Humble Leadership 1 Timothy 1
Timothy had a unique relationship with Paul, his mentor—something few ever experience. Paul delighted to share his wisdom and insight (inspired as it was). That is the easy part of the relationship—we all like to give advice and have young people hang on our every word. However, there are few Timothys who want that input. As we continue this series of selected studies in 1 Timothy, let us put ourselves in the sandals of this young disciple and learn from Paul.
What made the relationship work was Timothy’s receptivity. He knew a good deal when he found it. A free theological and pastoral education! Well, actually, it was quite expensive, it cost him the sacrifice of his entire life. And it would not be easy–three times Paul speaks about fighting the “good fight” (1:18, 6:12, 2 Tim 4:7 NASB). Yet the heart of serving God was well lived and demonstrated by Paul; passion drips from his pen as he pours out his heart to Timothy.
Right Use Of The Law
Ironically, after warning Timothy of wrong attitudes in teaching the Word (see previous article in this series), Paul turns to the law, saying it is good (1 Tim 1:8)! He wrote similarly in Romans 7:12 and 16. What uncharacteristic words these seem to be coming from one who so strenuously argued against keeping the law for justification! But there is still a place for the law, particularly in identifying what is “contrary to sound teaching” (1:10). Preaching must include the concept of sin, and how can people know what sin is apart from knowing the law? How can they know the law apart from the preacher telling them about it? Today especially people simply do not know about the law of God, and therefore don’t understand their sin and their need of salvation. Even though many grow up in a “religious culture,” there is a woeful ignorance of God’s righteous standards.
Paul, never one to be a hypocrite and knowing the law well, applies the law to himself. He cannot escape what he says in Romans 12:3 is sound or sober judgment of himself. As servants of the Lord, we cannot afford the luxury of thinking too highly of ourselves. Imagine what Timothy thought as he read the words of his mentor in 1 Tim 1:12-17, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost [KJV: or chief] of all” (1:15). Paul was being more than rhetorical. He meant what he said! The only thing he brought to God’s service was “faithfulness” which the Lord recognized and acknowledged (1:12). It was God who strengthened, God who was merciful, God who was gracious. Paul was ignorant, unworthy, and many other things the law identified as sin. What is most astounding is the present tense of the statement, “among whom I amforemost.” Paul still saw himself that way.
A Supreme Example
He goes on to say that the whole reason he found mercy was “so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (1:16). Now as elders and servants of God, we can sometimes misunderstand and misapply Paul’s teaching here. He is not saying that his great oratorical abilities are an example of ministry to all believers. He is not saying his great faithfulness is an example, nor his great doctrinal adherence or his being a pillar of the assembly. The example he has in mind includes the fact that he himselfis a sinner. The example, actually, is Christ’s patience working in Paul, who is a sinner. The focus is on what the Lord can do. In other words, if God can use Paul, he can use anyone! The apostle doesn’t flinch from this self-castigation, because it is absolutely true. To lead people to think of him otherwise would be hypocritical and would not result in his doxology that burst out in the very next breath: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1:17).
Can you see what Paul is saying? In verse 9-10, he had listed the kinds of sinners and sins that merit the law’s holy censure. With this fresh in his mind, Paul is forced to include himself. Is this hyperbole, that is, does Paul exaggerate the point? To make sure we don’t conclude that, Paul prefaces his confession with, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance … ” (1:15).
He knew full well the holiness of the law, having been trained in the highest rabbinical schooling possible. He had been taught personally by Christ (Gal 1:11-12). As he warned young Timothy about false teachers and spoke of the goodness of the law in identifying sin, the awesome reality of God holiness must have overwhelmed him. Could it be also that one of his encounters with James (Gal 1:19, 2:9) left him agreeing with the injunction: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1)?
Unworthy And Know It
So, as we read along with Timothy, we should be reminded that we teach, preach and lead only because of God’s work in our lives. It has nothing to do with our abilities, talents or gifts. We need to be ever mindful of our sinfulness apart from God! We are unworthy. We need to fight against the tendency to put on our holy face on Sunday mornings, act like we don’t make mistakes or fall short of the moral standard we desire. As elders, we need to become more transparent, willing to acknowledge when we are wrong, guard against pride and self-righteousness, confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). What God desires most is faithfulness and honest humility.