Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanksgiving to God the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God

“But fornication, and all uncleanness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient, but rather giving of thanks.” Eph. 5:3-4.

Over against filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting, Paul puts giving thanks. It doesn’t at first seem like thanksgiving is the opposite of what it is set against. Shouldn’t Paul have said, “Instead of the filthy mouths, you should speak that which is holy, pure, and clean”? But he doesn’t do that. He puts thanksgiving as the antidote and opposite of unholy speech. 

To see why Paul would have done this, I think it is necessary to understand exactly what Paul meant by the terms he uses in verse 4. “Filthiness” refers to moral filth in general. Paul seems to be applying it here in this verse to filthy speech. In verse 12, Paul says that there are some things of which it is shameful to speak. Filthiness belongs to that category. Believers do not make fun of wickedness, nor do they take delight in it.

“Foolish talking” is exactly that: it is the talk of a fool. It is the “idle word” that brings into judgment (Mt. 12:36). It is speech to no use, and that does not edify. It is the “corrupt communication” which Paul forbids, which should be replaced with “that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29). It is the talk of one who knows not God, whose godlessness is betrayed by the things they like to talk about.

“Jesting” is an interesting word: it refers to someone of ready wit, but who turns it to bad use. It is someone who is good at the allusive joke, the double entendre. It is the description of a person whose nimbleness of expression is put in the service of the devil.

Put together, these words describe a variety of people: from those whose language is just plain vile to those whose talk is aimless and meaningless. Though both ends of this spectrum may seem pretty diverse, the fact is that both kinds of people have at the bottom the same problem: their lives are not oriented around God. And this is discovered in the things they talk about. That’s not to say they are not oriented around something. They most certainly are. But if their lives are not held in their proper orbit by the gravity of the reality of God, then they will orient themselves around things that are at best trivial and at worst vulgar. And thus their speech becomes at best foolish chatter and at worst filthy talk.

Throughout chapters 4 and 5 of Ephesians, Paul has been developing the idea that Christian behavior is to be different precisely because they are oriented differently from those who are not believers. They are not to act “as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind” because they “have not so learned Christ.” Rather, they have been created in the image of God in righteousness and true holiness (4:17-24). And this should exhibit itself in certain differences in lifestyle (cf. vs 25,ff.). In chapter 5, Paul urges the Ephesian disciples to live differently because though they once lived in darkness, now they have been enlightened by the Lord (5:8). Verses 3-4 of chapter 5 thus should be understood in this context. Filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting are characteristic of those who do not know the true God. Believers, who do know God in Christ, should therefore turn away from such behavior. It is “not convenient,” which is to say, it is neither fitting nor proper conduct for one who professes to be an imitator of God (5:1).

But why put thanksgiving as the opposite of these vices? I think the answer is obvious if we just reflect on the nature of true thanksgiving. First, though Paul does not explicitly say it in Eph. 4:4, it is understood that God is the object of thanksgiving. Paul is not talking about thanking your grandmother for giving you those socks (though that is a good thing to do!). He is saying that we should thank God for everything he gives to us.

Consider the following verses. In Ephesians 5:18-20, Paul explains what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like. One of the fundamental ways a Spirit-filled person may be discovered is in the fact that they are thankful people: “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God is the object of thanksgiving here. In Philippians 4:6, Paul writes, “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know unto God.” God is the object of both prayer and thanksgiving in the text. In 1 Thess. 5:18, we are commanded, “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” The universality of the command in this verse requires the object of thanksgiving to be God. 

Of course, the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, is filled with commands to give thanks to God. “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever. O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 136:1-3). The expression of the psalmist indicates that not only is thanksgiving to God right but that it is a delight.

On the other hand, an ungrateful heart to God is denounced in the strongest language in Romans 1. Describing those who suppress the truth of the knowledge of God in favor of unrighteousness, Paul says that they “glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (v. 21). In 2 Tim. 3:2, Paul says that one of the characteristics of the last days will be an abundance of those who are unthankful and unholy.

