Good evening! We continue on our journey through the book of 1 Timothy and tonight we've got to chapter 5, so please look that up, whether on your phone or in one of the church Bibles where you will find it on page 992.
1 Timothy is a letter, written by a man named Paul who lived around the same time as Jesus. Paul was one of the leaders God used to spread the church from Jerusalem, where it first started, to the whole world. While Paul was in a place called Lystra in Turkey, he met a younger guy called Timothy who became a Christian. Eventually Paul asked Timothy to join his team setting up new churches. Timothy became a close friend and helper of Paul. He went with Paul as he travelled to many places and eventually became the leader of the church in Ephesus, in a different part of Turkey. Paul wrote this letter to him to help him understand how the church needs to be run, and to help him deal with some people who were teaching wrong things and beginning to have an influence. In Paul's own words in 1 Timothy 3.14-15, he tells Timothy that he is writing so that,
"you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth."
Household is another word for family and so my first point tonight is that:
The Church is your Christian Family
If you're going to behave the way you should behave as a church, you need to realise that your church is your spiritual family. And so you need to treat the members of your church the way you would treat members of your own family - older members as your Mum and Dad, and younger ones like your brothers and sisters. Back to chapter 5. Look with me at verses 1 and 2:
"Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity."
When we become Christians we become members of the family of God - God becomes our father and all other believers our spiritual brothers and sisters. As we've just been singing, "When I was lost, you came and rescued me, Reached down into the pit and lifted me... Now I have come into your family, For the Son of God has died for me." Jesus died on the cross so we could be washed clean and adopted into God's family. We've just seen a great illustration of this. Wendy, Belinda, Preston, Kimberly and Alexandra have just publicly declared to us their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and have been baptised. Remember what we said:
"God has received you by baptism into his Church. We welcome you into the Lord's family. We are members together of the body of Christ; We are inheritors together of the kingdom of God; We welcome you."
The Bible is full of instructions that only make sense because we're a family in Christ. Love one another, serve one another, be devoted to one another, pray for one another, bear one another's burdens, be at peace with one another, forgive one another... and so on. That is how we ought to behave, because we are the household of God. We act like we're a family because we are a family. We need to meet regularly with our Christian family and we need to commit to them. And if the time comes for you to move away from Newcastle and JPC - perhaps you're in CYFA and going to University in a few months or a student about to graduate - finding a good local church family where you move to should be one of your top priorities.
The rest of the passage continues the theme of treating older women as mothers and looks at how we should relate to those in our Christian family who are widows. Look at verse 3:
"Honour widows who are truly widows."
When Paul was writing, women were very 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 by which to sustain herself. She would be utterly destitute. We could also include women who have been abandoned by husbands due to divorce and women who have suffered domestic abuse. Let's not kid ourselves that those things don't happen inside the church - they are not confined to the wide world and those affected are also left very exposed.
The principle being taught in verse 3 is that we should honour those in this vulnerable position. The attitude that Timothy and the church are to hold is to be one of respect and he is to treat them with kindness and dignity. 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. Honouring them also means giving emotional and financial support. That is the general principle. Paul goes on to give Timothy specific advice to help him apply that principle to the life of the church in Ephesus. Paul was able to identify three groups of widows:
- Widows who do have biological family able to help them
- Widows who do not have biological family who can help them
- Widows who should not be supported by the church
Paul has three different instructions - one for each category and from that we learn three different lessons tonight. We'll take them one at a time.
2. Christians should look after their own Family
Look at verses 4 and 8:
"But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God." (v4)
"Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." (v8)
In the situation where widows have family within the church, Paul is very clear: the family, and not the church, have the responsibility to look after them. They are responsible for this care and they should not expect the church to do it. In verse 4, Paul says that this care of their parents and grandparents is part of them being godly. In verse 8, he says that not caring for them would be the same as not trusting in God. So, while honouring and looking after widows is never a bad thing, in this situation if the church cares for them it runs the danger of encouraging Christians to neglect their parents - and that would be a bad thing. Paul warns Timothy to be careful not to encourage church members to go against what God has commanded.
