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Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 5:3-8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/19/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 5:3-8
“Honor Widows Who Are Really Widows”
I last preached this passage about 4 years ago when we ordained David Young to the office of Deacon. Actually, at that time, I preached from verses 1-16. I preached it as a topical message in light of the deacon ordination and consequently I only covered it in a rather broad way. But now that we are going through a series on 1 Timothy I’m excited to be able to delve into it a bit further over multiple weeks. And so, the first thing to notice is that verses 3-8 give general commands regarding widows, but then verses 9-16 go into more detail and talk in terms of widows being put on a list and arguably given a job or ministry in the church. The question becomes over the connection between verse 3-8 and verses 9-16. Some have wanted to add greater separation between the two passages, as if verses 3-8 deal with the support we give widows, and verses 9-16 deal with a different topic of widows who take on an some kind of official service in the church. And yet I don’t think we can justify divorcing these two passages from each other. Clearly this overall section going from verse 3 all the way to verse 16 is about the single subject of caring for the widows in the church.
And so, my approach is to understand that today’s verses are the overview. They speak in general about how the church is to approach supporting widows. The next passage then gives further qualifications about supporting widows, including placing them on a list that evidently involves some kind of service on their part. In other words, it seems to describe what we might refer to as some kind of order of widows. We will talk more about this official list of widows next week and talk about how to apply it. But for now, let me say that because they apparently had some kind of an official list of widows at that time with certain duties, does not mean that we can or should only help widows who join such an order. Yet there is discernment needed when helping widows. Both today’s passage, along with the next one, will help us think through the principles we need to have before us when looking to honor the widows who are really widows.
Let’s begin then with today’s text by recognizing that God has great concern for widows. This is abundantly clear in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:18 God says that he administers justice for the widow. The idea there is that God is the righteous judge that looks out for the widows. That idea sadly acknowledges what the Bible points out is far too common: that earthly judges overlook the cries of the widows. Sadly, human judges are often influenced by people with money or power and are inclined to help them, and on the flip side not wanting to be bothered by poor powerless widows, even if they have a just concern. But God there in Deuteronomy 10:18 says he will give them justice even if human kings and governors won’t. This is further illustrated in Exodus 22:22. There it begins by commanding God’s people to not afflict any widow. God then goes on to say that if they do, he’ll avenge the widow by killing them and leaving their wives as widows. That’s a rather sobering thought, but it clearly shows God’s concern for widows.
Another way we see God’s concern for the widows is his provision in the old covenant for gleaning. We find that in Dueteronomy 24:19 where God mentions the widows as one of the particular groups he has in mind to help with this provision. Basically, this provision required farmers to not go over their picked crops a second time, or to pick up anything that drops to the ground. These extra remains of the harvest were for the people in need like the widows to be able to go through and pick up for themselves. That’s what we see Ruth and Naomi relying on as widows in the book of Ruth, for example. Again, this was God’s heart for widows.
Again, we could point to Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament. In Mark 12:38 we find him condemning the scribes who devour widows’ houses. In other words, Jesus saw that there were certain teachers of the law who took advantage of the hospitality of certain widows and essentially ate them out of house and home. That was not right Jesus said. Instead, they should have done what James says in James 1:27, to visit widows in their affliction as a testimony of their religion.
I could easily go on. The Bible is full of so many references to God’s concern for the widows and their plight. As Christians, we have been born again by grace. The spirit of God is within us, now renewing us in the image of God. This should be something we then look to be like. Since God cares for widows, as God’s image bearers, we should seek to care for widows.
So then, with that foundation, let us turn now to our second point and consider what makes a widow really a widow. What does this mean? Well, the text goes on to tell us what is meant. You see, when we hear widow, we think of the basic definition of a woman whose husband has died. And yes, in one sense, if you meet that definition, then you are indeed a widow. But not necessarily in the sense that Paul describes here. Again, don’t get me wrong, if your husband had died, no matter what the circumstances, you are certainly a widow, I’m sure you miss your husband, and I want to validate your loss and honor you in that. But what Paul is talking about here when he talks about helping widows who are truly widows, he has a certain thing in mind. He has in mind whom the church should provide official help to. That’s what he is getting at when he talks about honoring widows who are truly widows. He’s speaking that to Timothy as pastor who is in church leadership. He’s explaining as we’ll go on to see which widows to officially enroll in some number in the church who will serve in some ministry capacity in the church and in turn be helped and supported by the church.
