Entrusted with the Gospel

Tonight we start a new series of studies in Paul's first letter to Timothy. This is one of the three, so called, "Pastoral Letters" of Paul; 2 Timothy and Titus being the other two. By way of introduction let me say something very briefly about when it was written. A number of people argue that it was probably written after Paul was released from the Roman imprisonment that you read about at the end of the Acts of the Apostles. For he then went on more missionary journeys, such as the one to Macedonia referred to in our passage this evening. And he possibly visited Spain before being imprisoned once again in Rome and then executed, dying a martyr's death. So these pastoral letters probably belong to that period and that further imprisonment. Enough by way of introduction!

Will you now therefore turn to 1 Timothy 1.1-11 in your Bibles; and my headings this evening are first, The Truth; secondly, Maintaining The Truth; and, thirdly, Using The Law. So, first:

The Truth

There are three things to say about the truth. First, the truth was so needed in Paul's day. For the Roman Empire at the time of Christ and then the apostolic age was so pluralistic. There were many religions going the rounds; and it was believed that religion was good both for individuals and for the Roman State itself, which was indeed a very religious State. Rome, therefore, seriously opposed the Christians and to a lesser extent the Jews for being monotheistic – believing in only one God. And in the case of Christianity it was for being especially exclusive. For the Apostles claimed, regarding Jesus, that …

"… there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4.12)

But all religions couldn't, and still can't, all be right and true at the same time. For example, the Koran says that Jesus didn't die on the Cross. The Bible makes it clear he did die on the Cross. Not surprisingly in this context and culture Paul's main concern, in this Epistle, is with what is true and what is false, defending the former and attacking the latter. John Stott in his excellent commentary on 1 Timothy points out that the great Reformer John Calvin, when dedicating his own commentary on 1 Timothy in 1556, called this letter,

"highly relevant to our own times".

Well, nearly four and a half centuries later, we can say the same thing. For, yes, the main problem in the West and worldwide is no longer secularism. The problem is pluralism – as Brussels has tragically learnt a week and a half ago. People now realize that what you believe is three quarters due to your upbringing and culture. But people then quite irrationally think such knowledge means you can't ask truth questions about all the different religions and philosophies that result! It is patently obvious that they are different, as we have already said; and truth questions need to be asked. For some people have the view that you can plant explosives in airports and underground trains, and others deny that. Those points of view cannot both be correct. So Paul is concerned for the truth and to exclude the false.

Secondly, Paul is confident that his message – the apostolic message - is true because, verse 1:

"he is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope."

Paul's conversion experience of the really risen Jesus on the Damascus Road, the follow-up assurances from the Damascus' Christian, Ananias, and the amazing unanimity of the Jerusalem Apostles have convinced Paul that the gospel of God our Saviour and Christ Jesus our hope is true. And this truth is a body of knowledge. So, in verse 2, Paul can refer to Timothy as "my true child in 'the faith'" – not "faith". And Paul goes on in verse 3 to talk about "different doctrine", because people can know what is 'normative or true doctrine' and what is false. Not all is relative, for there is a body of truth.

Thirdly, this apostolic body of truth focuses on, verse 1, "God our Saviour and … Christ Jesus our hope" – a God who saves by so loving the world that he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ, who by his life, death, and Resurrection conquered sin and death and so gives the world hope instead of despair for the future. But that truth also needs a positive acceptance. And it needs you to be, in the New Testament terminology, "born again", or as Paul put it regarding Timothy in verse 2, being a "true child in the faith". Paul had helped Timothy come to faith in Christ such that, as an adopted child in God's family, the Holy Spirit had begun to do his renewing work in his life. And this body of truth makes it clear that such a renewing work is so necessary. For all of us are "fallen" and fail in God's eyes, because of our sin and selfishness. So we need, as Paul implies in verse 2, God's grace (his love that we don't deserve), his mercy (his pity that we also don't deserve) and his peace (instead of the hostility from God that we do deserve).

So, first, the truth was, and is, so needed; secondly, Paul knows the truth lies in a body of apostolic truth; and, thirdly, it focuses on the salvation of God and the hope Jesus Christ can bring. That brings us to our second heading:

Maintaining The Truth

Jesmond Parish Church's foundation documents say that we are to be a central point for: "The maintenance and promulgation of sound Scriptural and Evangelical truth." It is so important that you both "maintain" and "promulgate" the truth. And Paul was concerned for both. Look at verses 3 and 4:

"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, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith."

Note those two verbs, "going" (when I was going to Macedonia), and "remain" (remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine). Paul was a great evangelist, going around preaching (or in Victorian English, "promulgating") the gospel and seeing people, like Timothy, become Christians. But now Timothy is not to be an itinerant evangelist – or certainly at this point in time. Rather Timothy is to remain at Ephesus to maintain the faith and not let others destroy or dilute it. And there are three things to note about this need for "maintaining" the faith.

First, false teaching is to be expected. Sometime earlier, Paul had warned the Ephesian elders or presbyters or priests (however you like to call them) like this. He said (Acts 20.29-31):

"I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish [or warn] everyone with tears."

A major part of Paul's ministry was warning and teaching against false teaching, because come it will. And that is what Timothy is now to be doing. And that is one of my main jobs here at JPC (and other clergy's) to warn, if necessary again and again, or "night and day", against false teaching. It is so important. However much we may want to make church services modern, the old Book of Common Prayer ordination service, still has to define (for the Church of England), the duties of a clergyman. And the duties in that Prayer Book are all so biblical and clear. Among them it says bishops and clergy are required, I quote,

"… to be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word."

So false teaching is to be expected and then opposed.

