially. 'But,' Paul continues, 'as for younger widows do not put them on such a list.' Which brings us to my fourth and final heading:
Now let's not misunderstand. Paul is not saying that younger widows can't serve in any way at all but that they should not be on such an accredited church list. Why not you ask. Well look at v11-15. Paul writes:
As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. [Why not?] For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgement on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge.
[Such younger widows would naturally want to marry again. When their natural sexual impulses become stronger than their commitment to stay single and serve the church. So it would be unfair to put them on the list.]
Besides, [will they be able to concentrate on responsible service?] they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to. So [concludes Paul in v14] I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander [for their hands will be full]. Some have in fact already turned away [from Christ] to follow Satan.'
So for their spiritual benefit Paul counsels younger widows to marry.