Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 5:1-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 1/13/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Timothy 5:1-16
“Learn to Show Piety at Home”
Today we have the great joy to be able to ordain and install David Young as deacon in our church. And so I thought it fitting for us to consider some of the work of the diaconate. Now you may have noticed that I chose a passage that does not mention anything about deacons. And yet as we’ll see, this passage is nonetheless about the church’s diaconal work. And what we’ll also see is that the diaconal ministry is not just the work of deacons. It’s actually a responsibility for the church as a whole. Rather, the deacons are setup to provide leadership in this important ministry of the church.
And so in today’s message we’ll consider first the specifics of this passage. This passage is primarily about ministering to widows. In other words, it describes some of the diaconal ministry the church will show to widows in the church. And so we’ll look first at those specifics in this passage. Second, we’ll then see what principles we can take from this passage on widows and apply them to the diaconal ministry as a whole.
And so let’s begin with looking at the immediate teaching on widows here. And by the way, this letter is the Apostle Paul writing to Timothy who is the pastor and evangelist helping to plant a church in Ephesus. And so Paul is writing in part to help Timothy as he establishes various ministries within the church and to give him advice about how to serve as a pastor. And so our passage begins with Paul calling Timothy to honor the fellow church people as fathers, and mothers, and brothers, and sisters. Then he turns to focus on a more specific group of people. The widows in the church. Verse 3, “Honor widows who are really widows.” A widow, of course, is someone who is left alone because their husband died. This is one of several classes of peoples to whom God especially seems to show concern for in the Scriptures. God shows special concern in the Scriptures, it seems, to those who have no one else to care for them: widows, orphans, etc. In turn, he calls God’s people to show such concern as well, on behalf of God. Well, that’s what we have here: the concern to help widows who have no one else and no other way to support themselves.
And yet you have to love how this passage deals with the reality of life. It deals with the reality of limited resources. There is a concern in this passage to help widows, but only those widows who really need the help. Verses 3, 5, and 16, all use the language of a widow who is really a widow. Keep in mind that the term widow, at least in the Greek, has the connotation of being bereft. And so the widow who is truly a widow is one truly bereft. Bereft of both husband and even of other means for her support, and not in a place to remedy this. These such widows are the ones that the church is to help.
And so Paul essentially tells Timothy to exercise some discernment and even prioritization of resources. In deciding whom the church should help, he has to exercise some wisdom by assessing the situation and acting accordingly. Several factors are given here for these widows. One factor it seems is to determine if the widow is essentially fit to care for herself still. This is roughly put in verse 14 in not quite those words. Verse 14 says that the younger widows should get remarried. And not only that, but they should bear children and manage the house. Keep in mind that back then this was the normal way a woman was supported financially. This was the typical work for a woman back then. I say back then, only to acknowledge that in our American culture today that’s not always the case anymore. Sadly, such work of a woman is sometimes frowned upon by many today as backward. I won’t comment much on that today (that’s a different sermon), except to say that I think it’s horrible for our culture to frown on such glorious and important and beneficial work. What is the point today is that Paul sees that the younger widows don’t need the support that older widows might need. The reason is that such younger widows can essentially “restart” their life, and can continue in their God-given callings as a woman. This doesn’t mean such a restart will be easy, of course. I’m sure it would not be. But they are still able to gather their strength, and move forward with a productive working life. They aren’t ready for retirement yet, in other words. Verse 14 is somewhat akin to other passages that speak against idleness. Just as men aren’t to be idle, but to be hard workers, so too women, who are able, are to do the same. Actually, verse 13 says that exact thing with regard to such women. It talks about the widows who end up in retirement mode too early end up being idle, and that can make them more inclined to other problems as well, such as the sins of gossiping and busybodiness.
And so that is the first act of discernment and prioritization Timothy would need with regard to helping these widows. Second, Paul says that Timothy should see if there are family members that could help these widows out. Verse 4 mentions first the children and grandchildren of such widows. Verse 4 says that for the children to do this is a way to repay their parents. In other words, the parents had cared for them when they were young and unable to care for themselves. Now when the parents get old and can’t care for themselves, it is the children and grandchildren’s responsibility to help out. Verse 8 and 16 seem to widen this principle further saying that we need to care for our own, and that if we have widows, we need to relieve them. Verse 8 especially puts that on us as our most immediate burden if they are in our own household.
