I Timothy 4:14-16 “Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Forty years ago an enormous emphasis upon spiritual gifts came into the professing church. It was the beginnings of the charismatic or renewal movement. Perhaps that movement has reached burn-out with the appearance of the phenomena associated with the Toronto Blessing – laughter, swoonings, animal noises and such claims as amalgam fillings being turned into gold. With the new century upon us it may be possible to consider the real gifts of the Spirit in the context of and in proportion to the whole Biblical message. We are not to ignore this theme of the gifts, but the church’s emphasis must always be placed upon the living God and his grace rather than the gifts given to man. The verses before us provide a very important insight into this matter of the spiritual gifts, and it would transform our church if we took seriously what Paul says here. Let us start with this statement:
1. Every Christian Possesses Gifts of the Spirit.
Timothy had a gift from God. He believed in the Lord Jesus Christ through God’s gift of saving faith and evangelical repentance, but he also had a ‘charisma’, a gift of the grace of God. Not only was he a recipient of God’s grace in a general sense, but he also possessed a specific gift. God had endowed him with the ability of teaching and pastoring a church. He was able to exhort, and guide Christians, and that gift was recognised by a congregation. They accepted his leadership and listened to what he had to say, because behind him was the power of God. He could say that the Spirit of God was upon him and had anointed him to preach the gospel. That was his role in the Christian church, his ability to exhort and warn. He was called to do the work of an evangelist, to establish and build up churches, and in no way could his wit, theological understanding, and man management skills be sufficient in the absence of a divine aptitude and a spiritual endowment. His calling demanded a divine enabling. This gift had made him apt to teach. It enabled him to inspire and hold together a church. Timothy did have such a gift. We are saying that he had more than saving grace. He possessed this particular charisma.
In these verses Paul reminds him that the gift had been given to him through a prophetic message. There were apostles and prophets in the early church whose gifts of teaching were miraculously heightened so that they could also bring a direct word from the throne of Almighty God. There had been a specific occasion when such an utterance confirmed to the church Timothy’s calling to be a leader, and Timothy’s fears and questions were resolved. He knew a new inward energy of soul when that prophecy was delivered. There had also been something like that in Syrian Antioch where the Holy Spirit singled out Paul and Barnabas for their service (Acts 13:1ff). Then, Paul also reminds Timothy, the body of elders who represented the church identified themselves with this call of God. They laid their hands on Timothy and so accompanied the word of prophecy with their approval.
That had been Timothy’s experience. Now we all agree that every Christian has gifts from God for serving the church, and that every Christian also has the fruit of the Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit make us different from one another, and the fruit of the Spirit make us the same as one another. The various gifts are like the different members of the body; they enable us to serve one another and receive ministry from one another. But the fruit of the Spirit make us like Christ. Everyone of us has the same fruit, but different gifts of grace. We have to reckon with this reality that each of us has our own place, and function, and role, and responsibility in the church of God. None of us is superfluous, nor are we redundant, nor useless. Everyone has his place in the body of Christ. Everyone has a contribution to make in the church and in our congregations. No one else in the assembly is able to make that contribution but you. It makes your existence in the church of God meaningful and useful to that church.
We differ very much from the apostle Paul, and we differ from Timothy too. Maybe that is not a problem to anyone here. The problem is that we feel different from everyone else in the church. We can see gifts in everyone except ourselves. God has left us out and we feel useless. Now that is a theological impossibility. Every Christian is given the fruit of the indwelling Spirit and also some of the divine charisma. We may not be evangelists, or teachers, or rulers in the church but God has given us something distinctive and individual in the service of his name and for the extension of his kingdom. And it is going to cost us something – it is a bit of a burden to have a charisma from God. Often we wish we did not have this obligation. The burden does not get any lighter. Sometimes we think, “I wish I had a river to sail away on.” Perhaps we feel it must be because we are getting older, but it is not that, it is simply that the burden is heavier.
