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Putting it Into Practice
Two mistakes - Overvaluing and Undervaluing
In order to correctly put our spiritual gifts into practice, we must make sure we neither overvalue our gifts, nor undervalue our gifts.
Those who overvalue their gifts assume that gifts alone are all that someone needs to do ministry. They view their spiritual gifts as God’s licence to exercise a ministry in church – their spiritual gifts are God’s validation that they are spiritual people, suitable for leadership in the church. If left unchecked, what happens is that we end up with ‘gifted’ people in leadership who are not godly and not well trained.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there who undervalue their gifts. They think “I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to teach the Bible, so I mustn’t have the gift of teaching”… or - even more commonly - “I’m hopeless at telling other people about Jesus, so I mustn’t have the gift of evangelism” People use a perceived lack of spiritual gifts as an excuse to avoid doing the things they didn’t like. They assume that there is no point going to this or that training course, because I simply don’t have the gift.
Both of these views actually reflect the same misunderstanding about spiritual gifts, because they both treat gifts are some kind of spiritual ‘zot’ that God gives to a person in an instant - like switching a light either on or off, either you have the gift or you don’t. Those who think they have the gift think “I’ve got the gift, so what more do I need!” Those who think they don’t have the gift think “I don’t have the gift, so why bother trying”.
Paul’s letters to Timothy are a good corrective to both of these problems. In 1 Tim 4, Paul tells Timothy how to be a good minister of Jesus Christ, which will involve exercising the gifts that God has given him. But even though Timothy is ‘gifted’, the gifts alone are not enough.
“Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely” (v.16)
If Timothy is going to be a good minister, it requires more than spiritual gifts – Timothy must watch both his life and doctrine closely. In the passage, “life” and “doctrine” are interwoven in the same way that they are meant to be interwoven in real life – you shouldn’t have one without the other. ‘Sound doctrine’ without a godly life is arrogant and arid and unloving. Godliness without doctrinal truth is ignorant and soft and misleading.
If Timoty is going to minister well, he has to grow in Life and doctrine. With respect to a godly life, Paul says in verse 7 “Train yourself to be godly”. The word for training here is the word that is used elsewhere to describe athletes training for the games. Godliness doesn’t ‘just happen’, anymore that Olympic medals just happen. An athlete trains day in, day out, year after year, disciplining themselves, pushing themselves… Paul is saying, “Timothy, put the same kind of effort into growing in godliness” – it won’t just happen by accident, you need to train yourself to be godly.
But what exactly does godliness look like? Jesus is our model for this. He was the supreme example of godliness because he was like God in every way. For us to be godly means modelling ourselves on Christ’s actions and attitudes. Being godly means being moral and upright and pure and truthful and sincere and loving and… And that kind of a transformation doesn’t just happen – it happens as we work at this, day after day, year after year, like an athlete in training. The only way to grow in godliness is to repeatedly give the muscles a workout – loving the unloving, resisting temptation, curbing our tongues, restraining our desires, acting out of generosity not greed, showing mercy to the undeserving…
In verse 8, Paul contrasts physical exercise and training ourselves in godliness. He is not putting down physical exercise – in fact, the reverse – physical training is good for us in this present life. But training in godliness is even better – paying dividends in this life and the life to come. There is a real challenge for us here – many of us put ourselves through the hardship of exercise – it is not enjoyable at the time, but we grit our teeth and push on because we know it is ultimately good for us. The question is – are we prepared to be just as disciplined when it comes to pushing ourselves on as Christians, or are we the spiritual equivalents of ‘couch-potatoes’ – just sitting back, not pushing ourselves, not trying to grow in godliness, not trying to work those spiritual muscles at all??
This growth in godliness is firstly something that Timothy has to work on for his own sake. But there is secondary effect beyond this. In verse 12, Paul says “set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” That’s fairly comprehensive, isn’t it– speech, life, love, faith, purity – that is, in basically all of life, Timothy life is mean to be a model to others. All the really important lessons in life are learnt by imitating someone’s example. There is no point me saying to my kids “Do as I say, not as I do”. When I yell at one of the kids, five minutes later, that child is yelling at their siblings. In the Christian church, it works the same. Paul is telling timothy that he needs to model godliness to others, so that they can see what it looks like in practice and imitate him.
Secondly, Timothy needs to be growing in his knowledge of the truth, of “sound doctrine”. To be a good minister, Timothy must pass on to others the “good teaching” that he has followed. As Paul says in verse 7, He mustn’t get sidetracked by “godless myths and old wives’ tales” – going off after the latest theories and speculations.