So then to help you understand why he calls us in verse 3 to determine the widows that are truly widows, you must appreciate the pun or play on words that he makes here. The Greek word for “widow” means “bereft” or in another words someone who suffered some loss that has left them empty or alone. And so, that word in Greek got used to describe a woman who lost her husband. Thus, when Paul says in verse 3 if the widow is truly a widow, he’s getting us to think about the literal Greek meaning. Is this woman bereft in the sense that she is all alone? Or does she still have some family such that she is not alone? You see that’s what the next verse goes on to explain. Verse 4 says that if this widow has children or grandchildren who can help her, then she is not all alone, and thus they should take care of her instead of the church. And so we see this confirmed in verse 5. This is the one who is truly, really, a widow: she is one who is left all alone. If she has other family members to take care of her then though she is a widow in the sense that her husband has died, she is not a widow in the sense that she has been left all alone. This is the way Paul is working with the term and concept here. A widow eligible for help from the church will need to be one who is really left all alone in terms of family. She’ll not have anyone else to help her or care for her in her need.
Paul, however, goes on to yet further qualify this. Not only will such a widow be left all alone, per verse 5, but this means that this widow has put her hope in the Lord. That’s what verse 5 says. For the Christian widow, it is the logical thing. If you have no one else to care for you, then of course you are going to put your hope in the Lord. You are going to have to go all in with Him! When I read this, I think of that widow in Luke 21 who gave as an offering to God her two last copper coins. These coins were worth so little. But Jesus said she gave more than anyone, because she gave all that she had. I think about that comparison. If she had given just one of those two coins, she would have still surely given a huge amount in comparison to the others – she would have given half of all that she had! But she gave both coins! But it makes sense, doesn’t it? When you have so very little, what difference does it make if you have one small coin or two? It’s like if you had two pennies. You can’t really buy anything with either one or two pennies. So, give it all to God. Go all in with the Lord. That’s what that widow’s offering represented. She was putting all her trust in God. Well, verse 5 in our passage goes on to further make this point by describing such a widow as one who continues day and night in prayer. She’s like the widow in Jesus’ parable about the persistent widow who keeps going to the judge for justice. The kind of widow described here not only has put her hope in God, but we see that expressed by a vibrant, passionate prayer life. That prayer life shows she really has put all her hope in God for her help and provision. Again, Paul’s point is that this is the kind of widow that the church should want to help: a Christian widow who trusts in Christ and shows it by how she lives.
In contrast, verse 6 says that a widow who lives in pleasure is dead even while she lives. This speaks of self-indulgence and sinful excess and prodigal living. Think of how the parable of the Prodigal Son; that’s how this widow is living. Such living speaks against any supposed profession of faith. If someone were to claim to follow Christ but live in this way, it would speak against the credibility of their profession. This is speaking of someone who so loves earthly treasures and pleasures that she has made them into an idol. She is more concerned with satisfying her passions and lusts than in godly contentment. This is not the kind of widow that the church should be helping.
And so, in this second point, there is an important lesson for the church. The church needs to have discernment in terms of which widows it helps. This discernment involves at least three reasons. One, the church has limited resources and can’t help everyone. If the widow has others who can and should help her, then she should get help there first. Second, the church has the wonderful privilege, and command, to act as an agent of God’s mercy and compassion to those who seek help from him. So, it is quite appropriate to prioritize our help for widows among those who actually are seeking help from God in their relationship with him. Third, that means that those who reject God and don’t want anything to do with him, should not expect God to give them a handout. By withholding such help, we can actually use that as an opportunity to confront them with their sin and rebellion and point them back to God and the gospel.
Now let me clarify here. I wouldn’t want mercy and grace to be missed in all of this. The danger in having such qualifications might give the impression that the church will only help you if you have earned it. But that misses the whole point. This is supposed to be an act of mercy to people. No one earns this help. And because it is an act of mercy, it means that we’ll need to have great mercy when applying these principles to people, people who struggle with their shortcomings and failings. Similarly, these are rather simple principles mentioned here that will need wisdom to apply properly to real life situations that are rarely simple. So, we’ll need wisdom and mercy to be at work as we look to apply these principles in our church’s diaconal ministry.
And yet, I think these principles are helpful. First on a church level, it prioritizes our help of widows to those in the church. There are some who want to make the church about helping any and every widow in the world, regardless if they share our Christian convictions. But besides the fact that we don’t have the resources to do that, it’s passages like this that speak against trying to do that.
Second, on an individual level, I often hear that people struggle with what to do say when some older homeless woman on the street corner comes up to you and asks for money. People can often be emotionally torn over whether to help that person or not. Again, wisdom and mercy will need to be used by yourself in that situation. We tend to want a one-sized fits all answer for that situation, when there isn’t one. But a passage like this one today would generally speak against you just blindly giving that women money. For all you know, you are giving to someone who violates verse 6, that she is a self-indulgent women who is dead even while she lives. Doesn’t that verse point us to the women’s greater need than money? A human’s first need is the Lord. This is the problem when some random person comes to you and asks for money on the spot. That situation usually means you are not in a place to use the wisdom and discernment that a passage like this calls us to do in our help of people. If you want to personally help widows or other poor or needy people, I would encourage you to look to help such people who you actually know and are able to learn and understand their needs and then help with wisdom, discernment, and of course mercy and love. Often there are a lot of people who need this help already in our lives that we have overlooked. Let us investing in the widows and needy around us; it is the godly thing to do.