Children who honour their parents do what pleases God. We know that from the Ten Commandments. Part of honouring them involves caring for them when the need or opportunity arises. And while we are not saved by our good works, we are saved for good works. Following Jesus is very practical. It involves the head, the heart, and the hands. The head takes in and believes the truths of the gospel, that Jesus died for sinners so we can be forgiven. Our hearts should be fired up by that truth, and then our hands should respond in practical service, out of thankfulness for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We should never play down the role of the head – believing the right things is vital – but neither must we be satisfied with what is just in the head, or even in the heart; godliness and faithfulness is expressed in practical ways, including caring for our parents.
Paul points out that Christians who don't honour their parents when they are in need, look bad to a watching world who don't yet believe in Jesus. Their behaviour is worse than an unbeliever's and will not be attractive. So, Christians should look after their own family. What does this mean for us? That will look different for each of us. Some of us live near our parents, some don't. Some of us are the only child in a family; others can share the care of our parents among lots of siblings. Some of us can afford to support our parents financially, others are painfully aware that we're not able to give them more. Not all our parents need the same amount of support. So while we need to take seriously this command to look after our family, the Lord only asks us to do what we can - not what we can't.
So, what might honouring our parents look like? It involves speaking to them with appropriate respect. It involves the willingness to listen to them and keep in touch with them - loneliness and isolation can often be one of the hardest aspects of growing older, especially after losing a spouse. It may be by helping practically with their house maintenance or helping with paperwork. For others it makes sense at a certain stage for parents to move into our home. Others have medical needs that require professional help. It may be costly - I have friends who have left work at an early age to care for elderly parents. It certainly could involve helping to meet financial needs, if needed and as we are able.
It's also worth saying that as a church family we do have a role to play in supporting each other to care for our elderly parents. Paul is not teaching here that we should never help those with family who can support them or that families should try and do everything all on their own. He just doesn't want our support as a church to discourage Christians from looking after their own families.
3. Christians should look after Members of their Spiritual Family who are in Need
Verse 3 taught us the basic principle:
"Honour widows who are truly widows."
Who is 'truly' a widow? Verse 5:
"She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day"
She is a committed member of our spiritual family and she is in need. Verse 16:
"If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows."
In the situation where there were faithful, godly Christian women in the church who had been bereaved and had no financial support from their own family, Paul is very clear: the church family - together - should look after them. The church needs to develop a practical programme for the care of widows. That is "how one ought to behave in the household of God" (v15).
For some of you, you may find reading that description in verse 5 raises lots of emotions because it describes at least something of your own situation. This widow - and this could just as easily be a widower - has cast all of her considerable cares on God and looks to him for help, having no one else to turn to. For others of us, this is a world that is unknown to us. Perhaps it might help you understand a bit better to hear from someone who's been through it herself. Let me quote a lady called Carol Cornish, from her helpful book 'The Undistracted Widow'.
"Marriage is the most intimate of human relationships. When that relationship is severed by death, intense sorrow follows. I was surprised at the uniqueness and depth of this grief. Over a period of five years, I also lost my father, my mother, my aunt, and my father-in-law. None of these losses, however, compared in intensity to the grief of losing my husband.
My husband died in the late fall, and I distinctly remember being surprised when spring came that I was still alive. I never thought I would make it through the winter. I don't mean that I was suicidal, but each day was so hard that I thought I would just wear out.
Though my husband passed on, my life continued. During daylight hours I was okay, but as the sun set and the winter darkness fell around me, it seemed as if the walls moved closer together. At that time of day I was incredulous that my husband was gone. When I started to cry, I wondered how I would ever stop."
She then quotes from a hymn that helped sooth her aching soul:
"Does Jesus care when I've said "goodbye",
To the dearest on earth to me,
And my sad heart aches,
Till it nearly breaks,
Is it aught to Him? Does He see?
