RPM, Volume 11, Number 17, April 26 to May 2 2009

1 Timothy 1:18-20

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

"Nobody told me being a Christian was going to be so hard." That's what ‘Rick', a college friend, said to me. "Nobody told me it was going to be like this." On his face was a look of complete bewilderment. As I watched him struggle, I shrunk a little bit inside feeling somewhat responsible for his predicament. Why? Because I was one of the people that had urged him to become a Christian. Now I was wondering what I had gotten him into. I should have warned him. It's not like I hadn't experienced the same things myself and, indeed, was still experiencing those things from time to time - although in different ways.

You see, Rick and I had gone to High School together. While we were not great buddies there, we knew each other and were at least casual friends. We entered college in the fall of 1979 and, for the first couple years, had gone our separate ways, never really running into each other. During that time when we didn't see each other much, I became a Christian and, to my great surprise, so did a number of other people I had known from high school.

Well, it was a couple years after realizing my need of God's grace and mercy that my path intersected once again with Rick's. Unbeknownst to each other, we both moved into the "Pentagon" dormitories at LSU which, at the time, were not great but were certainly a step up from Hodges Hall which, as far as I could tell, was a form of institutionalized torture. We had both been living in Pentagon for a few weeks before we actually ran into each other and, to make a long story short, that was the beginning of a renewed friendship. Over the next few months, God was pleased to use me and several others to lead Rick to Christ.

Then Rick went home for a weekend. It was there that he first experienced something of the struggle that goes along with becoming and continuing as a Christian. While the struggle takes all sorts of shapes and forms, for Rick, the initial form it took was the surprise, fear, and even anger expressed by his family upon the discovery that he had become "a born-again Christian" which, at least at that point in time, was not a welcome discovery for them.

So after a weekend of grilling, questioning and in general being given a really hard time, he returned to college. With great puzzlement on his face, he began to describe his weekend and the hurt and surprise at being rejected for his faith. As he spoke, it was obvious that there was a real conflict going on within him.

As I stood there watching and listening as he related his story, I wanted so much to be able to tell him that it would all go away, the struggles would fade, and everything would be just as it had been before - smooth sailing from here on out. But, of course, I couldn't. The truth was that this was the leading edge of something that was going to be with him for the rest of his life.

You see, Rick hadn't realized that becoming a Christian was such a costly exercise. He didn't know that trusting Christ would place him "in harm's way" so to speak; that being a Christian would move him into the line of fire as a combatant in the multi-front war we call life. He didn't know because no one had told him. I mean, we DID tell him a lot of things. We told him about sin, and the cross, and forgiveness. We told him about the love and holiness of God. We told him a lot of things. And all of that was fine, of course.

However, alongside all of that, we should have told him something else. We should have told him that trusting God meant not only that he was forgiven, it also meant that he had enlisted. We should have told him that there is a struggle that begins when one becomes a Christian, indeed, because one has become a Christian. We should have told him that struggle gets played out in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons, all of which have the same effect: struggle, tension, turmoil. We should have told him that alongside everything else that faith mean - it also means war.

In the verses before us this morning, Paul talks a little bit about this war in 1 Timothy 1:18-20. It is that narrow aspect of this passage that I want to spend the bulk of our time on in this study. Along the way we will come across a number of other issues which, Lord willing, we will pick up and address when we come back to this passage for another look. As a result, we will not be dealing with everything in these verses this morning but will be confining ourselves to understanding something about what it means to finish the fight that faith started. Before we look at that, let's pray.....

Our text is 1 Timothy 1:18-20 which says:

This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
As we look at this brief passage we will be concentrating on two main things. First, we need to look a little further at why faith is a fight. How and why, specifically, does becoming a Christian bring about this kind of adversarial situation? Second, we are going to look at what this passage has to say about how the fight of faith is fought.

Now that is, of course, a very big subject. As a result, we will not be looking at everything the Bible says about the fight for faith but only and especially at what this passage has to contribute to our understanding of this important subject.