Make no mistake, this passage says this is what godliness and morality demands. Verse 4 says that for a child to care for their parents this way is piety. That this is a piety we need to learn. The word for piety is about religious living. In other words, it’s a word about how you honor God in your living. Verse 4 goes on to confirm that by saying that this care for your parents is good and acceptable in the sight of God. Verse 8 puts this call in the opposite. It’s to our shame if we don’t help our relatives like this. If we don’t, we deny our Christian faith, and we act worse than an unbeliever. In other words, even unbelievers care for their family members this way. This is like basic morality 101. Even pagans show some care for their aging family members. How much more should a Christian!
And so Paul’s point to Timothy is that before the church takes on the responsibility for caring even financially for a widow, that her family members should first. Note that verse 7 talks about Timothy commanding the things taught in this passage, so that would say that this should be part of Timothy’s teaching ministry. That godliness means you take care of your earthly family members. That you are the first line of defense for your earthly family members who can no longer care for themselves. This is to be done even before the church’s help of them.
Now of course, not every widow will have children or grandchildren alive that can help them. I think of Naomi in the book of Ruth. All her children had died and all she had left was her daughter-in-law Ruth. But of course, there Ruth stepped up in godliness and helped her mother-in-law. That was the right thing to do. But sometimes a widow is left with literally nothing. Or maybe her remaining family can’t fully meet her needs. That is when the church has the obligation to help. Verse 16 talks about the church then taking on this burden. That’s maybe not the most positive way to talk about supporting the widows, to refer to such support as a burden. But Paul’s dealing with the reality of limited resources. If the church is helping those who could and should be helped by either others or themselves, then the church should not take on that responsibility. On the other hand, there are some widows who really have nowhere else to turn. These are the widows who are really widows, as Paul describes. These are the widows that the church is to care for.
By the way, it’s at this point helpful to note what you likely have already noticed. Verses 9-15 seem to especially be dealing with this list. Evidently back then in Ephesus there was some official widow list that Timothy was overseeing. It’s not entirely clear what this list involved from the context. It might just have been a list of who to support financially. Some have thought that this special widow list involved something more than just financial support. Some have thought maybe it involved widows making some vow to go into some special church service as widows, vowing to remain as widows in order to take on special church duties. That might explain verses 11-12 concern about widows remarrying after they’ve ended up on this list, as well as the qualifications of the widows in verses 9-10. Verse 12 talks about them casting off their first faith, probably referring to casting off a former pledge. This is likely referring to some vow to remain as a widow when they go on this list. That’s why Paul didn’t want the younger widows to get on that list, evidently. But the bottom line is that we are not sure exactly what exactly was involved on getting on this list. So, let’s not get hung up on what we don’t know. But even if we don’t know exactly what this list was, what all the benefits and responsibilities were, we still see the overall points from this passage. There were widows in the church with real needs, with no one else to help them, and that the church was to help them. There were qualifications for such widows, and so Timothy had to exercise discernment and wisdom and prioritization in helping them.
Well, at this point I hope you are already beginning to see applications to the broader diaconal ministry of the church. Having spent some time looking at the specific details of this passage, I’d like to turn now to begin to more broadly apply to this the larger diaconal ministry of the church. First, let me say, this is in fact a church responsibility. We can use the word “burden” even that we see in the passage if we want to be frank about it. That brings out that it’s not always an easy task. Providing for others has a cost involved. That’s why we take a diaconal offering every month, for example. But that’s okay. It’s a good burden. It’s a burden we are honored to have as Christians. But realize then that the burden is put here as something for the church. It doesn’t say this is a burden for the deacons. It doesn’t say this is a burden for Timothy. It says it’s a burden for the church. The point is simply to say that the church has a diaconal ministry, not that the Elders or the Deacons have a diaconal ministry. We, Trinity Presbyterian Church, we have a diaconal ministry. We participate through financial giving. But there are many other ways we can participate as well. Various ways we show care and love and support to those in the church with real earthly needs is exercising this diaconal ministry.
At the same time, Paul is giving these instructions to Timothy. These instructions for maintaining this list of widows to support was given to this pastor-evangelist who was planting the church. Of course, earlier in this letter we see that Paul also instructed Timothy to see that elders and deacons are appointed in the church. And so this coincides well with what see in Acts 6. In Acts 6 the apostles were heading up the diaconal work too. There it was again with caring for widows. But the apostles realized how much time this work was taking and so they appointed other worthy men to take the lead on it. The apostles could then focus more on preaching and prayer. These appointed men of Acts 6 served as the prototype for the deacons. And that’s what we see Paul instructing Timothy to do then. Timothy was to establish elders and deacons. This would be to offload this work to them. The deacons particularly would be the ones to oversee the diaconal work of helping the widows. And so my point here is simply that diaconal work is the church’s responsibility. However, the leadership of that work is the responsibility of the officers of the church. First that falls on the elders of the church, and if possible, it is delegated to ordained deacons. This is what David is becoming a part of. But it also means that all of us are a part of this ministry. David is, however, being ordained to provide leadership in this area with the other deacons of the church.
