2 Timothy 1:3&4 “I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.”
Knowing God is the title of a bestselling book written by J.I.Packer and many of you have read it and all of you should read it. There should be a necessary successor, I think, entitled ‘Serving God’ because once you know God for yourselves your next privilege is to serve him. That is the title of every true Christian, that he is a grateful servant of God as Paul says here, “I thank God whom I serve.” He could have been serving a fanatical religion and there are many of them in the world today. He could be serving mammon – there is a man I know who has an obsession with gold, and for years all his carefully saved money he’s devoted to purchasing gold. It is in a safe deposit box, and he has become a wealthy man, but when he speaks to his gold it doesn’t reply to him. It doesn’t tell him that it loves him and longs to take him to itself and they’ll spend eternity together in a new heavens and a new earth. Gold doesn’t say that it intends to redeem him and change him and make him full of love and joy and peace. It is mute. It is dead. Paul has been delivered from that, as has every true Christian and we say with Paul, “I thank the living God whom I serve.”
- PAUL WAS GRATEFUL TO BE SERVING GOD.
I had a friend from Derbyshire named Graham who worked for years in Buckingham Palace. It was demanding work with long hours that were spent not just in London but involved travel and many duties, but he loved the Queen and he loved serving her. For him the journey he had made from a humble home in the Yorkshire Dales to the capital city of England and the royal residence was an extraordinary voyage of discovery and fulfillment. So whatever the Christian does is in a life of serving God and we experience in that service a life of fulfillment; our meat and drink is doing God’s will. This is our absolute priority. We say, “This one thing I do.” We sinf, “Make me a captive Lord, and then I shall be free.!
Let me illustrate that. I want to deliver this concept of serving God from exclusively evangelistic or congregational or Sunday activities. Paul speaks to Christian slaves. If they can obtain their liberty he’s glad and encourages it, but while they are serving their masters they have to do it in some basic ways that are non-negotiable. Listen to what he tells the Christian slaves in the Ephesian congregation; “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favour when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.” (Ephesians 6:5-8). What does it mean to really serve God? It means obedience and respect and sincerity of heart in working for your boss, and your school teacher. Now I know that means you could be called a teacher’s pet and you must be careful of that, not to be too smarmy, because your teacher can also be wrong and unjust, but that is never a cause for your being disrespectful. Paul says this staggering thing that you are to obey those in authority “just as you would obey Christ.” That is serving God. It is doing the will of God from your heart, serving wholeheartedly those – whom in the providence of God – he has put over you for a time – “as if you were serving the Lord, not men.” It means at least that you make sure you are worthy of the wages you get paid.
Or again Paul speaks to the slaves in the congregation in Colosse and he says to them some things that are very similar, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Cols. 4:22 & 23). That is how you serve the Lord. Should Christians ever go on strike? I think the answer to that is, rarely, and the cause has to be just and there is a ballot of the men involved who have spoken openly about it, and other means of solving the dispute have failed. Then there is one more exhortation to slaves in Titus chapter 2, verses 9 and 10; “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.” A life spent serving God arouses the curiosity of your masters. It makes them trust you, and makes them ask questions, as to why you, a mere slave, can be optimistic and full of hope whereas your wealthy mistress is often burdened with despair?
There is an example of this in the story of Naaman the supreme general of the Syrian army. He got leprosy and no cure could be provided from all the royal physicians of Syria. But there was a slave girl, a believer in Jehovah, who was working for Naaman’s wife and one day the girl spoke to her mistress saying, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3). His wife’s trust in this Christian girl had become increasingly strong so that when the girl spoke to her of a Saviour for her husband she immediately told him what the girl had said. He made arrangements with the king for leave of absence to visit Elisha, and he was healed.
So being a servant of God means living a Christ-like biblical life, kind, and patient, and forgiving, and holy, and not keeping a list of wrongs done to you. It means overcoming evil with good, turning the other cheek, forgiving 70 times 7 and so on and on – in the ways that so many of the latter chapters of the New Testament’s letters describe.
