I Timothy 1:18-20 “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
Paul’s son in the faith, Timothy, was called to be a faithful soldier of Jesus Christ and fight the good fight. That is why the apostle writes this letter to Timothy, to assist him in the long campaign of Christian warrior. This was not merely Paul and Timothy’s vocation. It is absolutely mandatory for every believer, as an unavoidable and inevitable reality of our existence. The only way to glory that exists is the path of the good fight. I shall reach the goal God has set for me and for the whole church only by fighting that fight. My whole life is one long campaign. I start off in my early days of discipleship and find myself battling. My middle years are a war, perhaps the toughest of all, and I don’t retire from this campaign in old age. The Kingdom of Christ has no Chelsea pensioners sitting in the sunshine. The normal Christian life is not a short sharp struggle after which we enjoy a long retirement with index-linked pensions supplying all our needs. We are always going to meet enemies and difficulties.
“I give you this instruction,” Paul writes to Timothy, “so that by following them you may fight the good fight.” And we are to keep that understanding clearly before us. Jim Elliot was an exemplary Christian missionary, martyred in Ecuador forty years ago. When asked for his autograph he would write down his favourite text, “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (2 Tim.4:4). The noise of the battle and the victor’s song were always ringing in Jim Elliot’s ears. Each day when we rise we are to remind ourselves that we are not on basic training, nor on manoeuvres. This is the real thing. We are at the front line and in the thick of the battle. We are facing a fight on many fronts, the wiles of the devil, principalities and powers, the roaring lion, the snares of Satan, the hatred of the world. We are meeting all the ways society organises itself for the discomfort and the embarrassment of the Christian faith, how it constantly applies pressure to us to apostatise.
More than that, the fight will also be with ourselves and with remaining indwelling sin. “The Spirit lusts against the flesh and the flesh lusts against the Spirit.” Paul is giving these instructions to Timothy that he is in the midst of a great battle in Ephesus and he must never forget it, that his survival depends on being aware of the enemies, obstacles and some tremendous difficulties. The objective ones are Satan’s devices in the world around us. The subjective ones are in ourselves, in our temperaments and the power of indwelling sin, and all the stress and burdens that our faith is subject to. We must not fail by underestimating the energy and cunning of the enemy.
There is a book written by Kenneth Macksey with the title “Why the Germans Lose at War.” One German error, as all the world now knows, was that Britain broke the German codes. Thus we knew in advance what they were going to do. The Nazis made the blunder of believing their codes to be unbreakable. Their scientists and code experts were in their eyes the best, and could not be broken by British mathematicians. Macksey says, “Thus the Germans fatally committed the military sin of despising the enemy.’ They had ‘arrogant confidence in the infallibility of their superior genius compared with other peoples.’
Paul is reminding Timothy here what he tells the Romans, Ephesians, and Thessalonians in his letters to them about the warfare. Then it is so important he tells Timothy again in a number of places in his second letter to him that we’ve got a fight on our hands; we’ve got to prepare for battle each day by disciplining and denying ourselves. The Christian warfare calls us to be alert, and to put every atom of energy into gaining the victory. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes…when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephs. 6:10-13). Do we see the Christian life in these terms? Some do not. Men can take the great biblical teaching of the irresistible grace of God, and, because they do not understand it and are not controlled by the grace of which the doctrine is an embodiment, they can wrest it to their own destruction. They think it means the inevitability of godliness no matter how men live. Or men can fall into the more subtle trap of a triumphalist form of Christian living. There are people who must on principle be ‘claiming the victory’ and using terms of rejoicing. For them deliverance is something they have obtained for themselves, in tongues-speaking, or in just opening their hearts and letting the Lord in, ‘letting go and letting God’, and now they see themselves as impregnable.