The gift may be of intercession. It may be an ability to bring comfort and encouragement to those who are despondent. It may be the gift of hospitality, or energy and toil. It may be the gift of liberality in stewardship. It may be the gift of care, a sympathetic ear. You are someone who sees the need and can either address it or alert someone who can. There are many such gifts and they give us a role in the church of God. If we are not exercising our gift then all the church is weaker. There are needs not being met, burdens not being borne, the weak are not being helped, and there is neglect in the fellowship, too few people bearing too great a burden, while the others look on and find many easy excuses for being spectators. They say to themselves that those other gifted people actually enjoy going out of their homes, and praying in the prayer meetings, and giving up an evening to look after the young people, while they stay at home.
We have no right to do that. Though we may not have any official role in the church there is none of us without a gift. You discover your gift by the leadings of providence. Where has God put you, and what are you being asked to do, and what are the needs of your church? If you are in Christ then he has given you a gift. You have no right to say, “I have no calling. I have nothing to offer. I have no charisma.” Because then you would be a useless member of the body of Christ, and we can never be a useless member of the body. Physicians say that there is a function even for the human body’s little toe, for the tonsils, and even for the appendix. God has put them in the body and God has made every Christian a member of the body of Christ.
2. The Gift May Be Neglected.
“Do not neglect your gift.” Then Paul points out this danger. The gift can become well nigh useless. The gift may be languishing. It may be atrophied, or even close to extinction. There are grounds to believe that as Paul looked at Timothy’s life that was the judgment he was coming to. However great Timothy’s own intelligence and character might have been, yet God’s gift was in danger of flickering to a smoking flax. It is true for any follower of Jesus Christ. It was true of Timothy, and it may be true of me, and it may be true of you. Unless we take immediate and urgent action then the charisma which God has given to us will disappear like a solitary hailstone slowly melts away.
The grace of God itself is never withdrawn from a believer. That grace means we keep persevering in trusting in Christ as our only hope to the very end. We keep attending the means of grace, and we keep enjoying the fellowship of Christians more than the world. We live a moral life and are kept from blatant sins, but are the gifts of grace which God gave us being used less and less, and as a result our relationship to the life of the church becoming increasingly irrelevant? It is a great peril, but it happens. Think of King Saul and how he started with such promise, the blessed Spirit of God coming upon him and overwhelming him. But how did he go on? Suspicious, envious, entertaining murder in his heart, defying God the king was finally destroyed in a battle with God’s enemies. Consider again Samson arising from Delilah’s bed and thinking to himself, “‘I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.’ But he did not know that the LORD had left him” (Judges 16:20). But we do not have to go back to Old Testament days. Have there not been preachers we have known of even in these past months of whom we may say, ‘The Lord has left them’? That is, God has utterly taken away from them any enabling to speak his word, and they will never preach again.
I tell you, the removal of gifts from Christians commonly happens, and there is nothing more common than when this possibility is referred to that the very people to whom it is happening fail to consider it. They believe it is happening to others and not to themselves. Everyone of us must hear this and pause and say to himself, “Lord, is it I? Lord, is it I?” Further, we must address the question as to how this can happen. How is it possible for a Christian who has a charisma can lose that charisma, and the gift be as extinct from his life as the dinosaur is extinct on this planet? They used to be here but now all we see are fossilised bones. So it is with many a church and many a Christian, just the memory of what was there, but now dry bones in a valley.
