Timothy, Ephesus and Us
Almost exactly one year ago, on September 9 2018, we began a series called “You Are Here: Finding Our Place in the Biggest Story Ever Told.” That series was my attempt to help us wrap our heads and our hearts around three crucial truths.
First, that the Bible is one story. The Bible is not a disconnected library of individual stories, but fits together into one plot, one story.
Second, that Jesus Christ is the main character of that story. The story is not about us. The storyline of the Bible—all the covenants, all the promises, all the visions of the future—is all focused on Jesus.
The third crucial truth is that we are a part of the story today. We’re not the main characters, but we are the supporting cast, and we have a really important part to play. And so we spent almost half the series exploring how the big story of the Bible impacts our lives at some very practical levels, such as our approach towards work and marriage and family and money. And that’s why we called the series “You Are Here,” as we tried to map out our place in the story and how we are to live it well.
This might surprise some of you to hear, but as I worked my way through this third part of the series last year, I came to realize that there was a major problem with it. A glaring oversight, something big that was missing from the picture. What was missing was any extended reflection on the church.
See, many of the topics that we covered in that last part of the series all had to do with our individual lives. My money. My job. My marriage. My holiness. My suffering. And if we left it there, you could get the impression that our part in the biggest story ever told is a part we play on our own.
But that’s far from the truth. When we look to Scripture we see that the primary shape of our Christian experience is not individual, but corporate. Being a Christian isn’t a solo project. The part that we play in the story is a part we play as a body.
Just think about most of the letters written in the New Testament: were they written to individuals or to churches? The answer is churches. It’s true that those letters do address the individual lives of the people who make up those churches. But there is a very strong emphasis on our life together as the people of God.
Millard Erickson said it this way: “Christianity is a corporate matter, and the Christian life can be fully realized only in relationship to others.”1Erickson, Systematic Theology, p. 1058
This is something that can be hard for us to see here in North America, where our culture is very individualistic. And you may not know what that word “individualism” means, but you know what individualism itself is, because it’s the air we breathe here.
From birth, our culture teaches us to believe that our goals and our desires are more important than the goals and desires of the group we are a part of. We’re trained to rely on ourself and to trust our hearts and to make our own decisions. And when we make discussions, we should choose what’s best for us. What we do, where we live, who we have relationships with, what we spend our time on—it all comes down to what’s best for us and maybe our immediate families.
And more and more, we’re led to believe that our highest goal is to achieve the best version of ourselves and to express ourselves in whatever way we feel. And nothing can get in the way of that. That’s why we live in a world where abortion gets defended as a “women’s right to choose.” It’s why we live in a world where a child who is not old enough to legally drive or be legally employed is able to choose their own gender. This is simply individualism gone to seed.
And it’s no surprise that individualism has infected us in the church. Isn’t it common for us as North American Christians to think of ourselves as a group of individual Christians who just happen to gather once a week, insofar as it’s convenient for us? It’s it all too common for our Christian experience to revolve around our own individual priorities and preferences and opinions?
But this is so far from the truth. Being a Christian is a team sport. It’s something that only really works when we do it together. Kind of like being a football player. You can put on the gear and run up and down a field tossing a ball to yourself, but you’re not really playing football until you join a team and show up to practice and do the training and the drills and then play to win.
Being a Christian is a team sport. If you have been saved by Jesus, you are a part of his body, His church. The part we play in the biggest story ever told is a part we play together.
And as I worked through the series together last year, I realized that some of these elements involving the church were missing, or at least weren’t as prominent as they should be. And so I actually made a change in the subtitle of the series. I wonder if any of you picked up on that. It started off as “Finding your place in the biggest story ever told,” but I changed it to “Finding our place in the biggest story ever told.”
And then I started to make plans to preach a series on the church in May and June to round things out. But as we worked through things as a board we decided to wait until the fall when we could spend a more substantial period of time preaching through a series on the church.
So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take the next twelve months to study three New Testament books: First and Second Timothy and Titus.
These three letters are often referred to as the “Pastoral Epistles,” because Timothy and Titus were pastors, and they were written to give them help and guidance as they led their churches. As we read these letters, we find out so much about the church, what it should look like, and how it’s supposed to function at this place in the story.
The name for this series is “Pillar of the Truth,” and it comes from 1 Timothy chapter 3 verse 14-15: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, 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” (1 Timothy 3:14–15). That’s what’s going on in these letters, especially 1 Timothy and Titus. Instruction on how we ought to behave in the church, which is described as the household of God, the church of the living God, and a pillar and buttress of the truth.
What does that mean for the church to be a pillar and buttress of the truth? Well, we’ll get there in December, Lord willing.
But what I hope you notice is that Paul wrote these letters to these pastors because the church needed instruction on how to be the church. They needed to know how to behave in the church. Being a church together is not necessarily obvious. It’s not just a matter of “I follow Jesus, and you follow Jesus, and so we’re going to meet together and automatically have a healthy church.” If that was the case, these three letters wouldn’t be in the New Testament. Instead, these three letters are filled with instruction which is specific and not obvious, often challenging, and sometimes even surprising. And yet, profoundly, deeply helpful and life-giving.