It means in our homes serving God by encouraging sweet and loving attitudes, not being provocative to our children, or taking our spouse for granted. It means in the congregation that we are respectful and teachable, not thinking we are far wiser than others. Serving God means that we have an evangelistic concern to spread his word. I am thinking of our obligations to obey the Great Commission, to teach everyone at all providential opportunities what we’ve been taught by Jesus Christ, to be ready to give a reason for our hope in Christ, to cast our bread on the waters (as the Authorized Version says), in other words, to share the bread of life with anyone around us who appears to be hungry. Our vessel has been brought by the currents and winds alongside another vessel where there are hungry, dying sailors and passengers and we come alongside and we offer them good food to eat there on the waters. We cast our bread on the waters! Serving God is an enriching and satisfying work. You know how you might have worked on a beach mission, or you have taken part in an open air meeting and there has been real trembling and excuses going there, or you have spoken up in a university meeting, and afterwards you could thank God for helping you. So Paul says here, “I thank God whom I serve.” I don’t think there can be any real gratitude unless first of all there has been real service to God.
- PAUL SERVED GOD JUST AS HIS FOREFATHERS HAD DONE.
What does that mean? Why on earth does Paul say that? Well, remember that in Galatia a group of Judaizing Christians had infiltrated the church. They were telling the congregation that faith alone in Christ alone was not sufficient. That if they wanted to serve Jehovah with the blessings that their fathers like Abraham and Moses and Elijah had done in the Old Testament then they needed to get circumcised and to keep the feasts in Jerusalem three times a year, and not to eat pork or venison or crab meat. If they did that then that would allow God to baptize them with his Spirit and make them really useful and powerful in serving God and spreading the gospel. They could become hyper-christians. That error followed the early church wherever the gospel of grace was preached, and even the apostle Peter got wobbly at one time about what Old Testament ceremonial requirements needed to be kept.
I believe that Paul is addressing that attitude in this comment. He wouldn’t allow a wedge to be driven between himself and his forefathers, in other words, the patriarchs, King David and the prophets of the Old Testament. Paul had wisely thought it to be a good thing for Timothy to be circumcised because a lot of his ministry was among the Jews and circumcision removed a barrier to them listening to him. He could say to them. “My mother and grandmother are Jews, and I’ve been circumcised,” and that got him a hearing. But he told the Galatians (who were being commanded to get a better relationship with God by getting circumcised) that circumcision wouldn’t profit them at all neither would non-circumcision. Only a new birth and a new creation and a new heart would profit them.
So Paul says here that he was serving Jehovah now just as his forefathers used to serve Jehovah then. It was the same God to whom they gave the same service, and all New Covenant Gentile Christians stood where their father Abraham stood, and where the prophets stood. Jesus said about the Old Testament Scriptures that heaven and earth would pass away before they would pass away, that those Scriptures could not be broken. I ask God that I might serve and love the Lord just as the Psalmists loved and served him, rejoicing in him, penitent over my sins as they were, ardent and devout. I want to serve God as they did – and I don’t need to do that by keeping a seventh day Sabbath or any of the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament. The Lamb of Christ has come and he’s risen on the first day of the week. Paul says that he served God like his forefathers, in other words, he prayed and sang the psalms and he kept the law and he loved his neighbour as himself and he did to others as he would have them do to him, and he wanted all the nations of the world to rejoice in God. Paul served God as Abraham and Moses and Elijah and David and the others did, and as we do. They are our model. Abraham is brought to us in the letter to the Romans and the letter to the Galatians as the father not of the Jews only but of all who believe. Abraham heard the word of God – as we do – and he obeyed the word of God – as we do – and he was justified by his faith in the God who promised, as we are justified by the Lord who has promised if we believe on the Lord we shall be saved. Paul had not left the Old Testament and turned from it to serve another God. He had simply confessed that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah and he continued to serve the God of Abraham. We are exactly the same, loving to sing, “The God of Abraham praise.”