I would suggest to you, first of all, that we may despise the gift of God. Paul warns another church about despising a certain gift – “Do not treat prophecies with contempt” (I Thess. 5:20) – and there is no reason why that may not happen to other gifts of the Spirit. A man at the time of the apostles with a gift of prophecy might have stood up in a meeting and announced a prophecy. It would have been very common. The prophecies were basic and familiar, and as time went by could be despised. So too we can despise such gifts of the Spirit as teaching, and leadership, and stewardship, and praying. It is all so fundamental and familiar. And I think it is worth pondering whether many churches have not arrived at that situation where they are treating God’s gifts with contempt. They want more extravagant and spontaneous displays to replace them. Or they have become suspicious of any kind of initiative, and are uneasy in the presence of any kind of leadership. Men do not want the risk and pain of being exposed to searching, discriminating teaching. They do not want to submit to leaders who will take them in directions they have made up their mind not to go. They are despising the gifts of God. They are even looking back in a patronising manner to what they once were, and once believed: “Ah,” they say cynically, “we thought we had all the answers then.” They are treating even what they used to love with contempt.
Again, secondly, we may quench the Spirit: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” Paul tells a church (I Thess. 5:19). God has given us a particular gift and yet we would rather it were quietly extinguished. We can no longer face up to the responsibility of having it. It has become a positive embarrassment to us, and so we cease to exercise it. It may be prayer, and we cease to pray in public or even attend the Prayer Meeting. It may be pastoring a congregation but we are not getting job satisfaction so we find work with the para-church. It may be that we are an elder in the congregation in which we grew up, but at a time we are most needed we decide to move away to a retirement home for elderly Christians and we spend the next twenty years of our lives in little Bible Study groups with other ancient escapees from the world of the local church.
Gifts of the Spirit allocated by God may also be sovereignly removed. Think of Dafydd Morgan the powerful preacher here in Cardiganshire in the 1859 revival. He had been deeply stirred by a meeting and he went to bed that night as usual – plain Dafydd Morgan. “But,” he said, “When I woke the next morning I realised I was a different man. I felt like a lion; I felt great power.” For the next two years he preached with true effectiveness and evangelistic success. People’s lives were changed, and many churches were built – this chapel was erected during that decade partly through that influence. Then, suddenly, the lion became a lamb. “One night I went to bed,” said Dafydd Morgan, “filled with this power that had accompanied me for two years, but when I woke up the next morning I was Dafydd Morgan once again.” He remained a faithful preacher for the remaining fifteen years of his life but no longer accompanied by the remarkable energy of those two years. There have been other preachers like W.P.Nicholson and Campbell Morgan who in the early years of their vocation had awakening ministries, but in their latter decades were shadows of what they had been. Although I concede to the sovereignty of the Spirit when and through whom to work and bless I also know that the apostle exhorts us, “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.”
Again, thirdly, what Paul reminds Timothy of here, that we may neglect the gift. In other words we sometimes imagine that a gift of grace that God has given to us is going to look after itself and be self-perpetuating. So we do not look after it. We neither exercise it nor take care of it. We fail to nourish and train it and discipline it. We simply neglect it. We do not do this to our animals: we remember their feeding times, and which tins of cat food the pussy prefers. We do not do it to our plants. We give our neighbours a key when we go off on vacation and we tell them which plants have to be watered each day and which each week, and how they are to be moved into and out of the sun. We don’t neglect our cars. We make sure the oil is changed, and the tyres are inflated to the right pressures. We don’t neglect our minds. We do not think we shall pass examinations unless we study, memorise, attend our classes, take notes and read the assigned books. If we are musicians we do not neglect to practise and rehearse six days a week. But our souls, we imagine, will take care of themselves. We can stand before a group of people and can talk to them easily and confidently. We enjoy the sensation and we do some good, but we do not grow in our relationship with God. We rely on our gift, but we fail to nourish and strengthen it. We neglect it by taking it for granted.
That is the danger Timothy was facing and many of us too, perhaps me most of all. Christians may neglect the gift that God has given to them. What is Timothy to do?
3. The Gift Should be Stirred Up.
The apostle tells him positively what his duty is in the next letter, 2 Timothy 1:6, “fan into flame the gift of God which is in you.” Don’t neglect it, rather, fan it into flame. Stir up the gift. It is in peril of vanishing and becoming as extinct as the Great Auk in your life. Stir it up! Cause it to blaze forth in its glory again, in all its potential for good in the body of Christ. Fan the flame! What could be more relevant for all of us than this exhortation?
