Scripture: 1 Timothy 5:1-16
Sometimes I sit down to start preparing for a sermon, I read the text, and I get really excited about preaching. That did not happen this week, at least not at first. It was a challenge for me to figure out what to do with this chapter, but when I finished writing the sermon, I realized there is a simple beauty in this text, and I hope you will see it.
1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.
This is an instruction to Timothy about how he should conduct himself as he ministers to people in the local church. We are family and we should relate to one another with the care, concern, and respect of family members. Fathers. Brothers. Mothers. Sisters.
He adds “in all purity” to suggest that this closeness is also an appropriate boundary, especially as he relates to the younger women in the church. She’s a sister, Timothy.
Now, Paul teaches about how the Church should care for widows and that is our main focus today.
3 Honor widows who are truly widows. 4 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.
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, 6 but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.
7 Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Let me start by saying that God obviously wants to be known as a God who cares for widows. We see it constantly in the ministry of Jesus. We see it all over the New Testament. But God was especially vocal about this in the Old Testament. Exodus 22:22-24:
You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
Those are strong words! From God! Listen to how God describes Himself in Psalm 68:5 –
Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
Isaiah 1:17 reminds God’s people of this:
Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Finally, James, the brother of Jesus, says this in James 1:17 –
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
This is obviously a big deal to God. The word widow appears in the Bible more than a hundred times – almost as many times as the words “mercy” and “grace”, believe it or not.
But in 1 Timothy 5, Paul suggests that some families are abusing the system. Not every widow is equally needy, and so Paul gives some instructions to the church on how to handle these cases. This is especially helpful to the deacons, because this is part of their unique ministry.
His primary concern here is widows who have children and grandchildren who are old enough to provide for them. In context, the Roman world had laws to govern how widows would be cared for. When a woman married, she took a dowry with her – a payment from her father. If her husband died, there were two options. If she had children old enough to manage her dowry, then she would stay in the family home and her oldest son would manage the finances. Otherwise, she could return to her parent’s home and take the dowry back with her.
Even the pagans knew how to take care of vulnerable women. And the early church had rightly taken up the responsibility of caring for women who had no family and no dowry. But what happens when the widow has a family, but they refuse to care for her? Paul says they are denying the faith by refusing to care for these women.
This is a challenge to our culture as well. It is not really the responsibility of the state to care for our older family members, or at least we shouldn’t be relying on that entirely. We have a responsibility to make sure our folks are cared for. And as a church, when we are considering the needs of a person, we should also consider what the family of the person is doing to help.
9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 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.
Enrolling widows probably refers to the practice of the early church to provide regular financial support for these women. But notice the qualifications! This is interesting, because this looks very similar to the list of qualifications we find in chapter 3 for elders and deacons!
Paul encourages the church to only provide financially for widows who meet these qualifications! Over sixty, meaning she was probably unable to work or get remarried, one husband, good reputation… has she used her gifts to serve the church? Has she been generous herself?
In other words, don’t provide ongoing financial support to everyone in need. There are qualifications. And he continues:
11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry 12 and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith.
13 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. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.
15 For some have already strayed after Satan. 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.
This is a notoriously confusing text.
We could summarize this paragraph by saying that young widows make terrible widows. That’s basically what Paul is saying. They aren’t good for the church, so they should just remarry. The church should not be providing for them financially. And I know that sounds pretty harsh by itself.
But what do we do with verse 12 and verse 14, side by side. Paul says that the young woman’s desire to marry brings condemnation for abandoning their faith. But then in verse 14, Paul explicitly says they should get married anyway!
There are a few different ways to interpret this. It’s possible verse 12 refers to a pledge these women made to remain widows and that they usually don’t keep it. More likely, he’s saying that the cares of the world become more important than their devotion to Christ, but allowing them to marry protects their reputation.
Either way, Paul gives the church some clear guidelines on who they should be giving money to – widows who really need the help. By extension, we can apply this wisdom to anyone the church considers helping. Wisdom seeks a balance between compassion and carelessness.
In many cases, giving money does more harm than good, and that seems to be exactly the concern of Paul in this chapter.
But there’s a greater context here that I don’t want us to miss. Some of what Paul says may seem harsh or insensitive. But remember the context.
If the Holy Spirit is at work in the local church – if the people are worshipping Jesus together, serving together, caring for one another, and living open lives of faith and repentance together – then the context is a complex web of relationships. This is basically a large extended family.
Paul is trying to help the local leaders protect that balance. Healthy relationships. And some of this may sound weird to us because we are so individualistic.
A few weeks ago, I read about an 85-year study that was recently published by Harvard University. The researchers gathered health records from 724 participants from all over the world and asked detailed questions about their lives every two years until they died.
They were trying to answer one simple question: what makes people happy in life?
Contrary to what you might think, their conclusion was not success, money, exercise, or a healthy diet. This 85-year study concluded that positive relationships make us happier, healthier, and help us live longer. They call it social fitness. The happiest people were the ones with healthy relationships. Period.
And that makes perfect sense to the Christian, because we were created by a relational God. Our Savior spent most of His earthly years in a normal family with a mom, a dad, and siblings. He attended church every week. As a rabbi, he had close friends and closer friends and He demonstrated a gift for making outsiders feel noticed and welcome.
And for the past 2,000 years He has been actively building a community of people from all walks of life. He calls it the Church. And God’s vision for the local church is that we function like an extended family. That’s the context of 1 Timothy 5. This is an internal family discussion.
The church needs widows as much as it needs elders and deacons. The church needs moms and dads and children, old people and young people, single and married. We need haves and have-nots.
Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. There are technical instructions about how to care for widows, but the big picture is a community of faith, a community of Jesus, a group of people who are One in Christ.
Sometimes we get lost in the day to day details of our relationships. The ups and downs. The problems. And that’s true in the church as well. But the beauty is in the mess, as they say. Ordinary churches doing ordinary things, things that go unnoticed by the world… things like bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, and caring for the afflicted…
Jesus sees. And Jesus loves it. This is what He died for. We are who He died for. The Church was a widow for three days… but God raised our husband from the dead. He’s alive and He’s the Head of the Church. May we love one another as Christ has loved His Church.