But I would exhort you, “Stand! Fight! Put on your armour! Watch! Be strong! Resist the devil! Stick it out!” I believe that that is the Spirit of the New Testament letters. We have to put on the armour of God each day. We ourselves put it on. God has provided it, but we clothe ourselves in it. God does not do that for us. It is we who have to kill remaining sin each day. We have to resist principalities and powers all our lives through. There is many an occasion when we cry out, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” There is not a Christian who does not feel his shortcomings as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Everyone of us knows that his failures are not due to a lack of talents, nor an inadequacy in the divine provision, but in his own weakness in fighting the good fight. It was laziness, prayerlessness, cowardice and so on. There will not be a single Christian whose excuse before the throne of judgment will be, “You failed to give me the second blessing.” Our problem is that we have not been watching as we should. We looked the other way in the strife, so the world got the better of us again and again. We failed to be in earnest.
Charles Simeon set on the wall of his study in Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge a portrait of that immense missionary and translator Henry Martyn. Simeon would say, “Every time I looked into that face it seems to say to me, ‘Don’t trifle! Don’t trifle!” There is a battle on, a war in my soul, and for my soul. I hope that the following words are not melodrama because they are poignantly true and relevant, but the true preacher has nothing to offer the New Testament Christian but blood, sweat, toil and tears. Every Sunday the trumpet must sound from this pulpit calling us all to battle stations. That was the only way Timothy could survive in Ephesus, and we ourselves can stand only if we close our ranks and keep exhorting one another, “Keep going brother! Hang in there sister! Good on you drummer boy! Well done those who are guarding the stuff. Let’s keep going. Keep up the drill. Oil your rifles. Maintain the discipline.” There’s today’s skirmish, and let’s come out of it whole and undefeated. Let’s all strive together. We will never reach the goal of the prize of the high calling if we ignore that. In “Pilgrim’s Progress” there was never a section of the road where Christian got the second blessing and henceforth rode to the Celestial City for the rest of the pilgrimage in a Rolls Royce. God is not going to put us to rest in a sleeping carriage, and all of a sudden the journey is over, and he wakes us up with a kiss on the cheek saying to us, “There, there! It wasn’t too bad was it? Time for the rest of heaven now.” I say to you that we are not going to be borne there on angel’s wings right across the sufferings of the present time. We are going to walk every inch of the road. Every step must be contested. It is going to be a battle for every advance. All our powers have to be consecrated to this fight. We are surrounded by foes we cannot avoid. Flight would be a ruinous alternative. Our aid is omnipotent, and our resources are infinite.
But I can assure you of this one thing, that this is a good fight. The historian A.J.P.Taylor described the Second World War has a ‘good war.’ He meant by that the cause was worthy. It was not for national aggrandisement that Britain got involved, indeed we have never recovered from the national debt incurred from that war and the damage it has done to the fabric of society. But the enemy before us in 1939, Fascism, was so clearly an evil force which had to be resisted, and the victory, once America came into the war, was assured. It was a good war. So too this fight of faith is called by Paul the ‘good fight’, in other words, it is an attractive and winsome and lovely fight. We are not unwilling conscripts serving grimly, and grudgingly. We have been made by grace cheerful volunteers. We have a good cause. We have a good general – the Captain of our salvation. We have the best armour. We have abundant supplies. We have the marvellous array of allies – “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that feareth Him, and delivereth them.” Who ever had better companions? Who ever fought with greater success? Who ever won so rich a reward – “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
So Paul is here giving Timothy his orders for the day. The word Paul uses when he writes, “my son, I give you this instruction” is found in the context of a commander addressing his soldiers before the battle. The apostle tells us there are a number of ways we have to fight the good fight:-
1. By Following Paul’s Instructions. (v.18)
It is very elementary, but if professing Christians neglect the writings of the apostles they face certain defeat. When Timothy was evangelising and strengthening the Ephesian church he needed written instructions which had all the authority of God behind them. It would have been useless for him to have got up before the congregation and ‘shared’ with the people his ideas about the Lord Jesus and the consequences of following him. Both he and they needed to know that what he was charging to their consciences to believe and obey had the throne of the universe behind them. Timothy had the same needs as ourselves – an apostolic word. “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction” and by following it Timothy and his congregation could fight the good fight.