- PAUL SERVED GOD WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE.
Again, why did Paul write that in another aside? Concerning what particular criticisms he encountered did the apostle assure Timothy have a clear conscience? What could he be accused of, and by whom, that made him say, “Well my conscience is clear?” Maybe the Jews, bitter that he had left them and yet he was still using their Scriptures. But Paul’s conscience was clear. He had no guilt in singing Psalm 23, “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not be in want,” and singing those words to Jesus whom the Jerusalem chief priests had arrested and killed by crucifixion. His conscience said to him, “Sing it brother! This is the Jehovah Jesus that David knew in part, but not as fully as you know him and have seen him.” Paul took the promises of the Old Testament, of the Seed of the women who would bruise the serpent’s head and his conscience said, “That was Jesus, and on the cross he spoiled and destroyed the power of Satan over God’s people.” Paul’s conscience commended him when he read and applied to Jesus Isaiah 53 and the suffering servant on whom the Lord laid the iniquity of us all. His conscience said, “Attaboy Paul! Teach the world of Jews and Gentiles that truth, Paul, that the Old Testament is full of Christ.”
Or again Paul had a clear conscience about leading people out of Judaism, and baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, even when he knew that that would mean a Christian woman might be divorced by her husband for getting baptized, and converted children would be cut out of their families for confessing Jesus as the Messiah. Paul had a clear conscience for encouraging these people to trust in Christ, for the truth’s sake, that the Lord Jesus was the Son of God, the promised Saviour. The Lord has said that if we lose our families in this world because of serving God we will gain fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in this life, and eternal life in the world to come. He had no regrets that by his preaching people were saved and subsequently suffered for Jesus. What an honour to suffer for him.
So, Paul had a clear conscience in how he interpreted the Scriptures; he had a clear conscience in drawing people out of the synagogue into the New Testament church; he also had a clear conscience when he heard that Gentile Christians, young and old, men and women whom he had led to Christ, were being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum in Rome. He knew that if he had not preached to them and told them to nail their colours up for Jesus and not be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ that then they would have been growing old in paganism visiting their parents in happy families, not being torn apart by hungry beasts as the crowd cried its blood lust and mocked them in the agony of their deaths. But Paul’s conscience was clear. He had warned them to count the cost, and told them what might happen. He had repeated what Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount; “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11&12).
And Paul’s conscience was clear when he said to Timothy that he prayed for him day and night. He was telling the truth. He wasn’t attempting to make Timothy feel more obligated to him than he already was. Paul wasn’t exaggerating. He didn’t fail to pray for Timothy twice a day, and Paul’s conscience said ‘Amen’ to those words. So Paul’s conscience was clear about how he applied the Old Testament to Christ and Christians today, and how he led people out of Judaism and how he’d encouraged Gentiles in Rome to confess that Jesus Christ was the Lord even at great loss and that he really did pray twice a day for Timothy.
- PAUL SERVED GOD BY CONSTANTLY REMEMBERING TIMOTHY IN HIS PRAYERS.
“Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers” (v.3). What is the convicting adverb here in this text? It is the word “constantly.” Paul didn’t pray only when he felt religious. He didn’t allow his feelings to be the touchstone of his devotions. He prayed for Timothy every day. In fact he prayed for him twice, night and day! Why did he pray so often? I think one of the reasons for this was the ‘special relationship.’ We are not to think that everyone Paul had helped over the last thirty years he remembered twice a day, always praying for them. God sometimes seems to lay a particular burden of prayer on Christians’ hearts for some special person, and that service of intercession that they take up is as priceless as the ministry the preacher himself is undertaking. When Keith Underhill came to Aberystwyth and was allocated a double room in Pantycelyn the student he discovered he was to share a room with, Brian Willliams, was a Christian from the Heath Evangelical church in Cardiff, and through his steady influence over the next year Keith was drawn into the Christian Union and finally was converted. Then certainly for the next ten or twenty years, every Sunday Brian wrote a letter to Keith and continued to pray for him and his work in Kenya. Those are the special relationships that exist, and Paul had one with Timothy so that it wasn’t enough for him occasionally to pray for his son in the faith. He prayed often and with importunity. His prayers were not those of the heathen that Jesus told us to avoid – that is, vain repetitious chants. So how do we understand what we call ‘importunity’ in praying. ‘Importunity’ means constant and steady and effectual intercession. Let me explain Paul’s constancy in prayer for Tmothy.
