A Worthy Fight and a Sobering Warning
Passage: 1 Timothy 1:18-20
The text that we just read concludes the first major section of the epistle, which is intended to encourage and equip Timothy to face the difficult challenge of confronting false teachers. Dealing with these men was not going to be easy. It was probably going to get sticky and maybe even contentious, but it had to be done. Throughout this chapter Paul has urged Timothy to address the issue, and he has shined a light on the problem by reflecting on the gospel, genuine holiness, and the purpose of the law. In vv. 18–20, Paul pulls his thoughts together into a final appeal to fight this difficult battle. He also gives a sobering warning to guard his own soul. This is a heavy passage, not in the sense that it is terribly difficult to understand but in the sense that it ponders the weighty responsibility God has placed on us to guard the truth and to guard our own souls. I hope that all of us will listen attentively to the responsibility and warning God gives.
In the Greek, this paragraph is one long sentence, but it has two pretty clear sections. Verses 18–19a give Timothy a charge to fulfill his ministry, and vv. 19b–20 give him a sobering warning to guard his faith. And so my outline today consists of two commands. The first is…
Fulfill your ministry (vv. 18–19a).
Notice the responsibility that Timothy had received.
The center of the first section is the charge or command Paul gave Timothy regarding waging the good warfare. He uses the same word for command in v. 3, and so Paul is here reiterating the basic command of this section that he gave in vv. 3–4. The command is to stop false teaching and speculation over useless questions. We’ve talked at length about the fact that Timothy had a difficult responsibility to fulfill. It was so difficult that v. 18 compares it to waging a war. Let that sink in. The Bible talks a lot about spiritual warfare. In particular we war against Satan, our flesh, and the world out there. But Timothy had to wage a war inside the church. This war would be painful for Timothy and the entire congregation, but Paul calls it a good or noble warfare. It was worth fighting because the gospel and the spiritual health of the church were at stake. Therefore, Paul tells Timothy, “You’ve got to fight this fight no matter how difficult it may be.”
The church in every age needs to heed this charge because it’s never comfortable to confront a cancer that has infiltrated the church. It’s one thing to wax eloquent about problems out there, but it’s entirely different when it involves people we know. My sophomore year of college my school hired a new Bible professor who was by far the most charismatic, dynamic Bible teacher I have ever been around. He easily connected with hard students, and everyone loved listening to him. But he held some very destructive ideas about the Christian life. Thinking back to our adult study this morning, he essentially denied man’s role in spiritual growth. It wasn’t long before his ideas started to affect the spirit of the student body, and the administration had to deal with it. But it was a war because students loved this teacher, and his passion inspired incredible loyalty among some. For a few weeks, there was a lot of tension on campus and a lot of anger toward the administration for letting go of this professor. But it had to be done because doctrine matters. Sadly many churches aren’t willing to fight for what matters. They would rather smooth over differences and get along. But church history repeatedly testifies to the fact that truth always loses out when it makes peace with error. We must stay committed to defending God’s truth. Now, I want to emphasize that we have to choose our battles carefully because all doctrinal differences are not of equal significance. But when essential doctrine or obedience to God is at stake, we better be willing to fight the fight. But Paul realized it would be hard, so notice…
First, Paul encourages Timothy by calling him his “son.” Paul mentions his love for Timothy in order to say, “I’m with you in this task. I know it will be hard, but I love you, and I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it were not necessary. Paul also encourages Timothy by reminding him of “the prophecies previously made concerning you.” What is Paul talking about? Paul gives us more information in 4:14. This verse refers to Timothy’s ordination for ministry. It says that at his ordination, it was prophesied that Timothy was gifted for the work. And Paul reminds Timothy of these prophecies, “that by them you may wage…” In other words, Paul wanted Timothy to remember that God had called him to the ministry and had gifted him for it. He was capable of fighting this battle and of being successful. Timothy knew it, and Paul knew it. That’s why Paul “committed” such a difficult task to him.
This verse is a good reminder that God gifts all Christians to serve in the church and that when God calls you to fulfill a task, he equips you to do it. Maybe you don’t believe that. Maybe the reason you are not serving is because you don’t think you have anything to contribute. But that’s simply not true. God never calls us to a task that he does not equip us to fulfill. And so whatever it is that God has called you to do, be encouraged that he has given you the grace to do it. Then press forward and be faithful. Paul encouraged Timothy to complete a difficult role, but then he adds a warning regarding two characteristics that are essential for the ministry.