What Timothy collected, studied and memorised were the first letters of the New Testament and the first of the gospels. The Lord quickly brought to the New Covenant church a great body of Christian truth. At first they had living apostles and the church continued steadfastly in their teaching, and then as the years went by that doctrine was written down. In other words, the ‘tradition’ was enscripturated. It was a system of theology, and a message that revealed the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. It explained his death as the Lamb of God bearing away our sin as our substitute. It was good news about his resurrection and living vital headship over the whole church and universe. God burned deep into the apostles’ souls these grand emphases on the deity of Christ, that he died to deal with our blame and shame, and rose for our justification. They had grasped the wonder of a free justification that God in his grace offers to all men, which can be received by faith alone. Paul had come to know this at the very beginning of his ministry and he passes it on to Timothy in this letter along with the other letters he had already written, copies of which would be familiar to the younger man. “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction.”
It would be a great danger today if we took that for granted, that whatever dangers we faced that we judged losing our theology to be highly unlikely event. Our danger is our feelings, we think, losing our ‘warmth’ – that is the concern. It shows itself in our prayers: “Draw near and warm our hearts” we pray, never draw near and instruct us in the truth, as though there were no danger of our departing from the New Testament message. We say to ourselves constantly, “be careful of dead orthodoxy,” and by that we are referring to a non-evangelising and non-praying adherence to Christian truth. We are wise to be aware of that peril, but the beast that came out of the sea has seven heads, and though one of the heads may be ‘dead orthodoxy’ another head is ‘error’. If we are focusing all our energy on chopping off the head of lukewarmness that other head of false doctrine can grow stronger. How many men in the past in the name of piety and prayerfulness have jettisoned truth? Isn’t that the whole story of the rise of the modernist movement and the Tractarian movement. “Worship is too cold and formal,” they insisted – while Spurgeon and hundreds like were knowing God’s blessing in mighty ways, so they introduced ritualism and the universal love of God and so on in the name of stronger religious emotions, and that generation capitulated in the fight, lost its theological bearings and erred from the truth. That peril stands constantly before Christian churches, and in one generation a whole body of Christians can depart from the norm of apostolic teaching found in such a letter as this, and soon church buildings are garages and public houses and carpet shops.
Many a man, apparently orthodox, nurtured as a student in Christian Union circles, beginning as an esteemed preacher of the gospel, can fall into this particular trap. Think of Professor A.B.Bruce of the last century. He wrote a book which is on every minister’s shelves, “The Training of the Twelve.” It is a magnificent study of the manner our Lord instructed his disciples, how he trained them for their own particular apostolic ministries. It is a book of 600 pages which contains no signal deviation from the norm of Christian truth, superbly orthodox and devotional and inspirational, a book of abiding value for the church. Yet within years, only a few years, that man had utterly abandoned fundamental Christian emphases. He died in the negation of the divinity of his Lord. At his death he had come to believe that prayer was a futility. By the end of his life he was entirely adrift from Christian truth.
It is a calamity for any congregation to assume that they can take their orthodoxy for granted and their only weakness is the cold heart. Let no one hear imagine that no matter how he lives, or how casual his attitude to the truth at least his orthodoxy is secure! We are under constant pressure from the media, from the intellectuals of our day, from theologians in the professing church to abandon the great verities of the New Testament gospel. I do not underestimate the power of an article in the daily paper, or a broadcast, to set a Christian reeling. I have had to counsel students reading existentialist writers like Camus and Sartre in a French course who have been rocked in what they believe by those writings. We have to say to ourselves that the Lord has given apostolic instructions to me and I am going to make this great proposal to myself that I will hold to them, and never mock orthodox beliefs. It is only by following them that I can hope to survive in the good fight. This is where my business as a Christian begins, knowing the truth and being on my guard against error and every wind of doctrine. But then there is additional way of fighting the good fight:-
2. By Timothy Keeping the Prophecies He had Received. v.18
“Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you.” There is the activity of prophets in the book of Acts. But certainly prophets do not haphazardly and spontaneously make their appearance. There is, for example, the setting apart of Paul and Barnabas to their work of taking the gospel to the Gentile world. It is an enormously significant step for the early church as it broke out of exclusive Judaism and embraced the world. Then prophets were involved (along with teachers of the Word of God), and the Holy Spirit spoke to the worshipping fasting church and said to the congregation, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Then again there are the activities of Agabus when he prophesies of a famine to come upon Jerusalem – the capital of the Old Covenant community, of that land which was to flow with milk and honey when it obeyed God. Jerusalem was under God’s rod and a prophet spoke about it. Again when the apostle Paul was determined to go up to Jerusalem then Agabus spoke again and prophesied of the imprisonment that would come to him there. The suffering servant of Christ would be treated in Jerusalem as his suffering Master. It was still impossible for a true prophet to escape from persecution in Jerusalem, and the prophet of God expounds that as many other prophets had given that message in the Old Testament.
