RPM, Volume 11, Number 39, September 27 to October 3 2009

1 Timothy 5:1-16

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with our study of Paul's First Letter to Timothy, picking up at verse 1 of chapter 5 and working through to verse 16 of the same chapter. As those of you who have been with us will know by now, the main purpose behind this letter has been to encourage Timothy by promoting the good order and functioning of the church.

In pursuit of that goal, Paul has covered a number of topics. In Chapter 1 he started out by talking about false teachers and false teaching. In chapter 2 he addressed issues related to how Christians ought to conduct themselves in the context of the Christian community. In Chapter 3 he dealt with church offices and officers and what qualifies a person for those things. And in chapter 4, after re-visiting the issue of false teaching, he addresses Timothy, the pastor of the Ephesian church, on what it will mean for him to be a faithful minister of the Gospel and good pastor to his congregation.

In chapter 5, he turns from the subject of faithful ministry in order to address Timothy on some particular people/situations in the church - firstly talking about widows, then discussing the question of how elders should be treated and regarded, then he talks about slaves and their enslavement, then he returns (again) to another issue related to the ministry of false teachers before he, finally, addresses Timothy directly, one last time, in the closing words of this letter.

That's the roadmap for the rest of the letter. This week we will deal with one part of that roadmap - listening to what Paul had to say to Timothy and the Ephesians on the subject of widows. Before we listen to the passage, let's pray together.

(Read and pray)

While the overwhelming emphasis in these verses is, of course, widows, Paul does start out by making some rather general statements about relationships. And, when you think about it, this is not at all surprising. Paul has put a great deal of emphasis upon Timothy's ministry of teaching and preaching and exhorting and encouraging and training and — sometimes - rebuking and correcting — and so, after saying those kinds of things, and after most recently reminding Timothy of the importance of his ministry of the word — it is helpful to see through Paul's opening remarks that he is concerned that Timothy go about doing all that he has to do with grace and wisdom and respect and the utmost carefulness.

So, while Timothy is not to let anyone despise him for his youth, he still must, nevertheless, remember his youth. And this reality should and does affect how he is to respond to different people in his congregation. Older men should be regarded and treated as if they were Timothy's own father - with respect. Timothy may have strong things to say to them, but he must not be harsh in doing so. Older women he is to regard as his own mother. Younger men he is to regard as brothers - i.e., as peers, not as subordinates. Younger women he is to regard as sisters - i.e., as those he should love and protect - not take advantage of or pursue for his illegitimate purposes.

After making these rather general/summarizing comments on various classes of relationships - and how Timothy should regard them - Paul moves on to his main topic for the next number of verses - namely, widows.

The first and main thing he has to say about them is to "honor" them or "give proper recognition to them", as the NIV puts it. When Paul says they are to "honor" widows, this includes the idea not only of respecting them and caring about them, but also implies a responsibility of providing support for them as regards their material needs.

Now, before we get much farther in looking at this, you may wonder why Paul is taking the time to address such a specific issue, in such a lengthy manner. I mean, he devotes as much time to this subject in his letter as he does to anything else. So, why does he do this? Why is he making such a major point about ministering to widows, in particular? Well, a couple things can be said in response to that:

First of all, you may be surprised to discover that concern for widows is a fairly prominent and consistent reality in the Bible. A very quick survey of some key passages will demonstrate this:

Psalm 68:5 describes God as the "Father of the fatherless and protector of widows....

Exodus 22:22-24 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.....

Deut 14:28-29 At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled....

Deut. 27:19 Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow....

In Luke 7:11ff Jesus has compassion on a widow who has lost her only child and so raises her boy back to life.

Jn 19:26-27 Jesus leaves instructions for his mother to be taken care of - just before he died.

Acts 6:1ff As you will no doubt recall, the whole situation in Acts 6 revolves around the fact that certain widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Clearly ministry to widows was a priority for the church, right from the very beginning.

James 1:27 says, in a familiar passage, that, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world."

