When attempting to read the Bible and understand what is being taught (and how we are to respond), I think it’s always important to keep in mind that the Bible is primarily a book about relationships – between God and his people, between his people and the rest of the world and between individuals within the hundreds of smaller narratives.
In today’s reading, Paul highlights many relationships, both good and bad, that have played a role in not only his current condition, but also in the spreading of the news of Jesus throughout the world. But there’s one relationship that is obviously at the forefront of this letter. That is, of course, the relationship between Timothy and Paul. After all, if not for their strong relationship, Paul’s words would ring hollow for Timothy.
Obviously, they don’t. Look at how Paul encourages this young man to stay true to what he has been taught:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14-15)
How important is relationship in that statement? Paul doesn’t say to continue in what you’ve learned because you’ve studied so much or because of the incredible miracles you’ve seen (though Timothy had done both), he says to continue in what you’ve learned because you know those from whom you learned it. In other words, Timothy knew the character of, and respected Paul and his contemporaries. He had no reason to doubt them. In fact, Paul points out, Timothy had been as far into Paul’s “inner circle” as possible and all he could report is that Paul was the real deal – no fakery or self-indulgence there.
Paul then urges Timothy to press on, just as Paul had done his entire ministry, precisely because his relationships compelled him to do so. Yes, relationships are important. They are as important today as they were in the first century. You and I must live our lives in such a way that our friends and neighbors, when confronted with some of the difficult aspects of God, can look at us and say, “Well, that guy believes in God and follows Jesus and I know him. There must be something to all this God stuff, because I know that guy and he’s not flaky or phony. He’s the real deal.”
What a grand and honorable responsibility God gives us in these kinds of relationships. We must now do our “Paul” part to ensure that the “Timothy” types around us will be encouraged in their life and work.
Paul and Timothy had a special relationship. Not only was Paul a mentor to Timothy, but they were also close friends who suffered a lot of persecution together as well as sharing in ministry successes. This letter, then, is written as a letter between friends, as an instruction manual from a mentor to a mentee and as a reminder of some of their adventures along the way.
When Paul encourages Timothy to take a stand against false teachers and false doctrine, he does so knowing that Timothy has seen him do the same. That’s why there isn’t a whole lot of instruction as to how to oppose these people. That may be frustrating for us, but it wasn’t for Timothy because he had seen it in action.
Much of what is written is very similar to Paul’s various letters of instruction to other churches. This makes sense, of course, because if Paul was consistent in his teaching, he wanted Timothy to be just as consistent.
One section of this letter that does stand out, however, is the instructions on how to select deacons – or church leaders. Much has been made of this list, with some churches and denominations going so far as to create checklists with each specific item listed out and to use these checklists as part of their selection process.
Now, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but I also don’t know that this is Paul’s point. I think there is a larger point to be made here not about the things that the prospective deacon values, but about what we value. You see, sometimes it’s easy to put someone into a leadership position who shouldn’t be there simply because they bring something to the table that we think we need.
Maybe they have incredible social or business connections. Maybe they have a lot of experience. Perhaps they’re very wealthy and we hope that they will “buy in”. Whatever the case, Paul says that these are the wrong considerations. Character, above all else, must be the initial deciding factor. After character, then, comes skill set – the ability to teach, etc.
Character matters…a lot. Paul says (in verses 2 and 7) that this person must be respectable/reputable both inside and outside the church. In other words, someone who does great things at church, but is a harsh and cruel businessman need not apply. Likewise, a well-respected member of the business community who is seen as a troublemaker and cynic in the church need not apply either.
This is the framework that Paul gives us for selecting church leaders (this and more). For those of us who are in such roles, it’s important that we don’t allow those other “worldly” factors to take precedence.
“How have you been?”
How many conversations have you had this week that began like that? It used to be that whenever someone politely asked how you had been, you politely responded with something like, “Doing great!”, “Good, good.” or perhaps, “I’m fine, how about you? Now, “busy” has become the new “fine”. Not only have we come to use that answer, but we’ve come to expect it from others as well.
We live in a busy culture. We run to and fro as if the next thing is the most important thing in all the world. We pile activity on top of activity and responsibility on top of responsibility. Somehow we’ve been convinced that we have to do it all. (It occurs to me that there is no mention of Jesus serving as the Vice President of the Carpenter’s Guild.)
However, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul raises an interesting question (though his is in the form of an accusation). Are we truly busy? Or are we just busybodies? I guess that depends on your definition of busy. If being busy means doing lots of stuff, then I think most of us are legitimately busy. If being a busybody means putting on the appearance of doing a lot of stuff, most of us know some of those people, too.