The other main point of application of this passage to the diaconal ministry I hope is also equally obvious at this point. The diaconal ministry involves discernment and prioritization of resources. In terms of discernment, the deacons have to ask what’s the best and most appropriate way to help someone. Often this involves helping the individual person to essentially help themselves. Like the younger widow who should make a restart in life, sometimes that’s the same thing other people need amidst other trials. To make some kind of a fresh start in their life, somewhat akin to a younger widow getting remarried and starting a new family.
This discernment and prioritization also means helping the person investigate what other avenues of help are available for them as well. Maybe they do have other family members that can help. In today’s modern world, there are lots of resources that are available for those in need, many of which people have already “paid into” such as social security and disability. The point is simply that this passage would have the church and thus the deacons to use discernment and prioritization and make use of the non-church resources that are available to help.
But again, in absence of other assistance, the church needs to try to help those with needs in their midst. Here again, prioritization seems in order. It’s interesting that as much as we don’t know the details of this list of widows here, and what all it entailed, one thing is clear. Those on this list to receive special care and concern were the most godly faithful widows in the church. This is not to say that the diaconal ministry only helps the most mature Christians, those who’ve by God’s grace have grown a lot in the Lord. It’s not to say that you have to be worthy enough, spiritually speaking, to qualify for diaconal aid. But at the same time, it seems that such people are to be our highest priority in helping. Those saints who have most faithfully served in the church are to be our top priority. It’s not to say that we only help the “worthy”, so to speak. No, that’s not it. But rather, it would be to our shame to not help those most faithful saints among us when they hit the hardest times in their lives.
You see, all this goes back to the opening verses. Honor. We usually talk about diaconal service as a way to show mercy, not necessarily honor. You are showing mercy to those who have needs that they can’t personally meet. Mercy is surely a big part of diaconal ministry. But sometimes this diaconal ministry is also about honoring. Honoring those who’ve done so much for Christ, but can’t do as much anymore. We especially honor those. But also to honor the least of these; the least worthy among us; because in Christ, all of us have been lifted up.
And that is why our deacons need your prayer. The deacons have a really tough job in many ways. When it comes to people needing help, most people aren’t inclined to ask in the first place. So the deacons have to be on the look out to help people that may not even be asking, but have serious needs nonetheless. But even then, they need to really understand the needs. They need to help people sometimes find other help besides the church. That isn’t usually easy work. Often such isn’t well received by people, as well. Wisdom, discernment, and prioritization skills are just part of what they need. They also need great grace and love to truly honor those they are trying to help. Pray for them. Pray that they would show forth Christ and Christ’s compassion and wisdom as they do this work of diaconal leadership.
Saints of God, realize why we ultimately do this kind of diaconal ministry. You see, this really is the godly, pious, thing to do. We said that with regard to grown children helping out their aging parents. That such was the godly thing to do. Jesus himself did that, if you recall. When he hung dying on the cross, he had the compassion and concern to entrust his mother to the apostle John. He had them essentially adopt each other right then and there. That surely was obligating John to care for Jesus’ mother in his absence. This was on Jesus’ mind as he hung there dying on the cross for our sins! That’s this godliness put into action. It’s godly to help your family members in their needs.
And yet that’s the reason why we as Christians have this obligation of diaconal ministry, particularly to other Christians. Just go back to the opening verses again of this passage. We are to treat the older men as fathers and the older women as mothers. The rest as our brothers and sisters. We treat each other like that because in Christ that’s what they’ve become. We Christians are all family now in Christ. This is why we ultimately do this kind of diaconal ministry unto the saints. In Christ, then this is our duty of love to our new extended family. We are our own. We help the widows as akin to helping a mother, because she is. The gospel changes who we are. As we believe in Jesus, he redefines our identity and adds new priorities to us. This then is the piety we need to learn. This is the godliness that we must pursue. Diaconal ministry is the church’s work. Yes, led by deacons. But our work, nonetheless. Our good burden to bear.
And so pray for the deacons. Help the deacons. Let the deacons know if you need help. Let us each be looking for how we can help others around us in need. Whether it be our own earthly family members, especially our own households, but even our extended church family. And keep David Young especially in your prayers as he starts out this new work. We trust that God will give the strength and wisdom and skills needed for this job. Both to David, and to us as a church family. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.