17 April 2021

In this first pastoral letter to Timothy from Apostle Paul, Timothy was left to take care of the churches in and around Ephesus and Paul was giving him instructions to carry out this responsibility.

Timothy was relatively young, shy and frail (possibly suffering from some form of gastritis). Yet, he was highly commended by Paul as one who truly cared for the churches and God’s people.

Ephesus was not an easy place to be a servant of God – it was a busy, rich, sensual, cosmopolitan city buzzing with commerce, and the temple of Artemis drew worshippers from every corner of the empire, creating a volatile mix of the occult and money. It is not easy for a young servant of God to keep himself in the path of godliness and to remain faithful to God in such a context.

It is noteworthy that one specific instruction from Paul to this young man was to discipline or train himself to godliness. Paul probably had in mind the picture of an athlete preparing for the day of competition. The event Paul had in focus is godliness. True godliness, born of faith, covers everyday conduct in honouring God as Creator and Redeemer. A godly person ceases to be self-centred in order to be God-centred. Christ became a man and, as a result of His earthly ministry, we see how God actually intended for humans to behave. Jesus is our perfect example of godliness – a godly person is a Christ-like person.

Christianity and its goal, Christ-likeness, have a person in mind – Christ! What sets spiritual activity (even Christian) apart from all other religions is that they have knowledge of Christ as their goal; not moral perfection (although one will become more moral), not tranquility (although one’s life will become remarkably more peaceful). So what is the purpose of training or disciplining oneself for godliness? After all, we have been fully accepted by the Father if we are already in Christ and no disciplining will do anything to make us more acceptable.

The answer: to know Jesus Christ and to be like Him. The spiritual disciplines are a means by which we come to know Him experientially. By imitating Him, by sharing His experiences, by living life as He lived it, allowing the Holy Spirit to shape us by the disciplines from inside out, we will become more like Him.

Transformation to the likeness of Jesus Christ – that is the primary goal of godliness. But godliness will not just happen automatically; we do not drift into godliness by just hanging around a church or thinking lofty ideas or even learning a few verses of Scripture. Paul knew this very well, and so he exhorted Timothy to train and discipline himself to godliness. Discipline gives a picture of repetitive training exercises to condition oneself; in that regard, no one can condition someone else – it means one cannot hire someone else to do the work for him – he has to condition himself and apply himself to the hard work of ‘building himself up’ for the event (in this case – godliness). Spiritual conditioning is essentially between you and God. One major factor – it is the enabling of the Holy Spirit who makes it possible for true wholesome godliness to emerge.

Although Paul and Timothy ministered to the church in Ephesus, years later, we see what happened to this church in Revelation 2:2-4:

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance,and how you cannot bear with those who are evil,but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”

From first reading, here is a church that was diligent and known for zeal and discernment. It seems that she had hearken well to the teaching of Paul and Timothy to train herself to godliness.

But pause and read what the Lord Jesus said to her. The church had remained orthodox, but had become unloving. The late John Stott commented:

“They had fallen from the early heights of devotion to Christ which they had climbed. They had descended to the plains of mediocrity. In a word, they were backsliders…….Certainly the hearts of the Ephesian Christians had chilled.”

Stott continued:

“Their first flush of ecstasy had passed. Their early devotion to Christ had cooled. They had been in love with Him, but they had fallen out of love.”

This is a grave and sober reminder that godliness is ultimately to know Christ, to love Him and to be like Him. Is it not true that the Ephesian believers toiled with vigour; is it not true that they endured with fortitude and tested the false apostles? Yes, all these are true: they did it, but not with love. It is just outward activity, outward orthodoxy, appearance without the original inward reality and inward devotion and love for the Lord. The warmth of our love for the Lord would transform our thinking, attitudes and motives; it would revolutionize the way we relate to the triune God and to our brethren. Without it, it is just outward appearance of spirituality without the substance – love for God and others is missing!