A century ago the writings of Max Eyth, an author who has long since been forgotten, were all the rage. He was an engineer by profession, and his novels usually centred upon the beginning of the industrial era. The title of one of them was ‘Professional Tragedy’. In the story we meet with a young engineer who one day, through a series of curious coincidences, is offered a very important contract. The project consists of constructing a bridge over a river at the very point where the river develops into an arm of the sea. The difficulty of the enterprise is increased by the fact that the bridge will have to stand up to the pressure of the in-going and out-going tides. Our modem technology didn’t exist at the time either!
The young engineer gets to work and builds a huge bridge. When it is completed, there is an official opening with music, flag-waving and full press coverage. The officials present at the ceremony are invited to cross the bridge on a train. The young engineer is the talk of the whole country. His name is in big letters in all the newspaper headlines. His reputation is made.
Soon afterwards, he opens a large architect’s office in London and marries a rich woman. He has everything he wants in life. Yet, a strange secret, shared only with his wife, clouds his life. One day in early autumn, he suddenly disappears. That night, as the storm rages and the rain pours down, the young man can be seen wrapped in his rain-coat, standing at the foot of his bridge. He is afraid. He can literally feel the fury of the storm battering against the pillars of the bridge. Again and again he goes over his calculations to reassure himself that his pillars are solid enough and that he estimated the pressure of the wind correctly. As soon as the storm is over, he goes back to London. Once again he is the great celebrity, an important figure in the social life of the city. No one can detect the hidden fears that are gnawing at him: ‘Did I construct that bridge properly? Is it solid enough?” These agonizing questions torment the young man day and night and darken every minute of his life.
Max Eyth goes on to describe in very striking language how one terribly stormy night the engineer, overwhelmed with fear, once again goes to have a look at his bridge. He sees a train about to cross it. He watches the red lights on the last wagon intensely. And then, suddenly, he can see them no longer. The train, he realizes, has just disappeared into the deep waters of the raging sea. The bridge had collapsed in the middle!
When Wilhelm Busch read this novel for the first time, this thought went through my mind: “Actually, this is the story of every human being.” Each and every one of us is working on the construction of the bridge of our life. And from time to time, during a sleepless night or after some traumatic experience, fear takes hold of us: “Have I built the bridge of my life properly? Is it solid enough to resist the storms of life?” Instinctively we know that something is wrong: the bridge of our life is not quite perfect. (“Jesus Our Destiny,” p.142)
God saved us and gave us gifts. We once had potential. We had promise. We were contenders. We were builders but now we are laid aside. We need to find our first love and stir up the dormant gift within us. How can it be done? If we are to have our own useful role in the church of God, and not be a useless redundant member, and not be a parasite in the body of Christ there are actions we have to take. He tells us about these in the remainder of our text. In four ways the gift we have is to be fanned into flame
i] Be Diligent.
“Be diligent in these matters,” (v.15). As my father was a railwayman I travelled by train everywhere when I was a boy. I went back and fore to school on the train. When I first came to Aberystwyth for an interview at the University in 1957 it was on a train that I came here. The train was pulled by a locomotive, and two men were in charge of it, the driver and the fireman. The fireman’s responsibility was to keep the fire that heated the boilers going. He was diligent in shovelling in the coal throughout the journey, feeding the flames, because the locomotive was a steam engine.
Paul is telling us that the Christian must be diligent in fanning into flame the gift he has from God. Feed the gift with the word of God. Nothing will keep us as burning and shining lights without the Scriptures. We’ve got to fall in love with the Bible, and learn to search it, and ransack it, and hunger and thirst for the truth in the preaching of the gospel. You discuss it among yourselves, and meditate upon it, and think about the Christian faith from every point of view. When George Whitefield was first converted and began to preach he read the Bible through upon his knees, and he read Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Bible. He was diligent in keep the flames burning.
