Practicing Sound Judgment
Passage: 1 Timothy 5:22-25
If you came eager to hear a Mother’s Day sermon, I’m sorry that you are going to be disappointed. I decided against doing one today because I essentially preached a Mother’s Day message 3 weeks ago in my sermon, “How to Leave a Godly Legacy,” and the following week we looked at a lot of issues related to motherhood in my sermon, “God’s Design in Marriage and Labor.” Therefore, if you really want to listen to a Mother’s Day message today, then go to our website or to Sermonaudio this afternoon and download those two messages.
But this morning, we are going to finish vv. 17–25 regarding the church’s relationship to its pastors. This section was necessary because the Ephesian church was having problems with its elders. Hymenaeus and Alexander had already been disciplined for teaching false doctrine, and v. 20 indicates that more purging was still needed. These were challenging times, and so the purpose of vv. 17–25 is to guide Timothy through helping the church navigate these circumstances.
Last Sunday we looked at vv. 21–25, which tell the church how to treat its pastors. The church needed to honor faithful elders and deal justly with accusations against them. Verse 20 indicates that part of dealing justly with accusations is removing elders who prove to be guilty of sins that disqualify them from the office. Of course removing a pastor from his position is always uncomfortable and challenging. But it also created another challenge, which is that the church had to find qualified replacements.
Therefore, vv. 22–25 give instructions regarding appointing new elders. In particular, they challenge Timothy regarding taking time to patiently discern a man’s character before putting him in authority. These verses are very important for choosing a pastor, but they are also significant for our relationships with people in general. Learning how to accurately and appropriately judge people’s character is very important to all of life.
There are two commands that govern this section. First, v. 22 says “do not…” Verses 24–25 then add some meat to this command. The second major command is at the end of v. 22, where Paul says to “keep yourself pure.” Then comes v. 23, which is a true parenthesis. It doesn’t contribute to Paul’s primary argument, but it has a lot of ethical significance, and it comes up often in debates about Christians drinking alcohol. Therefore, we will look at the two commands consecutively and then conclude by looking at the parenthesis. I’d like to summarize the first challenge as being…
First Charge: Exercise caution when appointing elders (vv. 22a–22b, 24–25).
Verse 22 describes appointing elders in terms of laying on hands. This was a symbolic act that was common in Judaism. The early church embraced it as a symbolic gesture to be used when ordaining someone to the ministry or commissioning them for some other form of service. It was a way of acknowledging someone’s giftedness and affirming God’s call.
In this context, it specifically has to do with appointing new pastors. Again, the situation at Ephesus was a bit unstable because of the void in good leadership. It always creates discomfort when a church is without a pastor or down one.
And the temptation would have been to fix that discomfort as quickly as possible by accelerating the process of choosing new elders. But Paul recognized that this would be a dangerous strategy. The church had already been deeply hurt by bad leadership, and they didn’t need to perpetuate the problem by carelessly appointing new pastors.
Paul says to take your time, and make sure that you really know a candidate, his character, his theology, and his philosophy of ministry. I believe that Paul is especially warning the church to be careful with a recent convert. 3:6 warned against making a new convert a pastor. This is an important warning because we could tell stories for a long time about instances where some really talented man gets saved under extraordinary circumstances, and the church pushes him into leadership too quickly. He hasn’t had time to build godly character, and he’s not ready for the pressure. Things unravel pretty quickly and everyone suffers. Therefore, Paul warns Timothy to take his time.
He follows with two reasons why this is so important.
First Reason: You bear responsibility for the consequences of the appointment (v. 22b).
Grammatically, this statement is closely connected with the first command, and it adds a sober tone to the verse. The verb translated “share” is koinoneo. It always describes a significant partnership. Therefore, God says that if the church was careless and neglectful in appointing elders, they couldn’t just pass it off as an innocent mistake. They would essentially be linking arms with the failures of man they appointed. They would share responsibility in the destruction of the church.
This makes the whole idea of appointing elders very weighty doesn’t it? This process must always be approached with great thought and intentionality. But there is also a deeper principle here that has broader significance. I am partially responsible for the consequences my actions have on others. If the church carelessly appointed a bad elder and he hurt the church, Timothy couldn’t leave all of the blame with that bad elder, and if I make a sinful or careless decision that negatively impacts others, I share the blame for what happens.
Sometimes, we like to think we live in a box and that our selfish decisions don’t impact others. I can live carelessly or even sinfully, and it’s only my problem. If someone else is negatively impacted by my lifestyle and makes a bad choice, that’s there problem not mine. But God says that I share responsibility for how my choices impact others.
But none of us lives in a box. How you live is constantly impacting people around you. You are impacting the other people in this church by being faithful or not faithful, by walking with God or not walking with God, by serving or not serving, by using corrupt communication or edifying communication, by worshiping with all of your heart or being disinterested in worship.
And we could extend that to every area of life. Of course it is true that people are ultimately responsible for their own decisions, but God says that your choices partner in the lives of others. And God will hold you accountable for how you influence others. This could be a great thing. For most it will be a joyous occasion to learn in eternity how we impacted people in positive ways we never realized. But how sad it will be to learn of the unintended negative consequences our actions also had.
