Children are mimics. Children are mimics because human beings learn by imitation. We learn to speak by hearing our parents speak. We learn to do dishes by watching mom and dad do dishes. We even learn to love (or not love) Jesus by seeing our parents love (or not love) Jesus. In both vice and virtue, children will begin to look like their parents. Parents quickly come to realize the importance of setting a good example, of being worthy of imitation.
When Paul wrote instructions to young pastor Timothy, he told him to serve as an example to his church. “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). Timothy was to model godly thinking and living, and to know that his church would inevitably imitate him. For good or for ill, they would begin to resemble their pastor. For the past few weeks I have been challenging young Christians—those in their teens and twenties—to heed this same call, to set the believers an example. Though you are young, though people may look down on you for your youth, still you are responsible before God and your Christian brothers and sisters to serve as an example.
Today I want to consider what it means to have an exemplary faith, the kind of faith that, if imitated by others, will lead them to become more like Christ. Do you have that kind of faith? If people imitate you, will they in fact be imitating Jesus? This is no small challenge!
A Faithful Faith
Today we are considering faith, but I don’t want to sever faith from love, the word it follows. In Paul’s letters he often bundles the two words together. He does this twice in Thessalonians, three times in his letters to Timothy, and once in his letter to Philemon. Here are a couple of examples: “But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love…” And, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have…” We aren’t positive why Paul so often links these words, but I suppose it is that both are necessary marks of a Christian. A Christian must have faith and display faith. A Christian must have love and display love. A Christian without faith and love is no Christian at all. When we see Paul tell Timothy to set the believers an example in love, it comes as no surprise that he immediately mentions faith as well.
When we consider what Paul means by faith, we are faced with two options. It could be that Paul is telling Timothy he needs to set an example in his faith: his confidence in God, his trust in God, his reliance on God for salvation and all that follows it. On the other hand, it could be that Paul is telling Timothy he needs to set an example in his faithfulness: in his living out of that saving faith, his commitment to the Christian life, his fidelity to all the Bible commands of him as a Christian and as a minister. The original Greek can support both options and commentaries by expert theologians are roughly divided between the two. John Stott says, the word “could mean either trust in God and in Christ, or trustworthiness, a fundamental Christian fidelity, or both.” But I wonder whether we actually need to pick since the two are so closely related. You must have faith to be faithful and cannot have true faith without displaying faithfulness. The deepest faith leads to the most faithful Christian living.
So perhaps it’s best to conclude that Paul first wants Timothy to set an example in his faith, in his unshakeable confidence in Jesus Christ, in his trust in the Word of God, in his reliance on the promises of God, in all Paul had taught him as his friend, his pastor, his mentor. Spurgeon says: “Faith is believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him.” Paul certainly wanted no less than that for his young friend. He wanted Timothy to have an exemplary faith. If a person in his church were to ask, “What does it mean to have faith?” they should be able to look at Timothy to find their answer.
The person who has that kind of wholehearted reliance on God will necessarily live a steadfast life. His faith will lead to faithfulness. Jerry Bridges says, “The faithful person is one who is dependable, trustworthy, and loyal, who can be depended upon in all of his relationships, and who is absolutely honest and ethical in all of his affairs.” His rock-solid assurance in God is not confined to his inner man but comes flowing out in all of life and in every one of life’s decisions and responsibilities. His faith is too good, too strong, to remain hidden. Timothy is to display this exemplary faithfulness, to have a full-out commitment to living out every word of Scripture. He is to commit himself to obedience, to holiness, to love. If a person in his church were to ask, “What does it mean to be faithful?” they should be able to look at Timothy to find their answer.
Paul wanted Timothy to know that as he lived, served, and ministered before his church, he was to be an example of faith and faithfulness. He was to have that strong inner faith as well as evidence of the outward working of that faith. Though he was younger than so many members of his church, still he was to see this as his responsibility. He was to be confident that, even as a younger man, he actually could have a faith and faithfulness worthy of imitation.
Timothy’s faith would begin with Scripture, with an unshakeable confidence in the truth and truthfulness of the Bible. The very next words Paul writes to Timothy is, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. … Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” Timothy was to fill himself with the Word, then to let that Word flow back out of him. His faith in the Word and the God of the Word would overflow into faithfulness.
And this is your challenge as a young person in the church today. You are to have faith, faith that is rooted and grounded in God as he reveals himself through the Word. Fill yourself with the Word. Be a man or woman of the Word. Devote yourself to Scripture. As you do this, your faith will grow, and as your faith grows, so too will your faithfulness. Timothy, the man of the Word, would be able to set the believers an example in his faith and faithfulness. So, too, can you.
Questions to Consider
- You can’t be faithful without faith and you can’t have faith without the Bible. So, do you love the Bible? Are you filling your heart and mind with the Bible? Are you bolstering your faith with a growing knowledge of the character and works of God as he reveals himself through the Bible? With a new year coming, what’s your plan to read the Bible in 2017?
- There is a temptation to believe that faithfulness is best proven in ways that are grand and public. Yet the Bible commends faithfulness in the little things and then invites opportunity to be faithful in bigger things (Luke 16:10). F.B. Meyer offers this challenge: “Don’t waste your time waiting and longing for large opportunities which may never come. But faithfully handle the little things that are always claiming your attention.” What are some “little things” in which you can prove your faithfulness today or this week?
- In what ways do you think you are setting a good example to the people of your church in your faith and faithfulness? 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 in your faith and faithfulness? Pray and ask God for his grace to change you.