So when Timothy is set apart as a preacher this is no ordinary ministry but one second only to the apostles themselves. Timothy often represents the apostle Paul himself, as he does here in the mighty Ephesian church. So there was a special revelation given, either to Timothy or to Paul, probably when hands were laid on Timothy by the apostle and the elders and he was ordained to his life’s work. Men present found themselves in the spirit of prophecy and addressed Timothy concerning his life’s work, his duties, sufferings and the promise of divine power and love in his ministry. Paul refers to this occasion in 2 Timothy 1:6&7: “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” In our text Paul is telling Timothy to follow these prophecies so that he may fight the good fight.
Let me apply this to ourselves in a number of ways. Whenever any young man will speak in a church, especially if he speaks with some feeling, then there will be some older people present who will say to him, “You ought to be a preacher.” If two people say that, and that is quite predictable, the seeds of that idea will have been planted in his mind for the rest of his life. It can be very disrupting. He can think that no matter how well he is doing in his own vocation this is the second best and that he ought to be a preacher. It can affect his own relationship with the preacher he has to work with in his local church. Every time that preacher has a dry Sunday this man is saying to himself that he ought to be a preacher. There is tension and rivalry and the desire to be given regular opportunities to preach. Men and brethren if you believe you are called by God to preach then announce it and begin your training and seek recognition and a call from a church to that as your lifetime work. Don’t be a gadfly on the back of your pastor. It is no prophetic call from God if nice Christian people say to encourage you, “You ought to be a preacher.” More is required: a longing to do that work. The gifts to do it, and a summons from a church to be their pastor. Without that no one has been called by God.
But let me say how important the counsels of wise godly men are at such times. I mean men who will not give you the answer they know you want, but who will talk rationally and biblically with you about the calling to be a preacher. Such a conversation was so helpful to me when I was coming to my great decision, and I never doubted after the assurances I received then. They were not prophecies given to me, but they were from a man whose mind was controlled by the word of the prophets made more certain which God has given to the whole church in the Bible (2 Pet. 1:19).
There may come that rarest of times when a preacher is summoned to the work of the ministry by a man who, while not a prophet, has a life illuminated by the spirit of Biblical prophecy, who knows the times, and the life of a man in whom God is working, and who summons all his authority to charge that man henceforth to give himself to the ministry. That did not happen with the greatest preachers, with Latimer, Bunyan, Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones. It did happen in Scotland in the sixteenth century to John Knox at a time of national peril. He had been teaching in St. Andrews and many had been drawn to these ‘private’ lectures and news of what he was saying and the manner in which he was teaching spread. People urged him to become a full-time preacher, but he totally rejected that saying to them that he would not run where God had not called him. So a number of church leaders came together and decided that they would charge him with his duty to take up that calling, and that they would do this publicly by their own preacher.
Sunday came, and Knox was sitting in his place in church listening to the sermon of John Rough the preacher. Suddenly John Rough stopped and looked at John Knox and said to him, “Brother, ye shall not be offended, albeit that I speak unto you that which I have in charge, even from all those who are here present, which is this. In the name of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of those that presently call you by my mouth, I charge you that you refuse not this holy vocation, but…that you take upon you this public office and charge of preaching, even as you look to avoid God’s heavy displeasure, and desire that he shall multiply his graces with you.”
