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Set an Example in Your Speech

A few weeks ago I was in Cambridge, England, participating in a writing tour and workshop. We had one afternoon to ourselves and since I was not feeling particularly creative in that moment, decided to explore the town. I happened across a museum and, since it was free, thought I’d take a look. I wandered through exhibit after exhibit, admiring ancient and medieval antiquities. My time was nearly up when I came to one final room which held a collection of paintings. I was shocked to suddenly find myself among the masters. There on the wall were paintings by Rubens, Monet, Matisse, and others. Who knew this little museum had amassed such an impressive collection? There was something inspiring about being in the presence of greatness, inches from the works of the masters.

I have been writing a series of articles about a different kind of art and today I want to add a new entry to it. (Here’s part one and part two.) The series is based on 1 Timothy 4:12 and geared especially to younger Christians. To this point we’ve taken a look at the first part of our text: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example…” We saw Paul the mentor telling young Timothy not to give in to the low expectations of the people around him. Timothy needed to understand that even as a younger person he was meant to make his life a work of art that others could see, admire, and imitate.

Today we are going to begin to look at the specific ways Timothy is to set an example, to be that work of art. Here is what Paul writes: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

There are 5 areas in which Timothy is to serve as an example to other believers:

  • in his speech
  • in his conduct
  • in his love
  • in his faith
  • in his purity

These traits fall into two groupings. Speech and conduct are primarily displayed outwardly while love, faith, and purity are primarily traits of the inner self. Thus Timothy is to ensure that his words and deeds are admirable and also to examine his heart to ensure his love, faith, and purity are equally exemplary, knowing that these inner traits will eventually display themselves through what he says and does. Over the next few weeks I want to look at these traits one by one and I want to make them applicable to you and to me. Our first challenge is to consider what it means to set an example in your speech.

Set an Example in Your Speech

You do not need to read far into the Bible to see the power of words. Actually, you only need to get to the third verse of the first book to see it. In Genesis 1:3 God speaks and begins to bring the world into existence. By the end of chapter 2 he has spoken into being everything that is, including humanity. He has declared that everything he has made is good and very good. God’s words are powerful!

Words can cause so much good. Words can cause so much harm.

Then chapter 3 comes and we begin to see the danger of misusing words. Here Satan speaks words meant to deceive human beings, Adam speaks words meant to blame his wife for his own sin, Eve speaks words meant to deflect the blame from herself. By the time all is said and done, the world will never be the same, so that in Genesis 4, brothers are killing one another and lying to God about it, Lamech is making outrageous boasts about his own importance, and it only gets worse from there. Words can cause so much good. Words can cause so much harm.

It is no surprise, then, that the Bible addresses our words. It is no surprise that Paul addresses Timothy’s words: “Set the believers an example in speech.” As Paul says this, he uses one of those Greek words you may already know: logos, or λόγος if you prefer. It’s the word for word, for the communication that comes out of our mouths—or, by extension, the words that come out through our thumbs or fingers when we type and tap rather than speak.

Out of the Overflow

Paul wants Timothy to know that his words have the power to make or break his ministry. His words can help others or harm them, they can encourage others or destroy them. As a preacher and leader, Timothy will be speaking a lot of words and every one of them will have the power to prove him an example to follow or a disaster to avoid.

Salty water comes from a salty spring just like salty words come from a salty heart.

Why are words so important? Jesus gives the answer in Luke 6:45: “Out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks.” The alarming truth is that the mouth reveals what is in the heart. It is like the heart overflows so that what is in the heart comes pouring out of the mouth. Ugly words reveal an inner ugliness and beautiful words reveal an inner beauty. James asks “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water” (James 3:11)? Obviously not. Salty water comes from a salty spring just like salty words come from a salty heart.

Paul knew all of this and wanted Timothy to know it as well. In his other letters Paul insists that some ways of speaking are completely inappropriate for Christians and must be avoided at all costs. These are the kinds of speech associated with the old man, with the old way of living: falsehood, anger, bitterness, slander, malice, abusive speech, and filthy talk. All of these are unsuitable for Christians and will damage their credibility. Other ways of speaking are to be pursued, and these are the ones associated with the new man, with the new way of living: truth, edification, admonition, tenderness, forgiveness, and thanks. These are suitable for Christians and give evidence of their holiness and spiritual maturity.(1)

Timothy’s challenge was to put to death all those old ways of speaking and to bring to life all those new ways of speaking. He was to ensure that every word that came out of his mouth was good, true, and exemplary. His ministry, his credibility, his usefulness to God depended on it.

Timothy’s challenge is your challenge. Today’s world gives you more opportunities than ever to use your words—to express them face to face, to type them into Facebook, to tap them into a text message, to speak them through Snapchat. You communicate constantly and every one of your words matters. Every one of your words displays your heart. Do your words set an example for others to imitate?

Questions to Consider

  1. Who have you known who has set an example of the kind of speech the Bible commends?
  2. The biblical pattern for overcoming sin is always “put off” and then “put on” or “put to death” old patterns and habits and then “bring to life” new patterns and habits. When it comes to your speech, what are some sinful ways of speaking that you need to put off or put to death? What are some virtuous ways of speaking that you need to put on or bring to life?
  3. Consider how some of these proverbs should challenge you. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (10:19). “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life” (13:3). “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.” (15:28). “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (18:13). Why don’t you ask another person to evaluate you in light of these proverbs?
  4. In what ways do you think you are setting a good example to the people of your church in the way you speak? 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 the way you speak? Pray and ask God for his grace to change you.

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