Sharpening the Blade 1 Timothy 4:6-16
“First put on your own mask, then help those around you.” This familiar refrain is heard by air travelers at the beginning of every commercial flight. In the event that air pressure in the plane cabin drops, oxygen masks will appear from the ceiling. A panicky parent may struggle to get the mask on the children and in the process lose consciousness—then be of no use to help anyone. In order to help others you need to keep yourself in a state of being able to help.
This is true for leaders of God’s people, as Paul points out in 1 Timothy 4:6-16. There are several specific things an elder or leader must give personal attention to in his own life before he can be of help to others.
1) And elder must continually feed himself spiritually (6)
This involves two things. First, the elder needs a steady intake of God’s Word. The method of reading through Scripture may vary, but the important thing is the wholesale infusion of God’s Word into our minds first. (For a simple “do-it-yourself” Bible reading plan see the side bar on page 4.) Second, the elder needs to move the Scriptures from his mind to his heart. He needs to be nourished by what he reads. It is not enough to become the “Bible-answer man.” We need to constantly be transformed “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18 NASB) as we discern the Lord in and through His Word.
One cannot adequately lead God’s people if he is not in the Word daily and in it seriously. This needs to be supplemented by a steady diet of reading or listening to godly teachers who are sound in doctrine and “words of faith.” This may seem overwhelming considering that many elders have fulltime secular jobs and families. Keep in mind we are not in a sprint, but a long distance effort. A little bit each day over time amounts to a great amount—like compounded interest, involving a far greater investment than money in a retirement fund.
2) Don’t waste time on useless things (7a)
Paul warns in verse 7 to stay away from “worldly fables fit only for old women.” Earlier he spoke about avoiding “myths and endless genealogies, speculation, strange doctrines” (1 Tim 1:4). These are like gossip tabloids found in many supermarkets, which draw attention with sensational headlines that are often little more than rumors. It is surprising that those publications stay in business. However, it is even more surprising the audience which results from passing on rumors and sensational news bits and being caught up in titillating stories. People like to hear “juicy” criticisms of others and it gives the bearer of such news a certain sense of importance.
An elder needs to constantly ask, “Is this thing I am spending so much time on really that essential? Is the time spent tracking down a minute thing of Scripture worthwhile when the weightier things of people’s souls are neglected? If I didn’t have this thing to spend energy on, what more beneficial thing could I be doing for the Lord and His people?
3) Work on disciplining yourself (7b-8)
True biblical leadership and teaching is hard work and requires discipline—the flesh resists this. It is hard to be consistent in reading the Word. The practice of true godliness is difficult. So Paul tells Timothy to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (7b). There are too many important things to deal with, so why waste time on trivials that don’t help you toward your goal of godliness?
The Greek word for “discipline” is gumnazo from which we get our English word “gymnasium.” An athlete goes into training and eliminates any activities that are superfluous or unnecessary, anything that wastes his time. He focuses only on those activities which help him become a better athlete. In contrast, our goal is to become godly which has greater value than physical discipline of the body. Our leadership will be more characterized by godliness as a result.
4) Stick to what is important (9)
This teaching of Paul’s is a “trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance” (9). This is one of five times he uses this description of his teaching (see 1:15, 3:1, 2 Tim 2:11, also Titus 3:8). Of all that he has to say, these rise to the top in importance.
The trustworthy statement is the importance of discipline in order to attain godliness. We must keep the main focus, the main focus—and that is difficult due to the many things that compete for our attention! Godliness is well worth the effort, because it has huge benefits for both here (in our temporal ministry) and in eternity (eternal effects). Growing in godliness as an elder must never be underestimated.
5) Keep fixed on God (10)
This hardly needs to be said in a ministry letter to elders. But this is our motivation for the energy expenditure, so we need to make sure our motivation is not skewed. It is so easy to “fix our hope” on earthly recognition, on prestige, influence, tangible rewards whatever they may be. But these things are quite shallow. When we fix out eyes on God, we are dwelling on Him whose goal is to save people from their sins, and give them new life in Christ. As one commentator puts it, “He is the Savior of all men potentially (1Ti 1:15); of believers alone effectually.”
6) Call others to the same high standard (11)
Don’t hold back in calling other Christians to work hard toward godliness. Challenge people to winnow out the things that slow down their spiritual growth. All should choose carefully where they spend their energies.
7) Don’t let your youth hinder you (12)
While being an elder of necessity presupposes a level of maturity, which may imply some level of physical age, youthfulness in itself should not bar a man from spiritual leadership. The onus is not on others to overlook Timothy’s youthfulness—Paul is speaking to Timothy himself. It is up to Timothy to not let people dismiss him because of his age! In other words, don’t let other people’s attitude toward you hinder your ministry. “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.”
When I was baptized as a new believer in my early 20’s, a faithful older brother in Christ gave me this verse (1 Tim 4:12) at my baptism. I was full of zeal, but with little knowledge or experience, still looking very much like the world in my outward appearance, lacking Christian “brethren” lingo or traditional behaviors and mannerisms. I remember sitting in Bible studies and men’s meetings, offering my enthusiastic thoughts on Scripture—only to be dismissed with those “you’re still young, so we don’t take you too seriously” looks and comments. This verse was a great encouragement to not give up even though I was young. My mentor just encouraged me to continue walking strong in faith and serving where the Lord opened the doors.
8) Engage people in the Word (13)
While this involves public ministry, strengthening all through reading, exhortation and teaching, the leader is benefited from the exercise, as well. Paul says to “give attention to the public reading of Scripture.” Though the word “public” is not in the original Greek, it is clear from the context that is what is intended. The elders in one local church have taken this seriously by implementing the reading of Scripture publicly every Sunday morning at the Lord’s Supper. A portion is read consecutively each week through the Gospels and selected Psalms.
9) Give priority to your gift (14)
“Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you.” A leader among God’s people is pulled in many good directions. And the proverbial “tyranny of the urgent” can crowd out the “important” things. However, an elder must not become so busy that he never functions in his area of giftedness—this is a recipe for frustration in serving. Nothing will kill an elder’s vitality more than spending all his energy outside of his area of gift.
10) Finally, give attention to your leadership (15-16)
Paul says to Timothy, “Take pains with these things,” “Be absorbed in them,” “Pay close attention,” and “Persevere.” It is absolutely essential, of critical importance, that a leader carefully watches his own development and ministry. I have a hobby as a woodwork (hence the origin of the name of this ministry – Elders’ “ShopNotes”). My table saw is the main tool in my shop and I use it on just about every project I work on. However, after awhile it gets dull and needs sharpening. This takes time and slows the project down when I have to do this. However, without sharpening the blade, the cutting takes longer and tends to burn the wood. I more easily blow an electrical fuse which then cuts power to the whole shop. Taking time to sharpen the blade, in the long run, makes all my woodworking projects go much better.
As elders we need to spend time sharpening our own spiritual development and growth as leaders. We cannot afford to “wing it.” We’ll end up burning ourselves out or hurting people. And we can easily blow a spiritual fuse and thereby limit the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst. There is too much at stake!
A leader is always asking how he can improve, grow and become a better leader of God’s people. I pray every day the Lord will help me to be that kind of leader.