On Being Young
2004 and 2005 were two very important years in my life, ones which I remember well. It was in those years that I figured out that I wanted to be a pastor. I went off to go tree planting in order to pay for my theological education, and got some of my first ministry experience leading the church services out in our bush camp.
And that whole journey unfolded against the soundtrack of Switchfoot’s album “The Beautiful Letdown” which I listened to on repeat. “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move” were the perfect anthems for a 19-year old who was just catching a glimpse of what God wanted him to do with his life and felt ready to go take on the world.
One song on that album I remember in particular was “Twenty-Four.” As a 19-year old, Jon Foreman singing about being 24 felt so grown-up to me. I was sure that by the time I was 24 I’d have life figured out. I’d have have arrived.
Here I am today at 34. And the funny thing is that I feel younger today than I did back then. I’m much more aware of my youth and all the experiences I still haven’t had. I no longer get offended when I hear the phrase “young pastor” used to describe me, because it’s true.
Age is a funny thing, isn’t it?
I’m thinking about these things because of our passage today, which has a really personal element to it for me. Timothy was a young pastor when he received this letter. Most scholars estimate he was in his mid-30s, right around my age. And in that day, even though people didn’t tend to live near as long as they do today, he would have been perceived as young.
A Young Herald
And yet there he was, being asked to lead this established church that had been around for years already, very likely filled with people who were years older than him.
And it’s not hard to imagine some of their reactions to his leadership. Some may have been defensive. “Who are you, kid? What do you understand about life?” Some may have been patronizing. “I remember when I was young like you and saw the world so black and white like you do. You know, Timothy, things look a little different as you get older. Try not to be so rigid.”
And it’s against this backdrop that verse 11 is to startling. Because Timothy is told, in light of what we heard last week, to “Command and teach these things” (1 Timothy 4:11).
Notice what Paul doesn’t say here. He doesn’t say “Timothy, suggest these things. Recommend them, but stop there. You’re young, and people won’t take you seriously until you’re a bit older. They’re going to dismiss all of your zeal and passion as mere youthfulness. So until I come, just lay low and keep an eye on things. When I get there, I’ll command and teach these things.” That’s not what he says. As a herald of King Jesus, Timothy was to both teach and command the truth. That’s what faithful pastors do.
So what about those who would be put off by his youth? Should he even care in the first place? Or should he just ignore them and keep doing his thing? That’s the advice that young people often get today. “Haters gonna hate, but you go live your truth, man.”
In case you’re wondering, that’s not what Paul says to Timothy. Instead, he tells him that he should notice if people write him off for his age, and he should be concerned about it and he should do something about it. That’s what verse 12 says: “Let no one despise you for your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12a).
Pay attention if it’s happening, and don’t let it happen. So, let’s ask another important question. How was Timothy supposed to do that? How was he supposed to stop people from smugly dismissing him or despising him or ignoring him or refusing to take him seriously because he was young?
Was he supposed to argue with them? Dominate everyone in theological debate? Make his opponents look stupid? Prove how smart he was? Try to intimidate them? Demand their submission?
None of the above. Instead, he is told to make sure that no one despises him for his youth by taking the long, high road of setting an example to the church. “But set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12b). One commentator put it this way: “The antidote to a congregation’s looking down on a pastor is for the pastor to give them something to look up to instead.” 1Denny Burk, 1-2 Timothy and Titus, ESV Expository Commentary (Volume 11), p. 255.
Timothy was to earn their respect by setting an example in speech. His words were to be the kind of words that all Christians should aspire to use. Wise and godly and timely and appropriate. Not just spewing every opinion he had without filtering. He was to set an example in speech.
He was to set an example in conduct. His whole way of life needed to be one that set an example for the way Christians should live. He was to set an example in love. Love is the great defining mark of Jesus’ people, and he had be full of love for God and others. He was to set an example in faith. His faith in God and his trust in God’s promises had to be evident.
And he was to set an example in purity. This word has a focus on sexual purity. In his dealings with women, he was to be way above reproach, showing his church what it looked like to live purely in an impure world.
And as he lived this way, setting an example in all of life, eventually people would stop smirking and making smug comments to each other on the way out of the weekly service. They would be forced to take him seriously because every area of his life was reflecting a mature example of what they knew they should be becoming.
Setting an Example vs. Social Media
Young people in the room, are you listening up? We really like the first half of this verse, don’t we? I remember how much we loved this verse back in youth group. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you’re young!” we’d say, and yet the only example we seemed to be interested in setting was how much pizza we could eat in a single sitting.
The truth is that until you are an example-setter in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity, many older people won’t take you seriously. They will look down on you, maybe even despise you. And if you feel angry or impatient or frustrated by that process, that is a sure sign of just how much growing up you still have to do.
Because one of the sure signs of immaturity is feeling like you can demand and expect what a mature person knows they must earn.
I remember, in some of my younger years, thinking that I had life all figured out and feeling frustrated at the way that people people in my church didn’t really take me seriously. They didn’t ask for my opinion before making decisions. They didn’t seem to realize just how privileged they were to have me as a part of their lives. And it drove me nuts.