So that’s the big idea of this series. Think of it as a part 2 to “You Are Here.” It’s all about the church.
Just a personal note here: I absolutely love these three letters. I’ve spent a lot of time with them in personal study in years past, taking several months to work through them verse-by-verse on my own. Much of my own understanding of and preparation for ministry has come straight out of these pages.
I’ve also taught a series of adult Sunday school classes on the letters to Timothy, and then I led my Young Adults group in Regina through a summer of studying them as well. And then just this last year I studied the book of Titus with the young adults here at EBC.
These letters are familiar territory to me, and yet I am so far from being bored with them, and I’m absolutely thrilled to get to finally preach through them in an extended way like this.
We’re going to begin in 1 Timothy, and today we’ll take a few minutes to introduce this book specifically as we take a bit of a dive into the first few verses we just read.
And in these first verses we’re going to see who this letter is from, who it was written to, and why it was written.
Starting in verse 1, we read “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Timothy 1:1). You might remember that letters from that that time in history began by stating who they were from. And this one was penned by Paul, who identified himself as an apostle.
The word apostle means “messenger,” someone who was sent out. And the word came to refer, in a very specific way, to the small group of people who had seen the risen Lord Jesus, had been commissioned by Him to be the witnesses of His resurrection, and who established the foundation of truth for the early church. The apostles were essentially Jesus’ spokesmen.
Nobody made themselves an apostle. Nobody signed up for this. Especially in Paul’s case, God chose him in a unique and supernatural way. And that’s what he points to in 1 Timothy 1:1. He was an apostle of Christ Jesus “by command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope.” God made this happen. He commanded, and Paul obeyed.
I love how he refers to God the Father as our Saviour. Usually we apply the word “saviour” to Jesus, but this reminds us that the whole plan of salvation was in the heart of God the Father. He is the one who gave His only Son. He is our Saviour.
And notice how he describes Jesus. The Messiah, Jesus, is our hope. That’s a theme we’re going to see multiple times in these three letters. Paul’s life as an apostle, and our lives as Christians, will only be lived well when they are fuelled by the hope of the return of Jesus. It’s that hope which kept Paul going, and it’s the only hope which will be able to keep us going.
So that is who has written this letter. And verse 2 tells us who the letter has been written to: “To Timothy, my true child in the faith…” (1 Timothy 1:2).
Timothy is someone we first met all the way back in Acts 16, when Paul was on his second journey, visiting the churches that he had planted on his first journey. And we read there in verse 1, “Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him…”
That’s our first introduction to Timothy. We know that he was young, but he had a good reputation, and Paul made him a part of his team as they went along from church to church on that second missionary journey. And Timothy continued to travel with Paul into his third missionary journey and perhaps beyond.
Those are some of the facts about Timothy, but notice how Paul describes his relationship with him. “To Timothy, my true child in the faith…” (1 Timothy 1:2).
Paul and Timothy had spent so much time together, and Paul had such a significant impact on Timothy, that they thought of each other in terms of a father-son relationship.
We’re going to be learning a lot more in these letters about Paul’s relationship with Timothy, and how it sets a pattern for us today for how Christian leaders develop the next generation of leaders through an intentional pattern of mentorship.
But what I want us to notice here is this language of father and son. This reminds us that you don’t need to have physical children to have true children. And the word “true” reminds us that being a spiritual father to someone isn’t second-rate. It’s actually the real thing. Being a physical father is simply a picture that points to the greater reality of being a spiritual father.
Men in this room with children still at home: you have given your children natural life. Are you doing everything you can to give them spiritual life? To be a spiritual father to them? And all men in this room, whether you have physical children of your own or not, have you considered the role you might play in being a spiritual older brother, or mentor, or even father to someone who needs it?
Ladies, this goes for you too, and we’ll get there when we get to Titus. I just don’t want us to miss that single Paul was a real father to Timothy, his true child in the faith.
We’re going to come back to the rest of verse 2 at the end of our time today, but take a look at verse 3 for a moment. “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3).
Timothy was in Ephesus when he received this letter. Timothy and Paul first visited Ephesus together back in Acts chapter 19 when they were on Paul’s third missionary journey. And that third missionary journey ended up being spent mostly in Ephesus. It was one of the longest stays Paul made anywhere.
Listen to these words from Acts 19:8-10 about his time there: “And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:8–10).
This was the first Bible college. Professor Paul, teaching daily for two whole years. And the result is that this whole Roman province of Asia, which corresponds to the modern country of Turkey, heard the gospel.
As we think about the influence Ephesus had on that whole province, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was a major centre. In fact it was one of the biggest cities in the world at that time, kind of like an ancient version of Toronto or Manilla.
And God blessed Paul’s ministry there. A lot of people became Christians. In Acts 19 we actually read about a riot that happened, because so many people were following Jesus that the idol making market was collapsing. And these idol makers got upset and started a riot.
After Paul finally left Ephesus, he had one last meeting with the elders of the Ephesian church which we read about in Acts chapter 20. And listen to these words from verses 26, 27 and 31 which describe his ministry there: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God… Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” (Acts 20:26-27, 31).