i] True importunity has an object outside of ourselves in view. The object here was not Paul, for blessings to shower down on Paul; his praying was focused on Timothy, that God would help and strengthen Timothy his beloved young friend. You see that? Paul through his constant praying was not saying, “Gimme, gimme, gimme.” He was interceding and pleading for Timothy whom he was under obligation to love as himself. He was not importunate on his own behalf, but on behalf of his neighbour.
Asking the Lord in prayer is one of the links between our need and its fulfillment. Edmund P. Clowney was the principal of Westminster Theological Seminary when I was a student there – I graduated in 1964. In the 1999 I was speaking at Westminster Seminary, California at the centenary of the birth of John Murray, and Edmund Clowney was teaching there and he asked me on my final morning to come and see him. We had coffee together and he mentioned humbly how he had prayed for me every day since I graduated, 35 years earlier, and that it was a little demoralizing asking God, “Bless Geoff Thomas,” every day. Was there some need I had that he could pray for? I was greatly humbled. Ed had an object in view and that was me. He was importunate in bringing me to the throne of grace each day. I don’t know what I owe to Ed for his prayers. I don’t know what I owe to many of you for your prayers. Will I ever know? Maybe I will, but perhaps not.
ii] Importunity is focused on God’s grace. You pray constantly knowing that that is no weariness to God, and you constantly bring to him the same themes and God does not get fed up of your praying – never! For Paul every 24 hours he stopped twice and turned to God to pray and never omitted praying for Timothy. During the light (maybe at dawn) and then in the darkness at the end of the day. That was his routine.
But of course Paul and ourselves pray when there’s a sudden need. We send up arrow prayers, “Oh God help me now.” You go to God there and then, wherever you are, and whatever time it is. God is grace. The old commentator, Van Doren, is helpful here with ten staccato encouragements about arrow prayers, saying the following:
- a) Our petitions are never the wrong time God
- b) No time is unsuitable to God.
- c) No spiritual mercy is too great to ask from God.
- d) God is never unwilling to bless.
- e) No need exceeds God’s power to grant it.
- f) God is never disinclined to hear us.
- g) God is ready to answer us.
- h) God is able to grant above all that we ask or think.
- i) God is willing to bestow.
- j) God is waiting to be gracious.
The God of grace will hear us even if we seem to come bursting into his presence and crying out immediately for help – rather impolitely, and God will give us the best possible answers then. He will not be offended any more than your children crying out to you, “Oh Dad help me!” You don’t say to them, “Is that they way you speak to your father?” You help them! J. I. Packer talks of his boyhood in Gloucestershire, a tall gangling child, he longed for a bike for Christmas and talked about this gift incessantly as Christmas approached. On Christmas morning he went downstairs and in the living room there was his present . . . a typewriter. His parents judged him to be too unco-ordinated a youth, and that a typewriter would be a far more suitable gift than a bike, because he loved reading and words. It was in fact, a perfect gift, and he used that typewriter for many years. It was his pride and joy. The God of grace gives us the best answers to our importunate praying in much the same way. The little poem says;
“He knows, he loves, he cares;
Nothing this truth will dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to him.”
iii] Importunity will not be put off. Paul had an image in his mind. He never could forget Timothy in tears at their parting. That weeping spoke so eloquently of Timothy’s love for the older man, his father in the faith. He was breaking his heart that he was parting from Paul, and the memory of those tears lived on in Paul’s mind. In 1961 I got on a cargo boat in Liverpool and for 10 or 11 days I sailed across the Atlantic to Norfolk, Virginia to study at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia for three years. I had lived at home for almost 23 years of my life, the beloved only child of doting parents and now I was leaving them for the first time and going far away. They never put an obstacle in my way of studying there, and they came to the docks on a bus to the Liverpool docks to see me safe aboard the German ship and then we parted, and they were in tears. It was a great wrench for them, and when in two weeks’ time they got my first letter from American they wept again, they told me, to read of my journey and all the things that had happened. Their tears spoke of their love for me and I knew it; there was no more loved boy in all of south Wales than me.