Don’t live a careless, thoughtless Christian life. One of the most basic duties of the Christian is to practice constant discernment in every area of life. Since it’s Mother’s Day, I will especially apply this to them. Moms, if you have children in the home, you have tremendous influence on a daily basis. Use that influence well. Be intentional about raising your kids in a way that leads them to Christ.
And so Paul says to exercise caution because you bear responsibility for the consequences of poor decision-making. Verses 24–25 follow with a second reason.
Second Reason: Discerning the heart often takes time (vv. 24–25).
A pretty important interpretive question regarding these verses is whether they are talking about the judgment of God or the judgment of people. In other words, is Paul talking about the fact that God ultimately sees the heart and will judge accordingly, or is he talking about man’s judgment? I believe that the context clearly points to man’s judgment, not God’s. Again, Paul said not to appoint elders too quickly, and vv. 24–25 give a practical reason why this is important. First impressions are sometimes accurate but not always. It takes time to really discern a person’s heart and character.
Verses 24–25 makes this point with two contrasting statements. They begin by noting that some people’s sins are obvious. This statement pictures a criminal being marched to judgment while a herald announces his crimes. Paul’s point is that sometimes we know a person’s sins right away, and there is no question that they are not qualified to be pastors.
But sometimes it takes more time to really discern a person’s heart. I’m sure we’ve all had this experience. You meet someone for the first time, and he makes a great first impression. You think, “Wow, what a godly individual,” or “I want this person to be my friend.” But over time you begin to see a lot of cracks in the person’s character. Of course, we all have problems, but with some people it goes much deeper. They have flaws that disqualify them from leadership. They may not be immediately obvious, but time will ultimately reveal the heart.
Verse 25 then presents the issue positively. With some people their “good works,” or acts of kindness toward others, are “clearly evident.” They just give off an aura of godliness and love that is palatable. But with others, it takes time to really appreciate their godly character (read). I don’t love how the NKJV translates this statement because it makes it sound like the contrast is between good works and evil works. But the contrast is actually between good works that are clear and good works that are not. It would be better to say, “those that are not clearly evident cannot be hidden.”
Again, we’ve all known people like this. The first time you meet them, you come away unimpressed. Maybe this person is quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t seem very impressive at all. But every time you talk with this person, it’s like you are unfolding another level of rich color. Your appreciation grows and grows.
Paul’s primary point is to help Timothy make sure he doesn’t miss these kinds of people in his search for elders because if Timothy went purely off of first impressions, he was going to put people in authority who had no business being there, and he was going to miss others who may not have had flashy personalities or impressive gifts but had a depth about them that would make them great pastors.
Again, there’s a lot of practical significance here for us. Sometimes we all get enamored with the wrong things—physical appearance, wealth, and charisma. God can certainly use these things, but they aren’t the primary things that make a good friend or a good minister. Look for faithfulness, sacrificial love, and wisdom. These are the things that matter most. And they are also the things that you need to build into your own life. Don’t live your life working to be noticed. Rather, build godly character, serve the Lord faithfully, and let God bring to light the work he is doing in you.
The first charge is to exercise caution when appointing elders. The second charge is…
Second Charge: Stay above evil motives and actions (v. 22c).
This command has duel significance in light of what goes before and after.
First, Paul tells Timothy to…
Keep the elder selection process pure.
It should be obvious by now that there were a lot of sinful motives at work among the false teachers and those they were influencing. You can imagine how that would influence a pastoral search. Some influential member who gives generously says, “I’m leaving with my checkbook unless you pick so and so.” Or a man is on the short list of candidates, who is part of a large and influential family in the church; therefore, choosing him would make a lot of people happy. Today we call this political pressure.
Paul urges Timothy to stay above all of this when choosing pastors. He had to do what was right before God and encourage the church to pick the men who truly met the qualifications and would be best for the church in the long run.
But there’s more at stake here than just a pure selection process. Paul is urging his spiritual son to…
Keep your heart pure.
We know that Paul was concerned about more than the selection of elders based on v. 23, which clarifies what Paul doesn’t mean by purity. Paul didn’t want Timothy to conclude from his command to be pure that Timothy needed to practice total abstinence from wine. Therefore, we know that purity here ultimately stands for purity of heart and holiness of life. If Paul was going to keep the selection process pure, he first needed to have a pure heart. He needed to drive out sinful motives and desires, and he needed to make sure that he was committed to obeying God and selflessly serving the church, not to following the political agendas of some or doing what was easy.
May God help us all to build this kind of character. We need to be people who are not ultimately driven by the fear of man, temporal concerns, or pride. Instead, let’s be people who live by faith, who walk in integrity, and who love each other enough to do what is right, not what is convenient. BTW, you can’t wait until the storm comes to build this kind of character. You’ve got to build a strong theology and a heart of integrity beforehand so that when the storm comes, your anchor is deeply rooted and ready to stand up to all of the pressures tugging at your heart.
