Please have a seat and turn to 1 Timothy 4.6-16. It's good to be back with you on the JPC site after having had the privilege of both spending the last three months at our other site in Benwell, where there have been many encouragements as Christ builds his church, and of working with the St Joseph's team who have been, at least in my opinion, good servants of Christ, which is our theme from verse 6 of this letter to a younger minister and to the church in Ephesus. But what does it mean to be a good servant of Christ, whether you're at SJB or JPC? One thing it's certainly not about is trying to earn acceptance with God and a place in heaven. That's impossible. None of us are or can be good enough for God because of our sin which separates us from a holy God. Life with God now and forever is a wonderful gift which we receive only by grace, through faith in Christ, who dealt with our sin on the cross, and not by works. So we're not saved by good works but we are saved for good works, Ephesians 2 tells us. We're saved to serve Christ, in response to what he's done for us. So let's look at being good servants of Christ Jesus from 1 Timothy 4.
I'll never forget my first trip to our partners in the gospel at St Phillip's Community Centre in rural Kenya. You learn very quickly that being a good servant of Christ Jesus in Kenya involves being ready to preach the word at any time – "in season and out of season" as Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 4.2 – "being always ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you" as Peter puts it in 1 Peter 3.15, even when you're least expecting it. I was visiting a school where you're expected to address each class with a brief gospel message. I asked the head teacher if I could have the address of the school as it would be great to keep in touch. To my amazement he then went outside, stopped all the lessons and gathered all the children and teachers (about 300) to hear me address them. He thought I'd said 'can I address the school'!
Earlier I was invited to visit the local Anglican theological college. The Bishop was to be preaching to all the students that evening. You can probably guess what happened next. The Bishop couldn't make it so at the last minute I was asked to step into the breach. With the help of the Holy Spirit I managed to deliver a message on Acts 20. Following that I was asked to do a Q&A with the whole student body over dinner which largely involved talking about the false teaching in the Church of England. The Principal of the college said to me – 'thank you, you are a good servant of Christ, always ready to preach the Word of God, the truth and refute error.'
And although 1 Timothy was written to a church leader (the church at Ephesus was also meant to be reading this letter), we're all called to be good servants of Christ, to be ready to speak the word of truth in love in situations where it's being refuted to those who are tempted to depart from the truth, and to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us. We all come across such opportunities. We all often fail to make the most of them whether by what we don't say or by not practising what we preach. But Paul's encouraging us here to take those opportunities, to teach the word and not to be tempted by lies as those who are departing from the faith are. But how well do we know the Bible, and if we do, are we living it and teaching it or just studying it? Timothy and the church in Ephesus were to devote themselves to the public reading (and therefore hearing and practising) of Scripture.
After writing this I popped down to the shop and as often happens the Muslim owner asked what I've been doing for the church. He's always asking questions about Islam and Christianity. So I told him about 1 Timothy 4. He said, "Yes the Imam's always telling us to avoid the devil. But how can you be sure there's forgiveness? How can you be sure that you'll survive the judgment? The Imam says by going to Mecca – if you can afford it – that's how you find forgiveness. But I don't believe that." "No, I don't either", I replied, "the only answer is Jesus". The opportunities are there and in the wider church too where the false gospel of 'salvation by works' can predominate, along with universalism and false 'prophecy' claiming that the Spirit is leading us to a new sexual ethic.
You see the context for verses 6-16 is verses 1-5, which is one long sentence in the original. Paul is quite upfront about the context in which Gospel ministry will take place, namely that of false teaching and a falling away from the faith. Sometimes I'm asked, 'How on earth can you do ministry in a mixed denomination like the Church of England with all the false teaching that is floating around?' The answer is that I try to do it as Timothy was meant to do it in Ephesus with all the false teaching that was floating around then. He didn't just 'up sticks' because it was hard. And we should still pray for reform. Now, of course, if the Church of England officially departed from its doctrinal basis and threw out the theology of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles and adopted clearly unbiblical ethics, then I could not remain identified with that group. They would be departing from the faith. And, of course, we're already part of GAFCON within the wider Anglican Communion which sees its unity and authority around the gospel and the Word of God rather than Canterbury. But whether it's the current difficult situation, or a future point of no return, such a taxing situation shouldn't take us completely by surprise. As we're told in verse 1:
"The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith."
This may be a reference to what Jesus himself foretold in Matthew 24.4-5, of people who would rise up to deceive and even be able to perform signs and wonders to back up their claims. Jesus said:
"See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray."
Paul had warned of this happening in Acts 20.29-31 in Ephesus itself:
"I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert…"
That's a prophecy of the Spirit if ever there was one. And we must be clear about the seriousness of the situation - 'in later times some will depart from the faith.' You know it's hard enough persuading people to embrace the faith, so you can imagine how incredibly discouraging it is to see people turning aside from the faith having once appeared to have accepted it. This is one of the major strains of ministry, working with people you love, seeing what you think is progress and then they're nowhere to be seen, even people who once occupied positions of responsibility in the church – that's the real heartbreaker. And it's heart-breaking not just because it slows the growth of the church and may cause you to question your abilities as a minister, but because these people are now putting their eternal destiny in jeopardy. And that should cause any minister real anguish, because we care that much - or should do. But we're left in no doubt as to the source of the situation (v1):
"devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons"
Some make much of demon possession or demon oppression, but here we're given insight into the main method which the devil uses to dupe people and turn them away from the truth, namely the teaching of lies. This was the method used in the Garden of Eden, this was what Israel had to constantly battle (and often failed), with this Satan tried to trip up Jesus in the wilderness, and this is the main battle front of the church and it's here that the most vigorous defence has to be mounted. Now, the form in which these doctrines of demons was showing itself in Ephesus was in a very religious guise. But both of the things mentioned regarding marriage and food would fall into the category of 'traditions of men' whereas Paul draws us back to the word of God, to Genesis 1 which is behind what he states in verse 4:
"…everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving"
You see, it's thanklessness which leads to idolatry, as Paul teaches in Romans 1:21. It's gratitude which will help us guard against discontentment and help us be alert to the devil and his servants who would use such unease to cause us to be on the look-out for other things which appear more attractive and more spiritual. You see, if you're happy and thankful with what God is giving you then you won't be so gullible when others come offering you something else. Gratitude is fuel for trust. Starve the fuel of gratitude and the flame of trust will soon be extinguished. And so if we ourselves aren't grateful and full of thanksgiving, that's when we'll be tempted to be unhappy with our lot, engage in self-pity, become bitter towards God and may even find ourselves entertaining the doctrine of demons. And if a church has an ungrateful pastor, the church will soon become ungrateful and so be more open to doctrines which will lead them astray. So pray for us! So, on to verses 6-10 and to:
The Discipline of the Ministry
You see here a contrast is being put forward with what's just gone before. The false teachers behave and teach in one way, God's minister behaves and teaches in another way. Verse 6:
"If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed."
