When I was a student I had a friend in the Air Training Corps who was learning to fly. It seemed to me to be a big responsibility. I remember asking what would happen if you were at the controls and failed to hold a steady course. Could you crash the plane? He said, "Yes. But you don't do that. It's the same when you're driving a car." And I realised that was true. If you were driving in heavy traffic, and you deliberately turned the steering wheel away from your steady line, you would cause havoc, and at the very least severe damage to yourself and others.
On 24 March last year, Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year-old co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 from Barcelona to Düsseldorf, locked his captain out of the cockpit and deliberately took the plane into an extreme descent, crashing it into the Alps, and killing himself and 149 others. Whether you are steering a plane, a car, or, as we shall see, a boat, it's vital to hold your course. When we're disciples of Christ, trusting and obeying him, it's vital that we hold our course. That's the message of this next passage from Paul's First Letter to Timothy that we're looking at this evening.
Last week David steered us through the first part of chapter 1, with its strong warning about the dangers of false teaching and the need for Timothy to steer people well clear of it. Now the apostle develops that theme in a different way, focusing on his own experience of being dramatically turned away from the wrong path, and to the truth. But Paul's focus is not really on himself – it's on Jesus above all, and on his experience, and on Timothy, and on two characters who have gone badly off the rails (to bring in a train analogy to add to the planes, cars and boats). Their names are Hymenaeus and Alexander. You could say Paul is writing to Timothy using four pronouns: him; me; them; and you. Him – that's Jesus; me – that's Paul; them – that's Hymenaeus and Alexander; and you – that's Timothy. So I have four headings taking each of those in turn – starting with Jesus, and then turning to Paul, and then Hymenaeus and Alexander, and finally Timothy himself.
So, first, Jesus Came To Save Sinners
This is right at the core of what Paul wants Timothy, and through him us, to hold tight. It's at the heart of this section, there in verse 15:
"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost."
"The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance." That is, "Get this! Are you paying attention?" This in a nutshell is what Paul, back in verse 11, has called:
"… the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted."
And that's in contrast to all the other gospels that the false teachers keep pumping out, whether they're outside the church or inside. Every now and again Paul gives us these little gold nuggets, capturing the essence of the gospel. "Jesus is Lord." "Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath." "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." That's what it's all about and we must not stray off in other directions.
Why did Mike Ashley appoint Rafael Benitez as the manager of Newcastle United? His purpose was clear and direct: to keep Newcastle up; to keep them in the Premiership. That's it. Why did God the Father send Christ Jesus into the world? His purpose was clear and direct: to save sinners.
So many nowadays in the West are denying the uniqueness of Christ, the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Son of God. So many deny that he came – God made man, made flesh. So many deny that we are a world of sinners. Of course everyone complacently agrees that nobody's perfect. But that's not the point here. The point is that we are a world gone right off the rails, in radical rebellion against God our creator, rejecting his rule. We are in dire straits, headed for hell. God's wrath is coming. We need to be rescued.
We are not basically OK as we are. The message of the gospel is not that all would be well if only we realised how wonderful we are and how much God loves us just as we are, with no need for deep change. I don't know how anyone can think that, for instance in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, with 20,000 slaughtered on day one, and 1.25 million casualties in total. But that is the liberal gospel that has swept the Western mainline denominations since then and shipwrecked the faith of even more millions. Richard Neibuhr summed up this liberal so-called gospel so well when he said:
"A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."
That is not the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which the apostle was entrusted. The gospel that we must hang on to is that Christ Jesus came in to the world to save sinners. How? By dying and rising and ascending to the throne of heaven and pouring out his Spirit and promising that he will one day return as Judge and Saviour and King. That is the only gospel that can transform the world and turn around lost lives. It is the only true gospel. Is our grasp of the gospel clear and sharp? It needs to be or our witness will be drained of all spiritual power, and so will be this church. Jesus came to save sinners.
Secondly, Paul The Sinner Was Converted To Give An Example And A Charge For The Glory Of God
This is what wraps around Paul's pithy summary of the gospel, so take a look at verses 12-14, and then 16-17:
"I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus … But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen."
Here is a kind of classic testimony, with Paul describing what he was like before he met Jesus, the transformation that Jesus worked in him, and what he was like now that Christ had taken hold of him and turned his upside-down life the right way up again.
Twice he calls himself the foremost – the worst – of sinners. And although comparisons are not really the point, he was not exaggerating. He had certainly plumbed the depths of sin, in the name of his twisted religion. The nearest contemporary equivalent might be a leading member of ISIS, persecuting and killing Christians as rapidly and comprehensively as opportunity allowed, in the name of his God. In Galatians 1.13 Paul says of himself:
"I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it."
And when he says that Christ showed him mercy because he "had acted ignorantly in unbelief" he's not excusing himself, far from it. Otherwise he wouldn't have been the worst of sinners and he wouldn't have needed mercy. But he hadn't committed what Jesus called "the blasphemy against the [Holy] Spirit" – rejecting Christ when he knew who he was and so turning his back once and for all on his only hope of being saved from his sin.
The grace of Christ had overflowed into his life, filling him with faith in Jesus, and with love for him, and for his new fellow believers, and for the lost who needed the gospel. John Bunyan the Bedford pastor and author of Pilgrim's Progress called his own spiritual autobiography "Grace Abounding To The Chief Of Sinners" – a title borrowed, you might say, from Paul's autobiography here.
