Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 15, 2019
1 Timothy 1:12-17 Commentary
We’re heading into a number of weeks reading Paul’s advice and encouragement to his partner in ministry, Timothy. Timothy was Paul’s closest companion in ministry, his trusted confidante, his mentee, someone he trusted to do the important work of guiding the church. Paul trusted Timothy so much that he left Timothy with the embattled Ephesus congregation during a time that Elders (or more generically, leaders with influence) within the congregation were causing very serious dissension. It was to be Timothy’s job to confront the false teachings and teachers, and guide the church back onto the road of unity and healthy faith and doctrine. No small task!
Imagine yourself as Timothy—the sidekick to the confident and more than competent Paul. Compared to Paul, Timothy was young. Compared to Paul, Timothy was of mixed lineage. Compared to Paul, Timothy was timid! What chance did he have of dealing with these influential teachers in the church?
So Paul wrote to Timothy to keep the faith and to fight the good fight. Paul wrote to Timothy to encourage him. Paul wrote to Timothy to establish him as one with authority among the church in Ephesus, because, of course, the whole congregation heard the letter be read.
Our lectionary selection today is just one small example of Paul at his task of uplifting Timothy; how he went about encouraging Timothy is really interesting. In place of the traditional “thanksgiving” section of an epistle, Paul bursts forth in praise of and personal testimony to God’s grace. Paul wrote his story (using “I” or “me” eleven times!) within the context of God’s story in a way that makes clear that it could be anyone’s story!
We’re meant to read between the lines: if God saw Paul as good enough to use, then Timothy, you’re good enough too. If God saw Paul as worthy of love and mercy and grace, then Timothy, you are worthy too. If God came to save Paul, the worst of sinners, then Timothy, God can save you too. If God tells his story and builds his church through the likes of Paul, then Timothy, guess what? God’s doing that through you too.
And guess what, friends? If God saw Paul and Timothy as good enough to use, then we’re good enough too. If God saw Paul and Timothy as worthy of love and mercy and grace, then we are too. If God came to save sinners like Paul and Timothy, God came to save sinners like you and me. And if God tells his story and builds his church through the likes of Paul and Timothy, God continues to tell his story and build his church through each of us.
It reminds me of that children’s song/game, “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” Pardon me if you don’t have the joy of knowing it.
Paul: “Who is God using to build his kingdom?”
the Holy Spirit: “Timothy is used by God to build his kingdom!”
Timothy: “Who me?”
Paul and the Holy Spirit: “Yes, you!”
Timothy: “Couldn’t be!”
the Holy Spirit: “Then who?”
Paul: “Who is God using to build his kingdom?”
the Holy Spirit: “I’m using you to build God’s kingdom!”
Us: “Who me?”
the Holy Spirit: “Yes, you!”
Us: “Couldn’t be!”
the Holy Spirit: “Then who?”
Like Timothy, our self-doubt and comparisons to people who are ‘better’ at it than us can become our stumbling blocks to faithfulness. But it’s not really about our gifts, skills, authority, or our acceptance by a community of faith. It’s about the unfathomably patient Jesus Christ manifesting his character through the story of our lives. Trust that and be faithful.
If that hasn’t convinced you… the root word for “trust/faith” is used six times in the five middle verses of Paul’s testimony. Paul wrote that his ministry (and by association anyone’s ministry) was entrusted to him by God, the same God who also judges Paul faithful. Paul described his sordid past as a time of unbelief (same root word!), and he understood that his faith was the result of the overflowing grace of the Lord. The saying that is “sure and worthy of full acceptance” uses the same root word (as seen by some translations referring to it as a “faithful” or “trustworthy saying”)! And finally, what’s it all this retelling about for Paul? It’s all about others seeing God at work and coming to trust by believing for themselves.
In The Message, Peterson translates verse 16 as, “And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.” In other words, if me, Paul, why not you, Timothy? The people who were being swayed by the bad teachings going down in Ephesus were right on the edge; they could really benefit from a living example of Jesus’ manifold patience and purposes in their midst.
Imagine the confidence this was meant to instill in Timothy. It’s as though Paul was trying to say to Timothy, “Colleague, friend, confidante, you already have everything you need! We have what we need because we know our place and space in Jesus Christ’s story. Jesus strengthens you, finds you faithful, appoints you to his service, pours out his abundant grace and mercy upon you.”
Paul could write that because he knew it to be true. Paul is the foremost of sinners saved by grace, and the prime example of a life shining the work of God. In the verses following our selected text, Paul passed the proverbial baton on to Timothy: “I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made earlier about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience.” (v 18, emphasis added) Prophecies are invitations from God to live in a way that will find yourself within God’s will and plan. What greater plan of God is there than this trustworthy saying worthy of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”? Timothy’s task was to help the people in Ephesus understand how this was true in their lives, turn from their ignorant following of the false teachers, know firsthand the overflowing grace of God. Grace that would produce within each of them the faith and love that is only found in Christ Jesus.
Wowsers! Truly no small task. But the king of the ages, the immortal and invisible, the only God, will be the one who receives the glory and honour, forever and ever. Amen.
Most of us can sing “Amazing Grace” by heart. The famous hymn was written by John Newton, many years after his conversion and entry into the ministry following a career in the slave trade. Newton had a conversion experience during a dangerous storm on a slave ship in 1748, but he didn’t leave the business until his health forced him to retire in 1754. He was eventually ordained, and shortly after that wrote “Faith’s Review and Expectation” (“Amazing Grace’s” original name) in 1772. Like Paul’s text today, this song is Newton’s praise and thanks to God for his abundant and undeserved mercy and grace. Newton sings of God’s grace being the constant agent at work to sustain him, a wretch!
But it isn’t just in the famous hymn that Newton exhibited such similar sentiments to Paul’s about his own past. His tract, “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade,” published in 1788, Newton uses the same sort of language as Paul to describe the work of Jesus in his life. Like Paul, Newton wrote about his past sinful lifestyle: “My headstrong passions and follies plunged me, in early life, into succession of difficulties and hardships…” Like Paul, Newton wrote about being ignorant in his sinfulness, “I should have quitted it sooner, had I considered it, as I now do, to be unlawful and wrong. But I never had a scruple upon this head at the time; nor was such a thought once suggested to me, by any friend. What I did, I did ignorantly; considering it as the line of life which Divine Providence had allotted me…” (emphasis added) Like Paul, Newton gave God the credit: “but the good providence of God, without my expectation and almost against my will, delivered me from those scenes of wickedness and woe…” And finally, like we know it was for Paul’s persecution, Newton named God’s merciful work in bringing an end to his work in the slave trade: he wrote of leaving the Coast of Guinea in 1754 as Captain, not intending for it to be his final trip, “but through the mercy of God it proved so. I fitted out for a fourth voyage, and was upon the point of sailing, when I was arrested by a sudden illness, and I resigned the ship to another Captain.”
Paul and John Newton didn’t try to hide their past. In that same tract he wrote about his deep remorse about his role in the slave trade and how it haunted him: “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
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