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Bible Passage: 1 Timothy 1:18-2:7
This morning, we come to the end of the first chapter in Paul’s letter to Timothy. The Apostle defends his understanding of the Law and the Gospel, and we might summarize it in this way.
God’s Law shows us right and wrong. It functions like a mirror by showing us our sin. We don’t get to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. God created us. He gets to decide.
The world will always push Christians towards a more tolerant view of sin. But Paul urges Timothy not to let false teaching take root in the Church. Very often, that false teaching concerns the Law, and there are two major errors. One error tries to make the Law irrelevant. The other error tries to make the Law our means of salvation.
Paul responds to both errors by offering himself as an example of the power of the Gospel. He calls himself the chief of sinners, arguing that the grace and mercy of God stand in sharp contrast to our sin. And so, the Gospel is received in two movements – I’m worse than I think I am, but God’s grace is sufficient. And now, we are ready to continue:
18 This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, 19 holding faith and a good conscience.
Timothy had been identified at a young age as a future leader in the church.
But notice how Paul describes Timothy’s job as a pastor. He calls it warfare. My guess is that most Christians don’t think of this life as a battle, but that makes it extremely easy for the enemy to take us down.
The Bible consistently portrays this life as a battle between spiritual forces of good and evil. There is a real enemy, and he is constantly attacking the two things that Paul mentions: your faith and your conscience.
And better yet, if he can convince you that you’re not even at war, he will have his way with both your faith and your conscience. He’s called the Father of Lies and he will feed you doubts about yourself and about God every waking moment if you let him… fight, Paul says. He continues:
By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
Notice that Paul specifically mentions their names, the sin they committed, and the consequences of their sin.
We think that being handed over to Satan means that these men were excommunicated. They were cast out of the church, with the hope that they would repent.
But I want to remind you of something from last week. When Paul called himself the chief of sinners, do you remember what sins he had committed? He said, formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent…
He was a blasphemer. And what sin did these two men commit? Blasphemy. Blasphemy is showing contempt for God, probably in this case by false teaching. That would get you kicked out of the church.
But we might ask – was it fair for Paul to have these men cast out of the church, when they had committed the same sin as Paul?
This is where our modern tendency to tolerate sin affects our judgment. The difference between Paul and these two men was repentance. Paul knew himself to be formerly a blasphemer. These two men have not yet repented. Why were they cast out? So that they will repent and learn not to blaspheme.
Remember, Paul says that God is patient with us in our sin. He extends mercy and grace to even the worst of sinners. But He doesn’t allow us to keep living in unrepentant sin, to believe that something is OK with God when it’s not OK with God.
And now, we are ready to move on to chapter 2, where Paul gives several instructions for the Church. Here’s what he wants us to do:
1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
I want you to pray. And I want you to pray for everyone, even the people you least want to pray for – the people who can make life more difficult for you as a Christian. Why? So that we can live a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified.
It suggests that Paul sees the battle being won, not with words and arguments, but with prayer and a godly example. You might say that Paul is urging us to be more passionate in our prayer than in our politics.
I think it also worth mentioning that the Bible frequently encourages Christians to a quiet life of prayer. Modern church culture encourages Christians to do big, bold things for Jesus – but what Jesus really wants from us, in most cases, is a simple, humble life of prayer.
But why, specifically, does Paul encourage us to pray for all people? He continues:
3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Verse 4 is one of the more difficult verses to explain in the letter. It has been used and misused many times, so we need to consider it closely. Before we do, I want to give a quick disclaimer – there’s no way I can deal with this completely in a few minutes. If it raises questions or concerns, let’s plan a time to discuss it.
Paul says, quite clearly, that God desires all people to be saved. Some of you may not see the problem here, so let me phrase it as a question. If God desires all people to be saved, then why doesn’t he save all people?
The most common answer to that question is free will. God wants everyone to be saved, but people reject the salvation being offered through Jesus. In a sense, that is absolutely true.
But the trouble is that Scripture also teaches that none of us would accept Jesus without divine intervention. Salvation is an act of God and God doesn’t save everyone, so what do we do with this verse?
Given the context, because Paul mentions the Gentiles in verse 7 and because of the controversy in chapter 1, some people explain this by saying what Paul means is not literally “all people” but “all kinds of people”. God desires for all “kinds” of people to be saved. And that is a true statement – because Revelation tells us that God will save people from every tribe, nation, and tongue.
But we are also not in the habit of inserting words into Scripture that aren’t there. And I don’t think it is necessary. I think we are safe to say that, in a sense, God does desire all people to be saved. Paul meant exactly what he said.
In this way, Paul argues that the Gospel is not a message for some people. It is a message for all people. We should want all people to be saved. We should pray for the salvation of everyone we know – everyone we meet.
At the same time, there is a mystery in Scripture regarding the sovereignty of God and the free will of man when it comes to salvation. But it is a mystery, and we don’t need to defend God by adding words to Scripture.
5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
There it is again. Paul says that Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all. And again, Paul’s not arguing that all people will actually be saved by Christ’s death. He’s saying that Christ’s death was sufficient as a ransom for all people.
Again, some of you may have questions about this. Let me know.
7 For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
Paul again uses himself as an example, defending the idea that God’s grace is being extended to all people. This is why God sent me to the Gentiles, he says, because God wants the good news to be carried into the whole world.
And that is our text for today. There are several takeaways.
First, don’t miss sight of the forest for the trees. Our tendency is to focus on verse 4, because it is difficult to interpret and somewhat controversial. But in doing that, we miss the clear logic of Paul’s argument as a whole.
We are in a battle for the faith, a battle we need to take seriously. People’s eternal souls are at stake. False teaching is a serious offense, because it can keep people from hearing and understanding the true Gospel.
Our primary role is to pray for people, all people, specifically that they come to know Jesus as Savior.
The big picture here is that this is a high stakes battle. People are losing their souls. To paraphrase the words of Richard Baxter from the 17th century:
If you have the heart of a Christian, then think about the lost people around you. There is but a single step between them and death and hell; if they die without Christ, they are lost forever. Is your heart made of stone? If you don’t believe the Word of God, and the danger of sinners, why are you a Christian yourself? If you do believe it, why do you not pray for the lost?
This is what I think Paul is trying to communicate. We get them impression from this letter that the Ephesian churches, in particular, struggled with exclusivity. They treated the Gospel like it was special knowledge for insiders. That would explain Paul’s instructions to pray for all people to be saved.
Paul had written the letter to the Ephesians only a few years earlier, a letter rich with the message of the Gospel. Already, the church was giving in to false teaching.
About 30 years later, the Apostle John wrote the book of Revelation which includes a letter from Jesus to the churches in Ephesus. And what it shows us is that Paul and Timothy’s labors in Ephesus were not in vain. The church learned its lesson about tolerating false teachers. Listen to what Jesus says to them:
2 I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.
4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
Thirty years later, they are doing a good job of rejecting false teaching, but apparently, they have one serious flaw. They’ve lost the love they had at first. And what does that mean, that they have lost the love they had? I think it at least means their desire to see lost people saved – to pray for it, to work for it – as Paul had charged them in 1 Timothy 2.
Church, this is a matter for repentance for us. Good theology is important, but equally important is that we have a soft heart for people who need Jesus. We should commit ourselves to both. In both cases, people’s souls are at stake.
Father, give us sharp minds to recognize and separate truth from error. But give us also soft hearts, eager to pray for and pursue your lost sheep. We so quickly forget why we are here and what’s at stake. Help us to be a church that is both solid and approachable – a church more like Jesus.