the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26
Timothy As a Young Minister
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
WE are come tonight to Timothy as a young minister. And though you are not ministers yourselves it cannot but interest you to be told how such ministers as Paul and Timothy and their true successors are made; how they make themselves; and how that self-making of theirs goes on all the time they live and labour among you.
"Till I come, give attendance to reading." This is one of Paul's outstanding exhortations to Timothy. Now if these words were addressed by an experienced minister to a new beginner in our day, something like this would be universally understood. 'Attend to your studies. Be always at your studies. Grudge every moment that is stolen from your studies. Never sit down without a book and a pen in your hand. And let it never be an ephemeral, or an impertinent, or an unproductive, book. You have not the time. You have not the money. Read nothing that is not the very best of its kind. Neither in religion, nor in letters, nor in anything else. Be like John Milton in his noble youth, be both select and industrious in your reading.'
But there is another interpretation of these words, and that on high authority too. "Reading," in Timothy's day,-so the text is sometimes interpreted,-would mean to him very much what is nowadays called expository preaching or "lecturing," as we say in Scotland. Timothy is here exhorted to read Nehemiah's autobiography and then to imitate that great reformer and his great colleagues in their exegetic and homiletic way of dealing with the law of God. The preachers of Nehemiah's day, so he tells us in his Memoirs of himself, stood upon a pulpit of wood, and read the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused the people to understand the reading. And this, many eminent exegetes assure us, is the "reading" to which Timothy is here commanded to attend. Whether that is the true interpretation of this text or no, as a matter of fact Nehemiah's method of handling Holy Scripture has been followed by all his successors in the pulpit, both in Bible times and in Church-history times. To begin with, Nehemiah's method was our Lord's method also as often as the Book was delivered to Him by the minister in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. And from the Acts we learn that this was the universal method of the Apostles also. Both the Greek and the Latin fathers followed this same Scriptural method; the expository lectures of Chrysostom and Augustine are extant to us to this day. Calvin also stood upon his pulpit of wood, and read the Word of God distinctly, and caused the people of Geneva to understand the reading. Just as he still causes us to understand the reading as often as we consult his incomparable commentaries. And that same labour-loving and labour-rewarding method of pulpit work made the Puritans in England and the Presbyterians in Scotland the two greatest schools of preachers and people the Church of Christ has ever seen. At the same time, and while I wholly accept that official interpretation, so to call it, my heart leans to the more personal application of Chrysostom and Calvin. Those two very foremost authorities here understand Paul to counsel Timothy not so much concerning his pulpit work, as concerning his own private and personal and devotional attention to the Word of God. Calvin, above all men, had cars to hear. And that master in Israel overhears Paul saying to Timothy something like this: 'Read distinctly, and exhort convincingly, in your pulpit. But above and before all else, let the Word of God dwell richly in yourself. Even after you have known the Holy Scriptures from a child, still continue to call them constantly to mind by your systematic and assiduous reading and meditation. And by so doing thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.' "What I owe to these two Epistles to Timothy," confesses Calvin, "can never be told."
"Rightly dividing the word of truth;" this is another of Paul's master-strokes in these masterly Epistles. And that master-stroke of the Apostle serves to set forth another of the many advantages of the consecutive and comprehensive exposition of Holy Scripture. In true expository preaching the right dividing of the whole word of truth is largely left to the Spirit of truth Himself. On no other method is it possible for any preacher to divide aright the whole consecutive and cumulative body of doctrines and duties, as well as of privileges and comforts, contained in the Holy Scriptures. There are multitudes of doctrines, and reproofs, and corrections, and instructions in righteousness, that the minister who preaches from detached and unconnected texts will never be able to divide out to his people. And even when such a preacher does come upon some of those instructions and corrections that his people need, his inconsequent method of preaching will be sure to tempt certain of his hearers to set down his words less to the wonderful perfection, and particularness, and individualisingness, of Holy Scripture than to some idiosyncracy of the preacher; or, it may be, to some personal animus of his. The preposterous charge of a personal intention and animus will not always be avoided by the best methods of pulpit-work; but the preaching that consecutively overtakes all the perfection and point of the Word of God will best meet and silence that vanity of mind, and that rebellion of heart, among our hearers. Every humble-minded hearer must often have felt and confessed the divine power with which some reproof came home to him, when it suddenly and unexpectedly leapt out upon him from the depths of some hitherto overlooked and unexpected passage of the manifold Word of God.