In sum, the primary purpose of this paragraph is to call Timothy to exercise caution and sound judgment based on pure motives when selecting new pastors. We will all be served well to build these kinds of patterns. Approach every decision carefully considering the consequences not just for you but for others. Don’t presume to know people better than you actually do. Take time to see their hearts, and to see what is truly under the surface. And watch your heart carefully. Make sure that godliness drives your heart, not selfishness and pride.
Finally, let’s consider the parenthesis to the passage that comes in v. 23.
Parenthesis (v. 23)
This is one of those verses that can easily be misapplied if we don’t understand exactly what is going on. Again, the purpose of this verse is to add a clarification to what Paul didn’t mean by the command in v. 22 to “keep yourself pure.” Obeying this command did not mean that Timothy could never drink wine, which as a side note was always alcoholic in the ancient world, though it typically did not have anywhere near the alcoholic content of modern wine.
We can assume from this verse that Timothy apparently had chosen to refrain from any and all use of wine, but why he made this choice is not as clear. There are two likely explanations though. First, there are good indications in 1 Timothy that the false teachers and their followers enjoyed getting drunk. The NT is clear that drunkenness is a sin, and Timothy probably wanted to distance himself from this wicked activity; therefore, he drank no wine at all.
It’s also likely that Timothy abstained to make sure he wasn’t a stumblingblock to others. This may have been Paul’s practice. Romans 14:21 states, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.” For example, drinking wine in front of a recovering alcoholic could be a major temptation for that individual, so Paul said it would be better to sacrifice your liberty than to tempt someone to sin. Timothy was probably trying to live this principle. But practicing total abstinence was affecting Timothy’s health. Paul was concerned about Timothy’s “stomach” and “frequent infirmities.”
Of course, Ephesus didn’t have modern technologies for purifying drinking water, and especially in bigger cities like Ephesus, the drinking water would have had a lot of bacteria and other impurities mixed in. It was normal to mix some wine with the water to make it safe for drinking. But Timothy wasn’t doing this; as a result, the impurities in the water were affecting his health.
Therefore, while I’m sure Paul appreciated the spirit behind Timothy’s abstinence, he urged him to mix some wine with his drinking water in order to stay healthy. Therefore, Paul’s concern in this verse is clearly medicinal. He’s not telling Timothy to lighten up a bit and go out and enjoy a couple of drinks. Rather, he is telling him to take care of himself because he couldn’t minister effectively if he was constantly sick.
So what is the significance of this for us? I’d like to make three applications. First…
We must consider all of the factors when making ethical decisions.
I bring this up because sometimes we can lock in on one biblical command or principle or duty in a way that is ultimately unwise because we aren’t accounting for other factors. That’s what Timothy did hear. Was taking a stand against drunkenness a good thing? Yes! Was limiting Timothy’s liberty for the sake of others a loving choice? Yes! But it wasn’t a wise choice because it was severely limiting his broader impact.
Sometimes, we can be very sloppy in our decision-making. It is very important that we think carefully about all of the factors that should weigh into our decisions. Ephesians 5:10 says we are responsible to “try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.” This takes work. Build wisdom and practice discernment.
My second application is…
God’s creation is good, and we must use it according to his design.
Isn’t it incredible that God would build into his design of a grape and the process of fermentation the ability to kill bacteria and make water palatable? God’s creation fits together so well, and all of it is good, as we saw several weeks ago in 4:1–5. Alcohol serves some very good purposes in our world, and to say otherwise is not holiness; it is legalistic asceticism.
But sinners have a way of corrupting God’s good creation, and they have certainly done that with alcohol and drugs. Rather than using them to protect our health, they use them to destroy their health, dull their minds, and hide from their problems. All of these things are wicked. It is very important that we give thanks for what God has made but that we use it the way God made it to be used based on the commands of Scripture.
We should mimic Timothy’s caution.
Timothy obviously went too far, but his heart was certainly in the right place. The Scriptures are very clear about the dangers of alcohol. Paul uses the Greek word for wine four other times in his epistles, and all four uses concern the dangers of alcohol. God also warns us strongly in Proverbs several times about the danger of beverages with a high alcohol content that is intended for drunkenness. Proverbs 23:31–32 state, “Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper.”
We all need to heed God’s warnings and understand that alcohol carries great dangers with it, and we don’t have to look very far around us to see that alcohol and drugs are constantly destroying lives and doing tremendous damage to the people around those who abuse them. Can I tell you on the authority of God’s Word that you should never enjoy a glass of champagne with your dinner? No I can’t. But I can say on the authority of God’s Word that getting drunk is sin and that alcohol is very dangerous in the hands of sinners. You better heed God’s warning, and I think a very wise application would be to just stay away entirely.
If there is a unifying theme to this paragraph, it is the importance of exercising sound judgment in every area of life. That’s so important. You cannot be godly in this fallen world and be lazy mentally. God expects us to be discerning and build wisdom that honors him. Let’s all commit ourselves to build sound judgment that honors our Lord.