Then Rough looked to the congregation and asked for their approval of his words. “Was not this your charge to me? And do you not approve this vocation?” They answered, “It was. We approve it.” John Knox listening to all this was quite overwhelmed. He burst into tears and left the congregation and went to his room. From that day until the first day he climbed up into the pulpit to preach his first sermon, for many days, he was a much troubled man. Was this indeed the call from God? Must he become a preacher? He feared running where God had not called him. This was the man at whose graveside the Regent Morton gave his famous epitaph: “In respect that he bore God’s message, to whom he must make account of the same, he (albeit he was weak and an unworthy creature, and a fearful man) feared not the faces of men.”
We are given the impression that Timothy had somewhat of a timorous disposition. In these words Paul is reminding him of the prophetic words which God gave when he was set apart for the work of the ministry, so that he wouldn’t lose heart. “Keep the prophecies once made about you so that you may fight the good fight.” I spent hours recently exhorting a man we had set apart to the work of the ministry not to give up, how we all longed for him to continue. But I fear it was all to no avail, and we commend him and the congregation he has been serving to the grace of God. But there is another way that you fight the good fight:-
3. By Holding on to Faith. v. 19
Paul is talking about Timothy’s personal act of believing in the Lord. “Keep believing, my son Timothy,” Paul is saying. That is not something automatic and instinctive. We have to hold on to it, guarding it, adhering quite deliberately and consciously to the Lord. We say day by day that this is where our business as a Christian begins, constantly aware of anything that would diminish our trust in the Saviour, always to be cleaving to the Lord. Don’t rest in your membership in this congregation. We can perish under a gospel ministry. I can perish in a gospel pulpit.
Paul is concerned that Timothy’s faith might cease to control his life. “Don’t stop relying upon Jesus. Keep up your faith in the Lord.” There was this faith that began in Timothy’s intellect, but it permeated every single nook and cranny of his life. It was in his decision-making processes, and in his values, and in his sense of humour, and it even affected his discouragements. It determined his choices and options, his priorities and preferences, and the whole tone of Timothy’s life. When Timothy rejoiced, it was his faith which made him rejoice. When Timothy was broken-hearted, as he sometimes was, it was because of his faith that he was downcast. When he chose a certain course of action he did so because he was a believer. When he set before himself definite preferences and rejected others again these were all determined by his faith.
One can go further. Timothy had a peace that passed all understanding. It was a peace in his heart with God. He knew there was no condemnation facing him because he had been justified by faith. There was no fear of the great white throne, not because Timothy’s life was perfect, even measured by the standards of his teacher Paul, but Timothy knew that all the ungodliness of his life was covered and utterly obliterated by the blood of the Lamb. He believed in that. He utterly relied upon Jesus Christ’s life and death as his total answer to his sin before God. Timothy lived in Ephesus, a town in conflict, with the clamour of Greek philosophy and pagan religions and Jewish pharisaism sounding out, sometimes vi olently, day after day. It was one of the dark periods of human history characterised by calamitous and accelerating change. Civilisation itself was in immanent danger of collapsing, and the church of God was in danger in Ephesus, yet Timothy had peace because the Lamb of God was in the midst of the throne. The living God was Lord, and all things were working together for his good. Timothy took these beliefs and he held on to them. He made his theology sing. He made his theology pray. He made his theology live, when troubles assailed and dangers frightened him and the church was hit by heartache and crisis. Timothy’s beliefs gave him composure in a time of calamity and change.
Timothy’s faith made him work. It never allowed him to stop working. In other words he never saw his beliefs as something to study and analyse and mediate upon. He saw his faith as something to proclaim, a debt he owed to all Ephesus, to preach to the whole city the glory and grace of his Lord and Saviour. “Timothy, keep holding on to your faith.”