Why Faith is a Fight

First, we need to think for a moment about why it is that faith is a fight. Why does Paul, in 1:18 tell Timothy to "fight the good fight"? Why does he use very similar language in chapter 6, verse 12 of this same letter? Why does he continue with this same kind of battle imagery in his next letter, especially in chapter 2 where he talks to Timothy about being a "good soldier" in the faith?To help us understand this, it is helpful to hear what Paul says in Ephesians 2:1-10:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
These verses provide a kind of "before and after" picture of our spiritual situation - i.e., how we were prior to being saved, and how things were after we were saved through Christ's work on the Cross. They talk about how once we were "dead in our trespasses and sins," how we once walked "following the course of this world," how we were "following the prince of the power of the air" (a reference to Satan) and how we once were "sons of disobedience" and "children of wrath." In short, these verses describe how we were once subjects of another kingdom, under the rule of a different kind of king.

Then God saved us in and through Jesus and our citizenship has been transferred. We now swear allegiance to a new king. As Colossians 1:13 says, "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins..." So, we have undergone a change of kingdoms and a change of masters, as Romans 6 makes clear.

But here's the problem. Our former master, the leader of the kingdom to which we used to belong, is not at all happy about any of this.

Do you remember what happened with God's people in the Old Testament around the time of Moses? There they were, the people of God, living as slaves of the Egyptians. Pharaoh was their ruler, or so he thought. Then God marvelously delivered them from their slavery and from the rule and authority of Pharaoh. Well, as we know, Pharaoh, after God gets through with him, goes along with their departure at first, then later decides he's not going to take this lying down. Therefore, a chase ensues and God must step in to fight and defend his people from an enemy who would have easily destroyed them.

That model or "paradigm" of the Exodus is instructive for us today. Just as Pharaoh was not happy, the former ruler of our hearts is not happy about our changed citizenship and is described in the New Testament as our "... enemy .... who prowls about like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour..."

So, one reason the fight for faith is such a struggle is because we have an adversary - our former master - who, although he has already been decisively defeated at the Cross, still desires to wound and oppress us. His actions are similar to that of a defeated and retreating army which, although it has been beaten, is still lobbing hand grenades and firing shots over its shoulder as it runs away.

One of the places where we experience the effects of this ongoing assault is through people we know - friends and family - who are still citizens of the kingdom we once belong to, but have now been delivered from. From their perspective, the beliefs and actions that we have adopted as believers are foreign and even threatening. They do not mesh well with their own worldview. As a result, we can often become the objects of their confusion, fear and anger. Whether they are conscious of it or not, whenever our friends and family respond to us in this way, they are actually serving the purposes of the their own ‘ruler' and function as his weapons in his on-going war against the purposes of God.

One way or another, directly or indirectly, there is an Adversary who hates God, and attacks and provokes all those that belong to the Father. That's one reason faith is a fight.

Another reason for the "fight of faith" is an internal one. The reality of remaining sin and the struggle that commences within every Christian when the Spirit of God takes up residence in a human heart, creating life where there was once death and a desire to know, love and honor God where there was once only a desire to serve ourselves and, in effect, be our own gods. That battle begins at faith, and rages on within each and every Christian, for the rest of his/her lives.

So, just as surely as the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Christ's coming but will not be consummated until His return, so too has the establishment of the Kingdom in the hearts of men and women been inaugurated, but is yet to be consummated in the life of the believer. This is the struggle that Paul so vividly describes in Romans 7 and which every true believer understands only too well. In short, when we become Christians, we are not only drafted into the war as soldiers of Christ's kingdom, we actually become the battlefield - the place where the war is waged on a daily basis.

This struggle manifests itself in many ways, but at its core lies a common culprit, our unbelief (i.e., thinking that we know better than God, doubting his good purposes for us or the wisdom of his ways over against ways that we imagine to be better). Our fundamental unbelief leads us astray into unfaithfulness, which is why Paul talks to Timothy about holding onto faith and a good conscience of faith so that he does not continue to doubt God and, as a result, maintains the "good conscience" that comes from the knowledge that one is responding faithfully to the Lord.