So when the Bible commends and commands thanksgiving to us, we are to understand it as referring primarily to God as the object. And this is a huge piece of the puzzle to understanding why Paul would place thanksgiving as the opposite and antidote to filthy speech. It is because thanksgiving to God is the natural outflow of those whose lives are oriented around God, whereas filthy and foolish speech is the natural outflow of those whose lives are not oriented around God. 

What then is thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is the heart-felt expression of the believer in Christ, despite his or her external circumstances – be they good or bad – that God has been, is, and will remain good to me because of what his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, did and is doing for me by his life, death, resurrection, and intercession. The kind of thanksgiving commanded of believers is more then than a national holiday on which we have some kind of generic happy feeling for the good things we have enjoyed in the here and now. The thanksgiving commanded in Scripture is specifically Christian, and it is to be a characteristic of the follower of Christ whether the road is smooth or rough. Thus Paul says that we are to thank the Father always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:19).

The kind of thanksgiving required of believers is therefore impossible apart from Christ. It is impossible not only because Christ is the object of thanksgiving, but because his redemption is the basis of it. And so we see why Paul might have put thanksgiving as the opposite of filthy speech. It is because thanksgiving in the sense of which he is speaking is not something anyone can do. A pagan can clean up their mouths. But thanksgiving in the sense of which Paul is speaking is only something a redeemed man or woman can do. It is an attitude that can only be properly held by a God-centered person. And so by contrasting sinful words with thanksgiving, Paul is again underlining the difference of behavior and attitude between those who belong to Christ and those who don't.

Consider then how thanksgiving to God is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

1. A thankful heart recognizes the sovereignty of a Good and Just and Holy God over all things.

First, a thankful heart recognizes that whatever happens to me, it comes through the hands of a loving Father. This includes bad things as well as what we would normally call good things. In other words, thanksgiving is not just commanded when the “lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Ps. 16:6, ESV), but also when afflictions befall us (cf. Ps. 119:71). After all, we are commanded to give thanks “always for all things” and “in everything” (Eph. 5:19; 1 Thess. 5:18). With Corrie Ten Boom, we need to learn to be thankful even for the fleas.

But how do you do this? It is easy to be thankful when we are prospering in every way. But for many of us it can be unimaginably difficult to be thankful when terrible tragedy strikes. The only way we can do this is to know that God works all things for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28). The only way we can do this is to know that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 5:17), and to know that God is the one who is producing it. The only way we can do this is to be able to say with Job, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither; the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the LORD” (Job 1:21). 

Having to know the reason why something happens to us is not going to generate a thankful heart. But trusting in a trustworthy God who is wise and powerful and loving even when calamity strikes is the only ground in which thankfulness can live and prosper.

In the middle of the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary lost their daughter Annie at 23 years of age. Lee was away from his family at this time. Only able to console his wife by letter, he wrote these lines which illustrate the kind of attitude a thankful heart takes in times of catastrophe: “I cannot express the anguish I feel at the death of our sweet Annie. . . . But God, in this as in all things, has mingled mercy with the blow, in selecting that one best prepared to leave us. . . . I wish I could give you any comfort, but beyond our hope in the great mercy of God, and the belief that He takes her at the time and place where it is best for her to go, there is none.”1

When, therefore, a person can thank God in every circumstance in life – who can say with Paul, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil. 4:11) – then that person glorifies God as the sovereign and good God that he is. Such a person is in the truest sense God-centered. Therefore, thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

2. A thankful heart recognizes its own unworthiness and the grace of God behind every gift.

I think we can all agree that thanksgiving cannot emerge from a heart overgrown with bitterness and self-pity. But people are bitter and have pity-parties because they think God has dealt them an unfair hand. In other words, they don’t think they deserve the bad things they have had to endure. Most of us, if not all of us, are prone to this attitude, especially here in the West. We have had it good (in comparison with many Third World countries) so long that we have begun to equate things like a house with a two-car garage as one of the necessities of life. If we can’t get our “needs” met, we begin to grumble and think God unfair. Instead of thanking God for what we do have, we complain about what we do not have.