So, there is a very definite biblical concern for widows - a concern that Paul shares and which he presses upon Timothy in this letter.

However, in addition to that sort of biblical and proactive kind of concern for widows, it may well have been the case that there were certain circumstantial reasons why this issue is being highlighted in Paul's letter. It may well have been the case that Timothy was very frustrated with the way widows were being treated in Ephesus by some within his congregation. There is every possibility that some were neglecting their familial responsibilities in this area, or passing them off onto the church. As a result, Timothy has made his frustrations on these matters known to Paul who, in turn, has addressed some of those kinds of things in his letter, knowing that his letter will not be read only by Timothy but by the whole congregation.

So, Paul commands that the people "honor" and "give proper recognition to" and "care for" widows. But in saying those things, Paul is careful to qualify his remarks. Paul does not want them to engage in this ministry indiscriminately but rather discriminately. There are certain criteria, certain guidelines he wants them to observe in carrying out this ministry. They are to look at more than just the bare facts of whether a person's spouse has died. Paul does not expect them to minister to every widow that has a pulse. Rather, they are to be selective in their response.

Now you may wonder why this would be the case. Why would they need to be selective? Why would Paul place limits on this ministry? Well there are at least two things that would cause Paul to do this. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, Timothy and his congregation - along with the rest of us - lived in a finite world. Right? The church in Ephesus consisted of a certain number of people who had a certain amount of resources and time, and skills, and opportunity, etc. As a result, every ministry decision they made, every time they said "yes" to one thing was, simultaneously, a decision to say "no" to several other things.

It's much like what happens when you go to the store to Christmas shop with $50 dollars in your pocket. Every purchase you make has a direct affect on your ability to make subsequent purchases. So, for example, if you buy the life-sized, talking, "Finding Nemo" shark, complete with ingestible sea creatures, for $49.00, then completing the rest of your shopping with your remaining $1 will be challenging, to say the least.

This, by analogy, is the situation in Ephesus, and indeed everywhere. The Ephesian congregation had limited resources, limited people, and limited time — all of which implies the need for wisdom and discretion in making use of these things. They clearly were not in a position to help every widow they came across. So, some decisions had to be made.

Second, not only did Timothy and his congregation live in a finite world, they also lived in a fallen world, as do we. And so we are all affected by selfishness, greed, pride, and a host of other things. In short, sin takes its toll on all of us - both the helpers and the helped. With regard to widows specifically - Paul was aware that there would be some widows hanging around who were quite self-centered, who were lazy, who were self-indulgent and so would use and take advantage of the church's kindness and generosity, for purposes of self-promotion. Such a thing was, and is, obviously, a problem.

There was a problem on the other side of the equation as well - Paul knew that sinfulness on the part of those who were NOT widows would also play a role in how things worked out. He knew that there would be some who, in their greed and selfishness and idolatry and materialism would also take advantage of the church's generosity in order to avoid providing help and assistance that they personally could, and should, be offering to their own parents and to others who were widows in their own families.

So because they lived in a finite world, and because they lived in a fallen world, Paul laid down some guidelines for their ministry to widows. He did this in order to make good use of the church's limited resources AND to check the sinful inclinations and tendencies that were resident in the hearts of all the Ephesian Christians - both in those who were widows and in the rest of the congregation as well.

Well, then, what were some of the criteria that Paul laid down for the ministry to the Ephesian widows? In verses 3-16 Paul explains that the widows he wants them to help are what he calls the "true widows" as in the ESV or those who are "really in need", as the NIV puts it.

Now, of course, by putting things this way, Paul is not implying that other widows who don't meet his precise criteria - for example younger widows — do not have real needs and have not suffered real loss. Paul is not implying that. Every widow has real needs and has certainly suffered a great loss. Nevertheless, Paul still uses this sort of language and talks this way in order to make a distinction - as if to say, "Look there are widows and there are widows". And so, with his words here Paul shows his recognition that even within the narrow category of "widow" there is a lot of breadth. There were different "classes" of widows - if I can put it that way - depending on things like life circumstance, age, available resources, personal character and actions, etc.

