Holy Orders

timothyLots of people today believe Christianity is of no practical good. Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, quipped, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.” With a jaundiced eye, it might appear the only folks profiting from religion are the ones drawing a paycheck from it. But what if the uninterested and unimpressed saw something different: professing Christians, even whole church communities, obeying holy orders that actually transform all of life (beliefs, ethics, and spirituality)? Perhaps they would see a gospel-integrated model of what the world really needs. Christians need such vision too because our spiritual lives are often fragmented, inconsistent, contradictory, hypocritical—sometimes just one crisis away from falling apart.

The Apostle Paul’s charge to a young pastor (1 Tim 6:11-16) speaks volumes on these things. In this passage we learn that God, the supreme life-giver and all-powerful one, commands his people to obey their holy orders without fault or failure: that we run from moral evil and toward godliness, stand for the truth of the gospel until Christ’s appearing, and lay hold of the eternal life that we confess.

Holy Orders: Who Are They For?

For all elders (vv. 11-12)

Remember the apostle Paul is giving advice to Timothy on pastoring well. Timothy is a young elder (not a contradiction!) who needs authoritative instruction on how to faithfully fulfill his calling to shepherd the church under his care. Paul reminds him of the holy orders God calls elders to obey. We call this collection of letters written to Timothy and Titus the Pastoral Epistles because they are primarily addressed to men who pastor the church. Notice that Paul names Timothy a “man of God” in contrast to the false teachers of the previous passage. “Man of God” is a highly honorable OT title referring to a leader of God’s people (Moses, Samuel, David, and Elijah among others). Its usage across the whole Bible refers to a man speaking on behalf of God, bringing God’s message to God’s people. In this sense elders who preach and teach God’s Word are “men of God” exercising some of the same duties as the OT prophets, declaring, explaining, and applying God’s Word to others.

For all Christians

But holy orders are not merely for elders. Countless Bible passages exhort all Christians to live the same way (cf. Rom 12; Eph 6:10-18; 1 Pet 1:13-25). Think about it this way. Men who are called to be pastors and elders are ordained from the pool of believers in the church. They show themselves good examples of how all Christians are called to believe, live, and feel. Timothy and other elders must live according to their holy orders not to be a substitute for other Christians (for Jesus alone is our substitute), but to be an example for other Christians. So non-elders are not off the hook! Any Christian who is thoroughly equipped by Scripture for every good work is a “man of God” (2 Tim 3:17).  Holy orders are for all Christians—men and women, old and young.

For the sake of the world (v. 13b)

Did it occur to you that the world desperately needs what Christians are supposed to be? When Christians are being annoying or poorly representing God to the world, unbelievers understandably reject us. But when Christians live according to these holy orders, then our testimonies, our works, and even our attitudes are frequently welcomed and celebrated. Why is that? Because what the world needs now is Christians obeying holy orders. When we make it our life’s mission to conform our beliefs, our actions, and our hearts to the shape of God’s holy orders for us, the world becomes a better place. We may disagree on what is true, but most people admire truth-tellers and those who love what is true. We wrangle about the lines that define morality because our ethical codes are built on different foundations, but most people are trying to be moral and they admire those who live consistently with their moral convictions, even when it costs them. We recognize there are all kinds of dominant personality traits that different people have, but most people are attracted to those who are joyful, generous, and hopeful. Christians who are profoundly shaped by God’s holy orders have what the world wants and needs.

Holy Orders: What Are They?

Ethical: Run (v. 11)

Christians must hate moral evil so much they run from it and any person who tries to entangle them in it. Conversely, Christians must love godliness so much they run toward it (chase it down). Two Greek words (appearing side-by-side in the text) are used for “flee” and “pursue”. Each describes a particular type of running. So what are “these things” you must run from? Contextually they are false teachers, false doctrine, and the love of money, particularly as greed manifests in the church (1 Tim 6:3-5, 9-10). To avoid the traps of greed and false teaching (which many times occur together) you must not just abstain from the negative. You have to run to the positive, pursuing Christian virtues that are suited to defeat covetousness and the lure of wolves in sheep’s clothing. These virtues are listed in three pairs.