Such a person cannot be God centered. To be God centered, to live coram Deo, before the face of God, is to recognize our own weakness and wickedness. It is to be like Peter, the minute he recognized that Jesus was more than just another rabbi, and to say, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). It is to be like Job, as soon as he got his interview with God, and to say, “Behold, I am vile” (Job 40:4). It is to be like Isaiah, when he saw God “high and lifted up” and with him to say, “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). 

Now, I’m not for a minute saying that a person who lives in the presence of God is going to be immune to hardship. I am no advocate for Stoicism. The best of believers will weep. The holiest of men sometimes have cause to say, “I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God” (Ps. 69:3). God-centeredness does not lead to a glibness and shallow bubbliness that pretends that everything is alright when it isn’t. 

Rather, a God-oriented heart recognizes that I have not received what I truly deserve: eternal separation from God. It recognizes that I am a sinner, worthy of the wrath of God, and that everything short of that is really and truly a gift. 

But a thankful heart does not stop there. It not only recognizes grace in loss, but grace in plenty. It recognizes that when we are filled with food and gladness (Acts 14:17) that this is really a gift of God’s grace. It does not take God’s good gifts for granted, but like the leper in Luke 17:11-19, returns and gives thanks. A God-centered person does not consider themselves worthy of such gifts, and so delights to thank the God who graciously gives them. Therefore, thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

3. A thankful heart recognizes that God is the best of all gifts.

I take it as axiomatic that the giver is always greater than the gift. And nowhere is this truer than of God. When a person thanks God, they are implicitly affirming this reality of him. When we recognize that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), we are saying that the good gifts have come from God and that without him we would not have them. 

But a thankful heart actually says more than that. I do not show thankfulness to someone who has given me a gift if I like the gift but despise the giver, or if I like the gift more than the giver. Although we might expect that of children, it would be offensive in adults. Even so, I do not show thankfulness to God if I love his gifts more than God himself. 

The reason why Paul could exhort others to be thankful in every circumstance is because he himself was thankful in every circumstance. And the reason why he was thankful in every circumstance is given in Phil. 1:21: “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” As long as Paul had Christ, he was good to go. Even so, a truly thankful heart affirms that God is indeed the greatest of all gifts, the summum bonum, as the Puritans used to put it.

But this is just what a person who is God-centered recognizes. They know that God is indeed the best of all gifts. They know that the goal of redemption – that God might bring us to himself (1 Pet. 3:18) – is better than living forever in perfect health with plenty of money in a tropical paradise without him. Thankfulness is thus the echo of a God-besotted heart, and therefore thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

4. A thankful heart sees all earthly blessings in the light of the saving and secure grace of God.

What I mean by this is that for a Christian, every earthly blessing is a true blessing because of their enjoyment of “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). The Christian is in a position that an unbeliever cannot enjoy. The man of the world may truly enjoy great wealth and prosperity. But they are enjoying something that will inevitably be taken away from them. Or, if their prosperity disappears in the here and now, they have nothing upon which to fall. But the Christian occupies an entirely different position. He can be thankful for the blessings of this age, and remain thankful even if they are taken away from him. This is something the man of the world cannot do.