Paul saw Timothy weeping at their parting and that constrained Paul to pray more faithfully for Timothy. He was loved by this young man. So it is with our praying; being loved we will pray more and refuse to stop. We might miss a day or two or a week, but we return. Our friends are in difficulties. They may be in danger. They are certainly carrying heavy burdens, and so we won’t stop knocking at heaven’s gates for them. We are encouraged in the gospels by Jesus himself. “Don’t give up praying if you don’t get an immediate response.” “Consider the example of Paul,” we are being told here by this self-disclosure.
iv] Importunity will be focused. Prayer is specific; prayer is a sharp knocking on the door, rat-tat-tat, an insistent asking that it be opened. There is a search that refuses to give up until something is found. This is nothing like the phrase, “I say a little prayer for you.” There is nothing routine or perfunctory or twee about intercession with the Ancient of Days. This is not going through the motions of prayers. There are specifics we have to pray for. We find ourselves – once we become Christians – involved in a fight with the forces of darkness and we are being called to be good soldiers in our particular skirmish. The last piece of armour we are asked to put on in Ephesians 6 is “all prayer.” There are things that are urgent and complex facing us; we are so few as Christians; there is so much to do, and without the Lord we can do nothing. So praying isn’t at all about adopting the right posture, lying down or kneeling, facing the east, closing our eyes, putting our hands together, at some specific time and then repeating the right formulae. Prayer is a living relationship with God; it has energy; it is a kind of dogged determination – “Every morning and every evening I pray for my Timothy.”
There may be times when we express some sentiments for the whole of mankind in our prayers, 7,000 million people, or the whole population of Wales. And there will be times when we will pray for all the gospel congregations of Jesus Christ in our longing for the work of God to be revived. I cannot say that such general prayers are forbidden in Scripture, but most prayers are not like that, and should not be like that. They are specifically for “a friend of mine,” for someone who has just perforated your life; he has gatecrashed into your home. I would be sent down to my grandmother’s in the next street at 44 Brynglas Street in Penydarren as a wee boy to ‘borrow’ a cup of sugar. Not a big request, even during food rationing, but I never returned from Nana empty handed whether it was sugar or some butter or a cup of milk – whatever she was asked for, if she had it.
So, I am saying, let’s be specific about our requests to God; let’s name people, and name meetings, and specify times, and sicknesses, and emergencies. Don’t let’s pray, “Bless them all, the long and the short and the tall; bless them all.” If it’s a young pastor then we pray for him. Jesus told a parable about a man who needed bread, and at midnight he went and asked a friend for bread getting him out of bed in the dark. “Bread. I need some bread.” If you want three loaves, pray for three; if you mean them for your friend on a journey, please supply his name, tell God who he is, and God will be pleased, if it is not flippantly done. We know that God does not need the information as something ignorant to him, but we serve a precise God. Let us be fervent and specific in our desires.
v] Importunity is hopeful. Paul did not stop, though Timothy was far away and he had few contacts with him. He believed that God through his prayers would help Timothy. Paul’s hope was for joy. Paul wanted to be what we all want to be, happy disciples of Jesus Christ. And I am saying that there can be no joy in the future if there is no prayer now. One great theme of Paul in the prison was, “Please God, let me see Timothy again before I die.” See it here in verse 4, “I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” Now multiply by infinity. Your heavenly Father is the God of hope, and we come to him expectantly for mercy and for grace to help us in our times of need. If you can speak it, then God can do it. If you can imagine it, then God can do it. It can even be above all you ask or even think – God can do the most wonderful things for you. You can really trust in God. You can live in expectation that your Father does hear you and he does love you, and that he answers you. Don’t give up! Never give up! Never give up!