In recognizing that there are differences among widows, Paul is directing them to focus their ministry on those widows whose needs would be most urgent and pressing, and who had little or no chance of seeing their needs met in other ways and by other means.

Now, Paul's comments here can be grouped into two main categories: 1) comments about widows who should NOT be helped - and why and 2) comments about widows who should be helped - and why. And, while Paul does go back and forth a little bit between the two, we will not be strictly following Paul's sequence, but will instead, for the sake of structure, try and group most of his related comments together.

First then, who are the widows that Paul does NOT intend for the Ephesians to help out? These fall into three basic categories:

1) In verses 3-5, generally speaking, we see that Paul does not want them to help widows who have other means of help available to them - namely, other family members - children, grandchildren and - by implication any other sort of relative that is in position to help out, but his focus here seems to be on children and grandchildren. Paul says that rather than shifting responsibility to the church, children in particular should look after their own parents, as much as possible, for several reasons.

One reason is because doing such things is proof of their own godliness and an expression of that reality in their life. Paul says that the way in which children who are Christians respond to the need of their parents is telling evidence of whether or not they are truly in relationship with Christ. That is how seriously he takes this!. It is evidence of godliness - or the lack thereof.

Another reason he encourages them to do this is because it is simple justice. In the ESV, Paul talks about "making some return to their parents" which in the NIV is simply "repaying their parents". Either way, what is in view here is the very real commitment and sacrifice and labor and toil and long-suffering that the parents went through in bringing their children into the world and providing for them and teaching them and training them and protecting them and sacrificing for them, etc. Paul is simply calling upon children to respond to their parents in gratitude for their own investment in them as they were growing up, and beyond. Again, it is simply a matter of justice.

A further reason given is that when people do look after the widows in their own families such a thing is "pleasing to God" and thus, glorifying and honoring to Him as well. The idea behind this is also what lies behind his statements about those who refuse to do these things - and so deny the faith and show themselves to be worse than unbelievers. So, in other words, the Ephesians are to do these things, if for no other reason, because even pagans do these things and thus, to not extend the sort of help and mercy that even pagans extend would be shameful and displeasing to God and bring disgrace and insults upon him, in the eyes of the world.

So, Paul wants children to look after their widowed parents. To be sure, he talks here most specifically about widowed mothers, but the passage does seem to allow for the application to both mothers and fathers who are widows, at least in principle, especially since Paul talks about children repaying their parentS - plural - and not just their widowed mothers.

2) The second category of widows that Paul does not want them to focus on in their ministry is widows who are self-indulgent or who, as the NIV in verse 6 puts it, widows who "live for pleasure". Simply put, Paul does not want the Ephesians to function as enablers. He doesn't want their responsible, compassionate actions to be something which, ultimately, only further encourages irresponsible people to remain irresponsible.

3) The third category of widows that Paul does not want them to focus on in their ministry is young widows. Now some things need to be said about this. Paul's general expectation seems to be that younger widows, in contrast to older ones, would and should seek to be re-married and thus, through their being re-married would, among other things, see their material needs provided for. Now, Paul's reasons for his position on this matter seem to be based on a combination of both his wisdom and his own experiences as a pastor over the years. Paul knew what sorts of struggles and frustrations and temptations young widows would typically deal with and what tendencies they might have, and what characteristic sins they might typically fall into - as verses 11-13 illustrate.

This knowledge of these sorts of things is what informs his comments to Timothy and his setting the criteria for ministry to widows in the particular way that he has set them. As a result, rather than including young widows on the list of those who were to be looked after by the church - rather than put them in that situation which might well encourage them to not move forward or to not make getting re-married a priority, Paul, by keeping them off the list, makes sure that they DO move forward in this area, and that they DO seek to re-marry and thus minimize the possibility that they might stray into areas and activities that would be unhelpful to them and the church and which would be dishonoring to God.