Suppose a person were expected to be thankful that they had a good life, even though they knew that they were about to die and go to hell. It is immediately obvious that such an expectation would be ludicrous. However, a believer can be thankful in every circumstance because of his/her confidence in a sovereign and saving God. A Christian knows that despite what happens here, he/she is justified by grace and accepted before God. This is something that cannot be taken away from them. They know that they have an inheritance in heaven that cannot be taken away. A Christian may lose his job, his family, his health. But nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is the glory of God in the salvation of sinners that it is sure. Jesus places the security of the believer in greatness of God: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand” (Jn. 10:27-29). Therefore, it is the joy of a God-centered person to rejoice in this reality and truth. It is the joy of believer to find a reason in the security that God provides for being thankful always for all things. And therefore thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

1John Perry, Mrs. Robert E. Lee: The Lady of Arlington, page 260.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sought and seeking: Isaiah 65:1-2.

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that was not called by my name.
I spread out my hands all the day
to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
following their own devices; (Isaiah 65:1-2, ESV)
The first verse of this passage teaches the principle that you will not find God when you are on the outside of the covenant community unless God seeks you first.  This is because when we are on the outside, we do not seek God.  We are blind and cannot see God.  Our hearts are dead and we do not desire the presence of God.  The things of the Spirit are foolishness to us (1 Cor. 2:14); the “mind of the flesh is hostile toward God” (Rom. 8:7).  In fact, we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1-3).  Dead people don’t seek God, because dead people can’t do anything.  This is why Jesus said in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  God simply must sovereignly intervene if we are to seek him.  

But when God does intervene, and opens our eyes and changes our hearts and gives life to the dead, then we are not only put in a position to seek God, but we really do find him.  Paul, quoting Isaiah, puts the text like this: “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”  For those to whom God has given life, finding God does not just become possible, it becomes a reality.  Charles Wesley put it like this: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay/ fast bound in sin and nature’s night/ Thine eye diffused a spiritual ray/ I woke, the dungeon flamed with light/ My chains fell off, my heart was free/ I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”  When God frees a person, they must follow Christ; there is no other option!

But the next verse teaches a principle that applies to those who already are in the covenant community.  It is this: if you are a member of the covenant family of God, then you must seek him if you are to find him.  To Israel, God held out his hands to a disobedient people, waiting for them to seek him and they didn’t.  The result was that they were severely punished by God.  In Isaiah 64:7, the prophet laments that “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you” and the result was that “you [God] have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.”  

Those who are on the outside don’t know any better.  They don’t seek God because they don’t know God.  God has not revealed himself to them.  But those who are on the inside should know better.  They do know God.  They have experienced his blessing and presence.  Therefore, they ought to seek God when they wander from him in sin.

Over and over in the Old Testament, we hear calls to seek God, and they go like this: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:12-13).  These words are not addressed to Gentiles outside the community of God’s people; they are addressed to Israel.  And note the order: seek God and then you will find him.  There is no other way.  God will not be found by his people when they do not seek him.

Nor is it any kind of seeking that will find God.  It is a seeking that is characterized by full devotion: “with all your heart.”  In the Bible, the heart is not merely the source of the affections, but the seat of the entire inner man, and includes the mind, the will, and the affections.  It is in this sense of the heart that we are to seek God.

It may be asked, if God first finds us, how can we ever lose him?  This is illustrated for us in the Old Testament narrative.  Israel didn’t seek God initially; God sought them: “But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.  He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness” (Deut. 32:9,10).  But once made a people, Israel often forgot God: “But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation. . . .  You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave your birth” (Deut. 32:15,18).  

This experience has often been duplicated in the life of the church over the centuries.  It has been duplicated in the experience of each believer over and over again in their own life.  King David, who is described as a “man after God’s own heart,” was led astray by that same heart into serious sin.  Psalm 51 is not the cry of a person who is seeking God for the first time; it is the cry of an old believer who has wandered off and is now seeking to return: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me” (verses 10,11).  David, who was sought by God, is now seeking him.  

But another thing Isaiah 65:2 teaches is that God is ready to receive those who seek him.  This is indicated in the picture of God holding out his hands to Israel.  It is a posture of forgiveness and a willingness to receive his people back to himself.  The reason it didn’t happen was not because God was not willing; it was because Israel didn’t repent.