But what if it goes deeper than that. What if we look at legitimate business, verses superfluous business. Legitimate business, that is, in the eyes of God. If we marked up a calendar with the number of hours each day that we were busy going about God’s business, would it reflect that we were truly busy?
I know I am sometimes guilty of being a busybody for God. I flutter around, bouncing from thing to thing, all with the appearance that I’m doing something significant and yet, sometimes it’s not all that significant. Being busy for God requires that we be in tune with his business, which, oddly enough, is difficult to do when we’re distracted by all of our busybodiness.
The fact of the matter, which we all know, is that in our spiritual life and our physical life, most of us need to slow way down. We need to examine how we spend our time and energy. We need to prioritize and to jettison some of the superfluous activities. We need to stop justifying our busybody activities and, instead, focus on the business of God.
Not only that, but we need to actively work to bring God’s business with us. I’m talking about living with purpose – recognizing that wherever you are, there are opportunities to go about God’s business, but you have to deny the inner busybody in order to heed God’s call.
So as you go about your day today, examine your activities. Ask God whether what you are doing is his business or just your busybodiness. Now, let’s get busy!
Sometimes, there’s a fine line between encouragement and discouragement. As I read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I’m reminded of this.
Overall, the letter is encouraging. Paul has heard great reports about what these people are doing. They have wholeheartedly embraced his teaching and have made drastic changes in their lives in order to reflect what they’ve learned from Paul and through the Holy Spirit. They have even stood strong in the midst of persecution. And Paul commends them for these things.
However, in the midst of his encouragement, Paul continues to press them to do more – to go further, dig deeper. I’m reminded of an old football coach I had who, after encouraging us about the effort we put forth on a series of sprints, would look at us and say, “One more time!” and blow that stupid whistle again. Here, Paul is saying, “Hey, you’re doing great! Now…one more time!”
It’s not that Paul is doing anything wrong, but the fact is it can be pretty discouraging to think that you’re aiming for a goal you will never reach. Jesus set the bar pretty stinking high for us human beings. He came in and pitched a perfect game and now we’re supposed to go out and do the same. And not level of holiness that we may achieve will come close to comparing with him.
And that’s where the line between encouragement and discouragement falls – somewhere between the stark reality that we’re never going to hit the goal and the understanding that we’re not complete failures. But here’s the great part: Right on that line – the place where we’re tempted to just throw in the towel – there is where we find God’s grace.
There, God steps in and says, “No, you’re never going to hit the mark, but I’ll give you an “A” for effort.” We strive for a goal that we will never reach, but one which, fortunately, we don’t have to reach. That’s the way God works! I, for one, am encouraged by that fact.
Many of the same themes pop up time and again in Paul’s letters – not the least of which is what I would call the defining characteristic of following Jesus, both in following his teaching and following his example. It is a kind of divine order of priority that goes against cultural norms (in nearly any culture). What is this order?
2. Everybody else
That’s right. “Me” is not even in the list. In our best days, we think about putting God first, others second and then ourselves last (though we rarely actually do that). But God’s desire is that our priorities are not focused on ourselves at all.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we don’t take care of ourselves, get adequate rest, etc. But the focus of that care cannot be simply for ourselves. Many will disagree with me on this point, but the fact is, if we are healthy and happy, but not focused on God and others, then our health is in vain and, frankly, useless.
Popular psychology tells us that we need “me time.” We don’t. We need rest. We need solitude. But we also need purpose. Think of it this way. My truck needs gas in order to go. However, if I’m not planning on taking my truck anywhere, then it actually doesn’t need gas. If it’s going to stay parked in the garage and not started, then the gas is useless.
Likewise, rest and solitude are useless if we don’t have future action in mind – specifically, action that glorifies God, reflects his image and truth and helps others. Rest is like fuel for our bodies, but, like my truck, we have no use for fuel unless we are planning to “go”.
And so, my priority when I rest or when I take some time by myself or when I do, really, anything – my priority should always be 1.) What is needed for me to continue to grow in my relationship with God and to walk out the mission that he has called me to? And 2.) What is needed to recharge my battery in order to go out into this messed up world and make life better for other people – introducing them to the love and sustenance of Jesus?
That’s it. I don’t need to think about me. In fact, Scripture tells us that God is thinking about us, so we don’t need to worry about it. Imagine a world where everyone was focusing on priorities 1 and 2 above. Is there any really need for #3? Let’s go out and live a two priority day today!