O yes, He cares, I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary,
The long night dreary,
I know my Saviour cares."
So what does this mean for us? It may be true that to some extent, that our social welfare and pension provisions means that widows are not as vulnerable financially as they might have been when Paul wrote his letter. However, we should be careful not to assume too much about the financial state of others. There certainly are people in our church who struggle or have anxieties about their finances and we need to be sensitive to that, and remember what Paul teaches here about being family to one another. We need to be alert for opportunities to give support where we can - financially as well as practically.
That includes being aware of the need not for things but for friends. We need to work hard to ensure that we are not a church family in name only, but also in practice. How can we work harder to include others around our dinner table and during holidays? What does it look like to be family to widows in our church? Those grieving the loss of a husband or the breakdown of a marriage often need substantial support over a long period of time. Will you lovingly walk alongside and support your sister in Christ?
One possible concrete way to respond - if you are free during the day - is to join in and help out with our Primetime group. Speak to Carolyn Hosie or contact the church office if you'd like to volunteer. We could do with help cooking, washing up, offering lifts or simply coming along to enjoying excellent food and good company. There is a range of people involved, but it does include a good number of widows and widowers. Wouldn't it be great to see more students and other younger people there relating together as Christian mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters?
And don't forget that there are many widows in the worldwide church, many of whom will be in often extreme poverty. You can help provide financial assistance for destitute but godly widows in very needy areas of the world through organisations such as Tearfund. St Philip's Community Centre in Mburi, Kenya who we support run a group for widows and widowers, providing them with food, fellowship and an opportunity to earn a little money. Can you give to help support that work? Will you pray for them? Christians should look after members of their spiritual family who are in need.
4. Christians should be Careful not to Support False Teaching or Immorality
The parts of this passage that talk about the third group of widows is perhaps the most complicated and there is some disagreement about what they mean. What is clear is that Pauls says these widows should not be supported by the church. What we also know is that there was a group of people in the church who were teaching wrong things. There are more details in 1 Timothy 4.1-3. Paul warns against false teachers "who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods". Their false gospel was damaging the social and theological foundations of the Church and, as is often the case, was leading people into immorality and living for pleasure instead of to serve God. It needed to be opposed and we need to bear in mind as we look at what he says about how Timothy should deal with them.
It is likely that Paul wants Timothy to take care that as he seeks to support widows in the church, he is not also supporting false teaching or immorality. So he tells him not to automatically enrol everyone on the list of those who should be helped. Rather he is to identify those who have lived as Christian believers - those who believe the truth and who live godly lives. Otherwise there is a danger that the church supports those who damage the reputation of the church. Look at verses 9-15:
"Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. But refuse to enrol younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan."
No doubt some of what is going on here is particular to the situation in Ephesus - so for example looking at verse 14, Paul isn't saying that all widows under 60 must always remarry or remain unsupported. The context in Ephesus of false teaching that forbids marriage means that here Paul is needing to take a stand against that. What is clear from this is that Timothy needed to be both compassionate and discerning as he dealt with complicated decisions in church life. It's very easy to criticise our leaders for either a lack of compassion or a lack of discernment. Instead, perhaps we need to pray for them and for God to give them the wisdom they need! Angus Macleay points out (in his excellent book, Teaching 1 Timothy) that:
"Paul is unashamedly pro-marriage and pro-family in this passage. Of course the church needs to handle these things sensitively, recognising that within its members are those who are single, those who cannot have children and those whose experience of marriage has been dreadful. Nevertheless, marriage and the family were instituted by God as part of His good creation and it is important therefore as a church that we support and uphold these precious things. Though living in a society where there are many threats to marriage and family life, Christians are to be at the forefront of celebrating these good gifts that we have received from God."
So, we've seen more of how one ought to behave in the household of God. Christians should look after their own family, Christians should look after members of their spiritual family who are in need and Christians should be careful not to support false teaching or immorality.