The same holds true today.  If I have wandered off from God, he is willing to receive me back.  We have this great picture of Jesus knocking at the door of the church of Laodicea: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).  But we have to hear his voice; we have to open the door.  He is seeking us, yes; but we have to seek him back.

However, we should not take God’s willingness to receive us back for granted.  God will not be sought as if he were some inconsequential item.  If you lose a watch worth $5, you will probably not spend a lot of time and effort looking for it.  Maybe some, but not too much.  But if your watch cost $5000, you will probably tear the house apart and not stop looking until you have found it.  We should seek God in the same way.  This is the reason he says that we must seek him with all the heart.  If you have lost the enjoyment of God’s presence and blessing, God doesn’t want you to seek him as if he is a $5 watch.  That marginalizes, not magnifies, the worth of God.  He demands that we seek him for who he is: infinitely valuable.  Why are we surprised when we “seek” God but don’t find him if we are seeking him on the margins of our lives, in our spare time, without very much effort?  We don’t find God because we really in fact are not seeking him.  Our seeking is a futile exercise in minimum religious effort.  We want a God who does not cost us anything.  But God will not be found unless finding him costs us everything.  Only in this way does seeking and finding God glorify him.

This is, I think, the point of the parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up.  Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).  Paul is an illustration of the kind of person who sells all to gain the treasure.  He writes to the Philippian church: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (3:7-9).

May we be like Paul and seek the God who first sought us.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Serving in the Vintage Church: 1 Timothy 3:8-13

What is a deacon?

In the early church, there emerged two offices: elders (or overseers) and deacons.  Paul addresses both in his letter to the Philippians: “Paul . . . to all the saints which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons” (1:1).  Both offices functioned in the church at Ephesus, and thus Paul specifies the qualifications of both.  Having laid out the credentials for eldership, Paul now moves to the diaconate.

It isn’t entirely clear what the deacons actually did; the New Testament does not tell us their duties.  The passage before us lists their qualifications, not their function.  However, it is generally agreed that deacons served the physical and material needs of the church.  Mounce writes in his commentary on this text, “It may be surmised that a deacon was responsible for the daily serving required in the church.  Deacons probably had daily contact with the people in visitation and disbursement of the funds for the poor.”[1]  There are two reasons why we think this was the job of the diaconate.

First, the name “deacon” in Greek means “table waiter.”  It referred to someone who waited on the needs of others.  More generally, both the noun and verb forms denote service of any kind.  What kind of service is involved in the office of deacon?  Since the overseer is clearly primarily responsible for the spiritual leadership of the church, and the deacon is distinct from the elder, his sphere of responsibility must lie in those types of service not covered by the office of elder.  The most logical conclusion would be that their duties lay in ministering to the physical and daily needs of the congregation.

Second, we have a clue as to their role in Acts 6, when the Jerusalem church chose seven men to oversee the distribution of food to the widows of the church.  Though these men are not technically called “deacons,” their job description is given in 6:2, when the apostles tell the church that “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.”  The last two words in the Greek are diakonein trapezais, and the verbal form of the word corresponding to “deacon” is used here.  This is not conclusive evidence, but this seems to be the formation of a proto-diaconate.  Since the early church emanated from the Jerusalem church, it would not be surprising if the other churches in the first century world took their cue from them as to the formation of a recognizable body of men who would minister and serve the physical needs of the congregation, as the elders did for the spiritual needs of the church.

Deacon and Deaconess?  

It is often asserted that Paul is referring to both male and female “deacons” in this text, for in verse 11, Paul says, “Even so must their wives be grave….”  The word for “wives” in the Greek could also be translated more generally as “women,” and thus it is claimed that Paul is not referring to the wives of the deacons, but to women who serve in the role of deacon just as their male counterparts do.  