  1. Righteousness has to do with doing what is right, particularly in relationships. To run after righteousness or justice is to deal ethically and fairly with others. We owe justice to those who need it. It’s not like giving charity, it is a debt we owe to others. Godliness has to do with imitating God. To run after godliness is to imitate, follow, and obey the one true God, not a false god such as Money. Only God is worthy of worship. Both righteousness and godliness are behavior-oriented, getting at how you live in relation to God and others.
  2. Faith in this context means faithfulness, living with Christian integrity. There is a saying that the greatest ability is dependability. In verse 11 the Greek word for Love is “agape,” which is the highest Christian virtue (1 Cor 13:13). Love sacrifices for the sake of others, seeking to give, not gain. It is selfless, not selfish. It is generous, not greedy. It rejoices in the truth, not tolerating lies. Pursing love in sacrifice and service to God tends to drive out greed from the human heart. This pair of virtues, faith and love, have to do with your heart’s attitude behind your behavior.
  3. Steadfastness has to do with an enduring patience in the midst of trial, temptation, and difficult circumstances. It means sticking with God when the going gets tough, being courageous in the hard places in life. Gentleness has to do with meekness, which is strength under control. When you run toward gentleness you will be patient with difficult people. What do these look like together? Endurance without gentleness can be harsh and tyrannical. But gentleness treats difficult people kindly, exercising quiet strength like the Good Samaritan caring for the wounded man on the side of the road. Both steadfastness and gentleness involve being patient with difficulties, either in circumstances or in relationships. A Christian who wants protection from the temptations of material possessions and bad teaching must instead run after these six virtues.

Doctrinal: Stand (vv. 12a, 14)

Virtue is necessary but not sufficient to make the good confession. You must stand and contend for the truth. This entails having right beliefs and confessing right doctrine. Verse 12 doesn’t say “fight the good fight of faith”, as if the fight is akin to that song by Journey: “Don’t stop believin’, hold on to that feelin’!” It says, “fight the good fight of the faith.” You see, fighting is another way of looking at what it means to make the good confession. The word stand is an appropriate application of “fight” because the idea is to contend or compete for right doctrine. Fight is a metaphor for what Jesus actually did when he made his good confession before Pilate. He stood on the witness stand as he was examined by the judge and confessed the truth of the gospel. You also have holy orders as pertain to doctrine. Don’t retreat or faint or waffle. You must stand for the truth of the gospel.

Experiential: Hold (v. 12b)

But your holy orders are not just moral and doctrinal. God wants your affection. He wants all your heart, soul, mind, and strength! It appears Paul says something like this: Remember the eternal life that God called you to? Remember when you confessed your faith in Christ and the truth of the gospel before the church? Remember how happy you were then? Don’t forget you can have that same joy now. Grasp it again, enjoy right now the eternal life God gave you, and never let it go! Don’t let anything or anyone steal your love for God and the joy of your salvation.

I got it! I got it!

I got it! I got it!

Here is an analogy. It’s a little silly, but if it helps you to conceptualize “run, stand, hold” then it’s useful. Picture a baseball player running after a high fly ball in the outfield. Up until the ball is hit, he’s bored, maybe watching the Jumbotron video screen, maybe watching the ladies in the stands, maybe wracking his brain how to spend the gobs of money he makes per game. But when the ball is hit in his direction, he takes off with a one-track mind, forgetting all that other stuff. He flees those things that preoccupied his attention before and runs as fast as he can after the ball. But he doesn’t exactly run to the ball. Instead he aims for the spot where he knows the ball will land. If he aims correctly, he’ll arrive at the spot before the ball comes down. He’ll make his stand on that spot, making his good confession as a well-positioned baseball player, contending for the ball. But he still must catch the ball and hold on. So as it descends he reaches up, and when the ball hits his glove, he squeezes tightly and doesn’t let go. Now imagine the setting is the last game, the last inning, and the last out of the World Series! When he lays hold of that ball he has the prize for which he’s dreamed of since he was a kid shagging flies in practice. Laying hold of that ball is different than all other fly balls. It will probably stay tucked away in his glove all the way home and become one of his most treasured possessions. Run, stand, and hold is kind of like that for the Christian.