I am bound today to ask all believers if we can recall the time we were being drawn to Christ, a time of conviction and of need. And can we remember the time when we confessed our faith, when we spoke to the minister and perhaps to the elders and told them that we had become Christians, that we had put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Can we remember our vows – what we said we would be and what we would do – now that we were following the Lord? Where are we today? Are we keeping the faith? Are we bearing the name? Are we giving back to God the life we owe him? We once said that we would follow the Lord through floods and flames to the ends of the earth. Are we believing in him? “Hold on to faith,” exhorts Paul. There is no hope of winning the battle without that.
The land is filled with people who both in their youth and when they were first married held to the faith. But then they got involved in their careers, and began to prosper. Husband and wife are both working. There were school fees, and a mortgage to pay off. There were certain standards to maintain, and the pressures of work. Both were so busy and hardly seeing one another or the children, and Sunday was their free day. So they started to miss services and miss their Bible reading, and they let go of their faith, and today they are nowhere. The world is full of people who have fallen in the fight of faith because they didn’t hold on. Do not think that that cannot happen to you when it has happened to people far better than you. But there is something else we must use to fight the good fight, in tandem with that.
4. By Holding on to a Good Conscience. v.19
Maybe we can consider these two as weapons that the Christian soldier uses, faith and a good conscience. Don’t lose your grip on them; don’t let them fall to the ground. Hang on to your good conscience. There is a very interesting and important verse about the conscience in Proverbs 20:27, “The lamp of the Lord searches the spirit of a man; it searches out his inmost being.” Now if you at a footnote for an alternative translation you will see these words, “The spirit of man is the Lord’s lamp.” That is considered a preferable translation to many people (cp. Robert Reymond’s “A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith”, p.418). The Lord comes to each of us with a light and he searches out our inmost beings. That light is our conscience and it evaluates our behaviour. The Lord is shining a light upon our lives. Conscience is God’s preacher in your bosom. Are we being obedient to God’s law? Or are we deliberately and wilfully disobeying God’s requirements? Our conscience impels us to do what is right and deters us from doing wrong. It affects our understanding, our feelings, our desires and affections.
You cannot argue a conscience out of its convictions. You cannot totally silence your conscience. Conscience is the voice of authority, It says, “I must rule over you. I have to control your life and conduct.” You cannot muzzle that. You can defy it and rebel, but it is the king in your life, not you. It does not speak in its own name. It is the Lord’s lamp. It is his representative. It leads the soul to the bar of God. But it is not a little night-light, it has the power of a searchlight. It detects the missiles of sin and they home in on our lives. It is avenging. It can create fearful remorse so that all your bones ache. It creates self-abhorrence, self-condemnation, bitter regret and the apprehension of wrath.
How is it with you and your conscience? Are you scrupulous in obeying it? No one here is better than his conscience. No one here is as good as his conscience. Have you a fixed purpose in life to keep that lamp of the Lord shining in your light? That no matter how strong the temptation, how beautiful the sin appears, how all the circumstances seem to indicate that you should sin, you have made up your mind not to act from impulse, from self-interest, from powerful feelings, from the pleasures you will derive from this, but from doing what your conscience says. Your greatest happiness flows from an approving conscience, and your greatest misery from a wounded conscience.
There is a Christian student at Southampton university who was addicted to smoking. Her conscience gave her no rest, and so what she did was to leave her wallet and credit cards at a friend’s house until the back of the addiction had been broken. So she had to pre-plan any expenditure, and she couldn’t get an impulse purchase of a packet of fags on the way home. She didn’t have the cash. She had to please her conscience, and avoid patterns of behaviour in which temptation would have overcome her. Another student from that University began to play American football, but the atmosphere in the team and the fact that they played so many games on Sundays damaged his relationship with God. He obeyed his conscience and gave up the sport.
How can a anyone fight the good fight if he has a diseased conscience. Think of Judas after he had betrayed his Lord, was he in a fit state to fight the good fight? He could only fight and destroy himself. Lord Byron defied his conscience throughout his life and finally wrote,
“My solitude is solitude no more,
But peopled with the Furies.”