Yet, it is a tricky situation for the young widow, isn't it? And certainly Paul would have been aware of this. Because, on the one hand, while not being on the list of those widows who were being helped by the church — while that surely would have been a great inducement for a young widow to actively pursue re-marriage, at the same time, not receiving much help in this area might make her all the more anxious about finding a suitable husband and, as a result, might make her more vulnerable to the temptation to marry someone who was NOT a believer - and thus be drawn away from her commitment and devotion to Christ, which is Paul's concern in verses 11 and 15.

So, it seems to be very much a case of deciding which situation would, ultimately, prove to be the more disadvantageous - for the individual widow as well as for the church. Paul's command that younger widows NOT be included on the widow's list is a clear indicator that he believed that there was more potential for trouble and hardship by putting young widow's ON the list, than by keeping them OFF.

So, those are the three categories of persons who are NOT to be included on the "widow's list" in Ephesus. The question is, who should be included on that list - and why? Well the answers to those questions are a lot easier to deal with. Simply put, Paul wants the Ephesian church to commit itself to ministering to those widows who are:
1) Older widows - at least 60 years old. It is not clear what is behind Paul's choice of this particular age bracket, but it probably is the result of the consideration of a number of factors. I don't think the particular number is as important as the relative age that it represents.

2) Unattached widows - i.e., widows who are "truly" all alone, who have no family to turn to, no children, or grandchildren, no other extended relatives, etc. Widows who are truly dependent on God and whose persistent prayers demonstrate that confidence and dependence.

3) Widows with a track record of self-sacrificing service (vs 10), not self-indulgent behavior (vs 6).

In short, widows who, due to their age and maturity, and their life experience and solid track record of good works, etc. show that their being helped by the church will not put them in a situation that will expose them to greater temptation but will, in fact, do just the opposite: It will create a circumstance in which they will thrive even more and have even more freedom and opportunity to serve the Gospel and their brothers and sisters in Christ — as they have already been doing all along, before the church began to help them out. Such widows as these Paul wants Timothy to include among those that the church ministers to in real, and practical ways.

Now, I think it is helpful, in the remaining couple of minutes of our study this morning, to very quickly step back from the passage a bit in order to draw out a couple broader implications.

We see here that in writing to Timothy on this subject, Paul is addressing a very real, very pressing problem for the Ephesian congregation - the need to look after those widows who truly needed help. Paul's response in this situation demonstrates some principles that I think we can draw upon as we think about applying these things to needs in our own day, and within our own congregation. This would include, of course, ministering to widows in our own congregation, but also includes, by analogy, other ministries of mercy. So, three things I think we can take away from this, then, are:

1) The reality of personal responsibility - Paul wanted people in Ephesus to take their personal and familial responsibilities seriously. He didn't want them to unload their burdens on the church - and use that as an excuse to indulge their greed or materialism or selfishness. The same challenge is before us as a church today - to be willing, truly willing, to do what needs to be done to look after our own families, including and especially our parents if and when that time comes, in order that the church will not be burdened with doing what WE ought to be doing. We would do well to remember Paul's declaration here - that one who does not look after his own family is worse than an unbeliever.

2) The reality of corporate responsibility - While Paul wanted people to take their familial responsibilities seriously, he knew that even if everybody DID do that, there would still be people who were not looked after because they HAD no blood family. But they do have a church family. And for persons such as that - the church has a very real obligation and responsibility to show the love of Christ in very real and tangible ways to those among us who are completely dependent on God - and have no other place to go. This includes widows, of course, but does not stop with them. That same principle can be applied in other situations and circumstances as well.

3) The importance of a discriminating ministry - Just as Paul took into account the fact that the Ephesians were both finite and sinful, so too are we both obligated and justified in exercising discretion in our ministry to the Body. We may and will have to make decisions at times, set up criteria, decide who should and should NOT receive help in any given situation. Such things will require great wisdom, and searching of Scripture and heartfelt prayer, and even then will not be done perfectly. But they are important, and they are necessary, and they are perfectly legitimate and reasonable decisions to make. May God give us grace as we seek to apply these things in the weeks and months ahead.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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