Now while God's people need to be alerted to the false doctrines, it's not to end there. The temptation for the younger minister when facing trouble in the church is to come out with both barrels blazing, shooting not only the teaching but the teachers plus other people who get caught up in the crossfire - spiritual collateral damage with bodies strewn across the pews. It's not a pretty sight. Such ministers end up spending an inordinate amount of time refuting error, that they don't have time to preach the truth. One of the best ways to deal with error is to make the truth attractive or in Charles Simeon's words to 'preach up the truth'. There's the story of a man who preached a sermon on the 20 errors of the Roman Catholic mass. It would've been nice to have had something on the glory of the Holy Communion! We're to keep the main thing the main thing - which is the whole Gospel. Growing churches offer true hope!
And so, Christian leaders are to avoid "irreverent, silly myths" (v7), which are anything but the main thing, and they're to be avoided not simply by not teaching them but also by not getting distracted by them and spending endless amounts of time refuting them. Paul then goes on to draw upon a familiar image to his listeners, that of the gymnasium which is behind the word 'training' in verses 7-10. Those who emphasise bodily discipline do have a point, it is of some value, and given the amount of hard work that people put in to get that six pack, something which I admit I know very little about, then something similar is going to be required to produce the spiritual six pack of godliness. The fact is, Gospel ministry involves sheer hard work, but the rewards are literally out of this world. Just look at verse 10, "for to this end we toil and strive". It's a wrestling metaphor. Do some of you remember the wrestler 'Big Daddy'? Well, we're to have Big Daddy ministers - not necessarily looking like the incredible hulk, as if some of us could, but putting in enough effort in prayer and studying God's Word to produce the equivalent spiritual muscles. Long hours, emotional stress, interrupted nights and perseverance are just some of the things ministry involves. I'm not trying to illicit sympathy. I'm privileged to be involved in ministry. I never want to be an ungrateful minister because you and those at St Joseph's Benwell are just too dear to me. The focus I've to set before me, in the trustworthy saying of verse 10, which is surely what we're all working hard for, is having…
"…our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe."
This is what gets us out of bed in the morning, or even earlier. This is why I agonise and strain, so that folk who don't know Christ will come to know him and those who do will know and serve him better. Finally,
The Devotion of the Ministry (v11-16)
The balance Paul gives here is crucial. There's 'commanding and teaching'. Whether we're young or a bit older like me, ministers have been set apart by God and the church and given a position of authority, and that's not to be shirked. However, the danger, especially when you're young, and some do despise a minister's youth (when you get to my age of 44 – well they say 54 is the new 44 - it's not only students who seem to get younger every year but also some church staff), the temptation is to become authoritarian out of a sense of insecurity- 'you'll do this because I say so'.
Well, a young Scottish minister was rebuked in his early days of his ministry when an older member of the flock came to see him. After some flattering words about his first year at the church, the older man said, "Yes, everything in the garden's lovely - or nearly everything. My boy, the garden's still waiting for the blossoming of one flower without which the garden of no minister can be perfect. I know we're not everything we ought to be, and no doubt we need a lot of scolding; but we'd all be a great deal better if only you would try sometimes instead of lecturing us, to show us you love us!" That's why we have the dual exhortation to set an example by our lips and lives – "…set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (v12). Do you see? And this very much ties in with Paul's parting shot in verses 15 -16:
"Practise these things; immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers."
Paul is saying something like this: if, because of your inexperience or lack of a 'commanding presence', people seem to be rather slow in taking on board what you teach, at least they should be able to look at you and say, 'You know, he does practice what he preaches. Sure, when he came here a few years ago he seemed a bit wet behind the ears, but now, maybe there's something in this Bible stuff after all.'
In short Paul says to Timothy and Christian leaders that they are to be role models. But listen up everybody, not just leaders, given that the church in Ephesus is meant to be reading this letter too. Do you not see what kind of church they, and we, should be if this is the kind of ministry that's to be encouraged? It means we are to be a gospel protecting and spreading, holiness seeking, Word hungry church. Living Godly lives, Growing the church and Changing our Nation – sound familiar? Well let's live it out in the power of the Spirit, being good servants of Christ Jesus.
It's a tiny bit like Leicester City this season who've been good servants of Claudio Ranieri in response to what he's done for them and his wise leadership – yes, older leaders, ministers and people do have much to contribute as well as the younger. They were focussed, played as a team with every player giving their all in their best position, strong defensively and offensively, making the most of every opportunity. And let's plan to do so in a very focussed way this coming October when we'll be having our first multi-site outreach.