Paul is urging Timothy to be conscientious at all times, no matter what the flesh cries out, no matter what your friends say, no matter the power of the enemy, hold on to a good conscience!
It may be that the reason we have grown useless and parasitical in our Christian lives is because of a deterioration in our relationship with our consciences. It is a calamitous thing to assume that because we have great gifts we can neglect the voice of conscience. It is part of the tragedy of able men that for so long their gifts can support and sustain them when all their vitality and pastoral involvement and personal integrity is gone. Yet the gifts, by their sheer brilliance, can keep a man going so long that his problems are obscured, even from himself. We have to remind ourselves that even if we are tremendously gifted that we cannot afford to neglect the voice of conscience. If we do we shall soon become redundant and useless within the church of Christ. We shall become liabilities to the whole body of the Lord. Hold on to a good conscience.
But then the apostle says one more thing, and it is a negative note. It is interesting to see that balance. Four positive and one negative. It is like the Sermon on the Mount, so overwhelmingly positive and then – “Don’t behave like the Pharisees.” But the heart of Christianity is its positive message. John Humphrys, the broadcaster, has just written a book entitled “Devil’s Advocate” in which he complains about much in Britain with which he is unhappy – that we now think of ourselves as victims, that we are all consumers in a risk-free compensation culture, that feeling good is the central goal of modern life, that we have become a nation of shoppers, that we have lost our sense of shame and our sense of civic responsibility, that television causes nation-wide feelings of inadequacy and depression, that serious political argument is being replaced by government according to opinion polls. Most of this we would agree with, but then what is the alternative? John Humphrys does not want us to seek a ‘rigid new moral framework.’ Then what has he to say positively? Wait for it:- “We have to become dissidents” (p.256) And that’s it. That’s all. There is no good news in the “Devil’s Advocate.” It is almost wholly negative. But after all these good counsels of the apostle Paul he does add this solitary warning note, that we can succeed in fighting the good fight:-
5. By Taking Heed from the Shipwreck of Others. vv.19 & 20
“Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.” There are ships you know about only because they were went down to the bottom. No one remembers the day the Titanic was launched, sliding down the slipway, the band playing, the crowds shouting, the children waving their flags and the dignitaries on the launch platform still hearing the words, “I name this ship ‘Titanic’. May God bless her and all who sail in her.” I say, no one remembers her beginning. Everyone in the world has heard of her end.
The announcement of a terrible fall of the most famous evangelical preacher in England has appeared in the newspapers this month. The effect on his church will take a century to heal. The damage his reprehensible conduct has done to the cause of the gospel world-wide is incalculable. He will not be remembered by history for his creative preaching but for this shipwreck. He is not the first Christian minister to have fallen and he will not be the last. The first was Judas and amongst the next were Hymenaeus and Alexander. This man in England fell during a day of small things. Hymenaeus and Alexander shipwrecked their faith when the winds of the Spirit were blowing and many were being added to the kingdom. Let no one imagine that there are times and ministries where Christians are safe. I tell you, the battle never ceases, and the soldiers who stand next to the king are all the more a target for the arrows than anyone else. It only takes one fiery dart to get through to bring a warrior down. Whether at the beginning of the New Testament age or at the end of this present century we know the reason why men fall. They turn away from the apostolic word and fail to hold on to faith and a good conscience: “some have rejected these” (v.19) Paul says. There is no need for us to have some complicated psychological explanation as to the reason for the fall of these men. They didn’t do the basics, to cling to Christ and keep a good conscience. The result was shipwreck.