We are to be diligent in seeking the face of God. Our great concern is to be like God, conformed more and more closely to him. The only way to secure that is to be in fellowship with God, seeking his face at the throne of grace, seeking out the companions and gatherings in which he has promised to be present. I have him and enjoy him in the privileges of Christian faith and sonship, but I want the same Christ more. I want him all. I am pressing on for the prize, the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. “Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” There is this glorious simplicity shown in the state of mind of these people. They are famished, they are parched, and absolutely starving. They are quite desperate. If they are to survive there is something they must have at all costs, and that is the righteousness of conformity to the image of the Son of God. There is this diligent longing in the Christian soul for God and his blessings.
Again we are to be diligent in maintaining the assurance of our salvation. You think of a human child. One of his greatest needs is emotional security, and that means unquestioning certainty that his parents love him. Just imagine a child who is uncertain whether its parents love it. That child is in a difficult situation emotionally and educationally. The child is not working in school: it is not maturing: it is not getting on with other children; there is anti-social behaviour, and what is the reason? It feels unloved, and so unwanted.
Now that is more important to stirring up the gift of God than we realise. We must trust what God says about his measureless love for us, that he has adopted us into his family, that everything is working for our good and that we are going to a place he has prepared for us. We bask in the sunshine of his favour. We are sure of our calling and election. I think it is devastating for the spiritual life to doubt whether God loves us. Be diligent in maintaining the certainty of your salvation.
Again, be diligent in seeking the blessing of God on all the means of grace, because all the Bible study in the world, and all the preaching, and all of Christian fellowship and every spiritual privilege we enjoy will avail us nothing unless God blesses them.
ii] Be totally dedicated.
“Give yourself wholly to them” (v.15). It is a priority to you. It is the greatest thing in your life. There is nothing for the Christian more important than fanning into flame the gift God has given us. This is not something for which he finds time in the midst of other preoccupations. His relationship with God controls his life. It is what his life is built around. His greatest longing is to fit himself for the service of God. “This one thing I do,” says the apostle. “To me to live is Christ,” Paul says. He is giving himself wholly to this.
We have to look at ourselves and ask is it one thing that the years have done to change our scale of values and sense of priorities. It is easy to find an excuse for reducing our religious aspirations so that we are giving ourselves just ‘partly’ to them. We can blame any of a hundred limping Christians for why we have become passengers, and why we are living out our beliefs with almost a sense of cynicism, or as if it were something unreal, or something about whose value we were not exactly sure. Now we are going to face the most hopeless and appalling futures unless we give ourselves wholly to obeying God.
I am saying, let’s get on with it, whatever God has given to us, and whatever our role may be in the church of God, let’s go for it. Let us discharge the charisma with which we’ve been entrusted. Of course, very few of us are in what is called “full-time service” yet for all of us our role in the body of Christ ought to be a matter of urgent concern and a priority. Give yourself wholly to it, with all your strength and all the power of your intellect, and all the experience you possess, and all your physical strength, and all your common sense, and all your wisdom. Put everything you have into fanning into flame this gift.
iii] Watch Your Life and Doctrine Closely.
“Watch your life and doctrine closely” (v.16). There are two areas that have to be watched, yourself and your teaching. If there is neglect in either you will grieve the Holy Spirit. No way can you stir up the gift of the Spirit without watching both your life and doctrine closely. Watch your own life because of the terrible responsibility of being the channel that brings Christ to men. A rusty mug is no vessel to hold pure water. What is the first mark of an elder in the church? That he be blameless (I Tim.3:1 and Titus 1:6). A man must be known for his consistent and practical godliness. Paul is telling Timothy that carelessness in his own personal life will result in some measure of shoddiness in how he cares for the souls of the flock. Failure to watch your own life will result in failure in watching over the lives of others. Watch the quality of your own personal life, and your devotion to God, and closeness to him.