So I did what good millennials do. I started a blog. And I filled it with all of my wise and time-tested and snarky opinions. And over time I built up a faithful audience of approximately one reader.
If I could go back in time twelve years, I’d say to myself, “Do you think you have something to say? Do you want people to listen? Then turn off the computer and get out there and set an example. Get to know some real people and start serving them in practical ways. And you’ll know that you’re ready to start sharing your thoughts when people start asking you for them instead of standing on a soapbox and promoting yourself.”
How Timothy Was to Set An Example: In His Ministry
Now Timothy was in a different spot than my 22-year-old-self. He was two or twelve years older and he had been appointed to this ministry. So for him it wasn’t a matter of just lying low and earning a reputation before he could speak publicly. That had already happened, which is why he had been commissioned to this ministry in the first place.
So Timothy was to set an example as he laboured in his ministry. And that’s really what we see described in verses 13-15. Timothy was to give himself wholly to the work before him, so that people would see him grow and witness his example. That’s what verse 15 says, doesn’t it? “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15).
If you take that verse by itself, it sounds like Timothy is supposed to show off. But if you understand it in the context of this passage, you see that it’s just continuing the line of thought from verse 12. Timothy is to fully immerse himself in the work of his ministry so that people can see him improving and growing. And that becomes one of the ways that he sets an example to them.
So what are the “things” that verse 15 is describing, the things he’s supposed to practice and immerse himself in? We see the answer back in verse 13. “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).
These three words basically sum up the work of preaching and teaching. Back then, people didn’t have their own copies of the Bible, and so the public reading of Scripture was a major component in their worship services. And Timothy was to teach that Scripture, explaining what it meant, and he was to exhort the people, which means calling them to believe and obey it.
This was the work of a preaching pastor. And Timothy was to devote himself to that work, giving himself fully to it and resisting the temptation to be distracted by lesser things.
Th is idea of not being sidetracked is expressed in verse 14. “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14).
What do you think of when you hear this word “gift”? I think of Paul’s words from Ephesians 3, which we looked at a few weeks ago: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). Paul’s ministry was a gift.
And it was a gift he had received through the laying on of hands. “The Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2b-3).
So that’s how I’m understanding verse 14. Timothy’s gift was this ministry assignment. And he’s not to neglect it. Not to get sidetracked from the ministry he’s been called to do.
Verse 14 is just a different way of saying what verse 13 says: that he was to continue to devote himself to the work of his ministry. Because this is one of the main ways that he would set an example to his watching congregation.
How Timothy Was to Set An Example: In His Life
Of course, Timothy’s public ministry wasn’t the only area he needed to set an example in. We’ve all known too many stories of men who were great in the pulpit, but their private lives were in shambles. So verse 16 says, “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” (1 Timothy 4:16).
The NIV translates the first part of this verse, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16, NIV). We shouldn’t be surprised to hear that Timothy needs to be careful about his teaching or doctrine. Much of this letter has been about that. But it’s only one part of the picture. Timothy also must keep a close watch on himself. On his own life.
Those of you who own a vehicle: how do you know that your vehicle is in good shape and that it’s not going to crash and burn the next time you take it out on the road? You keep a close watch on it. You watch the dash to make sure that all the systems are healthy. You lift the hood every so often and take a look underneath. You keep a close watch on it so that you notice when you’re low on gas, or when your oil needs to be changed or your tires need to be inflated, and you can make the necessary changes.
That’s the way Timothy needed to be with his own life. Regular, intentional self-evaluation to make sure that he was still doing OK and that he was still growing spiritually. To make sure there weren’t any slow leaks in his soul that he wasn’t noticing.
I’m not sure what deliberate practices Timothy embraced in order to obey this command. One way I put this into practice is to send an email each week to the other men on the board in which I answer fourteen questions about how I’m doing in various areas of my life. The accountability is an important part of that, but perhaps more importantly is the discipline of keeping a close and deliberate watch on myself.
It’s hard to overstate just how important it is for those in public ministry to keep a close watch on both their doctrine and their lives. Verse 16 goes on to state why in the strongest language possible: “Persist in this (i.e. persist in keeping a close watch on yourself and on the teaching), for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Obviously Timothy is not going to save his hearers in the way that Jesus saves us. Paul has just written in verse 10 that God is our saviour.
But God uses faithful pastors in his work of keeping and preserving his people until their final salvation at the return of Christ. And if Timothy was to crash and burn, what kind of damage of questions would that raise about his salvation? What kind of damage would that do to the name of Jesus in the community? How many people in his church would say “The church is full of hypocrites!” and walk away entirely?
Timothy’s close watch on himself is one of the means that Jesus will use as a part of His work of saving His people and keeping them to the end. And that’s the sense of this phrase here. As he keeps a close watch on himself and his teaching, he is being used as God’s agent in the final and full salvation of himself and his hearers.
It would be hard to do better in expressing just how important it was for him to practice this and so set an example in this way.
How Timothy Was to Set An Example: In His Relationships
So there two two big areas in which Timothy is to set an example. There’s his public ministry in verses 13-15. There’s his private life in verse 16. And thirdly, in verses 1-2 of chapter 5, we see that he is to set an example in his relationships.