Last winter one weekend Vivienne and I were driving into Hexham along the Tyne. As we got close we saw an astonishing scene. The river had completely overflowed its banks and it looked as if it was filling the valley. It was an unforgettable sight. Paul knew that his own hard heart had been similarly flooded by the grace and love of God. He had been utterly changed. Now, he was strong in Christ; faithful; forgiven; serving; believing; loving. Converted. Conversions happen for a purpose. John Newton famously wrote:
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me."
John Newton was converted by God to engage in a lifelong, powerful pastoral ministry – not least the writing of that hymn.
I've been spending a good deal of time over at St Joseph's Benwell. That building, we might way, has been thoroughly converted – for the purpose of being the home to a new church. And already around 240 people are meeting there week by week. God converts for a purpose. Paul was given a new strength, and a new commission in the service of Christ. He was to spend and expend his life for the sake of those he had hated. And Paul saw two purposes lying behind his conversion. The first reason for his conversion was that he should become an example of how no-one was beyond the reach of the grace of Christ. If the grace of God could reach him, it could reach anybody. Maybe that's something you yourself need to hear. The grace of Christ will overflow into the life of the worst of sinners, if only we will receive it by faith. And the second reason that Paul saw for his conversion was so that he would give a charge. In this sense a 'charge' is a serious challenge to someone to think and act in a new way. The charge Paul was to give was the call and the challenge of the gospel – the same charge that he had heard himself from the lips of the risen Jesus. It was a charge that he gave to anyone who would listen. It was a charge that he had given to Timothy, who he called his "true child in the faith".
In every life, this charge takes its own particular form. At this stage of his life, the charge to Timothy was to serve the church in Ephesus, as Paul has said back in chapter 1, verse 3. I was converted, I believe, for the purpose of serving this church. That is my charge. If you are now a disciple of Christ, you too were converted for a purpose. What's your charge from God? Do you know yet? What's your life for? And if you are not yet converted – isn't it about time? Paul's charge comes to you too. Like him, you are called to turn back to God and put your faith in Jesus. God has a good purpose for you too. And, as Paul says in verse 17, it is all the glory of God.
So, first, Jesus came to save sinners. Secondly, Paul the sinner was converted to give an example and a charge for the glory of God.
Thirdly, Some, By Rejecting Paul's Example And Charge, Reject Jesus
This is Paul's point at the end of this section – the last part of verse 19 and verse 20, where he says:
"By rejecting this [that's Paul's gospel charge], some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme."
We don't know much about these two, but it's clear that they had been followers of Jesus. They once had faith in Christ, but they had shipwrecked their faith, and blasphemously rejected Jesus, having once believed in him. What does Paul mean when he says that he had handed them over to Satan? That must mean excommunication – that is, they had been excluded from the life of the church, because they had rejected the basis of its life. And this was done in the hope that they would come to their senses and turn back to Jesus again. They were never going to learn that lesson if their blasphemy was treated as of little consequence.
We do need to take to heart the seriousness of what we are about in the life of the church. This is not a game we're playing. What we believe, and what we teach, and how we live, have eternal consequences.
Last year Vivienne and I visited the Titanic Experience in Belfast. It's a brilliant exhibition. If ever there was a shipwreck, that was it. And a shipwreck is a frightening thing. People die. And lessons need to be learned. When I was a student I was involved with organising an evangelistic event. Our speaker was a brilliant preacher and leading pastor in the city. Years later he made complete shipwreck of his faith, in process causing untold damage to the faith of many others. A shipwreck is a shocking thing. We see it happening in our own families. We see it happening in our denomination, and in our society.
On 13 January 2012 the Costa Concordia was wrecked on an Italian island. 32 people died. The captain was later convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Shipwrecks, like that of Hymenaeus and Alexander, are a warning to us. Some, by rejecting Paul's example and charge, reject Jesus. Don't do it. And don't come under the spell of those who do. Hold on to the faith. So:
Fourthly, Timothy Is To Be Like Paul And Fight For His Faith – And So Are We
This is verse 18 and the start of 19:
"This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience."
It's moving to see the depth of Paul's care for his young team member Timothy, his apprentice in ministry. In chapter 1, verse 2 he's called him "my true child in the faith". Here, again, Paul calls Timothy "my child". And we can get more insight into this spiritually powerful relationship from Paul's Second Letter to Timothy. So in 2 Timothy 1.4-7 Paul writes:
"As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control."
So here in the First Letter, in the light of Timothy's spiritual history, and what we might call his 'ordination' – the formal laying on of hands, and the prophetic commissioning that he had been given, Paul urges Timothy to stick to his task and to wage the good warfare – to fight the good fight.
I don't know if you saw the recent documentary about 'Our Queen At 90'. The Queen is, of course, a remarkable example herself of perseverance in the service of Christ and others. But that programme also included a touching interview with an aged Chelsea Pensioner. This old soldier had fought in the Korean War. In one battle they found themselves fighting against overwhelming odds. But they fought on. Twice he was hit and wounded. And yet still he fought on. He survived. And he was awarded the Victoria Cross. The young Queen Elizabeth pinned it on him. It was the first medal she ever awarded. They were both, he said, very nervous.
We are in a spiritual war, fought not with worldly weapons, but with the weapons of faith, love, the gospel and the word of God. We need to keep aware of the Godly spiritual legacy that has been handed down to us, just as Timothy had such a legacy. Are we faithful to it?
Each one of us has a different section of the front where we're put to fight. What's your own particular battle of faith right now? Where are the attacks coming in your life that you need to watch out for? Do you have a good conscience as we keep short accounts with God, confessing our sins, and allowing the abounding grace of God to overflow our lives again and again? We are to stand fast. We are to keep going. Like Timothy, we are to wage the good warfare – fight the good fight of the faith. We are to hold on to the faith.