So, in our last point for today, I want us to actually receive the call, the command, to honor. We’ve talked about God’s heart for widows. We’ve talked about which widows we need to focus our care on as a church. Now receive the call and command to honor such widows. That’s what verse 3 gives us. It commands us to do this. It is a sin of omission if we don’t. Let us not neglect this duty. We must honor such widows. So then, what does the word honor mean? Lexically, it means to assign or show value to someone. It’s the same Greek word used in the Greek translation of the 5th commandment to honor your father and mother. Given the context from the first two verses where we are told to treat older women as mothers in the church, we certainly should think of the fifth commandment when we hear this call to honor such widows. That fifth commandment idea comes to mind again when the children and grandchildren are referenced in verse 4. And I mention the fifth commandment because it was a common application of that commandment both then and now by God’s people to say that honoring your parents meant that when they got old, you took care of them. That care would involve financial provision, but not just financial provision. It meant you helped them and attended to their needs. It would also mean that you spend time with them and “value” them. Again, this is what Jesus spoke against when some kids wanted to declare “corban” this support they were supposed to give their parents, and Jesus pointed them back to the fifth commandment (Mark 7:10-11). And so, the point is that the honor we are called to show such widows is to provide holistic care and concern for these women in their need. This is confirmed in verse 8 when it talks about this honor in terms of “providing” for them. That word in verse 8 for providing is a broad term that means that we show attention and care toward someone’s needs. This is a good summary of the way we need to honor such widows.
This command and call to honor widows comes first to the earthly family members of these widows. It says that when you care for your mother or grandmother you are making some return to them. In other words, they cared for you and sacrificed for you growing up, it is now your turn to repay them for that if the need arises. Furthermore, it says that this is basic godliness. And so, this command comes first to the family members of widows in the church. Look to their needs. You are commanded to be the first responders here!
And yet this passage acknowledges that not every widow will have such family to help them. And sometimes, their family is not able to be in a place to help. Obviously if the widow is a young widow with young kids, those young kids aren’t going to be able to help. They will need someone else to help them! There will be situations like this, and that is where the church can help! That is where the church is commanded to help. Remember verses 1-2. We have become family. And so even though the earthly family is called to be the first responders here, the church family is next in line. We are to help where the first responders can’t. This was obviously important enough that Paul spent this much time in this letter directing Pastor Timothy about it. Church leadership needs to make sure we are fulfilling this duty. This is why in Acts 6 when the leadership was getting overwhelmed by this need for caring for their widows, they had more leadership appointed to make sure the duty was executed faithfully. As members in the church, realize that this is something that must be a part of our church’s ministry.
And so, to all the parties involved, verses 7 and 8 tell us that this is important. For us to neglect the duty to honor the widows that are before us, verse 8 says this would be a contradiction to our faith; that we’d be worse that pagans. The idea is that even pagans know that they need to care for the widows in their lives. How much more should we as Christians care for our widows! Verse 7 then tells Timothy and thus me to command these things to the church. It says they are to be commanded so that we may be blameless. In other words, above reproach. Will the watching world see how we treat our own and condemn us for it, or praise us for it? Outsiders know how we should treat our widows. Let us live in a commendable way before a watching world.
Of course, if unbelievers know in their heart how widows should be treated, how much should we know it. How much more fitting is it for us as Christians to want to care for widows who are truly widows? Think about how especially fitting this is for us, in light of the gospel. We’ve said that a true widow is one left all alone and their only hope is in God; that they have nowhere else to turn. Well, isn’t that the bigger story for any Christian? That we’ve come to realize that our biggest needs in life are things like to be forgiven from our sins, to be saved from the punishment of hell, to pass from death to life, to be restored in God’s image, to have communion with our maker. These are the biggest needs in life and a Christian has come to realize that they have no one save God who can help them with these needs. We were left all alone in our sin and spiritual death without anyone to help us. Our only hope would be in God, but of course in our sin and rebellion we didn’t even recognize that. So, God sent his son to this world to care for us. He sent his son to visit us in our affliction and to save us from our sin. He also sent his Spirit to work within us a family connection between us, God and Christ. And having made us family, God has cared and continues to care for us in our needs.
I hope you see the obvious parallels I’m drawing here. The point is clear. Because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is fitting we show such care and concern for our widows. And may the mercy and grace we’ve known in Christ be evident in how we try to apply these principles today to the widows that are before us. Let us show mercy and grace in how we find and help the widows that are before us. And let us extend the application today beyond just widows, because widows are just one example group that the Bible calls us to show such special care and concern for. There are various people with needs in our midst that we are in a place that we should attend. A more recent example is the ministry of providing meals. We can help provide meals for our sick or our families with newborns. That’s a very tangible and easy example of a way that you can make a real difference in people’s lives. Having known the grace of God, let us look to live out our faith in the value and care we show those in our midst. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.