So, faith is a fight because of an enemy OUT THERE, the objective work of Satan and his demons, and because of an enemy IN HERE, the fact of remaining sin and the slow but certain "turf' war that takes place on the battlefield of the human heart as God works from an established beachhead to bring to completion that which has been made certain by Christ.

Now one important pastoral lesson in all of this is to remember that the fight of faith is just that - a fight. In other words, we ought not to be surprised to discover that living Christianly is a struggle. We ought not to be disillusioned or concerned if it feels like a struggle. That fact that it IS often difficult and it often FEELS like a struggle is because .......surprise, surprise, it IS. The struggle is not a sign that you are getting it wrong. It is a sign that you are His, that Romans 7 is not just some abstract theory, it is not just Paul's story, it is your story too. It feels like a struggle because it IS a struggle, and it could not be otherwise.

How the Fight is to be Fought

The second thing I want us to see this morning is that, once we have acknowledged that the fight is real and the fight is here to stay, what does this passage add to our understanding of how this "good fight", as Paul terms it, is to be fought? As was noted in the introduction, the Bible has a lot to say on this subject. Some of the more prominent passages include: Romans 6-8; Ephesians 6; Galatians 5; and Colossians 2. All of these have some important things to say on this subject. For our purposes here this morning, I want to focus our attention on what appears before us in THIS text. Therefore, the questions we are seeking to answer here are: "What is the particular point that Paul is making here about "fighting the good fight"? Why is he making this point to Timothy? And what does that have to do with us?"

In order to think about those things, we need to look at Paul's language for a moment. For one thing, we need to think about what Paul means when he says, in verse 18, "I give you this instruction." What instruction is Paul talking about? Does he mean, perhaps, his words in verses 4 -11, before he goes into his big digression? Or is he referring to what he is about to say in chapter 2? Or is he, as some commentators contend, referring to the whole of the letter?

On balance, it seems to me that he is likely referring to the whole letter. He says in this same sentence that the instruction he is giving is in keeping with the prophecies made about him. Well, what is that about? What were these prophecies"? Again, we do not have a lot to go on, but we have something. Flip over, if you will, a couple pages to 1 Timothy 4:14. There it reads, "Do not neglect your gift which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you..."

Judging from those words, it would seem that, at the time Timothy was set apart by the elders for Gospel ministry, a prophetic message was given and received, indeed, 1:18 seems to indicate that more than one was received. While we do not have the specific content of these "prophecies" about Timothy, it seems reasonable that they must have been related to the whole matter of his being set apart as a preacher of the Gospel and a pastor of God's people. If that is right, then it makes more sense to understand the word "instruction," in verse 18, to refer to the whole of Paul's teaching to Timothy regarding his fulfilling this pastor/teacher role, rather than referring only to one isolated aspect of it.

A second thing to say here is that, when you hear Paul saying to Timothy, in essence, "Follow these instructions," when you hear that sort of language about following instructions and observing commands, etc., you need to hear it in the context of what Paul has already said, particularly what he has just said about the purpose of the law. Paul has just finished reminding Timothy that the primary purpose of the law was/is to reveal sin and lead people to embrace the mercy of God in Jesus. So, while Paul wants Timothy to take the things he says to heart, and act upon them, he doesn't want him to do it in a legalistic way. He does not want Timothy to see these things AS the basis of his right standing before God but rather ON the basis of his right standing before God.

Why does Paul emphasize this particular aspect of what is involved in the fight for faith? Why is he going on about "holding on" to things and following what he has said, and all of that? Well, Paul emphasizes the aspect of FAITHFULNESS here, receiving and sticking to the things that they have received from Paul, because it is the lack of this that has caused so much trouble in Ephesus of late. Whatever else the false teachers were doing wrong, included in that "package" was the fact that they had wandered from Paul's instruction both in its content and in its application. Now here they were, perilously on the edge, close to being cast out of from the people of God. So, Paul knows, from firsthand experience, the deceitfulness of the heart and he has personally seen what can happen when people start to lose the plot and wander away.