This is a possible interpretation, and its plausibility is buttressed by the fact that Paul does not refer to the wives of elders in the list above.  If Paul is referring to the wives of deacons, why did he not refer to the wives of overseers?  Furthermore, in Romans 16:1, Phebe is described as “our sister, which is a servant [Greek: “deacon” – same word Paul uses here] of the church which is at Cenchrea.”  Here, it is claimed, is a clear example in the early church of a woman functioning in the role of deacon.

However, it is improbable that Paul is in fact referring to deaconesses in verse 11.  The main reason is that Paul returns in verses 12-13 to the qualifications and rewards of male deacons: “Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife….”  It is improbable to suppose that Paul gives the qualifications of male deacons, switches abruptly to deaconesses, and then back again to male deacons when there is no clue in verse 12 that the topic has changed.  It seems that verse 11 is actually a part of the qualifications of men who serve in the role of deacon: they must have wives who are “faithful in all things” (ver. 11) as well as being one-woman men and “ruling their children and their own houses well” (ver. 12).  Moreover, in verse 12 Paul uses the same word for "wife" as he does for "wives" in verse 11.  The word in verse 12 is indisputably a reference to the deacon's wife; it would be strange to think that Paul meant something else in the previous verse.

As to the problem of Paul referring to wives of deacons but not of elders, we must remember that this is not a formal but an ad hoc list that Paul is giving to Timothy to address a very specific situation in the church at Ephesus.  We do not know all the details and it could very well be that the situation at Ephesus required Paul to address the wives of deacons but not of the elders.  Further, as B.B. Warfield has noted, the absence of any reference to the wives of overseers can be “explained by the circumstance that women could take no part either in ruling or in teaching (ii. 12), which constituted the functions of the bishop.”[2]  

Warfield’s comment, and Paul’s argument in the text, however, is very revealing in another direction.  The supposition that the wives of bishops are not mentioned because they could not function in such a role, suggests that since the wives of deacons are mentioned, they are mentioned precisely because they most likely assisted their husbands in their role as deacon.  Thus, the husbands functioned officially in the role of deacon, but were assisted in that role by their wives.  It would therefore not be without exegetical warrant to speak of husband-wife teams functioning as deacons.  Thus, though I am not sure we can say the New Testament speaks of deaconesses in a formal sense (the reference to Phebe in Romans 16:1 is probably more general, and the KJV translates the word correctly as “servant” instead of “deaconess”), yet we can say from this text that Scripture does not forbid women assisting their husbands who are serving in the role of deacon (in fact, it would almost seem to require it!).  

Their Qualifications

Paul mentions nine qualifications for serving in the office of a deacon in verse 8-12 and then ends this list in verse 13 with a note of encouragement to those who have faithfully served in such a role.

1.  First, they (and their wives) must be “grave” (ver. 8, 11).  The word means “dignified,” and suggests the ideas of one who is noble, worthy, and esteemed.[3]  Paul uses the same word in Philippians 4:8 as a descriptor of what the believer should think about: he/she should think on things that are “honest” (KJV).  One commentator says that this word “refers to lofty things, majestic things, things that lift the mind from the cheap and tawdry to that which is noble and good and of moral worth.”[4]  Paul is absolutely insistent that those who occupy positions in the church are not just put there because no one else will do it, or just because they want to do it.  They must be men who have the respect of those closest to them, both inside and outside the church.  

2.  They must be self-controlled with respect to their tongue: they must not be “double-tongued” (ver. 8).  That is, they must not speak one thing to one person and another thing to someone else.  They must be honest.  They must be circumspect with respect to their language.  They must not gossip.  Similarly, their wives must not be “slanderers” (ver. 11).  One’s heart is revealed by what comes out of their mouth (Luke 6:45), and so the profession of the purity of the deacon’s heart must be backed up by their tongue.

3.  They must be self-controlled with respect to drink: they must not be “given to much wine” (ver. 8).  He must not be a drunk.  But I think this generalizes to the principle that he must not be addicted to anything that would warp his mind or judgment.