Another way of rightly dividing the whole word of truth is most excellently set forth by Jeremy Taylor in one of his golden charges to his clergy: "Do not spend your sermons on general and undefined things. Do not spend your time and strength on exhortations to your people to get Christ, to be united to Christ, and things of a like unlimited and indefinite signification. But rightly divide the whole doctrine of Christ. Tell your people in every duty what are the measures, what are the circumstances, what are the instruments, and what are the particulars and minute bearings, of every general advice. For, generals not explicated, do but fill the people's heads with empty notions, and their mouths with perpetual unintelligible talk, while their hearts remain empty and themselves unedified." Yes; O wise-hearted and golden-mouthed overseer. But we would need all thy oceanic reading, and all thy capacious intellect, and all thy splendid eloquence, and all thy unceasing prayerfulness, in order to come within sight of thy great counsels. And, my brethren, with the very best of methods, how much is still left to the individual minister himself to do. What ability, what study, what courage, what wisdom, what love, is needed rightly to divide the word of truth, Sabbath after Sabbath, to all the ages, and to all the understandings, and to all the circumstances, and to all the experiences, of a listening congregation. What a sleepless, what a many-sided, what an all-talented, what an all-experienced race of men the preachers of the Word of God would need to be!
And then if the Apostle says it once, he says it fifty times: 'Shun controversy, like the bottomless pit, in the pulpit.' Richard Baxter will surely be listened to on this subject. "Another fatal hindrance to a heavenly walk and conversation is our too frequent disputes about lesser truths. A disputatious spirit is a sure sign of an unsanctified spirit. They are usually men least acquainted with the heavenly life who are the most violent disputers about the circumstantials of religion. Yea, though you were sure that your opinions were true, yet when the chiefest of your zeal is turned to these things, the life of grace soon decays within. Let every sure truth even have but its due proportion, and I am confident that the hundredth part of our time and contention would not be spent as it is spent. I could wish you were all men of understanding and ability to defend every truth of God; but still I would have the chiefest truth to be chiefly studied, and no truth to shoulder out the thought of eternity. The least controverted points are usually the most weighty, and of most necessary and frequent use to our souls."
But as we work our way through these trenchant and pungent Epistles, what can the Apostle possibly mean by commanding a young minister of such infirm health as Timothy was to work for his pulpit and in his pastoral duties "in season and out of season"? And so commanding him, under the most tremendous imprecations; till we begin to suspect that it was not so much Timothy's bad health, as something far worse, that Paul had in his eye all the time. Was it not because one of the besetting sins of the ministerial calling was already setting in upon the very Apostolic Church itself? It would almost seem so. "We seek apologies for our slothfulness," says one of the most unslothful of ministers. Be that as it may; let all ministers, both those who are slothfully inclined, and those who are really infirm in health, and all young ministers especially, give attendance to reading the autobiographies of two of the most infirm, but at the same time two of the most resolutely unslothful, of all our Puritan and Presbyterian ministers: the Reliquiœ Baxterianœ, and Thomas Boston's Memoirs of himself, the latter edited by a young minister of our own who is neither slothful nor infirm.
With all his ailments, and whatever they were, Timothy never touched wine, either for stimulus or for strength. Just what it was that had made Timothy such a stern total abstainer we are not told. Whether it was the self-denying example of some of the great saints of his mother's Scriptures, or the awful falls of some others of those saints, we are not told. Only, we find the aged Apostle interposing and recommending Timothy to relax his rule somewhat and to take a little wine now and then. Now I would not interfere if any old minister, or any able and devout doctor, were to say to some young minister of my acquaintance what Paul here says to Timothy about his health and his inability for his work unless he begins to take wine. But for my part, and in our day, I would make sure that any infirm young friend of mine had tried some other expedients before he betook himself to this last expedient of all. I would do my very best to make sure that he kept early and regular hours both night and morning. And if I could get the ear of his session I would plead with them to see that their young minister took a Sabbath off every five or six Sabbaths. As also that he got a generous holiday once every summer. But above all that I would charge himself before God not to leave off his Sabbath preparation till the Saturday night. For I have seen far more woe worked in the manse and in the congregation by that last evil habit than I have seen worked even by strong drink. A real love for our books, and a real love for our pulpits, and a real love for our people, all that is far better for us ministers, and for our infirm health, than the very best of wines.
"Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example in thy conversation." Pascal has made "the disproportion of man" a proverb in our highest literature. And Richard Baxter has made the same word a barbed arrow in the consciences of all his ministerial readers. "The disproportion," that is, between our office and our walk and conversation in our office. I suppose there is not a minister on the face of the earth who does not gnash his teeth at himself continually as he returns home again from a conversation in which he has displayed such a disproportion to his office, and has taken such a scandal-causing part. Our young ministers may neither have Taylor, nor Baxter, nor Boston, nor any such master of ministerial deportment; but, as Behmen says, they have themselves. And if they begin early to examine themselves in this matter, and to improve upon themselves every time they cross their own doorstep, they will soon, and without books, become themselves as great examples and as great authorities as any ministerial-deportment author of them all. Let no man despise the youth and far less the age of any minister because of his disproportionate character and his disedifying conversation.
And, "take heed unto thyself," is just all that over again in other words. Take heed to thy doctrine indeed, but, first and last, take most heed to thyself. Fix thy very best and thy very closest attention on thyself. This is thy main duty as a pastor. Do not set thyself forward as a pattern to thy people. Only, make thyself a perfect pattern to them. For that minister who constantly and increasingly takes heed to himself in his walk and conversation; in preaching better and better every returning Sabbath; in discharging all the endless duties of his pastorate in season and out of season; in holding his peace in controversy; and in a life of secret faith and secret prayer; God Himself will see to it that such an apostolic minister will be imitated and celebrated both as a pattern minister and a pattern man; both before his people, and before all his fellow-ministers. All that, by the grace of God, may be attained by any minister who sets himself to attain it, even though his book-press is as poorly furnished as Thomas Boston's book-press was so poorly furnished. At the same time, you well-to-do people, whose Christmas and New Year presses are so full of the best books, and the best of everything else, you should at this season go over all the young ministers and all the poor ministers you know, and should see to it that, with the Pastoral Epistles, they have also the best commentary, for a Scottish minister at any rate, that was ever written on those Epistles; better even than Chrysostom or Calvin; I mean Thomas Boston's Memoirs of himself as a parish minister. That golden book for Scottish ministers is full of things like this: "The untender carriage of some ministers in Nithsdale was very wounding to me. As also meeting with a neighbouring minister his foolish talking afforded me heavy reflections on the unedifying conversation of ministers, and my own among others, as one great cause of the unsuccess of the Gospel in our hands."
Well might Timothy, and well may every living minister today, lay down these two terrible Epistles, and say over them-Who is sufficient for these things? For no mere man is sufficient for such high things as these. No mortal man is sufficient for such a holy ministry as that. But then no mere and mortal man is expected to be sufficient. You must not go away and suppose that the arch-Apostle himself was sufficient for the half of the charges he laid, almost with a curse, on Timothy. Paul, you may be sure, threw down his pen again and again in the composition of these two pastoral Epistles, and betook himself to his knees and to the blood of Christ before he could finish what he had begun to write. And these two Epistles, so full of matter for ministerial remorse, are to this day put into our hands, not to drive us to despair and self-destruction, but rather to summon us out of our beds every returning Monday morning to give better and ever better attendance to our reading of the best books, and to our writing in connection with them. To our sick-visiting in the afternoon, and to our whole walk and conversation all the day, and all the week, and every week, till a Greater than Paul comes. And, more than that, these pastoral Epistles are not written to us who are your ministers only. But all you people are to read these Epistles and are to ponder them and pray over them continually, in order that you may have it always before you at what a cost a true minister of the New Testament is made. As also to teach you to value aright such a minister when he is intrusted to you, till he shall finish his ministry among you, both by saving himself and those among you who have ears to hear him.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Timothy As a Young Minister'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​t/timothy-as-a-young-minister.html. 1901.