Think of one of the most infamous wrecks in British naval history, that which happened on October 22, 1707 on the rocks off the Scilly Islands. Five warships were sailing back to England from Gibraltar, but they were not sure how far from Cornwall they were. There was no foolproof means of determining longitude, especially on star-less stormy nights. The navigators were summoned by the admiral to put their heads together and tell him where they were. He feared the ships might founder on coastal rocks. The navigators’ consensus was that they were safely west of Ele d’Ouessant, an island outpost of the Brittany peninsula. Then, a midshipman, who claimed to have kept his own reckoning of the fleet’s location during the whole cloudy, took his life in his hands and approached the Admiral, Sir Clowdisley Shovell, and told him that by his calculation they were much nearer the Scillies. Such subversive navigation by a common seaman was forbidden in the Royal Navy and Admiral Shovell had him hanged for mutiny on the spot. On that foggy night that anonymous seaman was proved to be right. The Scillies became unmarked tombstones for two thousand of the troops. The ships went down like stones. Only one warship was spared. The navigators had no reliable external authority to tell them where they were and how far they were from home. The result all too often was shipwreck. It was not until John Harrison invented his perfect timekeeper, the chronometer, that ships could know their exact location.
God has given us a word and we are to hold on to it with faith and a good conscience, and by this we know where we are regarding God, our own souls and our fellow men. Without it we too will make shipwrecks of our lives. Whether the fall of Hymenaeus and Alexander consisted of some public wickedness, defended and unrepented of, or of some heresy they believed and began to preach we do not know. Whichever it might have been it could not be ignored. For the sake of the peace and purity of the church, the protection of her members from abuse, the safety of her pulpit, and the honour of her Lord’s name discipline has to be exercised on defiant sinners. Think of a schoolteacher at her wit’s end because of the insolent and disruptive behaviour of a boy. All her teaching has grated to a halt because of his antics. Think of stink-bombs being let off in the classroom lesson after lesson, and the children in tears. Think of violence and bullying and drug-peddling – does not any school preserve the right of expelling pupils involved in such activities?
Paul is not speaking here about falls into sin which we all have. Hymenaeus and Alexander had defiantly let go of the faith and refused the offer of returning back in repentance. To suspend anyone from Christian fellowship is the last resort. It is not closing the door of mercy on them. If they will only give up their beliefs and behaviour they may return to the church and the welcome which the father gave to the prodigal son, but there is no welcome for them if the future has the same ungodliness as the past. There are clear instructions about this given by Christ and his apostles, such as Matthew 18:15ff: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” 2 Thessalonians 3:14: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
Here is a situation that has passed beyond that stage, when Hymenaeus and Alexander are attacking the faith in a very fundamental way, and Paul writes, “I have handed them over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (v.20). Of course there is no hierarchical excommunication. It is not that Paul is magnificent apostolic isolation acted in that way. He acted in fellowship with the church. We meet the demoniacs in the gospels, people who are possessed by an evil spirit. They were men being chastened by God for particular sin. There was a great fall in King David’s life caused by carnal pride. We are told of it in the opening words of I Chronicles 21 that “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” David records in Psalm 30 his response when he repented, “O Lord, you brought me up from the grave; you spared me from going down into the pit” (Ps.30:3). Paul writes to the Corinthians about a bad case of sexual immorality in the congregation and he writes, “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus Christ is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (I Cor.5:3-5).
But Paul may be referring here to a divine work of judgment that came upon these two men, as it had come upon Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. There was, for example, a man on Cyprus named Bar-Jesus who opposed Paul and Barnabas when they were speaking to the proconsul of the island, Sergius Paulus. Bar-Jesus sought to turn the proconsul from the faith. In that case we can see that Paul ‘handed him over to Satan.’ We are told in Acts 13:9-11: “He looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!…Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun’ Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand.”
Now the object in these cases, as in the case of King David, was to drastically humble the people concerned and by Satan himself ultimately produce the fruit of the Spirit in these men – repentance and godly sorrow and a humble walk in fellowship with the church to heaven. The apostle Paul was a holier man himself after the messenger of Satan, the thorn in the flesh, had worked its own work in his life of delivering him from pride.
We have heard this past month of this heartbreaking fall by a renowned preacher. Some such action as the apostle has written of in these words is now the course of action his congregation must take for the honour of the name of the Lord which his wickedness has so brought to shame.
10th October 1999 Geoff Thomas