Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Loving Command

As a little boy, I must have rejected authority and needed reminding a lot.  I remember one particular story that my mom would tell me over and over again.  It was an apparently true tale about an overseas church leader who lived near a rainforest region.  One evening he saw his son standing under a tree and instantly yelled to his son to lay down.  The son immediately obeyed, without understanding, questioning or complaining.  Then the father called out to the son to get up on his hands and knees, and to begin crawling forward.  Immediately the son responded.  After the boy had crawled a few feet, the father yelled that he should stand up and start running towards him.  And yet again, the son immediately followed his dad’s commands, running until he reached where his father was.  Upon arriving there, the dad turned his son around to reveal that a 10-foot Boa constrictor was hanging just above where the son had been standing.

When my mom would repeat this story to me, in my antiauthoritarian spirit, I’m sure I wanted to say, “I don’t get it, Mom.”  But the point of the story is clear, and she and I both knew that.  There are times when a loving, gracious command is issued, for our good, in a way that we may not immediately understand.  And yet the command needs to be followed, since life and death are at stake.

If a command is motivated by love, issued in love, and if the goal or end of it is love, then such a command is wonderful.

And so begins the biblical letter we know as 1 Timothy—with a command.  In trying to understand the dynamic of the circumstances surrounding Paul’s writing of his first letter to Timothy, I always try to think of what it might have been like to be Timothy in this situation.  What would it feel like if I were a young man in a ministry that was given to me just as my mentor was about to go into another region, leaving me behind to finalize the work in that particular area?  I imagine that he waffled between youthful enthusiastic confidence, and immature feeble fear.  No wonder at times Paul tries to shore up Timothy’s confidence in Christ.  Already approximately in his late 20s to early 30s, Timothy was probably very capable, but easily might have questioned his ability to stand in the face of opposition.

It is this context into which Paul leaves him behind in order to carry out a very important task.  He must rid the church of false teaching.  Easy enough (sure).  More on this in a moment.

I love it when a letter of Scripture explicitly spells out the purpose for which it was written.  In the third chapter, Paul specifically states that he is writing so that “you [Timothy] may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3.15).  Although this specific statement is directed to Timothy (the “you” here is singular), much of the letter clearly addresses the entire church and their role in the community and its culture.  In modern terms, it would be like taking out an ad or posting an online public letter that is actually addressed to a private individual.  Paul was shrewd in the best sense.  He knew that he wanted to get some points across to the entire congregation, but he does it by telling Timothy—in an open letter.  So we know Paul’s purpose is to help them uphold and promote the truth.  And what is truth?  The answer to this question points us back to the first part of the letter where Paul refers to the truth as the glorious gospel of the blessed God (1.11).

As Paul left to go into Macedonia, he urged Timothy to stay in Ephesus and command others not to teach false doctrines—untrue versions or perversions of the one, true gospel.  Just like the story above, Paul understood that getting the gospel right, and keeping it right, was a matter of life and death in an eternal sense.

The command is still in force today, far beyond ancient Ephesus.

So how do we uphold the gospel?  How do we follow Paul’s urging of Timothy’s command?  It begins by protecting the integrity of the gospel, which we’ll look at next time.

[This is part 1 of 5 in a miniseries titled, A Loving Command.  The larger series on 1 Timothy is called The Community of Truth.]