Does God answer prayer? Of course he always answers prayer. The Bible has but one confident declaration to that question. God answers prayer, and our experience confirms its truth. I have been told that there are thirty-four specific personal prayers in the Scriptures from prophets, apostles and our Lord himself, and every single one of them is answered. The answers did not all come immediately.
In John 11 we read of the sickness of Lazarus. The Lord ‘loved’ him, but he was absent from Bethany where Lazarus lived. The sisters sent a messenger to the Lord to acquaint him with their brother’s condition, and notice particularly how their appeal was worded – “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” That was all. It was specific and direct. They did not ask him to heal Lazarus, but that was their longing. They did not request him to hurry at once to Bethany, but that was their expectation. They simply spread out their need before him; they let him know what was their hurt, and they left him to act as he deemed best! Some of you have particularly sick family members now and you must do what Mary and Martha did and tell it to the Lord. What was our Lord’s reply? Did he respond to their appeal? Yes. Did he answer their request? Certainly he did, though it was not in the way they’d hoped for. He answered by remaining for two days in the same place where he was (John 11:6), and letting Lazarus die. But that did not end his involvement. Then he traveled to Bethany and he raised Lazarus from the dead. The answer was delayed but it was a more magnificent answer because of the delay. The delay glorified God in a unique way.
Why did Paul pray? Because the Lord had taught him to pray like he teaches everyone of us. When the early church was so suspicious of Saul of Tarsus professing to be a Christian then how did God reassure them. He said, “Go and visit him. Behold he is praying!” Saul of Tarsus had never prayed before but once he was converted he began to pray, and he never stopped, the cold night didn’t stop him or the busy day with all its interruptions. Jesus charged Paul as he charges us always to pray and do not grow faint. He has told us to pray without ceasing for half terms or summer holidays or days off, and the Lord has encouraged us by telling us that the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. The Lord Jesus himself, the perfect man, prayed and so did his apostles, and so we are going to pray too.
Often our ‘prayers’ don’t qualify as prayers, anymore than a student who kicks a rugby ball in the back garden is a rugby player. A real player trains with the rest of the team; he is coached; he plays the game; he is not a loner. Anything less is self-deception, a mere trifling at rugby. One shouldn’t claim to want to be a great golfer, or musician, or student, and then fail to put in the hours that are necessary. A monthly trip to the driving range, banging on the piano keys once a week, cracking a book now and again, do not a golfer or a pianist or a student make. Persistence is proof of sincerity; it is a sign of earnestness, an indication that one’s requests represent not fleeting interests, not momentary impulses, but deeply held convictions and deeply felt desires. Paul longed to hear of spiritual growth and maturity in Timothy and so he prayed for him night and day. That is how he served God.
This is how it is in prayer. Don’t toy with prayer. Don’t pray one day for this, then the next day for that. “Be devoted to prayer” says the apostle Paul (Rom. 12:12). Don’t play at it. Don’t just pray when you feel like it, or when it happens to occur to you. You know what it is to be devoted to something. Focus your attention and energy on prayer. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Maintain your regular discipline of prayer. Don’t quit your prayer routine. Keep at it. Don’t cease. It was said of James (who wrote the letter in the New Testament), that his knees looked like camel’s knees from all the time he spent on them praying. Persist! Do you want to know God? Pray. Do you really want to know God? Persist in prayer. Do you want young pastors to be greatly used by God, and that a new generation of preachers be raised up? Then persist in prayer. Do you want to see loved ones healed? Persist in prayer. Do you want to see loved ones saved? Persist in prayer. Do you want to be filled with joy at seeing once again people who love you? Then pray for them night and day, as Paul did for Timothy. That is the chief way he served God, by praying for Timothy and other preachers and churches.
November 1 2015 GEOFF THOMAS