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Practice These Things

February 20 2023

Book: 1 Timothy

Scripture: 1 Timothy 4:6-16

We’re in 1 Timothy chapter 4 and Paul now speaks directly to Timothy again. Verse 6:

6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.

Imagine sitting in a restaurant and the waiter comes to bring your food. He sets the plate down in front of you and that’s what Paul tells Timothy to do.

“Put these things before the brothers” like a waiter serving a meal. Specifically, feed the church as you have been fed. As you have been trained in the faith and trained in good doctrine, serve that to your people.

That is the nature of discipleship in the kingdom of God. The best teachers are also the best students. You can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t serve what you haven’t eaten.

And what specifically is on the menu?  The words of the faith, also known as “good doctrine”.

God tells us in the Bible what to believe and how to live. That’s the menu, Timothy.

Give them the good food. But there’s junk food out there too.

7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths.

That’s the junk food. Bad doctrine. False religion. What’s a myth? It’s a religious story that sounds good, but it’s not real. It has no value. But people will believe almost anything if they think it has value.

And Paul says have nothing to do with it.

Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.

Notice the word godliness. That word shows up 15 times in the New Testament, but it occurs 9 times in 1 Timothy alone! Simply put, godliness is a way of life. It’s a spiritual orientation.

Together with the previous metaphor, Paul teaches that spiritual training is similar to physical training, but of more value. How do we train ourselves physically? By eating good food instead of junk food, and by exercising.

So, Paul says, I want you to pursue godliness the way an athlete pursues fitness. As a way of life. I want you to build and strengthen your awareness of God, growing in both your knowledge of Him and your commitment to Him.

We’ve talked before about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Some people pursue fitness because of the intrinsic value. They like the way they look or the way the feel or the personal health benefits. Other people may pursue fitness because of an extrinsic motivation – to win a sporting event or a competition. Or a soldier might train to be better at combat. There’s an external goal.

Notice Paul says that godliness is of value in every way. There are personal benefits AND external benefits. Specifically, he says there are present benefits and future benefits. We’ll come back to the benefits in a moment, but first a question.

Does this sound a little bit like legalism? Train yourself in godliness… Gospel-centered Christians get a little nervous around verses like these. The emphasis on behavior and works… words like godliness make us nervous, especially if our background or former church experience involved a lot of works-righteousness.

It’s important to talk about this, because words like discipline and training and obedience and godliness… these are not bad words. These are Bible words. These are sanctification words. But the order is crucial.

I love how R. Kent Hughes explains this:

“Underlying much of the conscious rejection of spiritual discipline is the fear of legalism. For many, spiritual discipline means putting oneself back under the law with a series of Draconian rules that no one can live up to—and which spawn frustration and spiritual death…

But nothing could be further from the truth if you understand what discipline and legalism are. The difference is one of motivation: legalism is self-centered; discipline is God-centered. The legalistic heart says, ‘I will do this thing to gain merit with God.’ The disciplined heart says, ‘I will do this thing because I love God and want to please him.’ There is an infinite difference between the motivation of legalism and discipline!”

Motivated by the Gospel, Paul tells Christians to pursue godliness, because living the way God wants us to live is good for us and good for other people too. It’s good for the world!

9 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance.

The last time Paul said those words, he finished with this: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. A simple statement of the Gospel, offered in humility. But here he uses the same phrase to encourage Christians to pursue godliness. Maybe that’s because faith without works is dead? And even the greatest champion of the Gospel of grace knew that.

10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

Toil and strive – those are words of vigorous, exhausting effort. Why? Because our efforts have real implications for how we fulfill the Great Commission. Jesus is our hope and He’s the only real hope of this world – and because we believe that, we pursue godliness. It has something to do with our mission and we see that more clearly in the next several verses.

11 Command and teach these things.

Paul says “teach these things” 8 times in the letter. Teach what things? I think it includes the centrality of Jesus, but also all the other stuff Paul has said in the letter – and will say in the letter, including all the difficult stuff that challenges 21st century cultural norms.

And now Paul gives Timothy three specific instructions concerning his own ministry. First:

12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.

Timothy, be an example. Let your example speak for itself. It doesn’t matter what other people think about you. Take the high road. Live for an audience of One. God’s opinion of you is all that matters. Speech. Conduct. Love. Faith. Purity. Show us your faith, don’t just tell us about it. Second:

13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

Timothy, devote yourself to the public reading, preaching, and teaching of Scripture. This is why we are doing this right now. Third:

14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.

We don’t know what gift Paul refers to. It may have been a teaching gift or something else, but this event sounds a lot like ordination. This is how we do it in the Presbyterian church. We give a charge, elders lay hands, and we pray.

Finally, Paul says:

15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.

20 years ago, NBA star Allen Iverson made headlines for a press conference. He was in a conflict with head coach Larry Brown about his failure to attend team practices. This is what Iverson said:

“I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re talking about practice. I mean listen, we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, but we’re talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last, but we’re talking about practice man. How silly is that?”

Iverson went on to say the word “practice” 22 times in the interview. His coach responded after the press conference by saying, “Iverson said the word practice more times than he has shown up for practice.”

I sometimes wonder if this has been my attitude and the attitude of many in the church when it comes to pursuing godliness. Jesus already won the battle, and that’s true, so why do I need to do anything?

I’m saved by grace. It’s finished. Why do I need to put in any effort? What’s the point?

But Paul tells Timothy to practice doing the things God has called him to do. Immerse yourself in them. Why? Because the church needs to see the progress of her leaders.

And by extension, the world needs to see that the Gospel has the power to actually change lives! Not just the power to theoretically change lives – to one day make a difference maybe. No! Jesus cares about seeing His people change now!

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” – Ephesians 2:10

“Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” – Galatians 6:9

This is Gospel-motivated effort, not self-righteous effort. But it is effort, nonetheless.

This encouragement to practice presupposes that we have visible flaws as well! Perfect people don’t need to practice, right? That’s kind of sounds like Iverson’s argument. I’m so good I don’t need practice.

That’s not the attitude Paul encourages here. Instead, we know that we are all a work in progress. I need practice because I have a long way to go, by the grace of God.

16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

That’s a practical theology statement, not a systematic theology statement. Timothy has no power to save anyone. Jesus saves. But Jesus has chosen to use our efforts in His ministry to lost sheep. And that raises the stakes here. This is why Paul says that our pursuit of godliness has value in this life and in the next.

God’s Church is the means He has chosen to use to draw people into the kingdom. Our efforts bear fruit by God’s grace. Souls are at stake. And remember… it starts with prayer and repentance. So, let’s ask God for help.