Paul says that Timothy must wage this warfare from a position of “faith and a good conscience.” Paul has already mentioned these ideas in v. 5. In both places, faith refers to belief in the gospel and other essential Christian doctrine. Maintaining faith is pretty important, but it is also pretty difficult. Most Christians endure seasons of doubt, where they question the goodness or wisdom of God, and some even question at times whether or not God is real and his Word is true. We do so because there are so many forces at work against our faith. But unbelief will cripple our effectiveness, and so we must guard our faith if we are to wage a good warfare. But of course a hypocritical lifestyle will also cripple our effectiveness; therefore, Paul also urges Timothy to maintain a good conscience. A good conscience is trained by Scripture and reflected in a life of obedience to Scripture. Together, these requirements emphasize the fact that God’s ministers must guard both their hearts and their actions if they are going to fulfill the ministry God has given them. All of us need to heed Paul’s warning. If your faith is struggling, I want to urge you to get help. Talk with me or someone else that you trust. Let God’s gift of the church help you bear whatever struggle is causing you to doubt. What about your conscience? Are you living a life of consistent obedience and confessing your sins to God when you fail? Or are their pockets of your life where you are rebelling against God? Do not toy or tolerate sin. Drive it out and purse a good conscience because you cannot fulfill the ministry that God has called you to without faith and a good conscience. Their will be no power, no impact without them.
In sum, Paul begins this passage by urging Timothy to fulfill his ministry. He was to do so with confidence in God’s gifting, while taking care to guard his heart and life. Are you fighting the battle that God has called you to fight? Are you doing battle against sin? Are you being the witness you need to be to the people in your life? Are you being a good steward of the spiritual gift you have received? Don’t back down from the fight. Don’t fail to fulfill your stewardship. Fulfill your ministry, never forgetting, as we saw in v. 12, that ministry is a privilege that deserves everything we have to offer. The second command God gives in this passage is…
Guard your faith (vv. 19b–20).
As you can see, the passage makes a significant shift in the middle of v. 19. From an athletics perspective, you could say that it shifts from offense (“fight the good fight”) to defense with a warning about how the faith of some had failed. And so this chapter ends with a sobering warning. Notice…
The Process of Spiritual Destruction
Paul reflects on what was happening among the false teachers. He names two men in particular, though he indicates that they were simply examples of a terrible process that had occurred with others also. We don’t know much about these men. Paul mentions Hymenaeus again in 2 Timothy 2:16–18. He compares his teaching to an aggressive cancer that was having deadly spiritual effects. Paul also mentions an Alexander in 2 Timothy 4:14–15. Alexander was a common name, so we aren’t as confident that this is the same individual, though it probably was. Paul considers him a great enemy of the gospel. What is so troubling about our text is that these men did not start off as enemies. The fact that Paul delivered them to Satan indicates that they had been members of the church, maybe even leaders. But they had “rejected” “faith and a good conscience.” Typically, that doesn’t happen overnight. Very rarely does a professing believer wake up one morning and decide, “I am done with being a Christian.” Typically, Satan attacks the conscience first through the lusts of our heart. A person begins to dabble in sin. They enjoy it, so they dabble some more. Their conscience becomes more and more hardened until they have a problem. They really want this sin pattern that has taken over their lives, but the Bible stands in their way. Lust begins to destroy their faith. I saw this happen with three girls in our youth ministry. Throughout high school, they had a strong testimony, but during college they gave their hearts to unsaved, ungodly men. They wanted the relationship so badly that they found ways to reject their faith. Of course it can happen the other way to. A professing Christian doesn’t stay tied to the truth of God’s Word, and his faith begins to crumble until it is almost non-existent. Soon, their obedience wavers and they begin to live in rebellion.
This compromised faith and conscience, then led to “shipwreck” “concerning the faith.” Since Paul says “THE faith,” he is talking about fundamental Christian doctrine. They shipwrecked in the sense that their commitment to the gospel had been blown up. Shipwreck doesn’t mean a lot to us, but it did to Paul because he endured 4 shipwrecks during his missionary travels (2 Cor11:25; Acts 27). Acts 27 tells us that in one of these shipwrecks, the boat was ripped apart, and Paul had to float to shore holding onto a piece of debris. I can’t imagine how scary it would be to have your boat blown to pieces by waves and to find yourself struggling to stay above water in stormy sea. This is how Paul picture what had happened to the faith of these false teachers. Their faith was barely clinging to life if it was even alive at all. From Paul’s limited human perspective, there didn’t appear to be any signs of life, though he cannot say definitively. First Corinthians 5 is a similar passage, where Paul also speaks to the church about what they should do regarding a member of the church who is living in rebellion. The issue at Corinth was that a professing Christian was living in gross immorality, and in v. 11, he calls this man a “so-called brother.” Paul didn’t know his heart, but he certainly wasn’t comfortable calling this man a Christian when he was living in such rebellion. What a sad descent. These men who had started so well had shipwrecked, and it was now unclear whether or not they were truly saved.