4.  They must be self-controlled with respect to money: they must not be “greedy of filthy lucre” (ver. 8).  Of course, no Christian should be characterized by greed, but those who hold public office should be pure even from the taint of such an accusation.  Probably one of the reasons Paul makes this a qualification of the deacon is because they had access to the church’s funds in order to distribute it to those who had need.  The temptation to use the money of others for one’s own use could be very tempting unless a man is absolutely so in love with Jesus that they are oblivious to its lure.  That is the kind of man that Paul wants in the office of a deacon.

5.  They must hold “the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience” (ver. 9).  The phrase “mystery of the faith” is a reference to gospel.  In the Bible, a “mystery” is not something you can’t know, but something that has to be revealed to you.  In Christ, the gospel which could never have been discovered by unaided reason has been revealed to men.  Therefore it is called a mystery.  To this mystery the deacon must hold.  Though deacons do not function in a teaching role in the church, yet they are required to understand the faith and be able to defend it to others.  Moreover, their knowledge must not just be intellectual, but must be held “in a pure conscience.”  Belief in the gospel spills over into their lives and produces holiness in their thoughts and affections and words and actions.

6.  They must be examined: “And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless” (ver. 10).  The qualifications that Paul lists here must be proved; their background must be known.  As a novice could not enter into the role of elder, neither should an unproven believer serve the church in a public capacity in the role of deacon.  Paul is concerned for the reputation of the church.  The false teachers have been tearing it down by their lives and teaching.  Paul wants to correct such abuses by putting men of respect in positions of leadership.

7.  As we’ve already argued, in verse 11 Paul adds the qualification that the deacon’s wife must also be of blameless character.  In particular, they must be “grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.”  

8.  Moreover, the deacon must be a “one-woman man” (ver. 12).  He must be sexually pure, faithful to his wife.  This does not mean that something could not have happened in his past, but that as a believer he has proven the constancy of his integrity in loving his wife.

9.  Finally, Paul says that the deacon must rule “their children and their own houses well” (ver. 12).  They must have the respect and love of their children.  They are in control, but rule their homes with a gentle firmness.  

Paul ends in verse 13 with a note of encouragement: “For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”  A “good degree” means a “good standing” in the church.  As they labor among believers, and serve others, they will enhance their reputation in the believing community and increase their confidence in representing the gospel before an unbelieving world.  In other words, a deacon has two rewards in the here and now for his labor: (1) he is rewarded by the love and gratitude of the other believers that he is ministering to.  That is what I think Paul means by “a good standing”.  But that is not all, for he is (2) rewarded by the fact that such labors do not go unnoticed by the unbelieving world: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (Jn. 13:34).  As deacons serve in love, the world takes notice.  And thus deacons become in some sense a platform for further advancements of the gospel among men.  For “boldness in the faith” in Paul is often a reference to the advance of the gospel: “Praying . . . for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19).

The Implications of the dual offices of elder and deacon

1.  God cares for both the spiritual and physical needs of people. 
It needs to be said that the office of deacon was not intended to be a stepping stone to the office of elder.  This was a later development in the history of the church, and also brought with it the idea that deacons are meant to serve under the elders and bishops.  In our text, deacons do not serve the elder.  Rather, they serve the church.  Elder and deacon are not two manifestations of the same office but two distinct offices with two distinct goals.

Elders are meant to provide overall direction and spiritual leadership.  Deacons are meant to minister to the physical and material needs of the congregation.  The fact that God provided both elders and deacons to the church means that he is concerned for the goals for which these offices have been provided.  Thus, the fact that God provided elders for the church means that he wants his people to be shepherded – to be fed, protected, and guided by his Word though the means of men called to preach and teach it.  The fact that God provided deacons for the church means that he wants his people to be provided for in very tangible, physical ways.  In Acts 6, he led his apostles to ordain seven men to make sure that the widows in the church were taken care of and fed.  In the diaconate, he continues with this concern.  Through the bishops, God cares for his people spiritually.  Through the diaconate, God cares for his people materially.