It may be that we are sometimes useless and parasitical not because of any lack of gifts but because of the deterioration in our own personal character on a moral and spiritual level. It is a calamitous thing to assume that because we are gifted we can afford to neglect our souls, and can be less than vigilant in our own spiritual condition. It is part of the tragedy of able men that for so long their gifts can support and sustain them when all the life, and all the vitality, and all their integrity is gone. Yet the gifts, by their sheer brilliance, can keep the man going so long that his problem is obscured even from himself. We have to remind ourselves that even if we are tremendously gifted we cannot afford to neglect this self-watch. It applies to every kind of man. We cannot afford to neglect our own souls and elementary religious duties – prayer, searching the Word, sitting with other people and listening to what they have to say. If we neglect to watch ourselves we shall soon become redundant and useless and parasitically in the church of Christ. Very soon we shall be liabilities to the whole body of the Lord. If we want to stir up the gift then we have to watch ourselves.
But we have to watch our teaching also, whether it is faithful to the Word that God has taken such pains to give us. As Al Martin has said about watching our doctrine, “It is an awesome responsibility to stand between sinful man and a holy God, declaring the counsel of his truth. To preach the law of God so that we do not create a congregation of legalists – this is no small task. To preach the necessity of God’s people persevering in obedience and faith and holiness and to insist that only he that overcomes shall inherit all things, yet to do so in such a way that we do not create a pall of discouragement and despondency, is no small task. To preach the glorious truth that God preserves his own and whom he justifies he glorifies and to revel in that truth, and to comfort the saints with the wonderful fact that his sheep are preserved and none shall pluck them out of his hand, and yet so to preach it that we do not create a presumptuous spirit, this is no task for the indolent. To preach the doctrine of full assurance in such a way that we do not create fanaticism; to preach the necessity of self-examination and yet not to create floundering doubters; to preach divine sovereignty and yet not to create sinful apathy; and to preach responsibility and yet not to create a climate of sinful activism; again I say this is no task for the indolent. It means that we must throughout the entire extent of our ministry take heed to our teaching” (Al Martin, “Take Heed to Your Teaching, The Banner of Truth Magazine, no. 50, Sept.-Oct. 1967, p.2).
iv] Persevere in Them.
“Persevere in them” (v.16). There are two great principles taught in the Bible: the first is that all that are savingly joined to the Lord Jesus are preserved by his power for his everlasting kingdom. The second is that only those who persevere in faith, holiness and obedience have any grounds to believe that they are being preserved. We are to declare the truth that “he that endureth to the end the same shall be saved”; “to him who overcomes … ” – seven times that phrase is repeated. Persevere, Timothy, though the Temple of Diana is around the corner. Persevere though perilous times lie ahead. Persevere though false teachers arise. God has purposed that you shall endure to the end. That is the ground of your confidence. His power will keep you. His work of preserving you will show itself as you are persevering.
Persevere particularly in exercising the gift God has given to you. Make special provision for that. The problem is this, that it is so often tempting for us to concentrate on what we imagine are the points of weakness in our Christian lives. A man, for example, is a great teacher. Yet he may be lacking in some other qualities and he may say to himself, “I must work away at those other areas because I can afford to neglect my strengths.” Now that, surely, is not true, because we cannot afford to neglect our own strength. Samson could not afford to betray the secret of his strength to scheming Delilah. That was the beginning of the end for him. That became the very area that the enemies of his God attacked and by which he fell into declension and uselessness.
Timothy was a preacher. That did not stop Paul telling him in this chapter, “Command and teach these things …Devote yourself … to preaching and to teaching.” Timothy could say, “Why keep on? That is what I do best. I don’t need to worry about my teaching.” But Paul keeps on to Timothy about that area of his life where his gift was the strongest. He says, “Strengthen that gift. Nourish it. Cherish it. Provide for it. Develop it. Build it up in every possible way.” That is what persevering in a gift means.