Secondly, false teaching is different doctrine and is so often foolish. On the one hand, it is, literally, other doctrine – other than the Apostles taught. On the other hand, initially people can find it exciting because it is seems daring. But in the sober light of sound scholarship, it is invariably seen to be foolish and belonging more to the world of fantasy than reality and rationality.

Let me give you one example that relates to Good Friday that is just past. Many false teachers today do not like the idea that God judges sin and that Christ died in our place to bear the judgment we deserve. And they certainly don't believe in hell – see the Coloured Supplement in the Newsletter for this month about that. But to deny that Christ was bearing our judgment on that first Good Friday is to make Christ's death on the Cross seem meaningless and foolish. It makes Christ's death for us something like someone walking off the end of Tynemouth's North Pier into the North Sea, shouting, "l love you" and drowning – as one great theologian would put it. How foolish! And people get obsessed by foolish false teaching. Paul says of these people in Ephesus, they (verse 4) …

"devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations [not reasoned truths] rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith."

Perhaps these myths are legends that are the sort of thing you find in Jewish apocryphal material; and perhaps the endless genealogies relate to what you can read about in ancient Gnostic material – an early pick and mix heresy or spirituality that fits a pluralistic world and, sadly, is coming back in our pluralistic world and even in parts of the church. The point is that so often false teaching is foolish, irrational and bizarre compared to "the stewardship [of the truth] from God that is by faith".

And, thirdly, the consequences of false doctrine are negative. Certainly this was the case when Paul was writing as we shall see in a moment. But today many social studies, and starting from the same level, show that in terms of education, health and, even, wealth, on average – it is important to stress, "on average" – church-goers do better than non-believers. Nor should this be surprising for, verse 5,

"the aim of [Paul's] charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (that is faith in Jesus Christ).

So maintaining the truth requires you; one, to expect false teaching that, two, is eventually seen as foolish and irrational, and, three, will not give you the good results of "love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith". And Timothy must maintain the truth, for (verses 6-7) …

"Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions."

That brings us to our third and final heading:

Using The Law

There are two things to say about 'using the law'. First is that Paul knew there were false teachers going around who were saying that once you had faith in Christ, you did not need to use the law. You could ignore it and do what you like. But this was, and is, so wrong, for the law is good and cannot be ignored. Look verses 8-9a:

"Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane."

We know from the book of Revelation chapter 2 that both in the Church in Pergamum and in the Church in Thyatira there were false teachers. And they were known for saying that you could, I quote, "practice sexual immorality". Then in the next century we have full details of this sort of teaching. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, in the 2nd century, from his first hand pastoral experience, tells us of some people with weird views about matter and spirit, who, I quote,

"yield themselves up to the lusts of the flesh with the utmost greediness, [and] maintain that carnal things should be allowed to the carnal nature, while spiritual things are provided for the spiritual."

So when today you hear that Church bodies are promoting what the Bible clearly teaches is sexually immoral, of course, you must oppose it. But don't be surprised. Paul is warning Timothy about this sort of thing in his day. And because this teaching is so obviously contrary to the moral teaching of both the Old Testament and of Christ and the Apostles, these people are not "just" but "lawless and disobedient, ... ungodly and sinners, … unholy and profane". And to make the point clear Paul spells things out in black and white by echoing some of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. So there can be no ambiguity. Look at verses 9b to 10 where Paul is saying God's law is to be a restraint …

"for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practise homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,"

There are, of course, degrees in those sins and they can be in the mind rather than the act. But the act today is all too common and sins can relate and lead to one another. And one right use of the law is to restrain such sin. Unruly children can certainly lead to murder. My step-grandmother employed a lady to help clean the house who used to complain about her unruly son. Tragically, this child grew up to be an adult who was one of the last to be hung for murder in Britain before the death penalty was repealed. He shot the man whose lover he raped, who he then shot, leaving her paralysed. So you have an unruly child, committing murder, and being sexually immoral. Not surprisingly Paul says God's law is not only for those rejecting parents and murderers but also "for the sexually immoral and men who practise homosexuality" – for those who don't limit sexual intercourse to heterosexual marriage. Also this man had virtually 'enslaved' the couple in a car at gunpoint for 5 hours; and then he was a 'liar' over his innocence, as DNA evidence many years later at an appeal seemed conclusively to prove; and it was 'perjury' for lying in court. So sin is terrible and it spreads. One thing does lead to another.

But the law is God's good provision for society as a restraint against sin. That is why you cannot have false teachers in the Church encouraging sin by teaching against, or ignoring, God's moral law. They must be opposed. Secondly, the right use of the law must be, verse 11…

"…in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted."

That is to say, the right use of the law will be in accordance with the good news of what God has done in Christ for you. That is spelt out in "sound doctrine" as verse 10 says. And we know from Paul's clear teaching elsewhere the wrong use is to think that by your law-keeping you will get right with God and then become more law-abiding.

So if anyone tonight needs to trust Christ for the first time, you must realize that you have nothing to offer, except your trust in Christ as Saviour. You may not be like that man who was hung. But in God's eyes your sins, for example, of omission – all the good you have failed to do – separates you completely. As the Good Friday hymn says,

"there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he [Jesus] only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in".

But once right with God through faith in Christ, God's moral law is a help for guidance and for holiness when you are tempted. Jesus quoted God's law at the devil when he was tempted. Also, consciousness of God's moral law convicts you of sin and so, to quote Luther, "drives you to Christ" to seek forgiveness and his help to keep the law. This side of heaven all believers still sin and need forgiveness. And as we said, God's law is his good provision for society, as a restraint against evil. So, "the law is good, if one uses it lawfully."

I must conclude and I do so by simply reminding you that, as in Paul's day, you need the truth; so you need to pray and work to maintain the truth; and you need to pray and work for the right use of God's moral law in, what seems more and more, a morally lawless society.

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