If you’ve been listening carefully, you may have noticed the all-encompassing nature of these holy orders. That’s a potential problem. Most people don’t gravitate toward all three categories: the ethical, the doctrinal, and the experiential. You probably major in one, or perhaps minor in two, but it’s hard to hold in balance all three. Usually families, churches, and even denominations have a corporate personality and practice that reflects this imbalance. And yet God’s holy orders demand your morality, your mind, and your heart. Do you major in running, in the ethics of the Christian life? Is the heart of your Christianity all about doing—doing justice, giving to the poor, fulfilling your responsibilities, keeping away from sin? Don’t forget to stand for truth. Don’t lose your joy. Or do you major in standing, in the truth of the Bible? Is the heart of your Christianity all about believing—believing right doctrine, making sure you can connect the Bible to contemporary issues, and standing against falsehood? Don’t forget to run after godly righteousness with a heart cultivating faith and love, exercising steadfast gentleness. Don’t forget to lay hold of the joy of the Lord. Or do you major in holding, in the emotions and spiritual experiences of the Christian life? Is the heart of your Christianity all about feeling—feeling joy in worship, chasing experiences that stir your soul, loving God in vibrant prayer? Don’t forget to run toward doing good works for others, especially the vulnerable and needy. Don’t forget the importance of not just listening to sound teaching but also internalizing it so you actually stand publicly for the gospel. You need Christian friends who have different strengths and weaknesses so you can keep the balance in obeying these all-encompassing holy orders. They’re not just for church leaders. God has called you to them—for the sake of the church, the world, and to bring glory and honor to your God.

Holy Orders: How Can You Obey Them?

In God’s strength, so have no fear (vv. 15-16)

It’s telling how Paul moves so easily from charging Timothy with holy orders to exalted doxology. Is there a connection between the two, or is Paul just beginning to wrap up his letter? I think Paul understood that God was asking a lot from Christians. After all, Timothy did not have a spectacular calling to ministry or even heavenly visions like Paul had. He’s just a regular second-generation believer who has been appointed pastor of his congregation. Timothy is like you and me. How can we possibly keep these lofty holy orders? Paul knows God is eternally all-powerful. That is why he breaks forth into this magnificent praise language. Only God can give you the power to obey these holy orders. And because he so strong (even the source of all strength), you don’t have any reason to fear. He’s got enough strength to give everyone, and he gives to each of you the strength you need for your holy orders. So look at your God sitting on the highest throne, ruling over an eternal dominion that stretches to the four corners of the universe, and then look at your fears. Seem small in comparison? God’s strength can conquer all your fears.

As alive to God, so look to your reward (vv. 11-13a)

This passage says God is the giver and sustainer of life, including eternal life for his people. Look to the spiritual riches that are yours in Christ. Compared to what the world has to offer in terms of material possessions and wealth, spiritual riches are an infinitely greater reward. When you realize that God has given you eternal life, not just in the future, but right now, you’ll find yourself singing with the hymn writer, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” You can’t take it with you, but you can store up treasure in heaven.

By confessing the gospel, always through the Great Confessor (vv. 13b-14)

Jesus is the faithful and true confessor: the Savior of sinners and Lord of his followers. Confessing the gospel requires boldness and humility, but thankfully the gospel is also the only means to be bold and humble. Consider what you confess in the gospel. God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, has sent his one and only Son Jesus Christ to die for sinners in order to save them. God has given the nations to his Son as an inheritance, and Jesus confessed before men that he himself is the great king, a confession that made him the ultimate martyr for God. He is the Great Confessor of the faith because his confession was not merely about God, but also about himself. His testimony was essentially “Look at God and look at me!” I suggest you don’t try that. Thankfully you don’t have to. Your confession should be “Look at him!” When you testify to the gospel, you make the good confession, which is nothing but pointing to Jesus. Every Christian is able to learn how to do that.

It takes courage to obey your holy orders because the world could turn on you. For example, confessing Christ can be very costly. You might lose friends, family relationships, or job opportunities. Your reputation might be damaged, you might suffer emotional distress, and you might even get hurt. Some people still lose their lives for confessing Christ. That makes it sound like only a very strong person has the intestinal fortitude to stand for Jesus. But that’s just not the case. Yes, the gospel makes you bold because you serve God Almighty. But it also humbles you, because you confess to be a repentant and recovering sinner. In this passage, God charges each one of you “to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the appointed time” (vv. 14-15). So trust your confession will be effective because your faith is in the one who kept his holy orders without spot or blemish or sin. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Heb 12:1-3). These are your scriptural holy orders, given to you who are already saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Now go, in the power of the Spirit, and live for God’s glory alone.

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