That applies to all of us. If our gift is man management, let’s develop it. If our gift is public prayer, let’s develop it. If our gift is to serve, let’s develop it. If our gift is to give hospitality, let’s develop it. If our gift is to administer God’s church, let’s develop it. Whatever it is, let nobody say, “Well, I am strong in that area and therefore I can afford to neglect it.” You are strong in that area so you must not neglect it. You are to persevere there. That is your calling and that is where God wants you to lay out most of your strength. So persevere there in developing this particular aptitude.
So those are the ways of stirring up the gift that God has given you, by diligence, and wholehearted dedication, and watching yourself and your teaching, and persevering with them.
4. The Results of Fanning into Flame the Gift of God will be Twofold: a Witness to All, and Salvation to both You and Your Hearers.
Have you seen a fire with a tiny plume of smoke emerging from it? Or have you seen a smoking flax? You know that it is at its end. It will soon be extinguished. It is of no use and no threat to anyone. Then maybe you have seen someone gently blowing on the dying embers, feeding it with some paper and some kindling. Then there is a flame, and more twigs are put on that flame, and soon there is a blaze. People gather around it. Pots and pans are brought out, and soon there is the odour of food being cooked, and meat roasting. Everyone sees the difference between a dying fire and a living flame.
That is Paul’s observation here. The gift that was dying is stirred again, and one consequence is this, “that everyone may see your progress” (v.15). There is evident change and visible maturing in a man’s bearing and manner. We are no longer behaving like children, instead, as Paul says, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephs.4:16).
We stir the blaze and we are becoming true men of God. Others then can see our progress. In other words, it is not enough to be thinking or claiming that secretly and inwardly we are becoming more Christlike. To everyone who knows us our words and actions are giving a very different message. Everyone should be able to see the progress Christians make, the apostle says. In the world there should be some tongue-wagging about you, some questions asked by your family, some teasing about your religion from your friends, some good-natured ribbing, or more serious hostility, or even persecution. This is the end, “so that everyone may see your progress.” It is not enough that you are singing, “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my heart.” Other people are saying, “There’s a change in Bill or Mary since they started going to church.”
What things we are looking for are that quiet authority and spiritual enlightenment which every mature Christian displays. Let me remind you of those great words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. He begins by describing the nature of the Christian life in the beatitudes, and then tells his disciples that it is by living in that way they become the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Then he exhorts them, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt.5:16). And here Paul says to Timothy, “that everyone may see your progress.” The world must come into contact with a wholly different person from that which they normally meet. They see there is something different, and that has an impact upon them. They become curious, and they are drawn to you or there is a restraint on wild behaviour, bad language and criminality.
There is a beautiful example of this in a recent description of a what was a potentially dangerous incident earlier this month in Addis Ababa. A group of Englishmen were returning from a New Year vacation climbing Mount Kiliminjaro in Tanzania and visiting Zanzibar. They had a four-hour stop-over in Addis Ababa. Rather than hang around the transit lounge at Addis four of them decided to see what they could of the capital by taxi. So they negotiated and settled for $10 with a driver and off they went. He promised to take them to the top of a hill overlooking the city, the Entoto.
From there they were able to look down on eucalyptus groves and the city with its million smoking morning fires, but all too soon it was time to get back to the airport and catch their flight to Heathrow. They were driving back to the airport over a dreadful road in a little Nissan. There were huge pot-holes and ruts while the grassy field adjacent to the road had a better surface. So the driver left the road and drove on the field. Then the trouble started, as one of the four white men sitting in the car described it, “A soccer game was taking place on it, and I could see that the players had tried to stop vehicles from spoiling their pitch by placing rocks across the tracks. Our driver ignored them. Within seconds, as we drove along the touchline, a crowd of soccer players was running at the car. He stopped. A huge, wicked-looking yob lunged from the crowd and took a terrific kick at the driver’s-side wing, staving it in. We were surrounded. It was very sudden.
