Last week I kicked off a new series that I’m writing with younger Christians in mind—high schoolers, college students, people just getting started in the independent life. In the opening article I introduced our key verse: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). I explained that “set an example” is a term related to the world of art and that all through these articles I will be calling on you to make your life a work of art.
Today I want to press on to look at three keys to understanding our passage:
- What does Paul mean when he refers to Timothy as a “youth?”
- Why does Timothy need to be concerned with being despised?
- What does it mean for Timothy to set an example?
After we’ve answered these questions we will be ready to discuss the character traits Timothy needs to exemplify: speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.
Don’t Surrender To Low Expectations
We need to back up just a little to set the context of our passage. We are reading a 2,000-year-old letter written by the Apostle Paul to Pastor Timothy. Paul is the older man, the mentor, while Timothy is the younger man, the disciple. Paul has traveled with Timothy, taught with him, suffered with him, planted and pastored with him. They’ve been together so long and through so much that later on Paul can remind him, “you have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings” (2 Timothy 3:10-11). Paul has modeled Christian living and Timothy has imitated him. Now Timothy is settling in as pastor to the church in Ephesus while Paul has moved on to take the gospel even farther, to plant even more churches.
But Paul is a good mentor, a good friend. Though he has moved on, he has not forgotten Timothy. He knows his strengths and weaknesses, his struggles and temptations. He also knows all about his calling as a pastor, a church leader. All of that comes into his mind as he sits down to write this letter of encouragement, of guidance and instruction. As we come to our verse we hear Paul tell Timothy “Let no one despise you for your youth.” That’s a command, an order. “Don’t allow it! Don’t allow anyone in that church to despise you for your youth.”
We read the word “youth” today and picture Timothy as a guy in his late teens or early twenties, a person in the youth group or maybe just starting in to college and careers. But as we read about the life of Paul and do a little basic math, we realize that Timothy was quite a bit older than that—probably closer to his mid-thirties. That is all grown up in our reckoning, but in that culture he may as well have been a fresh-faced young man who hadn’t even started shaving. In Timothy’s day, forty was considered the age of maturity and those who were older were not inclined to think well of anyone who was younger. They certainly were not likely to think that younger people could be a worthwhile example to follow. Even Christians would be tempted to believe that maturity of character demanded at least forty years of age. In that day, in that city, Timothy was young.
But still Paul tells him, “Let no one despise you for your youth.” If the word “despise” seems a bit strong, then maybe we can offer some synonyms like “look down on,” or “hold in contempt.” Now you see it, right? Paul doesn’t want Timothy to give people reason to look down on him because he is young. He doesn’t want Timothy to lack confidence that even at his age he can serve as a model of Christian maturity. He doesn’t want Timothy to surrender to their low expectations, to give them cause to say, “I knew it!”
Have you ever felt that? Have you felt the weight, the pain of these low expectations? Have you encountered older people who act like there is nothing they could learn from you, not when you’re only sixteen or eighteen or twenty-two? Have you felt like you have nothing to contribute, like anything you say will just generate awkward silences or rolling eyes? Have you become convinced that older people are looking down on you for no better reason than that you are young? You probably have at one time or another. So keep reading. Keep reading because what Paul says next is beautiful and counter-cultural. He doesn’t tell Timothy to demand the respect of those older Christians. He doesn’t allow Timothy to feel sorry for himself or to plead with those older people to respect him. No, Paul has a far better solution.
Set An Example
“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example…” How is Timothy to head off the older people’s tendency toward disrespect? How is he to avoid getting into a position where he has messed up and everyone is now looking at him with that “I told you so” look in their eye? By setting an example. By serving as a model of godliness. He is to be the kind of person that older Christians will have to respect because they will see his humble, godly character and his pure, selfless conduct.
Timothy is to “set an example.” This is a term related to art. When you are in art class, the teacher may put a model in the middle of the room and tell you to paint it or sculpt it. That is the example and you, the artist, are to study it, to learn everything about it, and then to make your best reproduction. In this case, the work of art is Timothy’s life. He is to live a life of public godliness and to be such an example that others will see this work of art and imitate it. Even older people who are inclined to disrespect him will see his life and understand that he is modeling Christian thought and Christian living. They will be drawn to his example as he far exceeds their low expectations.
Timothy isn’t to worry about what other people think of him. He isn’t to demand respect by force of will or force of personality. He is to earn respect by the way he lives. John Stott says, “People would not despise his youth if they could admire his example.” And this is true of you, too. The people around you, old or young, will not be distracted by your youth if they can admire your example. And you, like Timothy, actually can be an example. In fact, God calls you to be an example. Your youth is no excuse for ungodliness or spiritual immaturity. Right now, today, God calls you to set an example—an example of godliness, of character, of maturity.
There are many ways you can serve your church. You can care for the children in the nursery, you can stack the chairs in the back of the room, you can direct cars in the parking lot. These are all good things, all good ways of serving others. Keep doing these things and keep looking for opportunities to serve. But the biggest way, the best way, the primary way to serve your church is to pursue godliness, to grow in wisdom and knowledge, in character and obedience. Set an example. Be an example. Make your life a beautiful work of art.
We will continue next week by beginning to look at the traits Timothy is to exemplify: speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.
Questions to Consider
- Can you think of times when you felt older Christians were looking down on you because of your age? Did they have good reason to? How did you respond?
- Read Philippians 2:1-11 and consider what Jesus models there. Did he demand respect or was he content to set an example? In what ways did Jesus serve the church?
- Paul invested so much time in Timothy that Timothy began to imitate Paul in his thought and behavior. Is there someone in your life you’d like to mentor you in that way? Is there someone in your life who may be wishing that you would offer to mentor them? What can you do about it?
- In what ways do you think you are setting a good example to the people of your church? Pray and thank God for each of them. In what ways do you think you are not setting a good example to the people of your church? Pray and ask God for his grace to change you.
More in Set An Example:
- Young Man, Young Woman: Set An Example
- Set an Example in Your Speech
- Do You Set an Example in Your Conduct?
- Be a Living Example of God’s Living Love