It is easy to think that God only cares for the soul.  In fact, this gnostic belief has resurfaced again and again in history.  Thus, some have equated spirituality with asceticism – the neglect of the body.  On the other hand, some have taken this to mean that it does not matter what we do to the body; we can neglect it or we can abuse it through gluttony or immorality, and God doesn’t care.  However, our text points to the fact that God does care about the body as he does about the soul.  And coupled with the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, we can confidently say that God cares just as much for the body as he does for the soul.  He has made both, and when Christ wrought redemption on the cross, he redeemed both.

This is illustrated in the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ.  What did Jesus do?  Peter sums it up for us in Acts 10:38, when he described how “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed with the devil; for God was with him.”  Jesus went about doing good – doing good to the sick and lame and blind and dead by healing and giving physical life, and doing good to sinners and harlots and tax collectors by healing their souls and forgiving their sins and giving them spiritual life (cf. Acts 10:43).  Jesus did both; and often at the same time.  He did not do one to the exclusion of the other, and when people flocked to Jesus only to eat bread, he turned them away with the words, “Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.  Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you” (John 6:27).

It is also illustrated in the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray.  In Matthew 7:11, he says, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”  The context here demands that the “good things” we ask for include food and clothing (cf. 6:26-34; 7:9-10).  On the other hand, in Luke 11:13, Jesus says, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?”  Here Jesus specifies the Holy Spirit as the good gift we are to pray for.  It is not one or the other; it is both.

Even when he was dying on the cross, working redemption for the lost, Jesus made sure that the physical and material needs of his mother would be provided for (John 19:25-27).

That is not to say that there are not priorities.  Jesus clearly demanded the priority of the spiritual over the material; the next world over the present.  We are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and trust that God will provide for the other things of food and clothing (Mt. 6:33).  

All this leads to the following observation.

2.  We should care both for our body and soul and the spiritual and physical needs of others.

The elders and deacons are God’s expressions of concern for physical and spiritual need.  But elders and deacons are not God; they are men.  And this teaches us that God expects his concern for these two goals to be reflected in our own lives and hearts.  As believers, we ought not only to be concerned about the spiritual needs to the exclusion of the physical, or vice versa.  In fact, James tells us that “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jm. 1:27).  The reason why James underlined their responsibility to widows and orphans was because in that culture, these were the people who were most vulnerable.  The first century world was a man’s world without a safety net, and a widow was not likely to find work to support herself.  If she could not get remarried, she was likely to starve to death.  The same was true of orphans.  James therefore calls the church to care for them.  In the same way, we as a church are obligated to care for those who cannot care for themselves.  We are to be like the Good Samaritan and love our neighbor.  And you know what?  If we can’t do this, we’re not a church, because we’re not being like Jesus.

On the other hand, we need to resist the temptation of completely defining the role of the believer and the church in the world in terms of social justice.  As Paul will explain to Timothy in the next few verses, the church is the “house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth,” and its mission is to proclaim the truth about Jesus (1 Tim. 3:14-16).  If all a church does is fill empty stomachs without addressing empty souls, then we’re not a church, because we’re not being like Jesus and we’re not pointing people to Jesus.  More than bread that meets the need of physical hunger and water that meets the need of physical thirst, people need the Bread of Life who meets the need of spiritual hunger and the Water of Life who meets the need of spiritual thirst.  “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). 

[1] The Pastoral Epistles (WBC), 207.
[2] Qtd. In Mounce, 204.
[3] Ibid, 198-9.
[4] G. F. Hawthorne, qtd In Mounce, 199.

Sealed and Standing (Rev. 7)

At the end of the previous chapter, when John sees the breaking of the sixth seal of the scroll, we see Christ coming again in judgment upon...