Some of your Bibles might suggest that these two verses are part of a new section, disconnected from chapter 4. But I want to suggest that they are connected. One connection is that word “purity,” up in verse 12 where Timothy is to set an example in purity. And then in chapter 5, Timothy is told to treat younger women as sisters, in all purity.
So I’m suggesting that verses 1-2 of chapter 5 are just a continuation of these instructions for how Timothy was to set an example to his congregation. He was to set an example as he devoted himself to his ministry, and kept a close watch on his own life, and now, thirdly, in his relationships with others in the church.
And what these verses tell us is that Timothy was to set an example by relating to others in his church the same way he would relate to his family members. So, verse 1 tells us, Timothy was not to rebuke an older man, but encourage him as he would his father.
This is really interesting, isn’t it? Even though Timothy wasn’t supposed to let people despise him for his youth, he still needed to remember he was young. And when dealing with older men, he was to treat them with the respect he’d show his own father.
And it continued to all groups. Younger men he was to treat like brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, in all purity.
Now let’s ask an important question. Are verses 1-2 only talking about rebuking? That is where they start. “Do not rebuke an older man.” But by the time we get to the end of verse 2, I think we’ve moved beyond that initial idea, and we’re talking about how to treat these people in every realm of our lives.
One reason I say this is that in verse 2, Timothy is told to treat older women as mothers. And beginning in verse 3, Paul says that if a widow in the church did not have any children of her own to provide for her, then the church was to take up that responsibility and take care of her themselves. In other words, they were to treat her like a mother, just like verse 2 says, by caring for her needs.
So that’s one reason I look at verses 1-2 and conclude that this is about way more than just rebuking. This is about relationships in general. Timothy was to set an example by treating his church family like they really were: his family.
I want to zero in on one idea here verse 2, where Paul says that Timothy was to relate to younger women as sisters, in all purity. Like we saw, this connects up to verse 12. This is how Timothy sets an example in matters of sexual purity: by treating younger women as sisters.
Young men, look around this room and see the young women here. If you are a part of the family of Christ, these are your sisters. You must treat them as sisters and nothing more.
Aimee and I found this passage very helpful when we were dating. See, here in North America, people have invented this relationship status called “dating,” and the attitude, even among Christians, seems to be that if you are dating you’re allowed to get physically involved with each other and do all kinds of things, as long as you don’t cross the line, you know. And yet, if a married person did those same things with someone who was not their spouse, we would consider them to have broken their wedding vows.
It’s bonkers and it’s completely unbiblical. And it’s not working. 80% of Christians are crossing the line and saying goodbye to their virginity before they get married. Because once you unlock the gun cabinet, take the gun out, put a bullet in the chamber, pull the hammer back, and walk around with your finger on the trigger, sooner or later you’re going to slip and shoot something. And your first mistake happened way back when you put the key in the lock.
And so Aimee and I looked at this verse and said, “Until we are married, which would be awesome, what is physically appropriate between us as a dating couple is what would be physically appropriate between a brother and a sister, and no more.”
And we made ourselves accountable to other people who would hold us to that standard. And if we needed to be alone, we’d meet at Starbucks instead of in her apartment, because that what it means to flee sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18). And by God’s grace, we made it to our wedding day with zero regrets. And I don’t share that to brag, I share that to encourage you that it’s possible. And this is what Paul is instructing Timothy to do. To set an example in purity by treating the young women in his life the way he would treat a sister. Not less than that, and certainly not more.
What Does This Mean For Us?
So, what does all of this mean for us? I know what this passage means for me, because I’m in Timothy’s shoes. Those of you here today who are thinking about or headed towards pastoral ministry, applying this passage is easy. Just do it, in the strength of your Saviour.
Now, what if you’re here today, and you’re young, but being a pastor isn’t in your future. You haven’t been tasked to “command and teach these things.” And yet, I hope you want to do more with your life than just waste it on entertainment. I hope you want to make a difference in people’s lives. I hope you want to do your part to build up the body of Christ.
And as you do that, you’re going to run into people who are tempted to despise you for your youth. And when that happens, don’t get angry. Don’t be like a typical millennial who expects everything and doesn’t think they need to work for any of it. Put your phone down and get to work, in the power of the Holy Spirit, by setting an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. Train yourself for godliness, like we heard last week. And watch and see what the Lord might do through you.
Now what if you’re not young? What do you do with a passage like this?
I have two requests for those of you here today who are older than I am. First, please don’t ever despise someone just for being young. Sometimes God has young people do important jobs. Sometimes young people see things that older people don’t. I’m already experiencing this at home. My six-year-old sees things that I miss and gets some things right that I get wrong. And that shouldn’t threaten me, because it’s not about me in the first place.
Old and young need one another, especially in the church.
My second request is simple. Those who are older, please also set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. This church is full of young people who are hungry for role models, mentors, and people who show them what it looks like to follow Jesus with their whole lives.
Like Marvin told us a couple of weeks ago, you have so much to share. Please do that. Please invest in the next generation instead of being threatened by them. That’s the only thing that’s going to keep our church healthy into the future.