Given those circumstances, it is understandable that out of all that is involved in "fighting the good fight" the one aspect of that which Paul chooses to emphasize here is the importance of being faithful to what he has been received, faithful in both content and in application.

If Timothy will be faithful to make use of what God has so graciously provided for him through Paul, then he can avoid the fate of Hymenaeus and Alexander, who have "shipwrecked their faith."

Now surely this is a message for the church in our own day. Paul's urging Timothy to "fight the good fight" by being faithful to what he has received is just as applicable and necessary for us, as it was for him. We too, like Timothy and indeed, through Timothy, are the recipients of these same "instructions" as Paul refers to them, God's gracious provision given first to Timothy but then faithfully preserved for us.

And the parties mentioned here, Timothy on one side and Hymenaeus and Alexander on the other, stand out before us like warning beacons of what may or may not happen as a result of how we respond to that which we have received. Because the same opportunity is before us, as individuals, as congregations, even as whole denominations to either respond faithfully to what we have received or not.

For example, in this letter there are all sorts of instructions: about prayer; about worship; about leadership; about roles and relationships between men and women; about family relationships; about money; etc. Much, if not most of what Paul has to say on these things is counterintuitive. It goes against the grain of what the majority of our culture has to say, and indeed what we ourselves would choose to believe, in our own strength.

Because of this reality of the Christian struggle, through the direct and indirect work of our enemy and because of our own deceitful hearts, because of those realities we are constantly being tempted to believe that we know better than God in all of these areas. As we continue to work our way through this letter and address various issues, the pressure, the momentum from within us, and from all around us, will be to NOT hold on to what we have received from God regarding these matters.

The temptation and pressure will be to modify what Paul has said, to upgrade it, to launch into wild speculation about it, or to create a smoke screen of questions that we feel, wrongly, justifies our simply throwing our hands up, and saying, "Oh, well...NEXT.." The temptation will be that whenever what we have received rebukes us personally, or threatens to place us at odds with those around us, the temptation will be to walk on and look the other way.

But friends, that's not "fighting the good fight." That's abandoning the fight. The result of that sort of thing is "a shipwrecked faith" and it can happen to individuals, to congregations, to whole denominations. Now as for what that "shipwreck" is all about, we'll look at that in a couple weeks.

The thing I want you to see in all this is the heart attitude that is being addressed here. We need to acknowledge and prepare ourselves for the fact that every time God confronts us by and through His gracious Word, there will be a battle and a struggle to submit, again and again, to the authority inherent IN that Word. We have to bow the knee, and keep bowing the knee as we learn, over and over again, to humbly receive this means of God's grace. What is receiving all about? Is it about just nodding the head and saying, "Ah, yes, I see what you're saying"? No. What does Paul say, "I give you this instruction .... so that by following them you may fight the good fight...."

It's not just about nodding your head. It's about following.

When I ask my children to clean their rooms it is because their rooms need cleaning and they need to clean them. I don't ask them to clean their rooms because I want them to have philosophical discussions with me about the nature of cleanliness, or whether my desire for some semblance of orderliness is an expression of some psychological dysfunction on my part. No, I want them to clean their rooms. I don't ask them to do this to earn my love and so gain entrance into our family. I ask them to do this because I know what they need better than they do, because they are already in the family, because I already love them, and I want what IS best for them, not what FEELS best for them, not what they would always perceive as the best thing for them.

This is the problem in Ephesus. They have received God's gracious truths and promises through Paul's ministry. Now the Ephesians have all around them leaders who have discussed and speculated upon and otherwise misused what they had received. But all of that was useless. Paul doesn't want them to speculate on what he is saying. He wants them to follow what he is saying.

All too often, the things that God has said to us become the subject of great debate and speculation but are not applied or acted upon in faith. That is not the way forward, Paul says. You do not fight the good fight by merely knowing what God has said but by following what God has said. So, at the end of the day, what is Paul saying here? He is saying that faith is a WAR that will be WON.

But not without a FIGHT.

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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