And then after all this, while Paul was in prison in Rome, he wrote a letter to the church in Ephesus, which we have preserved for us as the book of Ephesians. And it’s just chock-full of deep and substantial truth.
So that’s Ephesus. This major urban centre that had seen an incredible work of God and where the Christians had become very well taught. Evidence from early church history reinforces that Ephesus was one of the largest and most influential Christian centres in the world at that time.
And yet, after Paul got out of prison in Rome, what did he discover? After all his work, he finds that the church in Ephesus was being infested, infected, with false teachers. The church was overrun with confusion. And it’s so bad that he needs to send in an outside guy. He needs to send in Timothy to clean things up. “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3).
And so that’s the background for this letter. There was a job to be done, and Paul knew that Timothy was the man for the job. Ephesus was the mission. And 1 Timothy is his mission briefing as he gave himself to this difficult work.
Could This Be Us?
Let me ask you a perhaps uncomfortable question at this point. Is there a chance that Emmanuel Baptist Church could ever be like the church in Ephesus? Here we are, an established church with over five decades of history and influence. Is there a possibility that we could ever wander, and lose focus, and be influenced by the wrong people, and make the same kinds of mistakes that the Ephesian church made?
The answer is, “of course!” It happened to them, when they were still in living memory of the resurrection of Jesus, after the Apostle Paul himself had taught them for three years, after they had literally received parts of the Bible in the mail. If it happened to them, it can happen to anybody, including us.
And in fact, that’s one of the important lessons we learn form the story of Ephesus. Just because a church is healthy doesn’t guarantee it will stay healthy.
It’s just like our bodies. A healthy body today is no guarantee of a healthy body tomorrow. It takes a lot of work to get healthy, but it doesn’t take much effort to become unhealthy. All we need to do is nothing. Stop moving, stop exercising, stop thinking about what we eat. And our health won’t last for very long.
It’s the same with our church. What would you and I need to do for Emmanuel Baptist Church to be become an unhealthy church? We would need to do nothing. Just be passive. Just let stuff happen.
And so just like we need to work to keep our bodies healthy, we need to work to keep our church healthy. The story of Ephesus, and the letters to Timothy, are a call for us to pursue the health of our church through constant diligence.
Grace to You
Now with all this in mind, just put yourself in Timothy’s shoes for a moment. Here he is, a young guy about my age, being sent in to clean up and reform one of the largest and most established Christian centres in the world. I mean, this is Ephesus. They’d seen miracles. They’d seen signs and wonders. Their faith had caused riots. You’d better believe they had a strong sense of identity, and maybe even pride.
And here’s this guy from the outside, and there to tell them what they should and shouldn’t teach and how they should and shouldn’t function. Can you just imagine how some of them might have responded? Can you imagine the kind of push-back Timothy would have received? Can you imagine how tough of an assignment this was for Timothy? We’re going to see how tough when we get to 2 Timothy and see the toll that this began to take on him.
But Paul knew that this was going to be hard on him. He knew what he was up against. And with that in mind, look back at verse 2 and see how Paul writes his greeting to Timothy. Just like with most of his letters, he uses the greeting to write a blessing or even a prayer for his recipient.
And listen to what he writes to Timothy: “…Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” (1 Timothy 1:2).
Don’t miss this. Timothy—pastor, Christian leader, friend of Paul—needed grace. He needed God’s kindness. He needed God to give him what he did not deserve.
Timothy needed mercy. He needed God’s compassion. He needed God to hold back that with Timothy truly did deserve. He needed God to show him mercy.
And Timothy needed peace. Peace with God. Peace with the people in his church. Peace amidst the storms of ministry. He needed peace.
These three blessings are what Timothy needed the most. Not success. Not health. But grace, mercy and peace.
And all three of these blessings were available to him in God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. And so this his what Paul points Timothy towards. This is what he blesses him with. This is what he prays for him.
Grace, mercy and peace is where we started off the Christian life. Aware of our sin, we sought God’s grace and received His mercy. And then, for the first time, we tasted real peace.
And we never outgrow our need for these gifts from God. We are always dependant upon His grace, always in need of His mercy, always seeking His peace. As Timothy stared down this huge job and massive responsibility, not much had really changed from the day he first believed the gospel. He was still just a man, a normal man, a sinful man, desperately needy for God’s grace, mercy and peace.
And the same is true for each one of us. For whatever hard work is ahead of you this week, you need the grace, the mercy, and the peace of God. For whatever difficulty, whatever tough obedience that’s required of you, you depend upon God’s grace, mercy, and peace.
For us as a church as we push back against the tidal wave of individualism and seek to live together as the church of God, we need grace, mercy and peace. As we work for the health of our church now and into the future, we depend on God’s grace, mercy and peace.
And 1 Timothy 1:2 teaches us to seek them from God in prayer and ask we walk with Him. To seek them for ourselves, and to seek them for each other.
So this week, would you make it a point to pray like this? As you stare down opportunities and difficulties, and as you think about your brothers and sisters doing the same, would you seek God in prayer for His grace, His mercy, and His peace? It’s what we need. It’s all we need. And it’s what we have through Christ. So let’s seek Him for that together.