“Truth to tell, I was not very scared. One could sense at once that the African mob’s anger was with the African driver, not his white passengers. But when the yob wrenched open our driver’s door and pulled him out, we became seriously alarmed for his safety. Maybe even his life? Such things have happened. I asked myself whether jumping out and remonstrating with them on his behalf would help, or only inflame things. By now the yob was preparing to take a swing at the driver, urged on by his team-mates. What should we do?
“The question was overtaken. Through the crowd walked another player, slighter in build, unthreatening yet confident in demeanour. He put his arm on the yob’s shoulder, standing between the driver and his assailant. I had only seconds to see him, yet could at once form an impression. This was a good man. Something in his eyes, something in his face, said so. He spoke quietly to the yob, firmly to our driver, then, putting an arm on the driver’s shoulder, moved him back toward his seat. The mob seemed to respect this decision and drew back. Our terrified driver started the car.
“Then – and this was extraordinary – the man said something gently to us, and though we could not understand Amharic we knew what he had said: that we should not be afraid. He leaned through the window and patted our driver on the arm. In any age, in any civilisation, he would have been a good man … His goodness had about it that arresting quality which, I imagine, impressed those who met Jesus … I do recognise – or recognised then – a quality not easily explained by the cruder forms of moral relativism … There are good men, and the quality they possess is not a matter of opinion” (“Finding Something of Jesus in Addis Ababa,” The Spectator, p,10, 29 January, 2000).
You understand? A man came out of a crowd and stamped his authority gently and surely on an ugly situation defusing it. A hardened reporter watched it all and was impressed by that man. We are asking this, whether you are that sort of person. If not, why not? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead indwell you? Doesn’t he? Don’t you say that you are a Christian? Then don’t you have illimitable access to an indwelling Saviour? Don’t you? Every Christian does. Aren’t you tapping limitless resources of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, self-control? Can’t you say as every Christian says, “Of his fulness I am receiving.” So you are to be this grown-up, strong godly person that others see and know, having an influence for Jesus Christ in your work, at home and in a soccer game. If you are not then you cannot plead, “My resources were insufficient.” God will say, “But I joined you to my Son and I have indwelt you, and I never put you in a circumstance when you cannot act in a Christlike manner.” Then God will say, “What of the gifts I gave you? How did you use them?” And you will be silent. If we are not seeing in you the maturity demanded from your years of Christian profession and the gifts with which you were entrusted then the reason lies in your life and not in the sovereignty of God. Are you a believer? If you are, then are you a growing believer?
You will be a witness to all, and, finally, you will save both yourself and those who hear you. No parent can bear to think, “Ah, well, I shall be saved anyway however it goes with my children.” No pastor can bear to think, “Ah, well, I at least shall be saved even if many of my hearers are lost.” We can scarcely bear to think of our own salvation without theirs. We cannot save ourselves and we cannot save anyone else. Salvation is all of grace. But our God and Saviour uses means – the foolishness of the message of the gospel, preached faithfully by his own servants, who pray for those who hear them, and whose lives are beyond reproach. When a Christian so applies these means which God has given to him then that Christian may believe that he is being saved as well as his hearers. Stir up the gift! Be diligent in this matter! Give yourself wholly to it! Watch your life and doctrine closely! Persevere in them!
Don’t give up. You may feel your gift is small. You are just a smoking flax. But your Saviour says he will not extinguish you.
He’ll never quench the smoking flax,
But raise it to a flame;
The bruised reed he never breaks,
Nor scorns the meanest name.
You can change, if you but ask God to pity you. When you hear the words, “It is too late,” then that’s what the devil says. “It is too good to be true.” Such words come from the pit. You can be made new. “Everyone may see your progress.” God takes people out of ruts and they are saved, and others who see them.
Then, let our humble faith address
His mercy and His power;
We shall obtain delivering grace
In the distressing hour.
20th January 2000 GEOFF THOMAS