All of us need to learn from the loss of Hymenaeus and Alexander because we are all susceptible to falling. First Corinthians 10:12 warns, “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” Don’t let yourself even start down a road away from faith and a good conscience. Guard your faith and conscience. Of course the best way to do so is to aggressively grow your faith. Stay in the Word and prayer. Keep a good conscience by working hard to obey God’s will. Stay close to church so that others can watch your faith and encourage your faith. The best way to avoid shipwreck is to stay out of the storm. Heed Paul’s warning. Paul then goes on to describe…
The Consequences of Apostasy
Paul says of Hymenaeus and Alexander that he had “delivered them over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Now, that’s not what we would naturally expect. Satan is the enemy. So what does Paul mean. This idea appears one other time in 1 Corinthians 5:1–5, where Paul tells us more about what he means. Verse 1 tells us that this man was openly involved in an adulterous relationship with his father’s wife, probably a second wife, not his own birth mother. He was not repentant, and it seems that he believed in some twisted way that he was more spiritual for understanding his freedom to live this way. But Paul understood that this was rebellion and that the church needed to take action. In vv. 4–5 he tells the congregation that when they gather, they were to deliver this man to Satan. The implication is that there would be some sort of church vote or assent where the members would make this decision to turn this man over. Our text is somewhat different because it says that Paul had done this, not the congregation. It’s best to see Paul as asserting his apostolic authority and also as urging Timothy to lead the church in making the same declaration. That’s basically what we see happening in 1 Corinthians 5. Verse 3 says that Paul has already judged, and he is urging the church to follow suit.
But what does it mean to turn him over to Satan? The rest of the chapter clarifies that practically speaking this meant removing him from the fellowship of the congregation (vv. 6–7, 11). And so delivering someone to Satan implies that a member of the church lives in the sphere of God’s people where he is protected from Satan and the world by the fellowship of the church and the instruction and accountability that comes from the church. But when someone is removed from the congregation, they lose that fellowship and protection and are placed unguarded into the world, the realm of Satan.
In our day, most people call this church discipline. When someone professes to be a Christian but refuses to acknowledge rebellion, the Scriptures command us to remove that person for the sake of the purity of the church (v. 6–7). Leaven is yeast, and Paul is warning that if the church tolerates sin, it will affect the entire body. For the sake of the church’s purity and testimony before the world, we must remove that person from our membership. I am using that word membership intentionally because that’s clearly what the text implies. You can’t remove someone from the body if you don’t have a record of who is in the body. And so church discipline is a very sober act of the church. It is a declaration “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 4) that this person has rebelled against God, and we are removing him or her from our fellowship and turning them over to the realm of Satan. It’s never a happy step, but it is an essential consequence for the purity of the church when a “so-called brother” (v. 11) refuses to repent of rebellion. But notice that church discipline is not just about the purity of the church. Our passage and 1 Corinthians 5 also include…
The Hope for Revival
Notice the hope of 1 Corinthians 5:5. As well, our text says that Paul’s goal is that these men will learn not to blaspheme. In both texts, Paul holds out hope that church discipline will lead these individuals to see the wickedness of their sin and repent. Folks, this is very important because there are a lot of churches out there that would consider church discipline to be terribly unloving and judgmental. But that charge is absurd. What is actually unloving is to pretend as if someone who is teetering on the precipice of hell is okay and is right with God. And I say hell intentionally because the NT is clear that a true believer will continue in the faith and that if someone walks away from Christ they were never truly his. First John 2:19 says of false teachers, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” From our limited human perspective, we don’t know what is in someone’s heart. That’s why Paul calls the person a so-called brother, and he is hopeful in 1 Timothy that these men will repent. But the fact that we don’t know for sure, doesn’t mean that we can act as if nothing is wrong. The church is responsible before God to confront unrepentant sin in hopes that by putting the person out of the church, he will see his sin and repent. Church discipline is the most loving thing the congregation can do for a professing Christian headed down a road to apostasy. I pray that we will never fail as a church to take this loving step no matter how hard it may be. If we ever have to take that step, we should pray that God would use it to bring repentance.
And so in vv. 19b–20, Paul reflects on what had happened to these teachers, and his point is not so much to give a treatise on church discipline but to warn Timothy to guard his own heart. As I said earlier, none of us are immune to falling, and so we should all be warned. Guard your heart. Guard your faith and your conscience very carefully because the path the shipwreck begins with subtle cracks and subtle apathy. We let the deception of sin begin to work, and it takes over until we end up like Hymenaeus and Alexander. Guard your heart. And do so, so that you can fulfill your ministry and fight the good fight.