Instead, he must keep on teaching the truths of the faith, like the trustworthy saying recorded in verse 9-11. Timothy must keep on teaching people the gospel – that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the saviour of all men (not “all me” which is what it says on the sermon outline!). The Christian message is about a saviour. Fundamentally, it is no a message about a teacher or a moral example. It’s a message about a saviour for all men, because all mankind is in need of saving. Christians are those who have put their hope in the living God. Not a dead God, but a living, powerful, active God, who is able to save all who put their trust in him. That’s at the very heart of what Timothy must keep on teaching.
What more, Timothy needs to keep on working hard at understanding and applying God’s word – as paul says in verse 13, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.
In the same way that Timothy was to be training himself in godliness, he is also to be pushing himself on in his understanding of God’s word and in sound doctrine
What about us? It seems to me that many of us recognise the need to do physical training, and almost all of us have laboured hard to study and train in our chosen fields… but do we apply even a fraction of the same kind of diligence when it comes to growing in godliness and biblical understanding? Is this a priority for us? The writer to the letter to the Hebrews could say to his audience – “by this time you ought to be teachers” (5:12) There are many people here who have been Christians for 5 , 10, 20 years or more. By this time, ought you be able to be a teacher? A person can only do this if they have grounded themselves in the scriptures. The spiritual gift of teaching is not going to get you very far, if you don’t have much of a clue about the content of what you are supposed to teach. And a teacher is not much use if they don’t have the godliness of life to match. Both godliness of life and a knowledge of the scriptures is vital for ministry. Watch your life and doctrine closely.
Do Not Neglect Your Gift (v.14)
Paul has a second challenge for Timothy in verse 14. He says to him – “Do not neglect your gift”. Apparently, Timothy has a spiritual gift that he is not utilizing – in fact, he is neglecting the gift. This was obviously an ongoing problem for Timothy, because Paul has to make a similar warning in his next letter. On the sermon outline, I’ve got a few verses from 2 Tim 1. Paul says 6 Fan into flame the gift of God... 7 God did not give us a spirit of timidity 8 Do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel. (2 Tim 1:6-8)
The gift that Timothy is neglecting is the gift of evangelism, of testifying about the Lord Jesus. It is not hard to guess why he is afraid to speak out, given what has happened to Paul. Paul is in prison because he preached the gospel, and it is a fair bet that Timothy is holding back because he doesn’t want to end up likewise. But Paul says to him – your timidity hasn’t come from God. You need to turn you back on your fears, and not be ashamed to testify about the Lord Jesus, and to be prepared to join with Paul in suffering for the gospel. It is not a particularly attractive sales-pitch, is it? “Sign up for suffering”. In our age, we want everything to be pain-free, or as painless as possible. But that is not how Christian ministry works. If our saviour could only win our salvation through suffering, should it be any wonder to us that following in his footsteps is going to involve us in hardship for his sake. Like timothy, we need to testify about our Lord and turn our backs on our fears.
Like him, we need to fan into flame the gift of God that is within us. I suspect that there are many in the church who have gifts that the Lord has given to be used in Christian ministry – whether that be evangelism or teaching or leadership or whatever – but these gifts lie dormant, because people are not prepared to step out of their comfort zones. Beware – if someone says to me, “I don’t have the gift of evangelism”, I will probably reply “How do you know?” It is one thing if a person can say that they have genuinely tried – done the training courses, laboured hard for years at connecting and dialoguing and engaging and, after all that, have had absolutely no effect. But if the person has never really tried, it seems just as likely that they are being a ‘Timid Timothy’, letting the gift lie dormant. This passage is a challenge to all of us not to neglect the spiritual gifts that God has given.
So that All May See Your Progress (vv.15-16)
The Christian life is meant to be a life of constant progress. Paul says to timothy in verse 15 Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.
The language that Paul uses stresses that all this is going to take effort on our part to make it happen – diligence, give yourself wholly, make progress, persevere.
There is no point at which you can say “I’ve arrived, I can stop working on this now”. Paul himself says in Phil 3 – “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead I press on toward the goal”. We, too, should have this same attitude. Our aim shuold alwasy to be 'making progress, straining towards the goal…'
Paul wants Timothy to have this kind of a mindset about ministry, because of what is at stake in all this – verse 16 : 16 Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.
By persevering in these things, Timothy will ensure that he does not get sidetracked by the world and wander from the faith, like the people whom Paul speaks of in chapter 6. And he will ensure that those he ministers to are likewise kept safe in the truth of the gospel. Ministry matters, because people’s salvation is at stake.
We must all stop being 'timid Timothys', and instead to fan into flame those gifts we’ve been given. We need to stop living the ‘couch potato’ Christian life, and instead make the effort to work at godliness, to work at growing in knowledge, and to work at developing our gifts, so that God use our gifts to help save both ourselves and our hearers.